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Science teacher attends poetry conference two years in a row.

Last year about this time I went at a friend’s invitation to my first ever literary weekend, a poetry retreat called LiTFUSE in Tieton, Washington. I have never mentioned it here, though I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot. The other poets were very welcoming, and I met some rather well-known ones, though I’d never heard of any of them, being from a different line of study and work, and not yet retired enough to go to poetry events or spend much time getting caught up with that scene.

I wrote a few fragments I liked, but they didn’t come to much I would want to share. It will take me years, I suppose, to learn about the craft and get enough practice and feedback to refine and publish, except occasionally here. Officially I have a lot of blog followers, although all but a handful (a very small handful) seem to have signed up hoping I’d help increase the traffic to their own blogs, because they never visited mine more than once.

I just got back from my second LiTFUSE. Next year I hope to have something to share at the open mic, and my friend and I plan to join a poetry circle to help us stay writing., as well as attend some events though the year.

The poem I just wrote and posted plods along awkwardly, but it made me laugh when it was done. It is also heart-felt. The line, “Shit! grow more trees!” came to me at a very solemn and profound moment during a reading at the conference where the poet mentioned a certain tree, and I thought, what if no one had bothered to plant that tree? That’s the background. I like getting some background to poems, if possible. I changed that line, as you can see.

The other thing is, I had to write something that did not promise to be any good, keeping the bar low so I would post it. My other poems are much more precious, so I hope to get them to the same I don’t care phase, as that always helped me get more drawing done in the past. Practice over production, at least for now. .

Tieton is a beautiful small town west of Yakima, consisting of small houses inhabited by mostly field workers, with a few more wealthy folk in fancy condos with watered gardens and rentable conference rooms. Two of the residents were put out due to dog turds in the garden, one implying the other’s dog might be the source.

One side of the town is edged with fruit warehouses and equipment shops, all quiet now. The landowners and fruit warehousers live up in the hills for the view. The light is soft and clear, the hills dry and undulating, topped by purple stone ridges in some places. Someone has put money into a square, grassy park, but the trees in it were planted long ago.

As my friend went for a walk between sessions, two small dogs started wildly yapping at us from a little front yard surrounded by a three foot high chain link fence. We responded with a few encouraging words, and out from some other corner came a black kitten not yet weaned. We melted and cooed at it as one must, then tore ourselves away out of concern for the little dogs’ vocal cords. When we were few yards down the sidewalk, the kitten squeezed right through the chain links and tottered after us. This was was really too much. Being between cats myself, it would have taken nothing for me to inquire if it was up for adoption (there was a half-grown tabby now walking interestedly toward us too, and the black cat’s mother was somewhere further down the street). But our Siberian husky would just as soon practice small mammal predation on it as make friends, so that was out of the question.

I picked the kitten up, explaining all the while in infantile tones how inadvisable it was to act in that manner, resisted my maternal impulses, and poked it back through the mesh.

Next we came upon two young Latina girls carrying brown paper envelopes, doing some sort of solicitation. The older one asked if the kittens were ours, and we explained that, no, they were just curious about us and belonged, we thought, with the dogs’ family. The girls kept walking, and I overheard them debating whether they should ask us (to sponsor them). I initiated a conversation about their fundraising drive, and soon they were sweetly thanking me for helping out. It was a warm, clear day, and I was happy.

 

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First in a new series of original, low-quality poems

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees.
Some people bothered long ago, and look at them now!

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees.
They take decades, centuries to be full grown.

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees.
It this urban wasteland, they won’t just happen.

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees
We need the shade, water retention, roots digging soil.

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees,
They remove carbon dioxide from the air, add oxygen.

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees
Do it now, tomorrow, this week at the latest.

Plant more trees.
Grow more trees.
Grow more trees, dammit!

 
 

What if your teen is in a weed-smoking friend group?

One is forced to relive one’s choices from that time, and it’s too late to make them over, to lay down a path of virtue for one’s yet unconceived offspring.

We’ve been having pot issues, and honesty issues along with that (that’s the short list). I never did pot, though it was a near thing, once I encountered it as a college freshman. So I don’t feel so hypocritical on this one, and at least the law, and science (sketchy as it is on this issue) are behind me. But enforcement is a dicey thing. Do I want to know everything my teens are up to? No, not really–a foundation of honesty doesn’t require a bare-all. I have general ideas, and a sense that in most cases, they are being as wise as young adults exploring can be expected to be. Wiser than I was, too. Personal safely, physical intimacy, alcohol, never more than one at a time being issues, as far as I can tell. So you see, I’m a relatively liberal parent, while being reasonably disappointed that my kids aren’t perfect.

But I draw one of my lines at underage weed smoking. And if I say no car this week because of what I found in it, and someone takes a key that wasn’t hidden (do I really need to hide the keys?), then what? If I never get a straight answer, and that young person never gets around to the conversation I asked to have with them (am I also not getting around to it?), how can we keep offering certain privileges?

I have been assured by, let’s see–75% of my children, that the punishment of losing car or phone privileges is not the way to get compliance. I always answer that that’s the tool I have available once reasoning has not prevailed, so live with it. Love you, but if you don’t take care of your responsibilities (which we get to define), then you don’t get the privileges.

This time my child came in with two friends for a sleepover on the trampoline (my child still coughing–is it from smoke?), and my husband whispered that he smelled pot. I put a shirt on over my night shift and quietly went to check the car. On the floor of the passenger side, something was rolled up in a towel–long, hard, tubular, with…I didn’t even have to look–a hookah. Really? Was it going to be that easy?

I carried it into the house, showed it silently to my husband on the way past, and entered they kitchen. They were getting a snack. I placed the hookah upright on the counter, paused while they took notice, and asked whose it was. Nothing like realia to facilitate a learning moment.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2017 in Education, Parenting & Family

 

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Dig it, if you know how

There’s no shame in asking how to use a shovel, or, especially, its less known but much more useful cousin, the spading fork. But the young person didn’t know what she didn’t know, so I showed her. Still, she tended to stick to scraping away at the top inch (not knowing much about roots or worms either, apparently), and needed another tutorial. I hope I get the chance. Not likely, though, as she’s part of a youth team volunteering to help out in the community, including at our school, and although I went in today to help get them started on cleaning a space for a garden (a garden!), a have boundaries, and probably won’t commute the hour round trip on my vacation again.

We were allowed a small plot, not quite, but almost, the worst soil around. That’s okay, I thought, we can experiment–it can be the “before” condition–hard packed, dry, leached of nutrients. We’ll see how many wild plants can grow there anyway–which ones, and how adapted they are (and how they exemplify “grit”). Then we’ll lay down the compost, add some fish meal, and see what happens.

The plot is about 16′ by 20′, if I stretch the boundaries as much as I can without having my knuckles rapped (again). We have to border it so the mowers will steer around it, but no permanent structures, please. They were expecting a garden fanatic like me would want to build foot-high raised beds, I guess, not knowing anything (but who does nowadays?) about what raised beds are for.

The principal had his knuckled rapped too, by me, for suggesting I’d probably want to cut down the elderberry bush at the side of the site. I said I didn’t think so, since it was the only tree for a mile (I was exaggerating), and had miraculously escaped mowing by these blade-happy Dutch Reform descendants. He was humble, and accepted the jibe with good grace, although he’s of the same lineage. Even unused fields aren’t allowed to turn to meadows in their fallow years, and evolution strongly favored short, fast-reproducing plants, animals, and fungi here. Just a theory, of course.

 
 

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Go ahead and teach grit, but not by dishing out gravel.

I haven’t read the book yet, and I’m sure it’ll be well written, full of insight, and helpful in my practice, just like Mindset, the other contender for the staff’s summer book choice. But as I confessed to the principal when I picked up my copy of Grit by Angela Duckworth, I don’t like the language. Grit is what gets in your teeth from poorly washed salad greens, or in your pants after visit to the beach.

I feel that same distaste for with that other trendy word, “rigor.” The dictionary and I associate it with mortis and other highly unpleasant experiences.  Rigor is now to be seen as something we should purposely provide in our classroom experiences. In order to foster grit, I suppose.

Yes, I know the value of perseverance, and the need, now more than ever, in an age of instant gratification, to help students push through difficulties, work patiently over the long term, face as much boredom as necessary to discover their creativity. But what I object to is emphasizing only the negatives–life is hard, school isn’t always fun, what doesn’t kill you, etc. To less skilled, less all-in, less creative and hardworking educators, it might justify expecting students to put up with crappy classes in the name of growth, and give the impression that enjoyable experiences are to be, if not entirely avoided, then minimized as a necessary evil. I can hear them now: “Students, you don’t have to like me; you don’t have to like math; you might just hate this class; but you have to show GRIT, ’cause that’s what its’ all about!” I expect to hear about the opening of a new school with “Boot Camp” in its name any day now. It will attract a certain type of person.

What ever happened to delight-directed learning? Okay, so that wasn’t ever much used in public education circles, but I sure heard about it a lot as a homeschooler, thought about it, and tried for it. I tried to have a basic “table time,” for math and handwriting, and sometimes things I as an adult thought were important, such as memorizing poetry, but then it was, “Run along and find something interesting to do until chore time (and if you can’t come up with anything, chore time starts now).”  Some of the most meaningful experiences my kids had were while pursuing their own passions and interests, because they wanted to persevere trough the difficulties they encountered (The rest came through chores, some of which can also have their satisfactions).

I hope I can still make a place for delight in the way I work with students in public school. The rigor, challenges will always be available–I don’t believe in avoiding those, and students will often need to grow in grit, perseverance, but let’s start with delight, enticement, wonder, enthusiasm, and confidence that what we have to teach is worth learning, is inherently interesting. Whenever possible, let’s kindle fascination, vision, desire—the drives that will create the momentum to drive through those challenges and not give up. And along the way, the more happy memories associated with learning math, science, art, whatever, the more likely students are to continue learning when no one’s giving a report card.

More on annoyingly trendy lingo: Rigor, Grit, Collaboration

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in Education

 

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Something’s not right – this is too easy.

It’s not about the hours in preparing lessons for ten different subjects, crafting new interactive assignments on paper and in my mind. Not about grading piles of papers, or the challenge of appropriately customizing assignments for those that need that. Not about calling parents or attending meetings, dealing with a down WiFi network or stuffy, windowless classroom with too few electrical outlets. That sort of thing would be a given no matter where I’d teach.

What’s not quite right is that these students make me feel like I’m good at this, when really, it’s just that they are extraordinarily non-diverse and conformist, unusually trusting, loved, and supported by their families and community. So all I have to do is be reasonably creative, cheerful, energetic and organized, and things come off pretty much without a hitch. What a good teacher I am. They even give me birthday cards and presents, and a giant teacher appreciation poster at the end of the year. At the close of each class, at least two students say thank you. The principal leaves little treats in our mailboxes and brings muffins and fruit to staff meetings, and parents believe what I tell them about their kids and thank me for all my efforts.

It’s not natural.

After my year at the alternative school (having survived to want to fight on), I was exhausted, but also fired up to get out there and use what I’d learned. I wanted to get out there and make a difference, share the incredible burden teachers take on of trying to meet the educational needs of a diverse, broken culture whose youth are experiencing loss, racism, abuse, the reverberations of childhood trauma, culture shock, mental health issues, and family dysfunction. AN in addition to all that, the worst thing of all, a sense of not being visible or valued. I

All the staff and most of the parents at my school are nice Christian people. Even the guy who I would say isn’t part of that culture must have mentioned God eight times in the graduation speech, because he knew that was how to relate best to these grads and their families. There was also a giant “Jesus” sign behind him only partially hidden by green and gold balloons. A prop of the congregation whose building we rent, but at any other school, it would have been covered up in case anyone complained that one religion was being emphasized in a school event. In this town, it’s covering it up that would cause problems.

Other than three Latino kids, who are adopted, one or two of slight Asian lineage, and a good number of (white, Christian) Russian families, the students are pretty much Dutch Reform Evangelical stock. Two of the female staff do have husbands of color, most likely they got aquainted out of town. Which just goes to show, one can’t make a lot of assumptions about viewpoints, only about demographics and related cultural norms.

I like an easy job as much as the next person, don’t long to be in an uphill battle all the time, but I want to have the wind in my face sometimes, to have someone to stick up for, and against, to feel useful in a bigger way. I gravitate toward the students who struggle, who irritate others, who resist, don’t fit in, need something more.

I told myself, and my family, I’d give it three years. By that time I’ll have set down some good routines and organizational strategies, become more efficient with my time and energy, and accumulated some good lesson and project plans in three levels of math and at least three sciences, as well as teaching experience from elementary up to twelfth grade. Then we’ll see. I’ll probably run out of room for the cute little presents that will come my way all that time. I just hope I haven’t got stuck in my groove, and forgotten why I’m in this profession.

 

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.

 

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