teaching

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

Shifting Gears

Last week, I went on vacation. My family put 2000 miles on our new car, learning about the ways road tripping is different when people are sitting close enough that they can all touch each other. (Our mileage was great, though!) Only one of the trip’s six days did not feature at least three hours of driving as we shuffled first north, then south. Along the way, we took in a museum where a T-Rex shares a name with my son, a production of Cirque du Soleil’s new Avatar-inspired show, and an awful lot of corn fields. And family.

Some of the transitions from car to family visit to car were seamless. We arrived. The kids exploded out of the car. They ran amok (sometimes with cousins) while the adult-types prepared food and caught up. We ate hamburgers and, because the sweet corn is coming ripe, plenty of fresh corn. The weather was very not-Texas, which we appreciated.

A few times, the explosion of kids out of the car was too explosive. There was too much energy to sit, even with the relative novelty of eating out. It meant going outside and finding places in or near gas station parking lots where my son could run and jump and otherwise do activities to help him regulate his body.

And of course, many transitions were preceded by “are we there yet?” Variations on this were my daughter’s favorite, sometimes hours before we closed in on our various destinations. By the time “getting there” meant being home, we were 15 minutes into August.

So, end of summer break…are we there yet?

We must be getting close. Monday, my boss called me to discuss my class assignments for the upcoming year. Earlier in the summer, he’d said that, pending enrollment numbers, everybody would be teaching what they taught last year. The purpose of the principal’s phone call was to explain that some things had changed. (It almost always changes.) Last year, I taught English intervention (for students who have either already failed or are at risk of failing the end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate) and on-level English IV (for seniors who often think they’ve already finished high school). Last spring, intervention was full entirely of freshmen. It was…challenging (especially the section at the end of the day, which was almost entirely boys and almost entirely disinterested in anything academic by the time class started at 3:05). I had hoped that we’d hit numbers for the creative writing elective I was listed to teach. I’d also hoped, vaguely, to escape teaching intervention. (It has its benefits; I feel like it helps keep me honest as a teacher and really pushes my pedagogy. It just wears me out.) Neither happened.

This year—which for teachers in my district starts next week—I’ll still be teaching intervention. Instead of on-level seniors, though, I’ll have the Advanced Placement (registered trademark of the College Board) seniors. I’ll be inheriting my colleague’s summer assignment, which means hurriedly reading the assigned novel (thank you, grad school, for preparing me!). I need to pull a syllabus together, one detailed and tidy enough for the College Board to approve it. I need to shove the vague plans I had about rearranging the on-level English stuff to the back burner. I need to think about what worked with the intervention classes last year, particularly in the spring, that I can adapt to the different group of students I’ll have in the fall.

It’s a lot to get ready in the two and a half weeks before students show up. On the plus side, I won’t be waiting on HR to decide whether or not I exist. It’s another opportunity to improve my teaching, which is exciting. None of my classes should be huge. There’s a lot to like.

Earlier, I mentioned that we got a new car. It has a continuously variable transmission; there are no “gears” to shift between. My first car was a manual transmission. I’ve driven automatics since then, but even those train you to a pattern of shifts. You learn when you need to jam on the pedal to make the transmission downshift, when to let up a little to get the upshift. You listen to the patterns of the RPMs. The new car doesn’t do that. It has paddle shifters and a sport mode so you can pretend, if you want, but mostly the transmission just runs. The changes are gradual.

That’s how this summer has felt, and it’s a change I’ve been able to notice mostly because so many other pieces of my life are stable. As an undergrad (and before that), summers were summer. Whether it was a job or just a lot more ultimate, I had a sense that summer was different. Not all of the summers were lazy. Not all of them were good. They were, though, decisively not-school. During my masters, I took a fair number of summer seminars to grease the wheels on my dual degree. It still felt like a distinct season, though, because we had a lot of teachers pursuing masters degrees, because the rhythm of the day was different, because the weather was different.

I didn’t take summer seminars during my doctoral work. They weren’t part of the program. I took care of my kids. I squeezed in research trips. I wrote. The research trips have been replaced by professional development, but those other things have continued. My school year lines up imperfectly with the kids’, so there were some hazy patches at the beginning of the summer, with another coming up when I go back for inservice next week. There have been trips and camps and many visits to the library. Not once did I have a sense that things had slowed down. They must have, though, because I can feel them speeding up again now, even without a noticeable shift in gears.

Continuously variable transmission, indeed.

Contractual Obligations

Back in April, I did something simultaneously trivial and momentous:

I signed a contract renewal.

On the one hand, it was pro forma. I would have had to be terrible at my job to not be invited back. Ninety-nine percent of the staff at my school who want to come back will be there next year. The contract was electronic and I signed it electronically. It was something that I did in under five minutes between my fifth period class ending and the start of my lunch.

On the other hand: Contract. Renewal.

If you haven’t spent time as contingent labor, it might be hard to understand the magic of that phrase. As an adjunct, it’s common to get phone calls on, say, August 10th, asking if you’re available to teach a class starting August 25th (or even August 15th). Sometimes your jobs end unexpectedly after one semester. Everything is precarious. Much—if not most—of the time, you grab at what’s available because you don’t have time to wait for what might be coming. Twenty-seven hundred for a class guaranteed is better than the potential to pick up a $3600 class in a few days. What? You have to drive 35 miles each way to get there? Well, even so. (I once taught a class that was exactly 100 miles away from my apartment. I “needed” it for my CV, so I took it even though after gas and childcare I netted only about $200 for a semester of getting out the door at 5:50 a.m.)

Stability, even more than money, was the reason I got out of the adjunct racket. I have kids. I needed to be able to help plan their lives and activities. That’s hard when you don’t know when or where your next paycheck is coming from. Since “graduating” from the family restaurant at 16, I had worked the same job two years in a row exactly once: the administrative assistantship I had for two years during my masters. Since then, it’s been new classes, new institutions, or both…or the job hunt, for which “stability” is a terrible sign.

Renewing my contract means that I will have the same full-time employment two years in a row. For the first time. Ever. I’ll be teaching most, if not all, of the same classes. I can actually develop curriculum to be used in the same context, rather than having to develop and adapt it simultaneously. I can continue to work on getting better at my job rather than getting used to it.

I do not have to spend the summer looking for jobs, or worrying that I will not find one. I don’t have to do any calculus about whether a cross-town commute will be feasible, or try to figure out how to tailor my resume to different positions. I do not have to wonder what is going when an interviewer asks me about my PhD, or fails to ask about it.

Best of all, it means I get to keep doing a job I still love and still care deeply about, even when my freshman intervention classes won’t let me finish a sentence or my seniors complain about reading 35 pages in a week. I wrote “Smile, you love this job!” on my little calendar white board the day I hung it up in my classroom. My students give me a hard time about it. I don’t care. I can love my job without liking it every minute of every day. And now I know that, for at least another year, I get to keep doing that job.

That April Thursday, we ordered pizza. Partly, that was because Thursdays are the day I run out of steam for cleaning the kitchen and cooking. Mostly, though, it was because I wanted to celebrate. There may come a time when I take signing my contract renewal for granted, when it’s just a thing that happens in April that I have to remember to do, like renewing car insurance. I’m not there yet, though. Even two months later, it still feels good.

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part Three

In addition to the weird and the hard, there were good things about being a first year teacher. Some of them were small—bagels in the teacher’s lounge, watching the sun come up over Ladybird Lake as I neared the end of my morning commute. Other positives, though, mattered more:

Having a Purpose

It may not make doing the job any easier, but it’s a great thing to get up in the morning and know that you are going to do something worthwhile. You’re not making money for some anonymous corporation. (Except on testing days. They’re the worst—those are the days I really felt like I was just doing a job.) Teaching matters. Teaching college students matters, too, but I never felt it quite so urgently.

Of course, that’s also why you can never leave your work at work, and why you worry constantly about things you can’t change. Overall, though? Devoting your working days (and occasional nights and weekends) to something that matters is pretty awesome.

The Students

My dad liked people. In general. He enjoyed being around them, enjoyed talking to them and making them happy. I have never been like that; despite overcoming a good deal of my introverted awkwardness over the years, I’m still happier by myself than with most people. That doesn’t keep me from liking my students.

The best things and the worst things about middle schoolers are suspiciously similar: they have boundless energy that hasn’t quite coalesced around a definite sense of self. They’re fountains of ideas, but often challenged to figure out which ones are good. (Both of those are frequently double for the “challenging” students.) Over the course of a year, I got to see students figuring things out on their own, deciding who they are and who they want to be.

Whenever it isn’t the worst part of the job, working with the students is the best part of the job.

Colleagues

Another cool part of being a teacher? Working with other teachers. I had fantastic colleagues at my school. When I was a kid, it wasn’t until high school that I really started getting along as well with other students as I did with (most) teachers. I got a lot of help from my fellow teachers this year—everything from feedback on lesson plans to loaned books to pep talks. I only wish I’d lived on the right side of town so I could have attended more of the social functions.

Teaching Writing

Teaching writing is my favorite. I think about writing so much of the time. I’ve taught it before, of course—many of the music courses I taught as a gradjunct were “writing intensive” and required significant doses of writing instruction alongside the musical content. That was all writing research papers, though. This year, I got to teach fiction and poetry and, yes, research. The cool part is that I had to think about writing in different ways, try out different explanations and different examples to get to students who do not all read, who do not even necessarily have much shared background in movies and television.

In terms of teaching—not of being a teacher, but of actual teaching—I think I learned the most about how to do it well by teaching what I love.

Paying it Forward

I spent many, many, many years in school. Along the way, I had some great teachers. I do not think anybody gets into teaching without having role models. In some small way, becoming a teacher myself pays them back for all the things I learned from them. So, in rough order of grade level they had me: Mrs. Christensen, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Strough, Mrs. Hotchkiss and Mr. Carter…and Drs. Hess, Macy, and Mazullo. Thank you for putting up with me, for teaching me, and for inspiring me.

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part Two

The last post included some of the odds and ends of my first year of teaching—unexpected moments and ongoing background stories. This week, some of the more challenging parts of the year.

Commuting Sucks

Austin has bad traffic, yo. And I got to spend 8-10 hours a week sitting in it. Once in a while, 12.

It Doesn’t Stop

This, I think, was the bit I was least prepared for. Teaching is a job you cannot leave at school. It takes up space in your head. It eats up time you’re nominally not at work because there are lessons to plan and papers to grade. I’m not going to pretend that I was working sixty-five or seventy hours a week, because there were serious inefficiencies in my time usage. Especially in the fall, though, it felt like 65 hours a week. (In actuality, it is usually about 50.)

Teaching college, you’re working with adults. Young adults, yes, who often need help, but adults. You’re responsible for getting them the content of your course, and sometimes for some professional mentoring. You are not, as a professor, responsible for the students themselves. You bring home papers to grade. You have lessons to plan. You may worry about certain students. It’s much rarer to worry about whether they’re actually going to make it to adulthood with a reasonable chance of success.

Teaching middle school, that worry is constant. You’re not actually a parent to your students, but you worry about them in much the same way, whether you’re at school or at home.

My First All-Nighter Since Grad School

At the end of the first semester of my doctoral program, I discovered that it does, in fact, take longer to write a 20-30 page paper than the 10-12 page papers I’d written during my master’s. The upshot of this was a sleepless night, serious heartburn from midnight coffee, and (probably) some mediocre papers. While I had short nights during my other finals weeks, I did not again have one in which I called a 20-minute doze enough.

…until third quarter grades were due.

I don’t like grading. I understand that grades have uses. Importantly, they’re a structure that keeps students accountable. Work that’s not for a grade usually doesn’t get done. None of that means I like grading. Because I dislike it, I tend to put it off. (Building grading into my schedule and getting it done sooner is one of my main goals for next year.) When I put it off…I get to spend an evening…and a night…and a morning catching up on grading. It was complicated in the third quarter by some inclement weather days and the usual mess of students turning things in late.

Next time I’m up all night, I really hope it’s for something more entertaining than middle school essays.

Perpetual Emergency

Standardized tests have higher gravity at low-SES schools. The administrative response to this was to declare an emergency in February that never really went away. Students at risk (or at perceived risk) of failing their STAAR tests were pulled every which way but loose.

My interventionists and inclusionists were rescheduled so many times that, occasionally, nobody in the building knew when they were actually supposed to be working with my students. On a related point, I had no input on most of the changes, including which students would be pulled. The situation was spectacularly frustrating for everybody involved.

Between the time that the scores for the reading test came back and the re-test for students who failed, I had a number of students who received three hours of English intervention every day. Because of the way that intervention was scheduled, I did not see some of my students at all for five weeks. A few of my other students spent half of their days doing only English (three hours in the morning with the interventionist, 90 minutes with me for normal class time, and 90 minutes of previously scheduled reading enrichment).

On a related note, I was asked to sacrifice some of my ELA time for students to practice for the STAAR science test. I did not especially mind this, because it was swapping one technology mandate for another—they went from working on the digital reading learning platform to the digital science learning platform.

We spent almost half the year in an “emergency.” It reminds me of this SNL sketch about terrorist threat levels.

Did I Mention the Testing?

Even assuming that we can get students to do meaningful work in the afternoon when they have been testing, I lost about 14 days of instructional time to actual and practice testing. Get rid of that useless assumption, and it’s more like 20. Then add to that a few days that were mostly lost because I taught at 5-12 school and we spent a few days sequestered because of high school testing. It adds up quickly. The tests interrupt instructional time, make it harder to complete meaningful projects, and stress everybody out.

The only people I’ve heard enthusiastically defend the amount of standardized testing we put students through are politicians and testing companies.

You See Failures Immediately, and Successes (Mostly) Later

I can’t tell you the highest quarter grade I gave this year, but I can name every student who failed part of my class, and every student who is doing summer work to try and get to high school after failing standardized tests. The class with the discipline problems occupies more headspace than the one where most students are well on their way toward college. The students who keep you up at night are the ones you’re still trying to figure out how to help…or the ones you worry about not being able to help at all. As a teacher, you just have to wait and see…and often you don’t get to see.

Next: the fun stuff.

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part One

Friday, I turned in keys. I turned in the laptop and bag that have kept me company on most of the 9,000-plus miles I’ve commuted since late September. I gave a few bags of miscellaneous inherited office supplies to the secretaries up front. I made an enormous pile of desks and shelves and cabinets in the middle of my room, because apparently my school plans to start summer by repainting the walls. I signed more shirts than yearbooks, and said numerous goodbyes to colleagues and students.

…and that was that. I had survived my first year of teaching full time.

My first thought is to say “Oh my FSM, was it hard.” It was hard. There were a few days I came home and cried. There were others that I definitely wanted to. More numerous were the days I just came home exhausted. Spending your days surrounded by the raucous emotional tumult of thirteen and fourteen year olds is tiring on its own, never mind trying to get them to learn something.

I’ve posted before about how much energy I put into splashing rather than propulsion. That got better as the year went on. I got much faster at planning lessons. I figured out which students needed which kinds of warning to get them to actually be quiet. With the help of my awesome co-workers, I got better at sorting bureaucratic necessities from bureaucratic niceties. I got (slightly) better about putting off grading too long.

There was testing. So much testing. The scheduling of said tests invariably worked out so that I spent the most time with my most challenging section, trying to keep them doing something productive on days when all of us were already tired and cranky. The test scores came out okay—I surpassed the goals my administrators set and almost all of my eighth graders will get to start high school in August.

Part Two will go into more depth about what was hard and what I learned about doing hard things. There was so much going on in the background, though, that became part of the year’s scenery…

—A fellow teacher’s transnational relationship trying to weather visa woes and the general hazards of long distance relationships.

—Pregnancies and house purchases.

—Repeated “opportunities” to be part of presentations various faculty and administrators gave as part of their work on master of education degrees and principal certifications.

—A surprising amount of faculty turnover as some people left and others came on to assist with the constant stream of “emergency” interventions that began in February.

—Students searching for novel ways to break the dress code, including one student who spent six weeks in a wig because she was told her (expensive) blue dye job violated school rules.

—Shifting patterns of students (especially the girls) ganging up on each other about self-proclaimed “drama.” This eventually led to a student being suspended for cyber-bullying, which of course kicked off a whole new cycle of shenanigans.

—On two different occasions, my class being disrupted because somebody decided English was the perfect time to ask out a crush.

—The surreal moment when I was listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” in Spanish while eating doner kebap while surrounded by teenagers.

—Racing my principal on an inflatable bungee run (at his behest) on what I believe was my ninth day on the job.

—Lines for the microwave in the teacher’s lounge.

—Chocolate-covered espresso beans becoming occasional life savers (and occasional crutches).

—Learning more than I’d ever considered there was to know about Mexican candy…and, to a lesser extent, Mexican pop stars.

—Tying somebody else’s necktie, and having to explain that it was only barely going to work because it was a child’s tie and too short.

—Explaining to a girl how to fix her bangs after she’d allowed another student to mangle them.

—Saying things in German just because my students asked me too.

—The time I danced at the dance I was chaperoning in exchange for a promise that a particular student would finish all of his missing homework.

—Explaining to students that it was not, in fact, cold. At all.