Tag Archives: Final exams

Who’s Counting? Five

The side effects from my second booster lingered all the way through the day yesterday, so that by the time I went to bed, I felt worse than I had all day. After another bout with some chills and uncontrollable shaking, another somewhat feverish night’s sleep, I wake up feeling almost normal on this fifth day from the end of my teaching career and retirement.

Today’s schedule looks pretty cush. First period final exam, where students are sharing their final Romeo and Juliet projects and doing some reflective writing on the semester, then another final exam period for which I will have no students, because, as we found out in our last installment of the countdown, my seniors have already flown the coop. And a half day of school means that the entire second half of the day can be spent grading finals, cleaning up, and packing up.

And there will be lots of music. First up: Steven Wilson, To The Bone, mastered at 45 rpm, which, as I understand it, is better–albeit, a pain in the keister with a belt drive turntable. First world problem. I don’t know why all my Steven Wilson records ended up in the classroom. Maybe I felt they had been previously unappreciated and underplayed while they were at home.

First period: saw some one pagers, some beautiful artwork, a newspaper article about the troubles in Verona, a rap video, and a filmed reenactment of the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet–lines memorized, complete with an acrobatic and athletic climb up to the balcony via a basketball hoop (wrong scene) and a stage kiss. Juliet was played by a boy wearing a wig. On the one hand, a brave move, but on the other–not nearly as brave as it might have been, you know, if R & J were reimagined as a same sex couple. I told the whole class at the end how awesome they were and that I couldn’t imagine a better last group of 10th graders to work with. They were smiling. Romeo said he was tearing up–but I think he was pulling my leg.

Second period: I found myself making a collage photo of all of my previous school I.D. cards and a few old photos taken at work here and there that survived and were languishing inside a drawer in my office. The first card comes from the 2005-2006 school year. Maybe that was the first year we were issued official I.D. cards? I would think, that if they existed, I would have kept them, but who knows. Maybe it takes about 15 years for one to realize that a kind of history is taking shape. It’s equally possible that we just didn’t have cards. Imagine a time when you were not expected to have an I.D. card inside of a public school. And the last card is from 2015. I think that after that point, the school-year specific I.D. card went by the wayside, replaced by a photo I.D. keycard that would just never get swapped out. I’ve had that I.D. card now for years and I really dislike the photo. It’s not present in my collage.

More music: Villagers, Fever Dreams. One of my favorite new discoveries of the year, on which you will find perhaps the most cheerful pop song in recent memory: “So Simpatico.” I bet you can’t listen to this thing without smiling. Vinyl flavor: forest green. Next up, Tune Yards, Sketchy, on translucent blue.

Burned through my 7th period Romeo and Juliet journals–the last pile of response journals I WILL EVER GRADE. Scored a handful of late, late, super late Langston Hughes essays and annotations, and the very late response journal from The Emily Dickinson unit in IB Literature.

Next on the spinning platter of awesomeness: Thundercat, It Is What It Is. And then some more old photographs.

Sara, my English department colleague running the yearbook class, was able to dig out the 1989-90 edition for my perusal, my very first year of teaching. No teacher mugshots. Apparently the tradition of making teachers take a school picture every year alongside students had not yet kicked in. But there is a faculty section with some candids here and there and group shots of entire departments. A couple of observations: One, I was wearing what appears to be a cardigan sweater over my plaid button shirt. Super Mister Rogers of me. And I had just begun working on the mullet that would come into it’s full powers a couple of years later. Two: there are 11 teachers in the English Department and one full time department secretary. Let me say that again: 11. English Department teachers. Full-time secretary. Today, in 2022, in a school that has fluctuated in student growth a bit here and there, but has in large part remained about the same size, we employ 6 English teachers. Let me say that again. 6. And NO secretary. Can you imagine? A secretary for departments? That used to be a thing. Also a thing: a contractual limitation of 125 students for each full-time English teacher. That, in part, explains the large department of English teachers. Now there are no such contractual limitations. If a school in our district were to assign 200 students to a single English teacher, nothing could stop them. And I know that in recent years that has actually happened in my own school house. This, my final year, saw for the first time in a long time, a humane student/teacher ratio. In part, low enrollment, and also the continuing Virtual Online Program for kids who weren’t ready to return to school kept those numbers down. I understand, though, that next year, my full-time position is becoming a half-time position. 6 teachers will become 5 and a half teachers. Numbers will go through the roof. And I won’t be here.

Join me tomorrow for my 4th day away from retirement.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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