Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there*

I haven't read the newspaper in days. It's not that I don't think it's important to be informed. I do. It's just that some days I can't take it. Like many citizens of humanity, I often find myself feeling depressed and hopeless about the state of the world. But I am routinely reminded that this sense of despair exists only because my attention is focused on the wrong things. Like newspapers instead of people.

Newspapers provide valuable information about what's going on in the world around us, but they rarely tell us much at all about the tiny slivers of the world we each inhabit. It is from these little patches of the world -- OUR patches -- that we can draw inspiration, because it is here that we're most likely to encounter everyday people doing small things with great love.

Take the man I met with this afternoon, for example. He's an organic farmer who runs a small
Community Supported Agriculture program. He is also, as he told me, "committed to being a force of education in this world," which is why he's willing not only to come talk to my city kids about farming but also to allow them to visit him en masse and tromp around on his farm for a day.

Farmer John is as committed to organic agriculture as he is to education, and his CSA program is small simply because his farm is; in his second year of business he has a waiting list 200 families-long. That's not just cool for Farmer John, it also means there are at least 200 other everyday people out there who care about supporting family farmers, preserving our environment, and making the world a better place.

Wendell Berry would be ecstatic. And because I was reminded of Mr. Berry as I talked with Farmer John about farming and sustainability and peak oil and voting with your wallet, I give you this, one of my (and everyone else's) favorite Wendell Berry poems:

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry, 1973

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

*another poetry reference: "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams, 1955

Monday, March 26, 2007

Biblio- What?

I've been doing a lot of work with word roots in my class lately, mostly because my kids keep calling me over during tests and asking me what certain words mean and then, when I explain, growling, "Dude, why can't they just SAY that then?" through clenched teeth. So I'm trying to teach them how to figure out what words mean without having to ask me. Thus the word roots.

On Friday I gave a test on a variety of different word roots, including biblio (book), phil (love), and mania (craving or obsession). Most of the test involved little more than matching words to their definitions, but I also included a few short answer questions to make sure the kids really knew what the word roots meant. I like to give questions that ask kids for their opinions -- for one thing this freaks them out ("wait, is there a right answer for this?") and for another thing, because there ISN'T a right answer they can pretty much get credit for anything as long as they justify their opinion.

And although I did not intend for the last question on Friday's test to be a source of mirth, many of the answers were indeed humorous. Behold:

Miss F. adores books. She loves to read books, she loves to talk about books, she even sort of enjoys writing reviews of books. In the summer when she's not teaching she works at a bookstore. She owns a lot of books (in fact she owns two copies of some of her favorite books) and rarely visits a bookstore without buying a new one. Would you classify her as a bibliophile or a bibliomaniac? Explain your reasoning.

I would consider her a bibliomaniac because of the word "maniac" which means someone who's crazy. Anyone who spends so much time with books has a big problem.

Bibliomaniac cause she is a maniac for books. You are a FEIND! [sic]

Bibliophile because she likes books so much like a pedophile likes kids. That is my reasoning.

I think she's a bibliophile, because at the beginning it says she "adores" and "loves" books. And I'm sure bibliomaniacs would probably try to work at a bookstore full time. A bibliomaniac would just be more severe than this situation. And because Miss F. doesn't own a TV, there's not much else to do, besides play with her cats that is.

Bibliomaniac because it sound [sic]
like to me your whole life is about books because who loves books doesn't really go about liking books the way you do. You would probably marry a book if it's good enough (LOL)!

Bibliomaniac b/c her obsession over books and her being a phene. [sic]
P.S. Ms. F. you are WACK for that! :)

Clearly a bibloid. As we all know, Miss F. has spent so much time with books that she has come to resemble them. Though slight at first, for example, black hair (the color of ink in most books!), symptoms will gradually become more pronounced until. . .we turn around one oddly quiet day to find only a monograph on the psychosomatic effects of neologisms in her desk chair, neologisms such as "bibloid."

Well honestly I didn't study but like a pedophile usually likes kids so a bibliophile would probably just LIKE books but a maniac is someone who is like a feighn
for something so I think she is a BIBLIOMANIAC!

In this case, I would say that Ms. F. has a SEVERE case of bibliomania because all she does is spend time looking at books, talking with books, reading books, writing stuff about books, working around books. I wouldn't be surprised if she was teaching her cat how to read. She is obsessed with books basically.

I would classify her as a dork.

So. As you can see, it's not just the word roots. Clearly a quick lesson on how to properly spell fiend is in order as well.

Also, if you're new here you might want to read up on my students' perception of me as a crazy cat lady. Especially considering that one mostly un-funny answer contained this: "PS, Miss F. is also a felinomaniac (obsessed with cats)."


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

And For Some Kids, Only A Swift Kick In The Ass Will Do

Okay, I know I just talked about tardiness yesterday, but I have another tardy story. Rest assured, however, that it is not my intention to turn this blog into an all-tardies-all-the-time kinda place -- at some point I plan on talking about politics or telling stories about my weird-ass family or writing a mean letter to some retard who wrote a letter to the editor and, of course, posting pictures of cute little puppies.


I have this kid (we'll call him D) who's late all the time. I mean EVERY fuckin' day. And not just a little late; we're talking like 10 or 15 minutes late, class has already started late. Most mornings I see him get off his bus as I walk into school, so that's not the issue. What IS the issue is that after he gets off his bus he stands around outside talking to his friends, and when they head for class he heads for 7-11. (I know this, by the way, because I have spied on him from my classroom window, which overlooks the bus drop-off.) Then he and a large coffee -- for him, not me! -- materialize in my class 20 minutes later.

None of this would be so bad if D could manage unobtrusive tardiness, but the general disruption of his tardiness is exacerbated by the fact that D smokes copious amounts of weed and never seems to have any clue that class is actually in progress when he arrives. "Uh, hey, what's up?" he says as he enters the room like a stoned Kramer.

Every. Fuckin'. Day.

So you can see how this would get annoying. And how the whole sticker thing might be sort of lost on him.

A few weeks ago I assigned D detention. The next day he was on time. In fact, he was on time for several days in a row before his scheduled detention. "Were you thinking that if you stopped being late you wouldn't have to serve that detention?" I asked him. "Uh, that's fine with me," he answered. "Tell you what, we'll go double or nothing," I offered (stupidly). "Okay, but I don't really know what that means," D agreed, bleary-eyed. So I explained that he was excused from detention for as long as he continued to come on time, but that the next time he was late he'd have DOUBLE detention. I thought I was incentivizing him.

I'm sure it will not come as a surprise to you that D was tardy again. He was supposed to serve his double detention yesterday and today. I'm sure it will not come as a surprise to you that he didn't show.

Ergo, I called his dad. Who kicks ass. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Me: Mr. D's Dad? I'm D's Geography teacher. I'm calling to discuss his tardiness.


Me: Yes. D is tardy to my class on a regular basis. In fact, he's been tardy to nine of the last ten classes. It's very --

D's Dad: Can you hold on a minute?

Me: Uh, sure.

D's Dad: (shouting) D!

D: (in the background) Uh, hey, what's up?

D's Dad: (to me) Thanks. Can you start over please?

(I believe at this point I was placed on speaker-phone.)

Me: Sure. I was saying D is tardy to my class almost every day. He's been late nine times in the past ten days.

D's Dad: How late are we talking?

Me: Often as late as 15 minutes.

D's Dad: That late?

Me: I'm afraid so. Does D ride the bus?

D's Dad: Yeah, so I don't understand why he'd be late.

Me: Well, he usually comes in with coffee from 7-11. Perhaps he's walking over to 7-11 after he gets off the bus?

D's Dad: Thank you for calling. I'll take care of this as soon as I hang up the phone.

Me: I really appreciate that. However, D still needs to serve his detention.

D's Dad: I understand. What's tomorrow -- Thursday? You want him Friday, Saturday, and Sunday too?

Me: (laughing) No sir, I'm afraid you're stuck with him then, but I'll take him tomorrow and Tuesday.

D's Dad: He'll be there. You won't have this problem again.

Dude. I LOVE parents like D's Dad. Well, assuming he didn't beat the shit out of D once he hung up the phone. And assuming D's ass is on time tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sticker Shock

Long, long ago in a galaxy not so far away, some educational theorist or early child development specialist or what have you proposed that we modify children's behavior not by punishing them when they do wrong but by rewarding them when they don't. While this "catch them being good" theory was the object of my derision back in Ed. school ten years ago, it today helps to explain why I've just spent 20 minutes sitting on the floor of the Dollar Tree scrutinizing their sticker selection and then devoted an additional hour and a half to sitting on my couch cutting sheets of 1000 stickers into easy-to-distribute squares of one sticker.

I've never been big on behaviorism. Sure, it works fine for training dogs and toddlers and the like, but for more highly evolved beings a behaviorist approach has always struck me as insulting. Of course, this was before I began teaching tenth graders, so I couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of behaviorism. Nor, as a fairly anti-establishment and perpetually late student myself, was I able to appreciate the importance of being on time for class. But both behaviorism and punctuality have grown on me (which I'm pretty sure makes me the man, but that's another story for another time) and I have found my pedagogic bliss in stickers.

Actually, I can't take credit for the sticker approach to classroom management. It was my colleague and friend Steve's idea. (Steve, I bought you some stickers at the Dollar Tree! They have monkeys on them! And ducks!!!) Steve teaches next door to me, and a few weeks ago I noticed him handing stickers to students as they came into class one morning. "Uh, whatcha doin' with the stickers?" I asked him as I prepared to make fun of his answer. But then Steve explained that the stickers represented bonus points and that he was giving them to his kids for being on time, which reduced my witty retort to a lame, "Huh. That's a good idea." And the next day I totally stole it.

You would not BELIEVE how into stickers 15 and 16 year-old kids can be. Even before today's visit to the Dollar Tree I had a decent variety of stickers -- apples, stars, George Washingtons, and Abe Lincolns -- but kids are fussy about their stickers, asking, "Can I have a pink star instead of a green one?" or "Can I trade in this Abe Lincoln for an apple?" Some even ask for an extra sticker to WEAR.

More importantly though, this sticker thing seems to be working, at least a little. The other day a frequently tardy young lady was chatting with her friends at the end of the hall just before class. I had merely to raise my eyebrows and wave a sticker in her direction to send her scampering in mine. "Oooh, I gotta go," she said seriously to her friends.

And this afternoon, another student who is ALWAYS late stopped by after school simply to tell me, "I'ma be on TIME tomorrow." "Oh? What's the occasion?" I teased. "I gotta get me that sticker," she answered emphatically.

Damn. And she doesn't even know about the brand new SPARKLY stickers! Or that tomorrow I plan to award stickers not only for being on time but also for not bitching about everything.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Lazy Sunday

If You Seek A Pleasant Peninsula (or some exotic jerky), Look About You

So. I'm back from Michigan. Actually, I've been back from Michigan. I've just been busy working and drinking and petting my cat, who was beside herself with loneliness by the time I returned late Tuesday night.

My trip to Michigan was great. Even the airplane part wasn't so bad. I hate to fly and I'm a nervous wreck every time I have to get on a plane. I worry that even though I've purchased a ticket, some computer glitch will prevent me from being allowed on the plane. I worry that I'll miss my flight. I worry that the plane will crash. I worry that even if the plane doesn't crash, they'll lose my luggage. In short, I'm not good with flying.

So I sort of freaked out after it took me 30 minutes just to check in for my departing flight and I noticed as I was rushing to the gate that I hadn't been assigned a seat on the plane. And when I say sort of I mean totally. Unfortunately, there was only one gate agent at the gate and he was boarding the plane. I waited until everyone had boarded, thinking, "Ohmygod I'm not gonna be allowed on the plane! I'm gonna miss my flight!" and then I approached the gate agent and said frantically, "I don't have a seat!" He glanced at my boarding pass and smiled at me. Smiled! Then he handed me a new boarding pass and chirped, "You're flying first class today." Jesus! Could they not have mentioned this during the 30 minutes they spent checking me in?!

First class was nice though. Right up until the end of the flight when the captain announced that all the luggage that was supposed to have been put on our plane had accidentally been put on a plane to DC. "Ohmygod, they lost my luggage," I panicked. But when I got to Michigan, there was my bag in baggage claim, just as it should have been. The travel gods must have been smiling upon me.

And where they left off the weather gods took over. Michigan was unseasonably warm and therefore extremely pleasant. It was sunny and in the upper 40s/lower 50s for most of the time I was there, so those snow boots I bitched about? Totally unnecessary.

Oh, and did I mention my super-dreamy boyfriend?
Chris and I had a great time. We drove around checking out cute little towns, we had dinner with his aunt and uncle, we walked along the shores of several different lakes, we did the daily crossword together and yelled at FOX "News" together, we checked out places Hemingway used to frequent, AND Chris let me go in THREE different bookstores without even rushing me out of them. Also we sat around in our pajamas and made out a lot.

I could get used to that. Although I draw the line at elk jerky.

Friday, March 09, 2007

in Just -- spring

My world is not quite mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful yet, but buds are starting to appear on trees, daffodils are poking out of the ground, and robins are flitting about. It's one of my favorite times of the year. You can practically smell Spring.

And I'm off to Michigan -- land of icicles, axe-murderers, and bacon-flavored bedspreads -- for five days.

It must be love.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades

I am a teacher. I'm aware that regular readers already know this, but I just like saying it. I almost always find a way to work this bit of information into conversations with strangers, not in the hopes that they'll nominate me for sainthood or marvel at my dedication or leer at me and make suggestive comments about what they would have done if I'd been THEIR teacher but simply because it's who I am.

And although it may not always seem like it, I LOVE being a teacher. Not every minute of every day and certainly not when there's a mountain of papers to be graded, but ultimately teaching rocks. And on the good days I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I mention all this because
Dave asked me last week if working with today's teenagers makes me worry about the America those teenagers will create for us in the future. His comment got me thinking, and I realized that most of the school stories I tell do not paint a particularly flattering picture of America's youth. But it's not because there are no flattering pictures to be painted, it's because those stories aren't funny.

They are, however, important. And I have lots of them.

Just this week alone I've been approached by seven kids looking to start various clubs or campaigns to improve the world around them:

  1. One of my girls from last year stopped by between classes on Monday to tell me about Turn Beauty Inside Out and to ask me if I would help her create a schoolwide campaign. She was so excited about the possibilities that she could barely put a sentence together. And PS, this same student brought me a bagel last Friday morning for no reason other than that she's just an all-around awesome kid.

  2. At the beginning of 5th period on Monday one of my students -- a kid whose main hobbies seem to be skipping class and smoking weed, not necessarily in that order -- asked me if I knew about the Invisible Children movie and announced that we should learn about it. I called him over to the computer later to look at the website and he said, "Yeah, we should really do something. I mean, I was thinking about doing something. Like maybe a project? For your class? We could get the whole school involved." And then he was off and running about film screenings and awareness bracelets and fundraisers. Oh, and extra credit.

  3. Tuesday morning brought me two little blonde field hockey players who I've been teaching since September and STILL have trouble telling apart. They're fired up about Sudan. "You know how we watched that movie about the lost boys?," they asked, "well we wanna start a club to help them." Their pitch was interrupted by another girl who'd asked me in October to sponsor her Human Connection Project, a fundraising club she created after we watched Sarah McLachlan's "World on Fire" video (administrative approval STILL pending, by the way).

  4. On Tuesday afternoon two of my favorite girls took a break from coloring their maps to whisper excitedly to me about their plans for an environmental club. "We want to recycle," one girl said. "And plant trees!" the other added gleefully. I explained that the Young Greens, an existing club that I co-sponsor, has just recently begun talking about an extensive schoolwide recycling program. A potential partnership was born.

And yesterday, when my first period class unexpectedly lasted an hour longer than the normal 90 minutes and I popped in the monkey chant to keep my kids occupied, even the coolest of the too-cool-for-schoolers sat enthralled. At the end of the monkey chant one of my problem students, a perpetually unenthused boy, shouted, "Whoa! Cool! Can we watch it again?" So we did.