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.