Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book #45

I tried to write this blurb last night on my new Kindle Fire, but while I could figure out how to cut the HTML code for the graphic above, the ability to paste it into Blogger is as of yet beyond me. So, back to the laptop!

I believe The Dispossessed is the first novel I've read by Ursula K. LeGuin. I've been reading her fine short fiction in the Best American Short Stories for years, and I recall reading with wonder the novella The Word for World is Forest about 30 years ago in Again, Dangerous Visions. But an early abandonment of sci-fi left her books in the lurch until recently, when Zadie Smith wrote an ecstatic appreciation of Le Guin during her too-brief tenure as book reviewer at Harper's and I ordered a few from Amazon.

The Dispossessed is a philosophical meditation on TIME and POLITICS and individual FREEDOM and the cycles of all three and how they intertwine. Shevek lives on a moon which was colonized by anarchist rebels from the planet it circles. Almost 200 years after the settlement he is a physicist isolated by his genius on this small world, and he opens channels of communication with the home planet in the hopes that he can contact its brightest minds and bring the ideals of his world to theirs. Of course the home world is a capitalist "propertarian" place, with the 1% controlling most things and the 99% living in various degrees of comfort and misery on what trickles down, while Shevek's moon is a "paradise" of mutual aid upon which everyone is obligated to work by fear of shame and nothing of beauty is really produced and your true labor is often disregarded as you sludge along in some necessary function for the benefit of all.

When Shevek gets to the home world he is incapable of completing his unifying theory of time and space. He is sickened and distracted by the lavish and sheltered life prepared for him by his hosts, and slowly realizes he is being used by them to produce a theory which will give them a technological, military, and profit advantage over others. Back home he was manipulated by bureaucrats and his ideas watered down to fit political orthodoxy; here he might unleash his theory with catastrophic consequences for the Universe.

What will Shevek do? You'll have to read to find out. Le Guin's worlds are rich and her presentation of these convoluted ideas are not at all dry. It's kind of endearing to imagine that thousands of years into the future and light-years away our descendants will still have debates across the same political spectrum.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Baltimore's Best Back Yard

Took advantage today of global warming's gift to Baltimore--60 degrees and sunny leading up to and following Xmas. I walked up to Druid Hill Park, as I often do, and though the Park is more regularly occupied now than it was when we moved to Reservoir Hill almost 5 years ago, I still often have acres to myself.

I passed by familiar statues: pockmarked marble George Washington, defiant granite and bronze William Wallace, deteriorating Colombus, and found a tiny unpaved footpath into a corner of the Park I rarely visit on foot or bike. The path meandered through a small wooded area littered with Magnum and Lifestyles wrappers--obviously a pleasant spot to bust a nut or two. I emerged somewhere southeast of the zoo, back by the fenced pond. There, on a sloping hill, was an impressive bronze bust of Wagner I'd not noticed before. An inscription announced that a Baltimore choir won first place at a singing competition in Brooklyn, and this statue was awarded to the city on their behalf.

The Park is full of such surprises: disused old fountains half-buried in the woods, abandoned and decrepit cemeteries, formerly segregated swimming pools now filled with dirt, paths and antediluvian light posts hidden away. I love it. It's the best back yard in Baltimore, and I don't have to mow or rake a goddamn thing.

Unfortunately I had no camera today; it's quite lovely despite the absence of leaves. The reservoir was an astonishing blue, like something mixed by Vermeer.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Catching Up

My first day off for holiday break and I woke early to catch up on some reading. The current issue of Cabinet has an interview with Sianne Ngai in which she says "Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness."

I wonder what she makes of Angry Birds?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day #66

It's been two weeks since I blogged about school. I've blogged, in fact, exactly twice this entire month so far. That's because I've been at school 11 or 12 hours a day, and working my tail off on weekends, since Thanksgiving break. I'ma shoot myself soon if this keeps up!

Not really. I'm writing report cards, and at the lovey-dovey charter school it's done different. There's no grade book with an average score that I type into the BCPSS system at the end of the semester; I have to look at growth for each skill and decide on current levels of understanding, and have proof with which I can justify my grades, and I have to keep in mind learning styles and IEPs and all that other jazz. It's philosophically the way I want to do grades if I have to, but it takes a beastly long time. Humanities teachers have it particularly rough because we report on two subject areas: Social Studies and Language Arts, and we have to come up with a trimester grade for five or six different learning targets for each, and narrative comments, and a section on reading and language assessment data, and behavior comments: it takes between 30 and 45 minutes to write most of these report cards. Multiply that times 65 kids, and add in the usual planning and assessment and teaching time, and you're talking brutal long ass days.

But because I worked my tail off I have only 7 cards left to write tomorrow, and then I won't have anything to do this weekend. Next week the kids present their learning at student-led conferences, so they only have classes on Monday, and SLC prep means no planning. Tuesday I have my homeroom kifd all day to get them ready to present and then I just chill and watch the shows Wed and Thursday, with a couple planning meetings for next trimester here and there.

Writing report cards has been exhausting but also rewarding. Many of my 7th graders made vast improvements from last year to this; the hard work we did last year to teach them class routines, to work on their characters, to build intrinsic motivation, is starting to bear fruit. I wrote some rock star report cards for kids who were C students last year. I'm loving that.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Books #43 and #44

I managed in between agonizingly long bouts of at-home work and staff parties to find a few moments to polish off Mockingjay, book 3 of the Hunger Games trilogy. I finished book 2, Catching Fire, some time ago but never got around to announcing it on the web.

I like Katniss Everdeen. She's sometimes a bit thick-skulled, a bit aloof and distant, and doesn't really respond well to love. She's also dutiful and determined and independent, which offsets her flaws and makes her real. I think the fantasy hero she most resembles from my own teen reading is Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and I can see why tweens find her appealing.

Katniss morphs over time from a desparado to a militant radical to (briefly) a sort of Ghandi, then she becomes Machiavelli and finally General Curtis Lemay. I got a bit distracted during the finish of the 3rd novel, which felt abrupt and a bit of a let-down after all the build-up, but I can see what the fuss is all about. Collins has written a book for kids which demonstrates the future of America if Grover Norquist gets his way. The next time I teach Hitler to middle grades kids I'd like them to do a novel study for connections. These might suffice!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Haint that a shame Part XIII

Things go missing in the classroom. It happens. People borrow your stuff and forget to return it. People come in your room after school when the cleaning crew has all the doors open and they rummage and occasionally take stuff. We've had a couple break-ins this year, and a couple times kids have been jacked up for crimes of opportunity. We've even had some dudes pretending to be parents roaming the school and taking cell phones out of teachers' desks.

So when I come in at 6:30 am and stuff isn't where it's supposed to be, I don't freak out. I look around, I wait a couple days, I ask questions. Usually someone borrowed the stapler I left on my desk, or my tape dispenser--it might take a while for me to get it back.

But there have been damned peculiar things going on of late. Like my floor wasn't swept because the cleaning staff said my chairs were down, when I know for a fact I had the kids put them all up during detention the previous day, and the chairs were all up when I arrived in the morning. Or my cabinets will be open but not rummaged, with perhaps a rubber ball or two out on the floor. I've spoken to the custodial staff a couple times about things like this. I've asked if kids have been in my room late at night. Sometimes the maps are pulled down and the screen put back up, or vice-versa; little things which aren't harmful, but stupid and time-consuming.

The trip to the Holocaust Museum a month back was exhausting. I got back to school at 6:30pm. I went up to my room, which I'd left at 8:30am. Everything was as I'd left it. The cleaning crew was actually in there when I dropped off some stuff. I said hey to Greg and D as they vacuumed and swept. They said hey back.

There were no students in the school. The only present adults were custodians and Mrs. P and I.

When I arrived at 6:30 the next morning, my chairs were down, my rubber balls were out of the closet and all around the room, a couple bulletin board displays had been torn down, several hallway displays had been removed and strewn along the floor, and my stapler and tape dispenser were missing again. My file cabinets were open and the classwork files were in reverse alpha order.

I went to see Sheryl, the chief custodian. I told her about being in the room the night before and then early the next morning. I said Greg or D wouldn't mess things up. I explained there were no kids in the building, and asked if one of the staff had their own children around. She said no. She scrunched up her face and kind of thought about what she was about to say. Then she just said it.

"I think there's something weird in your room," she said. "The staff don't like it in there at night. They hear things."


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Day #54

I've had the luxury this week to watch two awesome MICA interns run the show in my classroom. I need do nothing--they have a signal if they're in over their heads, but they haven't used it yet. So I've been able to observe the room and see things I typically miss from up front.

Yesterday I snatched 6 notes being passed second period. Each time I told the kids "If you are PERFECT for the remainder of class, I won't read this, and I'll return it to you. If you screw up once, I'll read it and recycle it. If you screw up twice, I'll read it and give it to the Big Cheese."

One of the notes I ended up reading because the kids passing it goofed off again. It was a chart listing boob sizes in the class: None, Small, Average, Large. Two of the categories had been filled in with names by two different boys. I took the boys out in the hall and walked them down to the copier machine. I photocopied their boob chart and said "these copies go in your folders. I dare you to screw up in my class again this year. If you do I'ma show them to your parents and the Big Cheese." I took the original and shredded it. Then we had a talk about disrespect and emotional safety.

Today I played counselor second period. We're working on collages of a situation from our lives in which we played the role of oppressor, victim, bystander, or rescuer. All of this is to help synthesize what we learned studying Hitler and the Holocaust. Many of the kids have awful things to share: a father shot and killed this summer, a sister who leapt to her death from a high-rise in September, a drive-by at the front stoop, etc. I spent an hour taking kids out one by one as they broke down in class. When the MICA kids planned their lessons I never thought to say "we might get some really raw stuff--be prepared for that!"

Last period today was a zoo. The sixth graders just can't handle the freedom of "here's several piles of collage materials and a hot glue gun--help yourself!" I thought about reining things in a few times, but let it ride, intervening only on a small scale. The interns never flashed the emergency sign, so I hung fire. I did, however, step in at the end. There were kids running rampant with clothespins, pinching each other. I jacked them up. I thought the interns should get a taste of what can happen when things go off the rails. They did! Tomorrow we'll debrief what went right and what went wrong.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book #42

A remarkable memoir by an amazingly tenacious survivor. Any one of the close shaves, beatings, or miraculous escapes in this book would have done in a lesser spirit; Bretholz managed to sustain his will to live over seven of the darkest and most difficult years in Europe's history. I was on the edge of my seat for much of the text, and I won't say another word because you should read Leap into Darkness tomorrow and I fear to spoil it for you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


My job takes so much of my time and energy that I rarely get to interact with film in a serious way anymore. That's a huge regret, because one of the things that made this blog somewhat successful back when it used to be somewhat successful was the time I spent watching serious flicks and commenting on them.* Now I'm likely to fritter away any free flick time on TV shows via Netflix or fluffy entertainments like horror flicks. I simply don't have the requisite intellectual space to devote to one of my main passions anymore. Even over the summers I prefer to veg in front of light fare, and I can't recall the last film I saw in a theater. I'd had this disc at home for about six weeks before I got to it at all.

I watched The New World in half-hour increments over several days. That's not ideal. Malick's stuff deserves one's full attention, and I like to soak in his films like a hot bath in order to appreciate them. But I did the best I could with the resources allotted me.

I found my experience of Pocahontas totally overwhelming, almost painfully intimate. Malick's dreamy approach perfectly conveys her curiosity, her deep sorrow, her joy, her playfulness. Who else could direct this material? The Scorcese who made Age of Innocence, or Kundun? Perhaps he'd do something interesting--but his approach is too direct, too severe. Peter Weir? Jane Campion 15 years ago? I don't know. But Malick nails it. I want to spend another few half-hours in this new world. And Ms. Kilcher? Wow. Why hasn't she done anything at this level since?

A strange melange of The Fall of the House of Usher, The Premature Burial, and The Pit and the Pendulum. I skimmed some scenes, I admit it. I never really liked Vincent Price much. I don't find him particularly creepy.

*blogging, alas, is another passion I've had to give up--or at least I devote much less time to it than before

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book #41

At a bleak, stress-filled moment in my life I re-discovered this small book of edifying translations by the brilliant Kenneth Rexroth. The narrators of these ancient poems often feel melancholic, stressed, bummed out, miserable, useless--just like I do. And yet they take the time to notice the moon sailing over pristine lakes, or the crane tending its young, or a plum blossom drooping lazily by the gate, and everything seems OK.

Worth keeping around and re-visiting again and again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Day #45

My two teaching interns from MICA have arrived. They're pretty confident and they jumped right in, working with kids on their kristallnacht assignments. Starting Tuesday next week I turn the class over to them for about a week or so; they'll be teaching a final art project which will display the students' learning about the Holocaust and Hitler's rise to power.

At the end of the day, which went pretty smoothly, Nichay and Talapia started arguing about who had tape on her glasses first. Nichay has worn a piece of white tape above the bridge of her nose for weeks. Talapia doesn't even wear her glasses most days, and when she does, there's no tape. But they argued about it nonetheless. And I'm not talking regular fussing, I'm talking full-on spitting and red-faced, ready to throw down fussing.

And these are two of the best students in the class. Nichay reads a couple years below grade level, but she is bright and has strong recall and comprehension skills and she works diligently on each assignment; Talapia reads on a 10th grade level and freaks out if she gets anything wrong, launching into crying jags and gnashing her teeth at anything less than a 100%. To see them arguing over something so peculiar--Nichay's glasses aren't even real, they're frames with no lenses--was hilarious. The MICA students were appalled at the sudden outburst, however.

They'll learn.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Books #39 and #40

I found Evans' book particularly useful as I worked to create our fall Humanities expedition about Hitler's rise to power. Though dealing with an enormously complex time period, Evans' narrative is efficient and engaging. His description of the Nazi's uncanny ability to take advantage of circumstances and twist them to their own ends is startling even to someone who knows this history pretty well. His analysis of the professed "legality" of Hitler's rise is powerful and concise. I'll definitely read volumes I and II, though I'll likely take a break first.

I don't often read books of poetry. I devoured this one in about an hour. Charles Reznikoff took testimony from Nazi war crimes trials and trimmed a bit in order to present the Holocaust in the words of perpetrators and victims. It's an elegant, shocking, and unbearably brutal work. I might use it in class to help kids examine the roles of oppressor, victim, bystander, and rescuer during the Holocaust. The stories and events presented are of course unimaginable, and Reznikoff must have had amazing mental and spiritual endurance to complete this awful work. I suspect he knew it was necessary.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Day #41

All day I'm thinking "Damn, did I forget how to manage a class? WTF?" The kids were squirrely, confrontational, distracted, unfocused, incapable of sitting still. It was awful.

After a nearly 12-hour day at SBCS I walked out and saw the cause of all my woes.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

foe liege

foe liege, originally uploaded by Blog-Sothoth.

3 blocks from my house

3 blocks from my house, originally uploaded by Blog-Sothoth.

view southeast

view southeast, originally uploaded by Blog-Sothoth.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Day #37

I'm rushing here, rushing there, trying to maintain. Stacks of uncorrected papers accumulate on the windowsill, my desk, my tech station, my dining room table, the table in my bedroom which is now my home "office," and in my brief case. I'm writing progress reports for all my kids, IEP progress reports for my SPED kids, IEP reports for SPED kids whose IEP meetings are forthcoming, planning a DC field trip, writing differentiated social studies and literacy tests, editing first drafts of homework essays, running learning stations about kristallnacht in my classroom, breaking up fights, listening to the new math dude across the hall threaten to quit, trying to chair 8th grade crew leaders meetings and failing miserably, attending School Leadership Team meetings and working on the Community and Culture Committee and on the Habits of Work and Learning CCC sub-committee, planning a service project for my crew boys, attending Humanities team planning meetings, teaching a new daily 30-minute reading intensive class, running detention, holding coach class after school, drinking, eating food, doing the nasty, trying to find a few minutes to do push-ups, collapsing into bed and then having anxiety dreams about all the work I can't get done.

Tuesday is Election Day. I'm hoping that in a good 12-hour period I can get caught up to where I should have been last Monday. If I can get caught up to last Monday by next Tuesday i'll put myself in a good position to catch up to the Monday before Thanksgiving by the end of Thanksgiving weekend, and then by Xmas eve I might be able to have all the work done that should be done by then by January 1st. Or something.

"October is the worst month!" my boss yells at me as we pass in the hall. "Remember that." We have papers under our armpits and in each hand, and we know if we don't get them where they belong quickly that we'll end up putting them in the wrong place and losing them. Sure enough, a parent catches me and asks me for my email and I use a list I need for standardized testing to scrawl my address down and she runs off with it. Then in my panic to call the same parent and tell her I need that paper back I end up dropped four piles in the hallway. It's the scene in Brazil where paper devours Robert DeNiro.

"Fake it 'til you make it!" my boss yells after witnessing this. I get back to my room, sort out my piles of paper, and see that while I was out someone came in, rummaged my desk, stole my tape dispenser and box of Sharpies and several glue sticks. Then it's time to teach sixth grade.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Day #32

My fourth full-time year as a public school teacher in Baltimore City. If you count my internship year at the Book it's my fifth. Most teachers quit before they get to five years. I think about that fact quite often. Of course this ain't like the old days when you could just quit a job and find another one...

Not that I'd quit--but I'd consider it. I always have this nagging feeling that I'm not cut out for this job. It's too damn taxing in too many ways. It's frustrating, aggravating, and overly challenging. I have insufficient leisure time during the school year, and can't keep up with my personal reading goals (or blogging), and I almost never watch TV or movies. Socializing? Ha. Team planning meetings, brief conversations in the hall between classes, and chats in the photocopier line are about the only interactions with other adults. Well, there are also parent conferences.

But you do get summers off. And the job has a lot of karmic debt reduction benefits.

I feel like I'm just getting my feet under me professionally, like I'm "OK" at what I do but getting better every week. My class was audited by some dude from the MD State Dept. of Ed and he apparently raved about my teaching. Word got back to me via my boss. That felt good. Some of my students showed pretty dramatic reading level gains this year over last, and that really felt good. And I have no fewer than 3 interns this trimester--one a Morgan State student getting certified to teach History (I'm mentoring a history teacher--how odd!), and the others MICA students who are keen to help me create arts-integrated content lessons. A few weeks ago I was thinking "how can you give me mentees!? I don't know what the fuck I'm doing!" Now I'm really excited to share ideas and show others the ropes.

When the State Dept. of Ed dude was in my room I was teaching propaganda to the kids by having them analyze Nazi posters and film clips without ever having seen a definition of the word. I made them puzzle out characteristics and similarities and determine the purpose of each piece of media, then had them write a definition of propaganda from the examples they'd studied. They came up with "a form of communication which persuades people to follow a cause or idea." Not bad! I only had to print the examples and queue The Triumph of the Will. Now I'll get them to see the deceptive, biased nature of propaganda more clearly and they'll be experts in how it works.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Day #30

Arrived bleary-eyed and grumpy at work this morning. 6.30am, coffee gone already, trudged upstairs lugging two totes and a backpack full of books and papers and electronic devices.

The door to my room was open. The lights were on. Strange. I locked everything up Friday before I left! Desk drawers all open, cabinets open. Hmmmm. Peculiar. Calculators still there, flash drive still there, document reader, speakers and LCD projector all present. But pens and markers missing? Weird.

Ms. Shaw came in a few minutes later and called me over to her room. "My closet was open and there was a cup by my computer." I sniffed and asked "Do you smell beer?" Her room reeked of stale PBR. I told her how I'd found my room, and we checked out the science class. Again--door open, lights on, drawers obviously rummaged. The chemical closet was open. Ooops.

Turns out somebody climbed the fence in back of the school, pulled a window AC unit out of the ground-floor drum studio, and entered the building. From there they were able to enter several classrooms. Cameras, money, laptops, and miscellaneous school supplies went missing. I'm sure more stuff is missing than we know because teachers are notorious pack-rats and we don't know what we're missing until we need something and try to find it.

Had an audit by the MD Dept of Ed today; they were checking our special education compliance. The auditors spent 2nd period in my room, and the State observer apparently gushed about my performance, and what a great teacher I am because my boss pulled me up after school to tell me so. It's good to know, because I tend to think otherwise. All I did today was hand out copies of Nazi posters, show a clip of Triumph of the Will, and then ask the kids to describe what they saw and make inferences about the purpose of these texts. Then I made them try to define propaganda using their inferences. They came pretty damn close to getting the definition.

The KIDS are smart. I just stand there and call on them when they have questions. The special ed student they chose to shadow all day is an amazing kid, and they were floored by her participation and classwork. All I can say is that were I to select a special ed student from our roster for them to audit, it would have been this child. She is top notch.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day #29

There are 151 school days left this year, and I feel like I have nothing left to give. The Week in the Woods drained the shit out of me, and for three days this week I was a total zombie teacher, somehow going through the motions. Typically I wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 am and just get up; this week I've been waking at 5:30 and thinking "it can't really be morning yet, I need about 10 more hours of sleep."

But whatever, I persevere, which is one of the sanctified Character Traits at our school. And lots of staff have been out sick the last few days with some dreadful sinus infection--a couple have ended up with pneumonia. I really don't want any part of that mess, because once I get sick during the school year I'm sick until May.

I went to my GP Monday for a check-up and my BP was 100 over 62. Not bad for an old fart!

Today I stayed after school with Talaria. She's a new transfer in, a very slight and trembly 6th grader. She's got a peculiar intensity about her; if I mention something she doesn't understand or know she'll literally go into shaking fits. I tested her reading level and it was off the charts--probably around 10th grade! Today we took a standardized language usage test to check levels of the kids and she freaked out because she didn't know some answers. "That's OK," I told her as she shook and wiped tears off her cheeks with the tattered sleeve of her blue hoodie. "This test shows me what you know--it doesn't count for your grade! And, if you are doing well, the computer makes the test harder by giving you more difficult questions. So if you don't know stuff, it means you're doing well!" She didn't believe me, and freaked out because she wasn't finished by 3:30 dismissal, and I stayed with her until she finished the test at 4:00, and she got the highest score in the 6th grade, and her score would have been in the top five in the 7th grade as well.

Her mom dropped by and said "She's on meds for anxiety, and we just decreased her dose. Have you noticed any behavior problems?" Aside from crying over standardized tests and freaking out about everything? No problem? My 6th grade class is a mess: 11 IEPs out of 24 kids, and now 3 kids who are medicated for ADHD or anxiety on top of the special ed load.

Thursday and Friday are Professional Development days. Back at the March or the Book I'd have called out sick, because mandatory City-wide PD is a waste of any sentient being's life. But my school does pretty useful in-house PD, so I'll go. I don't have to be there at 6:30 as usual, and I can leave at 3:30 instead of 5:00. I fully intend to do so, because I am wiped out, and ready to dry my own tears on a piece of tattered clothing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book #37

This didn't feel like a YA novel at all. It's good sci-fi with a moral, written in the vein of authors I admire: Delany, Ellison, Dick. Feed is set in the future, when everyone has chips in their brains which are interlinked with their entire nervous system and which broadcast a constant media feed directly into their consciousness. A constant barrage of banner ads keeps people distracted and shopping. The planet Earth is dead, the seas are dead, the forests are gone, and people live in domed suburbs under fake skies with fake suns.

Titus is the main character, and is a bit dreamier than the other teens in his circle. He meets a girl on the moon who is way sexy. She is new to the feed and is starting to question its legitimacy. Titus learns some dreadful things from her after a hacker whacks them all over the head at a rave, dismantling their feed connections. Most of the dreadful things are about himself and the world he inhabits.

Days #22-26

I'm sitting here in my newly painted dining room. The sun is creeping up and light seeps in and around the transoms at the front of the house and through the interior window between the dining room and living room. This light makes little sparkly displays on glass, varnish, and plastic surfaces. The rug under my feet is warm and dry and quite lovely in the early gloom. My wife is at her laptop across from me and I take time to just look at her and feel grateful. I'm quite grateful and appreciative right now.

My coffee today is particularly tasty. Like it's just magnificent, robust, warm, and I can taste every gradation and subtlety. I take my time with it.

Why? Because I've not had coffee since Sunday. I've not, in fact, had walls or doors or windows since Monday. I've been out on the Appalachian Trail in PA, carrying a 60 pound pack up treacherous hills, eating handfuls of rice and unsauced pasta and flavorless couscous and drinking iodine-infused water gathered from muddy creeks. I've been "sleeping" under a tarp as heavy rains crashed down around me, deluges and wind gusts sending rivulets and splashes under my tarp to soak my clothes and sleeping bag. The temperature on most nights hovered around 40 degrees. I've been pooping into a trowel-dug hole in the woods and using wet leaves to clean up before burying the mess. I've gone without showering, shaving, or even seeing soap.

And all of this happened in the company of 10 young Baltimore City school kids, most of whom have never been in the woods. I heard their complaints, saw them break down, saw them endure, saw them dig deep and find ways to carry their burdens. I saw them tell each other to fuck off, saw them reluctantly re-group, saw them act like selfish babies, and saw them offering to help one another. I saw quiet kids who stepped up to take leadership roles, I saw tough bullies become thoughtful sages who supported the un-fit, I saw geeks and nerds who became admired for their map-reading and navigation skills.

I had a miserable, exhausting, embarrassing time. I've hiked mountain trails on 4 continents and never encountered trails so challenging as a few we did, with miles uphill that got steeper as we went. I was wiped out each night as I climbed into my sodden sleeping bag and prepared to half-sleep til dawn, break down camp, and slog miles only to set up camp and do it again. But the foliage was spectacular, I found a few minutes to do Tai Chi on a nice outcropping at Chimney Rocks, and I sat under a tree in a deluge after getting lost going to pee at 3am and waited for dawn. I slept better propped up there in my rain gear then I had under the tarp. When the sun came up I was only 20 meters from camp.

I'm proud of my boys. I hope they appreciate what they have a little more than before. I hope they remember what they learned about themselves and each other. I hope they share their skills and memories with others. There were times this week when I was thinking "fuck this bullshit, I want to go home." The kids vocalized this sentiment and I had to hide my own while coaching them on and keeping them on task. They did it, and graduated from a 5-day Outward Bound adventure.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Book #36

Ha. Like DeSade, but gentler, and intentionally hilarious.

And so I run off to the woods with some 8th graders for the next five days. No iPad, no cell phone, no laptops, no LCD projectors, no ELMO document reader. Only a journal, a pen, some trail mix, and a couple of books to read with my new headlamp under a tarp and in my sleeping bag.

Wish me luck. It might get a bit Apocalypse Now out there. Or Blair Witch.


Our in-laws were supposed to move in with us this week. We spent a lot of time moving things around and getting their room ready. They spent two days and went back to Towson; her father says it's "not safe to walk around there."

In other words, we have many black neighbors, and black people make them uncomfortable. I think he's just saying that to justify moving back home, but the real reason is they're probably not ready to give up their independence. I can respect that. I also think he wants to move home to the Philippines, and now that he knows they're getting close to needing a full-time caretaker, he'd rather buy a house overseas and hire a maid/nurse than have us take care of them. I can respect that as well.

But at any rate, I was moving some of the stuff around today that we had pulled out of the closets on the 2nd floor in anticipation of them taking that room. I had some fun digging in a big box of crap.

I remember working with guys and gals in their 40s when I was in my 20s or 30s. They often mentioned boxes of stuff they'd thought was very important at one time which later they'd simply thrown out as clutter or junk. "If you have a box taped up and you don't open it for ten years, just throw it away," Steve H. once told me. "It will be full of formerly meaningful things which now appear insipid."

So that was in the back of my head, now that I'm in my 40s and I was going through a giant box I hadn't looked in for ten years. What strange finds! Old cards from former girlfriends, postcards I'd mailed to Borders from countries around the world, memos and emails I wrote when I was a manager for the now-defunct company, my coin collection, porn on VHS, notes from teaching writing at Temple U and at Towson U--notes on writers like Isak Dinesen (I can't even remember the story I taught) and Henry James and James Joyce. Man, did I really used to teach "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Dead"? How far I've come, down to 6th and 7th graders!

There were some random toys which remain from my childhood in Stewartstown, PA, oh so long ago. Even though that childhood was the '70s, Stewartstown was actually in the '50s in many ways. A lot of people and buildings and period details came flooding back when I saw and manipulated these talismans.

I had a great time just having a flood of memories. There are piles of writing: journals filled with meanderings, aborted novels, novellas, short stories, poems--some rather good, many just embarrassing. A lot of this stuff needs to be thrown away or recycled, but I want to go through this box one more time and make those decisions slowly, rather than just throwing the whole thing out. I don't have time today to take it seriously. Maybe when I'm 52 I'll look at this box again and say "I haven't opened that in ten years" and just take it to the curb.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Books #34 and #35

I ripped through this Young Adult novel in a flash--some of the kids at school had read it and buzzed all around me about the series. I can see why. It's ultra-violent, it's post-apocalyptic, it's cruel, and a little bit sexy.

In the future North America has become Panem, a confederation of 13 districts with a central capital city. Every year the capital demands two randomly chosen tributes from each district, a boy and a girl. The future of Reality TV is watching these 24 kids kill each other in a fight to survive and win food, prizes, and glory for their district. You're thinking--but you said there were 13 districts? Why only 24 kids? Because the 13th district was destroyed by the capital for daring to rebel.

I think the cleverest thing Suzanne Collins has done is show kids what the future holds for American if Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism remain fashionable goals for the political right and many in the center. The protagonist in The Hunger Games loses her father in a mining accident and she and their family nearly starve to death until she begins poaching small game and roots and berries--a capital offense if she's caught. There's no public services, no health care, no welfare; everyone must scratch out a meager existence except for some wealthy merchants and powerful politicians who are comfortable. They are protected by a militarized police force.

Part "The Lottery," part The Running Man, part Oryx and Crake--this is good dystopia for young teens. Our science teachers have the entire middle school reading volume 1 this trimester. I hope to make academic connections to content throughout the year.

Picked this up for a couple bucks at The Strand in NY. I love, love, love it. Never read many comics as a kid, but started in the past decade to explore. Some seriously beautiful shit in here, some dreadfully sad, some poignant, some hilarious and puzzling. Check it out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day #21

Wiped out, pooped, exhausted, spent...

Today was actually relatively "chill." 80% of the 7th graders are on a camping trip Thursday and Friday, so I got a reprieve 1st and 2nd period. I had 5 kids 1st period and we discussed research resources and how to find information. 2nd period I had 8 kids, most of them very high-level, so I put a gigantic crate of WW2/Holocaust/Hitler books from my personal library on the table. "Remember all those questions you recorded while we did our build background knowledge activity?" I asked. They were drooling before I even took the lid off the bin. "Knock yourselves out!" That kept them busy for a good 45 minutes. Then they started with the sexual innuendo. It was 7 girls and 1 boy, and girls are typically much filthier. I had to ask them to keep it appropriate.

Last period was a work-out. I've had three new kids added to that class this week, after one new one last week. Three of the new kids have IEPs, bringing my total to 10 out of 24. I've been in there alone for 2.5 weeks because my para-educator has other stuff going on and let's just say we're not getting much done academically. About half the IEP kids have behavior issues, and they read at a 2nd grade level, while I also have two non-IEP kids who are medicated for ADHD and mood disorders who often don't take their meds, not to mention a pretty disrespectful and sarcastic gifted and talented girl who demands constant attention. So the range of reading levels in that room runs from 2nd grade to 11th, and I'm alone. And I'm supposed to help each child succeed!

Work, work, work. I worked from 5:50 until lunch. During lunch I re-watched Boy in the Striped Pajamas to find scenes we could use with our Learning Targets (the film as a kind of anchor text), and then I researched other resources to use in class for the learning targets. Then I worked until 3:45 and rushed off to a School Leadership Team meeting where we scheduled out professional developments and committee assignments and data analysis sessions for the entire year by shifting little colored Post-its around on big yellow Post-its. Now I'm home and I'm too tired to uncork a bottle of red, but I have to move furniture because the in-laws are moving in here next week.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

F*ck the Police


"Batter my heart, oh three pronged God..." John Donne

Teorema opens with a small debate amongst journalists, intellectuals, and unionists about why a rich bourgeois would suddenly decide to give up his factory and hand it over to the workers. Then there's a peculiar sepia-toned montage which carries on for a few minutes, interspersed with some John Donne-ish voice overs of volcanic desert shots.

Then we're at said bourgeois' home, a grand palazzo in Milan. A mysterious stranger has arrived at the house. He quickly seduces the single-minded and ultra religious maid. Then he ravages the son. Then the mother disrobes and waits patiently for him on the back porch. He diddles the father on his sickbed after reading Ivan Ilych to him. Finally, the daughter gives up her cherry, and the stranger leaves.

Each character reacts differently to the departure. The son becomes a quirky artist who paints on multiple layers of glass, spills paint randomly, and pisses on canvas. The mother trolls downtown Milan for young men and has distant, aloof sex with them, for which she feels terrible guilt. The daughter clenches her fist, lies down and goes into a catatonic state. The maid rushes off to her home village and becomes a mystic and healer who eats nothing but nettles and occasionally floats high in the air. The father gives away his factory to the workers and disrobes completely in a train station, running off into the smoking mountains to be a holy fool.

I suppose there's a Marxist interpretation in here somewhere, but I shan't ruin Teorama by overthinking it. I laughed some, but was mostly confounded. We're all quite detached from our natural inclinations. The stranger tries to engage the bourgeois family and open them to life; they're too small-minded to handle it. The Lord--or Godbody, or Michale Valentine Smith--moves in mysterious lays.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Books #32 and #33

Very reminiscent of Octavia Butler's Kindred, The Devil's Arithmetic sends a modern-day Jewish girl back a half-century to a shtetl during WW2. Hannah is bored by her family's insistence on ritual. She's tired of hearing about death and destruction. She wants to go to the mall with her friends, to assimilate, to focus on sameness and not difference in America.

But when she opens the door for Elijah Hannah finds herself experiencing first-hand what her antecedents endured.

I like this text a great deal, and will keep it aside for kids I think might appreciate its portrayal of unimaginable suffering and its portrait of Jewish culture and religion.

"I never killed a prisoner, nor mistreated one. And I did not tolerate it when my subordinates did so."

It's statements like these which make Hoess's autobiography so interesting. He'll describe how carefully he followed Himmler's decrees about the Final Solution, how the camp at Auschwitz was made into a death factory, and then he'll say that he did not kill or mistreat anyone. Astonishing.

Primo Levi's intro prepares you for how dishonest and abominable Hoess is in these pages; reading him is not pleasant. He is not a terribly bright or imaginative man, though he had substantial gifts as a functionary. His "insights" into the suffering of prisoners are laughable given what he accomplished. His claim to have been disturbed by the treatment of prisoners under his own care are the obvious squirmings of a thug caught and exposed. "I was in jail, so I know what it was like for them," he whines. "I had a family from whom I was separated by my duties, so I know true suffering."

He claims at the end to have wished for a soldier's death instead of his "shameful" coming execution. What about those you snuffed out, Commandant? What death did they wish for? He never attempts to distance himself from Nazism or antisemitism. He held his beliefs to the end, despite his attempts at self-justification. Sickening, but definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Day #15

Honeymoon is over. Kids starting to go haywire. New kids arriving the 4th week of school, which is always a bad scene, because it means they got put out of another school already this year.

Innocent looking white girl with long strawberry blond hair shows up yesterday. New sixth grader for my last-period class. I'm standing in the hall when I first see her. La'Clark is next to me. "You goes here now?" La'Clark asks. The new girls says "Hell yeahz."

La'Clark waits a moment for the girl to walk off and then says "Watch out Mr. G she CRAZY." I think for a moment about La'Clark's half-dozen serious suicide attempts, her numerous run-away days, her barricading herself in her room, her violent fist-fight with her step father, and I make a kind of pot-kettle-black comment because La'Clark and I are cool like that and she smiles and says: "No, Mr. G, she's not like me. She REAL crazy."


The sixth graders were redonckulous today. I got a bit Booker T. on their asses. "You haven't heard me raise my voice yet," I yelled. "Now you're going to hear it. Q! I told you to sit down three minutes ago and you are still up. J! You open your mouth one more time and I'll--I DARE you to open your mouth one more time. IS THIS WHAT YOU NEED, SIXTH GRADE? DO YOU NEED ME TO DO THIS FOR YOU TO FOLLOW A SIMPLE DIRECTION? 'BE QUIET' IS THE SIMPLEST DIRECTION I KNOW. IT'S THE EASIEST THING YOU WILL EVER LEARN IN SCHOOL. WE'RE GOING TO PRACTICE IT NOW. PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN, CLOSE YOUR BOOKS, AND BE QUIET. I'M GOING TO PLAY COUNTRY MUSIC FOR YOU TO ENJOY WHILE YOU ARE BEING QUIET. ANYBODY MAKES A SOUND AND WE'RE STAYING FOR DETENTION. I HAVE LOTS OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND WE CAN KEEP LISTENING AFTER SCHOOL." Jaws dropped. Eyes bugged out. There were gasps. These kids have been in the hippie-dippie lovey-dovey school their whole lives. They're not used to this. I love teaching kids about their needs and norms and habits of work and learning--but sometimes I feel we give them a lot of tools for self-reflection without having any means for them to correct their behavior. They can tell you exactly what they are doing wrong using Glasser terminology and elaborate philosophical discussions about harming the community, and then 2 minutes later harm the community again. So I let Hyde out for a while to send a message.

They sat quietly for 10 minutes. We listened to Doc Watson and Merle Haggard. I dismissed them one by one, keeping the particularly annoying kids until last, and holding them a couple minutes past dismissal time.

"You get on my nerves tomorrow," I warned, "and I will find some worse music to play."

"What's worse than that mess?" T. Eye asked.

"Bug me tomorrow and you'll find out!"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day #13

The kids are grumbly and irritable and energized. I'm not giving them an inch. We act out, we come to the carpet in the front of the room and debrief our behavior. I've begun making parent phone calls and using my Behavior Reflection Sheet. I kept the sixth graders 10 minutes after school today: "You waste 10 minutes of my time, I waste 10 minutes of yours."

Was at school at 6:15 making copies and doing prep work for my 8th grade home room/Crew kids. They have to start getting ready for high school choice. After school Gena and I were hammering away at texts and images to use for the launch of our Holocaust/Hitler expedition. We couldn't find a decent leveled text about Hitler's rise to power, so I wrote one, distilling Richard J. Evans' first volume on the Reich down into 1.5 pages of Comic Sans. We got lots of other texts chosen and copied for a variety of activities. We also set up our trip to the Holocaust Memorial for Friday and worked out the logistics--the kids won't know what we're studying, and we won't tell them anything. They'll be asked to observe the memorial and try to guess what's going on. The questions they generate and the notes they take will be used in class Monday to start a build background knowledge activity.

I'm wiped out. Already there is a plague going around the school, with staff and students groaning from pain in their throats, losing their voices, and sneezing green gouts into the palms of their hands. Lord save me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day #9

It's rare that I miss the old days teaching at the Book or the March. The violence, the incompetent leadership, the complete lack of parental involvement--those days were high-stress, low-return, and emotionally draining.

But sometimes I miss being confronted with that Wild West situation, that sink or swim, fight or flee edge. I used to be pleased if I had only a couple bloody fights a week; now I get frustrated when my kids talk too much.

I'm super-stressed by work right now. Back in the day I taught language arts and nothing but; I could focus on literary analysis and grammar and bang out lessons and get results. Now I teach language arts VIA social studies, and instead of getting my objectives from the Baltimore City curriculum guide, I have to create from scratch our curricula. We're tackling WW2/Hitler/The Holocaust and after an initial excitement at the material I'm now fucking freaking out. How do you distill this down to 14 weeks? How do you make it OK for 6th graders without diluting the gravity of such a horrible time period?

But I will overcome. I spent 3 hours working with national social studies standards and the Maryland VSC to try and match our goals with approved objectives. I think I have a good initial draft.

Further stress: trying to clean and prep the house for Friday's Back to School Party. And also trying to prep the house for the in-laws to move in with us in October. They're at a point where they can't take care of themselves any more, and we have the room, so we're giving them our second floor. It's the right thing to do, but it will be a huge adjustment. I already feel like it's hard to find an uncluttered spot in the house where I can be creative and think because of Hurricane Cha. Now I'll have to put a desk on the roof.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Day #6

Starting to fall into the routine a bit, despite earthquakes, hurricanes, and now the remnants of Lee soaking the shit out of the Mid-Atlantic. I'm back to waking up at 5:00am without the alarm clock, and cursing because the alarm is set for 6:00am, and then I get to school at 6:15 or 6:30 and I work my ass off for two hours and I'm barely ready for the kids at 8:30 and then I'm there after school and I'm like "When will I get this stuff done?"I'm moving painfully slowly with the kids, being super intentional about everything, modeling everything, then having a student model it, then asking the class to critique the student model, then having another student model based on the critique, then critiquing that. And then every time the class flubs something we gather on the rug to debrief and discuss and reflect while discussing our NORMS and our Habits of Work and Learning and the kind of community we hope to create in my room. So, not much content yet, just basic stuff like a few parts of speech--but that's fine. We built in 3.5 weeks of open calendar space for this kind of laborious structure building before the true academic adventure begins. I'm getting to know new kids, and getting another chance to re-format the students I had last year. They're going a bit bonkers with me because I'll pull out a magic marker and say "What is this? What are its appropriate uses? Where do I put the cap while I'm working to prevent it becoming lost? How should I hold it? Where does it live in the room? How do we put it away? What are some inappropriate uses for this marker? What problems did we encounter last year? What should I do if I want to use red and La'Clark is using red? Can somebody model what might happen in that situation? Let's critique their model." And then the kids get antsy and say "Dag, Mr. G we know how to use a damn marker 'n shit" and I reply "Obviously you don't, because last year you were throwing them, leaving the caps off, mixing them up between sets, fighting over them, stealing them, losing them, losing the caps," etc. And they accept the truth of that, and we slowly, painfully, go through this explicit teaching process with each procedure and tool and material. And then I call them to the carpet and say "Here's what I heard. I heard a student say "shit" in my class. Was this student following the NORMs? Which NORMs were not followed? How can we build a compassionate, respectful, and emotionally safe community if students swear at the teacher," and then we discuss, debrief, role play, reflect, etc.

I'm kind of liking this approach; I've never done it this way before. I'm hoping it nips a lot of management problems in the bud now so I won't have to keep re-directing behaviors once we get into the academic shit later.And speaking of academic shit: we're teaching Nazism/WW2/Holocaust, which is terribly exciting for a guy like me who's a language arts teacher who loves history. But we're finding it terribly difficult to frame and organize this material for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. We don't follow the school system curriculum, we create our own from scratch. This is a blessing and curse, because we really get to focus on what we choose and what we want the kids to know and understand, but it's a dreadful burden to figure out how to whittle down something so multifaceted and complex into a couple of months. But it's also an interesting challenge, and I'm fortunate to have on my team thoughtful and creative people whose strengths and weaknesses compliment my own.We'll get it done!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Book #31

I don't want to trash this book. It's for young adults, after all--or I suppose it is. It's designed to generate discussion about the Holocaust and inhumanity, and I can see that happening in a middle school classroom. It's really not a terrible read by any means. But I just couldn't suspend disbelief to the degree necessary to appreciate its potential charms. How could Shmuel get away for hours every day to sit quietly by the fence at Auschwitz and talk to Bruno? How could he procure an extra uniform at a moment's notice when scraps of cloth were fought over? How could Bruno be so dunderheaded and vacuous about EVERYTHING, even though he's only 9 years old? The plot is simpiy unbelievable. Richard Matheson or Rod Serling might have made a quality TZ episode from this story, however; the twist at the end is a good one, and likely explains what all the fuss is about. I'll put it in my WW2 book bin at work, but I'm not sure I'll use it. It was probably a bad idea to read this concurrently with Hoess's autobiography.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Book #30

About four years ago Cha and I began taking Tai Chi classes in a church at 2640 St. Paul Street. We completed the 2-year program to learn the entire form, but stopped before the advanced course, which teaches push hands and Chi awareness. We're just too busy for weekly indulgences of this sort!

So I still do Tai Chi, but I'm stalled and simply going through the motions (literally). This little book flabbergasted me, instead of helping deepen my practice. Like many texts of its time and geographic origin, it is full of confounding conundrums: "Be still like a mountain; move like a mighty river." "If the waist does not command, the roots will be weak." "He who farts in church must sit in his own pew."

I have to be more supple, particularly in the legs and shoulders. My waist does not control the movements, my head does. The problem is not a lack of focus; the problem is that I'm focusing at all. Onward.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Book #29

Alexander reminisces to an artist friend of his wife Sonia about a peculiar affair he's had with an undocumented Polish worker. His marriage on its surface is quite successful: Sonia is beautiful, intelligent, and creative. She is a much more gifted architect than he, and the firm they run together is successful because she does the drawing and he manages the books.

But Alexander seems uninspired by Sonia sexually or intellectually or spiritually. He recognizes that she is beautiful, and that her ambition and architectural skills are better than his--and yet he is full of contempt for her passion and ideals. There's a scene in the novel when Alexander takes photos of Sonia asleep before they've even started dating. When she is prone and unonconscious he seems more drawn to her. In fact, Alexander can't seem to relate to anyone very well. Everyone is stupid, crazy, foolish, pretentious, or boring. It's unpleasant being trapped in his head.

So occasionally during his marriage Alexander runs off to Ivanova to continue an affair begun before he met Sonia. Ivanova is ugly, chubby, obtuse, dim, and fanatically Catholic. He despises everything about her, from her cluttered apartment to the Bible verses on the walls to her habit of watching moralizing soap operas and reciting the stories to him as though they'd happened to her. She does nothing but work 16 hour days and send the money home. And he is passionately in love with her to the point he pressures her into sex. She seems uninterested and cold during sex, but this turns him on even more.

Alex has no ambition. He works hard but finds no joy in it. His marriage is a sham and he doesn't seem to care. He treats his daughter the way his daughter treats her cat; he feeds it sometimes and calls on its services when he feels like playing. Otherwise she's an annoyance and a burden. He makes not a single true human connection in the novel with one exception, when a fat Frenchman in a shit-hole bar buys his drinks as Alex drinks himself into a downward spiral.

The artist to whom Alexander narrates his story is named Antje. Her paintings are of human/animal hybrids with large genitals in the act of copulation. Take that as you will.

Seven Years either precipitated or coincided randomly with a very bleak two-day depression of my own. It was heady fodder for self-reflection, a strange combination of beauty and soullessness.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Book #28

I've been looking for Holocaust memoirs which are appropriate for young kids; stories which aren't too graphic but which provide context and don't diminish the events we'll be studying this fall.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a novelized memoir by Judith Kerr. Because the protagonist's father was a well-known Jewish journalist and author at the time of Hitler's rise, her family fled Berlin for Switzerland in 1933. Though the Nazis got their possessions, they missed seizing her father's passport by one day. The book describes their flight across the border, their stay near Zurich, and their eventual resettlement in Paris and England.

The book powerfully evokes the refugee experience, but the Holocaust is barely mentioned. An uncle who remains in Berlin commits suicide because he is fired for having a Jewish grandmother. The family encounters antiSemitism a few times. The characters are likable, interesting, and their experience provides good potential personal connections for inner-city youth. I think some of my more advanced readers might enjoy this as an independent reading text or resource, but I would not rely on it as a primary text to teach this material.

Day #2

So today went extremely smoothly. I had the troublesome kids bottled up, I stopped class anytime things went awry and we discussed and debriefed and re-set expectations. I got through my plans and slowly, surely, and intentionally modeled everything I wanted to get done, and we accomplished those things.

But feeling cocky and confident after such a second day is a trap. Labor Day looms, and that three-day weekend inevitably erodes all that was covered the previous week. Tuesday we shall start from scratch again, and I'll be modeling how to enter the class, how to use a magic marker, how to replace supplies, how to ask for help, and all the basic shit all over again.

The Grand Prix course in B'more, and the Grand Prix events this weekend, have been a source of stress for commuters for some time. But that all revved up today. My 2.8 mile commute home from Pigtown to Reservoir Hill typicall takes 10 minutes; today it took 75. A catastrophe! But I'm sure the Grand Prix will fix what ails Baltimore. The Andretti brothers will heal our shattered school system. Or not.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Day #1

Ah, back to school. The flurry of paperwork and last-minute grouping or scheduling snafus. The scurrying to finalize plans and that sick anxious feeling in the gut that you're forgetting something vital. The constant checking to make sure your fly is up, that your shirt is tucked in, that you don't have food on your face.

I got to school at 6.30 as usual, and by 8.00 I was ready for the kids to arrive at 8.30. Confident, secure, well-planned, I sat down to fire off an email to my boss and spilled a cup of coffee down my new Van Heusen shirt and tie. After a few seconds of panic, however, I touched up with a wet paper towel and everything was dry and A-Ok fifteen minutes later.

The first two periods were 7th graders, the same kids I had last year as 6th graders. They were great, but surprised at how slowly I took things. I modeled how to use a magic marker. I modeled how to put a magic marker away. I made a student model how to use one, then we critiqued that student. Then I modeled how to use the pencil sharpener, how to push in a chair, how to get in a circle on the rug. Each thing we did was modeled two or three times and critiqued with warm and cool feedback. I was explicit about everything, and told them "we wasted too much time last year. I want you to know exactly how to do everything this year. We will spend a few weeks learning how the class works before we get to real class work."

I had a little push back on this during last period, when my new 6th graders were smart alecs and jerks. Well, not all of them--five out of 21. Vermicelli was snide and commented about everything. Keyontae was distracted and talkative. Deyshunconfused kept talking with Nacho and Brickhousa. I kept the five of them after class, and Vermicelli's dad happened to show up and wonder why his son was being detained. I let Vermicelli tell his dad why, and when his answer was unsatisfactory I filled in some forgotten details. I think the three young ladies were proud to have been kept after school. Power need? Love and Belonging need? A few more days and I'll work it out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book #27

Spotted this at the Met gift shop in NYC. Had of course read Gombrich's The Story of Art, but never knew he'd penned a world history for wee ones. It has the deficits one might expect from a history written in the '30s, namely that Africa is given short shrift, but Gombrich is surprisingly sensitive to the plights of native peoples at the hands of colonials. He paints a broad swath of world history, and this little tome might be useful in my middle school classroom for students who are ready for more context to events we study in detail. It's a useful refresher for adults, too; I was surprised to note how much I'd forgotten about the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War, and Guelphs and Ghibellines. But I'd be wary of allowing kids to learn Civil War basics from Gombrich's faulty summarization!

Friday, August 26, 2011


Wow--I might have to read the source material for this film. Imagine Russell Banks and Cormac McCarthy working together on a screenplay. They try to out-grim each other, and then hire Tobe Hooper to direct. But Tobe Hooper has too much of a sense of humor so they ditch him.

Yeah, so I'm being a bit silly, but director Debra Granik has certainly studied films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Simple Plan, and Deliverance. Like these earlier works, Winter's Bone critiques America's cherished belief that its humblest backwoods citizens are somehow ethically superior to inhabitants of the crime-ridden cities on the coasts. Because Granik so ably holds a mirror up to nature, the film is quite uncomfortable to watch.

Winter's Bone is the best film I've seen in a long time. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes certainly deserved nominations for their performances. And I might be awake for a while thinking about it tonight.

I Walked With a Zombie is another beautifully wrought confection by Val Lewton and Jacques Torneur. Yes, the voodoo religion and the Caribbean culture of San Sebastian are Hollywoodized to the point of cliche, but the film is moody and mysterious and gorgeous, plot holes and all. Is Carrefour the first shambling zombie in cinema history? He still freaks me out, after several viewings.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


So this is my 4th year as a full-time certified teacher in Baltimore City. I'd thought that by now I'd have the beginning of the year stuff down--instead I feel panicked and overwrought and unfocused. I keep attending meetings which are important and vital and efficiently run and yet I leave these meetings freaking out because I have another dozen things to do and/or think about.

Schedule for tomorrow:

8:30-10:00 Professional Development on Teacher/ParaEducator relations
10:00-11:30 Room Set-up
11:30-12:00 Six martini lunch
12:00-1:30 Using Data to Freak Out
1:30-2:00 Hyperventilation
2:00-3:00 Run screaming down Washington BLVD
3:00-3:30 Pull out hair
3:30-4:30 Bulletin Boards
4:30-6:00 Set up classroom library
6:00-8:00 Balanced Literacy Meeting/Class Grouping Discussion
8:00-9:00 Self-Immolation
9:00-10:00 Staples/Target/Office Depot

10:00-? Heavy Drinking, smoking of bath salts, self scarification

Seriously, I am freaking out. I never freak out. Why does this job get harder and more complex the longer I do it? And yet somehow the shit all gets done before Monday morning when school will be cancelled due to Hurricane Irene anyhow...

Weekend: lesson planning

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book #26

Ok, I'm done with the Lannisters, Starks, Tyrells, Baratheons, Tarlys, Conningtons, Mantells, Umbers, Karstarks, Boltons, Greyjoys, Targaryens, etc., etc., etc., at least for as long as it takes Mr. Martin to churn out volume 6. After 5,000 pages, the investment of time will not allow me to put the series away from contempt at its latest installment, but I feel sorely tempted to do so.

I feel like this book was all about filling out an obligation to do 8 volumes, because there's a lot of time spent by characters going around and around destinations or toward them and then back for hundreds of pages and few characters seem to get where they're going until near the end. Further complications are added to an already rather bloated epic, and those complications don't seem to add much to the story other than to delay gratification of existing story lines. One waits and waits through 880 pages for something to happen, and then too much happens at the end.

Or maybe I've just become exhausted by the series after reading it all in one fell swoop.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

all shook up

So Gena and I are moving tables in my room, talking about ideas for Humanities planning and summer break and whatnot. There is some construction/renovation going on in the hall. We each grab an end of a long table and heft it and are just about to move it when there's a loud grumbly sound and some vibration in the floor. We continue our conversation as the grumbling gets louder and the vibration becomes rather surprising. I think we both initially assumed there was some extreme demolition or drilling happening, because we didn't really react until the entire school started swaying back and forth. I looked at Gena and she asked "Is that an earthquake?" and then it was over.

Gena's from New Zealand, and seemed amused at the panic some Yanks felt. I remembered the very brief trembler which woke me last year at 5am, but this was definitely the longest quake I've ever experienced. The Big Cheese announced that we had to evacuate the building, and we did so. Most staff went home, but Gena and I and a bunch of middle grades staff stayed behind to continue planning.

Thank goodness there were no kids today--that would have been too much drama!

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Because Robert Wise's The Haunting was a favorite film from way back, I was introduced to the films of Val Lewton by a cineaste friend. "Wise learned a lot from Lewton," he told me. It's quite clear in these two gems, which I revisit during the last week before resuming work.

Cat People isn't really a horror film, any more than The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. Irena is a young woman who fears the power of her own sexuality. She wants Oliver painfully, yet can't consummate her desires. The powerful myth of the cat people from her native town in Serbia worries her. If she lets him kiss her, she will turn into a leopard and devour him. So for months after their wedding she sleeps in a locked room while he waits patiently.

Finally, Oliver turns to his friend and co-worker Alice for solace of a sort. Alice recommends a psychiatrist, who hypnotizes Irena and learns of her fears. Irena realizes that his methods are a bit questionable when he asks "What if I kiss you?" during a session; she refuses to go back. At this time Alice confesses her love to Oliver, who begins to drift away from his repressed wife. Alice is chased in the park by something inhuman, then she is menaced in a swimming pool by a growling presence in the dark. Her robe is shredded. Irena is on the prowl.

I love the cinematography with its dark silhouettes and bright highlights, which heavily influence Wise's later masterpiece. I love the power of suggestion, which allows subtle readings of the movie beyond the surface horror. I love the sultry actresses with their creepy eyes. The sleazy psychiatrist gets what's coming to him, and Irena's failure to do her wifely duties is tragic. She never wants to hurt anyone, but her profound and mysterious nature confounds these plans. Just as Eleanor might be a victim of Hill House or an overly imaginative young woman with a potent crush, Irena might be a possessive and jealous werecat--or a troubled young woman afraid of her desire.

Cat People focuses on the a young lady on the cusp of womanhood; Curse of the Cat People focuses on a young girl at the border between fantasy life and reality. It's a mysterious and sad fable about Oliver and Alice's daughter Amy, who can't quite leave her dreamy childhood and grow up. Irena returns in the guise of a fairy princess playmate, and atones for her sins by helping Oliver and Amy to develop a true relationship. The film--co-directed by Wise--is gorgeous. I don't think a child's fantasies have ever been so lovingly re-created on film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


A university lecture which explains the origin of this blog's name. Well, not really, but I saw this when I was about 13, during cable TV's infancy in York, PA, just as I started reading Lovecraft, and only now remembered it, some 30 years later. Of course the episode was on YouTube when I searched.

PS: Rod Serling's Night Gallery was spoofed on The Simpsons ages ago. Do you remember?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another room nearly complete...

The painting and reorganizing of rooms shall cease until next summer. At least I wasn't completely unproductive this year...

via negativa

My friend Lance has expanded his website a little bit,to include more paintings and some photographs and drawings as well. Check it out!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Books #24 and 25

Between May and August I read 4,000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I finished the fourth volume just in time for publication of Volume 5. A Feast for Crows deals with the continuing chaotic devolution of the realm following the death of Robert Baratheon. Three of the five self-styled Kings of Westeros are dead, and new pretenders jockey for position and old survivors try to re-coup losses. Strange new religions arise as old ones attempt to regain power and authority in a vacuum of leadership. Although I like the complex politics and strategic manoeuverings of Martin's enormous cast, I was a bit disappointed to note that this volume is missing most of my favorite characters. Martin's brief epilogue claims that he will fill us in on their whereabouts in volume 5, which happens concurrently with volume 4 but in different regions. I suppose I can get through another 1000 pages before school starts--it's certainly much more interesting (and more believable, dragons and all) than that Girl With a Gazillion Special Talents series I read last summer.

I continue saturating myself with WW2, Nazism, and Holocaust studies in order to teach this era to middle-schoolers first trimester. Bullock's biography is straight-forward and very readable in the abridged version. Even though the subtitle is "A Study in Tyranny," the book sticks mostly to the life and accomplishments and failures of its subject. Bullock avoids psychoanalyzing Hitler or the German people. He doesn't speculate wildly about motives or events for which there is no documentation. The end result is a concise chronology of Hitler's life, from its humble beginnings through the early failures to the spectacular ascent and assumption of dictatorial powers.

Hitler comes across in these pages as a man of limited intellect but astonishing political instincts and an intense focus on goals. What's most surprising is the sustained patience of his early years, and the long struggle to create the Nazi party and win the Chancellorship. After that Hitler was anything but patient, and seemed to become overwhelmed by his own mythology and cult of personality, unleashing long-repressed hatreds and resentments in a fury for expansion and unparalleled atrocity.

I need to start deciding what I want the kids to understand about this guy. What questions get at the heart of his story? What connections can the kids make between their own experience and that of oppressed people in Europe at this time? What warnings does the past hold for us?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


vermeer, originally uploaded by Blog-Sothoth.

Spent a weekend in NYC with the family. Though it was hot and sticky in the city, it was notably cooler than Baltimore has been, and I had a great time pigging out and seeing some sites. I also revisited some old friends at the Met.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Nearly complete...

After almost five years in this house the walls had grown dingy and I was tired of the cluttered look in the living room. Fifteen hours of work over two days, plus a bit of agonizing over color choices, and I'm pleased with the results. Were I to describe the aesthetic inspiration for this room, I'd say: a late 19th-century Victorian psychoanalyst's office, re-done by one of his patients.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book #24

Primo Levi was a chemist by trade, and a Jew hiding in the Italian mountains when he was betrayed in 1943 and put on a train for Auschwitz. He remained in the camp until its liberation, becoming sick just before the Germans evacuated, and after his oppressors fled with most remaining prisoners, Levi remained at the camp helping other convalescents to survive until the Russians arrived.

Survival in Auschwitz is a remarkable document of a nightmare place. Levi eschews traditional linear narrative to focus on story/essays about characters encountered, hierarchical systems, the Nazi sense of humor, labor for labor's sake, the Babel-like nature of the camp, sickness and mortality, food, and theft. Reading it was a profoundly moving experience.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


So Borders Books and Music has gone belly-up. I bought a travel guide in a Chicago location last spring, but apparently that wasn't enough to save the company. It was the first time I'd been in the store in ages.

I had trouble recognizing Borders when I was there last, but had little difficulty understanding what happened to destroy it. A vast stationary section and huge displays of soft toys and gizmos? Ghastly bland corporate endcap displays with desperately un-hip posters pushing novels which would sell anyway? I hated all that crap, which started in the late ninetees and was brought to Borders by the morons who'd previously wrecked Waldenbooks.

When I joined Borders as a bookseller in 1994 I was given the Mystery section. I knew nothing about the genre, but didn't care. My goal was to take over the literature section and make it my own, and after a few months of shelving F is for Fucksakes I did so. I was able to order multiple copies of whatever I wanted in order to fill displays with books I thought were worth selling, and sell I did. I used to obsessively track the percentage of store totals my section had, and I loved coming in and finding that The Recognitions had again sold out--no other bookstore in town even carried William Gaddis titles! I became a manager and ran the greatest local interest section ever, with an astonishing six tall bays of fiction and history. Borders really gave its staff freedom to push what they found interesting, and that strategy worked.

And then we started getting pre-set lists of what we had to display: front tables and endcap space were sold to publishers who pushed garbage. Our backlist was slashed and we had more face-outs of whatever Steve King or Harry Potter book was most current. Our video section became a joke, and the music store's classical and jazz sections--the premier sections in the entire region--were devestated. The company hired secret shoppers to ensure our displays were accurate and our staff were wearing name badges. Bibelot and B&N opened superstores nearby, and instead of further strengthening what differentiated Borders from the competition, our regional bosses fully commited to emulating them. Immediately our sales plummeted, and I became store manager of a sadly diminished struggling behemoth. After a couple years I went on to other things but maintained a part-time slot at the store to keep my discount before quitting in 2002 for good. The Towson Borders shut its doors and moved up the street to a much less interesting standard retail location, and I became a loyal Amazon convert.

But I'll always think back fondly to my time at Borders. I made many great friends, who turned me on to amazing books, films, and music. I got to share my tastes with a variety of groovy people, and was even sent to Singapore to help open a superstore there. For a while we ran a true destination spot, a vital community center, and it felt good to work there. I was interviewed by local TV stations and radio routinely simply because whenever anyone in Baltimore thought of books or music, they thought of Borders. Every time a celebrity kicked off or there was some scandal, Fox 45 or WMAR or WJZ would drop by for a sound bite. I even ended up in the Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Signs of life...

It's been quiet here at Blog-Sothoth. I came back from a wonderful trip to Costa Rica intending to re-invigorate the site, but I brought along a few million microscopic parasites which derailed not only that plan, but several others as well. I shan't appall you with details, but I'm on a powerful antibiotic at a high dose for a long time; the saddest consequence of this medication is that I can't be near booze for two weeks. But after nearly two weeks of dread illness I'm beginning to feel human again. Just in time for the 21st Century Learning Institute in Annapolis, and a stay at the Westin. Hopefully they don't have parasites here...

Books 21-23

The Emmigrants is a most peculiar book about the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is almost completely absent from its pages. Sebald understands that the enormous complications arising from that most dread event in a most dread century can be regarded largely as problems of memorialization and remembrance. By portraying a series of lightly fictionalized memoirs of Jews who left Europe in time to escape atrocity, he evades the Holocaust not at all: it permeates the text. It's a book of sublime subtlety, and quietly devestating.

And yes, there is a theme here: I'm reading up for a big Holocaust/WW2 Expedition this fall.

So what can I say about Maus? Like many people, Spiegelman has to handle an aging parent with whom he has little in common, and who is often frankly an intolerable jerk. But Spiegelman's father survived the Holocaust, including a stint during the final stages at Auschwitz, and he did so by actively hustling his way through. Spiegelman admires his father even when it's terribly difficult to do so, and these books are a loving tribute to his memory.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


You no longer need longships, war hammers, and shields to do pillage. A few well-placed connections in the downtown Philly power structure will suffice. A friendly journalist or two at the Inquirer, some Annenberg cash, a couple board members at the Phila. Museum of Art, and a $25 billion private collection can be seized and moved contrary to the wishes of its benefactor to precisely the location deemed least appropriate. But for all that, I was neither shocked nor surprised in the least by this documentary. For once a rich Foundation got rolled by the big players; happens to the little guy all the time!