Success is Tricky and Elusive

Over a dozen parents have thanked me
for coming back to teach this year.
It’s been rather shocking.
And gratifying.

It’s happened so many times that I was beginning to wonder if the Parent Council included it in their minutes with an “ask” that parents participate. These parents have made my day by appreciating that I chose part-time teaching over the relative ease of retirement (our administration and a few colleagues have thanked me, too). The students don’t seem as appreciative, but that’s asking too much and I realize that. What I didn’t realize was how much I would need some ‘thanks’ to balance out the other side of this decision.

Never before have I had more students failing than getting A’s. And never before have those failing students seemed to care so little about passing. Even the A/B students ask me often “what’s the least I can do on this assignment?” and still pass. Sure, I have a few parents getting after their kids to get their grades up, but the numbers are low; like their kids, many seem to have started summer break a month early. There’s an extreme apathy that is discouraging.

Never before have I had to explain what common sense means. The concept seems foreign to a great many students. Thinking about a situation and figuring it out for oneself is practically extinct. It’s exasperating. I find myself shaking my head and walking away from students so that I don’t say something I’ll regret.

Never before have so many students acted as if the rules don’t apply to them. They have their phones in their pockets (in 7th grade) when they know phones belong in their lockers. They sneak looks at their phones when teachers aren’t looking. They expect to get their phone back at the end of the hour when it’s taken (though their parent is supposed to pick it up from the office). A few slip out of class to go to the bathroom/locker/office without asking, without their planner/pass, without guilt. They leave trash around the school like it’s their bedroom. They bring food or drinks (other than water) to class when they know it’s against the rules. We enforce consequences for these rule breakers, but they repeat the behaviors with the certainty of a revolving door.

And all of this may lead to…

Never before have I seen teacher morale so low. Money is even less a motivator than it was years ago. Unless a teacher made it to the top of the salary schedule before times got bad, the money is quite mediocre and not improving. I’m thinking of teachers in the profession less than 10 years. Health care costs (which used to be one of the few perks of the job) are rising steadily and what’s covered is decreasing steadily. Most teachers are passionate about their content and about finding ways to entice/engage students about that content; when you have increasing numbers of students unwilling to bite at any engaging pieces of curricular bait, that passion starts to fade. Teachers are asked to do more and more every year — back in 2012, I made a middle school teacher’s to-do list and it keeps getting longer (though admittedly, since I’ve been part time this year, I haven’t had as long of a list). The teachers I know are swamped: teaching long days that go well past the time students leave; planning and correcting hours each night; meeting with students whose special needs require accomodations; making time to meet with many other parents who have unique concerns; juggling their job with hectic home lives; not feeling supported by the Education Secretary or strongly by their own unions. Yes, Teacher Appreciation Week was nice, but most feel like the other 35 weeks of the school year they are treading water with lead weights on their ankles.

The world is changing. Sometimes we don’t notice it when we’re in the midst of it, but being gone a year has tuned me in to changes in the attitudes of students. It may seem unfair to lump students into categories, but if you’ve taught for awhile, you’ll know what I’m talking about: there’s always an upper group in terms of effort and skills; there’s always a middle group that seems to go through the motions but does okay; and there’s always a group that no matter what I do, I can’t get much work out of them at all. This year (and the years before I retired, to some extent) the top group is shrinking and the apathetic, disengaged, in-it-for-the-grade-if-my-parents-are-watching group has ballooned. One of the reasons I came back was that I enjoyed working with students. Well, students seem much more concerned about the right answer than about learning. They are much more concerned about how their grade “looks” than about the reality of their engagement, curiosity, or challenge. Failure is a swear word to these kids and that bothers me. They think adults are just appeasing them when we talk about failure as a part of learning…as essential even. And they’re getting pressure from somewhere to succeed no matter what.

Success, though, comes from struggle. From making mistakes and learning from them.

I’m not saying, by the way, that part-time teaching this year has been a mistake for me. I have enjoyed reconnecting with colleagues. I have loved getting to know the creative, open-minded, curious students I see daily. Our class discussions about the 7th grade texts we’ve read have been thought-provoking on many occasions. We’ve laughed, sang, did a bit of dancing, shared high fives and hugs, had a couple amazing poetry readings, and went outside for a few walks. But it has been a struggle. If I’ve had success this year, it’s come from many a failure. Not reaching so many of my students seems like I’ve let them down. At the same time, though, I haven’t seen as much an effort from their side as I had hoped I would see.

Maybe those parents who thanked me realize that all of this is going on and so they were thanking me for coming back in spite of it all.

It all makes me wonder about my role in this change. Have I been too lax, too harsh, not shared enough of myself as a person, shared too much, asked too much or too little parent involvement, not made the curriculum engaging enough, moved too quickly or slowly from one unit to another…? There’s really not an objective way to know.

I went to a teacher friend’s retirement party today. People spoke about how she was a beacon of consistent, loving instruction to her elementary school age students. She spoke with great emotion about her appreciation for her colleagues and how she cared for every student through her 38 years of teaching. She also seemed proud that she had spoke her mind, even when it wasn’t popular or easy. My hope is that teachers will be able to say the same things years down the road. And that those future, retiring teachers will have seen a renewal in student motivation and purpose, as well as a willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Why I Enjoy the Outlander Series

Once in awhile, a book doesn’t hold my attention and I stop reading it. The book may have too much or too little of one thing or another — too much politics or swearing or war or too little humor or reality or adventure. Looking for Alaska by John Green was like that. I didn’t like the main character, so I stopped reading.

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, has held my interest for each of the eight books — well over 7,000 pages. I just finished the eighth book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and I must say the books are an artful mix of all those elements I mentioned above…with several dashes of time travel added which make it even more intriguing. Gabaldon wonderfully balances all the elements of story-telling and keeps me (and millions of others) anticipating the next book. For those who like comparisons and haven’t read the series, think Barbara Kingsolver (for writing about nature & science and for story telling) meets Dr. Who (for his tardis) meets Ann Rinaldi (for historical fiction) meets Dr. Ruth (for spice), though that’s still not the whole picture.

I’ve always been a curious person and I learn new words on practically every other page in Gabaldon’s books. The photo, below, has just a few examples of the breadth of her vocabulary. She mixes in jargon from traditional and herbal medicine, gardening and mountain life, and a vast amount of Gaelic (Starz has several Youtube videos on how to speak Gaelic that are fun). She throws in quite a bit of French, Mohawk, and some German along the way, too. Each book is a lesson in language.

I’ve never read a novel that had so much romance in it until the novels of this series. Our daughter, Rachel, suggested I read the first book. She may have realized I needed a bit of spicy, dicey literature because it turns out that those are the scenes I reread most often. Go figure.

The term Outlander is a connection for me too. An Outlander is an outsider. The term Sassenach is a synonym for outlander in the books. We’re talking about foreigners and more specifically, an English person, which Claire is in the books (though the term sassenach can be used in an endearing way at times). Growing up Armenian, we had a similar word that meant “non-Armenian.” I always thought it was odd, but I’ve come to see that most languages have this type of term. The thing is, though, that we are all outlanders. Anytime we step out of our normal routine into another environment or culture we become an outlander. So I see the book as a reminder to welcome and learn from the “other” or different people in our experience. Claire, as an outlander, has much to offer the new communities she encounters and so do we in our travels and so do immigrants to this country.

(SPOILER: Stop reading (or skip the next paragraph) if you don’t want to know a vague telling of the end of the eighth book)

The eighth novel focused mostly on the Frasers and Greys as they made their way in the late 18th century in our newly emerging America (though the 20th century travels of Briana were of much interest at times). In a glorious, eventful way, Claire and Jamie end up back on Fraser’s Ridge and as the book comes to a close, Gabaldon re-introduces characters from several hundred pages earlier in an unexpected, triumphant, subtle, masterful manner that actually made me tear up. Her writing is a testimony to the power of story. To the intricacies of living. To the inventive imaginings of hopeful time travelers. To the richness of history and its potential power in the living of our days.

While it’s true that I’ve skimmed a couple chapters here and there and second-guessed Gabaldon’s overuse of time traveling, part of me feels like starting over from book one tomorrow. And I recommend you go to your local bookstore or library and jump into the series yourself. As diversions from life’s craziness go, it’s a winner.

Outlander news:

Gabaldon hopes to finish book nine by the end of the year, but a publication date has not been set.

Starz says that Season 4 of the television show should be out by September of this year. (There’s also a slideshow of 10 Reasons You Should Watch Outlander on this link; the slideshow says the series is based on a Doctor Who episode, which I did not know.)

If you’ve read the series and want a (relatively) quick skim back through a timeline of events for the whole series, check out this timeline.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #10

Did you ever get so busy at the end of National Poetry month that you forgot to post poem #10 of your top ten poems until May? Well, here we are in May and I want to share a collection of creative writing that I go to for insight and inspiration. I’ve never seen it in the Poetry section in a library or bookstore, but these small, personified qualities are poetic in the the most beautiful sense of the word.

– – – – –
The Book of Qualities By J. Ruth Gendler

Here’s the section/poem called

Joy

Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hestitation.

Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent.

At times Joy is elusive — she seems to disappear even as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.

– – – – –
Here’s a list of all the qualities in the book.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #9

Taylor Mali’s poetry makes me smile, shake my head, wonder, question, and feel a whole myriad emotions. Enjoy his reading of his poem “Like Lilly Like Wilson.”

I’m writing the poem that will change the world, and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I’ve ever seen.
So, like, bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson Like.
‘Until I declared my classroom a Like‐Free Zone,
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to think before I . . . say anything.

Imagine that, Lilly.

It’s for your own good.
Even if you don’t like . . .
it.

I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed
to adopt children.
I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

She’s having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

Well, that’s a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?

That’s what I want to know.

And the eighth-­‐grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-­‐born baby’s face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.

– – – – –

I wonder what students think about his poem. I know teachers appreciate it. His reading adds quite a bit to it, but even a quick read conveys that ‘thinking person’ mentality that I love in Mali’s work. We can only do so much as teachers and it’s oh so rewarding when a student’s mind is opened, when a light bulb goes off right in front of us.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #8

This one is by Sarah Kay

Brother

You jaywalked your way out of the womb.
I would recognize you anywhere
from the hiccup in your swagger. Tell me,
where in the world did you find all that thunder?

There have never been any seat belts on your side of the car
You have always known the better magic tricks.
You told me once that I was just the first draft,
and I’m inclined to believe you but you came
with a lot more pieces to assemble, and
mom​ and dad never got the manual.

Your compass always points north.
But it’s a bit of a crapshoot as to whether or not
you’ll ever really walk in that direction. I like that.
It keeps people on their toes.

On the merry-go-round of your life, the carousel ponies
are all narwhals. Their horns point straight up.
The day they build you a constellation, it will be
the entire F-train, spread across the Milky Way.
You will a satellite that dips in and out of every car
the moment the train comes to a stop, pissing off
everybody on the subway platform and kicking up
stardust in your wake. You can solve the Law and Order
episode before the first commercial break.

Once, when you were seven, you came into the kitchen and asked mum: “Does my name begin with the letter P because P is the 16th letter of the alphabet and I was born on June 16th and is Sarah just Sarah because S is 19th letter and she was born on the 19th day of June?”
And when mom said no, you nodded your head
and left the room mumbling to yourself,
“Okay, just salt and pepper then.”

You are my favorite stick of dynamite.
You are the opposite of a rubber band.
There are so many things I would tell you
if I thought that you would listen
and so many more that you would tell me
if you believed I would understand.

I hope you know that you were never meant to wear this shadow.
In fact, I’m the one who always steals your shoes.
But — is that my sweatshirt you’re wearing? It’s okay, you can keep it. I won’t tell your secret. In fact, it really does look better on you.

– – – – –

So many memorable lines in this one, starting with the first one. Hilarious. After reading this poem a few times, I feel like I know her brother. And the love she has for him is palpable. Why can’t I write like this?

Here’s Sarah performing the poem. And it’s in her book of poems, No Matter the Wreckage, which contains a bunch of other gems.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #7

It’s Earth Day and the Lansing Poetry Club is also sponsoring a reading today called Poem in Your Pocket — it seems like a perfect day to share some haiku. I’ll be reading the following poems at today’s reading. They are taken from Bob Rentschler’s book of haiku called Michigan: Four Seasons. The first three are from the Winter section of the book (though I’ve experienced them this spring) and the last four are from the Spring section. I feel Bob’s presence in each carefully chosen word.
And I apologize to Bob for edublogs’ lack of proper form; Bob wanted an indent at each new line which I can’t seem to make happen in this format (I’ve added a couple dashes, too, due to formating issues).

– – – – –

Overnight snowfall
clean white sheets for a new day
until noon — that’s all.

Cardinal unseen
fir tree whistler — there he is
red on white on green.

Fire in the sky
sun’s inferno smothered with
gray clouds floating by.

Spring celebrated
bees in the blooming plum tree
inebriated.

Twenty after five
cardinal cacaphony
morning comes alive.

Listen to the train
crying in the lonely night
seasonless refrain.

Hunching his behind
caterpillar on my page
leaves tracks on my mind.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #6

Here are two poems by Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972). I couldn’t decide which one I loved more. You can decide for yourself.

– – – – –

The Fish

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

the
turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

pink
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

All
external
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

ac-
cident—lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

– – – – –

Poetry

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us—that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

– – – – –

For me, poetry is partially about form. (Edublogs doesn’t appear to appreciate form, though. Here’s the actual way these poems are supposed to look: The Fish; and Poetry.)I appreciate seeing how the poet decided to arrange the words and lines and stanzas; sometimes these decisions affect the way the poem is read. And the “look” of a poem makes a statement. These poems come across differently when read aloud — not worse, just differently. Moore’s playfulness with line and stanza influenced my playfulness as a poet…and maybe, also, as a person. And I thank her for it.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #5

Ego Tripping
by Nikki Giovanni

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat’s meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can’t catch me

For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
jesus
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
semi-precious jewels
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…

– – – – –

I enjoy hearing/seeing Nikki read this poem, too.

This is a power poem and it speaks for itself.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #4

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
By E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– – – – –

I’m noticing that many of my favorite poems have something to do with the mystery of love and beauty. This poem reminds me of the first poem in this list, “A Blessing.” Love is so intense and so difficult to define. So if we read words and phrases that capture a bit of that experience (like the beginning and ending of this poem in particular), it’s impressive and memorable.

Cummings always challenges me. His poems are works of art, which partly means they defy explanation. There’s a unique, inexplicable beauty that I want to grasp; however, I also understand that I won’t be able to grasp the entire truth…and that’s okay, that’s art. I like how he’s playful in his poems, too — “in Just” and its balloonman whistling far and wee is just one example. Genius.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #3

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
‘Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes,’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

By Emily Dickinson
1861, earliest known manuscript of the poem;
1890, first published.

– – – –

I’ve tried many times to capture the beauty of nature in words. It’s so difficult to get across. That first stanza, especially — with its oppressive slant of light — spoke to me years ago and still does. I’ve seen it. I admire how Dickinson pulls us in right away and we can relate to her scene.

Last night, I went to Wild Nights with Emily, a feature film shown on the last night of the Capital City Film Festival. It was a side of Dickinson I never knew existed: she had a female lover; many of her poems were written for Sue, her lover, but Sue’s name was erased; Emily tried to get her poems published; she had a sense of humor…. Re-reading her poems, I am reminded once again of how little we know of people’s lives and how rich each person’s life is.