Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Break! Also, Bragging about My Students.

And not a moment too soon! The kids and I were all getting tired and cranky.

I must say that I have been very proud of my kids for the past few weeks. We have been doing our drama unit, which in the eighth grade means reading "The Diary of Anne Frank." This text is often the introduction of empathy for a lot of young people, because it is so mind-blowing a premise. I can almost literally watch them realizing: There were people, in recent enough history that my teachers can talk about their grandparents' experiences, that wanted to kill other people -- even KIDS -- because of the 'church' they attended. (The town I teach in is not religiously diverse at all. Everybody goes to the same church, therefore religion = church.) But you can't save yourself by changing your church, because the people who wished to kill you were after your whole 'race.' And, unlike the movies and the church stories they are accustomed to hearing/seeing, Good didn't win. Not really. Millions of innocent people were tortured and killed before this evil was stopped. It's terrifying.

In the past, I've had some students who handled the terror by distancing themselves from the people being oppressed, but this year with the help of Eve Bunting and Martin Niemoeller the students were able to see the danger in that tactic.

My students have been fascinated, and terrified, and really INFURIATED about what happened to Anne Frank and the other residents of "the annexe," and about what happened to the other children in Europe. They have demanded to know why the US government didn't save Anne and Peter and Margot, where the hell the international community was while this was going on.

When they asked me to reassure them that genocides are relics of the past, and I told them I couldn't do that, they started looking up recent genocides.

They have started watching the news to make sure the US is "doing the right thing" in other cases of oppression, and almost started a protest march on DC regarding the situation in Libya.

They have netflixed movies and watched PBS and read online articles and gone to the Holocaust Memorial Museum with their parents on the weekend and researched Nazis and Jewish history (They have a thing for the maccabbees ever since Act 1, Scene 5.), and all this without my asking them to do any of it. So that every day, at least one of my students will come in with something to teach me about the Holocaust.

They have been just amazing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In which the blogger avoids actual pressing work in order to publicly make a shallow, solipsistic observation

It occurs to me that perhaps my fascination with the middle ages began with the understanding that seriously commitmentphobic behavior was codified and exalted as representative of perfect, chivalrous love. These are my people. Only, you know, shorter and more likely to die from a minor infection.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Dark Horse Resolutions

My best resolutions always come quietly, usually emerging from some area of my life I hadn't even known I was thinking about changing. This happens approximately two weeks into the new year, when I have had time to nurse my Christmas cookie hangover, and deal with the official aging that happens in that time. For example, this past week I celebrated my four year anniversary of quitting smoking. Not coincidentally, I also celebrated four years bronchitis-free the same day.

This year, after my last post considering what I should do to better myself and immediately alter my life so that it includes either louder desperation or less deperate quiet, I have given myself permission to have twelve mini-resolutions. So, I shall try on new lifestyles, habits, thought patterns, shoes, what-have-you for thirty days each and see which ones are worth keeping. Hell, 98% of resolutions die by February anyway, right? Might as well build in obsolescence and give myself a chance at twelve small victories rather than one big eleven-month long failure.

Ten days in, I decided January is vegetarianism and intellectual reawakening month, because I am bored as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!

I'll start with vegetarianism. I wish I could say this was a moral choice and I'm a good person and all that. I can't make such lofty claims with a straight face, though. Anyone who has ever heard me talk of my experiences as a toddler and small child being sent out to feed the miserable bastard chickens knows that I cannot be compelled to eschew meat based on the helpless animals theory. This is a lifelong vendetta, friends, and the chickens clearly started it. No, this choice is mainly to give the kidneys a break from all the very hard work they have been doing, force myself to find those vegetarian recipes I keep swearing I'll find and learn, and just give myself a challenge big enough to shake my deadly-dull life up a bit. Nothing says paradigm shift quite like steamed asparagus and almond slices, after all. It's now day 8 of the 30 day vegetarian challenge, and I have had some success. I found a veggie chili recipe that is very yummy, for instance. Since I am not going vegan for the month, I also find I can have a slice of what passes for pizza in DC without feeling gross about it because I have been eating vegetables all day.

So, the first week went very well, and was quite an easy transition. I mean, rice and beans, peanut butter and apples, carrots and hummus are all quite good. I have lots of energy, and wake up annoyingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the mornings. My diet alerts come when I get to the end of a day and realize I have not eaten enough fat! Emergency bruschetta, heavy on the olive oil, STAT! There is a challenge looming, however, in that for the past two days I have been fucking starving, no matter what or how much I eat. My calorie intake is just fine, I've been checking, and my protein intake is low normal, but normal. So, I hope I will be able to figure out the trouble there before I eat the houseplants or gain fifty pounds in excess pasta.

Intellectual awakening is lumbering along in fits and starts.
  • I started by trying to read popular non-fiction and self-helpish type stuff, when it occured to me that the authors of such books assume that their primary audience is barely literate, a little simple, and unable to suss out the great piles of festering herring said authors deposit on the page. I mean, generally. I'm sure there is a self-help author who is brilliant and insightful, but my local library does not feature that author's works.
  • Due to a little known corollary to Newton's First Law which reads "An object in sweat pants tends to stay in sweat pants," I have not been able to drag my sorry ass out to the (free and metro-accessible!) museums that all exist within ten miles of my house before their 5pm closing times on weekends.
  • I have signed up for a Continuing Education class that is technically supposed to be at graduate level, but having perused the syllabus I will say that it is clearly not. Still, it's a chance to think new things, buy new books, and have new conversations with people I didn't previously know.
  • I have been using the tubes, catching up on blog posts by more serious minded individuals than myself, and reading the letter collections put up by Columbia's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Epistol√¶. There are letters from Hrotsvit!

So, that's all you never asked about my January. Fascinating, no? Alas, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

As Yet Unresolved

God, I'm always late! The Gregorian year started 37 hours ago and I still don't know what direction I want it to take. This is not unprecedented. Slightly over four years ago, on January 14th, I quit smoking. A few years before that, on April 1st, I started exercising. I have to start that up again, actually, but I'm still feeling a nasty foot & ankle sprain I suffered this summer. I feel it a lot more after half an hour on the treadmill, so that now my mind believes that I should avoid the gym, as that room contains pain. I also live in a building with a lot of military folk, and I tend to get competitive. So I keep hurting myself trying to prove to Navy Seals that I can totally do everything they can do.

I tried resolving not to be late anymore for about 15 years straight, and all that did was increase my guilt about my perpetual lateness. I was born a month late. After fits and starts that lasted a decade, I finally settled on two majors and committed myself to completing a university education at 27. That was the commitment, not the finish date. Lateness is not a trait I can easily overcome.

My entire diet yesterday consisted of coffee, oranges, water, and ghirardelli squares, so I think making this the year I eat perfectly is quite out of the question. By the way, oranges and ghirardelli squares go really well together, provided you avoid the mint ones.

I have already lied to my journal.

My niece showed me how to play Sims 3 over the break, and I had a commitmentphobic panic attack when my avatar's boyfriend proposed to her. I'm talking cold sweats here, people. So, perhaps better relationships might be a bit farther off than twelve months.

So, my remaining candidates for 2011 are:
1. Get rid of as many old debts as possible.

  • Student loans will take a bit longer than a year, provided I don't win the lottery, but there are some $30 kitchen gadgets I have paid the credit card companies for twice over in minimum payments, while still owing $20. That pisses me off.

2. Get more selfish with my time.

  • At Work: I have been working insane hours to try to make every lesson a) fit the new profile my admin is demanding based on whatever they saw in their last meeting, and b) be a little fun for the kids. Fortunately, combining the perspicacity of my admin and coaches and the number of different things that have to go on simultaneously in a room that is truly serving the needs of all 36 students, I think I have a little room to wiggle out of much of (a) without anyone being any the wiser.
  • At Home: Some (a lot) of those work hours spill over into home hours. And so, though I want to read, I find myself reading mostly YA literature, when I really want to be reading books I enjoy because I enjoy them, and not books that I am vetting for kids.

3. Spend more time with friends, even if the friends are long-distance, and the time needs to be spent over the phone.

4. Recultivate the interests and passions that make me a person worth knowing. I have become mind-numbingly tedious lately. I mrean, I would walk away from me in an effort to find someone better to be around if I weren't attached. All work and no play, you know. So: Go to the theater. Go to the museums. Enjoy what the world has to offer.

5. Finally get good at typing "the right way." My hunt and peck typing is about 75 wpm. When I go to the home keys and try to be fussy about it, I slow down to about 25 wpm. Which would indicate that I should keep to hunt and pack, except the 11 year-olds who are coming in from Teach For America have apparently been typing since they were zygotes, and can type 'properly' at between 100-125 wpm. This makes me jealous. See previous point about Navy Seals and injuries.

6-10. I'll come up with five more things tomorrow. Maybe something about procrastination?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season, and wish you all a joyous new year. For my part, I got to see the sunrise over the NYC skyline as I drove home this morning, and I take that as a good start to this year!

(This is not my picture. I was driving. I swiped this one from Google images.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thinking through a Conundrum

Sometimes a very bad week is followed by an even worse week, and so it has been with me.

I want to preface my comments by saying that I generally believe I have a good relationship with my students. That said, they are pre-pubescent and neo-pubescent kids, and that moment in life comes with some emotional implications. One of those implications is the tendency to either love or hate, with very little in between. Another is the burning need for vengeance when faced with a firm ‘no.’ It’s a little like dealing with short borderline personality disorder sufferers with poor hygiene. Last Friday I gave unofficial, but still complete, progress reports to 75% of my students. The news was disappointing to many of them, and in at least one case I moved firmly into the hate column. (I guess I ruined Christmas by telling his parents his grade.)

I must also tell you that, up until quite recently, I maintained two Facebook pages: One for my personal use, and one teacher page for the kids to ‘friend’ me and send me bad videos made by ugly people who can’t sing. (Yeah, I am getting old. So?) In the past few weeks, I added a batch of kids who ‘friended’ me, and I also added my school photo to the profile, where once there had only been a cartoon drawn by a previous student.

You likely know where this is going by now. Friday I gave out progress reports, and Saturday afternoon one of my students copied my school photo, created a Facebook page with my photo and in my name, and began adding pornographic pictures and status updates to match. They indicated that I am a teacher, and in which town on the profile, but listed my education as “Slut University.” I won’t get into specifics, but they had clear, if inelegant, theories as to why a male teacher and I are friends. Based on these theories, I can conclude that the designer of the page likes him significantly better than me and that said designer has some very fucked up views of what is sexy. By Monday, the majority of the children in the school had seen it. I noticed an odd uptick in the number of boys who mentioned my Facebook page before and during first period, but since I had just added a bunch of kids as friends to the legit teacher page, I didn’t think of it much.

Then between first and second period, two of my girls pulled me aside and told me they needed to talk to me. We went into the hallway for a moment, and they pulled out their smart phones and showed me the page. My head was spinning. All I could think was that I now had to tell a friend who has always been hyper-vigilant about his online persona that he was collateral damage in an attack on me. I was not looking forward to that. I thanked them sincerely for showing me the page, probably three times, and then we went back to class. The students in the class asked me “Are you OK?” the moment I walked in, and I’m not sure if that’s because what I was feeling was showing or because they knew what my two brave girls were about to show me. I assured them I was fine, and the period progressed as normally as is possible when the teacher is thinking about everything but the lesson. Not least among my thoughts was that I had just said goodbye and happy retirement to the therapist I engaged to get me through my first year without mom, and wondered if I could convince her to put off that retirement for a little while. There was also the concern that I would see news vans pulling up to the school before I could get in touch with my principal.

There was some searching involved, but I finally found the principal in conversation with my friend. I notified him that I needed to speak with him ASAP, and then nodded at friend and said “you too.” I insisted on a private space to have this conversation that everyone in the school except the adults knew about anyway, then sat in my principal’s office and described what had happened. My Principal was OK about it. He started to advise me to go through the district’s people to deal with it right then, but as he was looking for the number remembered that the district has a history of victim-blaming with bullying even when children are involved, and they have no legal requirement to try to protect a teacher. So, they would likely comb through my emails and online activities and see if I sent any personal emails or checked my bank balance online while at work, so they could have reason to reprimand me or get rid of me if this became embarrassing. They would probably ask questions, trying to make my teacher Facebook page seem somehow malevolent, ask me why I let children get a copy of my school photo, start seeking out reasons why it was reasonable for the kids to assume and state outright that I was a total slut. At the very least, it would put my name ‘on a certain radar’ which would make things difficult for me. And I was upset about that assertion, but I also know it to be true. I have recently ranted about the ‘no cell phone on campus’ policy that was the district’s answer to a bullied kid taking film evidence of his bullying to the news after he couldn’t get the district to protect him. I followed his advice to try on my own first, then went off to find friend and inform him of his place in the problem. He was OK about it, too. Very supportive, though I know it pained him personally to have his name attached to anything unseemly online after a decade and change of careful monitoring to prevent just that.

And then I started to meltdown, waiting for the day to end, and I knew I had my most challenging/most in need of me at my best class coming up, and I knew that was a recipe for disaster. So, I went home to start working on the issue RIGHT AWAY. I reported the page to Facebook in the only way they have available to do that. (Seriously? No phone numbers or email?) They managed to get the site down after just a few hours. So, it was likely gone before any children came home from school.

And then this bizarre emotional state of alternating numbness and intense hurt took over. This has been exacerbated by being met at many turns with boys telling me that they saw my page or ‘friended’ me on Facebook, because seeing a teacher humiliated is funny, sex is funny, and this teacher was humiliated publicly with sex, so that’s just hilarious. To them. I see it somewhat differently. When I am being generous, I comfort myself with knowing that the boys who say these things are not my own students, usually. But then I remind myself that one of my students clearly did this, so my boys probably aren’t asking because they know I have their parent’s phone number. Many of my girls have been caring, but then several other girls were listed as friends on the fake site. So, this is a clear indication of where I stand with the kids, and that is not where I thought I stood at all. Not even close.

And then there’s the problem that always comes up when a teacher wants to complain about the treatment she receives at the hands of her kids. What did the teacher do to deserve this? Why don’t the kids respect her/him? Why hasn’t the teacher connected better with her students? And it’s that, more than the sex thing, which haunts me when I tell someone about this, or want to. In my mind I wonder what judgments they are making about me as a teacher and person. I alluded to bi-partisan support for the notion that teachers ain’t shit in my previous post, and in situations like this that idea radiates off people.

I stumbled through the past two days, barely, wondering why my kids supported this page, why they thought it was so funny, and why the hell my administrators weren’t trying to figure out who did this. They tell me it’s because it didn’t happen at school, but I know that there are loopholes that allow the inclusion of cyber-attacks in our code of conduct.

I want to defend myself somehow, and consider filing a criminal complaint since the school won’t help me. Yes, against a child. But then, I know that the district and the news people and everyone, every time, assumes the teacher did something to provoke an attack like this. And I just don’t know if I have the emotional, physical and financial strength to defend myself. Yes, against a child.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Moment I Started Hating Teaching

I had a rough week this week.

The administration has decided that we will teach according to an entirely new model, a different philosophy from the last two "all-in" philosophies we have had, and they gave us two days to set that up in the classroom. As you may imagine, this abrupt change is quite a disruptive force in the middle of the second quarter. As you may also imagine, changing your whole philosophy of education because someone has informed you that your philosophy changed is a bit disconcerting. And this week was when the change was to be implemented. I also got a new co-teacher this week. Integrating all these changes required A LOT of extra work and planning from me. I was up until 12:30 every night trying to pull it together for the next day, every day. By Thursday morning I was screaming at the alarm clock about the ridiculous requirement that I do this 18 hour day AGAIN. So, for most of the week I hated the administration's imperiousness, and I hated myself for my weakness in complying with yet another unreasonable request.

And then I had a parent conference on Thursday that went very well, actually, but included a grandmother whose grandchild calls her what my nieces and nephews used to call my mom. I have never before this heard of anyone whose grandchildren call her this nickname, other than my mom. So, ouch. For a moment I hated Fate's cruelty.

I was also informed that one of my students' fathers has demanded that his son be pulled from my class because I obviously don't like the child. This because I refused to let him leave the classroom until he had done enough work to indicate that he needed a break. This is what we do with children who have breaks built into their schedule, and this child does not have that accomodation. However, he does fail my assignments on a regular basis by simply refusing to do them, so I must be out to get him. The colleague who inherited the child informed me tersely that my race is the problem here, and I have much to learn about the culture. This same colleague does not allow any child to leave her classroom at any time, regardless of their 504 and IEP accomodations. She has also considered the whiteness of another colleague problematic when she wanted to visit a museum before lunch rather than after on a field trip. But, you know, however well I intellectually know that the problem here is hers, assigning me a category as less effective or ignorant based on my race and not on my actions was hurtful. For a while I hated the defensiveness of the father and the racism of my colleague. The kid I remain neutral on, since he hasn't really done much of anything good or bad to create a strong opinion.

The "coach" who was assigned to our school (the only middle school in our district to make significant gains every year for the past five years) after her previous school failed and was taken over, dropped into my class today. The extra test-prep class, which my principal has decided should be available until the state tests, is being organized. The coach has a vision. After so degrading and demoralizing our department with constant hectoring about all the things we do inadequately, after decimating the morale of my colleagues, and after talking our pedagogical skill down in public meetings at which representatives from many more schools than ours were present, after convincing administration to turn our core classes into glorified Kaplan courses, and making it clear to me that the only way to save my reputation was to step down from leadership so my name does not appear on the gross educational misfeasance and malfeasance she is perpetrating on my department, she has a vision. And so our latter-day prophet of education felt the need to share her vision with me. That vision for the test-prep workshop ironically does not include test prep, but is rather a nebulous, unstructured literature appreciation course for boys. There will also be a T-shirt designing contest, so they can have something "cool" to wear on meeting days. Because homemade t-shirts are cool to twelve year-old boys. And, since they are boys, we must have multi-media projects, because boys dig the technology. Except our boys dig sports and fashion and fear technology, but why rely on knowledge of your kids when there are stereotypes you can play to instead? I hated her ignorance and arrogance.

Then Friday, I was working with the children on editing the personal narratives I have assigned them. I told them, if they were stuck, to write about a moment or a person who changed their life. Rookie mistake. I read about rapes, parental abuse and neglect, police brutality, crushing poverty, and homes so dysfunctional that the children wish they could stay at school until bedtime. By the time there were two hours left in the day, I was having a very hard time refraining from the tears I knew would make the children who trusted me enough to tell me these secrets self-conscious. For those two hours, I hated the world. Intensely.

I notified a friend, who wrangled up enough coworkers for happy hour so I wouldn't have to ask the man at the ABC for his finest gallon of vodka and a straw to get over this week. I went home to pick up the cell phone I neglected to pack Friday morning. Service was not available because I had been neglecting to pay the bill due to the furloughs this year cutting my funds so that they are just high enough, after student loans, to prevent putting me into overdraft every other month if I am very careful with my money. I was not careful In November. I paid the bill (payday), fed the cat, and went to meet my friends at an establishment with entirely too much Republican and Church propaganda on the walls, but waitstaff with exotic accents. So, there's that. Plus, the place had Guinness on tap, and some fine, hearty peasant food that reminded me of a time before student loans and teaching, when I could afford to travel. (Peasant food is always the best tasting in every country, though often not recommended by modern nutritionists.) I simultaneously hated the graduate school that paid English grads at 1/9th the rate of every other discipline because they subscribed to the same school of thought as Fanny Price's aunts regarding the training of those who will be mistreated later in life, Ratzinger, the profligacy of the last Superintendent of Schools in my district, Reaganomics, Congress, and myself for allowing this string of indignities to get me down rather than piss me off.

Then, while we were out as colleagues, talking about our lives and our jobs, and our futures, a friend who still goes to some meetings this coach of doom attends to talk about how she is the superman that our school has been waiting for (because our teachers are so ignorant in the art of teaching) texted me to notify me, laughingly, about the newest statements being made by my coach about my department. It seems that someone at the most recent meeting made a comment about the exceptionally broad knowledge-base of the teachers in our school. This person was thinking particularly of another department, not English, but our coach interjected with a correction just the same. It seems that our department is deplorably ignorant about language and literature, and requires as a whole constant, exhausting instruction in the very basics of our specialty area. This from a woman I had to correct three times before she reluctantly conceded that Dickenson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" might not be a poem about poor self-esteem and wishing people would notice one. This woman whose readings of literature are frequently so off-base as to be laughable, and whose accompanying arrogance would be laughable if our administration were more willing to deny her requests, finds me and my colleagues plain stupid. And for the rest of the night I hated her, and the fact that my friend requires my discretion to prevent blowback from coming at her for her betrayal of the goings on in the meeting.

Then, this weekend, I started thinking about all the skills I will teach this week, in exactly the prescribed way, because I have no right to intellect or creativity or autonomy of any kind in my school. I started to rebel a bit inside, and then thought about the fact that I do not have a go to hell fund that allows me to quit my job. Plus, the kids need a teacher. When I started the year with them, I made a commitment to teach them for a year, provided there were no dire circumstances pulling me away. But then I thought about the education I am providing. The narrow focus on literacy and convergent thinking I am forced by my school and current legislation to keep does not prepare my students in the way I wanted to prepare them for citizenship of a town, state and country. It doesn't make them able to excel in anything other than following orders. It doesn't make them critical thinkers who will hold their government to high standards. I am becoming the teacher I was warned against becoming, a teacher who covers material and prepares kids for tests, but doesn't educate them.

Now, let's imagine that I can get reformers and saviors and politicians and other ignoramuses out of my room for a few minutes, and I 'go rogue' and actually teach something useful to kids who are dying to learn. Will it be enough to make them educated people? If we all do that, will our kids have enough sense, ten years from now, to come back and demand to know why we taught them testing skills but not thinking skills? If they do, what will I tell them? Will they be educated enough by those secreted dribs and drabs of critical thinking training by then to know that my Nuremberg defense is an unacceptable answer? Since I know that now, and I know I am cravenly saving my job by electing not to heed my calling, what exactly am I doing?

And it is with those thoughts ricocheted around my head that I realize that I have begun to hate teaching. Really hate it. I hate it so much that I can't even hear the politicos of both sides calling me, by turns, fascist and communist over my own seething rage at myself and my country. I hate it so much that even my students, whom I love, just add to my pain because I know what I - coerced by No Child Left Behind - am doing to them. I hate it so much that I am blogging about my hate for myself and my professional compromises rather than writing lesson plans I know won't help my kids in any meaningful way.