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.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Associated with my new gig at SBCS is a new pedagogical methodology with its own mysterious jargon. I'd heard terms like "Catch and Release," "Workshop Cycle," "6+1 Traits," "Choice Theory," "Expedtionary Learning" dozens of times before I really knew what they meant.

Fortunately at SBCS the administration is dedicated, articulate, invested in student AND faculty success--they are nurturers and they have no interest in setting up teachers to fail. So my boss lent me a stack of books a few weeks back which she thought would help. That simple step is already much more support than any other administrator has given me in 3 years at BCPSS.

That Workshop Book is really exceptional. It's set up around visits to classrooms. The lessons, the unit contexts, and the teacher's background thinking are provided. The class scripts and student products with comments and interactions all lend themselves to someone like me, who can learn steps and ideas well from texts, but who likes to see processes and procedures in action as well. We watch students grappling with complex issues in governance and current events, and thinking independently and richly. The teachers in the book have the students engage in producing products for "authentic audiences": one teacher in Colorodo has his students designing memorial ideas for local 19th-century massacres of Native Americans by US soldiers, and a revenge sally by the Dog Soldiers. They study Maya Lin and her proposal essay and work on their own designs and proposals, which they eventually submit through official channels. I love this stuff!

The question in my mind after seeing the examples here is no longer HOW to teach in an Expeditionary Learning school. The question is how well I'll be able to juggle all this stuff and hit the ground running, coming from the environments to which I'm accustomed. I'll have to re-charge some long-decayed batteries, and get back to where I was as a teacher at Towson U many moons ago. That's the last time I had such freedom to instruct as I saw fit.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Another Day in the 'Hood

Cha and I were in the kitchen this morning when she saw a dude sneaking around a couple houses down. He was in the back yard, moving stealthily, pretty obviously trying to find a means of entry. The house he was approaching is a rental with 3 units, only one of which is currently occupied. Dude who lives there has a bunch of Rent-A-Center stuff in his apartment. I know 'cuz I helped him move some stuff in.

I called 911 and made a report, not expecting a timely response from B'more's Finest. But they arrived within five minutes, just after the guy snuck off down the alley, apparently unsuccessful in his attempted B&E. A female officer rolled up and I was giving her a description when another cruiser pulled in and two vigorous male officers ran over. There was obviously some tension on the part of the female officer. The males yelled at me "Did you call?" and the female responded sarcastically "No, he's just fucking talking to me!" Then she sneered and pulled off. I gave the males the description too, and told them what I'd seen, and that I'd never seen the dude before.

As I was driving to work I saw them checking the guy's ID and questioning him. Glad to see that. Maybe he'll think twice before he snoops around yards in our neighborhood again.

There was a lot of 5-0 activity this morning. I saw a white guy in distress, seated on the sidewalk and leaning against a building at MICA. Several squad cars and a detective were on site. Don't know what that was about. Also saw another guy getting rolled up at the corner of Eutaw and Madison. The long, hot summer is drawing to a close.


In high school the only fact I learned about John Adams was his distasteful passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. According to David McCullough, he did lots of other things, like defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Adams was for independence from Britain, but could not abide anyone going without representation at trial. Adams also was the major voice for independence in the Congress, and won many over to the Revolutionary spirit with his oratory.

The second president is an interesting cat. I really enjoyed McCullough's portrait of the young, restless Adams, whose persuits were too diverse and unfocused for his own liking. He often complained about reading too little and not getting enough work done and thinking of girls too much. Strange how a man with such a low opinion of his own ambition could have achieved so much in 90 years.

Adams died on the 4th of July on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He outlived his great friend and erstwhile foe Thomas Jefferson by about 6 hours. McCullough is excellent on Adams and Jefferson and their complex relationship. I'd recommend Joesph J. Ellis' Founding Brothers as well.

I recommend John Adams to you. I listened to on CD in the car--the first time I've ever listened to an audio book. I wish McCullough had read it, because I love his narrations on PBS. Now, I shall get the mini-series from Netflix.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Hooray! I'm done with Lisbeth Salander and Kalle Fracking Blomkvist. No more miraculous interventions at just the right moment! No more superhuman capabilities! No more intricately plotted but amateurishly written chapters!

Boo! I'm done with Stieg Larrson. I gobbled these trashy books up with great gusto, and will likely watch the movies soon to see how they compare. I have an expectation that the movies might be better if handled correctly...


In order to morph from an English/Language Arts teacher into a Humanities teacher, my new boss requested that I take the Praxis certification test in Middle School History/Social Studies over the summer. I did so in late July.

I hate ETS and their sloppily proctored exams, which don't really measure much. If a test is scheduled for two hours it should not start 90 minutes after the scheduled start time because a bunch of grad student proctors are late and disorganized. These exams one of the many hurdles to certification which prevents people from becoming teachers. The entire process needs to be streamlined, IMHO.

The test--100 multiple choice questions and 3 essay questions--proved more challenging than I expected. I choose to take it cold, without studying, figuring there was no way to know what areas to brush up anyway, and that if I had a reasonably broad general knowledge I was likely to pass it on the first go. If not, I'd have a clearer idea of what areas to delve into for round 2.

The selected response questions focused a great deal on Native American/Colonial American/early American history (not a particular strength of mine), and totally avoided areas where I read for pleasure like Greece, Rome, Egypt, Medieval Europe. Asia, South America, and the Middle East were almost entirely absent, though there was one question about Sumeria and one about Israel in the 20th century. I felt reasonably confident about 50% of the questions, I felt certain about 30%, and felt I was making 'educated guesses' the rest of the time.

The essays were challenging but easy to bullshit. A chart of US cities with declining populations over the past 60 years was accompanied by the question "Pick a city from the list and explain three factors which contributed to its population change." I chose Detroit, which seemed easy enough. There was a question about a map of Africa showing levels of European colonization in 1830 versus 1900, and the question asked again for factors explaining its tremendous growth in the 19th century. Finally, I had to explain two factors which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I thought I did ok on one question, and rather poorly on the second two, but hoped for the best.

I finally got the marks yesterday, and had passed 193 out of 200. I scored 17 out of 18 on the essays, and was above the average range on all categories. This is due, I believe, to good test-taking skills moreso than a deep and abiding knowledge of history/geography/culture, etc. But I'm pleased with the result.

Of course, passing the exam and being certified in a subject doesn't necessarily mean one can teach it. That's the next step!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Last year at the March I tried to start literature circles in my classroom. The thinking behind these is that kids should be given autonomy to choose books which engage them, and they should be trusted to organize themselves into discussion squads which interact with literature in organic and natural ways. I had some success when I tried it, but the fact I had kids lying on desks and counters and walking around reading out loud or vigorously arguing their POVs in my room caused the administrators in my school to freak out. They entered my room several times during reading or discussion time and screamed at kids who were doing any of the above, and then read me the riot act for daring activities which were off curriculum or which didn't involve worksheets.

Now I'm moving to a school where literature circles are expected to happen, and I found this book pretty useful because it models how different teachers do it, and how they schedule the time, train kids how to interact with text and each other, and how they assess it (or not!).

I still need to see the process in order to feel confident with setting them up and letting them run. But that's not an option! I go live in two weeks and in the first few days of school I plan to start training literature circle behavior. God--do I have enough books? Of course not! There are never enough books! But I have enough for each class to choose to have five groups going with multiple copies, I suppose. Some of them might be of lower quality, but whatever.

Here we go!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It Never Ends

So a couple days ago as I was driving up McCullough Street behind my house I saw Tattyana, a sixth grade hellion from the March, standing at the corner of Whitelock Ave. Today I saw Tattyana smoking a blunt with two other girls in the park across from my house as I sat on the stoop reading Foreign Policy.

Tattyana is 12 years old.

I think I still have her mother's cell phone number, but it won't do much good to call, given that Tattyana's mother smokes weed in front of her all the time. If Tatyana is over here on the West Side it's likely that Tattyana's mother is back in the Big House anyhow. Tattyana's aunt lives over here some place.

Tattyana is bad news. She's really brilliant and capable but she uses all her energies for evil. She incites weaker-willed children to do her bidding, and is often the one pulling strings behind violent beat-downs of girls she dislikes.

I'm hoping she's only staying over here for the summer. I don't want to have to see her all the time. I also don't want her to know where I live.

On a happier note, I strolled around the neighborhood at my new school today during lunch break: I checked out Carroll Park, and took a hike around SoWeBo. Got hit up for smokes several times--but I couldn't oblige--and was offered a really reasonable price for a carnal act by a rather weathered young blond. The professional development meetings have, however, been of superior quality and practicality. That's an enormous step up from the other schools in which I've worked for BCPSS.

Monday, August 16, 2010


The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a mind-bending book. Robert Colasso starts by retelling a myth and then begins retelling its permutations, only to eventually shift to analysis and questioning of mythic permutations over time. I quite enjoyed this approach: tell the story, tell its variations, then muse on its significance. Because I'm too intellectually lazy to really get at what I want to say after a weekend at the beach, I'll do what lame reviewers in newspapers do, and compare it to other writers' books. Oh, wait--I can't do that, because this book is absolutely unique in my experience. But wait: I can use the next cheap trick of lazy reviewers, and imagine a combo of writers getting together, and say this is the sort of book Robert Graves would have co-written with Jacques Barzun, had they worked together. Nah. Let's simply say that I really felt Greek myths differently while reading Colasso; I came to suspect he knew something about the shift in consciousness necessary to get these stories as a true Pagan would. If you've ever seen Fellini's Satyricon--and if you're one of the few people who don't hate it--you might understand what I'm trying clumsily to get at here. This book really transfixed (-posed?) me in special ways.

I started to think and see the world a bit differently after reading some passages about the Eleusian Mysteries. Strange things occured. Here's an example: We were at the beach this weekend, and I read about 60 pages of Colasso on the sand Sunday before hitting the surf. The waves were high and strong but the undertow was surprisingly gentle. I was frozen for a few seconds in aesthetic arrest by the magnificent marbling effect of foam on clear bluish-green waves, glinting in sunlight, as I bobbed further out in the surf, seeking suitable body-surfing swells.

I was thinking about going back to work in a new school this week, and how I wanted this trip to cleanse all the muck away from my previous experience in Baltimore City schools, and I invoked Poseidon and Appollo and dove too late under a particularly large wave which bashed me to the bottom, spun me topsy-turvy, and planted me foot-first into some terribly sharp object which pierced my left heel. Of course you're thinking Achilles, as was I, having just read about Achilles a few moments before, and I hopped a few steps in the chaotic and gorgeous waves to get my foot above the surface, and there was a spikey black crab claw with one fat barb deep in my foot. I pulled it out, flung it into the sea, and thanked Poseidon and Apollo for their blessing. Or their warning? As for the Crab: he and I are old enemies. I've eaten many of him, and he's tried to kill me. And my sister. But I fear him not.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


In 7th grade I read one of the Prydain novels, but I forget which one: perhaps Taran Wanderer? At any rate, since I'm teaching 6th and 7th graders now and into the forseeable future I figure I should start getting more acquainted with literature directed at them.

I enjoyed The Book of Three. It's funny how Gurgi was the only character I really remembered from before, and he's still my favorite. Not sure why.

Today we had a meeting at school which of course reminded me that I'm no longer an English or Language Arts teacher; I'm a Social Studies teacher. Best get that clear as I move forward. But I'm also responsible for literacy (the class is actually called Humanities), so I can still justify reading fun novels. How The Book of Three ties into our upcoming trimester unit on immigration and industry in Baltimore's Pigtown hasn't yet congealed for me; perhaps some linkage betwixt Pigtown and Hen Wen?

Friday, August 06, 2010


Gummo is a searing portrait of a community for whom the American Dream is an unattainable fantasy. It stands second only to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a sort of raw, punishing portrait of a civilization choking on its own self-righteous and wholly mythic ideals. I think I'll cheer up by watching Stroszek or Eraserhead.

Don't get me wrong: this is a well-made film. It's quite beautiful and moving. But be forewarned that you may find the subject matter somewhat troubling. I won't go into details.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


I don't remember what age I was when I first read Stephen King. I'd seen bits and pieces of the Tobe Hooper-helmed Salem's Lot miniseries on TV several times (I think it was on every Halloween for a while there in the '70s) before I was 10, and I'd seen commercials for Kubrick's The Shining. But I don't think I actually read King until I was 13 or so. And boy, did I read him: I read all of him. Those early books--Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Stand, Pet Cemetery, Christine--really fired up the imagination. King was good at writing ordinary people and dropping them into deep shit. And his terrors always came with quirky humor as a result.

But then I got to high school and King's imagination seemed spent. It was the stupidest, longest fucking piece of trash I'd endured, and as bad as It was, The Tommyknockers was worse. There was a time when King's ideas were ripped off from someplace else, but it was ok (Christine was better than that movie The Car after all). But scary clowns and alien invasion plots were second-rate rip-offs of old Outer Limits episodes. How could a guy capable of something so elegantly creepy as Misery write so much pure dreck?

So, even though King turned me into a big reader, I abandoned him more than 20 years ago. Occasionally I'd miss him, and would re-read something (I discovered in this way that The Shining is actually pretty bad too), and once I even bought a "current" King bestseller, called Desperation, for a long flight to Singapore. Desperation was a stinky turd of a novel, re-affirming my view that King was washed up.

And now, 13 years later, I pick up The Dark Half for the first time, and the old magic was there for at least a while. Yeah, King was ripping off old material again (the B-flick Basket Case and The Birds), but there's a certain depth to this work beyond the mere horror tale. King is struggling with his output, his material, his interest in the macabre, and the moral questions which inevitably come to a thoughtful artist's mind re: responsiblity to the public and society. I thought it was fun.

Why did I choose The Dark Half? Because I couldn't bear to read his latest, which is 1000 pages, and the plot idea is totally ripped off from The Simpsons Movie.