Monday, March 1, 2010

"Life is What Happens to You When You're Busy Making Other Plans"

-John Lennon

I spoke a bit too soon with my last post. Shortly after the beginning of the year my classes were canceled due to low enrollment. Such is life.

Since I have not been busy with teaching, I have had the time to be more creative. I am working on a novel and I run a very successful food blog with a friend of mine. We have a podcast being published this month. We are eagerly awaiting our book deal.

I have also been working on a barrage of other creative projects including editing and contributing to anthologies. I'm going to be published in 2011, hopefully in more ways than one.

To catch up with what I've been doing, follow me there: Cooktivism: Food, Thought, Discussion.

Friday, December 18, 2009

You Can't Step In the Same River Twice

As I was driving home from my last day of classes, I started thinking about next semester. This semester I was bogged down with six classes at two different schools in two states. I started my day in NJ teaching three different remedial writing courses with three different preps. After classes ended there, I commuted to Southeastern PA where I taught two sections of one course. On Wednesdays, I had an evening English Comp I class. In case you were wondering, I burned out around week seven.

Next semester will be a lot different as I was only offered one course. In thinking about this course, I had an epiphany while passing the airport. I was looking at the planes concentrating on the road and thinking about fight or flight. Then it dawned on me: in my (brief) teaching career, I have never taught the same class twice. Ever. I started out as a long term substitute teaching American Literature and Rhetoric in a private high school. I moved to the community colleges where I am teaching remedial classes. Next semester will be the first time I am teaching the same course for a second time. I would say it's scary, but it's not. I am no expert, but next semester I will have something I have never had with any of my teaching gigs: time to prepare.

I was hired to replace the high school English teacher on a Monday and told I would start that Wednesday. I was hired at the NJ community college a week before classes started. At the community college in PA, I was hired the Friday before classes began the following Monday. I have had NO time to prepare for any of the classes I have been asked to teach. Yes, I am not a perfect teacher and I still have a lot to learn, but I work REMARKABLY well under pressure. Both my students and I completed all terms with incredible results.

As for next semester, I know it won't be the same. It will be at the same school (which is new) and it will be the same course, but everything else will be different. Greek philosopher Heraclitus (or Pocahontas from the animated Disney film) said "You can't step in the same river twice." Whichever source you chose to associate the quote, the meaning is the same. It is impossible to expect the same results out of a situation regardless of its similarities to another.

I could possibly have another batch of ESL students who are struggling to make the grade, but I'll never have the SAME ESL students. It is possible that I will encounter more lazy students, but I will never experience the same level of laziness that I experienced this semester. It's impossible. That's life.

In the midst of change one thing remains the same: I love teaching. There is nothing else in this world I would rather do. As long as I go into each class with a heart that is willing to lovingly impart knowledge to my young adults, I know everything will be just fine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NCTE Part I or Junot Diaz is so Jersey, It Hurts

The National Council of Teachers of English Conference kicked off this Thursday in Philadelphia. As an English teacher, I felt so motivated to attend and be amidst thousands of other like minded people for the duration of the weekend. Though my experience at NCTE was not what I expected, more on this later, hearing Junot Diaz speak was exactly what I needed.

Allow me to set the scene: It was a rainy, Thursday night in Philadelphia. There were hundreds (flight delays and fatigue weeded out the winners) of English teachers in the great ballroom of the Philadelphia Convention Center. We were all there, wide eyed and squirming with anticipation. There was a distinguished panel of important NCTE folks on the stage in front of us. Among them sat the honored guest, Junot Diaz, in a hoodie and a pair of jeans. He looked aloof and almost bored as he sat through the introductions and various awards presented to extraordinary English teachers throughout the country. He was then introduced by an Amazonian Diaz groupie graduate student who promised to be brief, but was not. All the while, Diaz had his head down and was rubbing his forehead. When the Amazon was finished displaying her adoration for Diaz, he approached the microphone. He is barely audible at first, then he warms up and says, "If I knew you were going to be giving out so many goddamn awards, I would have gotten a drink." He then uttered another obscenity and said something about "getting his drink on." I sat back and was amused at exactly how Jersey Junot Diaz actually is.

I really don't think my constituents were prepared for what was about to ensure. Thursday night, Diaz's Jersey was unabashedly hanging hanging out and I felt right at home. Diaz said a lot of things, including that "We [teachers] teach this civilization into existence." He talked about how we have an awesome responsibility to mold and guide the future of America, but we are devalued, marginalized, under appreciated, and under paid. The room seemed to be in general agreement with this sentiment.

The part I found the most striking about his address was when he stated that monsters, like vampires, lack a reflection. He went on to say, "We create monsters [in our children] when there is no literature where youth find a reflection of themselves." Growing up, he didn't see himself reflected anywhere; not in teachers, not in literature, not in government. He had no reflection. He was invisible. This metaphor made me look around the room. It made me think back to graduate school and my undergraduate days and then back to high school. THIS is the exact same problem I have been struggling with my whole adult life. There has been no reflection of myself in my instructors in high school, college, or graduate school. I am fortunate enough to have been born after the Black womanist movement and I have immersed myself in the works of Barbara Smith, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker (whom I am still mad at) and Ntozake Shange whose work, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, was one of my saving graces in college. There were a handful of familiar faces that presented these works to me, but there were scores of unfamiliar faces where they came from. This struggle seemed to continue as I looked around the room that evening. I will delve into this more in another post.

The point is, he is right. We, as teachers, have an obligation to expose our children to literature that reflects them and speaks to their experience. It is an awesome charge, but one that is not easily accomplished with "canonical punishment." (Which is a struggle I have with high school English curriculums.) How can we expect them to want to read and understand what they have read if they are presented with books that don't speak to them?

When I taught at a private high school last year, I taught The Crucible to my 11th graders and then I taught them Octavia Butler's Kindred. Teaching The Crucible was a little like pulling teeth. They were reluctant readers. They didn't get it and they didn't want to get it. Why? Because it was impossible for them to relate to it. When it came to Kindred, they perked up. They took notice. Yes, it's set in the 70s and in the antebellum South, but there were situations on the novel that spoke to their experiences. Interracial relationships made one student perk up. White privilege rattled another one. My Korean exchange student drew a parallel between the antebellum South and the homogeneity in her culture. In short, the novel spoke to them. It wasn't didactic or archaic. It was approachable and able to suit their needs as readers and as students.

When all was said and done, I had my most reluctant student score an "A" on both the final exam in the class - something he had NEVER done before. I had another student tell me that Kindred made her want to read again. These kids suffered from what Diaz calls "canonical punishment." They've been tossed and expected to catch works that are so far removed from their reality as students. I can't blame them for not wanting to read when the books selected for them are so dreadful.

I knew I needed to do something to keep them engaged. Diaz argued that "we cannot understand the novel except through collective action." I'd read Kindred four times before I taught it and the understanding I took from it was remarkably different when they got a hold of it. I brought in my tattered copy and I read it with them. We experienced it together. I took notes on their interpretations and their feelings on the subject. They wrote reaction journals, which I read and commented on. Reading Kindred was a collective effort that was built on love and understanding. It was, what Diaz calls, "a journey of discovery" for all of us. As with all journeys of discovery, "mistakes [were] intrinsic." We worked through them together and emerged triumphant.

Junot Diaz is a real educator who really cares about how to make this world a better place through our students and their understanding of the world through literature. He has written some of the most incredible works of literature including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Mention this and he rubs his forehead. Even without such a prestigious award to add to his already impressive list of accomplishments, the man understands the need for "motherf$%ers to read." He advocates for a Utopian society where we read and are literate without sacrificing the experiences of the Other. He told us this in a hoodie and jeans using obscenities and street slang much to the chagrin of the red faced gentleman at the end of his table. He deserved his standing ovation and I am grateful that I got to see him. He was so Jersey, it hurt.

Now if only the rest of the conference was like that, I would have gone back.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Starting Now

Every day I get to walk into a classroom and teach is a gift. I am fortunate to have the awesome responsibility of educating those who want to learn. I am a community college adjunct professor and it is, by far, the best thing that has ever happened to me. Tonight was an amazing night in class and I need to share it with you.

My night class consists of mostly non-traditional students who work all day and come to class at night. I do have a few younger students, but they carry their share of burdens as well. One particular student is returning to school for the first time in seventeen years. She came back to school for nursing, I believe, and this woman is a natural healer. We will call her Alexander. (I know this is a man's name, but it's my blog and I do what I want.)

Alexander has endured many losses in her life. For her first paper, she wrote about one in the context of what fitness meant to her. After reading her paper, I went to the gym. It was that good.

Tonight, I helped Alexander with the planning of her second paper and I saw something in her that someone once saw in me. Alexander is a writer and she has a hell of a story to tell. As she talked to me about her paper, I organized her thoughts on the white board. What I saw before me was the makings of a self-help book that could help millions of people cope with devastating losses. Most importantly, I saw in Alexander that she has a gift that she has been stifling and for years. Loss after loss is just shoved into the corners of her mending heart. She didn't have an out before she found it in this class.

Alexander told me that she thinks so much at night that she can't sleep. I told her to get a notebook and put it by her bed and write everything she has in the notebook when she can't sleep. I guaranteed her this would give her the most gorgeous sleep she'd ever had. I told her that writing can be the one thing she does for herself in her hectic life. I also told her to make sure I get a signed copy of her book when it's published. She laughed and thought about it. She she'd stop and get a notebook on the way home.

I spent an hour with Alexander and I am excited about her paper and about this new chapter in her life. I know she will feel so much better when she begins to write. Her words and thoughts have the power to help millions because she is so strong and resilient. I know she has the power to transform her silence into language and action. I will be there for her every step of the way. Starting now.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Work Ethic

I am planning on writing a post about comfort zones that wll formally introduce what I have been doing for the past month and a half, but for now, I must write about work ethic.

I am currently teaching at a couple community colleges in South Jersey and Southeastern PA, respectively. Though the two schools are like day and night, one thing that is constant is how the work ethic of my students differs greatly from my own. Yes, this is a generalization - most of my students' work ethic is just fine, but others are a complete nightmare.

I had a student email me today and ask me, his professor, to print his paper for class tomorrow. This is the exact same student who sits in my class and talks to the person next to him the entire time. When I told him that he needs to print it on campus, he asked me where. I referred him to the library. Hours later and still dissatisfied with my answer, he said "It would be gratefully appreciated if you receive this before class and print it thank you." [sic] Really? I don't know about you, but I am not 100% in love with his tone. I wrote him back and reminded him that I am his professor, NOT his buddy, and that there are several ways around getting a paper printed out when you don't have a flash drive.

I have another student who has not purchased the required text for my class and who will, most likely, fail the comprehension quiz I am giving them tomorrow. Likewise, she told me on Friday that she would not be able to type her paper or print it out. I, again, referred her to the library. Naturally, she had some sort of retort for that and I told her I didn't know what to tell her.

The problem here is the lack of a strong work ethic in these particular students. The one is clearly lazy and the other would like to hide behind poverty. Here's a little antidote about work ethic and poverty:

My first year of college, I went to the bookstore and purchased books. I spent $550 on textbooks. I spent all of my savings. Dazed and confused, I thought there had to be a better way. There was. I got a job at the library and learned that the library is required to have every book that is sold in the bookstore. I worked there for 5 years and never bought another book. I emailed my professors weeks before classes began and requested the list of books. I read them all and took copious notes then returned them to the shelves before classes began.

True, you aren't supposed to do that, but the books were REQUIRED. I knew that getting an education was the only chance I had to make it out of the hood and to secure my future. I did what I had to do.

I have always been the kid who had to work her ass off for everything. I have been working since I was 14. I often had to walk to work and back because I didn't have reliable people to come and get me. When I got a finally car, it was a piece of crap, but it was what I could afford. For the most part, the six lemons I purchased got me to work and back.

The point is: I never stopped. I never gave up. The horror stories I could tell you would stop a normal person dead in their tracks. I am not sure how I made it through all of the shit I've been through, but I did.

My life right now is not perfect, but it is damn near close. I have a job that I love and I got here because I worked hard and sacrificed for my education.

Why can't ... why won't some of my students do the same?