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, #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.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #2

I love most everything Billy Collins writes.

I offer you a Billy Collins Pallooza. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he spoke at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in 2009. This video is his entire talk of 38 minutes. His dry sense of humor is a joy. Here are the poems he reads in the video, in order:

“Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal”
“Grave”
“Palermo”
“Simile”
“Oh My God”
“Monday”
“The Trouble with Poetry”
“Litany”
“Migraine” or “Hangover”
“Hippos on Holiday”
“Schoolsville”
“The Golden Years”
“On Turning Ten”

Knowing that people are busy and sometimes only have time for one poem, here’s one of my favorite poems by Billy —

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

– – – – –

So simple, so descriptive…and such a novel idea. Powerful in the way he takes me with him across the ocean. So few words, really, but quite the shared experience.

What it means to be “racist” and how accusing everyone of it doesn’t help

Part of the wonderful craziness of teaching middle school students is the perpetual existence of catch phrases. Young people hear adults and their peers use a word or phrase and its meaning is vague to them; after awhile, students are testing out the word in various contexts, trying to figure out its actual meaning. We start hearing the word used incorrectly and, as teachers, decide whether or not to stop everything and jump into “teachable moment” mode.

Sometimes the word is just a novelty — words like “dab” or “lit” come to mind — and are soon forgotten. We don’t spend time on those words. In the past, we have taken time with insensitive uses of “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” and I like to think that those talks had a little to do with a more healthy attitude toward our LGBTQ community, as well as the emergence of the Alliance club at the high school. Words like “creeper” and “foreigner” are also misused often and we may need to address those soon (fear of the unknown is a powerful thing). More recently, though, students have heard the word “racist” being tossed about (with our President being accused of racist remarks and some police being seen as racist toward minority groups) and have started casually accusing each other of being “racist.” This seems like one of those teachable moments to me.

The dictionary definition is a good place to start: racist — “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” (Oxford Dictionary) Some middle school students don’t recognize how serious this accusation is. They toss the word around quickly and freely without realizing it’s actually in the same intensity as yelling “FIRE!” or “RAPE!” The word racist carries a history with it that involves Native American displacement, white supremacist groups, hate crimes, and lynchings.

It’s a challenging topic but that isn’t a reason to ignore it; as an educator, I believe we can discuss almost anything with students as long as we do it in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. I understand that I need to be aware of my own biases and that I’m not expert on the topic, only an authority on my own experiences. These experiences are influenced by a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the culture in which I was brought up and the degree of privilege I have benefited from in my life.

I have never consciously thought that one race is superior to another (as the dictionary definition describes the word), but having taken the Implicit Bias Test and (at the same time I realize the test is not the whole picture) understanding a bit about the power of unconscious behavior, I am fully aware that I have my biases. I try to stay aware of them as I talk with people of color, but I really try to treat each person I talk with as a person first and listen to their concerns; some people say they “don’t see color,” which I think is ridiculous. I focus on the person in front of me and that means trying to take into account the little I know about his or her experience, asking questions to fill in the blanks in my head.

So part of my message, students, is to think before you accuse and to know your own biases, in general.

Instead of calling someone racist, “concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person…” instead of attacking them with this strong, hateful word. (ThoughtCo) By calling someone racist, you are making an unfair, quick judgment about the person and situation — that judgment itself is a type of pigeon-holing or stereotyping that adds to the problem instead of trying to solve it.

We have been talking about using precise language in our poetry unit. The importance of our word choices is a theme you’ll see played out in The Giver, also, which we read next marking period. It carries over to many professions like law and advertising; the words you choose make a difference. And words have more than one meaning and connotation. If I was to say that I want you to discriminate, you might think I’ve lost my mind. The word, “discriminate,” however, means more than one thing. It’s actually an important skill in this sense. I would like you to discern or figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to accuse people of things…that’s one definition of discriminating…to be a thinking person who distinguishes between right and wrong.

Just like when bullying happens, there are bystanders when the word “racist” is spoken. Those bystanders have a major role in what happens next, just like when bullying happens. They have to discern if the situation involves a suggestion that one race is superior or if it’s an exaggerated, inappropriate use of the word; in either case, the bystander has a responsibility to speak up — to see justice done or to tell the speaker that he or she is wrong. Their role is key to ending this misuse of the word.

Using language (whether thought, spoken, written, visual…) is a complex thing. Learning how to use it precisely and effectively is a lifelong process. My hope is that, throughout your life, you will accurately communicate your ideas. To do that, always think before you speak.

One Time at a Time

Time in the airport — staying calm amid the hustle and the bustle, sitting on the tarmac for one hour before the flight was cancelled, waiting 12 hours for the next flight, playing several games (Clubs, Five Crowns, Hearts…), and arriving in Seattle after having been awake for 24+ hours, dazed and grateful

Time in the rental car avoiding other cars and walking/biking/moped-riding people, as well as avoiding traffic jams with Rachel’s knowledge of the city

Time with family hiking up to Rattlesnake Ledge — only 4 miles roundtrip, but up 1200 feet in elevation for some glorious views

Time walking around Seattle seeing quite a few homeless people, wondering what their lives were like, are like, will be like

Time reading a novel about time-travel and, at times, wishing to jump into the story to experience the 18th century for a few hours or days

Time virtually dangling my feet over Washington (Snoqualmie Falls, breeching whales in Puget Sound, Olympic National Forest, the San Juan Islands, the Walla Walla Valley Balloon Stampede) as part of Wings over Washington

Time watching Arrival and wondering if time is the subtle, constant force I’ve always accepted it as being or if one can move forward and back within its vastness

Time with Judy listening to Ravel, Beethoven, and Gliere played by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra; Judy had worked with french horn soloist, David Cooper, decades before which made it even more special

Time standing in the hall outside my classroom at MacDonald Middle School looking at each student that passes and picturing each one walking across the stage getting their diplomas as graduating seniors

Time to construct a letter about an issue I care about and put it out there in the world — and having a friend make a meaningful comment about it

Time to candidly talk with a past student and see what he created from our talk

Time listening to a sermon entitled “Timing,” hearing a voice from the past say “Hell is truth seen too late,” and automatically thinking that the owners of Eastwood Towne Center will rue the day they didn’t work out a deal with Schuler Books, causing it to close; I’ll always remember one customer grieving the bookstore’s closing by saying,
“I mean,
we
lived
here”