Friday, December 31, 2010


2010 was a crappy year and I'm not sorry to see it go. Neuropath was a fitting novel to finish it off.

Imagine the Saw movies with Dr. Ben Carson or Vilayanur Ramachandran cast as the serial killer. Think what fun a brain surgeon could have messing with your innards! And how pseudo-philosophical an author could wax while writing an unparalleled piece of schlock. I want to punch this book in the face.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Magnus, whose destiny has been tied up with those of Dunstan Ramsey and Boy Staunton since before his birth, is playing the role of an 18th century magician in a biopick for the BBC directed by the Robertson Davies equivalent of Ingmar Bergman. There's even a Sven Nyquist character. Magnus of course has to provide "subtext" for his performance by confessing (or at least revealing) his past. Along the way he gets revenge on one of the BBC cats and perhaps we at last come to understand who killed Boy Staunton. The exploration of themes like masks, personae, deceipt, guilt, sin, revenge continues.

Though I enjoyed its final third, I had a tough time with this installment. The endless reminiscence about vaudeville glazed my eyes several times, which is why it took two weeks to read it. But overall the Deptford Trilogy is magnifique.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Once you go black...

First, read Casey's review, which is better than anything my lazy blogging ass is likely to cobble together. I agree with his post point-for-point, except for the brief mention of The Wrestler, which I've not seen yet.

The film positively reeks of Cronenberg and Polanski as Casey notes--the main character's descent into madness is very reminiscent of Polanski's Repulsion. It has Cronenberg's fascination with flesh and wounds and mutations; Polanski's oddball humor is apparent throughout. I laughed uncomfortably several times during Black Swan.

I think Aronofsky has also watched Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder about a billion times. There are many visual and audio clues which I shan't discuss lest I ruin the surprise. And though the movie is indeed "psychological horror," it's also a dark fable along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth.

Black Swan was a dizzying entertainment. It's the best ballet film since The Red Shoes, and the best film of its type since Dead Ringers. The dance sequences are magical and monstrous. The performances are universally good. Barbara Hershey scared the shit out of me. I'm tempted now to re-read Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" to suss out the doppleganger theme. But in a nutshell the film is about the creative process gone terribly wrong. Artists must confront the Shadow in order to more fully express themselves. Tightly-wound, exquisite Nina loses the confrontation but her art succeeds. She could have shouted "Look ma! I'm on top of the world!" at the end.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Colin Wilson has written fine and entertaining works on the occult (Mysteries and The Occult), as well as popular compilations of crime and serial killers. I found his Jung bio for a few bucks via, and thought: what the hell? I'd just read his protege's bio, after all.

What I get primarily from Wilson's take is that Jung wrote convoluted and punishingly dense works because: A) in his thinking he had already ruptured with Freud but did not want to publicly express that fact yet, and B) he was a mystic and a philosopher of history and a literary critic and anything but a scientist, but his persona as a scientist and doctor had to be carefully shored up in his published works. These two motivations made it difficult for him to honestly and simply express his thinking.

Lord of the Underworld is rather hostile to Jung. Wilson, whose keen psychological insight is that people are robots 90% of the time and that we hand over control of ourselves to a secondary personality which goes through the motions far too often, claims that Jung's system is unnecessarily complex. But Wilson approves of play therapy, and to a degree he likes archetypes, and he thinks active imagination is just peachy.

While I don't disagree that Jung can be overly complex, I think Wilson's idea is underly so. But I admire many of his books nonetheless, including this slim volume.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day #63

A crazy day of full solstice moon/lunar eclipse-inspired bad luck:

Got up, drove to work, arrived at work after 20 minute commute, cell phone rings: "Where's my car key?" the wife asks. It's in my coat pocket. I drive back home, takes almost 30 minutes, and then back to work again.

Eating a hard pretzel at lunch, I broke a crown. Salt crystals jammed down into the cracked fake tooth. Ouch.

A child I let play Yugio cards in my room during his recess flipped out and broke a nice comfy chair on a new table, smashing the one and gouging the other.

All the report cards I wrote into templates got fucked up when people I emailed them to opened them. Something about me having Vista and them having XP, or perhaps the printer--who knows? All I know is I reprinted and reformatted my fucking report cards a half-dozen times today, and had to drive back to school after I was almost home because of this issue, which resulted in yet another in a sequence of more-than-twelve-hour days. SO TIRED.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

No More Kings

Day #64

We had our Culminating Event Friday. At an expeditionary learning school we throw open the doors and parents, relatives, local residents and a variety of dignitaries and big wigs tour around looking at what the students learned. There are snazzy displays of artwork in the halls and the rooms become galleries and there are dance, drum, and choral performances. Even though I busted my ass this week getting everything ready I still felt renewed and happy afterward. This is what the charter school experience is all about.

I wish I could post video here of the amazing performances--if you are my Facebook friend you'll be able to see some short vids over there. The 5th graders did a live version of Schoolhouse Rock's "No More Kings" which was amazing.

And one of my favorite 6th grade kids--a true brainiac--announced that after months of auditions and call-backs he has been chosen to take the role of Symba in the Lion King ON FREAKING BROADWAY. I will miss him, but what an amazing opportunity! I've already had a student in The Wire, now I'll have one on stage. Pretty awesome. We'll have to finally break down and get tickets to the show.

Now I'm broken and weary. The wife and I are both sick with the latest hacking nasty cold. I think I'm going to skip the staff holiday party this eve to recuperate for one last week of school in 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day #62

To all those who say teachers work bankers' hours: I worked 30 hours the last two days. I will be working a long day tomorrow as well, and I will have to work another Saturday just to get my work done this week. And many teachers at my school are working more hours than I.

In other words: up yours!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day #60

Today was pretty chill. We finished up our final products for the Pigtown expedition (each student wrote an informational paragraph about one topic covered this trimester). These products were typed up in the computer lab and we're going to glue them to cardstock and display them on a "learning map"-a giant billboard type thang which we will display at our culminating event Friday.

Of course a learning map is a bit bland without some ummpph, so I had the kids make decorations today. I had to figure out a way to get them to make pigs out of construction paper without going bonkers, so I came up with a three size circle design for a pig, and pre-printed pink paper with cut-outs including the body, head, snout, legs, and tail. The kids had to cut out and paste the pieces together, and they had some freedom to design their own faces and ears and whatnot. I think Thursday we'll glue together B&O railroad trains.

The purpose of our culminating event is to teach parents and community residents what we learned this fall. The 7th grade boys might find it challenging to come up with things they learned!

The kids also have to do student-led conferences at report card time. Their parents come in and the kids have a portfolio of work which they've spent weeks reflecting on in Crew time. The kids present their learning to their parents. Any work which is missing they have to explain. This should be interesting.

Because of all this new methodology, I feel like a first-year teacher. But I also feel like a first-year teacher because I'm getting support and guidance which I never got at the Book or the March. I was just thrown into the lake of fire, like the worm which dyeth not.

Friday, December 10, 2010

B'more Seasonal

Sometimes I get grumpy about living in Baltimore. I'll see a particularly fat rat dodge out from under my car at 6:30 am as I open the driver's side door. Or I'll get stuck in traffic caused by road work for the purpose of retooling downtown for the Grand Prix and a 3-mile commute will turn into a 45 minute haul. Or I'll find a handful of glass vials in my flower pots, glinting amongst the geraniums, petunias, and daisies.

But then something really cool happens,like a friend out of the blue offering tickets to Stoop Storytellers at Center Stage, and instead of sitting at home and fretting about work I go out, have a nice snack with my wife at a crazy Korean food/coffeehouse joint before a great dessert at Marie Louise bistro. Along the way we passed the Washington Monument all glittery with high-efficiency multi-colored lights amplifying the gaping hole in the antique wrought iron fence left by a drunk who smashed his van up a couple months back. We also saw the destruction at Charles and Madison, where Donna's, My Thai, Indigma, and a bunch of offices were burned out a few days ago. I suppose Thai Rish and The Helmand got damaged too because neither was open.

But the show at Center Stage was very entertaining. And because we live in Smalltimore we ran into a bunch of people we know. A teacher from my school was there and I found out today that the first story-teller was in fact her future mother-in-law, and the son the woman mentioned in the story as being present was in fact her hubby-to-be. The stories were jovial, the music was top-notch, and the skits were not painful--quite the contrary! There was even a diplomat who danced and sang in Nepalese.

Tonight we were invited to a swank soiree at a ritzy law firm by a friend who works in the office. Nice shin-dig! I think the barristers had me pegged as an interloper. I was a bit less fashionable than the average guest. I felt a bit like Leonard Bast from Howard's End. But I ate like a king nevertheless!

Glad I got out a couple nights this week, because I'm working at school tomorrow, likely all day. I need some time in my room with no students to prepare for the end-of-trimester crunch. Next week is going to be a bit brutal, I fear. But time off at the end of the year offers a glimmer of respite. The apocalypse happens NEXT December, after all!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Day #58

Hydrangea a trip. She a slender little wisp, medicated like so many for anxiety/ADHD/hyperactivity etc. One of my favorite kids for her energy and her spirit and the crazy things she says, but only WHEN SHE'S MEDICATED. Off her meds she's off her rocker and very unpleasant and irrational, one of the most devious and evil instigators I've known in City schools.

Today a sixth grade boy mouthed off to me and I picked him up over my head and carried him to his chair and sat him down. Then several boys wanted to be picked up over my head. "This isn't a carnival ride," I said. But after school some boys came over and one by one I picked them up. One I spun around a bit.

Hydrangea ran over immediately. "Now me! Now me!" I told her gently that I can't pick up girls. "That ain't fair. I never been spun around before. I wish you would pick me up and put me in the ceiling forever so I could watch people doing their work and make fun of them."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Day #57

Shaun of the Dead is in my Crew in the mornings and he's also in my 7th grade boys Humanities class. He's an unusual child. He's not the biggest kid in his grade by far, but the other boys fear him. I'm not sure if it's due to his intensity, his mercilessness, or because he runs with people in the Game out on the streets. I'll probably find out at some point this year.

Shaun likes to be #1. When we play games in Crew like Silent Ball he refuses to sit down after getting out, and will argue and argue about it. The whole point of Crew and these games is character building--Shaun doesn't get it. When my Crew plays hoops against other boys Shaun dribbles sloppily down the court and takes a terrible shot every time. He ignores his team-mates and nobody will defend him because they fear him and he still throws up a clunky brick every time, all the while talking about how "nice" he is. One kid on the other team who actually has skills--who passes the ball and has moves and can make shots--was scoring so handily against Shaun that Shaun swung an elbow into his jaw and bloodied his mouth. "That's how I roll," Shaun said as I led him out of the gym to the office. "Ain't no way he nicer than me."

I had to type up letters listing tardies and absences for kids over certain benchmark levels. Their parents have to sign the letter and return it so we have on file that we notified them of attendance problems. Shaun has been late 18 times in 58 days, so I typed up a letter for his mom. Shaun rolled in at 8:50 this morning and I gave him the letter and he freaked out. "No way I been late all them times! You trying to get me in trouble. My mom is gonna cuss you out. I ain't taking that home," and then he started crying like a baby. I've seen him do this before--just burst into tears. "Shaun," I said. "You just came in 15 minutes late. Every time you aren't here by 8:35 I mark you tardy."

"You must take attendance at 8:32 every day!"

"No, I never take attendance before 8:50."

"You trying to get me in trouble!"

At the end of Humanities class he was still complaining about it. The kid is just nuts. But I was nuts in 7th grade too.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book #46

There are hints throughout Davies' novel Fifth Business that he's into analytical psychology, and Jung in particular: the symbolism of the stone, the anima, the shadow, the magus, the puer aeternus, and the recurring synchronicities of the plot made that pretty obvious. And yet Fifth Business is not a Jungian novel the way its sequel The Manticore is. This is literally a Jungian novel.

Boy Staunton dies spectacularly at the end of Fifth Business--it's not really a spoiler, since this information is given away on the cover of the book, and early in the novel. In this volume Boy's son Davey has grown into a successful barrister, but also a repressed and celibate alcoholic. Desperate for he knows not what, and in crisis following his dad's death, Davey takes refuge in a Jungian anaylist's office in Switzerland. Like the first novel, The Manticore is a sort of confessional; in the first we had Dunstan Ramsey's long confession to his boss, and here we get Davey's analysand journals, with bits of dialogue from his analysis.

Although there is the occasional whiff of Joe Campbell's Jung Lite near the end of the book, it is an excellent voyage through many of the Swiss Shaman's ideas. The cast of characters spring from a Tarot deck, the plot is pure night journey a la Dante, and there are clever symbols for the Persona and other autonomous un-integrated chunks of the Self.

If none of this interests you, you'll likely find The Manticore more boring than church. But if you like dreams and symbols and the archaeology of the Self, you should read Davies' book. I'm eager for the third and final installment, which I'll begin this evening.

I'm desperately trying to reach that 50th book before the end of the year...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Day #55

I can't do this Humanities stuff! It's too befuddling. Language Arts is hard enough to teach middle-schoolers without having to teach it via Social Studies. And Social Studies still derails me on a near daily basis. For example: I'm teaching chronological organization as a text structure and I'm using a paragraph about Confucius and Mencius. I've jumbled up all the sentences and the kids have to use the dates and other clues in the paragraph in order to re-organize it correctly. Before they start I tell them that "BC" dates go backwards, and then I have to stop everything and teach why, which takes 20 minutes of unexpected class time, but I think it's important. And then I end up talking about BCE and CE as opposed to BC and AD and why and whatever and then we're in some theological discussion because kids think Jesus was the first human on earth and they're keen to argue that and the Moslems in the room take exception and a couple Christians argue with the others that Adam was the first man, dummy, and then there's a fight.

The second paragraph we work on--this one a main idea and supporting details thang--is about Egyptian myth and religion. Osiris weighed your heart after death, and if it's too heavy it got eaten by a fabulous monster. Whatever, the kids get all freaked out and ask if it's real and then I have to go into how it's only real in the sense that it was an Egyptian religious or mythical belief thousands of years ago. And then we're all talking about death and what happens after death and the lesson is gone.

But these are the kinds of days I like best--the meandering sort of learning I enjoyed leading when I taught college kids. When I taught college kids, however, I was not required to follow, nor was I held accountable to, a curriculum!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Day #53

Had a tiring day, but it went pretty smoothly. The kids played a bit 1st period; because they are my angelic class I was hard on them and their behavior put me in a bad mood. I used that energy though to clamp down on the 2nd period knuckleheads. They were productive and respectful because I read them the riot act for their behavior in the hallway before class.

The 7th grade boys last period were sweet and considerate because half of them were absent. They don't come to school when it rains! But then a mouse appeared, ran across the floor, and they all jumped up to stomp it B'more style. I caught the aftermath on film, but without parental approval I of course can't post it. Poor mouse.

After school we had an intervention meeting for Husserl, a troubled young sixth grader who's been in foster care for ages and whose foster mother keeps intervening to prevent adoptions by good families because she thinks she might want to adopt Husserl and then after the adoption family moves on she decides not to. What a mess. Husserl is typically sweet but troublesome, but in recent weeks she's become a holy terror, aggressive and angry and power hungry. Because she's not getting the attention she needs from her foster mom she's going to get it by blowing up at school and causing chaos and cussing out her teachers. We had "mom," social worker, counselor, AP, teachers at a meeting today after school, and Husserl refused to come in the room. She'd written me a note before hand about how appreciative she was of my advice and support, so I went out to try and talk her into the meeting. I sat on the floor with her and felt I was getting somewhere before "mom" came out and then Husserl shut down and refused to do anything.

I think she's going to get taken out of our school. Heart-breaking, but she has needs we can't meet. I also think she's going to be removed from her current foster mom's care--perhaps heart-breaking, but maybe a good thing?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Back in the day when I was shelving Literature for Borders I used to look at Robertson Davies books all the time and consider buying them. Here I am 16 years later finishing my first Davies novel, and preparing to enthuse about it.

Fifth Business
refers to characters in operas or dramas who have no counterpart of the opposite sex, but who somehow hold the outcome of the plot in hand. Typically there's a hero and a heroine and a foil or temptation for each, and then the other dude in a largely background role who perhaps kidnaps or holds hostage or snitches or otherwise interferes in the plot to significant effect. That character is called fifth business, and the term fits Dunstan Ramsey, this novel's central consciousness, to a T.

Dunstan is a Jamesian sort of lead: he's leading a rich life in some respects but in many ways he's observed life rather than participated in it. That's not to say he's done nothing: he's a war hero, an educator and author of note, and he's met and interacted with some rich and famous folks. He's largely self-made, but seems to have drifted through life rather than having forged his own glorious destiny. But unlike a similar Jamesian hero, he's not regretful about it. He's content to have fumbled his way. He may be unmarried and lonely, but he's got his curious passions for saints and illusions and his work and he doesn't have any particular damning revelation that life has passed him by without being lived fully.

I'm going to avoid saying anything concrete about the plot because it's hard to manage without spoilers, and you may indeed want to read this. Let's just say that Dunstan witnesses an appalling deed when he's a child and that far in the future that appalling deed still weighs on his conscience. He never imagines, however, that this knowledge will dramatically influence others late in his life.

Dunstan's fascination with saints and guilt and abstention and medieval churches has a lot to say about his inner turmoil. I'll leave it to you to put the pieces together. I'd rate Davies' book with other clever and dense metaphysical mysteries that read breezily--say, those by Iris Murdoch.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Day #51

Not bad today, considering the kids had four days off. I thought they'd be nuts. They were no worse than usual.

I think the lesson we did today was the reason. In order to finish off our Pigtown expedition I had one more learning target to cover: "I can arrage chronologically the industries which impacted Pigtown settlement over time." Instead of standing in front of the class and teaching the industries, I typed them up with descriptions and dates and cut them out and had the kids make timelines onto which they pasted the industries. Can they put them in order? Easily assessed! And the kids like nothing better than cutting, arranging, and pasting shit. It's magical--you bust out the markers and glue sticks and safety scissors and the most reprobate bastards will stay in their chairs with tongues in the corner of their mouths, carefully piecing things together.

Tomorrow we'll use the findings today to make inferences: people used to flock from all over the world to work in Southwest Baltimore because of the B&O railroad. Now there are few jobs available. What happened? I'm curious to see what the kids come up with.

Man, I haven't been sick yet this fall, and I've felt so lucky. I had some minor sinus stuff which didn't even count back in September, but while the rest of the staff were hacking and snuffling I felt hale and hardy. But something caught up with me yesterday: weak, feverish, sneezy, achy. Seems better today but I can hardly breath. Screw it! I asked today for some of my accumulated sick time from the last few years to be paid out in cash. That will make for a nice bump.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day #50

Man, I'm done. I need a nap, a drink, a massage, a blunt, a hug. The kids were pretty good today until a fire drill second period and then they went haywire. But whatever, I wanted to go haywire too. I got them to watch a video of a couple old dudes who grew up in Pigtown. They talked about the pigs being herded through the streets, and stealing coal off the train cars and getting chased by the dicks. When they said they got chased by dicks the kids paid attention for once.

Four days of a different type of exhaustion are just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


So again we have an unwitting unsuspected cast member taken over and manipulated by Voldemort, and again Harry and crew unravel the mystery just in time, and again there's a magical battle in an isolated place. I found this installment a bit dis-satisfying because it felt like the first volume warmed over, but I did enjoy the Elf's scenes of self-abuse (that sounds wrong).

I suspect this volume served to allow some space for Harry to start thinking about his role and his destiny in a way which allows him to make more important and interesting discoveries about his nature later on, but that remains to be seen.

At the pace I read these in French it's doubtful I'll finish The Prisoner of Azkaban before the end of the year. But I've heard tell it's the best book in the series.


This year marks my 4th in B'more City as a public school teacher. The first year was as a student teacher/trainee. Because I went through the GEI program and the City paid for my certification and 2nd Master's Degree, I was obligated to them for three years of service. That obligation will be up next June.

This year I'll face an enormous decision: should I stay or should I go? Yes, I'm in a much better environment now than previously. Yes, I love the kids and want to help. But teaching is not my passion. Teaching is something I do because I need a paycheck. Sometimes I'm good at it, sometimes I'm not very good at all, and occasionally I might be great. But I don't have the calling.

I leave work each day dragging my ass. I've worked construction jobs, retail jobs and restaurant jobs where I regularly put in 50 to 60 hour weeks on my feet, and I've never been so exhausted when I walk out the door. On the weekends I don't want to stir from the bed, and I can barely get through planning and grading without naps, let alone socializing or exercising or taking weekend trips. I feel weariness down to my bones. I've let housekeeping slide and barely have time for the things which sustain me: books and my wife. I haven't touched my guitar in months.

I don't know what my calling is, but I'm sure I can't ever go back to a desk or cubicle job. I'd jump out the window! Perhaps I should accept that I need some sort of career at this point, and even if I don't feel it in my heart I can at least do teaching fairly well and help some kids. But should I do that in B'more, or should I go into the Peace Corps, or onto a reservation, or should I jump up to high school level and get away from the middle schoolers?

I've got almost a year to think about it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I'm at home and hosting a large party. There are guests throughout the house and outside as well. Somehow I'm also proctoring an exam. There are former college students and current middle school students and they're all taking the same test--even some former employees of mine are turning it in. I try to grade one but I'm frustrated to realize that I've given a mish-mash of old tests from previous classes to the current kids. There are vocabulary words in Arabic, Tagalog, English, and French--the kids couldn't possibly know all this shit. I've been too lazy to write a test for their current learning.

As all this is going on I realize the ceilings and walls in the house are growing damp. I go upstairs and some woman is in the shower and water is all over the floor. I think "yeah, it's always something," and go upstairs. There's a fantastic blond in our bed. I recognize her as my best friend from childhood in Pennsylvania. We ran the town together until age 7, and when my parents divorced I did not see her again until I was 21. We kind of huddle up in bed and reminisce. I ask: "Do you remember the last time I saw you? When we were both working at Hunt Valley Mall?" She is sitting behind me with her legs around me and her head on my shoulder. "Did we fool around?" she asks. "No. But you came into McDonald's and several employees were staring at you and making comments. I came up to see what all the fuss was about and you immediately knew me and called me up. We hugged and had a nice chat." Cha walks in and walks around the bed talking about something and leaves, and the blond removes her clothes and displays herself to me. After this we start kissing. I think I shouldn't do this because I'm married, and I get up and walk away to continue grading tests and I'm fretting about the water damage. The blond on the bed meanwhile masturbates herself to orgasm. While this is happening Cha comes in wearing a jester costume and carrying sparklers. She walks between the girl and I but only looks at me. Then I wake.

Friday, November 19, 2010


I'm not in my 70s like the unnamed narrator of this novel, but I have begun thinking like him. Until three years ago I was running 30 or 40 miles a week, I felt more fit than I was in my 20s, and I imagined remaining that vigorous into my 50s. Then: hip problem, knee problems, long periods of rest, a sudden renewal followed by a summer of 5-mile runs and P90X, and then knee problems again. Now I'm lucky to catch an hour of cardio a week on my bike and I'm quickly losing my endurance and I'm starting to think about aging as something I'm not avoiding anymore.

Roth's Everyman is about the decay of the body and the not-so-gradual descent to death. But it's not a glum or morbid meditation. If you've read and loved his other stuff, you'll likely dig this, though the pacing is not as breathless as the work I regard as his peak: I Married a Communist, Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, there's still that charmed poignance, the sly wit, that awesome ecompassing consciousness of the American experience. Dude's on an unparalleled roll.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Day #45

I was in despair yesterday. I felt confused and uncertain about what I was supposed to teach, I felt like I wasn't teaching well, I felt like the kids were disengaged and disinterested and that I wasn't differentiating and doing all I needed to do. And then after talking with some long-time vets I admire who said "I feel the same thing every day. But you just keep trying," I felt infinitely better today.

We read a story about an Irish girl and her family in steerage class crossing the Atlantic in the 1800s. I gave the kids vocabulary words from the story for a quiz next week, words like 'stagnant' and 'gangplank' and 'retch.' As soon as I told them what stagnant meant, Otay raised his hand. "Yo Mr. G, I got a new pack!" he said. When I asked what it was he said "them shoes be stagnant." "Your hairline be stagnant," Nimoy replied.

The seventh grade boys were silly as usual, but they were good today. I read the story with them and they made it all the way to the last page before they got restless. I let them get up and I made them all gather on the carpet at the front of the room. One of our vocabulary words was "jostle." I told them to make a crowd and I would attempt to "jostle" my way through to the other side. Their job was to stop me. After a 90-second war of me fighting my way through about 19 7th graders, Nimoy grabbed my shirt and then the Punisher helped him put me down. Then I had 21 kids pig pile me. I let about 3 other kids try to "jostle" through the crowd before I made the kids go back to their seats so we could finish the last page of the story.

I know that 100% of them will remember the definitions of "stagnant" and "jostle" at least.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Stephen Dixon is one of my very favorite writers. I find his voice and his curious mannerisms and tics enchanting and touching and hilarious. When I found out his uncollected stories were being collected I was ecstatic and as soon as I got the book I devoured it.

The stories rule, except for the "Yo-Yo" one, which didn't quite work for me, though it had all the earmarks of Dixon's work it was mostly a failed exercise. My favorite is the one about a prostitute chosen by Hitler to service him on a trip to a small town. Only Dixon could make that scenario funny. The rest are typical Dixon fare: riffs on break-ups, riffs on aging parents, riffs on shitty jobs and on the creative process.

I'm sorry to say that the small press that published this book left it riddled with dozens of typographical errors of a variety of types. I'm sure this bugs Dixon, because when he signed a copy of Frog for me at a book signing I hosted at Borders ages ago he immediately flipped to two different pages and hand-corrected typos on them. The cover art and design also leave a lot to be desired. But who cares? The stories count. I hope he is working on a new novel, because it's been a while, and I love his novels more than his short fiction.


In this clear and engaging discussion Marie-Louise Von Franz explores creation myths through the lens of Jungian analysis. Creation myths, she argues, are not really about the making of the world, but usually describe the birth of conscious awareness of ourselves as separate from the world. This of course happened to our species in the depths of Time (and the event is nicely re-imagined in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). But each of us goes through the process in our youth as well (with quite a few exceptions, alas).

I found her descriptions of the neurotic processes creative people fall into when they cease making Art quite interesting. Now I understand why I've been a basket case much of my adult life. The creation myths, according to Von Franz, give us clues about how the artistic mind functions, and I found a few passages to which I could relate:

there is a type of creative personality who has, in spite of his or her creative gifts, succeeded in adapting and conforming to collectivity and has built up a strong ego consciousness. Such people generally need a smashing-up experience before they can create again.

Hear, hear! I always wanted as a youth to "walk the Earth," as John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction; I dreamed I'd roam around and absorb and write about whatever I experienced. Buying a house and all that other adult bullshit has sealed my Muse in an icy tomb.

Von Franz describes this type of person as one who will gradually cut himself off from contact with friends and family until his isolation drives him to depression and despair, at which point he can start creating again. Or, at which point he starts drinking too much. Sounds familiar!

At any rate, this book is the second Von Franz I've read, and I'm very excited to tackle her Grail Legend, written with Emma Jung. It was recommended to me by a painter friend who is undergoing analysis, and who found it useful himself in un-blocking his creativity.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Day #42

The flu is blasting through the staff and administration, mowing them down left and right. Tuesday this week there were no administrators or any counselors or support staff available. Yesterday the other middle grades Humanities teacher called out sick for today, so I helped a para set up lessons to cover her classes today. This morning that para called out so I had to hook up another para with lessons to cover for the other para covering for the original teacher.

I gave a gigantic map test today to all three classes, and felt for the first time like a Social Studies teacher. Continents and oceans! East Coast states! Major European countries and capitals! Compass roses and longitude and latitude! The kids were freaking out. They need to be freaking out, because this is the biggest grade on their upcoming progress reports, which I finish writing tonight and turn in tomorrow. Good rule of thumb: if you fail the map test, you fail the progress report!

This is a tough point of the school year, but we're almost 25% done!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Day #41

Some days teaching urban kids are just miraculously fun. These days are still exhausting, frustrating, aggravating, and disturbing, but the crazy things which come out the kids' mouths are so weird and off the chain that I reap big entertainment rewards. Ahh, intrinsic value!

I'm not sure the kind old docents at Mt. Clare Mansion feel the same way. I think by the time I brought the last-period seventh grade boys over that they were about done.

It's amazing that each time we lined up at the door and one of the docents opened it the kids would immediately cluster around me in fear, asking "do she live here?" or "Is she a ghost?"

Other highlights:

LaKia and Shan'non going bonkers when they saw a powdered ladies wig in a glass case. The docent explained that Mary Clare Carroll wore a similar wig as did many ladies of the time. LaKia was all "dem crazy rich white bitches had tracks!" I almost fell out in the 250-year-old dining room.

LaKia strolling directly up to a Charles Willson Peale oil portrait of Barrister Carroll and tapping it on the face with her gel pen and saying "who dat?" I was sure the docent was going to be sick in the nearby chamber pot. "That's a Charles Willson Peale, my dear," she said tremblingly, hoping to discourage touching of priceless art by name-dropping. LaKia was like "Well Charles Pealy Whatever look nasty."

Speaking of chamber pots, when the docent on my second tour asked if anyone could guess what it was for Akeel said "that for dookie."

Standing before a case of Carroll silver and having the purpose of a marrow spoon explained to them, Ariq said "ew, who eats marrow? My dog eat that shit!" and Akeel said "My sister need one of those cuz she love marrow. I'm tired of hearing her trying to suck them bones." This of course lead to much double-entendre.

Upon seeing Mary Clare Carroll's dress with wide hoop on the hips, Jerry commented that her booty must have been "truly epic." I wonder: was Mary Clare's ghost flattered to hear this?

Each time the 200-year-old French mantel clocks chimed the kids jumped about 3-feet in the air. I've never seen such terror. Snakes could not be more effective.

The top five questions today:

1) Is this place haunted? (literally dozens of kids asked this)
2) How many people died here?
3) Did the Carrolls get shot?
4) Can I still collect the reward money if I find Dr. Carroll's runaway slave?
5) Why they no flatscreen up in here if them Carrolls so rich?

LaKia and Shan'non started jawing at each other in the dining room chamber upstairs as the docent described portraits of Tilghmans and Carrolls. LaKia was tired of Shan'non talking when she was trying to hear, so she told Shan'non to shut up. Shan'non said "Fuck you bitch you shut up" and then it was all Ghetto Girls Gone Wild in a house seen by John Adams, the Marquise de LaFayette, and Martha Washington. I had to grab and restrain them and take them out to the stairwell for a dressing down in front of Peale's late 18th-century landscape of the manor's Georgia Plantation.

But all-in-all the kids were engaged, they completed their worksheets, they asked good questions, and they had fun. The 7th grade boys wanted their money back because they didn't think it was fun. But they don't think anything is fun.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Day #40

Just a comedy of errors this morning. I'm taking my kids to Mt. Clare Mansion tomorrow to continue our expedition into Pigtown/B'more history--it's great because we can walk there in about 10 minutes and really get a sense of how important B'more is and was in U.S. history.

In order to tour three classes through the house in three shifts I made a deal with the docents that I would show a video they usually show as part of the tour in my classroom. That way I'd have walking time to and fro and sufficient space to get back and get my next class ready to go, etc.

But the complications started early. I use my laptop and LCD projector in school every day. A couple weeks ago an overly curious 7th grader pulled a cable out of my 5-year old VAIO which pulled the internet jack out and destroyed it. Not a big deal, considering it's a wireless computer--but there's no wireless signal at school, so now I can't show websites or whatever unless I borrow the school's Cricket, which plugs into a USB port and gives me fast and reliable service. So I requested the Cricket for today so I could show the Mt. Clare video on my laptop via their website. But it turns out the Cricket was borrowed and the teacher who borrowed it is at Outward Bound with her kids in the woods somewhere and nobody knows where the Cricket is. So, no biggie, I borrowed a school laptop with a functional internet port and plugged it up and did a trial run on the Mt. Clare website--no problems until I clicked on the video link and the B'more City schools filter shut it down as an "adult video."

The welcome video to Mount Clare Mansion is easily the least racy video on the internet.

So after a while trying to find someone who could get through the filter I got no where, but finally figured out that if I added an 's' to 'http' I could get past the filter and show the video. How stressful!

I hope the kids behave at the Mansion tomorrow. They were ridiculous today--all three classes! Lots of drama and fussing and pushing and throwing things. I'm going to enjoy writing the behavior portions of their progress reports this week...

Saturday, November 06, 2010


I'm in a hitherto unknown wing of our house. I see along a crumbling baseboard a tiny critter which I believe is the mouse I saw climb into our stove the day before. I throw something at it, it stops, and waddles back to a hole in a window well. As it scrapes around a bit at the hole I realize that it is in fact a hedgehog, and then the window well collapses and reveals an exquisite, well-lit kitchen and more beasties, which all rush forward trying to enter the house. An elaborate black and red tufted bird flies directly into my hand, which I put up to stop the surging managerie, and several angel fish, somehow swimming in the air, and other rodents, and a few adorable poodlish dogs variously scamper, swim, fly, hop past me. A Disney film has erupted in my house! I see movement in the strange kitchen ahead and a matronly black woman is looking at me through the hole. I ask if she has a pet bird, and she is surprised by the question, and looks in where the bird is hopping around on the floor by the baseboard and smiles. Then she walks away into another room and I wake up.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Day #37

The special educator at our school has been testing the reading levels of the 7th graders--the kids we took over from the school whose building we moved into this year. The situation is pretty bleak. The average reading level for the 22 boys in my class is 3rd grade. The highest reading level is 5th grade. There are several 2nd grade level readers. This data kind of set me off; I fired off an email exchange with my Humanities counter-part (I teach 6th grade and the 7th grade boys--she teachers 8th grade and the 7th grade girls). We're both in agreement that we should shelve the Pigtown/Immigration expedition with the 7th graders and teach them how to read instead. We had a nice meeting today where we thought up a plan of attack--now we have to sell it and get some extra resources in place.

It's so nice to be at a school where I can feel comfortable saying "screw the curriculum" and asking for resources to just teach reading. That doesn't mean we'll get what we want, but we're in a place where it's likely. Instead of trying to teach these kids at my old school, I'd be yelling at them all day about behavior. Yes, I have to do that regularly with them, but they are by no means on the level with my previous class room experiences.*

Once upon a time I'd have chimed in on the election results. Once upon a time I gave a shit. Let's just quote Mencken, whose Prejudices are out in full flower from the Library of America:

Has the art of politics no apparent utility? Does it appear to be unqualifiedly ratty, raffish, sordid, obscene, and low down, and its salient virtuousi a gang of unmitigated scoundrels? Then let us not forget its high capacity to soothe and tickle the midriff, its incomparable services as a maker of entertainment.

H.L. Mencken, On Politics

*I've been informed by several people that the lack of fighting, violence, and rude behavior by my kids this year has rendered this blog far less entertaining. Thank God!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I dreamt last night that I was in my childhood home. We left there when I was 7 and my Mom divorced my Dad. We returned once for a brief attempt at reconciliation, and I went back a few times on visitation weekends before Dad sold the place and moved to an apartment. It was strange to walk around in there again. The house was fixed up and repaired, and altered somewhat from its original layout, which I noted in the dream. There were windows which weren't there before, and a new deck, and a lot more light got in the house. My mom was on the dream tour too. Impressed by the state of the place, I said "we should buy it," and she smiled. She put a lot of work into it--a new kitchen, a new master bath. Of course that was all more than 30 years ago.

Although I had a rotten Dad I still had a pretty great childhood in that house. I had great friends and the run of Stewartstown, Pa. Usually when I dream of that place it's all gloom and doom. Something must have clicked.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day #35

Last year was the first time as a public school teacher that I didn't have all African-American students. I had a Latino student at the March. This year I have 3 Caucasian students and a Filipina. My new school is so diverse!

Vegas is a hulking 7th grade white kid who grew up in Nevada, but who moved to B'more at age 4 after his father died. He's a smart kid and his two friends are smart black kids and the three of them are hilariously nerdy with their Japanese card games and video game lingo and whatnot. They've been friends for years: a southwestern kid who loves Texas hold 'em, a black kid from B'more's West Side with a Biblical name, and a Muslim who grew up in Yemen while his Dad was stationed over there doing who knows what for the government.

Vegas was jawing with Dr. Cotton yesterday, the way 7th grade kids in B'more always jaw at each other. They were "packing" each other's clothes, hair, shoes, and then it evolved to include family members, and as it usually does it started out good-natured and quickly got ugly. Dr. Cotton said "At least I have a father," which was the wrong thing to say, and Vegas put his head down and started bawling loudly, which is a tough thing to have happen in front of a tough class of tough kids. And Dr. Cotton is not a jerk, he just said the wrong thing without thinking about because 7th grade boys are just silly and asinine by nature--they're not intentionally cruel the way 7th grade girls tend to be.

And today they friends again. Yesterday I thought they were going to fight for sure, because Vegas's nerdy 'crew' were talking all kinds of smack about Dr. Cotton, but no, they worked it out. There's hope for these clowns.

My Filipina student helped grade the vocabulary quizzes I gave yesterday. I said "let me make you an answer key Nako" and she rolled her eyes at me. "Um, I don't need an answer key. We Asians take our education very seriously." The entire time she was grading quizzes she was sighing in deep exasperation: "Ugh! An influx is most certainly NOT a number which limits--that would be a QUOTA." or "I can't believe that someone would confuse the word 'immigrant' with the term 'indentured servant,' especially someone who has been in school for five years with an immigrant--me!'

I find my students very entertaining.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day #33

Highlights from Northbay:

'Sleeping' in the cabin with the 7th grade boys. I was up until 2am before finally kicking off because I didn't want to get punked; soon as I fell asleep Slick Lorr was up in my grill. I'm a light sleeper so before he could do whatever he had in mind I had him wrapped up in a sleeper hold on the floor.

"Dag, muthafucka like a cat," Lorr said. "Even his eyes!" He shone his flashlight in my face. Lorr was up half the night hunting stinkbugs with his flashlight. Every time he found one he would talk to it before killing it.

At around 4:30am Tiefighter was up on his top bunk delivering a monologue right out of Dostoevsky: "When we finally get to that damn Northbay gift shop I am buying myself a pair of fucking Northbay earmuffs. Gottdamn Nimoy I cannot sleep with your trifling ass snoring all night. Bitch! Why don't you shut that noise out?" He went off in this vein for more than 30 minutes straight, 'packing' and 'riding' Nimoy for his snoring, 'packing' his family tree all the way back to the 1830's, 'riding' his breath, his 'lame ass thumb-sucking self,' etc, etc. I observed this soliloquy alone--even Slick Lorr was asleep at this time. I found it fascinating. Nimoy's snoring wasn't even that bad.

The sixth grade boys were no fun either. I was their companion teacher during the day, accompanying them on their various excursions and classes. Their behavior was often ridiculous. On a trip into the woods to study vultures they totally disregarded the educator; shortly after he told them to stay behind him on the trail they rushed out ahead. He and I chatted briefly and decided to follow them. We had a PLAN. After about 30 minutes they got stuck in a briar patch. We arrived and the educator said "you didn't stay behind me on the trail. We are no where near where we are supposed to be. You have to come together as a team and figure out the way back." What followed was somewhere between Lord of the Flies and the Blair Witch Project. There was crying, fighting, shrieking, hissy-fits, panic attacks, glossolalia, episodes of possession by assorted Loa, spontaneous recitations in Enochian, and at least one manifestation of the stigmata. It took 90 minutes for them to even circle up and start communicating. It is one of the most disturbing and wonderful things I've ever seen.

The next day the 6th grade boys vandalized their cabin by urinating all over the floor. Because of this, we didn't get to ride the Human Swing. Instead, we had to do a circle and figure out a way to pay back the fine folks at Northbay. The kids voted to ask how they could repay the damage they'd done, and they were assigned a 90-minute work shift with Housekeeping. They cleaned rest rooms, they picked up trash, they folded laundry, and did themselves proud.

I was sad, because I wanted to ride the Human Swing. It looked terrifying! I'd already done the zipline, the rock wall, and the rope course with the boys.

Northbay is a cool place. Their focus on environmental ed is awesome, and their character building presentations were mostly cool. It got a bit cultish at the end, however, with laying on of hands and some sort of brick worship ceremony which I found awkward. But whatever. I'll go back next year. Maybe I'll stay in the Teacher's Roost the whole time. Those nights in the cabin were off the hook. I worked like 90 hours last week!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day #32

Teaching Social Studies is hard. Teaching it and Language Arts together is ridiculous. I keep having to push stuff back because the kids ask questions and I don't want to narrow down exploration--but we need to narrow it down! Every avenue of historic investigation opens up many others: immigrant groups lead to push and pull factors and cultural and ethnic and religious and political differences, all of which are rich and interesting. Ireland alone (we're about to get heavy with Ireland because of the Irish immigrants in Pigtown) leads on and on forever if you let it. Push factors include religious persecution and oppression and dare I say genocide--where do I tell the kids "we don't have time to answer these questions. Just accept my little blurd explanation." Ugh.

I'm tired. Last week I clocked more than 80 hours of work, then this past weekend I blasted sidewalk tree wells with a jackhammer for 5 hours on Saturday, and I am wiped. Election Day will be a nice reprieve next Tuesday, though I'll of course have to spend it grading and planning (and voting briefly).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farewell to All That

Lewis Lapham has ended the Notebooks column in Harper's after 26 years. His appearances have been sporadic of late as he's moved on to found and helm Lapham's Quarterly. A monthly pleasure for much of my adult life has expired.

I was struck by his quotation of Montaigne:

I have no doubt that I often speak of things which are better treated by the masters of the craft, and with more truth. This is simply a trial [essai] of my natural faculties, and not of my acquired ones. If anyone catches me in ignorance, he will score no triumph over me, since I can hardly be answerable to another for my reasonings, when I am not answerable for them to myself, and am never satisfied with them...These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.

That's a good Mission Statement.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


C.G. Jung denied he was a mystic or guru, and claimed always that his theories had firm grounding in post-Enlightenment ideals of scientific reasoning. His labyrinthine books are punishing because he was at great pains to provide volumious evidence in order to avoid the charge he was some sort of shaman or witch doctor.

And yet I've always found him so interesting precisely because he was a shaman who at the same time had the intellect, training, and capacities of a scientist. Jung's life-long experience with poltergeists, portentuous dreams, and waking visions indicates a consciousness encompassing multiple modes of awareness and a facility for using them in the productive construction of a rich inner life.

This is the tack Gary Lachmann takes in his brief bio of Jung. We get a nice summary of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and some key incidents from his association with Freud, and Lachmann neatly builds his case that Jung was "never embraced scientific rationalism," but rather struggled all his life between at least two different personalities based in different world views. The bio is refreshingly "warts-and-all": the affairs, the rants, the aloof and distant relationships he had with his wife and children--all get an objective appraisal here. Lachmann's examination of the controversy over Jung's supposed anti-Semitism and Nazi associations is the most clear-headed I've read as well. I recommend it whole-heartedly for those who are Jung at heart.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day #26

Professional development today. It was a bit dry, but it was useful, because it dealt with assessment. I fucking hate grading and all that jazz, and I'm glad to be at a school where grades are regarded as a necessary evil rather than the be-all end-all of education. We assess for learning as much as possible before doing assessment of learning, and grades are done with the students rather than done to them.

Yeah, it sounds good, but it's beastly hard to do. It's all part of teaching the intrinsic value of learning and excellence, rather than rewarding or punishing with grades. And yet we still have to report whether or not they get what we teach. So we're spending a couple of days working on how this happens at our school. And a lof of the process is still up in the air, so we're working on hashing it out.

What does one do after a day of such work? One walks across the street from school and drinks a few down with co-workers. The staff and barflys had very complimentary things to say about the school since we took over, telling us that the kids were much more respectful now and the environment around the school was much improved. Good to hear!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day #25

6 weeks in!

Ahmad is a nut, plain and simple. He can't sit still, he can't keep his hands off things, he looks at you quizzically when you give him a command the first time, and ignores it. The second time you tell him something he inevitably calls you a bitch. The third time he walks out your room and leaves school. He has no social skills. He thinks it's appropriate to run up and shank someone with a paperclip or a nail file in order to make friends. He doesn't understand why some kids find this troublesome behavior. And ten minutes after driving you crazy he wants a hug, or he wants you to drive him home. I drove him home a few times, hoping to get through to him. He immediately switched my car stereo to 92Q and cranked it each time, before putting his head out the window like a puppy.

Because he's so unmanageable, and because his antics routinely blow up the entire 7th grade boys class, Mr. D the school counselor did a home visit. "It's the worst situation I've ever seen," D said. There's no door on his apartment, which is in a housing project off Lexington Ave. When D. entered there were a couple dozen hop-heads lounging on the floor, some in the act of shooting up. Nobody knew Ashad, and nobody could explain where his parents were. Ashad lives there, but his mom is missing. Let's just say she left him in the care of a bunch of George A. Romero film extras.

Like many kids in urban schools, Ashad acts the way he does for a reason. He doesn't have anyone who gives a fuck about him except his teachers. He acts the way he sees junkies act, meaning what he wants is paramount, and he will get what he wants by any means necessary. There are no boundaries for this kid. And yet he manages to be sweet and charming at times, and you can see the diamond in that thick and brambled rough. Maybe it's not to0 late to harvest that sumbitch.

The next two days are professional development days. Thank God I go to a school which does its own in-house PDs. I couldn't bear the City-wide bullshit again! Next week I'm off to North Bay for a week with the 6th and 7th grade. I'll be doing the zip line, the rock wall, the boating, the hands-on science lessons, and sleeping in a cabin with my 7th grade Crew. I can't wait.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Day #23

GIRL FIGHT! How I've missed you. My 7th grade boys class is coming in, and I'm standing in the hall to greet them when I see a 7th grade girl mouthing off and looking in my direction and then I hear one of my 6th graders mouthing off behind me and I start moving just as the 6th grade girl is getting over there and the 7th grade girl pushes her away saying "getthefuckouttamyface" and then punches are flying, beads are spilling on the floor, and I am between them taking most of the shots as they hold each other's shirts with one hand and throw blows with the other. Fortunately they're both wee little nothings, or I'da been messed up.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Sixth World

The new season at Single Carrot Theater has begun, and the Carrots are genetically pre-disposed to material like Natural Selection. The action takes place a bit into the future, when our experience of reality is even further filtered through the internet tubes. Kids take swimming lessons via Skype while sitting in their bedrooms, and play in school orchestras in the same way. Most animals are extinct, and indigenous people are increasingly difficult to find. When Henry--the manager of a Native American exhibit at Culture Fiesta them park--loses one of his Navajo "performers," he has to go out in the wilderness to bag a new one. It's quite a feat for Henry, who is descended from Kit Carson, to go anywhere which is not a conference center, and much of what we've become in the civilized world is ably lampooned.

The play reminds me a lot of the writer George Saunders, whose book Civilwarland in Bad Decline has a very similar theme; the play, like that book, made me laugh loudly several times.

I don't think I've seen Christopher Rutherford before, but his work as Henry is exquistely fine. He's got great comedic timing, and can switch gears precisely when the role requires genuine anger, worry, or fear. He was a pleasure to watch, and he fits in quite well with old Carrots faves. The same is true of Lyndsay Webb, who plays multiple roles without missing a beat. The Carrot regulars are always on point: Elliot Rauh works himself into a Hulk Hogan frenzy as an incompetent outdoorsman with a flair for the dramatic, Jessica Garrett tweets and updates and blogs with depth and sensitivity, and seeing Aldo Pantoja at work reminds me how much I missed him since the last time I saw him on stage (I think it was in Eurydice).

Go see it! The Sun was right about this production!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Day #22

One of the most interesting things about my new school is the fact that we do field work investigations: kids go out into the community to do research, do surveys, do interviews, and to visit and study local sites of interest. Having never taken kids on field work before, I was a bit worried today about taking all three of my classes on an urban hike to visit a local mural and a historic marker. We walked a mile each way, and took notes and cultivated questions for our expedition into local history and immigration. The kids were awesome, even the nutty 7th graders (though 10 of them were absent, or suspended, or out for a soccer game). I had a great time today.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Day #20

"I don't understand," I said loudly into a sudden silence, "why it is taking us 40 minutes to do the GODDAMN WARMUP! And WHY is it taking so long to do a ten-minute activity? Because of 'he touched my notebook,' 'he got my gel pen!,' 'he packing my gramma,' 'he farted...'" At this point I was in full thespian mode, mimicking certain kids' voices and mannerisms and practically foaming at the mouth. Just then the Big Cheese walked in, but I kept right on going. "You guys had a good week last week. Now we have all this childish nonsense AGAIN. SOMEBODY EXPLAIN TO ME WHAT HAPPENED." Nimoy pulled out a little toy skate board and started rolling it on his desk at this point. Usually I just grab them and hold them, but today I grabbed his and snapped it in two. At this the Big Cheese walked out.

This is how I deal with 7th grade boneheads. The touchy-feely stuff isn't working. We're a month in and the behavior is still not where it needs to be, and is occasionally drifting toward the redonckulous. After my rant I had them for 45 peaceful minutes, and nearly completed my lesson. Tomorrow they'll go off again and I'll have to think of something else.

Jerky is a mouthy kid who likes to cuss out and threaten teachers who call out his annoying behaviors. But over the past few days I've been getting somewhere with him, and he's been trusting me more. I found out he went for testing at Kennedy Krieger, and I filled out some paper work for him. Today I found out he's started medication for anger and depression problems, and I'm supposed to watch him for two weeks and record his behavior on a sheet. "I feel hot," Jerky said. "These medicines is fucked up. I feel like staying in my chair." And he did. And he answered questions. And he did his work for the first time. And he didn't cuss anyone out. And when I told him he couldn't sit in my room and use my laptop during lunch he didn't flip out, but instead he listened to the reasons why, and said "that makes sense. I understand. Maybe some other day!"


Monday, October 04, 2010

Day #19

Month two begins with one of those blurry Mondays. I'm at school @ 6:50 and I leave school @ 5:10 and I don't really remember stopping for a breath along the way. Copies and planning and set-up, then Crew, then two consecutive 75-minute classes, then a 2-hour planning and brainstorming session, then some printing, breaking up a fight, then a 75-minute class and an hour-long parent conference after school.

And somehow I didn't have time to grade anything or plan tomorrow's lesson. But yeah, you just fall into these weeks at this time and you either make it or you don't.

The 7th graders who fought were ridiculous. One bashed the other's head on the cement and gave him a nice knot. Once I got them to the office the one with the knot decided to throw a kick at the other and they tried to throw down again. Right in front of a police officer!

Still, a month in and only 2 fights? C'mon! This is awesome. I'm used to two fights a day in my classroom. I haven't had a fight in my room (yet).

Y'all killing my Donors Choose project. I appreciate tha love!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

2 Much 2 Dream

Bizarre dreams all week. Human corpses in the stew pot, evicerated beasts, long-lost friends showing up with current students to play basketball, etc. Thursday night I had a long dream about catching a flight at 6:30 in the morning, and every 15 or 20 minutes I woke up to look at the clock in a panic that I'd overslept and would miss the plane, and then I'd think "It's just a dream, I don't have a flight," and I'd go back to sleep and repeat the cycle.

I love dreams, however, and the freakier the better. It's strange how they seem to disappear for a while, and then suddenly return with a vengeance.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Dash is a young sixth grader who can't function in a chair. I let him lie on the carpet during class, and while the other kids are jigsawing their expert folders I let Dash look at a picture on my laptop and write down his observations on his own special graphic organizer. His older cousin is in my 7th grade class, and he warned me a couple weeks back that "Dash is fucking crazy. Just you wait."

Typically Dash sits on the rug or lies on the rug and doodles and does some of his work in colored pencils. On Thursday last week he said "I only have one pill left, Mr. Geoff. I just thought you should know." On Monday he was like a ricocheting bullet, bouncing around the room. On Tuesday I sat him next to me and stood on his pants leg so he couldn't get up, while he impaled himself on a crucifix and told me my mother performs high-quality fellatio in Hades.

The short kids' novel Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is narrated first-person by a boy similar to Dash--and a lot like one of my favorite kids of all time, Earache, from the March last year. I think Dash is hilarious and sweet, and even at his least restrained I try to find ways to negotiate with him. But without his meds he's dangerous and totally unreasonable and he doesn't belong in a public school building. But this book helps one empathize. I think every teacher should read it, and everyone who has kids in public schools too--so you can get an idea of what we deal with in the "full inclusion" classroom, where one adult sometimes has several students who need but don't have the proper meds. And yet we love these kids who can't control themselves, and we want them to have a chance to succeed and lead rich lives.

Day #16

My room is a swamp. The posters are curled up, the books are pruned and collapsed upon themselves, the student work is damp. Even though the temps were 20 degrees cooler today the humidity has been 100% and it feels like Louisiana in there. I swelter all day. I have trench foot, jock itch, and it wouldn't surprise me if malaria was coming down the pike. The kids drink two giant cooler bottles full of Deer Park each period. We sweat with three fans blasting damp warm air pointlessly around the room. The clock droops on the wall like a rotten fruit, persistently reminding us how much time we have left in our steam bath.

A long-time vet at my new school took over 2nd period from me today. She's great, and very professional, and has wonderful ideas. I was excited to see what she had to offer, because I've never had such support at any other school. I think it's fantastic that I get coaching and that other teachers with years of experience are willing to come in and model lessons for me. The sixth graders were rude to her, disruptive, chatty, and whiny. She kept her game face and worked them well, but she's used to third graders and the middle schoolers are relentless. They prevented her from completing her workshop, and though she never once showed it in front of them, she was frustrated at the end of the period when we had a moment to chat. I still think I picked up some really good ideas, and hope I expressed my appreciation adequately. She observed the class yesterday as they did much the same thing to me. Our lesson went great until a fire alarm, and then I never got them back after the drill was over.

A couple of true chuckleheads who've proved unmanageable have finally caught the attention of the administrators. One of them chased the Big Cheese with a clipboard when she took him to the office for threatening to shoot a girl and calling her a "stripper bitch." I'd been sitting this child at my feet in the front of the room and standing on his goddam pants leg to keep him from attacking other kids and rummaging randomly through files and cabinets, so I'm not sad to see him taken out. At my old schools these kids would have been shut back in my room to stir up trouble--not here. They are suspended. If a child who needs meds doesn't take them, the parent is called and told to remove the child. They don't simply blame the teacher for poor management skills, as I've seen done in the past.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day #15

Another 11-hour day at work. I had to stay late to plan a workshop lesson on Determining Importance, and I'm working with a "coach" teacher on this lesson, someone who's an expert on Expeditionary Learning. I've never taught Determining Importance (though it's similar to Main Idea), so I was glad for her input. I'd already kind of prepped a National Geo Kids article for the lesson, but needed ideas on how to structure and present the workshop. At SBCS we don't stand and deliver lessons, we do "catch and release"--meaning I give a tantalizing taste of the skill via modeling, then the kids practice, and then we come back together to "debrief" and construct an "anchor chart" of how to do the skill. In other words: the kids participate in constructing the process. I love it. But I've never done it!

Two 6th graders had the audacity to start jawing in my 2nd period class today. I clamped that shit right up by walking over and saying very quietly between them "You are welcome to fight in my room, but remember that I am not afraid to restrain kids who fight, and you might not like it when I restrain you." They quickly found another outlet for their energies. But then I heard that two of my 7th grade Crew kids (Crew is what we call homeroom--it's complicated) got into a fight in Mr. B's class. Mr. B is a slight fellow from Cameroon, and I'm embarrassed to know that they threw down in there and were rolling on his floor throwing punches while he shouted at them. After I heard I went down to the Cafeteria at lunch and gave them a piece of my mind.

In a couple weeks I'm going to North Bay for 5 days with most of the sixth and seventh graders. I'll be staying in a cabin with them, rappelling and climbing rock walls with them, doing the zip line with them, and going sailing with them. I'm kind of excited, and wish I could get my Crew kids to fill out their permission slips. They keep saying "we just gonna stay home that week" and I keep saying "you will be in school doing work that week if you don't go on the trip, or you will be truant and the Big Cheese will show up at your house." These kids don't give a fuck. I would have killed for a chance at a free week at North Bay in 7th grade, with a gourmet cook doing all the meals and cabins with showers and daily free time and science lessons and crazy games and phyisical activity. And all the girls will be there! All I did in 7th grade was science and engineering camp at Virginia Tech(though that was a blast, what with the early internet, the softball league, the toothpick bridge contest, and the easily available kine bud). I found half my Crew's permission slips on the floor ten minutes after I handed them out!

I'm tired, I'm stressed, I'm anxious--but it's all good.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Donor's Choose!

Yes, it's that time of year--the time of year when I harrass people to donate $$$ so I can provide more classroom library titles to my students. I've had two huge classroom library projects funded already, for which I'm eternally grateful. My current students are enjoying these past titles during Independent reading time!

My latest project asks mostly for social studies titles, including Time Mag for Kids. I also ask for other useful things, like a DVD set of School House Rock cartoons, and some novels about the Civil War and the immigrant experience. Whatever you can do to help, even if it's simply letting other people know about my project--would be greatly appreciated, and may help expunge any karmic debt you've accumulated, perhaps preventing your reincarnation as a slug of some sort.


Day #14

My 2nd period sixth grade class is chugging along smoothly when the counselor steps in. "Mr. G, can I borrow your class for just 2 minutes? I got a student here who has something he needs to say to them." "Sure," I replied, and D tells the class "Kam has something to say to y'all, and it's not going to be easy for him."

In walks Kam, a chubby kid with a funny mohawk whom I'd marked absent because I'd not seen him. He has a paper in his hand and he steps to the front of the room. He has one forearm across his eyes and he's already snuffling. "I wanted to say I'm sorry..." is all he gets out before blubbering commences. Immediately there are "ohs" and "It's okays" and "we love you Kams" from the entire class. An active and moody girl who sits at my desk to keep her out of trouble gasped and asks me if she can go hug him and I tell her yes. She does so, and takes his paper and begins to read an apology about gossip and putting people's bizness out. Mr. D comes back in the room and says "Oh no, no no no. He's gotta say it. I appreciate your support and all, but it's on him."

Kam reads the apology, which is accepted tenderly, and I see how a group of kids brought up in a school which values shared feelings and a sense of community can function together.

Then I face the seventh grade boys, who have not been brought up through that kind of school, and who are rebelling and doing their best to prevent any kind of community functioning. I have a crew of them I work with every morning, and Mr. B from Cameroon has the other. We have been trying to get them together for a seventh grade community meeting for 3 consecutive Fridays with the seventh grade girls, but they cannot line up, they can't get in a circle, and they can't be quiet. We're pressed for time because there is a school-wide meeting coming and these kids can't handle it yet, and we don't want them in front of the elementary kids and sixth graders acting this way. It takes us two hours to get through a 20-minute activity. The only respite we get, the only time we get a half-hour of silence and respectful and honest communication, is after I tell them "Ok, I was disappointed in you guys, and then I was frustrated. Now, however, I'm embarrassed. I am embarrassed to be associated with young adults who behave this way."

I'm starting to realize that in order to teach the way this school expects me to teach, I need to get my brain back to the way I used to teach college courses. I rarely planned detailed lessons: I had text, I showed the students how I interacted with that text, I made detailed notes to display my thinking to them, my connections, my questions, and my inferences. And then I allowed the students to share their reactions to the issues or knowledge raised, and then we moved to the text as a piece of writing. What worked? Why? What could be done better? My brain is far away from those days, but I need to get it back. Part of my problem is that I'm no longer interacting with texts in the same rich way. I don't write in books any more, or think deeply about them. I need to do so again if I expect to teach these kids to be life-long readers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day #13

I feel I have my two sixth grade classes pretty much under wraps. They are on task, they do for the most part quality work, and they pay attention when I ask it. They also do an amazing job during independent reading time. We started at 15 minutes, and they're up to 20 already, and asking for five-minute extensions when the timer goes off. Looks like I'll need another Donors Choose library increase soon, because these kids are gonna go through my collection in no time.

Now I have to figure out how to challenge them. No small feat. I also have to figure out how to teach them two subjects worth of crap in one class period this year. Gulp! My creativity is in the shitter right now, the Muse is off somewheres having a fling in a fleabag hotel, I got no ideas worth a train-flattend penny. But they'll come. They always do. Even if it's at 3:00am they'll come. I need them soon, though, because the two weeks of lessons which sprung full-formed and armored from my skull a while back are nearly depleted.

The seventh grade boys are aggravating me no end. Today they were throwing water on each other from their water bottles, many had balloons in their pockets which they took out and started inflating and bouncing, and they refused to stay in their seats or pay attention. So now the good kids are starting to go bonkers because of a few bad apples derailing the class. I'm meeting with the principal tomorrow to strategize about these kids. I'm apparently having less trouble with them than others, but that means nothing to me. I want no trouble. I want to teach.

I just can't stand when the kids who care and want to learn sit there and stare around themselves, wondering what to do. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day #12

The more things change...

I felt like I'd turned a corner last week with the 7th grade boys class. They are a headache: inattentive, loud, rude, silly. They poke each other with sharp objects, they talk about pussy, they can't sit still, they are disrespectful. But I'm used to all that stuff, with disturbing violence mixed in--without the violence the other stuff is just annoying. I worked to get them to a point where we had two great days to end last week.

Then, the weekend. The 7th grade boys were off in a big way yesterday. It was like starting over. I decided to put the Norms and Needs and all the progressive stuff I really like about my school on hold and I dropped 30 minutes of detention on they assess. Then today two boys came in fussing over a lead pencil and one pushed the other hard and I immediately restrained him and put him face down over his desk and the room got very quiet. I let Elmore up and he was pissed and crying from humiliation--he is, after all, the burliest kid in his grade--and no one expected a teacher to put hands on him. "I'm going to tell my father what you did! You are not my father! He's going to kick your ass." I responded the way I always do. "I have talked to your father five times over the phone, and once in person. I am going to call him and tell him I had to restrain you today, because that's my responsibility. I only restrain kids when I fear for their safety. Half the time when I call, the parents tell me to take their kids out around behind the building for a whooping." This broke the silence as kids fell out a bit. They started packing Elmore and I had to intervene to stop it, to which he responded "fuck you I can defend myself," tears rolling. But I let that one to go to give him some space.

So there's still work to be done. I've made great strides with my sixth grade classes, however. I've had a handful of parent conferences, made a few phone calls, but for the most part they are on point. We're investigating national symbols in order to choose one to represent each homeroom. I don't do much teaching or talking, I make up their folders of images and their build background knowledge worksheets, then I run a PowerPoint with directions and kind of stand down. I'm learning about how the kids learn and work right now. I'm liking what I see.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Typically I run a decade or two behind the times. I just got an iPod for the first time, and I just finished the first Harry Potter book (called Harry Potter at the School of Sorcerers). I read it in French to brush up my rusty skills, and I found the level of the French to be just about right for me to move through confidently with my Larousse de Poche and the English original nearby to check some expressions idiomatiques I didn't recognize.

I can see what all the fuss is about. There's enough mystery and enough darkness to satisfy, and there's quite a bit of humor. Yes, the characters are often types whose skills are differentiated enough for them to prove useful at just the right moment to save the day and to move the plot along--but from what I've heard Rowling got better at characterization as she wrote the series. I shall continue to read them, but it's slow going in French, so I might only do the first three that way before switching to English. We'll see...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Day #10


So I'm adjusting to the new environment, the new systems, the increased expectations, the kids, my co-workers. It's pretty refreshing to be having relatively minor problems with behavior. The most extreme head cases this year would have been the most reasonable kids in my classes last year. And only about 5 or 6 kids out of each class of 25 are problematic right now, which is precisely inverse to my previous experience, when I'd have 5 or 6 attentive and well-behaved kids and 20 lunatics in each class. And I have supportive and appreciative administrators and counselors and special ed staff who are already offering suggestions for differentiation and who if I give them my learning targets and a text will re-work it for me to meet the students' needs. I'm stunned by all this. And when you call a parent at SBCS, the parent shows up the next day before school starts. Amazing! I couldn't get phone numbers from parents half the time last year.

Of course I'm also choking on work. I'm planning and researching a lot and trying to learn new assessment and teaching and workshop models. I'm collecting reams of work but I don't really know how to record it or grade it because all the methodology is different. But I'm expecting everything to become clear as we move forward.

The kids are hilarious, even the jerks. One sixth grade clown told me if I put a T between the E and O in my name it would be Mr. Getoff. I had to try and choke down my laughter as I reprimanded him for not following the "Be respectful" norm.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I remember vividly in 10th grade English class trying to explain to Mrs. Ewig that I really hadn't the slightest idea what an appositive or a gerund was. She was shocked. "No one who writes the way you do can be ignorant of the conventions of grammar and usage." But seriously, I was, and I remained so until much later, when I took Latin as an undergrad at Loyola College in Baltimore. I learned most of my grammar when I took advanced French grammar courses earning my second bachelor's degree in my 30's.

And yet I have taught writing at two universities and I've been certified to teach writing to kids in public schools. How? Why? WTF?

I think the book 6+1 Traits mirrors my own ideas of how writing should be taught and learned in schools. I always told my freshmen in college that the only way to run a faster mile was to run, and the only way to write better was to read a lot and write. I can stand in front of a room and bore you to death with rules and conventions until you choke to death on study sheets and charts--but until you actually sit down and write, you will never improve. And part of the process is looking at successful writing and determining why it works.

This book is the latest in a string I've been given in order to prep for how my new school does things. I found it very helpful and inspiring. Of course now I have to unlearn all the junk I've picked up the last three years in BCPSS. But I've got to unlearn everything at this point, so why not throw another skill set on the fire? The examples are useful and clear (though I have a feeling many of the authentic student texts were actually written by adults), the assessment standards are valid and useful, and the suggested lessons for teaching each trait of quality writing are interesting and fun. I can't wait to try them!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Day #5

I just printed out 96 articles and 36 photographs to use in lessons the next few days after spending about 12 hours this past weekend finding them, and I'm riding myself about getting serious and I need to start working. Thank goodness for Election Day tomorrow, so I can get another full day to catch up on some planning and prepping. Let's just say that work is humming right now. I'm ramping up but I need to be at full steam soon in order to keep up.

Having management problems with my 2nd period sixth graders. They're just chatty, and it's hard to keep their focus. Unfortunately I haven't flushed the culture of my last two schools out quite yet, so I've resorted to a few old tricks to shock the kids into paying attention. Not something one is supposed to do at my groovy and totally awesome and progressive Charter School. But the principal is extraordinarily supportive, and she claims to know where I'm coming from, and she's been really helpful and understanding. I know other teachers are having a tough time with the same class. I think it will be fine, though, once I establish relationships with these kids. I'm rather laboriously typing them each a response to a letter I had them write me last week. I'm really personalizing each response, trying to tie into their interests and share my experiences in each letter. It takes a couple hours to do a dozen, and I have about 54 more to write this week. But I think it will be key. I handed out the letters I'd finished today, and some kids wrote me replies to my letter which were totally unsolicited. One girl, with whom I'd shared the fact that all my grandparents were now sadly deceased, wrote me to sympathize. Her exact words? "I'm sorry you lost your grandparents. But maybe soon you'll be with them again." Comforting.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Day #3

I'm learning a lot about the kids at SBCS. They are not at all dis-similar to other kids I've taught at much tougher schools. They will push your buttons, see what sets you off, and insult you directly to your face to guage your reaction. I'm taking it in stride, trying not to get all Booker T. on they asses--because that's not how we roll in this school. We talk about needs, about classroom norms, and about controlling our own behaviors and reflecting on our choices.

It's not easy.

One of my sixth grade classes is angelic and smart and three days in I can tell they need to be challenged. The work I'd planned out for an hour and fifteen minutes was done in 45 minutes and I had nothing to fall back on. The other sixth grade class is demonic and smart and it takes me and hour and fifteen minutes to get them through the prep work of the lesson. I got kids taking off their shoes, mocking my name, talking incessantly, while the rest of the class is watching and biding their time, wondering if I'll lose control. I'm supposed to council and cajole rather than shout and punish--a big change, and one I'm excited about--but it's going to take time to get used to it. I can't use the Pinch of Death or call parents in the middle of class any more. I have to get one-one-one with trouble makers and talk out what they need to get past their problems. I'm supposed to tell the class "I can wait" while they're acting a donkey. The demonic class can act a donkey a long time!

The seventh graders, who were Diggs-Johnson kids last year, are the kids I'm used to. All boys, all rowdy, all up in each others' grills all day every day, taking each others' stuff, stabbing each other with pencils, etc. I can handle that bullshit, because I've seen it before. But it's ridiculous and exhausting. We've been in school 3 days and I am tired.

This weekend I will be doing a LOT of planning. Hopefully I can get a breather to watch the Ravens. At least next Tuesday is Primary Day, so there's a bit of a break in the week for more fine-tuning.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Day #1

So, new school, new systems, new excitement, and the same old challenges.

Nimoy started plucking my nerves within a few minutes of our extended 2.5 hour homeroom today. He talked when I talked, he swore out loud, he leaned back in his chair until it teetered. I called him out on all this stuff. I've dealt with Nimoys before. He threw a pencil at another boy, which I made him retrieve. "But he talking 'bout my grandmother!" he said. Then he tried to steal the other boy's pen.

During Humanities class, Nimoy talked the entire time. He was so disruptive the school counselor came in and read him the riot act. Nimoy was at summer camp and was supposed to be a leader, a positive example to his class mates. Nimoy just grinned during this schpiel.

At the end of the day my homeroom kids congregated again in my room to fill out ballots selecting their SPAR classes. Nimoy threw water on another boy, and tried to trip a second, when I pulled him over for a conference. I'm trying to avoid the reward/punishment model because this school doesn't use it to modify behavior, but we have to slowly teach our system to the kids before it's effective, and Nimoy is already off the hook. So I told him I'd hate to have to call his house on the first day and he said "Fuck this school. I fucking hate this school. I ain't coming back here tomorrow."

If only that were true.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

T Minus 2 Days

Oh, God. I need to start planning some lessons, but instead I putter around my room and day dream, churning ideas and flipping through books and making useless notes. Today I did work with the 7th and 8th grade Humanities teacher--my counterpart in the middle school--to set up a working plan for our expedition into Immigration in Pigtown this fall. She's really awesome, and hails from New Zealand. I admire her demeanour in front of kids and the way she integrates art into her lessons. We got a lot done in 3 hours. She spent most of the last decade at Mt. Royal before coming to SBSC last year. I'll need to lean on her a lot to get through this first trimester, though she told me jokingly today that I'm the "resident expert" on Social Studies, since I'm now the sole certified teacher in that subject in the middle school. The idea that passing a standardized test in a subject area is any indication of expertise cracks me up. But there I am.

The work crew doing our rehab took down the giant burnished chrome letters which spelled "Diggs Johnson Middle School" on the side of the building today, in preparation for the new signage. I was lucky to score one of the G's for my classroom. I made a cool "Mr. G" sign with it. Of course what's "cool" to me will result in hard-core packing by the students, I'm sure.

Monday, August 30, 2010

T Minus 5 Days

So the rest of B'more went back to school today. Because we took over a decrepit building and the remodel ran long we're starting a week late (meaning we're staying a week longer in the summer, d'oh). But whatever. My room is ready, so the rest of this week I'll be planning and researching and doing little PDs and collaborative work around the school to get ready. I met a couple of my kids today. They were cute and wee for 6th graders!

I've had some crazy sinus bug since the last week of July and it is driving me nuts. I feel weak and sniffly and achy all the time. Usually this doesn't happen until around the end of October, when the kids start getting sick and passing their germs to me. I can't work out, and when I can't work out I get agitated and grumpy and that doesn't help me heal. Netti pot, vitamins, lots of fluids--nada!

Today at lunch I needed to get some stuff at Staples so I drove over in the 96 degree heat to Russell Street, which is five minutes from my school, to find that the Russell Street Staples is GONE. Muthafucka. Now I gots to go to Towson for that shit. UGH.