Diving for treasure

All those diamonds released from rings in dishwater from gold clasps not properly maintained, caught in p-traps and eventually shoved down the drain, washed out into hidden channels under ditches. Are they all in the bottoms of aeration pools covered in algae and brown dust. Who is the one who searches them out, and how can hey be discovered? A metal detector would not suffice. All just so much midden for some post apocalyptic archaeologist, or a boy swimming in a foothills stream.

Sucked up by a bottom feeding fish, carried away, angular gravel oozing through gut, carried zigzag, undulatee wait, up past bridges and urban trails and malls and farmland, up where the reeds grow and the gravel bottom is softly carpeted with sifted sediment.Deposited in the stream, tumbling down through eddies and washed clean, swept out a wide curve and dropped along a wash where a fly fisher packs up her tackle and wades out for lunch.

Sandwiches and mandarin oranges, a half hour wait to prevent cramps, and the boy is allowed to wade out and splash in the pools of the stream. “Can I use your mask and snorkel, Mom?” Chill water prickles his skin, he slowly lowers, kneels, lies face downward and the underwater world comes into view. Tiny snails clinging to swaying weeds, dappled pebbles, a spongy, sunken log with a shred of plastic waving like a flag.

He finds that  if he moves the pebbles slowly and waits a few seconds, the mud clears and he can see the ones underneath, sometimes fish eggs clinging. A crayfish darts under the log. A sparkle from the side of his vision, and he curves his body, alligator-like, to look closer, tries to pick it up between two fingers. It drops, drifts, tumbles along the bottom and he loses sight of it. It must be somewhere in front of that group of larger rocks, he thinks, where it’s shadowy, and he wonders how to search without burying it again.

Someone crashes, splashes into the pool, throws their body forward in a starfish landing. The wave tips him over part way, and his elbow hits the pebbles. He pushes himself to his knees, sees his father’s cold-shocked, smiling face, water running off his bangs and drops all through his beard, and the delighted boy leaps and both splash back down.

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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Beautiful Earth


Some days are good days.

“I think you are not unhappy here,” said my next door teacher, an intelligent, soft-spoken physics teacher with a deep appreciation for language—its potential for precision, rich meaning, and play. He doesn’t seem soft spoken due to shyness, but in order to intentionally create a peaceful space for communication. He thinks before he speaks, when he feels he can improve the silence. Another good influence to add to my development as a teacher, along with the youthful, energetic, and always cheerful ways of the teacher I’ve been subbing for while he’s on an eight day travel leave.

The variety of really lovely personalities is continually being revealed as I go through my routines throughout the building–getting my keys from inside the secretary’s office (why can’t all secretaries be like that?), attendance sheets from the office administration assistant, who is always calm, approachable, and organized, a chat with the principal in passing, who thanks me, with genuine feeling, for being there, and the assistant principal, a person of lofty stature who holds himself with a spirit of humility, and, again, approachability.

In the staff lunch room each noon I have chatted with a core of five or six who bring their lunches down–the fellow who works with special ed students is brimming with friendliness and fun, the instructional assistant with deep compassion and patience, the music teacher with a love for quality and ways of causing students to rise to the occasion. These people seem to be happy here too. I sense that they feel useful, working in their gifts and respected for what they do as well as appreciated for who they are. This is a hard job, but maybe this is a place where someone has got your back in it all, and one brings home only the kind of fatigue that is refreshed by food, sleep, and weekends.

The science teacher I worked with before is there today too, and encourages me with word that there are more science positions opening up that she has seen in a while. She has sent in several glowing references on my behalf. She’s another teacher I’d enjoy working with–I’ve seen her in action while I was sitting off in the corner helping grade papers–firm, kind, respectful, enthusiastic, consistent. I feel a little shy around her, perhaps because in some ways she reminds me of me.

Every day I work I add to my vision for how I would set up, organize, and especially–here’s where words fail me–I’m looking for an action verb sort of like “sculpt”, but applicable to the ongoing work of nurturing an essentially positive and ultimately inspiring atmosphere.I mean that–inspiring—where there is a spirit, a breath of something special–learning, knowledge, yes, but of a complex kind, knowable and able to be felt, but not measurable. As my teacher neighbor asked, will they ever realize that so much that is valuable cannot be measured by tests?

Say students like the ones I have right now show up on the first day of my teaching job in the fall. Thirty students, three with very little English, five at risk of complete disengagement for various reasons, one homeless with spotty attendance, ten highly motivated and craving challenge and intellectual connections with teachers and fellow students, four having been told they are smart but afraid of taking risks and making public errors that might contradict that claim and shatter the image, and the usual number of others with no obvious mental “tags” for me such as the previous mentioned ones, but concealing as many wonders, challenges, talents, as the rest. This time as a substitute teacher is in many ways a preparation—I am thankful to have it, as I didn’t in my first job fresh out of school–for that attempt to be useful to students, at the very least, and, at best inspirational. In the words of John Sumarah, one my former professors, it is the apparently unrealistic vision that nevertheless drives me.



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Please remain on the paths, refrain from touching the specimens, and do not remove any material from the site.

I had a waking dream yesterday, and it was about how the role of “teacher” is gone within a generation. Or, at least the kind of teacher commissioned by societies to train and inform the young so their parents and grandparents and older brothers and sisters can go off and build the economy. The specialized instructor such as the athletic trainer, life coach, or the ones who show us how to create hypertufa planters, they’ll always be around in some form or another, but will we really need people like us, people with content knowledge and pedagogical skills, when we’ll have individually customized educational software, virtual reality and computer adaptive testing, all funded by taxes shunted away from the public school system? When society will have been finally convinced that all along the teaching profession was a money grab by backward, rudderless or second career can’t do’s who want summers and holidays off, with cushy benefits and unionized job security on top of that?

The dream came just after my twelve year old son asked for the umpteenth time whether he could have his computer turn yet. I had turned him away with some vague excuse about the beautiful weather and his need to find some creative things to do. Same as I told my other boy years ago when he wanted to watch a video on a sunny day at the age of twelve. Boredom therapy–a waiting that would always end up in discovery and independence. But this time my community has let me down. I changed communities from the independent-minded, culturally rooted, inter generational, simple-living homeschooling community, where a lesson/play date involved swinging, climbing, digging or building forts if the weather was dry, or arts and crafts, reading, board games, or a trip to the museum if it was cold and wet. No heading down to the rec room to check out YouTube videos or joining global game forums like my son’s current school friends have as default mechanisms. And their parents are okay with that. They have organized sports for other times, after all, and isn’t that enough? Who wants a kid dragging dead branches around and messing up the landscape?

In some of the classrooms where I sub the students do all their work on laptops, or type into their phone apps (with furtive forays into online videos and social media sites, expertly timed so mostly undetectable by the “teacher”). Math is a self-teaching series of screens with tiles to drag and drop, multiple choice, immediate gratification and mentally digestible bytes. Language arts  is the reading, highlighting and cutting and pasting of textual evidence. Technology is how to use Microsoft software and write basic code. Will biology and chemistry soon be transformed also? Will there even be a vestige of the elements of natural history in all the data crunching, content-rich video lessons, and online research? How long until each school graduates the last child in the woods, the last young adult to have regularly had a moment alone with her own thoughts?

I have big plans this summer to drag out all the camping stuff we used at our woods property many years back, set up a big tent under a tarp, a place to invite family friends to just to mess around in the woods (with all the basic conveniences like a barbecue, fire pit,a plug in, rinse water, portable toilet and solar shower) try to entice some people away from their WiFi networks to enjoy the unrolling of the hours under the sky, overlooking the sea, alongside the shadows of ferns and animal homes under boulders and logs.


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Further attempts to establish continuity

I’m still struggling with a convoluted blog post and unable to finish, and so I’m switching gears now and writing an aside. No promises of depth or substance here, just some light banter which I’ll lay down before my early bed time.

It’s back to work subbing tomorrow, in the same class as three days last week. I look forward to it–environmental science, math and physics, the middle group a more interesting one, having come together to make up for an end of course exam they failed, so there’s a bit more testiness about school and teachers, and insecurity about their ultimate chances of success. But there’s a good community spirit there, and motivation in most cases to get the concepts.

I feel guilty about how easy it is to sub in a regular high school classroom, how reasonable most people are, how rare are the confrontations. Also seem to have amassed a pretty good general knowledge of high school material, and can call it up from memory on a need to know basis, so I feel I’m being useful in some way.

The next day I’ll be attending a youth summit, which should prove to be interesting–educators, health workers, law enforcement, community leaders coming together to discuss how to support at risk youth, so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot and meet some big hearted folks.

Not sure what further steps I may take on testing opt out in the coming weeks. I kept my son home for the first session, but he’ll have to hang out with the other opters-out for the big week of tests coming up, as I have to work. I’m curious as to what he’ll be expected to do instead of testing. I’ve heard how schools are trying to convey a message that opting out is not meant to be enjoyable, so some are not even allowing kids to read, at least not until they sit and stare for ten or fifteen minutes. I really don’t know what the feeling is about the tests at my kids’ school–I didn’t want to start that dialogue when I slipped in to file the opt out form, but I might just do as I gain confidence. As in, Mr. Principal, what do you think of these tests, and how does it make you feel when folks opt out? Do you see them as troublesome? Brave? If you thought something handed down to you was bad for kids, would you take a stand if you might get in trouble? Do you solicit feedback about this issue from your staff? What would happen tpo a staff member who would not administer the tests?

I had an idea for a college scholarship–it would be for students who had kept a nature journal for a few years. They’d submit or present it, with a chance to explain what they learned through the process. Might target a different kind of intelligence and sensitivity, an underrepresented group that deserves encouragement.The winner would receive a scholarship to pursue something along the lines of environmental science or other field that showed commitment to sustainability and furthering our understanding and appreciation of the creatures with which we share the planet.

It’s time for bed. Coal train whistle blowing makes a sleepy noise. Underneath the blankets go all the girls and boys.



Right Response

I just attended a two day training called Right Response, and it was worthwhile after all, though I went in with fairly low expectations. Not sure why I did–I guess because of my attitude problem. Which can be a problem but which can also help me sympathize with young people with attitude problems of their own.

The room was full of quality people, most with a good deal of experience–teachers, para-educators, a campus monitor and coach who left police work because he didn’t want to carry a gun any more, two bus drivers, both of whom were in the habit of thoughtfully filling backpacks with special supplies that distressed students might need, counselors, a school secretary, special ed teachers, several educators who were parents of kids with behavioral issues, and a few substitute teachers, both new and experienced.

The leader of the workshop had been a teacher in a classroom “of last resort,” as well as at times in other roles, including administration, and now does these workshops for an insurance company, because people rightly trained are less likely to cause or allow situations to escalate and then get sued. So there’s the positive side of insurance companies: their emphasis on safety and dealing properly with conflicts. The pressure from the other direction, to give every student a chance to get a quality education, balances things out on the other end so the “problem kids” don’t just get kicked out.

Many of the folks taking the class had experienced confrontations, some, threats, and a few, minor assaults (even from little kids). Others had an interest in working with at-risk students, and knew they needed more training. That’s where I might be heading, with my special preference for working with students who aren’t at ease in the system, who have spirit but sometimes poor relational and coping skills, and need help developing a vision for their lives, and a plan for their education. Not sure if that will mean a regular classroom or working in some other role. Another year of subbing is okay too, as it gives me a broad range of experiences, as well as lots of flexibility.

It’s not that I learned anything really new (other than how to get out of a ponytail hold or respond to a scratcher or grabber), but that it came up fresh again, and to tell you the truth I was getting slack in applying at home what I naturally do at school. At school, I show respect for a student’s personal space, give them time to comply with requests, treat everyone as if they are capable of great things, don’t take anything personally, and so on. At home, I order people around, nag, make negative assumptions, push too hard and fast, and get offended. After the day or two it took me to notice this dichotomy, I started being more pro-active in responding rightly at home, and things are definitely more peaceful. Now, though, there’s the problem of the kids getting on each other’s cases, following my old example.

One of the really freeing things I’ve learned over these years is that I don’t, after all, need to be what I’d call a “policeman” in my classroom. In fact, though I’m glad some people do that job in necessary situations, I don’t ever want to work in a classroom in which behavior management has replaced teaching. There’s a place for telling students what’s required, and giving consequences to students in order to bring them around as well as maintain a healthy learning environment for other students. But I and my students work best on the assumption that they are ultimately responsible for themselves, and that they want to be responsible for themselves. It’s really cool to work in those little teaching moments where I remind them (or sometimes tell them for the first time) that when they choose to work hard and push themselves they are developing themselves, that their abilities, their intelligence, their “potential” are not fixed entities. As I have been reminded by a writing coach, more and more I want to remind my students that if they want, I can help them with what they want and need to learn.

I guess those idealistic views may no longer have a place in the mainstream classroom. From what I hear, it’s a real struggle to keep the focus on meaningful student learning facilitated by good teachers using their gifts and watching each other’s backs. Maybe that’s why I want to work where not many are willing to go, where there can be a certain flexibility of approach, and I can develop my own high expectations instead of trying to meet up with someone else’s, as defined by an HQT rubric written by a consultant working for a corporate-funded think tank which has an eye on the cash cow of tax payer’s money and wants public servants to fail so they can step in.

My plan to get more connected here in my district is to go visit the nearest “alternative” high school and let them know I am seriously interested in subbing there. I’ve already emailed the teachers there but didn’t get any response. The alt school  in the district to the south is still an option for subbing–in fact I remember those students and hope to move to the next stage of trust and see if some of the tough fellows can become a little more willing to work on academics. But it’s a drive rather than a bike ride away, and my goal is to be able to bike to work some day. I have no idea what the turnover or the need is locally, but it’s worth a try.







Posted by on April 23, 2015 in Education and Schooling


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12 Tips for new middle school substitute teachers

I relate to so many of the stories I read about the challenges of subbing, the desire to get things right, the love/exasperation relationship with those kids that we care about and are trying to serve, the nerves and sometimes fear. Now that I’ve made it through a year of teaching middle schoolers full time (right out of school–yikes!), then a few years of subbing in those grades, as well as raising four children (the youngest two now in middle school), I feel I can offer some assistance–the kind I was desperate for when I was starting out. Keeping in mind that the journey is very individual and personal–getting a feel for your own style and the cultures and conditions in which you teach.

Some of these tips are crowd management techniques, while others are based on what I would appreciate from a sub if I were in the students’ shoes. None if them are about teaching, which I hope you will get to do in your areas of expertise, and in your own ever more effective and satisfying style.

  1. Stuff to bring: extra pencils (old stubby ones for emergency handouts) and pens, a clipboard with scrap paper, a notebook to gather tips for your future jobs and journal during your prep, backup stuff in case of inadequate plans, list of key personnel.
  2. As a hook, bring something to share—either a fascinating object or an anecdote, a puzzle, or a cool thing you can draw on the board (and later show them how). My latest object, used in several subbing assignments, was a large wolf spider carcass, and a true spider story. You could also save this treat for the end of the class after you wrap up the lesson.
  3. Read up on what you’ll be doing and how (individually or groups, to hand in or not, when work is due, what to do if done early). I also write the plan on the board ahead of time for their reference and my own if it’s more than a few activities. Point that out, too.
  4. Explore the classroom. Look for all the machines, get the layout, find safety info and supplies, assignment trays, books, other useful materials. Don’t be shy about looking in cupboards and drawers–they are for teaching materials, and you’re the hired teacher.
  5. Before kids arrive, sketch the seating arrangement and fill in as kids arrive (you might use tone provided by the teacher, but students often switch when they see a sub, and I don’t make them switch back unless there’s a problem). It’s also a way to mingle, connect, etc. If it’s time to start before the bell rings, fill the rest in later. If a kid pulls the wool over your eyes and gives a false name (you’ll learn to see it in their eyes and in the delay as they try to think of what name to use), share the joke. The map is useful for a quick attendance (confirm with the kids who’s absent) and for taking private notes (see below). I use a clipboard for these seating maps, the sub plans, and scrap paper.
  6. Write your name on the board and leave it there all day. When you introduce yourself (a common courtesy you should never omit), give a few basic details. For example, how long have you been subbing, your specialties, whether you have children. Cheerfully, briefly, set out basic expectations. Don’t be the heavy at that point, or you’ll probably be tested sooner and more dramatically (as in “Make my day”). Let them know you’ll be following the plan left by their teacher, with your own variations. I err on the side of caution/safety when it comes to rules & procedures on my first few days until I know the students. If I hear “Mr. B lets us….” I say, yeah, but he’s way nicer than me–you’re lucky to have him.” Or explain that since I’m new I’ll have to be more “strict” until I know everyone better. They understand. Ask individual students during the course of the day about any important details not in the sub plan, like does the teacher usually meet them at the door after recess, where’s the remote for the document camera, is there a hall pass, does the teacher usually collect this work, etc.
  7. Make allowances for normal, natural human behavior. This includes socializing, friendly teasing, humor, curiosity about things not on the lesson plan, creating classroom entertainment, wanting to move around, and testing the sub. Remember your own youth. Yes, you can ask for and expect quiet during instructions or reading, hands raised for group discussion, and minding their own business when work is being done, but don’t be unreasonable. I have students get up and stretch or walk around to get blood flowing and to relax muscles between seat activities, kids breathe deeply to settle down after a humor interruption, sometimes invite antsy students to walk around at the back while they read, or pick them to do a job requiring movement.
  8. If a student is starting to disrupt the flow, try to get him/her back on track subtly with a stroll around the room, a tap, a look or signal, with as little interruption as possible. Try not to let the disruption become classroom entertainment. Appeal to reason and the student’s conscience, with your underlying communication: You know what I ask is reasonable, don’t you? Please do what you can to make this class time work well for everyone.
  9. Repeated interruptions and off task behavior call for quiet intervention aimed at determining the real reason for the problem–is the work confusing for the student? Can they not handle sitting near distractions? Is there an ongoing issue that you as a sub cannot address? So many variations here, I hesitate to advise, except to say, use empathetic discernment, clarify expectations, and be firm when student persist in interfering with the learning of other students. The phrase, “I insist” can be helpful here. Occasionally I realize the problem is bigger than I, and I regretfully hand the student over to the school discipline people (I call ahead and send the student down to the office). I try to check in with the student again later, and with staff members who know him or her.
  10. If assignments are due, ask students who aren’t handing it in for some reason to write that reason in a note to the regular teacher. Try to include these details in your own notes too.
  11. If a student asks you to sign a permission form, e.g. for a field trip, have them ask a regular staff member instead, explaining that they have the clear authority to do that. If you can’t find hall/library passes, make your own, noting the time and, who you are subbing for.
  12. Keep notes, in your own scrawly handwriting, on who’s working well, who’s goofing off (and so got moved), who got the day’s work done (have them show you to be signed off)–to be used for the neat sub notes you leave for the teacher. Try to finish up each class with a few minutes left for students to tidy up and relax.

Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Education and Schooling


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From the ground up

Once I knew–I had the epiphany–what was truly important to me, the thing that I would seek above all else, give over everything, or learn to through stages, the pearl of great price. “This is it,” I thought.

But I woke up this morning, and couldn’t remember what it was. This wasn’t the first time I forgot my purpose n life. So, I thought, I’ll clean up this mess–the floor is gritty, and after that I’ll do that accumulated list of little things. Just to clear away the distractions. Maybe organize that desk, fix the rattling keyboard drawer, and tape up that box to go back to the trampoline parts store. How can I even think about deep stuff like that when my physical space is so out of feng shui?

But I look at the mess–sneakers, electric sander, dog dish, horse blanket, all jumbled up on the floor, laundry in piles to be washed, sorted, and I don’t care about any of that either, whether it’s temporarily tidy or not, whether I can ever live in that rarefied level of spotlessness housewifehood. “it was a simple home, but spotless, with starched cotton curtains she had made from salvaged flour sacks.” House work is only as a means, like I said, to get to a place of more clarity. Despite my trying to believe that somewhere therein was, à la Brother Lawrence–sanctification. The quotidian mysteries. I am open to that possibility, but am essentially agnostic there.

Which raises the question, why all this indoor living, if it’s not, as promised, helping us live a more intellectual, a more spiritual life by protecting us from the raging elements and wild beasts and providing effort-reducing technologies? A life of the higher realms of consciousness that transforms the human race, lifts it above a life of subsistence and survival of the fittest to pass on genetic material, and drives Progress? I say, the walls and roof might have been a good idea, for the domicile as well as the monastery, and the dishwasher and fridge were great idea, but the problem is the floor, which needs to be swept, and cupboards and shelves–basically anything with a finished horizontal surface–which accumulate both possessions and dust.

There is also the problem that we’ve got away from the idea of having a virtual slave class to keep these things in order while we upper classes create culture. Or a hierarchy where the novitiate labors and aspires to rise, so someone always gets the housework done, and even sees it as a necessary if primitive aspect of one’s education. Now there’s the housework, and everyone is expected to pitch in like a good egalitarian, but somehow these duties still fall unevenly, unless a lot of extra higher consciousness is applied there, and wasn’t that what we were trying to avoid in the first place?

Which might be an argument for mail order wives (or husbands). That is, why not keep a stock of folks on some underprivileged archipelago or subarctic clime who simply aim to please. Not a companionship of the intellect, but of one with the brain and the leisure (and the extra cash), the other with the brawn and a submissive spirit, so lovely in the eyes of the lord (or lady). It has been done with satisfactory results, I am told. Sometimes even locals can be trained in that submissive spirit, so genetic cross fertilization is not always necessary. Well, if they’re happy that way, why not?

Clarity indeed. What is it that I need clarity in order to seek, something to which I have inherited an addiction along with this infernal self consciousness. that hasn’t been made necessary by the very fact that I’ve moved indoors, out of the Garden. That was such a happy place, where everyone did the housework. At least I think they did–I can’t remember. Whatever they did, they didn’t angst about it, and I think they would have been free to grow up in a more natural way into the knowledge of good and evil, without the need for dishwashers and a slave class.

You reminded me of the pearl, with your talk of giving it all, and the euphoria, the falling to your knees, the prayers of thanks. And I remembered feeling that way–tears come even now–though it didn’t seem to come through so much will power, and drive, and all-out effort through personal suffering. You might say that what you have been given, even so, is in the realm of grace. In fact I’m pretty sure you would. But the self denial, the pressing on through pain and self doubt, that requires more bravery than I feel capable of. Or that is even called for in my circumstances. Unless, unless…


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