Pause and Shift

21 01 2009

I am out today on sick leave. I should be writing the paper that was due last semester. I should be getting some laundry started. I should be drinking water instead of coffee. I should be reading about web development for my class tonight, or addressing invitations to Ruthie’s birthday party at the very least. I am in my last semester of grad school. Three years I have been in grad school and it has officially rendered me brainless. I am too serious. I am too intentional, too resentful. Everything is personal. I wake up gritting my teeth. Every question is an interrogation, every request an imposition. And here I am sitting at my computer: paralyzed by the desire to write, and overcome by the dull conviction that I don’t have anything interesting to say. 

So I reread Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which was, to me, inspiring. I can’t imagine writing anything under such pressure. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading as much about her as I could find on the internet. I’ve found that I like her– she’s honest, thoughtful, and insightful. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, she talked about the task of composing the inaugural poem:

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, have you made a start? How do you — how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish? 

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It’s a very, very big challenge. It’s a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what’s ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that — that a poem makes possible.

So, I’m just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I — as I try to — try to write something.

I am neither a quiet nor a humble person, but I can reside for a small time in the moment of  pause and shift

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

(These lines were clipped from the New York Times transcript of Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day.” Sadly, the transcript does not reflect line breaks.)

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Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900





“not for a lack of feeling, but for want of words”

15 07 2008

I always say the wrong thing, am always searching for the “right word” to say what I’m trying to say. Countless notebooks with margins filled with more precise words: peripheral, heuristic, illuminate, gaunt, chasm, chimera, phalanx, epoch, reify. It’s not that I don’t know these words. It’s that I am afraid that I will forget them. I want to remember to use them in the moment that they are most apt to convey the meaning I am attempting to convey to the listeners that are, through no fault of their own, perhaps hard of hearing. See? Again. I’m using the word convey twice because I can’t think of a better word or another word that means nearly the same thing. 

According to Bakhtin, “Language is not a medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated–overpopulated–with the intentions of others.” The speaker’s intentions. Can the speaker know her intentions? Joan Didion on writing: “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.” Nothing makes me feel more stupid, more inept than language. Few things frighten me more than the slip of tongue that causes me to misuse a word. Most commonly used computer application on my computer: dictionary/thesaurus. Most commonly used? Isn’t there a word for that? 

A note to the reader: The length of this post is inhibited by my lack of language and so I leave you with this wondermous masterpiece that will certainly leave you speechless.





Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

19 02 2008

Yesterday, I took a bit of a short-cut to my house in the middle of the day. I live on a one-way street and there’s another street that bisects it about 2 houses down from me. So when I’m really in a hurry, I will cut over and go maybe 20 feet the wrong way down my street to get to my house rather than going all the way around. So yesterday it was a gorgeous day, sunny and about 60 degrees. I was jamming to the new Jack Johnson cd, which is incredible, and I took the cut through so I could unpack the car before I left for lunch. On the way, I passed a woman wearing a safari hat and kelly green top. She had a big leather should bag, indicating she was probably a professor.

So I whip into the driveway, pop out the cd, gather up all the trash I can carry and heave out of the driver’s side door. As I make my way around to the back of the car, this woman is standing there writing something down. I couldn’t see her eyes because she had on some big sunglasses. I looked at her and quizzically inquired if I could help her with something.

She was seething, straining not to yell. “What’s your license plate number?” I wasn’t sure what to say since she was staring right at it, so I shrugged and said, “It looks like you’re already writing it down.”

She started fuming about how there are kids that live on this street. I smiled and informed her that we had one of those “kids”–a two-year old. She snapped back, “I don’t care.” (Ironic since that was what she was supposedly concerned about.) Then she said that everyone was in a hurry and she was just sick of this “blatant obstruction of the law.” (Obviously she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “hurry” since she doesn’t have a two-year old and takes 15 minutes out of her day to chastise people for minor traffic violations, not to mention the time she wound up spending on the phone with the police department and bitching to everyone she knows about the young people going the wrong way down the street).

I told her I was very sorry that I had upset her so much. She responded with a huff and turned dramatically on her heels to walk away. I sweetly called after her that I hoped she wasn’t putting too much energy into this… it seemed that she was awfully upset. To this, she bid me good day.

I took several things away from this experience:

1. It is so worthwhile to be calm when other people get all worked up about stupid stuff.

2. I need to be wary of what I spend my energy being ticked off about,because I could be this woman barking at someone for violating a one-way street for 20 feet or so.





What’s in a name?

17 01 2008

“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” ~Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.

“Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as ‘one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.'” ~ David S. Slawson

Today my students are writing about their names in their newly mod-podged writing notebooks. Here are some of the highlights from this morning’s shared writings– One student’s mother named him after a man who was stabbed to death by his wife (a story she saw on the news in the hospital after he was born). Another student wrote about her two pet hamsters, Sam and Coach. Unfortunately, Coach ate Sam and then Coach died after bleeding to death in an attempt to eat his own leg. One guy had the nickname “Moonpie,” as a result of his breech birth. The girls were much more shy about their nicknames, so I didn’t get to hear any beyond the standard, “Lil Bit,” or “Sweet Pea.”

In general, it was a fun day. The only downer was the fact that my sixth period is completely lethargic by the time they get to me–unresponsive, heads and arms in sweat shirts, mumbled remarks after I give directions, and just an overall bad attitude. I get so frustrated during that class because everything requires so much effort. It’s really hard to maintain my own energy when I’m reliving the Ben Stein scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (minus the drooling… I think).





Absence

14 12 2007

imgp0210.jpg

Signs that I have not been at home for the past week: the laundry is clean and folded, but not put up; the bathtub is beginning to mildew; there are piles of various, unrelated items on my kitchen table including but not limited to: 4 snowman dessert knives, bubble wrap, fake green apples, cords, Mr. and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper shakers; every surface is covered in a thin layer of dust; the only food we have in the house is breakfast related; and, finally, the ultimate signifier of my absence: a clear sippy cup with a purple lid holding the ground-beef remains of the other night’s taco dinner (it’s in the fridge at least).

Where have I been? I have been in the online archives of Cornell’s “Making of America” collection; sifting through writings of Louisa and Bronson Alcott; away from my house and my child, who knocked three little tikes down on her way to the door when I picked her up yesterday afternoon. I’ve been at Audra’s house crying at midnight with the conviction that I am too stupid to write this paper, swinging on her swing, covered in a blanket. I’ve been in the library where students dressed as gorillas have strolled nonchalantly past and chunked bananas in the trash can by my table in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve been sweating in my desk chair, listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Now I am almost finished, but not quite. Then it will be Christmas time… finally.





Drinking from a Fire Hydrant

4 12 2007

There is a quiet moment following the all-call for the last bus. Despite the papers that are strewn across my desk, the water bottles that litter the various surfaces of my classroom, the empty Coke cans and energy drinks that align my window sill, out of sight from the students’ hungry eyes, there is a peace, a moment of stillness. Generally, I take all of the papers and sweep them into a stack somewhere on my desk. Today, there is no room for another stack. If I were to take a picture of the catastrophe that is my December desk, you would certainly be aghast with the horror. There are notes to myself squeezed in the margins, on curled up corners of student work, on the back of my hand. Where did this chaos come from and how will I ever, ever begin to make my way to the bottom?

Fortunately, there is the promise of a fresh start with the New Year. Unfortunately, the new year feels as though it is eons away. Those eons will consist of one 30 page “article manuscript” (in which I will historicize the novel Little Women within the trajectory of the systemization of education in the late 19th century), 10 school days, 5 sets of final exams, 145 writing portfolios, an oil change, Christmas presents, Christmas cards, countless cups of coffee, one family reunion, 2 gift exchanges, at least 3 presents which will require assembly, and a new pair of shoes for Ruthie.

Last year, there was an autistic student in the 8th grade here who was out sick for several days. When he came back, he responded to inquiries about his health with, “Are you drowning in a sea of debt?” (Apparently, he had watched a lot of television during his time at home and the commercials about debt made a lasting impression on him.) Personally, I am drowning in a sea of to-do lists.