Except for coming home and being accused of inadequacy, stupidity, and patheticness at home, today was a great day. Took off to a coffee shop to for a writing break to continue the trend.

I taught sixth graders today, and–oh joy–I was the moderator of student presentations and discussions, and so glad to be trusted with this, instead of just showing a video or giving a fill-in-the -blank assignment. Was warned in the sub notes that it might get out of hand, that I should watch out for this or that students trying to get us off on tangents, but instead it was a great experience, for us all, I think. Four out of five classes were packed with short presentations of current events. The gunner on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, The Ebola outbreak, saving animals through zoo donations, making rubber out of dandelion sap, X-raying Egyptian mummies, and time travel.

I saw greatness in the making. Trevor, his real name, so there be a sort of record, presenting on time travel and the Grandfather Paradox, and fielding questions from student after student, deftly deflecting questions like “Why are you so smart?” “How can you understand this stuff?” and comments such as “I just want to say, you’re a genius.” Not only did he grasp the ideas he was talking about, he hooked the audience, explained things in reasonable terms, left them wondering, aspiring to know more.

I tried to use that to get the kids thinking about how being truly interested in something makes you pursue it, learn  way more about it than anyone else, be smarter. That always they have some sort of choice in their school experience, to use school work as like intellectual food to build them up, and not see school as the thing people make them do and therefore is to be resisted or coasted through on a minimum of effort. Encouraged them to take advantage, look for flexibility in the work, negotiate with teachers so they could pursue what was most intriguing, the way it was most meaningful.

Now I wish I’d included something about what to do about good grades. As in, when you always get top grades based on achieving “competency” or “exceeding standard,” where is the incentive to excel? Wouldn’t it be better to keep changing the standards for each kid, as in “You passed standard, kid–you’re ready for a higher standard.” Maybe bring out the rubric in cases where things are going poorly, like medicine when sickness comes. But that would entail a good deal of trust in teachers, in their subjective analysis of achievement and progress.

Have you heard whether the consortium responsible for the development of state standards for the assessment of language arts learning and math across the country has started on art standards yet? Art, that last bastion of unquantifiable whatever. High time we determined whether American children are becoming college and career ready, capable of contributing to the national competitive edge in the global economy through their art, don’t you think? And if standards can’t be set—personally,  I think it can be done, and I’ve sent a letter requesting to be included on the team—then how can we justify the expenditure of public money on continuing art classes? Or at least the side of art that deals in the expression of feelings, memories, perceptions, prophetic statements, and some of the social commentary stuff. There are so many ways in which art can be used to grow the economy and contribute to national security. Advertising, creating consumable artistic products, and making inspirational works of art aimed at stimulating patriotism and/or fear of global climate events, terrorist threats and excess immigration, to name a few. Don’t you just love the Rosie the Riveter image, for example? That’s what I call art. Some of that abstract stuff, fine if the colors match your interior decoration, but otherwise, you can’t even tell what anything is!

Some art teachers complain that having written standards they have to know and assess by is a waste of time, even a hindrance to good teaching, the art of teaching, no less. Okay, maybe great teachers don’t need official standards–they’re gifted and talented, after all, but what about regular teachers? Any adequate teacher with a list of standards, the really great curriculum that’s always turning up to match the standards, and the scoring rubrics, can teach art–it becomes idiot proof! And no longer do students get sorted into two groups, talented and hopeless–they can look at the list, follow the curriculum, and every student can excel, if they put the work in to get 3s and 4s. As long as the teacher paces everything properly, that is, and doesn’t allow some kids to work ahead before the slower ones catch up. In fact, it’s better that students are expected to produce the same projects so that apples can be compared to apples, and no one is shooting on ahead so no one knows what the heck they’re doing! And besides, the effect of all those almost identical art project on the wall, lined up on the bulletin boards on different colored mattes is so soothing.



Dream recounted

As the night wind tossed the trees, rushed through their branches making the sound of breakers on the beach, rattled the rose tree against my window, I dreamed scenes from the small town five miles from my childhood home. It was night, windy like this, and warm, and my bed was a nicely made single in a corner between two well kept red brick buildings. There was another bed nearby, made up and ready as in a hotel but outside, all normal as it is in dreams. The lights of a nearby empty intersection blinked red and green on the brick walls and on the coverlets. My son was expected back from his evening activity, and I was wondering how to describe where I was, since he was not familiar with the streets. You were somewhere near, in a casual way, and I felt you glance at me as I read.

Then I was in church at a morning service–not the one my parents used to attend, but another big, traditional stone one, the Anglican one, I think. Except instead of being mostly empty but for a few blue haired ladies and quiet, gray husbands, we were in the front pew, right below the pulpit, just as if it were a revival church. You were sitting beside me on the left at a slight distance, though you don’t go in for church as far as I know. I was aware of you out of the corner of my eye. Then a tall, flamboyant, long haired man came down the aisle to the pew, preparing to sit down. He hailed us and pulled out a whiskey bottle, which I felt was out of place, and I wondered what to do. Then I caught the smell of vinegar, not liquor. “Salt and vinegar! Best thing for wood!” He said, and proceeded to rub the yellowed, peeling seat of the pew with a rag soaked in the vinegar solution. I considered whether to tell him he wasn’t correct, that he’d best sand and rub on wood finish, or leave the pew alone. “Are you best buds?” he asked us, smiling broadly. A few of his teeth were missing, and his eyes were bright and wild. The music had started. “Yeah I guess, sort of,” I answered, wishing to go along. “Are you going to dance?” I believe you took my hand, also no doubt to go along. It was awkward, since I did not know what you were thinking, but the feel of your clean, dry hand was not unpleasant.

Ever trying to be a voice of reason. Choosing stocks for our retirement portfolio like Spock, as one is supposed to. Spock used to be my nickname, due to a habit I had of underfunctioning in the emotional expression department when others seem to be going over the top. I’d go all logical and try to work things out that way. I’ve learned that that just drives upset people nuts, and leaves my own emotions not dealt with–exhausting.

In other reasonable efforts, I’m trying to help with sibling conflicts related to one driving and picking up another on time or not, messes in said car, how much should one expect and give in a relationship of duty and dependence? As I offer suggestions to one and then the other, I realize my lack of good example has not been helpful. I say, give more than you feel like giving, when you have a chance to show love, make someone feel taken care of, do it, rather than constantly hashing out minimum expectations and boundaries, taking offense, feeling put upon. As for myself, I am so intent on cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions that I don’t do those little extra dropoffs and pickups that could be a way of showing maternal love, going the extra mile. Offers of walking down the hill to meet my child, or biking together to the bus stop, not received the same way. Offers to fix lunches often turned down on the grounds that I don’t use the right foods. Still, there’s always the nightly opportunity to give back rubs to one sore kid or another, and now and then to type out or proofread a paper.

In the long, quiet hours of the day I try to catch up on house cleaning, which I hate (except laundry), and soon gravitate to refinishing cabinets and furniture (creates a finished product, unlike housework). Satisfying to work the sander out in the wind, see the grain emerge, brush on the finish. Then some writing–not much I can think of blogging about, but I’m researching the issues around the Common Core State Standards and testing, getting the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top timelines nailed down, identifying the players, formulating a letter of response, waiting for my copy of A Chronicle of Echoes by Mercedes Schneider (review here). Gotta channel Spock in that work too, as it’s pretty alarming stuff. If it gets too gnarly I get back to woodworking, or go dig up some weeds, wash the mud off the pumpkins, look for the last strawberries.

Then it’s off to take my daughter to the horse barn, and back to pick up my son from track and field. He’s down, really down, exhausted, he says, from running three miles, but of more concern, says he’s a weirdo, crazy, not normal like everyone else, hates life. He said similar things when I picked him up two days ago. I want to encourage him–I know he is different, does have some habits others make fun of, but I want him to know that’s okay, he doesn’t have to  be like anyone else. Or, does he want to try to be like those people? Yes! He tries, he says. But no, he doesn’t really want to be like them. I start to ask him what in particular has happened, he says he doesn’t want to talk about it any more. At home I fix him hot chocolate, he turns on an audiobook, plays some piano, all calm and cheerful apparently moved on. I come by in a quiet moment, tell him to remember his home, his friends, remember the people who love his personality and uniqueness. I tell him that if he’s around kids who aren’t kind, who don’t appreciate him as he is, he shouldn’t share anything special with them–save it for the people he trusts, who will understand. He says he will.

I want him to get through this, learn from these difficulties, but I don’t want him to be wounded. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, sometimes, but it can also kill you. The desire to homeschool again comes–would that be the right thing to do? But I’m working now, maybe I shouldn’t consider it, maybe I won’t bring it up with my husband. Those days are gone, aren’t they? Yet his siblings were all homeschooled at his age, and in some ways he makes a great homeschool kid–loves to learn, experiment, write, read, make videos, and I sure could challenge him more in the math department. He’d get back to memorizing poetry, which he loves, could set up a business, which he’s now too busy to do, and we still have tons of good curriculum.  Truth is, I’m not sure I’m up for it. Do I have the energy, the willingness to put off my daytime goals and projects? There’s so much that Spock can’t answer for me here.


I was nervous about going back into classrooms this year. Though I taught for a year fresh out college and substituted for two seasons after that, I had flashbacks to that anxious first year of teaching, which was more stressful that almost anything I’ve done since. Even though I knew that most of the problems I had were because of my inexperience and youth, both of which I have left behind. Inexperience with young people, or at least managing so many in one room, inexperience with aboriginal culture, teen culture, interpersonal communication. Inexperience with using curriculum, creating and organizing systems of lessons, sorting out educational priorities, with professional collaboration, community relations, and handling conflicts both outer and inner. My B.Ed. program prepared me as well as could be expected, but actual teaching was still boot camp. I would get there an hour early, get through the day somehow, take a short lunch, stay after school for hours, load my bike with work to take home, stay up late, work on weekends, and rarely feel on top of things. I worked sick sometimes because I didn’t have the wherewithal to create good lessons for subs. I came up with most of my curriculum myself, patching together pieces of the old books in the cabinets and the new materials that came in the mail for French, and whatever I could pull together for science. There were no department meetings, no list of mandated materials or skills to master. Grades, report cards, all new territory. It really didn’t need to be as difficult as it was, I see now–I tried to be original and go it on my own too much, didn’t delegate some of the classroom flow operations to students. But I had a supportive principal, who encouraged and mentored me, colleagues who treated me as an equal, sympathized with me in my struggles, and applauded my successes, and a supportive church home group. I also got away to visit with my fiance and his family many weekends, who let me talk out my trauma and gave good advice.

I go in with confidence now each morning, no longer with a knot in my gut hoping my breakfast would stay in my body the right amount of time, no longer feeling the need to mentally prepare for the worst by talking it out aloud in the car on the way there, rehearsing opening lines, girding up my loins for the battle. I’m surprised with how natural it feels to be teaching now, talking with, listening to seventh and eighth graders, how relaxed I feel, more and more in touch with the creativity that could enable me to be a great teacher beyond just getting the work done. Doesn’t phase me anymore when kids switch seats and get into fits of giggling, bumping desks and dropping pencils, or when teen girls in groups of three give me “the look”. I used to get distressed and offended by so many things and tried at times to crack down, become an enforcer, count up the warnings and dock the points and refer offenders to the office, and at others to appeal to students’ better nature, reason with them, get them to sympathize and get on my side.

At dinner, a rare restaurant date, I shared with my husband how nice it felt to find out I could be good at this teaching thing, and how this confidence was energizing, and transferred to dealing with my kids at home. To no longer be intimidated and stressed at things that go on in a middle school classroom, like “the look”–that now, I could just deal with it, and with all those natural teen behaviors that before would put me in a tizzy, even offend me, despite resolving not to take any of it personally. Now instead of trying to keep kids from talking, connecting, moving around, being cool and putting on a show, I try to fit in into the program, and just keep things moving along. Or stop and change things up, whatever it takes, including letting myself make mistakes. And really, truly, not take things personally. Also shared that when I’d start to feel confident, cool, on top of things with the students, I would start acting out of some place other than my center–ego or something, and start being stupid, and have to re-center, which felt like a kind of detachment.

One of the great advantages I have as an aspiring classroom teacher is that every day I listen to feedback from my four children about their teachers; what they do well, what not, what works, what they appreciate or can’t stand. What they wished the teachers knew. Priceless inside information. They also listen to my school stories, what happened and how I responded, funny stories, observations. My daughters have also deemed it appropriate to express their confidence in me as teacher, with the caveat that I mustn’t sign up to sub in their classroom.

I admit that as a substitute teacher I don’t have much pressure. I do what’s on the plan, don’t take work home, and if there are no openings or I don’t want to work, I don’t. But I have a plan. First, I’m meeting people, learning all I can, making connections and observations. How’s the classroom set up? Do things flow? What’s the culture? Would I want to work here, and in what capacity? How friendly and professional are the staff? What do they think of the school, the curriculum, the rules, their job? Not so much info available on those latter items, but as I become more familiar to the regular staff, I expect that will come. Second, I’m figuring out how to balance my home responsibilities with work, and training the kids to take over a reasonable amount of the chores and errands, preferably on their own initiative. Third, I’m planning on increasing my hours to get used to a more regular work week–it’s an adjustment to be on my feet all day, talk more, stay organized, keep my energy up, fit in exercise, writing, other projects, study. I’m taking a weekly Spanish class and reviewing my content areas, figuring out what other classes would bring me up to date. And I’m listening to teachers, trying to get a realistic perspective of the field, the changes and issues, and an angle of approach that will work for me.

This is about my difficulties today with fifth graders. Gentle difficulties which an experienced fifth grade teacher could avoid or surmount easily, but which tried my patience and reminded me that I have a lot to learn.

In introduction, this group of seventy-five or so kids felt like a different tribe from those a a different school last week, who listened, caught on, and had impulse control. Today at this school across town, many of the fifth graders in my classes couldn’t concentrate on an idea or remember what I had said or shown a few seconds after the fact. I would demonstrate a sample problem on the white board, check for understanding, not see any evidence of confusion, then say go ahead and do the rest of the problems, then find that all over the room were kids that had retained nothing and now wanted me to start at the beginning to explain to them individually. There was also a lack of understanding of when to speak out, and numerous times when I’d call for everyone’s attention and be in the middle of a few minutes of introduction, instruction, or a tale, there would be numerous, spontaneous, unnecessary interruptions. It was as if each of these children believed this was a one on one conversation and they could change the subject, tell a connecting story, or make a request at any time for any reason.

As one class was lining up at the door to move to another room, I asked the student at the front of the line, by way of conversation, “Do you think that when you’re a few years older, you’ll be able to remember what the teacher says a little longer and not forget right away?” He was looking at me, making eye contact. There was a pause while I waited for him to answer. Then he blinked, and said, “What did you say?”

I am not making this up.

In a lull during the next period I told this story to the next class, as written above. When I was done, I looked around, saw a few smiles of understanding, and then, up piped a boy: “What did she say?” And as those few students in the group grinned wider, yet another boy from the other side of the room, realizing something amusing had occurred, asked, “What was that? I didn’t hear.”

I worked in a fifth grade classroom last week in a sweet little dual language school, majority Latino, also majority low income. Did a bit of research beforehand, found that it was a “turnaround school” led by a state Principal of the Year. Same principal, I’m pretty sure, whom I met a few years ago at a different school and whose name I jotted down with the note: “principal I’d like to work for.” Because he actually noticed I was there and introduced himself to me, didn’t act like a self-important ass or sleazy auto salesman, and just seemed like a good fellow. That he managed to give that impression is something, given that I  cling to a prejudice about principals that maybe they became such because they were tired of the complexity of teaching and wanted to feel more important, have a nice office, and get a higher salary.

I parked, walked toward the nearest door, asked a staff member also headed that was if this was the right door. He said sure, any door will do, and that people would say good morning and be friendly no matter where I came in.

And so they did. Small Latino mothers escorting their small children to their classrooms–every one with a smile and greeting for me. Also teachers, staff, children. It was refreshingly lovely. There was a lightness, a warmth and community about the place. No ducking along anonymously feeling like an outsider and hoping for at least one welcome. Someone had been working at creating this culture.

And I had a good time with the kids–helped them practice multiplication and division, gave them a quiz, tried to help them when they got stuck or off track. The machines all worked, there were opportunities to give individual help, the students were sweet, I had some opportunities to connect with the other grade level teachers, and at the end of the day the girls out on the playground loved the game I taught them.

I didn’t come across the principal, until–I think it was him–the end of the day when he was rendezvousing with a child–his son?–to go home, I guess. He wasn’t dressed like a principal, but he looked like the news release photo, with his shaved head and wreaths of smile lines. He was talking with someone; I slipped on by to drop off my key rather than making a networking move. Already emailed him last week, just to connect as a newly available sub, with a bit of background.

Would I want to work here? A sweet school, a good principal, and mostly great co-workers (not including the one who was openly griping to a colleague as I passed her in the hall, both times), the challenge of making things better where the needs were high. Yet this school happened to be the only elementary school in the district with no seventh and eighth graders–they had apparently been shunted off to a non-struggling school–and I missed their presence. I like their dynamic, their complexity, their flux, their emerging ability to think more abstractly, to question, to challenge, to synthesize, to create. Some are positively crying out, Show me this is worth it! Why should I cooperate? When will I get to call the shots? And when the teacher-student dynamic works, when there’s mutual respect and work worth doing, they can be so receptive, so responsive, even fiercely supportive. The fifth graders were more compliant, sure–I could probably announce we were going to learn how to play Cat’s Cradle or take a ten minute nap, and they’d probably try their best to cooperate. But that’s not what energizes me, and I realized it again that day.

A few days later, I have some recent sub jobs  teaching 7th and 8th graders behind me. I come home tired and happy, thinking about this or that student–one who’s a slightly pimplier version of a successful college student–devoted to learning for his own purposes, a reader, running a course parallel and apart from the juvenile pastimes of watching silly online videos, swiping girls’ pencils, trying to sneak outside, or taking a pass on doing any work with a “make my day” attitude. Another who passes under my radar without speaking any English by making her way with a tablet for online translation and a helpful seat mate. One tall, confident girl with long, wavy, golden hair who is the only one to anticipate how to isolate a variable from its coefficient in a multi-term equation. A laughing girl with short cropped hair, dark framed glasses and a bow tie, not going with the current girl fashion fads. A boy who seems unable to see a reason to try at all, who had the ultimatum last week from a teacher–shape up or else–and seems to already count himself among the misfits, the hopeless cases. Yet when he lifts his drowsy head and shares with me some of his story, seems like he’s asking for help to do what he can’t. Thought about him a lot, and the possible things that might be going on to bring him low. Kicked out of a school, by one account, didn’t go to school at all, by his, says he might have a fall asleep disorder, or maybe isn’t challenged enough with this math level. Intellectual capacity not being a problem, I gather.

I had the chance to talk over the day with the teacher for whom I’d subbed, who is trying with this and another student in particular that I’d asked about, to make a connection, find the key…or at least avoid doing further harm. Found out that in the case of the second kid, backing off seemed to be the thing, but with sleepy boy, he would have to see, maybe talk to the school counselor. This boy, when he said he hadn’t gone to school the previous year, I asked what he had done instead, and he said Nothing, as in if a kid isn’t in school there’s no existence worth mentioning. Say this to a former homeschool mom, and I say, what? Nothing?

Is that what we’re teaching kids, that school is the only way, that there’s no other plan, that if you’re not there you must be hanging out on street corners asking for trouble or zoned out on video games in the basement or sent off to behavioral camp, and of course none of that’s worth mentioning unless there’s a professional, program, or intervention team involved? If I’d had more time, and more kids that were hating school all in one room, knowing they didn’t fit, and under that delusion that the only option was to hang around the margins or kick against the goads, hang around and live like dropout was some kind of identity in itself, as if rebellion and rejection of the mainstream was good enough, I’d have a few things to say, including maybe the word bullshit, some hard questions to ask, like are you going to make a plan? Not just to stay in school, get a diploma, but look farther, look inside, what’s your dream, and what are the steps? Or what do you want to try, to explore? In my imagination I have all the wisdom, all the preachy fire and I kindle the spark of a love for learning and a work ethic, no sweat.

In some ways I’d prefer to work exclusively with the gifted and talented set, who do all the homework and then ask for more, who surge ahead and go deep and are amazing. It would be fun trying to hang on for the ride, just facilitating, providing rich resources, helping them dream up new ways to challenge themselves, create, accomplish more than I ever could, and create a glow of brilliance I could bask in a little.

But on the other hand, I think it’s time I looked into the “alternative schools.” Maybe that’s where I belong.




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