180 Days: Day 10–Long Day, Short Night

Today was another normal day. Nothing remarkable happened on the whole. The kids read, talked about what they read, wrote, talked about what they wrote. We talked about two reading strategies that I call “the fundamentals” using my sports analogy–we practice using the fundamentals, we will learn to read the right way and with a success that is replicated easily. We also did timed readings so that students could know how much time to give themselves when reading different types of texts. Like I said, it was a normal day.

Another way it was normal: I had a meeting after school. As a leader on campus and off, I spend a lot of time in meetings. I typically don’t mind that meetings tend to add at least two hours to my workday. I consider part of doing the job. Just like grading papers is part of the job. But then I find myself at home wanting to empty my mind and go for a workout. Instead, I sit with a pile of half-graded papers and a half-empty mind. I set a goal to complete at least five sets of papers. Two down. Three to go…so I’m off to grade and listen to a few tunes. Then I can turn my mind the rest of the way into the off position. Gym, my dear, you will just have to wait. Maybe I can make our date to get sweaty and clear the mind of all worries tomorrow night.

“Put me in coach/I’m ready to play today…”
“Centerfield” by John Fogerty

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180 Days: Day 9–A Normal School Day, A Not So Normal World Day

Today was our second PLC Late Start Day of the school year. Teachers meet from 7:45 a.m. until 8:35 and students start class at 8:50–a full 50 minutes later than the other four days of the week. Last week, on our first PLC Late Start, 183 of 1813 students (yes, 10%), showed up late to their first-period class. I almost cringe to see today’s numbers in the morning when I print the report because even if it is a better number, it’s not by much. Mercifully, classes are shorter on Tuesdays because we teachers are freaking exhausted at the end of every Tuesday. We are running hard all day long. So in that regard, it was a normal day. I put my nose to the grindstone and enjoyed my time with my students. My sophomores wrote vignettes and my seniors analyzed apocalyptic symbolism in Yeat’s “The Second Coming.” The poem, part of which is used as an epigraph and the title of Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart, compares the turmoil in our world to the End of Times with imagery of the Anti-Christ/the Beast. So it was a typical school day–except the themes of today’s work resounded on the world stage today.

POTUS gave a bellicose speech to the United Nations in which he threatened to destroy the entirety of North Korea and its 25 million people and continued his childish name calling tradition by mocking its leader, Kim Jong Un, with the title of “Rocket Man” in an official speech on the world stage. I’m too stunned and fear-filled by DJT’s warmongering to be embarrassed by him anymore. Frankly, Red America, you broke it, you bought it. And we just might face a calamity the likes we’ve never seen. And that says a lot with the 20th Century’s horrific war record in our rearview mirror. Yet, our congressional majority party leaders do nothing to check DJT’s ugly cataclysmic rhetoric. The lessons of history stare us in the face only to be ignored in favor of a short-term power grab and the umpteenth chance to strip health coverage from millions of hardworking Americans. In the end, it’s hard to let a dead man eat cake, even that fancy Mar-a-Lago chocolate kind.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean is hunkered down in misery under the thumb of yet another Category 5 hurricane. Lady Maria has been just as merciless as Harvey and Irma before her. To make matters worse, Mexico suffered a second catastrophic earthquake in as many weeks earlier today–an 8.1 hit the nation on September 8th, but today’s 7.1 hit the heart of the nation’s capital and the death toll has topped 149 with the latest reports.

Today felt like Yeat’s poem outside the classroom. Let’s hope that Things Do Not Fall Apart in our world. And let’s hope our pugnacious POTUS doesn’t spawn WW3 by taunting an isolated, defiant, trigger-happy North Korean leader while our people and our neighbors are consumed by the widening gyre of natural and political disasters.

“The Second Coming”
by W.B. Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Kasabian’s song “Where Did All the Love Go?” somehow seems appropriate in all this Trumpian chaos as well.

 

“Where Did All the Love Go” by Kasabian, from their 2009 album West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Never took a punch in the ribcage, sonny
Never met a soul who had no shrine
Keep this all in your mind and get it inside my window
What do we become trying to kill each other?
You’re faking it son, gonna get you tonight
I suck another breath to the hearts of the revolution
Because you still ain’t right
Where did all the love go?
I don’t know, I don’t know
(I bet you can’t see it)
Where did all the love go?
I don’t know, I don’t know
(I bet you can’t see it)
Can’t see the signs of a real change a-comin’?
Take another sip from your hobo’s wine
Get yourself a million miles from the concrete jungle
This is a time full of fear, full of anger
A hero’s exchange for a telephone line
Whatever happened to the youth of this generation
Because it still ain’t right
Where did all the love go?
I don’t know, I don’t know
(I bet you can’t see it)
Where did all the love go?
Now I don’t know why, oh why
The rivers of the pavement are flowing now with blood
The children of the future are drowning in the flood
Where did all the love go?
Now I don’t know why, oh why
In this social chaos, there’s violence in the air
Gotta keep your wits about you, be careful not to stare
Where did all the love go?
I don’t know, I don’t know
(I bet you can’t see it)
Where did all the love go?
Now I don’t know why, oh why
(I bet you can’t see it)
Lyrics by Sergio Pizzorno

 

180 Days: Day 8–I Need an Antacid.

Mondays are always a struggle, but today was more so because my students had a substitute teacher on Friday. I found myself trying to decipher notes from the sub who had only partially followed my plans and students who only partially followed instructions. So it was a day of reteaching and pulling seemingly unconnected ideas together to make sense. It was a day of working to get back onto a schedule with my sophomores. My seniors stayed on point just as I expected them to do. But my one period of duties aiding with attendance created a fair share of headaches to get back on track–communication, lack of communication, understanding, lack of understanding…I just hope we are ready to go with round two of student meetings tomorrow as I am scheduled to meet with over 40 sophomores and seniors regarding their attendance records from last year and help them build a plan for success for this year.

Then I arrive home to more correspondence from the IRS who keeps trying to say I’m self-employed for volunteer work in which I was paid and already paid taxes on…and over an hour waiting on the phone when I’m supposed to be in meetings tonight that now just have to move on without my input due to our government’s inefficiency. Where’s my bottle of tums…

…later…

I did finish my IRS conversation. I have a path forward. They still want money that I don’t owe, but I at least can figure out how to mitigate their pathway.

And I made it to the second of my meetings tonight having missed the first for over an hour on hold and a tired, rude IRS call center lady who had probably had multiple ears full from taxpayers throughout the day. So I try not to judge too harshly. My school district’s board of education held its biweekly meeting tonight honoring our district employees of the year. Celebrating my colleagues gave my spirit its needed lift. Until the end of the meeting when I wind up in a tense exchange with school district administrators and school board members.  I have long been a union representative and leader, and tonight I had a hard time keeping quiet as the district made a unilateral decision official– a decision that impacts every one of our 17 elementary schools’ students and teachers. I’m a firm believer in an interest-based approach to working with our district that has become more and more autocratic in behavior. So I drag home late, nearly 10 p.m. I’m pouring my frustration out so I can go to bed without more ingesting more tums. I might succeed. Maybe. Probably not.

At least I will get to see my students tomorrow. They make it all worthwhile in the end.

Like Scarlet O’Hara hopefully proclaimed after Rhett walked off into the fog, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

 

180 Days: Day 7–When Teachers Learn the Same Stuff Again…and Again.

I spent the 7th day of school in a meeting with a room full of teachers and an expensive consultant rather than with my students where I would rather have been. My school district is attempting to clean up its decade-plus long misadventure into Professional Learning Communities by giving us all training from the gurus of All Things PLC, Solution Tree. Most of us who have attended multiple trainings understand and even agree with the theories presented by the late Rick DuFour’s team. We believe that attempting to build these communities with fidelity can be beneficial to our students. The problem now lies in that much of the training we are attending is repetitive, expensive, and unnecessarily time-consuming–especially on Day 7 of the school year.

The silver lining? Time with my colleagues…time to speak to teachers from other high schools in my district (a district of 23,000+ students and 5 high schools)…a decent lunch that I actually had time to eat…plenty of time to use the lavatory–you get the gist. Creature comforts that supposedly made up for my long hours of putting together substitute teacher plans and seating charts when I don’t even know all of my students’ names yet. Hey, at least it was Friday. So that made me happy.

 

“Happy” by Pharrell Williams

 

180 Days: Day 6–The Half Right Day

Today was a long day with few breaks for a touch of sanity and peace. It wasn’t a bad day. But it wasn’t a good day either. Everything felt half right. My sophomores were engaged in Brautigan’s minimalist story about a tragic girl who chooses a comfortable life rather than risk it all for her dream (see yesterday’s post). My seniors delved into the subtext of chapter 7 of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by comparing the theme of telling the truth gently or not all at once to Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 1129” (“Tell the truth but tell it slant”). Sounds good, right?

So why did everything feel half right today? Hmmm. Only 3 kids engaged in the “whole class” conversation–and one of the three dominated. I let it go to see how the class would react. Now I know I have my work cut out for me to teach/reteach these Advanced Placement seniors how to have a whole class conversation. My sophomores were pretty good today, but they are ill prepared for what they will be doing with substitute teacher they will have tomorrow as I attend a district training on day 7 of school. I will probably lose the entire day tomorrow and have to reteach entirely.

Even in my role as attendance advocate today felt off. I was supposed to meet with 54 freshmen and juniors. Only 16 freshmen showed up to the meeting. And I can’t follow up on where the heck the juniors were until Monday because of tomorrow’s district training. But hey, the silver lining–16 freshmen heard from three adults on campus (me, one assistant principal, and the principal) how much we care about them getting to school safely and on time every day by offering support and strategies to help them be more successful attendance-wise. Showing up is half the game, right? So that means I’ve got to find where the other half of the game went when I return to campus next week.

The cup was half empty part of the day. But I kept trying to convince myself it was half full and I’d worry about refilling it after I recharge my battery this weekend because the 15 minutes I took at lunch to choke down my salad rather than continue to answer emails or write lessons plans didn’t quite do it. Yes, the struggle is real. But the half right part? More than one student smiled at me today. More than one student wanted to pay attention and hear a story today. More than one student showed up mentally as well as physically today. So they already mastered half the game….

Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

180 Days: Day 5–A Trip to the 30s

Tonight my sophomores are assigned to read “Greyhound Tragedy” by Richard Brautigan. The story was published in the 1970s but takes place in the 1930s. So we spent most of today researching movies and movie stars of the 1930s. These are kids in which 9/11 is someone else’s history, so the 1930s is completely alien. So we talked a bit about what films looked like in the ’30s, who the movie stars were, what key world events occurred that might influence what movies would be about. So we looked at the Great Depression, the election of FDR, the rise of Hitler, Jesse Owens, Amelia Earheart, the Hindenburg disaster, etc. The goal was to provide some context for a group of 15-16 year-olds who idolize celebrities of their own, to help them empathize with the protagonist of Brautigan’s very short, minimalist story. I enjoyed teaching this story last year because it offered so many opportunities to discuss writer’s craft and elements of a story–what does a piece of writing have to have in order to be a story? For such a compact piece of writing, it’s a powerful example of how literary devices (such as metaphor and allusion) can add rich subtext and provide meaning.

When my colleague brought the story in last year, I immediately fell in love with it because I connected with the protagonist so strongly. My mother always watched old movies on the lone TV on Saturday afternoons while I was growing up in the ’70s. She filled our bookshelf with saucy books about the Golden Age of Hollywood that I voraciously devoured and eventually read with more adult eyes (a juicy favorite was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon). Hollywood was a bright shiny dream for small town Oklahoma girls like my mom and me, so I fully empathized with the protagonist. I shopped at Penney’s as a youth. I loved Clark Gable movies (Teacher’s Pet is a favorite–Gable in a rom com!). And I understood the allusion to Harlow and Valentino in the final sentence–and how the reference to them adds another layer to the tragedy of the title. I will see just how many students can explore the subtext enough to understand what the titular tragedy of the story is–if they bother to read their homework at all tonight.

One can hope.

A clip from the 1958 Clark Gable/Doris Day film Teacher’s Pet (Gable’s Gannon character blurting out in protest of writing 2,000 words sounds just like my students. lol):

 

180 Days: Day 4–The 10,000 Hour Rule

Late Start Tuesday. Ugh! Late Start Tuesday = tardy kids and short classes. And this year, for the first time, a built in intervention/extension/enrichment period. Since it’s only day 4 of school, no students have been identified for intervention, extension, or enrichment. So my 2nd period students, rather than have me for the 40 minutes their colleagues in other classes have, today they had their cheeks in seats for 78 long minutes. *groan* They had to actually read for 15 whole minutes straight. *doublegroan* And then Malcolm Gladwell galloped to the rescue to save the last 15 minutes of “intervention, but not intervention” time today.

Gladwell, a Canadian journalist writing for The New Yorker magazine since 1996, writes in chapter 2 of his bestselling book Outliers, “…by age twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled just over four thousand hours.” He emphasized that researchers replicated this result again and again. Essentially, it takes 10,000 hours/10 years to become a world-class expert–to make them Outliers from society in their chosen field.

At first, my students seemed a little bored with the video of a geeky guy talking about Fleetwood Mac (an example not used in the book’s chapter 2), a band they know nothing about, but they slowing started perking up and paying attention as he moved closer to his thesis of 10,000 hours. By the end of the 6-minute video clip, all my students, in unison, offered up simultaneous answers of “10,000 hours” & “10 years” to my question of how long it took to master a subject. Then I challenged them to spend a few hours reading and writing this school year–that might at least lead toward their being “merely good” even if they don’t aspire to be world-class experts.

Tomorrow, I will put those reading skills to the test as we read our first short story of the year. We will see how many of our 150 hours together this year we can add to their individual 10,000 hours of reading and writing practice. And I might just have to play some Fleetwood Mac in class this week too.

Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” from their definitive album Rumours (1977)–this also happens to be my favorite FM song….

 

180 Days: Day 3–“I Don’t Know Anything About It”

Remembering 9/11 has grown more and more intriguing and challenging in the past couple of years as most of my students were infants or very small toddlers when the event that changed everyday life for all Americans happened. I asked for students to explore what they did know about the events of that gut-wrenching day 16 years ago. Many knew there were four airplanes. None new there were 19 hijackers or that they were mostly Saudis. They knew Osama bin Laden was behind it, but few could name his terrorist network, al Qaeda. But all were shocked by the images of “The Falling Man,” a series of photos by Richard Drew of one of the Twin Towers victims leaping to death.

Tom Junod wrote an amazing piece for Esquire about the famous images last year.

time-100-influential-photos-richard-drew-falling-man-92

I asked students to tell The Falling Man’s story. I just wanted to see what they knew of storytelling techniques. Most struggles to get the first line down, but some wrote feverishly for the 5-7 minutes allotted to them. Many opted to write from the point of view of the man in the photo. A few opted to write in third person omniscient. Some chose to tackle the image head on and start in the middle, while others chose to start at breakfast that morning and try to work up to the terrifying climax. Most students understood the basics of good storytelling. And this picture spoke volumes to them. Even the kid who proclaimed that he had a hard time starting because “I don’t know anything about it” admitted that the image spoke the proverbial thousand words.

Before segueing away from our 9/11 remembrance exercise to launch us into a unit on storytelling/narrative writing, I shared an emotional piece of slam poetry with the kids. Most of the kids left class today understanding that while they didn’t live the event, even though they had no working memory of the event–they understood the emotion of the event. They opened their eyes and their ears to the stories of others who did live and remember the event. The impassioned poem by Mike Rosen prompted silence. Then gulps as students fought back tears. They got it.

Mike Rosen “When God Happens”

 

Before the towers collapsed into a white noise
of bodies and strewn paper,
there were people in the windows. They clutched family photos
and they jumped, became human tombstones
falling into the shrapnel of a city covered
in the ash of its own citizens,
a city shapeless and somewhere else, writhing as it fell.
That night, I feared everything but darkness,
so I slept on the floor at the foot of my father’s bed —
it’s a place where monsters and planes are made easy work of.
That morning, I went to the window, I wiped my hand along the sill,
I watched my fingers turn grey and I thought: “bodies.”
But I didn’t want to wash them, I wanted to go to the roof, I did.
I saw the smoke crawling into a postcard, the smell was everywhere.
I wondered if they would change the postcards now,
put smoke where once were towers, and then address them to our relatives
in Texas and Carolina where they were rearing to go to war
and say I wish, I wish you were here.
I wish you could see these clouds forming under the clouds
I wish you could touch this smell with your nostrils every time you breathe
I wish you could run your hand along your window and wonder
how the bodies got through the door
and see what it’s like to live in the most Beverly Hills version of awar zonee
and realize what war might just look like, feel like,
taste like, in your breakfast cereal,
when you realize you’re sitting there digging Cheerios out of a bowl
when they’re digging bodies out of the ground.
That day was not about your god or their god
because when God happens, no one is right.
These were times when we lied to our children.
When you lie to children, no one is right.
I can’t make this any clearer to you. That day had no black or white,
‘cause under that rubble everyone was grey.
Under that rubble was no red, whites, or blue.
Under that rubble was just grey.
Now I know New Yorkers, we talk a lot — sorry!
But I’m taking this one back for my home
because under that rubble was not your country,
under that rubble was our city, our town,
our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters.
That day, no one in New York grabbed rifles,
we grabbed bandanas and shovels and we started digging
because our lives were underneath that rubble
and the firemen were looking for the bodies.
It has been ten years, and my friend is still looking for her father’s body
Your war is not helping her find him.
Your war has done nothing but add to the list of little boys like me,
who wish to sleep at the feet of their father’s beds.
My father worked nowhere near the Trade Center, but I didn’t know that then.
What I knew was that the phone lines were down
and that until I heard his voice, so was he.
Your war has done nothing but add to the list of boys
in New York, in Iraq, in Afghanistan
The list of boys who are still waiting
for their fathers to come home.

 

180 Days: Day 2–The Story of the Cup

My mom taught me at a young age the proverbial question: “Is the cup half full or half empty?” She put a cup of water on the table and asked me and my brother the question. My brother blurted out that it was obviously half full. Me, whether to take the opposite of brother or because I just really saw it that way, I said half empty. Then Mom explained to us that half full equaled optimism and half empty equaled pessimism. Then she had to explain to us what optimism and pessimism was, but we both understood that how we look at the world can be changed by whether we are optimistic or pessimistic. That day I felt almost ashamed to have been pessimistic by saying the cup was half empty. I didn’t want to be a pessimist.

Today, even when I don’t feel optimistic, I try not to shut the door on optimism. And so a new school year starts, and my sophomores try to test my optimism right out of the gate. Luckily that test ends in laughter. After the kids’ brutal honesty on Day One that they learn best “when the teacher is absent” or what they like best about school is “summer break”, I openly acknowledge to them that I want to honor the 35 hours a week they spend in school by not wasting those few hours, so that they can enjoy the 133 hours they have each week outside of school. I tell them that in my class the cup is half full. That’s when one student blurts out, “What cup?”

I grin and try not to laugh. The student next to him tries to explain the whole optimism/pessimism thing. He shakes his head and says he doesn’t get it. So I seize the moment. I stand in the middle of the room and ask the class to pretend I’m holding a glass that I have just poured water into it to the half way mark. I ask if it is half full or half empty. Most students say half full, a few half empties chime in. I further ask, “Is the cup not refillable?” The class breaks out in oooh’s and ahhh’s. Then the first boy still looked at me and said, “What cup? I don’t get it.” The class laughs a bit, but I assure him that at some point, he will see it and get it.

Despite the laugh, I am reminded that not all students learn at the same speed, and that this young man probably views the world a bit more concretely than his peers. I learned more about him than he did about cups and optimism.

180 Days: Day 1

The first day of school: a mash up of excited students meeting up for the first time in weeks sporting their new clothes and well-supplied backpacks–even at school with nearly 40% living below the poverty line. I saw one boy in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt wondering if it had been donated to him or if he found it on sale or paid full boat for the red, white, and blue confection. A pair of girls giggled over sharing their class schedules in their new Chuck Taylors. As the students streamed into my classroom, I noticed their nice new binders filled with loose leaf paper. It’ll probably be one of the few times this year they ALL have their materials organized and in class. I couldn’t help but look at them and remember back over 30 years to my high school days and how I would proudly wear my newest outfit and seek out my friends in eagerness. A theme that kept rearing its head today was that school is about more than academics.

My sophomores participated in an exercise exploring their attitudes toward school. They circulated around the room to provide answers to sentences stems like, “The thing I like most about school is…”, “I learn best when the teacher does…”, and “I wish teachers would….” Many of their answers had little to do with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Most of their answers reinforced the stereotypes that 16 year-olds are social, like to eat, and prefer napping to learning. But I couldn’t help but think how they spend approximately 35 hours a week at school. That leaves over 130 hours in their week that is not spent at school. I can empathize with them that “life” can bleed into the 35 hours a week that seems to dominate their existence right now.

Tomorrow I’ll see how well they can bridge their attitude toward school with goal setting for success within its halls and classrooms. My hopes: they understand how they feel about school, and they address how those feelings can impact their ability to succeed academically.

Overall, I enjoyed meeting my students today. And I’m looking forward to Day 2.

~Ms. S