Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.
Tag Archives: teaching
Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!
I pulled out a few choice sentences that students wrote for my English 10 final exam, which consisted mostly of an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The monster ended up going on a killing spree because he read The Grapes of Wrath and got the wrong idea about human kind.
I have no idea how this particular student conflated Steinbeck’s novel with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The monster in Shelley’s novel had skills, no doubt, but time traveling was not one of them, as far as I can tell.
Then someone else gets killed because everyone thought she had killed everyone that was dying.
Killed to death, as they say, for dying too much. I don’t know who “she” is. Maybe this student holds the author responsible for all the death and destruction. That’s fair.
Here’s a pretty astute craft observation about Mary Shelley’s tone:
So it shows tone because in some sentences it has capitals for all the letters if someone is yelling. If they are just talking it’s normal writing, and if someone is whispering then the letters are smaller than the rest.
Indeed. I had not noticed before that everything the monster says in this novel is in all capital letters. No wonder I felt like I was being yelled at. How did I miss this?
Without teachers there would be no life. We would just be a big sack of potatoes.
I’m so happy to know that I am responsible for my students not becoming sacks of potatoes. Career win.
The monster learning to be good and kind was sort of pointless if he’s just gonna go around strangling people.
Indubitably. All that goodness gone to waste.
Here’s another craft observation, more heart-felt than brainy:
The writer’s choice is to mostly write words that hit your feels and make you think awhile on the life you have.
I know this holds true for me. The first time I read this novel (I was about 35), I got hit in the feels all over. I, too, like this next student, was making powerful personal connections:
My father had not made me very happy in my life. And I felt the same way the monster did at this point. The only difference is that I did not go and kill his whole family.
My connections weren’t about my deadbeat dad. My dad was anything but deadbeat. I was the deadbeat dad, although, truth be told, I wasn’t a dad at the time. I just, in those years, felt more like the mad scientist than the monster; in other words, I was the bad guy.
Here’s some inventive historical context:
Frankenstein is an 1818 novel in a time of pitchforks and torches.
Oh, those were the days. You couldn’t spit in any direction without hitting a pitchfork or a torch. Kind of like coffee shops today, or, in Oregon, pot dispensaries.
And then, apropos not of Shelley, but Galway Kinnell:
This poem is about eating blackberries and I don’t know why anyone would write a poem about that.
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.
Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate
anything in this room.
This bag is not a toy.
This thing right here: do not eat.
Watch your step.
If symptoms persist,
consult your physician.
I am out of band-aids.
Men below, please don’t throw.
This hand sanitizer is
flammable. Think about
that for a minute.
Do not flush.
Pull only in an emergency.
Do not spray your perfume
in a crowded classroom, you idget.
Listening only occurs when
your mouth is closed.
Reading only happens when
your eyes are on the page,
and even then, sometimes not.
Failure to listen and read
may result in abject stupidity.
Don’t tell me it wasn’t you, or
that you weren’t doing anything.
The first part is undeniably false,
the second may be true, but
that’s the whole problem.
Duck and cover.
Don’t look for hidden meaning.
There is no hidden meaning,
only meaning that you can’t see,
which is an altogether different thing.
Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,
a waking nightmare:
I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.
Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.
I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.
When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.
They are rising to the occasion.
And now for something completely different.
I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.
Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.
I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.
My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.
My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.
It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.
And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.
It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.
I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.
But many will not.
Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.
I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.
I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.
At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.
All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.