Tuesday Teacher Fantasy

Fantastic thinking is in order this thundery, rainy, hail-ish, Tuesday afternoon. You know, the kind of thinking you do when you sit around building blocks with a little kid (or several) and talk about how great it would be if you could eat only cake (or ice cream, or froot loops) all the time, for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. Or that summer lasted for ten months and school only lasted for two. And, “wouldn’t it be the best thing?”

“I’d have chocolate every day.”

“No way. I’d have a different kind at every meal and I would never, in a million years, get bored.”

“Oh, I know! I will ALWAYS get the corner piece with the extra icing. Oh, yeah.”

Oh, yeah. It would be the best thing.

books...

books…

Today, I think, the best thing would be, once a week to pack my reusable grocery bag the night before with a couple of the books I’ve got going on at the moment; I’d grin in anticipation of the coming day. Load the coffee maker and fixin’s carefully in a separate bag. I get to school around 6:30, just like always, and I hang an appealing, artful sign on the door that says READING DAY! I grab a pillow from the reading corner and arrange it near my desk, a kind of cozy cubby there in the corner under my “Fan Club” sign and photos and love notes from former students. I’d set my books for the day next to the pillow to wait, while I set up and start the coffee.

By 6:45 I am settled on the floor with the coffee maker bubbling away comfortably on the other side of the room. Picking up the first book in the stack, I slide my finger behind the bookmark holding my place and fold the book open. I graze slowly among the words as the sun comes up behind the mountains east of campus.

Eventually, students begin to slip into the room. Because it’s READING DAY, they already know to mumble a good morning. Maybe some of them pour a cup of joe with the tiniest of splash and swirl. Maybe not. First hour students would be so lucky! They could swing by Starbucks on their way to school and get something extra special and it would still be hot, perfect, creamy coffee / tea / chai / chocolate. We’ve a routine on READING DAY! one long-established and cherished of muttered greetings and the shush shush of pages turning.

There is no studying and no one tries to. There is no last minute rush to homework, and I don’t have to check. We each have our space of floor, desk, or wall, our cushion and the book we are working on. Some of use ear buds, and some of us don’t. No devices are opened by anyone; everyone is reading an old-fashioned, paper, analog, book of their choice.

For forty-eight minutes, there are no phones, tweets, whatsapp, instagram, texts messages, emails, parents, principals, or teachers. Just twenty-five or so souls breathing across ink spilled in delightful patterns that dance across paper in story form. Our breath steams, filling the room with the vaporous forms of places and people, near and far, known and unknown, real and imagined.

The building’s bells do their thing, and students slip away reluctantly to physics, philosophy, or some other part of the curriculum, and another group of students slips in. Later, for a couple of hours I’m alone, and I refresh the coffee maker before I return to my quiet corner, where I’ve started the second book in my stack for the day.

Just as I start to feel a little restless and maybe even lonesome, the last group of the day cracks the door open and enters to complete the ritual for the week. They settle to read, until the sound of a waiting line of cars starts to ooze beneath the door, and the rattle and crash of the younger grades in the hallways begins to shiver our air. We all get a little wiggly, and maybe there are a few people talking quietly, but some stay focused until the absolute last gasp before the last bell rings to free us for the day. Students fold their books closed like hands suspended in prayer around a bookmark, before they put cushions back in their place and shoulder backpacks and book bags to make their way home.

And wouldn’t it be the best thing? Oh, yeah.

~LD

Thoughts on Digit-itis: To be or not to be

Their screens were motionless. The group of six adolescents brave enough to put themselves in the center discussion circle barely scrolled through the electronic text they were discussing. If they’d been considering Wordsworth’s “The World is too Much with Us” the immobility would have been understandable – fourteen lines easily fit on one screen. But today, we were on Hamlet. HAMLET. I promise you, I am not such a great teacher of Shax that my students have memorized the order of events, much less specific lines from the play with which to back up their various responses to and arguments about the big questions the play poses. Not even close.

I sat in the outer circle, taking notes on the validity of arguments and other general skills and their motionless screens kept tickling at the back of my skull. I found myself wanting to say something about being a good reader, marginal notes, annotating texts – old school, teachery kinds of things.

But I held my peace because it was at least the third time in as many months that I have stumbled across this same problem. The problem of how to undo all the years of teaching people to be good readers on paper, while many of the tests we use to keep data on people’s educational progress and academic prowess are computerized.

I’m not talking about just the GRE and GMAT level exams for admission to graduate school, but also other (very respected) standardized tests used to track the academic progress of students at levels from the tiniest of first grade scholars all the way up to college graduates. Tests in which reading passages are not manipulable on the computer screen (you can’t highlight lines that seem important, much less make marginal notes). In most cases, the test taker can have a piece of scratch paper, but given the time-pressure factor, that little piece of paper seems at best useless at worst a distraction.

I used to show students how I use flag post-its to keep track of quotes I thought were important or revealing in a text. When working with a copy of a text, or textbook that belonged to me, I showed them how to make notes in the margin to remind them of their thoughts, reactions, and questions at the time of reading. I can’t say that these skills are totally useless even in our shiny, stainless steel digital era. Luckily, many of the texts we work with are available in PDF format, which allows many of these “analog” note taking strategies to continue to be useful. Really, as long as a text can be found in PDF form or converted to PDF, we can still use all the same old strategies for being good, thoughtful, critical readers with only minor alterations in the strategies.

But come test-taking time (or in the reading of Internet texts – articles, blogs and websites), these strategies are virtually useless. How does a test taker effectively keep notes on what he or she reads on a computer screen that they cannot mark? On a piece of scratch paper to one side of their mouse and keyboard. If the test taker is smart, he will include line numbers or paragraph numbers by each note he jots down. Nevertheless, these notes are not WITH the text that prompted the thought in the first place. Re-connecting the thought in the note with the text (imagine yourself switching back and forth from the text on the screen to the notes on your page – the Tazmanian Devil plays tennis) seems to me a most Herculean effort.

Is it nobler, then, to teach using etexts? Will we grow to keep track of our thoughts and where we had them in a text “by heart” in order to excel at the exams we must take to move forward toward our long-term educational goals? Will we insist that exam makers create exams in which the old analog styles of marginal notes and annotation can be performed on their digital texts? Or should we face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the only arms at our disposal the vagaries of flawed memory and analog note taking in the face of a test running at digital speeds? I find myself, like Hamlet, stuck between forms. We are much too digital, but not nearly digital enough.

While our strategies for teaching students to be good readers catch up with all that is being demanded in the digital age, I will continue to search for good PDF versions of texts, or apps that allow a reader to leave a post it in the text of a website. Until the two sides – analog test taking versus digital test taking – catch up with each other, my students’ discussions of texts will be tied either to analog (paper) texts or the PDF versions I can find online. I will show them the tools available, and trust to their ability to integrate new technology quickly. Meanwhile, in my head, all is far from Hamlet’s coveted silence.

~LD

On Students and Other Strangers (revised from ’09)

I was led back to this multi-genre piece by the friend (one time student) who asked me to write it for one of his final projects. I was stunned not to find it in my files, and he was good enough to resend it. So while he’s off on inspiring adventures all over the place, I thought you might like to have a peek. I used to call him double-O-seven, because as a yearbook staff member, he could get his mitts on anything. A terrific person all the way around. I’m so lucky to be a teacher and learner of THIS kind of person. There are so many of them! NOTE: I’ve adjusted to make the timing make more sense now.

***

Approximately seven years ago I was accosted in the hall by a student from a grade that I’ve never taught and hassled about books.

“Ms. Head,” the strange, but vaguely-familiar looking young man said to me. “Have you ever read ‘X’ by ‘Y’?” Let’s face it: I’ve slept since then; I have no idea what books he asked about. I wasn’t really listening in any case. I was trying to figure out which of my students he reminded me of.

Still, I must have responded to the question, because not to do so would have been rude. I think there was more conversation, perhaps more questions. But I was still trying to figure out who the student reminded me of.

Time passed. A week? A month? A year? Enough time for me to forget about the hallway book-assault.

I was walking from my classroom toward the elevator. I’m sure my mind was wandering around in the stars somewhere, distracted by English department business, or NHS business, or some other business. From the far end of the hallway down by Mr. Miranda’s room, I heard, “Ms. Head! Ms. Head!!” Lo and behold, Book Boy strode toward me. I remember being amused, even laughing out loud at the eagerness that lit up his eyes and ran like electric current into his smile. I know for certain that he way-laid me twice in the hallway to ask about books, but there may have been more than two occasions. I remember being floored, knocked-flat, astonished, speechless, flabbergasted to see a student so excited about reading that he was walking the halls looking for book experts. Secretly, I couldn’t wait for him to be a Senior.

The wait seemed interminable, but eventually one August I saw that curiously familiar face pass by me in the hallway, “Good morning, Ms. Head,” he said as he reached for the brushed steel handle of my classroom door. While his work was often far from perfect, or less than punctual, his enthusiasm masked unsightly flaws.

All year long, his writings were daring, and sometimes wrought as with iron or steel: the sound of the furnace roaring in our ears and sweat obscuring our eyes. From the thoughtful analysis of nature symbols in Hardy, to lyrics that take the shine off the enameled gloss of self-destructive relationships, R– has a way of making old things new again, and new things familiar and comfortable.

Let the resplendent blade of the sun
bear down on the time-faded sands
Let the moon sprinkle false rains
over desert hills
Let time glide down the window pane
while I slip another page through my fingers
and look up to see the bookwright’s back
far down the hall from whence he used to come…

~LD

Happiness will be found

One of my students wrote an essay about Raymond Carver’s poem “Happiness” for the literary analysis assignment this week. I didn’t even know that Carver wrote poetry, or maybe it’s among the many things I’ve forgotten. In any case, as I sat with my hot coffee (cream and 2 sugars) Saturday morning marking the student’s analysis, I decided to give the poem a quick read. In this case, the quick read, turned into an entire leisurely stroll down that lane known as Memory.

The last time I read any Carver it was for a class in post-modernism. We read some of his short stories, all of which I found resonant but disturbing. I’m sorry I don’t still have my notes to tell you what my 23-year-old self put down as reaction to his work. I do remember I didn’t like his stories. Resonant but disturbing was difficult to incorporate into my worldview back then. I was not surprised though that this little piece of poetic imagery brought to me by a student prompted memories of (again) the way images speak softly but clearly to our experience, reminding us to pay attention.

Reminding us, for example, of the parallel qualities of our lives.  Don’t we all have coffee (or tea, or juice) in the morning just at dawn, our minds full of “early morning stuff that passes for thought” (lines 3-4): what to wear, bills pending payment, the dog needing to be walked, the car washed, and the yard mowed. We collect up the leavings of responsibility, like the speaker in the poem, and erroneously call them thoughts.

Then the speaker looks out through a window, sees the boys, delivering the newspaper (in our world of digital instantaneity, how quaint the analog world looks where a person delivers the news written on paper). They are silent in their happiness. The boys are so utterly consumed with their happiness that there is nothing to say about it. I can imagine that they say nothing because, perhaps — like so many of us with our coffee in the morning — they don’t even realize that they are happy. For a moment, I wonder if the speaker is being wry, that perhaps these aren’t happy boys at all, but rather sleepy, burdened boys who have to get up to deliver the paper to help generate family income. But then the speaker suggests that he believes “if they could, they would take each other’s arm” (lines 12-13) and the human contact implied doesn’t seem to be seeking comfort in a time of need, just sharing “doing this thing together” (line 15) and doing it “slowly” (line 16), as if it needed attention and time to savor. I imagine them running off, later and faster, in afternoon sunlight to a record store to spend their early morning cash.

Our speaker, still at the window, looks out on a lovely but melancholy “pale” moon that persists even though “the sky is taking on light” (line 17-18). The sick, the tired, the worn are pallid, but happiness? How can this pale moon be part of a snapshot of supposed happiness? Our doubts about the speaker’s assertion are answered when he explains the sight of this pale moon as “Such beauty that for a minute / death and ambition, even love, / doesn’t enter into this” (lines 19-21). Sipping our own steaming cups, we know this feeling. It is a feeling so rare that it tends to escape us. A moment in which we forget the transitory nature of our own humanity, and the day-to-day struggles to make meaning slip away into the wave of happiness before we are washed back out to a sea of routine.

The speaker didn’t expect happiness to be delivering the paper as he took his morning coffee, and he knows, as we must, that “It comes on / unexpectedly” (line 22). I look out my kitchen window, washing my coffee cup, and think about how to talk to my student about her incomplete analysis, and the sun shines white through the glass. I am still considering happiness and the melancholy that comes with it, but there aren’t really words, because I guess I know that the experience of poetry is sometimes like the experience of happiness; it “goes beyond, really / any early morning talk about it” (lines 22-23). Maybe that’s what I’ll tell her.

~LD

Carver, Raymond. “Happiness.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. 2 June 2003.            Web. 8 Mar 2014.

Post script for my students: Yes, you CAN do this. Yes, it IS literary analysis. I’m sure there are many flaws in this piece, intellectually and compositionally. When you find them, let me know so that I can make the appropriate revisions and rewrite as needed. Notice that picky and petty things like the author and title in paragraph one, as well as in-text citations and bibliography are still present. The thesis is also present, although it is NOT in the first paragraph.

Post script for everyone else: I did this mainly to see if I still could. ‘-) Let me know what you think. If you don’t know the poem, click on the link in the bibliography to give it a look.

Broken Events: February after the Supposed Apocalypse

Sixty days. One sixth of a year. Big doings. Or not so much. Discuss.

Here’s my year-to-date in a rather large nutshell (what’s the largest nutshell in the world? I think the shell will have to be that big or bigger).

When Pope Benedict resigned, I was reminded of watching the conclave as a child the year Pope John Paul II was named. The colored smoke fascinated me, even though as a lapsed Protestant (and a little kid) I didn’t understand what it was all about. When the smoke finally turned white, it seemed like an important moment, even though to my eyes the white smoke looked the same on the television screen as the black smoke had looked.

There is currently no pope for the Catholic church. On the upside, a particular Mexican shoe-maker is in capitalist heaven as a result of the gift of maroon loafers given to then-Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Mexico last spring. I think the cobbler’s gift and his newfound fortune are kind of awesome. Really, they are lovely loafers, and there’s little doubt as to their comfort factor. I’ve been stunned at how frail the former pope has become in these short twelve months since his trip to Mexico. I hope the new loafers help him walk in some comfort on this last bit of his human pilgrimage. What I learned: must get to the Leon shoe expo when it comes to TRC this year. Not, perhaps, the lesson I “should” learn, but I’ll take what I can get. I will be watching for the smoke signals.

http://www.sfgate.com/news/world/article/POPE-LIVE-Swiss-Guards-15th-century-tweets-4315350.php#photo-4261397

My mom will be in TRC in less than a week. Time to buy a mattress for the guest bedroom. I’ve been looking for an excuse. Perfect. Insert dancing Snoopy and anxious Linus here. More on that at a later date. By the way, the Doctor is In. 25 cents.

I was invited to invite five students to a literary workshop at the local art and history museum. What a great group of students I must have that the list was long and difficult to narrow down. Wish I could go with them. Grown ups are not welcome. The adolescent in me totally gets that. But still.

My students reminded me how scary it is to be a high school senior. Luisa wrote, “I want to stop time, just for a few seconds.” My empathy would be understandable if I hadn’t hated high school. Next week they will be ready to break away again. Who needs a physics roller coaster project when every day is a new, unexpected, non-navigable high, low, twist, turn, loop-the-loop with unmeasurable velocities? Thank goodness for the reminder that I don’t want to go back. Time to stop worshipping at the altar of youth.

Having said that, well, braces. The bottom teeth are going back right, and the top teeth are going back left. The notorious gap has temporarily returned, and everything is sensitive and nothing fits together the way it should, and eating is a task I don’t even want to think about. I feel I haven’t eaten in a week, though that is a lie. Unfortunately, the food I can eat comfortably and the food I need and want to eat are on different planes of existence. So maybe I’m not worshipping at the altar of youth, but I am hoping that this factory of pain in my mouth actually does its job to keep my teeth in my head, rather than on my plate, which will make the crummy braces diet worth the trouble. And it might be neat if straight teeth made me feel pretty. I am adolescent in spite of myself.

Movies are a good thing for adolescents of all ages. Saw Les Miserables, in the theater on a week night. Poor Daniela had to listen to me mutter the lyrics through the whole show. Never mind the snuffling and snorting snotfest. Luckily, Javert wasn’t particularly good, so the parts that usually hit me the hardest didn’t hit very hard. I loved Fantine, Eponine, Gavroche (of course) and the Thènardiers. I liked Jean Valjean and Marius, but I couldn’t like this Cossette. I apologize. I assume there is something generally wrong with my taste in voices. Still, it was a good movie, even though I felt obligated to over-tip the waiter at the VIP theater after he tripped in the dark and spilled our drinks. Nothing like VIP theater – tickets, less than seven bucks each, leather recliners and table-side concession service. Thankfully, we had many napkins because there was boo-hooing. One day this weekend I’ll put the Broadway soundtrack on and recuperate anything I might have lost at the movie.

A fun movie followed by Facebook convos with former students about movies (like Les Mis) with mixed reviews can be rewarding. I miss those intellectuals, but I’m so proud of and happy for them. What wild and unexpected adventures they are having all over the world, doing all the things they dreamed of and a few they things they never expected.

For the record, it turns out that I am not the only essay writer in the world. I can only hope and keep thinking, writing, typing, editing and striving to reach Professor Lopate’s stature. I worried that I’d lost my companion essay writer when Nancy Walker died. Luckily, it seems that the form has not entirely died out. I’m encouraged.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/the-essay-an-exercise-in-doubt/

Nevertheless, I know I’ve lost my proverbial marbles because I tried to turn THE essay into a graphic novel, only to have the essay turn out to be merely the prequel to the epic super-heroine story that I don’t know how to write. I’m waiting for the bloodied main character to walk out of that alleyway and decide what to do with her newly baptized bowie knife. No pressure.

Speaking of creepy, wonderful things, I re-read Neil Gaiman’s Calendar Tales (see http://keepmoving.blackberry.com/desktop/en/us/ambassador/neil-gaiman.html ) for about the fourth time and tried to intuitively navigate my way around my own brain through his idea. I had done the tweet poems from my own tweets, but this idea of harvesting the tweets of others rocked the axis of my universe.

And now I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s March already. How did that happen? Just yesterday it was Christmas 2012 and I was trying to explain to my nephew why I hadn’t been playing Skyrim 24/7 or at least 16/7, and dancing the salsa with my 15 month old niece. Ten year olds don’t need sleep and babies love to spin almost as much as I do.

I have essays and stories to write and all the things.

Did I mention that this time next week Mom will be here?

So what’s up with you?

~LD

Building a fire…

Building a fire . . . in my head

After three days of meetings and classes and refreshers and precious little time in the classroom, I was beyond ready for the weekend. But in a weekend filled with obligatory fun, and the class I’ve been taking for my own development, Sunday was the only day left to submerge myself in the work of bringing my brain back around to thinking about something besides all those folders of writings I’ve been working on this summer.

I sat in the study and put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and looked at the computer screen.  I skimmed back through last year’s planning to remind myself of where to start and to look at my marginal notes so that I’d remember what I wanted to do differently. I closed my eyes to concentrate my breath with Waters, Gilmore and Wright reminding me to “Breathe.” In the darkened room of my mind, I reached over to my classroom “switch” and turned the yes voice on.

As I unknotted the step-by-step plan for the first two weeks of the sophomore composition course, sparks were flying down the millions of highways in my brain sweeping up stray threads for activities and retying together my “teacher” self. I will never get every little thing across, I know. Even if I could get it out there, most of it wouldn’t stick. Better to hit the big ideas and let them figure out little ideas on their own. The biggest big idea is to get them to turn on their “yes” voice. The second big idea is to convince them to keep it on.

I learned about the “yes” voice reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones way back when I started teaching (approximately 10,000 years ago).  I wish I had the book at hand because I’m sure what Goldberg said about it was exactly perfect. Since I don’t have the book at hand, let me give you my stewed down version. Back when we were little people, before the school system got its calloused, dirty hands on us, we used to get truly enthused about, well, stuff.

Your stuff was probably different from my stuff, but I want to give you an idea here; bear with me.  I remember lying on the white bedspread in Grammie and Pa’s guest bedroom looking at one of the books from the hall shelf before I fell asleep one Saturday night.  This particular book had articles with pictures about prehistoric animals.  My two favorites both had big teeth: the wooly mammoth and the saber tooth tiger, both recognizable, but still utterly foreign. I read and re-read the informational blurbs and studied the drawings. After that, any time I saw something related to wooly mammoths or saber tooth tigers, I would feel my belly go all fluttery (don’t pretend that this didn’t happen to you, you know it did) and I’d want to see every teensy piece of new information that presented itself.  “Wooly mammoths!”

That fluttery feeling is the feeling I need to pass to my students on day one. Day ONE. In previous years I’ve had inconsistent success with this lecture (one of the few talks I give all year), but last year was spectacularly successful.  I think what makes it work is the “fire” I bring.

Today was the day to start my fire.  Lay the coals out interspersed with newsprint and ocote sticks. The coals are the old, solid texts we always start with – Beowulf, Canterbury Tales and the ballads, Shakespeare. The texts I know and love so well make a good base for this fire, and we will be burning through them together all year long. I can’t help but get excited about them; they never fail to show me a new face, even after all these years. Newsprint and ocote sticks come in the form of these new facets, and in the planning.  Tuesday night I will sit around and rehearse what to say on day one — shredding newsprint.

Honestly, in rereading this entry, it doesn’t sound very fiery.  But it is.  And I know that sleep will be hard to come by on Tuesday night as I compulsively feed and fan the fire. Because that’s what we do in the face of a fickle flame, we watch and wait, and feed and fan.

This entry feels unfinished, as it should.  The finish of this entry will be the day after the fire is lit and begins to spread and takes on a life of its own out there in the masses of students who will come through my door on Wednesday.

Hope your week is as great as mine will be! I CAN’T WAIT!

~LD