Of Joy and Being Led

It is the nature of objects in motion to stay in motion. We don’t always have to try and steer. 

Friday, I finally managed to get a handful of students outside for a preliminary bit of ultimate frisbee. This came after several explanations that there are not going to be “tryouts” unless we somehow conjure more than twenty people. We had…three.

While I was doing some pretty standard exercises to teach those three students to throw forehand, I had the opportunity to watch a bunch of other students playing soccer.

My school has good soccer teams. It’s one of the few positives we get to check on the list of “stereotypes you expect for a school with an 85% Hispanic student body.” We also have a terrible “field” that once had grass but is now a broad swathe of bare dirt surrounded by knee-high weeds. It’s dusty. It’s hard enough that even hard ground cleats won’t give you much purchase. One of the goals has been broken since February.

So that’s the scene: Anglo English teacher watching Latino middle schoolers play soccer in the dust. It’s that scene that goes somewhere in the first third of the inspirational movie (be it a sports or education movie). Maybe I’d be played by Kevin Costner.

Here’s the thing: they didn’t need me. At all. Soccer practice had been cancelled, so there were no coaches on hand. The students had one goal. They were playing a free-for-all scrum that involved yelling at each other in English and Spanish (and with more profanity in both than they’d admit) and occasionally claiming to represent (or claiming somebody else represented) countries from Chile to England.

And they were happy. Joyful. I see many emotions as a teacher: pride, resentment, happiness, fear, anger…I do not often get to see joy, the pure exultation in the moment.

Part of it was kids being kids, of course. Freshly-minted teenagers need to play, and they don’t generally play around the people who assign them grades or decide whether they get to start the next game. They don’t even necessarily play when they know they have an adult audience. The students were ignoring me, which I’m sure helped them to be happy. (No comment on whether the same applies in class.)

Aside from the contact high of being around the really happy, though, watching the middle schoolers play their game made me think of this blog post. (Mr. Rad’s blog is fantastic. It also makes me pine a bit for Minneapolis.)

My school is a charter. It comes with uniforms for the students and a laundry list of things for which they can get positive or negative points. (I sometimes wish they had houses so I could actually say “5 PRS for Gryffindor.”) We have block scheduling. The default assumption is that the students will sit quietly whenever asked, for whatever portion of 90 minutes the teacher requires. They have a painfully short lunch break. They spend a ton of time being told what to do and, more often, what not to do. Some days that seems necessary to get the 28 thirteen and fourteen year-olds I have in my room pointed in the same direction and learning. I try my best to give the students opportunities to speak, to each other and to me. I try to listen  .

The striking thing about “Mr. Rad’s” post, though, is that he calls for getting beyond listening. He calls for us (meaning privileged white males) to be led. That’s a much, much harder thing. Listening can be a passive process. When you’re listening, it’s easy to do so selectively (ask any teacher). Being led, though, requires active following. It requires more than Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” It means going beyond “How can I help?” to “What needs to be done?” and even further to “What do you want me to do?” It’s hard. It’s hard as a teacher who’s pushed to wield authority. It’s hard as somebody for whom society has been built.

For me, that meant going over and inviting (and only inviting) the kids playing soccer to try ultimate. A few of them did. We had a game that was about as slapdash as you’d expect on a short field with five of the six players involved unable to throw a forehand more than ten yards. Most of the kids, though, stuck with their soccer game. We played around them. After five or six extremely long points, the soccer players who’d been playing ultimate went back to playing soccer. They invited me to play, too, and I tried for a bit.

They didn’t need me, though. Not there. They were doing fine without my help. Isn’t that what we aim for as educators?

Research Questions

In this penultimate unit of eighth grade language arts, we are studying research. “Research” for these kids usually consists of pulling out a smartphone and asking Google (or Siri) a question. YouTube was in almost all of their lists of “five places to get information.” When I showed them a video about the Library of Congress main reading room, many were skeptical about there being that much that isn’t available online.

This has been a fun unit for me to teach, in part because I’ve taught variations on “how to write a research paper” more than just about any other topic. The key, I think, is getting students out of the idea that research is just looking stuff up. Research is really one way of answering a question. It often involves looking stuff up, but it’s the question that’s important. I let the students choose their topics, but guided them pretty closely in the development of those questions. They are sick of me asking what their research question is…and probably also sick of the dirty looks I give them when they can’t remember it.

Of course I was going to bring my dissertation in for them to look at. It’s a big stonking book and I wrote the whole thing. I researched it all. I found almost everything in the bibliography myself. If nothing else, it would give me something to hit back with when the students inevitably complained about the number of sources they needed to find.

It helped that the kids were interested in New York and the library with the lions and in their teacher more generally. They got to hear about novelties like “newspapers” and “microfilm.” I got to explain that some of the things I looked at had to be brought up from basements. In boxes. (In their defense, if you’ve had Google in your pocket for most of your living memory, the notion of getting paper files from boxes somewhere sounds a little bizarre.) The students were mostly suitably impressed, and I held their attention for one more day—a victory when the standardized test is over and you’re obligated to hold their attention for another six weeks.

Because I didn’t want to be switching back and forth between the document camera and my laptop, I went and looked at the page for my dissertation at the University of Minnesota digital conservancy.

It’s been downloaded nearly 200 times since January 2014.

I sincerely doubt many of those folks have read the whole thing. It was still a surprising discovery. I was perversely satisfied to know that somewhere out there, desperate undergraduates might be plagiarizing my work. It was the sort of quasi-immorality, I thought, that I probably deserved. I managed to squeeze in a lot of things that would come up in searches: a bunch of prominent 20th century American composers, the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Bourdieu… Plenty of places for an enterprising young person capable of using Ctl-F to grab a paragraph or two.

That was going to be the whole story—how I like to teach people about research, because research is about answering questions, and I want more people to be more curious. I want more people to feel equipped to look for their own answers. I want more people to actually be equipped to sort out reasonable answers from poorly-argued or unsubstantiated ones. And how I thought it was funny and a little flattering that somebody might plagiarize my dissertation for an undergraduate research paper.

Then I got a serious message about my dissertation…on Facebook. (Which just goes to show that my students’ constant claim that “Facebook is for old people” isn’t so off base.) A former professor of a former colleague had been reading it, and thinking about it.

That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s what the dissertation was meant to do. It was meant to be part of scholarly discourse, to contribute to human knowledge (in a minuscule way). At a moment where I am putting myself on a job market very different to the one in higher ed, one where I am trying to figure out ways to talk about how well my students did on their standardized tests without sounding like I care too much about the standardized tests…that message hit me. That’s what I left behind. The reasons that I did still hold true, even as a few more of my former colleagues get fingertips in doors with longer-term and even a few tenure-track appointments.

It’s a reminder that I was good at what I did. I wish that it could remind me of that without simultaneously poking at old scars. I’m sure that in a day or two I’ll be over it. I know (thank the FSM) that this is being bumped in mid-stride, not anything that’s going to really change my direction. It’s just enough to throw me off balance for a moment.

Still. Academia, man. It gets its hooks into you but good…

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.


Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.

Once More Unto the Breach

The other day I had to explain the word “trudging” to a bunch of 13-year olds, many of whom spoke English as their second language. Today the word felt apt—not because I was in a Minnesota winter stomping wearily through piles of snow, but because work is work, and sometimes nights are short and work is tough. I think about all the things I have to do (both in the possessive sense and the one of requirement) and it feels like I’ll be trudging until June.

That is why I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, even though my time is as compressed as it ever was when I was using grad school as an excuse not to do it. I’m doing it because sometimes we have to jump off a (metaphorical) cliff and remember what flying feels like. Sometimes we forget to hit the ground, sometimes we don’t. (And we can be Arthur Dent in both cases.)

I miss the Austin NaNos I haven’t seen in a year (and some I’ve seen at Camp NaNo events). When I “won” eleven months ago, I called them “a community of fellow striver-sufferers.” It still fits. It’s hokey and a little artificial, but the camaraderie of NaNo is still great. I suspect that I’m much more excited for some of my fellow Austin NaNos to write their drafts than I’d ever be to read them. I’m just as sure that some of the stuff is awesome. Thing is, that’s not really the point: the point is to write. Because it’s fun and sometimes it’s more fun to do together.

The fun is the important part. I still have a manuscript sitting around to revise and get edited and published. Part of me wants to kick myself for starting the next book while the first one is still so rough. There’s just no better, more fun part of the year to churn through a novel draft than November. When something means enough, you stop finding time and start making time.

This post has simmered for a few days—from a really abysmal Wednesday and on to Halloween, when the hardest of the hardcore NaNos are spending the holiday evening having a potluck and caffeinating themselves to get going at midnight. My kids are out trick or treating. It’s quiet between trick-or-treaters, and for once I don’t have lessons to plan. I’ve resisted the urge to throw on a movie…because the quiet is good. This is a moment I’m taking to write.

Nothing fancy, words on a screen, and most of those words are about words, which is too often a snake eating its own tail. But I will write. I am writing. I am a writer.

Tomorrow I start a new novel and send Maedoc and Zahra to Trayan. They might not get there and back this November, but they will go. And I will go with them because it is a far, far better thing than to stay here.

And because I’ve been English teacher/nerd enough to be actually using these speeches in the morning to psych myself up, a little Henry the Five, courtesy of Branagh and Olivier:

Let’s jump off the cliff and try to forget about hitting the ground.

Clever? Yes. Wise? Working on it.

Sometime during my sophomore year of college, I realized that being smart and speaking well were not perfectly correlated. One of my good friends–who has since had the most surprisingly adventurous life of my college gang–was pulling steady Bs without really trying. Grade inflation might have blunted that accomplishment, but this friend was taking a fairly serious slate of biology and Japanese classes. At a selective liberal arts college, you’re not supposed to be able to get away with that. This buddy of mine, though, was managing it even though he talked like a dairy farmer from Wisconsin (which he was). He was plenty smart.

Around the same time, I began to seriously think about wisdom. Being “smart” has always been easy for me. I’m particularly good at clever. (It’s the one way I feel like I’ve actually made an impression on my students so far.) I think fast. I mostly respond to new and changing situations with workable solutions.

Clever kept me afloat in grad school. I was good at the necessary half-bluffs of sounding like you know more than you really do. When something truly caught my interest, I could do a reasonable job of getting below the surface and thinking Big Thoughts about it. Day-to-day, though, I relied on being mentally quick rather than being intellectually strong.

Mental agility is pretty damn handy, but clever isn’t enough.

What I have been aspiring to, what I have written about intermittently for years in stuff that nobody sees, is wisdom.

The definition I’ve come up with most recently is this: wisdom is recognizing your feelings but understanding that they don’t have to rule you. This divide between thoughts and emotions crops up fairly often on the blog. Most often, it’s an intellectual understanding that things will get better, that I am capable, that I’ve overcome plenty of obstacles opposed to a feeling that everything will suck forever and I suck, too. When I’m at my most wise, I can recognize that distinction and use it as a source of strength.

Similar principles apply to dealing with people and situations. It’s easy to get angry about things. It’s often even easier to get angry at people. Maintaining some detachment from my emotions helps me control my responses to the people and situations that upset me.

Writing about “detachment” might seem to equate wisdom with coldness. Really, though, when I’m working on wisdom I’m usually able to respond in the best way. That’s most often a warm one–for both practical and ethical purposes. Wisdom becomes a precursor to kindness and humanity. When I act with wisdom, I can do what’s best rather than what I feel like doing.

That’s what I aim for, anyway. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, in part because I’m still working on the more practical wisdom of getting enough sleep and exercise and eating the right food. Wisdom is hard when the body’s playing catch up. It’s hard to be wise when you’re in your third consecutive hour of 30 eighth graders in a small room. Mostly, it’s hard to be wise because we’re still toting around a lot of neurological wiring that kept us alive thousands of generations ago.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. It is, as I tell my kids (and my students) the only way to get better.