Monthly Archives: January 2016

Recommended reading list for educators

How Children Fail by John Holt – published in 1964, but still a very useful read. The whole book is built on observations of what children do to get through what’s asked of them in the typical classroom–often coping strategies rather than real problem solving, and the ways teachers interfere with the process of the development and use of of intelligence in the classroom. Also How Children Learn

How to Survive in Your Own Native Land by James Herndon – I read this a few decades ago, so I can’t give a very good synopsis. I was reminded of it by reading Holt. Herndon taught in low income black neighborhood schools and wrote this description of the craziness brought out by the combination of generations of marginalization and being in a typical public school setting for these kids.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn – she cites her favorites also, which I won’t list here. This is the kind of book of which I want to buy multiple copies, donate it to school libraries, plant it in the cafeteria, then check later to make sure it hasn’t been removed and recycled. I leave it around my house and hope my kids will decide to do what the subtitle suggests: “quit school and get a real life and education.”

The Underground History of American Schooling: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling by John Taylor Gatto – it’s a wonder that he ever won Teacher of the Year Award, but that must be something independent of politics, because, man! he is a real pill to administrators and politicians! Great bibliography in the back, too. Also A Different Kind of Teacher, Dumbing Us Down

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (1971). This is not only a great book, a paradigm-shifting, subversive book. Champions freedom in education. As in people who want to learn, go find a teacher or organize a class, course, school even, but client driven. Teachers are sought out, not given classes full of students who have no choice. Again, read a long time ago–assigned by an Acadia education professor, which is much to his credit.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck- pretentious and inaccurate title (probably the marketing people came up with it), as the idea of a growth mindset, intellectual growth, that is, isn’t new. As my father-in-law says, “You can’t learn any younger!” to each new challenge, and I’m sure he inherited the phrase, and attitude, from his parents. Still, the book provides a good reminder, with lots of supporting evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, of the fact that the more learners young and old believe that intelligence (of any type) is not fixed and that talent, like skill, is mostly a developed trait, the more they learn, grow, and excel. Also provides guidance for teachers and parents in communicating a growth mindset to those in their care and avoiding language and attitudes that set up barriers to the growth others. For example, telling children they are smart or talented can backfire, setting up a fear of risk taking for fear of losing the label.

A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education by Mercedes Schneider (2014) – identifies the power players attempting to capitalize on the disruptive corporate-friendly reform of educational policy, leadership, infrastructure, data, and markets.

The Language Wars by Diane Ravitch – uncovers the private policies of textbook publishers who actively self censor content, language, and ideas in order to secure education markets when those markets are controlled by multiple and competing private interests across the liberal-conservative spectrum. Only a few large publishing companies can and are willing to compete to sell material that doesn’t offend anyone, from the Christian right to senior citizens to advocates for people with disabilities to LGBTQ activists and more. Even literature and historical sources are edited for acceptability, provided with corrective commentary, or eliminated, resulting in the predigested pap of the typical school text.

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Posted by on January 31, 2016 in Culture & Society, Education, Ideas


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Fallow ground and growing things

One can rent a Simple Box, buy Old Fashioned Rice Crispy squares. Flameless candles and heatless fireplaces for ambiance, pre-ripped jeans, distressed furniture for the I-have-lived look. One can be “hosted” at a restaurant, pay for a mentor, hire a companion (or buy a responsive robot), have counseling covered by insurance. Why bother being real, putting one’s hands to work and service, putting oneself out there at all to build a community of neighbors, friends, layers of acquaintances based on various exchanges? No need even to find a youth to help with yard work–there are apps that will match you up with the local chain, complete with 1-800 number, 50% markup, and worker wages that will never add up to college tuition.

I feel the pull of that commercialized, professionalized touch-free world–I like anonymity, clear cut expectations, don’t mind being a customer account number with no obligations beyond timely payment, and if things aren’t to my liking I cut off services; nobody’s feeling get hurt when the customer is always right. I’ve beyond that generation that did community building as a matter of course, before it had a tag. I want it, but don’t lift a hand much, especially in the winter. i want it to just happen, preferably in not too messy or uncomfortable a way, or with much of a need to make sacrifices.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if things fell apart for someone in my network–would there be enough of a protocol of caring personally for one’s neighbor? I’m ashamed to say that beyond a few basics I don’t really know what my neighbor’s current needs, challenges, fears are. Nor do I share my own with very many–not family, not friends, not church, even when I was more regularly involved. At times when I lose my way someone comes along to draw me back to the land of the living, but what if they didn’t? I wouldn’t even have the will to look through the phone book for a therapist, or make an appointment with the only therapist I remember–the one who got visibly excited when she thought most of our family was exhibiting the same symptoms as she, and maybe needed the same medication! A bit of library research ruled that out, but it was one more thing that fed my distrust of professional therapists.

Maybe it’s a personality thing. Some need to talk it out, and if they don’t want to burden a friend, might be wise  to hire someone. I think I’m more like the character in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, who gets healing, and the strength to face her crisis, by withdrawing for a time. In the novel it’s seen as natural and called a fallow state. She just sits, sleeps, moves around a little, and doesn’t talk to or appear to hear anyone, as if she were in a waking coma, or a cocoon, waiting for no one knows what moment to come out. People help her with basic needs, let her be without avoiding her, but she is choosing by default to withdraw. Something is going on inside, a kind of reordering of memories, layers of personality, a healing and restoration that takes all her energy just then.

So I take my little breaks, not just the times out for rest, reading, writing, exercise, and time with friends, but sometimes just to zone out. I do this without the aid of mind-altering drugs or any particular meditation technique. It’s like taking a nap, but shorter, above the waters of real sleep, but refreshing. And I always, after fifteen to thirty minutes, wake suddenly with a drive to accomplish something. In fact if I don’t wait for that and try to drag myself back into my duties before the right time, I end up crashing worse. As long as I don’t let negative judgments of myself for needing that retreat, I can actually get to a kind of balance again.

Right now I get away in the pool for a few hours a week, in my empty classroom for a few hours on Saturdays, and for five minutes between staff lunch and students coming into class. All the other teachers seem to be fine hanging out until the bell, but I need that five minutes, and the quiet hour or two after school, or I don’t think I’d make it through the week.

Still, it’s been a better week than of late, I know how to plan better, have a better relationship with my co-teacher, feel more confident, relaxed and seasoned. My last period class has been transformed completely by the departure of four students, all of whom took so much of my time and energy the others lost out and I was often frazzled. I got four new students in that class whose struggles, some of which I know, some not, aren’t the kind that create disorder and distraction for others, and require from me less disciplinary management and more relational connection and intuitive communication. I can be myself, and we are all enjoying that more. There is already a growing sense of trust and community, rather than the tension and awkwardness I was told sometimes happens in these quarter transitions. Still a week to go for open enrollment, so maybe things will get more challenging.

Getting back to building community, in a sense the opening has happened for me to be proactive there through this job. I have this wonderful privilege of encouraging and challenging young people who needed this school, who convinced the folks in the main office that they wanted to be here and would be thankful for the opportunity to get off the waiting list, that trying to navigate the big high school corridors was taking them down. There they are, open, trying, needing support, but full of such interesting thoughts and carrying around talents, insights, knowledge, hopes, questions, wounds.

Today was awards day, where each staff member gets to recognize three students, and the new students got to hear, briefly, about students who had turned it around, never given up, showed exemplary kindness to others, striven for excellence. A good way to start the quarter, though some might naturally sink into feeling inadequate, as if they’d never be award-worthy.

One student, who never would have accomplished much if it weren’t for the patience and very direct support of the special ed teacher, was surprised to receive a Perseverance award. He had been constantly oppositional, complaining and resisting, using his smart phone, wearing his big earphones, off in unrelated conversations whenever he could be.  All his teachers knew that in his case, “perseverance” was a loose translation of “condescending to allow teachers to endure his prickly presence and walk on eggshells to creatively get around his defenses enough to help him get his work done so he could see a decent grade on his transcript and feel proud of himself enough to keep trying.” But he was touched–sort of partially melted, as I saw when I congratulated him later. Like he was starting to believe that other people, adults, even people in authority, might actually be on his side, and that he could accomplish something in academics. It’s hard to keep up the caring with a person like that, but I started to find the way through teasing him. Whenever I’d tell him to put away his phone, or change seats for being off task, he’d get his back up, look fierce and ask why I was picking on him. I would point out that I’d also spoken to so-and-so, and get drawn into a debate. Then once I had the sense to reply, “Because I like picking on you–it’s fun,” he actually smiled, and didn’t sass me, and from there the progress started.

Found out the teacher I am replacing while she is on leave has moved on, taken a job in another state, so next year this position should be open, at the same or possible greater hours, and then growing from there as the staff move into a new building. With natural lighting, creator spaces, a real science lab, a greenhouse, and seating on the roof!



Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

What I hear about in the news and see going on, like war and xenophobia and altruism, and love, and all of it, really could be seen as biologically driven phenomena, and I want more of us to admit it. I’m all for a spiritual or humanistic interpretation too, but it’s also the biology, stupid. There are undeniably biological, biochemical, and fundamentally genetic and epigenetic roots of behavior, and I’d like to see that aspect to be addressed along with the socio-political, ethical, and economic. Should we let Syrian refugees in, mitigate the chaos that’s over straining their homeland resources so that it can recover? Or should we slam the door shut on those displaced by cultural influences they cannot overcome, that lead to civil war and murder and environmental abuse? Should we protect for ourselves and our offspring these finite habitat resources, favor the genetic variations most closely akin to us, and maintain social stability? Or should we welcome these fleeing young families who have survived, who had the strength and intelligence to migrate all the way here, and so will seed our stock with strong genes? Both altruism and xenophobia can be argued to have biological, or genetic, root causes, that’s what I think. Same with race relations, gender identity, sexuality, resource politics, and so much more. Acknowledging evolutionary roots does not mean caving in to determinism, but provides balance to the wishful thinking that education and the exertion of individual and collective will can make all our “problems” go away. A simplistic social Darwinist perspective certainly acknowledges the influence of evolutionary biology, but equates evolutionary weakness with lower class, while contradicting itself with the complaint that the “weak” are multiplying too much (which should be considered a characteristic of the strong or fit, by Darwinian thought).

Now that I’m almost done with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, I’m even more convinced, except that I accept his argument that it’s not fundamentally the individual or group that is the root of selective pressures, but the genes themselves. It must be so, or the same genes wouldn’t still be around. The same individuals never occur again, after all. Not sure how that would pan out at the socio-political level, this apparent drive by genes themselves (really just random natural selection of those able to successfully replicate). Maybe just a manifestation of a healthy variety of social views resulting in various social trends and cultures, all derived from a hodgepodge of gene-driven influences at the cellular level.

This point of view is influencing what I tell my high school students, too. When we were on the topic of plants that germinate in the dark and then grow for the life of them, or die trying, I told them that the plants do that because they are descendants of plants that survived because they did that too, and the rest, apparently, didn’t succeed.

Apparently no one response to mass migration or economic policy or social views on self governance has proven to be significantly effective for the propagation of genes, or we would have ended up with mainly one point of view. All the points of view that were disastrous all the time are gone. Or maybe the environment has fluctuated so much, we’re still in that cycle, letting it all play out, and haven’t yet reached an evolutionarily stable strategy–an kind of Age of Aquarius many hope for, and Imagine. A good number of folks have carried forward genes that manifest as a drive to change things, sure, campaigning and writing and preaching and teaching. Others have successfully populated the Earth with conservative human minds, with people who wish to be led, who don’t want change, and so that must be an important part of the genetic survival strategy, too. At least up until now.

Because now, the most educated and affluent have rebelled against their genes, choosing to have few children or none at all. Dawkins believes we are capable of rebelling against our genes because of consciousness. I’m not so sure. I think maybe our genes have responded to the tendency of affluent people to destroy their own resources by cutting down on their reproductive rate. Pro-Choice, indeed. Sure, overpopulation is a problem in India and so on, but just watch what happens when the “standard of living” rises there. It will be like rabbits reabsorbing their fetuses, combined with lemmings running over a cliff. In the West, the Plague wiped out a third of Europeans, then a bit of European pathogen DNA killed most of North American residents early in the Age of Discovery, so it seemed for quite a while that colonization, expansion, economic growth and Industrial Revolution might be a good thing, maybe even the best thing, for the human race. All those suffering from its effects in Europe either died or escaped to America, but not before featuring as at least a minor character type in a good nineteenth century novel, asking for alms for the poor or being told to eat cake. Though they were never required to dress for dinner.

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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Culture & Society, Ideas


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Memories of that time in Togo

Wow–just got a message from an old friend in Togo, West Africa. Now, I guess I’ll say friend, though we were not the best of friends at the time. I was trying too hard, maybe, and our cultures were so different. Not even because of the world apart aspect so much as that different things were important to us, our personalities, and that we were immature and in our twenties, each going through culture shock, loneliness, who know what else, for her. There was a bit of a language barrier, too, as I was just gaining fluency in French while she had no English.

That was in 1986, thirty years ago, in a cultural exchange between our countries that took us to rural areas to live with traditional farming families. I at least had come from the country and knew about farm work, she was from a more urbanite background, and it must have been harder for her to get up at 5:30, feed the cows, milk, shovel pig and hog manure, pick rocks and hay, milk and feed again, then to supper and bed in our host home in our little shared room painted deep cyan. At least it was summer. Then in Togo, though we lived for three months in a village with a family that practiced agriculture, the hosts were uncomfortable with their “guests” sharing the work, so except for one occasion after I pleaded to go with them out to the fields to work, we pretty much lazed around and did our own thing, supplied by the family out of the program’s allowance with fruit, meat, coffee, and fufu. I think that was part of my problem, having no real role except to absorb things, write, sketch, wonder if I was gaining weight, try to learn the local language from the children, and feel frustrated that my Togolese counterpart and I weren’t becoming bosom friends.

So now we’re friends on FaceBook. A bunch of the other Canadians are on there too, but we all pretty much live very different lives, all across the continent, some in French, some in English. As I message my Togolese counterpart, I’m amazed at how easily my French comes back to mind. What a thing the mind is, holding things in reserve just in case for twenty years.

I was so very lonely there. I wrote and wrote, dragged myself through the routines of meals, water filter maintenance, my nightly shower, and flopped down on my foam mattress under the mosquito cover, grateful to sink into sleep. The shower was a favorite time  as I washed off the sweat of the day and rinsed out my lingerie, looking out toward the forest and the tropical storm clouds raining and thundering a few miles to the west.

Sometimes I’d get a visit from the chain smoking Quebecois who would play my guitar, while I rolled him a few cigarettes, or one of the other Canadians. But except for our weekly get together with our group leader , our lives were in our host family homes with our counterparts. I enjoyed the company of my compatriots, but didn’t find a deep friendship there. There were only seven of us, and we supported one another, but what a set of different personalities and backgrounds. The program selected us that way, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d get on well with one of the guys, but he was asked to leave before we flew to Africa, apparently for a drug offense, so It’s just as well, for that and other reasons. One of the women was apparently almost sent home too, for being too cozy with the local Africans and their traditional African. No one was quite sure, except that she was giving our group leader some sleepless nights, and was put on a kind of probation.He certainly had his troubles, Pierre did, with an alcoholic Togolese group leader and trying to keep everyone secure as several coups d’etat were struck in the capitol a few hours away, curfews were declared, soldiers rolled through every few weeks and the village young people proclaimed their loyalty in elaborate and very African-groove song and dance rallies. Drums and traditional cloth outfits, leader call and chorus answer songs, President Eyadema came, and there was light.

And then there I was telling Pierre I didn’t think I was going to make it, fighting what I realize now was depression, and him insisting he needed me to stay, feeding me scrambled eggs with maple syrup and telling me I was the most mature one he had, so would I please just hang in there for one month more and see. Finally I said I’d do it, and somehow I made it. The turning point was giving up on my expectations for a close relationship with my counterpart. I treated her as a co-worker, stopped trying to “get to know” her, just let her do her thing, kill and cook a chicken now and then, show me how to make a nice sauce not as spicy as the local version, how to make yesterday’s beef stew last another day without refrigeration. The children, a set of four from an assortment of loosely related aunts or foster aunts, were  a blessing–I’d draw sketches of things and ask them what the word was, and they’d get all excited, debate what I meant, and tell me the Kotokoli word. Scorpion! Chaliamlu!

I had this little song I made up and played on my guitar, with their names in it, Teba, Nura, Falila and Celimata, that they got a kick out of. They all had such unique and distinct faces–I’m sure I could recognize them as grown-ups.

My host brothers used to like to hang around a bit, and they at least spoke French, while my old host father and his two old wives didn’t. One was just a sweet young man, though he would use a razor to hack away at his plantar warts on the cement floor of my hut. I thought his intentions toward me were refreshingly platonic, compared to the city boys hinting they would like a “souvenir” before we parted. That’s the way I gave away my harmonica about a week after we first arrived in the capitol city, to a nice young man who worked at the community center where we lodged, who befriended me, even invited me to his family home and gave me soda as we sat in the living room with “Dallas” on TV, of all things. He wrote to me for over a year as if we were betrothed, though nothing happened between us. One of the other women had the same experience. I still feel that sourness. that sense of being wronged, for all of that, and for being begged from in the cities just because I was white. I didn’t want to go to Africa to develop bitterness against Africans, not the plan at all.

Later in the village, after several months of foster sibling friendship, my host brother shyly asked for a souvenir too. I explained to him that he was like a brother, that i liked him but not in that way, and he gave it up and sort of went back to normal, but I never felt the same ease in his company.

Problems within our group arose too, among the African exchange participants and us. We figured out among ourselves that the Togolese young people had not been chosen for their cultural openness or ability to communicate cross culturally, as we Canadians were, through a series of special activities observed by screeners. They were mostly urban, privileged, and well connected politically, hoping to nab some of perks of the Western world. Two of the Togolese men in another group were sent home for a semi-hushed up sexual assault charge. Another two were basically leering, chauvinist jerks who drove all the Canadians, both men and women, nuts. Another was screwing a series of local Togolese village women who perceived him as a good prospect. The one Togolese participant we liked, and who therefore received all our fond attentions, had actually worked at some kind of tourist place and had a lot of experience with Westerners, and also spoke English. He was culturally sensitive, respectful, and a lot of fun. He and one of the women of our group fell in love and married after the program. He was from a traditional village, and was just a more wholesome, mature guy able to relate to anyone.

Our recourse for dealing with the spoiled chauvinists was to help their Canadian counterparts and group members let off steam on the weekends by making up derogatory songs and rhymes about them. That was after trying to convert them into sensitive new age guys, which failed utterly. Some of the Togolese women weren’t much better, gossiping and tittering and all catty. Mine at least was only guilty of being taciturn and scowling in an intimidating way, at least to my young, sensitive feelings. And now it turns out she kind of did, or does, want to be friends, at least on FaceBook.

More memories there–i can feel them peeping in at the edges of consciousness. I wonder where my writings from that time are–in some box or other fading away on the cheap notebook paper I got in the village market. I wrote reams to my family and to a boyfriend who didn’t manage to wait for me, and when he expressed his interest on my return, i was too emotionally exhausted to accept him.

It did change me, and I guess the goal of the program, to teach young people about rural development and experience cultural differences, was achieved. I lost my shyness of foreigners, was glad to meet much more likable Africans at university in Nova Scotia, got to see the world, and there’s nothing to compare with that. But I never felt tempted to switch to an international development major, or lead an exchange myself, as it seems many of the participants did. I don’t hang out at community cultural centers, or follow any Eastern religion, and never even went for dreadlocks or henna. Wearing a swirly skirt in the summer once in awhile is enough for me. I don’t want to go back.


Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Places & Experiences


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Trying to keep doors open

Gave a little sermon the other day to one of my classes, as I just couldn’t get a response to a series of attempts to engage. It’s a small class, and they say morning classes are markedly different that afternoon classes, lower energy, quieter. But for the students to sit and do nothing, say nothing, in response to legitimate topic-related questions, I don’t think is fair, or responsible, and I told them so. I have intelligent, capable students, have dynamic personalities, and of course a number of very shy students who always find it difficult to give even a yes or a no in front of others. But lately they act as if they’re just bodies in chairs facing forward.

Told them something or other, from my stool behind the controls, where I sit when nothing much is happening or when I’m using the screen. To put themselves forth a little more, that I was only trying to help them connect more with these ideas, have them turn them over in their minds so as to better comprehend, that it was my job to do my best teaching, theirs to learn, and being in a half asleep state wouldn’t help that any. All the time I’m feeling that some maybe need a quiet time more that this discussion on photosynthesis, that I don’t blame them for not wanting to be the one who speaks into the quiet with an answer that might be perceived as wrong, or an attitude too compliant. Told them in case they hadn’t noticed by now, no one jumps on you for making mistakes, that I value participation itself, that everyone finds that more interesting than just me doing the talking or giving out worksheets. Then I went on, the choice, as always, up to them, and I wasn’t going to get all worked up over it.

End of quarter, and there’s a feeling in some of having given up–two or three per class, even though the grades they have are malleable, pretty much to the last minute, as I have told them all–to complete the work and earn the numbers, do this, talk with me, we’ll work on something alternative, whatever, just make the move. A few have, asking what they can do to improve their grade, handing in quiz corrections and late assignments, asking if this will do for that. Others, though I and the special ed teacher have filled notebooks with sticky notes to alert them to points that can be earned, added missing items, provided scaffolding for the more complex items, just let it go. One has done nothing but use their smart phone through the whole class, no response to any of my invitations. Though I go easy in them because they have an air of deep discouragement, and I don’t want to do any harm.

I’ve started meeting briefly each day with the special ed teacher, and feel we’re getting on better, being more of a team. She’s helping me enter a mindset that is more appropriate with the students who struggle most, that effort, completing, even attempt must sometimes be the criteria, rather than conceptual understanding or skill. Hard for me, as I have that sense of a need to be consistent with grading, and don’t want anyone to feel that sliding through barely engaged is a mark of success. Then I remember that these are not students who will be taking their A’s and B’s to apply to study science at college, believing their 3.0 is the same as someone else who got it at the big school. Success looks different for everyone, so the current code has to be re interpreted.

But I need to keep a special eye out for the students who can really grasp the subtleties, hose who gravitate toward the ideas, who really want to know. Maybe those three who asked to take plants home to grow, the one who said he’s interested in microbiology, another who wondered how seeds make it to the surface without light. Who knows but that some will go into science, some into camera work on scientific expeditions, some into artistic expressions of the diversity and beauty of living things, another into conservation work, just to be around the life sciences.

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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Education, Places & Experiences


Don’t let yourself get lost

I looked at my next quarter’s roster, once I found out how on the software, and was sad to see that a certain student, the star of the school, light of every teacher’s eye because of his empathy, hard work, smiles, and sweetness. The students all love him too–not in a coolness or popularity sense, but because he’s kind to everyone. He’s one who takes the time to come up and say a few words that make one’s day better. He has trouble with concepts, but keeps trying. Last week I overheard him say, as he worked with the para educator, “You just have to keep trying and not let yourself get lost.” I wrote that on the white board and sent it around to the staff. He didn’t think anything of it, seeing it up there in marker. It’s just who he is. A kind of Forrest Gump without the Asberger’s.

For about a week he would come in every day after school to do test corrections, improve past assignments, and work on concepts in biology. And chat. Once he said he admired me because I wrote things down. Not sure when he saw me do that–maybe was referring to a reflection piece I read out at the beginning of the quarter, or just my daily jottings. Neither of which I consider much of a feat, but for him… Yet I could see someone following him around and writing down the insightful things he says. But mostly he listens, because what he says is so worth responding to at depth.

I will also have a few new, or current from the rest of the school, students, with the promise of the chaos of lot of surprise new registrations in the first few weeks of the quarter–students who have had it up to there with regular school. So I’ll have to plan generic stuff, or stuff easy to catch up on later, or skip entirely, for those weeks. And they say the current students will have a hard time adjusting to the newbies–there’s a sorting process to that, a gradually finding one’s place, even though there’s also, I sense, a readiness to at least see new students as being in somewhat the same boat with school being a problem. If there are pretty girls, there will be a special kaffuffle, with those dual tensions of attraction, both by girls as friends and allies, and to guys as, well, what kind of girl, anyway? and testiness.

I was pretty oblivious to most of that when I first came–too much to take in. I was amazed at the insider information my colleagues had, and how they used it to try to support and redirect and keep an eye out, as well as take preventative measures. Rumors of fights and tears, and who was meeting whom during class between the buildings, and the drama. Lots of to do over the new girl with sparkle makeup around her eyes, which still hasn’t really settled. And evidence of dysfunctional relationship patterns, opportunities (for the teachers in the know) to discuss jealousy, possessiveness, controlling behaviors, boundaries, and stuff.

It’s the shock of the day after a weekend. I’m off to swim to get my biorhythms evened out, tire my body so my mind won’t be so much on the jump after my morning coffee. My attitude of choice being a kind of open, loving, no caring too much attitude with a bit of “oh well, can’t expect too much” in it. Gets me in the right frame of mind so some good things will actually go down in my classroom, if I keep trying don’t let myself get lost along the way.


Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Education


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The sap is rising

I would rather go into a messy, non-ideal, difficult job and try to do my best, knowing the odds are not great that I’ll be able to accomplish the great things I’m aiming for, than get that ideal job in a place where everything is slick and professional and handled a certain way. In that scenario I’d feel like a fraud, like I didn’t belong, because I don’t have it all down as far as curriculum and protocol and the paper train, I only have heart, the will to learn and grow, a year or two of teaching in various places, and some parenting experience.

The principal keeps including in his “informal chats” with me the fact that I came into this job under the worst possible circumstances, and it wouldn’t be easy for anyone. So I feel that there’s a lot of grace for me, a lot of room to be creative and try different things, to make mistakes, while at the same time I have a great deal of support, as do my students, as we work things out. As he shared with me some feedback he’s been getting from students, and listened to me respond, I felt I was in a conversation rather than a checkup or evaluation. I realize what a privilege and blessing it is to have that support, knowing not every principal gives it like that. Maybe that’s why he works here too, because the focus is on helping the students make it rather than winning awards and being picture perfect.

It was also encouraging to hear the principal comment that it was funny how three years ago he’d had pretty much the same conversation with the math teacher, who still there and still not coasting. “It’s a journey,” he said, several times. I feel that as I listen to the other staff, who are struggling and stressed  and frustrated in their turn, too, trying to keep reasonable expectations, care for students, get everything done, and keep things in balance. No glib advice there.

So here I am, learning to teach to multiple abilities and learning styles, how to build relationships with those who have turned inward, those who have short fuses, those who have wounds and emotional baggage. Learning how to provide scaffolding for new concepts, deal with sass and resistance, pass on a vision, encourage and love. Learning to take care of myself too, and soak in all the wisdom of others’ experience. And in many ways, I’m feeling the care and support of a good number of students, those empathetic and perceptive ones who think of others–not a universal characteristics among 14-18 year olds at school or at home.

Holidays and teacher work days come just in time, too, for a little recharge, a chance to get caught up on home duties, to think ahead a bit to possible special activities. MLK Day tomorrow will be a quiet at school day for that. The grading is done, now I have to plan the final review before the end of semester assessments and final grade posting. I’ll order the compost worms for next semester, assemble some gardening tools to dig up the dead trees over by the dumpster so we can plant potatoes, negotiate a bit more garden area for peas and garlic, plan the class walk down to the creek, and figure out how to measure cricket respiration.

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Posted by on January 18, 2016 in Education



Since the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate, I shall believe in myself.

I’ve been back to school a week, and am getting ready for my second, heading already into a kind of home stretch for the quarter, at which time each student must get their grade. So I’m trying to structure everything so that it fits together, includes review but variety, has a smattering of labs and maybe an outing, and is gradable. Our school operates in quarters (sixths, really) so the students have a better chance of getting at least that much credit, if they crash and burn, or come in half way through a semester.

I was so ready for winter break, needed a rest, to let the strain and stress, go, images of faces conveying less than good humor and eagerness to fade from my mind. The last three weeks, feeling so much less than adequate, not having found that balance between giving lots of second chances–too many, so the rules were being pushed too much by some and others weer getting irritated–and being tough on crime. Always a stronger backlash about that when it comes around, I find, but still I never learn. Maybe it’s what it has to be, since until I know students better, I can’t err on the side of law and order lest I do some harm to a fragile student whose circumstances and struggles don’t know. So the upshot is that they all know I am a kind person and like having them in my classes, that I have a lot of patience. And some of these students really like that, and let me know in various ways.

After Christmas and a few more enforced days of planning abstinence, I went into my quiet, sunny classroom and graded all the notebook assignments for December and started planning the rest of the quarter. Feeling bad that I still haven’t worked in another hands on or lab activity for my environmental science class–all teacher, notes, book work, and handouts. Hearing that invitation from the principal to dream up some cool stuff, but only getting that established in my two biology classes so far. Still, on that other angle I was encouraged to work, I really am learning to slow down, provide more scaffolding, refer to the text more (gives a sense of security to many students), and put off the next concept until the previous one is reasonably mastered by those willing to try. Still, I was eeling dread, and guilt, and the voices that want to pipe in with. “You can’t do this.” Just wanted to get going and not have that dreadful anticipation.

I kept thinking about those wild dogs who, when they lose a few fights, are way more likely to lose further ones and zoom down the hierarchy beyond what would be expected given their real fitness. A lot of it really is about what you believe. Humans, I hope, being at an advantage in not necessarily accepting the past as a precursor for the future, and able to visualize success, create success from the inside of the head and heart out. All things being more or less equal. Of course, that’s why for these students a big part of what we do has to be envisioning their own success, and the path there.

So I tell myself, you knew this would be difficult. You’re doing okay, and getting better every day. You’re learning. They are responding. Everyone makes mistakes and has bad days. You’ll get it–just think how much better you’ll be able to teach once you get through this, with all you’ll know. Having the lesson plans and technical knowledge alone…Start fresh, set a new tone, be clear about the rule on phone use, get them into an entry task each time they come in, make it doable for you, as well as them. Don’t take on too much at a time.

I was planning to launch right into a lab growing peas under different lighting conditions–just enough time to wrap it up before quarter end. Found the handout, adapted it for my students, thought how nice it would be to see things popping out of the soil in January. The students had really liked the box of wheat grass I grew under the lights before Christmas–sent it around for a therapeutic brush with the hands and nose-in sniff. Powerful summer smell, as if crushing new summer grass at a picnic in the park. One girl did that freshly back from a teary-eyed phone conversation, and I saw some of the tension so out of her face. Another, a very introverted student with Asperger’s, who’s also going through the health failure of her Dad, who has dementia, actually leaned forward for a second brush.

So those faces were coming forward after I got enough rest, time with my family, son home from college, and beautiful. frosty mornings. I was, I guess, ready to go back in a few days. Then I got sick. The Thursday before the Monday start, I felt the tickle in my throat, and by the next day I was down with a temperature and chills. Resolved to do just a day of that, with the help of lots of watered-down orange juice and some herbal pills. Did that, and was up and about again Saturday, but only to go into the next stage, it turned out so I had to call in a sub, and make a whole new plan that was more user friendly.

Two days at home, and I did get the second sub to at least plant the peas–all wrong, though, despite the written directions. First day back was a relief–much better than the imagined disaster. I replanted the peas in their proper depth and figured out what was what, and I guess finished out the week okay–lights set up, more work on photosynthesis, looking at water plants under the microscope. And by Thursday some conflicts, as expected, and now I have to chat with the principal about “my side of the story of what I sent referrals for six students. Thought I was finally being tough enough, but really I failed to identify the real culprits, both of whom (of course) were good at making me feel I was singling them out, so I sent down paperwork the whole batch–two in one class and three in another.

I don’t like meetings with principals. Takes a lot of effort to remember, as one staff member puts it, to “put on my big girl panties” and take a chill, professional attitude rather than feeling now I’m in trouble–I tried, I tried! He’s a good guy, I’m sure will hear me out, help me figure out a more balanced approach. No. it’s just as well, and I know not everyone in my position could say this, but his attitude is about support, to students and to staff, so I can admit what I feel I did that was not the best.

Thursday (after the referrals) I made new seating plans. I do this with trepidation at this school, wondering who will come to me, alarmed and say they have issues with people passing behind, or can’t get along with so and so, or just that they refuse to change spots. I ran it by the special ed teacher for tips for the class she works with me, tweaked a few things, and went ahead. There were difficulties (I gave candy to those in their proper new seats, encouraged, cajoles, and made minor modifications for others (vision issues, etc.), and in the end only a few had not moved, with the promise of most of them being ready next week. The way I framed it was that I needed to have some students move up so I could support them better, others because they were distracting each other, and the rest got shuffled because of that, can’t be helped. They took that well. I have yet to see how one of the classroom tornadoes, who missed the day of the new seating plan–will take it. She’s smart, talks non-stop, and has no sense of when is a good time to ask what she needs to do to catch up missed work.

I was hoping I’d feel all better from the cold, but my nose is still running (taking a pill helps) and I cough a lot. All data for the new rhinovirus investigation I have planned.

Sorry–I’m just going on and on, can’t see much in what I’m writing, am surprised at the word count, as I didn’t know if I’d have anything to say at all, and maybe I don’t. But trying to show up and write, so thanks for reading.




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Brown cords

I liked his face Not just because it was young and handsome, but because he was open and meant what he said. And didn’t say it for any particular reason. I know that because what he said (by that attempt to analyze) would have been strange. And I know that because I believe that, so there.

He glanced over a few times. sort of as if (I thought later) he had something to say. I sort of half smiles, as one does, brushing with human awareness, something I don’t give enough when I’m shopping.

“I like your cords,” he said, as he passed by the rack of sale items I was perusing.

“What’s that?” I inquired.

“Your cords,” he smiled. “That brown is my favorite color.”

“Thank you. I like them too.”

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Posted by on January 10, 2016 in Places & Experiences