Empowerment through Language...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Does Everyone have TBD?

Ellen DeGeneres is not only a remarkably funny comedian and celebrity, she is also a brilliant writer. I have made it my habit in the course I teach to college honors students to screen Ellen's last stand-up performance that was broadcast on HBO, Here and Now. I like to ask my students to slow down and observe the ordinary, the everyday elements of life. The whole course is based on what a concept I learned from Eric Booth, a method of observation he refers to as reading the world. Ellen fits right into my syllabus.

Along her journey from first premise to last line, Ellen spins a seemingly unraveled thread of humor that always leads us over the hills and curves of her narrative, holding our stomachs to cushion the grip of laughter. She gifts us with the satisfying conclusion of her observations, reflections on our humanness and humor. Ellen impresses us through a mastery of language. She leads us skillfully. Then, she draws near the end of her hour, always stunningly funny. Her convoluted story comes full circle.  It is close to miracle. I marvel each time I watch either of her stage shows. They are poetry and dance.

Ellen uses the literal nature of language as her diving board. She has a remarkable delivery, brilliant with an aside. As she performs, she pays homage to the storyteller comedians of the 1960s. The tones I notice most are Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Moms Mabley, George Carlin, and Lily Tomlin. I also hear Totie Fields, Godfrey Cambridge, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, Alan King, Flip Wilson, and Phyllis Diller. The story must be equal to the punch line but one cannot suffer for the other.

One curve through Here and Now invites us to recognize the newest societal dis-ease: Too Busy Disorder or TBD.

I self-diagnosed the first time I watched the show and now I have to periodically remember to monitor my TBD. I am trying to remember to take the time to take action in ways aside from utilizing the technology available to me. I am trying to remember to read a book just to read - for pure pleasure or curiosity, much less to read all the research and career building material I have piled around me. I have to also remember that reading is a part of my work, not something to try to fit into the daily planner. I cannot be too busy to read. It is kind of like breathing but sometimes I find myself holding my air without even noticing.

I started making my own cards and notepaper with the stamp collection I have developed. I receive a creative satisfaction each time I sit to design some new cards. They are always limited editions. It is satisfying to select the card from my collection that suits the recipient and occasion, then hand write the note with one of my fountain pens, usually purple or turquoise ink. To prepare and mail a card is such a simple act.

This past school year, I sent thank you cards to the principals of the schools I teach in year after year. My residency season in the district was scheduled during the annual budget meetings and I was fully aware of the challenge that the superintendent was facing, along with his Board of Education and entire district staff. I understand what it takes for a principal and a whole school to welcome me to do my work. Many individuals go out of their way to support my success in classrooms. I also know what it takes from the principal's budget. I am honored when administrators make that choice. There are many programs and resources that they could choose to afford their students and teachers but there are principals who invest in my work, my approach, the pedagogy I hope to share. I am grateful.

It is not any easier a time for our school administrators than our teachers. I generally ask for an appointment to speak with them personally. I don't need long, perhaps a 10-minute meeting just to share what my teaching focus for this visit, which classes seem to be responding well, share new resources that I may have brought for the teachers, a short conversation to inform the principal about what I have developed for the school, based on what we have done years past and are now adding to that foundation.  Time to be humans together, both interested in the best for the school. Keeping it short suits their calendars and the TBD they probably have developed over the years.

I should have prefaced that I do not have a "package," which is sometimes difficult in trying to get bookings, to communicate what I can actually offer. I have been in schools at all grade levels long enough now that I do have some processes and activities that I know work, but they will always be tailored to the school's climate and curriculum. Each year I return to a particular school, I add something new, a twist, to what I modeled previously or I find a new approach to the curriculum. It is a creative form of design. It is like making a thank you card. Like making a poem. I can't be too busy for that.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the Flip Side...There Is Joy...

Love love love my kids this year. I nearly always do, but this could prove to be an exceptional group, and an exceptional year for my school. I do hope you can visit. It’s unlike any other school I’ve seen, let alone taught in. Very interesting slice of our district. Poverty and ethnicities. We have a 30-something teacher at 6th grade this year who is a graduate of our school. If you can make it out of the ingrained poverty in that neighborhood, it’s cause for major celebration. Our school psychologist came from Mexico at 5 or 6, enrolled at this school knowing no English, lived in a converted garage with a dirt floor, went on to get her degrees at the region's State College and is thrilled to be back at at her home school. Her parents are illiterate. She says, “We always come back,” which is interesting to me cuz my fiance went to this school, and when his kids were school age, he moved back to the hood and they are going to his school, too. And he works there, doing yard duty at lunch.

1st Grade Teacher, 23 years of certified public education

After my recent post regarding this year's rigorous test scheduling in one friend's 2nd grade class, I received an email from another good friend, also an elementary school teacher in another small to mid-sized urban center in another part of the country. Geography and demographic may vary but the fact that the school year has begun points to commonalities for our schools and the communities they represent. I wanted to share this side of the coin.

Teachers are fiercely dedicated to their work. They have to be to do it well. And they are best at it if they love children/young people. Teachers work in varied settings, schools made in the 1920s of brick, schools built in warm climates with lockers outside in open breezeways, schools in small rooms on native soil, and cinderblock walls of detention centers, or someone's dining room. Teachers will teach wherever they must and with whatever they are afforded. They understand and respect the critical need as well as the miracle that is learning.

Teaching artists, those of us in the fine arts who choose to share our craft and our complusive drive to create in community settings where learning is happening, to help make learning happen,  we harbor a dual passion: the need to express ourselves artistically and the desire to teach what we know about and how we experience the world. We know our art forms can communicate concepts, processes, knowledge of all themes and subjects, in ways that support the standard pedagogy of our nation's classrooms. The holistic education that arts-based learning accents builds more than data regurgitators. The creative space to ponder and experiment in movement, form, color, language, and thought strengthens a different muscle mass.

We also know that our commitment to education does not diminish our identities as artists. In most cases, I argue that the sharing and the creative problem-solving, the critical thinking and asethetic approach to developing lessons and curriculum, the constant inquiry from students actually enhances our craft. The adage is true: teach what you want to learn.

Teachers greet their school year knowing that they have many odds to overcome but the success of their students is the primary objective and they will do whatever they must to support that success. They will advocate for the learners before them. They will withstand all of the obstacles, even if they can see a way that negates the need for the obstacle. They deserve their salaries, they deserve the resources it takes to teach our children well. But our political climate is fostering a tone that spins those expectations so that they seem to be asking for too much. The devaluation of the American citizenry is becoming more and more obvious in the Monopoly game strategy of our current legislators. Teachers are the front line of this battle and they fight for themselves and the right to a safe, productive workplace. They also fight for families. They fight to insure the future that, Monday through Friday, is walking off the bus, being dropped off by an SUV, or walking neighborhood streets to the front doors of America's schools. It doesn't matter public or private, charter or home school, rural or urban. School is often the place where our children discover and develop their own capacity for learning or it is squelched.

I teach in two school districts that employ many teachers who have returned to the schools they attended, a connection similar to the lineage detailed in the opening quote. I also teach periodically in the district from which I not only graduated after completing all 12 grades but the district that first fostered me as a young writer.

Teaching artists live day by day often, patching together a quilt of jobs to make it through, all in the hopes of creating more time for making art. It is still another chicken vs. the confusing egg koan of modern life. We are often vulnerable in this economy and current tone of politics. We understand why teachers need unions. We too stand as an element of society that is on the front line for funding, respect, and recognition of our value.

We also understand why a teacher is gleeful when a child is empowered by his own achievement. It is not about the product, but the wonder, as my dear friend and role model, Richard Lewis (Touchstone Center for Children), has shown in his many years of working with young people. The end product of the good grade or a piece of art, to take home is a wonderful affirmation. There is no denying that. But what first makes a person choose to teach, select a career in education in any form, and then to consider returning to the school they attended? It can only be that it was safe, it was nurturing, it created a space for wonder, achievement, community, a home.

Our educators create all that and more. My many teacher friends illustrate this all the time. Teachers protect, observe, and advocate for those in our society who have little choice in what direction their own lives may be driven yet must adapt, our youth. My teaching artist friends are driven by the same fuel. My friends who teach are passionately committed and that is why they speak what they witness. This is why I reflect what they speak to you. I share the passion. I recognize the joy. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Digging Yellow Dock Is Always A Potent Metaphor

Saturday morning, fairly early and definitely quiet. I am bearing witness to the slow waking of my neighborhood, the first weekend the students are back. Classes start Monday. The tone has changed. Still, over the trill of crickets and songbirds' breakfast chatter, a church bell sounds in the distance, signal that morning mass is over. The miracle has happened once again. The sun is gentle and crisp.

In the past week, I have been systematically addressing the 2 years of overgrowth in my garden. I have to be gentle with my back so I have to limit my time but, if I am consistent, I can make good progress. I always identified with the tortoise when I was a kid.

Since we have also had consistent rain this week, coupled with the end of season pacing that allows the roots to flex their muscles less, the soil is perfect for disruption.

I have to decide how I want to redefine the form and texture of this garden, now that the sister maples are gone. The stump mulch I convinced the arborists to leave behind has been fully incorporated into my garden and the neighbor's yard. There is a topography now to play with, as well as new planting options since there is so much more light. I can return to my interplay with rocks. I know there are some that are ready to be off the ground, ready cause confusion and marvel with their acrobatics as they balance in musical ways. 

I dig weeds best when I am working through some new level of healing or awareness. This has been another summer of facing zero income and redefining my work plan. It is the summer of my 40th high school reunion, a significant milestone. It is the summer of my recommitment, after considerable review, to the work, the learning, the journey of my identity as both poet and educator.

There are so many ways I can express all of the ideas that swirl through my brain, much like Hurricane Irene this morning, slapping the east coast with her outrage. Somewhere I find the eye of the frenzy as I dislodge the deepest tap of the dock root or chicory. Fear is exorcised and everything becomes clear  for a few moments. I ignore the incessant ringing of the phone inside the house, bill collectors and those who anticipate I am available. I am working. I am not obliged to answer quite yet. I am writing and I am strengthening, readying for the next phase of both my life and my sometimes awkward career path. 

I do this work because I want to share all the ways I am excited about language and communication. I love the making of poems. I love the ways people know each other and themselves better through the many masks poetry may wear in connecting with human understanding. How they discover and thrive in their own creation or comprehension. I find tremendous satisfaction in sharing this art that I adore, this way of engaging in life.

I love music. I like poems for that reason too. 

I am creating a patchwork quilt of work to sustain me, hoping I get through and build a stability once again. I am becoming more and more vigilant in my reaching out to readers and advocates.  There is work and I will find it. Or the people who will benefit from my perspective and my approach to learning and writing will find me. There is purpose in what I do, what Quraysh and I have created in our dialogue that became our book.

One of the unanticipated lessons in writing Our Difficult Sunlight has been discovering that I like to write prose. It is why I am offering more through the blog as well. I am a writer. This forum has become a consistent part of my practice. 

The other day, someone asked me how I had time to write if I am blogging regularly. I responded that this is writing. I also realized that I am just taking some time away from poetry. I value the quiet times. Like Saturday morning in the yard. A time for review and redefinition. A time for the fluster of a flock of powdery brown little budgies chasing to the far side of the street to perch on the church railing.

Besides, when the air smells like ice cubes melting on a countertop and the bird commentary echoes The View, I can retreat from the deadlines, the proposal concepts, snippets of poems, agendas, calendars, and urgent communication, the marketing plan, the storm in my brain. I can stop typing now to watch the daddylonglegs stroll the bind weed that has adopted my front railing. I can write. It is my passion, my entertainment, my art, my mission, it is my work. It is my identity. 

I have dug very deep to attain that knowledge. I vow again: Onward. As directed one New Year's by my dear friend Phil, Proceed and be bold. 

I can return to my pitchfork and weed weasel, as I am about to do.

I trust the work will come. I have many irons in the fire. I have been creating options and choices. Each time I have reached a roadblock, I have regrouped and charted an alternate course. I hope I am right. I would like to not struggle so much but that may be contrary to the dharma anyway, so I dig deep, loosen the tangle of overgrowth, listen to the devas as they help me design the planned community of my front garden, how the wind chime choruses their recommendations. It is all part of the revision process, the eternal thumb puzzle that is my life (to quote my friend Brian).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

School Daze...School Daze...

Thank you for your continued understanding and support.  Latest idiocy from the district - we are going to be giving up over a month of critical ELA instruction to test the kids.  There will be 7 unit tests - including giving the end-of-the-year test the 2nd week of school, as well as at the end of the year.  Then there are computer tests 3 times a year.  Then there are dibels testing 3 times a year.  Then there is prep for the state test, and finally 3 days of state tests themselves.   As I've said before, it's like my continuous diets.  Let's just keep on getting on the scale, but don't change eating habits at all.

God help us all!

The quote above is from an email from a colleague who teaches 2nd grade in advance of this new school year in a mid-sized urban school district. This teacher is closing in on retirement eligibility within the next couple of years. This teacher reflects the plight of teachers all over the country, teachers who have dedicated their lives to educating our children. Passionate teachers who are now facing retirement have seen countless reform initiatives and never have those initiatives stood in the way of the care teachers have for children. But the current state of education is definitely impeding teacher passion for their work because of the unreasonable and often unfounded choices they must comply with any given school year.

I have seen fabulous teachers planning their exit strategy who fully know not only how to teach but how to properly and thoroughly assess the learning evident in their students. It is not because they are lousy teachers or they do not love kids. It is because the business of education is as broken as much of the rest of our system in this nation. It is because of the dehumanizing of the national climate of education. It may be that the media and the current wave of reformers are placing the greatest weight of the failures of our schools on the shoulders of teachers. 

In a recent conversation on Book TV's program Afterwords, between Diane Ravitch and Steven Brill, Brill cites a teacher in New York City barking at students as he shouts inane questions at his students, feet up on his desk. I find it very difficult to believe that this was a firsthand observation, rather than a reflection of someone else's story. I cannot imagine any teacher being so lax while being observed by outsiders.

This rant in the nation about the impact of bad teachers is a filmy argument. There are inept practitioners in any field and they are always the minority. The current demonization of both the unions, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Teachers Union) in particular, and teachers in general offends my intelligence.

I have seen Michelle Rhee and members of the press gang up on Ms. Weingarten over and over in panel discussions. It seems the charter school reformists are the newest teacher's pets of Washington. I hear Ms. Weingarten stating over and over that teachers should be evaluated, as should students, but the playing field has to be equal and teachers need to be afforded all the needs and resources possible to insure their success, much less provided a healthy and vital workplace. This includes validation as to their own level of expertise. This includes a viable income. It includes quality and consistent professional development.

But it also includes access to the supplies necessary to serve the students well. This playing field must allow for students to be well-nourished, rested, clothed appropriately for their climates, and to have support in dealing with and healing from outside influences that impact learning. Few of these new reformists seem to be even the least bit willing to address this issue, much less our legislators.

On the other hand, reformer Geoffrey Canada proposed that the best teachers be recruited for and retained in poverty-ridden schools by offering considerable signing bonuses and significantly higher salaries. His logic was that the less able teachers would be less of an obstacle in districts where the income supported higher school taxes, thus more resources, not to mention the benefits affordable outside of school, such as tutoring, private lessons, extra-curricular sports, etc.

We have got to look through a clear lens here. We have to pay attention to the plight of what teaching to these assessment tests only does to the quality of daily instruction. I took tests in school but they were in relation to my teacher's curriculum. Then I carted home my green report card with the gauge of my success as a student several times a year. Once a year, I took the famous Iowa Test along with everyone in my school district. I was extremely intimidated. I later realized that I am not a good test-taker. I panic. I am much like many people and certainly many students. But we took the test with our #2 pencils poised to fill in the bubbles. Then, the next day, we got back to learning. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Put Your Efforts Where Your Mouth Is...

Yesterday I watched a discussion on CSPAN2/Book TV between Diane Ravitch and Steven Brill as they debated issues and concerns regarding the current state of American education on the show Afterwords.

Here we have two people who are obviously invested in the current state of education in our nation, as we all should be. One of them has the newest book on the market, written by a professional journalist who admitted in the conversation that he was motivated to investigate educational issues after he heard about the infamous "Rubber Rooms" in New York City. He is noted for creating "Court TV." He completed law school but clarified Ms. Ravitch's stating that he was a lawyer by explaining that he did not take the bar exam. Most likely a well-meaning fellow. With a book that is getting a lot of press.

Diane Ravitch has 40 years of teaching and writing on the history of education. She has experience working with the first President Bush on national education reform and with numerous think tanks studying educational policy. She also has a recent book that looks at the concerns from a place of her study, her practical application, and her data, one of several.

Steven Brill anticipated antagonism so,in turn and without warrant often, he created it throughout the whole hour. It was supposed to be an interview but it was a dialogue and at times bordered on argument. I have to stand on the side of Diane Ravitch, who has dedicated her whole career to the subject that Brill, the journalist, has just opened his eyes to, and upon which he has churned out a book now that he has become enlightened to the problem.

Good for him that he took some action. He wrote a book to call people to the cause. But does he miss the real point? I have not yet read the book and I feel obliged to do so. But I believe I am going to be annoyed when I do; I can tell from his performance on Book TV.

There is plenty on the internet to give some insight and substantiation of my perception. Search out the reviews. View the episode of Afterwords yourself. But what I really want to suggest is that there should be some sort of mechanism to allow these people to try education on for size. Actor Tony Danza tried with his reality show, Teach. He had to teach two classes for one year. Twenty-six students who met the "casting call." He was reduced to tears. His show was cancelled before the complete run. Cameras left school in April. Tony left in June. He did not return nor is he pursuing permanent certification. He understands how hard it is.

So for those who are considering school reform, for instance, Steven Brill, here's an idea: go teach in any school of your choice for one month. Pick your grade level. Pick a subject if you are in secondary school. Work all day. Administer pre-tests, design lesson plans, learn your students' names, teach them all day, grade papers, council students and meet with parents, take lunchroom duty, proctor in-school suspension, monitor study hall, attend faculty meetings, and then administer post-tests and assess the quality and retention of learning based on your work. Then receive evaluation of your effectiveness as a teacher. You will be permitted to take a vacation after that 4 weeks. You will need it. Then tell us about how badly teachers perform in America. Then you can speak authentically about teachers unions, charter schools vs. public schools, and what you understand about the challenges to teaching our youth and the level of support any teacher receives in being professionally prepared for what will happen in that classroom daily.

I suggest this very same for all of our federal legislators before they debate on funding for education. People do not understand. For years I have heard people tell me that teachers have an easy job. Oh yeah...just try it.

I am in numerous schools throughout the year, in urban, suburban, and rural settings. The average adult worker could not do this job. I see it through a clear and large lens. Don't believe the myth of all the vacation time and short hours. These are the people who are shepherding our youth toward their future. Have some respect for those in whom many of us are placing the responsibility of raising our children. They are so much more important than a judge on American Idol or a professional athlete, so much more worthy of our respect, if not our devotion and idolatry.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Compulsions Drive Me Incessantly

I have many obsessions, compulsions, and inspirational activities. I keep many lists, I like even numbers better than odd, my silverware drawer must be just so at all times.
I also incessantly review, revise, and self-edit. So, first things first...I reread my post of the other day and found a great typo, thinking poetically. What should have been eminent domain was posted by my fingers as imminent domain. I like the pun. I am often delighted by puns so this works; however, I wanted to be sure my readers see that I do recognize the difference. 
My other obsession is for word games. I adore Scrabble, Super Scrabble, and the game of all games, Boggle. The problem is that these are interactive games that require at least one other player as well as keeping score. My sister-in-law, Susan, introduced me to a new one this week: Bananagrams. It is like Scrabble with no board and you play your own words by yourself, while your other friends create their grids. And the tiles come in a cute little banana pouch that looks like a yellow fanny pack. What more could a word geek ask for? You can play with others or you can play by yourself! Yippee.
I have researched E-Bay for the game at a discount but, with shipping, it will be the same as buying new. I know what I want when I have an extra $15 to splurge. I also know how to resolved some holiday gift ideas in December. Ah, yes...I am starting my list. Perhaps I will plan ahead this year. Until then, I will just raid the Scrabble tiles and play with the same concentration that I apply to the many versions of Solitaire that can consume me on a rainy afternoon.