Tag Archives: public schools

#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#348: On the Last Day of National Poetry Month, the American English Teacher Writes Several Minimalist Poems About Things He Finds in the Staff Lounge

Coffee

Made a single cup;
fuel needed after waking
at 4 in the morning.

Vinegar

There’s a bottle of balsamic
on the table, waiting to be
drizzled over someone’s
leftovers for lunch.

100 Hits

Here’s a copy of
Billboard’s Hottest
Hot 100 Hits, a gift to
the staff lounge
from an intern of mine
from two years ago.
His name was Chuck.

History Adoption

In an era that finds
the textbook mostly
obsolete, several choices
are on display on a table
in the staff lounge.

Vending Machines

Chips, candy, and soda.
Only one sugarless choice:
seltzer. These machines
keep humming.

Crap

There’s some crap in here
no one uses and no one wants:
desk organizers, empty binders,
old VHS tapes that Melanie left,
a 2016 copy of U.S. News &
World Report, the “Find the Best
Colleges for You” edition.

Who? 

Who will throw out the crap?
Who will clean the microwave?
It belongs to nobody.
It’s nobody’s business.

The Lounge

The principal before
the one before the one
we have now, maybe
15 years ago, bought
two burgundy love seats,
a matching chair, and
a coffee table that looks
like a box in order to
beautify the lounge
and make it  more
comfortable.

Dr. Rex Putnam Award

Candidate summaries. Please,
DO NOT REMOVE.

We Love You

in gigantic letters
taped up on the wall
from last year’s teacher
appreciation week,
maybe even from the
year before. It’s so hard
to keep track of the love.
We have to remind ourselves
by looking at this wall
every day.

 

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#347: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet

Andrea Ngyuen

The natives are restless, the 9th graders are rowdy, won’t stop talking, interrupt almost every teacher phrase with chatter, and because my intern has the class, I am completely unruffled. It’s the penultimate day of National Poetry Month and this is my penultimate poem in prose in the April of my potentially penultimate school year as a classroom English teacher.

Over the last three days, I wrote three poems, each about travel, each ending with the same sentence. You are here. I’m reminded of that saying, wherever you go, there you are. Or the Player’s line in the Stoppard play, something like, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Coming and going, with perfect equanimity, you are always, and I am always, right here.

After next school year, in this moment, I am almost certain that I will not be here. But uncertainty is a constant companion. I said, it feels like jumping off a cliff. Or standing on a cliff, and maybe I’m looking down at a precipitous drop or looking out on some astounding vista. It really depends on the moment. I prefer vistas to drop-offs. In this moment, I choose vistas.

I notice what this poem is doing. Without my being conscious of it, paragraphs are landing in this draft in nearly identical chunks of five lines, four that move all the way to the end of the margin, and one, the last line–two, three, and then four words long. Now, I am conscious of a pattern, and I am planning to end this stanza in prose with a short line of five carefully chosen words.

It all depends on the margins. Type this poem up in a Word document, or publish it on your blog, and things will shift. Our margins shift like this. The only margin that doesn’t shift is the first one–our births are non-negotiable; on this day, December 4, 1964, you were born. Our careers begin somewhere in the squishy regions of early adulthood, and, if we are lucky, very lucky, they end 30-some years later.

My brother worked over 40 years at a job he didn’t really like. His retirement at 62 or thereabouts was an escape. He said good riddance and walked away. And he walked away so late because there were no other options. Again, I have been stupidly lucky. Luckier, and not so lucky, as my father, who retired, like I hope to, at 55. He had full health care from the moment he left work.

But I have loved my job, and I don’t know that my father loved his. He never spoke about it. I could hardly even tell you now what it was that he did for a living. It was a government job and he worked downtown and once he took a computer class and brought home a bunch of punch cards. My son knows what I do simply by virtue of his being a student in a public school classroom. What your teacher does–that’s your Dad.

God, look at all of these books, file cabinets full of 30-years worth of handouts, lesson plans, readings, exams; check out all of this student generated art that I’ve never tossed, that quilt for The Color Purple, the portraits of the family from Geek Love, portraits of Virginia Woolf, the beautiful and huge broadside of William Stafford’s “Your Life”-the treasured haul of an English teacher’s career.

If I take all of this home my wife will murder me.
Health care will no longer be an issue, ironically.  

Abbey Nims

I don’t know who made this. A team of students. Circa 1995ish? 

 

Abbey Hayes

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Of a Long Teacher Work Day on which Only a Third of the Work Gets Done

Today we were given a teacher work day on this last day before spring break. Awesome for students because they get an extra day off. Awesome for teachers, at least in our district, because the work day didn’t even fall at the end of a grading period, but rather, a couple of weeks before. So maybe, if a teacher played her or his cards right, one might even expect a little time, potentially eight hours, for something called “planning,” or for what some circles of educators call “creating curriculum,” or for a still more unusual animal identified as “collaborating with colleagues.” Sounds like absolute teacher nirvana. Sign me up!

I spent eight hours today looking at student work.  Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have the time to do it.  But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there was just so much of it, that at the end of an eight and a half hour day, I found myself finished with about a third of the student work that had piled up. What I did not do:  I did not, at the end of that eight and a half hours, put it all in boxes to cart home with me over spring break.  No.  I left the unfinished business in my classroom.  It will be there when I get back.  The only way in which I will be “doing work” during spring break might be in a moment like this one–where I am reflecting on my work life because I want to, because it might be valuable for me to do so, personally valuable, or valuable to others who share the same kind of experience or who are interested in the day-to-day lives of teaching professionals.

My work day, while productive, was disappointing.  I feel bad–insofar as I got through one mountain of stuff and left another larger mountain of stuff to come back to a week and some days later.  Yes, I could have avoided the whole problem by not assigning the work in the first place, but then I’d feel bad for not asking my students to do what I think they really ought to be doing to make strides as readers and writers and thinkers.  Teaching in this day of the underfunded public school so often seems to be about choosing what to feel bad about.  You can’t feel good about everything; in this climate and in these conditions, it’s simply impossible unless you are a mindless Pollyanna.  I can feel good about a lot of things.  I think I have a positive relationship with most of my students.  I like my school.  I love my subject matter.  I love the craft and art of good teaching.  I really respect and enjoy my colleagues. But our situation in public schools is dire. Skeleton crews in buildings.  Programs cut.  Schools closing.  Overcrowded classrooms next door to empty classrooms.  No new hires.  Billions of dollars in budget shortfall.  Head start cut. School days cut.  Expectations higher than ever. Amidst all of this horrible news, today’s work day was a blessing–a blessing for which I could not take full advantage because I was so inundated.  Input favorite expletive here.

Here’s another thing to feel bad about.  I’m six years away from being able to retire and it will be a sad day to leave the profession in a shambles.  I try to think about how things may get better.  I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario that would positively turn things around in the short term.  I try to imagine the state of public education getting any worse than it is now, and I shudder.  In my bleakest moments, I think of the end of public schooling and what a disaster that would be for our democracy.  I think of the hundreds of kids who cannot be reached and cannot be helped simply because our system is so strained and resources are simply just not available to them.  It’s ugly, friends.  It’s ugly.  And yet, there is still, for me, so much joy in this work.

So, this is, ultimately, what I choose to feel bad about.  I feel bad about not getting as much done today as I would have liked.  I don’t feel bad about not taking the work home with me.  I feel good about that. I cannot change the current state of affairs, so I can’t feel bad about that either, about what I can’t control–but because I’m writing here in this blog about my experiences as an educator, I hope that this might go a very small way toward raising awareness and adding to the other voices of educators who are kind of tired of being picked on, and of parents who are frightened about the educational prospects for their children.  I can feel good about using my voice in this way, shouting the barbaric yawp, so to speak.  Meanwhile, I’ve got nine days to rejuvenate my soul and my brain, to prepare myself for the final stretch, the relatively break-less run toward summer break, the days of which I am not counting.  I can feel good about that.

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Of A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

I’m serious.  There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away.  And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones.  My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.

Some teachers confiscate immediately.  Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem.  It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away.  This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term.  They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it.  Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence.  “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong.  And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).

I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy.  I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.

Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue.  Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment.  Easy problem to fix.  Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry.  They are addicted, plain and simple.  They need a twelve step program.  They need interventions.  They need a detox.

Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like.  Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.

Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict.  I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable.  My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me.  Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted.  I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way.  While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster.  I sleep with it under my pillow.  The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering.  I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice).  I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter.  Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings.  I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage.  I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this),  I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs.  Thank you, brothers and sisters.

That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones.  I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way.  In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses.  Goodnight.  I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.

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Of Neighborhood Schools and the Threat of Losing One

No decision has been made yet, but a couple of weeks ago now a letter went out from the North Clackamas School District leadership that the closure and consolidation of my son’s elementary school, my elementary school 40 some years ago, is on the table for next fall.  Half of the kids at his school would go to other schools down the road, but the other half, the students enrolled in the Spanish Bi-lingual Immersion Program, would bus 10 minutes further down the road to the only other school in the district offering a similar program. Enrollment is down, they say, and my son’s school, in terms of its student population, is running far short of its capacity.  It’s expensive, apparently, to keep the building itself, the physical plant, running at less than its full capacity.  We are to understand that this makes fiscal and logistical sense, that it’s the least disruptive and most efficient choice, that the program won’t expire or be compromised.  At first I thought, well, IF they can keep the same kids together, preserve teacher jobs and avoid class sizes from getting any larger than they already are, about 32 first graders, what harm could there be in a move like this?

I’m afraid on further reflection I see all kinds of harm.

The program in which my son is enrolled is what we call a magnet; district kids from outside the neighborhood and some kids out of the district can apply for acceptance into the Spanish Immersion Bi-lingual Program–but my wife and I deliberately moved into the attendance area of the school even before our boy was officially offered a spot–because we wanted to live close to the school. There was something important, we thought, not just about the convenience of living close by, and not just about the quality of the program, but about the concept of the neighborhood school itself.

Beyond a purely sentimental attachment, neighborhood schools are meaningful places; they can bring communities together, create cohesion and unity, foster a sense of home as being not just the place where children live, but where children learn and engage with their environment. Neighborhood schools have a history, a tradition, and a cultural identity all their own–all tending toward giving young people a sense of stability and belonging.  Especially in a suburban environment like ours where homes are spread out and the business district is full of big box stores and strip malls, a neighborhood school becomes the very center and heart of the community–no other such place exists close by.  It just seems to me like folly to close a successful and effective elementary school, separating kids who have begun this educational journey together into three different far flung buildings, in the name of efficiency.

Our superintendent and other folks in the district leadership held a community meeting at the school and the board of directors held another one in a different location the next evening.  We are told that the closure of the school is not a foregone conclusion.  But a half a million dollars must be saved.  Actually, six million dollars must be saved–and the closure of our elementary school is 1/12th of the potential solution to the problem.  I can’t help but think there must be other ways to find the money, and I worry that a move toward efficiency now may have some far reaching consequences for our community down the road, that we may never get our school back, and that my son and his classmates will miss out on something that seems to me almost the equivalent of a good program taught by effective teachers: a sense of ownership and belonging and continuity that only a neighborhood school can provide.

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Of Furlough Days

R5335

I’ve been laid off today with all of the employees of my school district, and, by proxy, all of the students in my school district. The school doors are locked. Do not enter. Sorry, we are temporarily closed. We do not have enough money in the coffers to pay for a full school year, so we’re cutting days and cutting pay and cutting another 6 hours of educational experience for the children in our community. There are, I think, 8 furlough days scheduled for this school year and talk of 10 to 14 for next year.

Many students might be happy to have another day off–but I’m sure there’s a great number, too, feeling a bit slighted.  I think most people, especially parents of the younger ones, are inconvenienced and annoyed by this state of affairs, and some might be outraged, but there’s a pervasive feeling of helplessness about it. What can we do?  People go to the state capital with signs.  Some people write letters to their legislators. Others talk of having teach-ins in public places to raise awareness.  I’m writing a little blog entry.  Not sure what effect any of this has.  If the money is not there, it’s not there, right?  I’m no economist. I am not knowledgable enough about how governments receive and spend their money to offer any kind of explanation or solution. I don’t know whether or not they have mismanaged or misappropriated school funds, about whether there are less deserving programs receiving money that should go to schools, about whether there is a path toward additional revenue that our elected officials are ignoring or refusing to try.  Would a sales tax solve the funding woes in Oregon’s public school system?  Would voters ever go for that?  Ultimately, the community has to decide how important  it is to educate our young ones, and then, I suppose, elect people into office who can find a way to pay for it.

Are students performing less well, are they dumber, or less educated overall for the want of 8 to 14 more days of school? It’s hard to say.  What’s undeniable, though, is that something is being sacrificed: the reading of another book, the introduction of another important concept or entire unit in math, an entire decade of history glossed over or missed altogether, an important aspect of second language grammar they will need for their progress next year, and, perhaps most importantly, the experience of coming together in a room with peers from their community to talk about, read about, and create or discover important things.  For teachers, it looks something like this–last year we had not a single day for staff development. While the federal and state department of education, our leaders in our district, and our administrative team are talking about new reforms, new assessments, high stakes testing, adopting the Common Core Standards, in short, more and higher expectations, we are being provided with precious little resources to be able to rise to the occasion. So we do the best we can with what we have and hope for better days.

But here’s something to think about, at least on the federal level:

20110611_WOC883

What I was surprised to discover, however, after thinking about these shocking numbers for quite a while now, is that in actual fact, the United States Government spends more on education than they do on the military!*  That doesn’t, by any means, make the incredible imbalance in military spending okay; it does mean that you can’t say, if you’re just thinking about numbers of dollars, that the U.S. underspends other nations on education.  But while we outspend everybody on the planet on this account also, and while, according to the University of Southern California, we have an impressive 99% literacy rate, we are in something like 9th or 10th place worldwide in science and math.  And you have to be living under a rock not to know, that despite our good work, there are–what Jonathan Kozol called–savage inequalities in our school system country-wide and within states.  I believe that it’s true, generally speaking, that our most impoverished communities have the worst schools. I also know there are exceptions–Deborah Meier has done phenomenal work in these kinds of schools, as have others.  So, perhaps, it’s not at all about how much money is spent–but about how governments and school districts spend the money they have.  But maybe far more important than that, what kind of programs are in place for kids, what kind of teachers are in the classroom, and what kind of learning communities are being built inside schools?

I’ll include this graphic here because it’s surprising and important, but also because it’s one of the prettiest info graphics I’ve ever seen.

us-schools-vs-international3

I feel so fortunate and lucky to work in this district, at this high school, with this staff, and with these administrators.  In my entire career I have worked in this same place and over my entire career I have found it to be a respectful, collegial, lively, safe, and invigorating place to work.  Our student population is as diverse now I suppose as any other suburban high school population–in some ways more diverse culturally than in the gentrified neighborhoods of Portland.  And I have found in that student population a consistently high number of really superb examples of humanity.  Each furlough day, to me, is just another day on which this incredible community cannot do the work it needs to do, the work of growing the hearts and minds of the young people who will inherit the wonders and challenges of our future.

 

*This 809.6 billion dollars on Education is not all Federal money.  My understanding is that this figure is a composite of Federal, State, and Local funds.  So, yeah, this is how much $ government agencies spend a year on education–but the Federal budget alone pays for the Military.  Something else to consider, perhaps.

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