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?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Open Letter to Uppity Urban Charter Schools or Numbers on a Page

Dear Uppity Urban Charter Schools,

It has come to my attention that most of you will not give me or my resume the time of day because you have insanely high standards for both your students and your faculty. This is wonderful, but disingenuous at best. Allow me to explain.

The State of New Jersey requires its teachers to have a 2.75 GPA in order to be certified by the state. I am certified by the state. My GPA as an undergrad was a 2.75. Most of you require your teachers to have a 3.0 GPA as an undergrad. Therefore, though I am qualified to teach and state certified, you people deem me sub par because of my undergrad GPA. Because of the numbers on a page.

Those numbers, my dear would be constituents, lack context. Those numbers do not tell you how much adversity I had to overcome to get that GPA and graduate from college. They don't tell you that I worked three jobs to keep myself in school. They don't tell you how my dad left; gave up and walked out years ago for sheer lack of interest. They don't tell you how my mother struggles with mental illness and that she had a nervous breakdown and moved across the country to get better. She left me in my dorm room with all of my worldly possessions. The rest of the stuff was tossed when we got evicted from the apartment, a step down from the house that we lost due to foreclosure. Foreclosure that came when my mom stopped fighting. When the reality of being followed, trailed and watched by the police because of my brother's drug peddling became too much. When the memory of having our house raided by police was too dark, when the funds to keep bailing my brother out of jail drained her of the energy to do simple tasks like get out of bed.

I could go on, but you have proven that you aren't interested in the reasons why my GPA as an undergrad was just average. You also don't seem to care that my GPA in graduate school was a 3.5. None of this is interesting to you because you are fixated on the numbers on my 10 page transcript featuring my name and social security number.

So, fine. Hire the Teach for America kids whose only knowledge about poverty is theoretical. Teach for America, like you Uppity Urban Charter Schools, only selects the best of the best from Ivy league or Ivy-league wannabe colleges and universities. TFA kids have no clue what they are signing up for when they apply. I also applied to Teach for America, buy the way. They didn't want me. Probably because of my GPA.

My knowledge of poverty and struggle is very real. I have lived it. As a matter of fact, I have lived below the poverty line my entire life. I'll be 25 on Sunday. These are obstacles I overcame to become the person I am today. I understand FIRST HAND what these kids are going through. I didn't learn about their situations from a book or in a teacher prep class. Their story is my story. That one of the reasons I became an educator in the first place. I knew I could be an example for some kid who was feeling hopeless because of his or her circumstance. I felt this way once and I had teachers who helped me through it.

This is not, however, the chance you are willing to afford me because of my undergraduate GPA. Have fun finding someone who is willing to tirelessly devote all of their love and energy to your students and their education with no interest in how it looks on their resume for future job prospects.


Nina J Davidson

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Educational Leadership or What's God Got to Do With It?

In the light of having some very promising interviews not work out because of issues with the right fit, I am left to ponder the value of educational leadership. I have worked in both the private and public school sectors and I fully comprehend the politics of the process. No one said it would be fair, but I understand how it works. Educational leadership has the ability to make or break this process.

In the instance of the school where I did my first year of teaching, the educational leadership is poor, at best. He, unfortunately, has the final say in everything. I say "unfortunately" because the decision of this man do not serve the greatest, highest good of the students. As it is an independent school, the institution would crumble without the students whose parents pay tuition for their children to be prepped for college. Sadly, there are public schools surrounding this particular school that do a better job in this area. Allow me to explain.

The school does not have a media center. That's right. No media center and no books. In short, no library for the upper school. It has one computer lab with about 15 computers. All of the software licenses have expired and there is simply "no room in the budget" to buy the programs. (They were originally running by less than savory means of appropriation.) There are no computers or instructional technology in any of the classrooms. Students do not know how to perform simple tasks like saving items to the desktop or saving a document to a flash drive. The school does not have ANY people of color on the faculty save for one; the Spanish teacher who was recently demoted in order to make room for a current faculty member's sister to teach in her place. I could go on, but somehow I think you're starting to get the picture.

What the school does have, however, is a brand new sprinkler system in the baseball field, a brand new fence around the perimeter of the property. It has recently acquired real estate on an adjacent street. The purpose of this purchase is unknown. The sports teams have new uniforms...

The point I am trying to make is that the school is a college preparatory school where little to no money/effort is going into prepping the students for college. This is because of the current educational leadership in place. Don't get me wrong, the kids are getting into some incredible schools. You can attribute their success to the woman in charge of College Counseling.

I was never prepped for college. As a matter of fact, I did all of my applications myself because my guidance counselor was in Russian adopting a baby and the others were too busy with their own kids to help me out. The difference? I went to a vocational school where college prep was never a priority. I made it in college because I had to. Failure was never an option for me because I knew what was waiting for me at home and I was fortunate enough to have a support system around me at school that would not allow me to falter.

I love the students I worked with last year. ADORED them. (Still do) Everything I did, I did for them. I spent money, I spent time. I hounded the ones who wanted to give up and made them do better because I saw potential in them when they refused to realize it in themselves. I would do anything for these kids, which is, I think, the attitude any educator should adapt. I would not have a job without them. I love what I do because of them. I want, more than anything, to be instrumental in their success.

I can not say the same for the leadership in place. All he cares about is sports. Sad, but ever so true. You may think I am standing on a soap box here, but the guy doesn't care about anything but the students making it on the front page of the sports section. Prime example, students at the school have a sports requirement. Each and every one of them is required to play on a sports team to fulfill the physical education requirement. I understand school children need to be physically active, but what about their brains? Don't they need intellectual stimulation as well?

I will not be returning to this school in the fall due to a standstill in negotiations. Little did I know, there was no room for negotiation in this process. (When I asked more compensation, which came out to $71 a week, I was met with a letter basically telling me 'good luck' in finding another job.) Today, I received the following letter from said ed leader:

Dear Nina,

Please continue to aggressively pursue your other teaching/employment options. You have a very impressive resumé and I would welcome the opportunity to add my letter of recommendation or speak directly to those who are seriously considering your credentials. You did an outstanding job for us last year at D.A. Let’s stay open to the possibility of our working together again in the future.

All that said, I wanted you to know as soon as we knew that we have filled the “Humanities, etc” position with a CS&A “rookie” from Bates College. He is very familiar with the preparatory school expectations as a graduate from Kent. He also has an appreciation for the value of athletics as leader in swimming at Kent and rowing at Bates.

I believe very strongly that God holds all of us in his His hands and that you and D.A. will continue to receive and be a conduit for his grace wherever and however it works out. Thanks for your investments in D.A. You are always welcome here!


Case in point. The new humanities teacher is a stellar athlete. He will, no doubt, be exploiting him for this while simultaneously pushing academics further into the corner.

I will continue to be available for my students despite the fact that I am not longer a faculty member. I lost a bet to one of them and I am, therefore, obligated to be at his basketball games for the entire season. Just because I am not working there, does not mean I am going to let the kid down. He has had enough of that both at home and at school. I refuse to be another adult who disappoints him. I know how that feels and I will not do that to him, or any of them.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Spooning Almost Always Leads to Forking

I have this long standing joke/analogy with some of my students re: teenage sexuality. The subject came up when one of my allegedly promiscuous male students remarked about how after a date, he brings his lady friends home to watch movies. As one who is not too far removed from teenage life, I know *exactly* what happens when one "watches movies." The joke goes a little something like this:

If you're gonna watch movies, be sure to keep the DVDs in their cases. I know some people like to tell you that DVDs play better when they aren't in their cases, but it's not true. DVDs ALWAYS play the best when they are kept in their cases. When you don't keep them in their cases, DVDs are susceptible to all kinds of dust, scratches, food particles. Some dust, food particles and scratches can be easily buffed away, but some are permanent. For the permanent ones, no amount of DVD cleaner or rubbing them on your pant leg can get rid of them. You may think you cleaned them off, but the permanent ones always come back when you least expect it.

Furthermore, if you don't keep the DVDs in their cases, you could end up with blu-rays. I know what you're thinking: blu-rays are so cute and tiny. Trust me: no teenager needs a blu-ray. They're expensive and once you have one, you can never go back to not having one.

There is nothing wrong with deciding that you don't want to watch movies at all. Maybe you prefer ice cream and bowling; both well lit and fun activities. There is nothing wrong with ice cream and bowling. With ice cream and bowling, you will never end up with scratches on your DVD or, worse, blu-rays.

Needless to say, they thought this was a screaming riot.

I chose to give them veiled advice because I wasn't sure where the school stood on the issue. I do know, however, were I stand on the issue. Regardless of what my (or your) personal politics are: teenagers have the right to know about their sexuality so that they may make an informed decision. Period. How can you expect anyone to make a decision about their lives and their health without giving them all of the information they need first?

I don't appreciate or agree with our society devaluing teenagers. I have worked and currently work with, some very bright and very talented teenagers. I am honored to know them. I wouldn't want anything to happen to them because they lacked the knowledge to make an informed decision about their health. Would you?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Golden Rule

I am fiercely overprotective of any child I am put in charge of. When I am responsible for them, I will love them and care for them as they were my own. Why? Because when I have children and entrust another person to their care, that is exactly what I will expect from them.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Since Saturday, I have been advocating for a resident who has severe celiac disease. I met with staff, I sent emails, I asked nicely; until last night. The kid told me he had ulcers in his mouth - an indication that he'd been consuming gluten. I literally flew into a rampage. I went upstairs to find my boss, then to the schedule to find my other boss on call. I called him and again explained the severity of the situation. He assured me he would take care of it. I am happy to report that the dining hall is now preparing specifically gluten free meals and that the resident, my boss and I will be meeting on a weekly basis to discuss meal options.

Today, I had to take a kid to the doctor. He was having some trouble with his legs and needed to get them checked out. The doctor's visit turned into a soaking wet fiasco. He and I had to make it there and back in the torrential downpour that ensued in Boston this afternoon. Neither of us had umbrellas.

I have anxiety about public transportation, well I had it before today. Normally, I like to do test runs everywhere so I know where I'm going. Today, there was no time for that. The kid had to get there on time and in one piece. I left all my anxiety at the door and focused. I made sure he felt as safe and cared for as he would have if he were at home. I did what I had to do and he was grateful.

Now, I am sitting listening to frat boys keep my ballerinas awake. I've already complained to the res hall manager, my coworkers and my boss. It will be resolved because my girls have to sleep. They need their rest to be able to perform to their greatest highest good.

I love kids. I love what I do. I do what I do because I love so fiercely. I celebrate this aspect of myself everyday. I appreciate each and every one of them for allowing me to help them. They make understand why I was put on this Earth and for that I am incredibly humbled and eternally grateful.
Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Monday, June 29, 2009

To write love on his arms

I'm in Boston for the summer working as a residential counselor for a prestigious summer dance program. Last night I was working a double in the boys' dorm and I was able to really earn my keep in quite a teaching moment.

I had a resident wander in and I noticed his disposition was off. He's normally bubbly and enthusiastic, but last night he was quite reserved. I kept asking him what was wrong and he kept saying he was alright. Of course, I didn't believe him and a couple hours later he was ready to talk.

It turns out, this kid's story isn't too far off from mine. Life for us ain't been no crystal stair. I apologized for knowing exactly how he felt. Stories like ours are not easy to hear, let alone tell, but I was able to listen to him, validate his experiences and give him valuable advice where others would have just said "I don't know what to say." those are the most difficult words to hear after you pour your heart out to another person. I am grateful I've been through enough adversity to not have to say that to him.

Instead, I wrote love on his arms and let him know that he's not alone. As long as l am around, he's got someone in his corner who knows EXACTLY where he's coming from.

I'm grateful for that moment last night and I'm glad I was able to be what he needed in that moment. I have been fortunate enough to have people who helped me when I was in his position. I'm glad I finally got to pay it forward.
Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Saturday, June 13, 2009

P.S. I Totally Finished Grad School

It took a while, but I did it. :)

Upon Completion of My First Year of Teaching

Last week I finished my first year of teaching. I am supremely proud of myself and of the things I have learned in the year. I was a long term substitute and I was basically thrown to the wolves. I didn't mind. As I explained to the Dean of my department, I have been thrown to the wolves all my life for much less. This time, my lesson in sinking or swimming was about my new career and it was particularly fitting that it began in the way it did.

I have learned a lot about myself and other people in the last year. I wanted to take this time to share a couple of them with you.

1. There will be haters everywhere you go.
Using the term "haters" is not the most academic, but it is the most applicable to my situation. In fact, it is applicable to most employment situations. I have/had (I don't have a contract for the fall as of yet) this one woman who tried her hardest to break me. At one point, she did. She berated me so bad over something so small, I ended up in tears. Because she is a big fat meanie head, this made her very happy. When I got home and told my mother, she warned me that all this woman was trying to do was to intimidate me and, ultimately, push me out. She told me to keep doing what I am doing because I have made a name for myself in the school. She was right. I have made a name for myself. I stopped talking to the woman and I stopped absorbing her negative energy. In the past few weeks, she has noticed this and started coming into my room asking me for things. Sure, her intentions are not entirely pure, but now I know it's not my fault. She, as my mother says about people who have issues, "got some stuff with her."

2. Teaching is the most difficult and rewarding thing I have ever chosen to do.
I often tell people that teaching is my accidental calling. I was a substitute teacher while looking for a full time job in Grad school. I spent a lot of time in pre K and high school. Though PreK will always have my heart, I enjoyed the conversations I had with the high schoolers. They were smart. They were funny. They had so much drive and determination. This was something I was never able to see in my peers when I was in high school. I decided that not only could I do this job, but I could do it better than most.
I researched, applied, sent in paperwork, got things notarized, took the PRAXIS - twice. I got certified. In October. Inconvenient for a FT teaching job, but I had the long term substitute position fall into my lap. The rest is, as they say, history.
Teaching is difficult. It is arduous. It is time consuming, but it is also incredibly rewarding. I have managed to touch the lives of young people all year. I had a girl who considered herself a dumb jock write me an incredible short story and start enjoying literature again. I had one kid tell me (though I could not look at him when he said it) that I challenged him and made him think and that he is a better student because of me. I have parents of difficult students coming up to me telling me that their children have never been so successful in English. They are grateful for my patience with their children. I had a student with a "learning disability" get the second highest grade in my class. All he needed was a boost of confidence and a little extra time. The faculty and staff commended me at our last inservice because of my work with the kids. One teacher remarked about a particular advisee who hates everyone but for some reason "worships the ground I walk on." She was my toughest student.

In a year as, say, an administrative assistant, I never could have made this much impact on others. I believe that I was meant to become a teacher and my first year only served to solidify my beliefs.

As of right now, I have no idea if I will be continuing to teach where I am now. Even if I am not there in the fall, I know I can do this job. I know I am capable of making a difference in this world through my students, which is all I ever wanted to do.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Learning from Your Mother

A fellow blogger, Affrodite, posted a contest to win the book "Letters to a Young Sister" by Hill Harper. I have been pondering the idea for the longest time and on the eve of my commencement, I thought I should enter.

The journey to be able to write this letter to my mother was long. It took a lot of soul searching. A lot of talking and learning from life's mishaps to be able to understand and appreciate my mother.

Our relationship has not always been a good one. In high school, she and I battled. Mostly over the whole boy issue. I wanted to date them. She wanted to pretend they didn't exist. Some of the things she did to try to eradicate them from my life were extreme, but they were done out of love. In the event that I have my own daughter, I will go about things a bit different. I will do so because I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of someone who trusts you, but not the world I lived in.

There is no need to go into details about what happened between my mother and I. I now know that most of what she did was because she felt lost in her own mind or, worse, backed into a corner. Maybe it's clique, but if not for those horrible things, I would not be who I am today. I would not be able to appreciate my accomplishments. I would not know what I know today if it weren't for what I have been through.

I am 24 years old. Tomorrow, I graduate for the second time in three years. I have a Masters Degree in English and a Bachelors Degree in English and Women's and Gender Studies. I am a teacher. It took me only 24 years to find and secure a job I love.

I have survived. I will continue to survive and show other young women that they, too, will be alright.

I love my life. I am very fortunate and I could not have done any of this without my mother.

Dear Mom,

Thanks for these last couple of years. Growing up, our relationship was sorted, muddled and wrought with miscommunication and misunderstandings. If it weren’t for the fact that I chose to go to grad school and, subsequently, had to move home, I would have continued to believe you were the person I made you in my head. Instead, we talked. We struggled. We learned things about ourselves and each other that only the strain of abject poverty can reveal. Thanks for being there to pick up the pieces when I finally realized that you are human. Though flawed and imperfect you are the greatest gift to me. Thank you for being my mother.

Your daughter,

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"No one said teaching would be easy or without disappointment"

Last week, one of my students disappointed me.

The funny thing about disappointment is that it is actually worse than being angry. It is a feeling that hits you so deep in your soul, that there is no other word suitable for expressing it. It is disappointment and it is the worst feeling in the world.

I give my kids journals (that I bought myself) to complete every week. They contain daily assignments that are given in class and are all due at the end of the week. This systems seems to work for about 40% of my class. Last week's journal was the source of the problem.

I have this one student who is chronically irresponsible and seldom at fault. Things are always being done to him as opposed to things happening because of him. I tried lecturing him on taking responsibility for his actions. This, clearly, is not applicable when one is never at fault. I know this now.

One of my star pupils was absent the day this student saunters in late with the journal "someone stole" from him two weeks prior. He said he would work on his journal and come back with it the next day. He refused to let me write down what he was missing. At this point, he had taken my star pupil's journal saying he was going to give it back to her. I give all of my students the benefit of the doubt. I believed him.

He took her journal home and copied it. Word for word. Including typos and scribbles. He had already completed the last assignment in the journal on a separate piece of paper. I told him not to worry about doing it, and he still copied it. Word for word.

I had no idea until my star pupil came in the next morning and asked for her journal. It was that moment that my little teacher world came temporarily crashing down. I apologized to the student and she left to find him to get it back.

I sat there. Not mad. Not upset. I was disappointed. Thoroughly disappointed. This kid lied to my face and stole his classmate's journal. I believed he was going to give it to her. I truly did.

When he arrived later that day, he turned in his journal. I got the star pupil's journal and sat there and calmly compared the two. When they left, I RAN to the copier room and photocopied both his journal and the journal of the kid he copied. I wrote a note home and CCed his advisor. I gave him a 0% for the work he still did not complete. Then, I sat.

Before that day, I'd never experienced the utter defeat that comes along with being disappointed. It hits you at the center of your being. Throws off your equilibrium. Reduces you. This student, whom I love so dearly, lied, cheated and stole to make up missed work. He lied to me and I didn't see it. He stole from his classmate who works HARD and has done all of her work. He cheated. Blindly copying word for word and really thought he was going to receive credit for it.

When I told my supervisor, he said to me "No one said teaching would be easy or without disappointment." He's been in education for 40 years and I am sure he has had his share of disappointments, but this was not something I was prepared to handle.

For as much as I love them, some students will cheat. I have to make sure I am ALWAYS on top of my game. I know this now. When it happens again, I'll be ready.

Monday, April 13, 2009

ABC has failed me with the Cancellation of "Eli Stone"

Ethnocentrism Rears Its Ugly Head in the Cancellation of ABC's "Eli Stone"

Last year during Christmas, ABC had the genius idea to cancel "Eli Stone." And by cancel, I mean completely phase out mid-season. The show was in the primetime line up and it aired before Boston Legal.

"Eli Stone" was set in a San Francisco law firm. It was cleverly written and extremely progressive. Like San Francisco, it had a gamut of diversity. It featured Black and Asian actors cast in roles of doctors and lawyers. The lawyers handled cases with gay, lesbian and trans issues. There was a strong social activist element to the firm where ethics and humanity were prevalent in the all too cut-throat world of lawyers.

Most importantly, the show dealt with issues of spirituality & alternative medicine. Eli Stone, the man for which the show was named, was a prophet who was struggling with the gift of sight. He saw the future and his third eye chakra was off the chains.

His gift was nurtured by a Chinese acupuncturist herbalist who studied and expounded on Ancient Chinese healing practices. He had to adopt the stereotypical "ching-chong" accent to get his white customers to believe his practice was legit, which only added to the cleverness of the show. The Chinese acupuncturist turned the stereotype on it's head by adapting the voice of what "someone like him" should sound like.

Of course, there was the obligatory Black mammy secretary who served as a mother figure to Eli, but she was far from the happy slave type. Naturally, she was a single mother and former alcoholic of a pre-med daughter who succumbed to cocaine to stay awake during rounds, but she kept Eli in line and guided him toward making wise decisions. Decisions that would save many lives in the process. Often with a LOT of attitude.

All of this was set to the tune of George Michael. Micheal's songs were the catalyst for his visions. Visions that came at morbidly embarrassing times and usually featured characters singing and dancing in vaudeville like musical numbers.

It was witty, clever and full of diversity, which is exactly what I'd expect from a company who is notorious for their support of the GLBT community. (Hello, Disney Gay Days!)

However, in the area of being advocates for racial and spiritual diversity, ABC failed. They phased out the show mid-season. I will NEVER know what becomes of Eli's brother's ill fated marriage to the woman who took Eli's virginity.

I simply will never know because the powers that be at ABC decided to cancel "Eli Stone" and replace it with yet another cop show featuring all white characters set in NYC with zero people of color in the cast al la "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

Another gem they've been airing is the horrendous podunk shit program "Surviving Suburbia" about, well, I don't know what it's about. I know a Caucasion blond haired, blue eyed character on the show said she "hopped the fence like a fugitive slave" to gain access to the family's backyard. *Cue laugh track* That is not, nor will it ever be, funny.

ABC failed me by canceling "Eli Stone." I was, for once, relieved to watch a show where Black men with natural hair were lawyers. I thought it was very cool that there was a Chinese doctor who knew enough about spirituality and divinity to school the pasty Eli. I loved watching the episode with the female to male trans minister who was wrongfully terminated for having SRA surgery. Watching said Black lawyer walk side by side with him to rejoin his now diminished congregation was heartwarming.

The show was entertaining and I was moved more than once at its themes. It gave me something to look forward to in primetime. But no, ABC decided ethnocentrism was the way to go. To ABC, white characters in positions of power are the only way to go. Good Bye "Eli Stone" and your queer diverse smart cast of characters and Welcome back, Kotter!

I taught my kids about Ethnocentrism before teaching them Octavia Butler's Kindred. What kind of lesson is ABC doling out by canceling shows like this one?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Your Reputation Precedes You

One of the main reasons I became a teacher was because of the title of this piece. When I first started teaching, actually before I walked into the classroom I was briefed on my students. I was told warned of diff personalities, behaviors, ticks etc. I took this info and ignored it as I didn't think it was fair or warranted to give it much thought before actually meeting my students. I don't think many teachers do this. Actually, I know they don't.

In an unforgettable conversation I had with a dear friend of mine, she told me about a student she had whose reputation preceded him. He had an older sibling who was a bully and a real hand full for his teachers. When the younger bro started school, his teachers took one look at his last name & labeled him. Just like his brother. Problem is the kid was nothing like his brother. My friend, a 7th grade teacher, saw this and his potential and tried to help him see this in himself. She never had a problem with him.

By the time he got to her, however, he,d started to believe his predetermined destiny and he became like his brother. He spent years being labeled and instead of fighting to prove his teachers wrong - he epitomized what they believed he was based on his brother's bad behavior.

My dear friend ended her story by telling me that a few years later the kid dropped out of high school. "He didn't make it," she said. I was dumbstruck & heartbroken.

Teachers have the power to change and mold lives for the better and, unfortunately, for the worse. This kid had one teacher who believed in him, but after years of conditioning, he chose the path of least resistance & proved his teachers right. They saw in him a bad kid and so that is what he became.

I was warned that some of my kids would be more challenging than others, but I was unwilling to believe it until I saw it myself. True, a lot of what they told me was accurate, but I know it now because I know them, because I have spent time with them. I love them & accept their limitations and their laziness.

There is nothing I can do about the kid that didn't make it. I can, however, make sure that I do everything in my power to never perpetuate a label given to my students without giving them a fighting chance to prove me, and the rest of their teachers, all wrong.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What measures success?

I was insulted by one of my ninth graders. They often throw mud at me and most times I don't give them the satisfaction of a response, but in this particular instance I did.

I was attempting to do a lesson based on No Name Calling Week because their class has had issues with bullying. I was in the process of the painstaking task of getting them to respond to lessons they don't care about when the insult occurred.

I was trying to start the ball rolling by telling them my experiences with bullying. Somewhere in the story I mentioned how I have a hard time relating to people my age because of how I was raised and because most of them aren't where I am. So this little bugger turns to me and says, "and where are you? Teaching here for minimum wage?" I fired back by stating that her comment was coming from someone who values being pretty over smart and asked her what she was going to do when pretty ran out. Bad, idea, I know.

The kid got me thinking: what is the measure of success? How is my teaching position at my small, independent school a success? I will tell you how:

I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. As of May 15, 2009, I will be the first person in my family with a graduate degree. I have held down a job since I was 14. I have not been without work since. I graduated from a vocational school where trades are valued over academics and managed to get into one of the best public institutions in the North East. I found and applied to schools myself because my guidance counselor was off adopting a Russian baby my entire Senior year. (I got into every school I applied to save for one.) My father is absent and during my adolescence I have very little recollection of my mother. When I started college, she had a breakdown and moved across the country to stay with her brother. Thanksgiving break. 19 years old, I was left in a dorm room with all of my worldly possessions, ravished credit and nowhere to go. Since the age of 17, I have purchased 6 cars. 4 were lemons, one was sold out from under me, and the 6th is brand new - in my name and no one touches it but me. I could go on, but I won't.

I survived. I persevered. I made it because failure was never an option. By my own standards, becoming a statistic was also not an option. I had a best friend in high school that had a baby. She and I don't talk anymore because, like most people my age, we don't have anything in common. After she gave birth there were lots of awkward silences only filled by questions I could have answered myself with running a simple Google search.

At this point in my life, I have never worked a full time job. (My temp stint does not count.) I have held down three jobs to keep myself in school and properly fed. I have never made above $12k in a year, but I have done everything I need to do to be able to succeed.

In the Fall of 2009, I will be gainfully employed on a full time basis as a High School English teacher. I will have medical benefits and a 401k. As a teacher, I will never make "a lot" of money. But last year, I made it work on $9,586.32.

I wake up every morning knowing that I should have failed. I should have become a statistic. I should have chosen the path of least resistance and become a "product of my environment," but I didn't.

I get up every morning and know that I am headed to a job that I love. I love my students, even the rude ones. Especially the rude ones.

I worked hard. I kept my eyes on the prize. I am still arriving at my goals, but each heartbreak, each abandonment and disappointment has made me the person I am today. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the measure of success.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

for colored girls who have cosidered suicide when the rainbow is enuf

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf has saved my life on several different occasions and continues to do so even now. Though I have never actually contemplated suicide. I have dealt with a lot of the issues in the book first hand.

To start, the book is actually what Ntozake Shange has dubbed, a choreopoem which intertwines poetry, drama, prose, performance, dancing and music into one short, profound work of literature that will change your life. I had to read it for an African American Literature class in college. I read it twice for class and have continued to reread it through the years. Every time I read it I discover something new about the ladies dressed in the colors of the rainbow and about myself.

I lent my copy of the work to a student who is near and dear to me. She gave me my first "teacher moment" when I started teaching. I was immediately drawn to her because she is exactly what and where I was at her age. I love her the way I should have loved myself when I was 17.

She borrowed the book and did not want to return it. She said she had a hard time adjusting to the vernacular in the work, but once she figured it out it made sense. I would have given it to her, but I don't think I can stand not having a copy in my possession at all times.

I lent it to her because she told me she once considered suicide. I wanted her to read it because I needed to have read it when I was her age. She understood the meaning of the work. She understood that overcoming life shattering obstacles comes from connection and community. She understood that in order to move to the end of her rainbow, she needed to find others who would support and love her unconditionally. She got it. I got it, but I really couldn't apply it until she came to me on Thursday.

Thursday morning she came to me and told me she seriously considered killing herself the night before. She told me she'd told another teacher who had shrugged it off. I immediately get on the phone and call my mom to get the number to the behavioral health center in my county. I also gave her other numbers she could use off the top of my head. She went back to class and I walked to my car and fought back tears.

I got home and call my mom back to ask for advice. She told me I needed to tell someone. I turn to To Write Love On Her Arm's website. They have a huge section called "find help" which gives you numbers to call if you need help or know someone in need of help.

I did, so I called. I called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline(1-800-SUICIDE) and spoke to a woman who told me exactly what to do. She informed me that I had a legal obligation to let my supervisor know and that the student absolutely could not leave school before she called someone and arranged treatment. She gave me phone numbers to my county crisis center and a number to a place where she could call to get treatment.

I wrote all of this down feverishly and went back to school. Mom called while I was on the way back to school and reminded me to stay calm. She knew I was on the verge of tears and hysteria before she dialed.

I got to the school, told the powers that be and they handled it. They surrounded her with love and support. They talked to her. They listened to her. They called me to see exactly what my concern was. By the time she left school, she had a place to go to get treatment.

And she wasn't upset with me. Well, she was when they pulled her out of class, but she got over it. She understood what happened. She understood that people love her and want to see her get better. I told her the world would be a duller place without her and that I did what I did because I couldn't live with her light being extinguished when there was something I could have done to help her.

Before Thursday, she "waz missin somethin / somethin so important / a laying on of hands." For so long I have had to overcome adversity and hard times alone. I now realize that I no longer have to go at it alone, whatever it may be. She now understand this too.

I have a support system. I have surrounded myself with people who love me and care deeply about my well being. I have, as KP kept telling me I would, found my tribe.

I am part of her tribe and she is part of mine. We have each other. Now that she and I realize it, adversity doesn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

City High Anthem

This post was inspired by a song I have heard dozens of times. The song is called "City High Anthem." The artist, City High, is/was composed of three twenty somethings, all of which were born and raised in Willingboro, NJ. I was also born and raised in Willingboro, NJ.

The group gained some notoriety from their song 'What Would You Do?' but the aforementioned song off their self-titled album is what made me write this post.

The song talks about their collective disappointment over teachers in their public school. As a resident of the town, I was never allowed to entertain the notion of attending any school in the district beyond grade school. The middle school is INFAMOUS and the high school's reputation is less than stellar. I attended private school for middle and a vocational school for high school.

"City High Anthem" is heartbreaking to me as a teacher and as someone who "should have" attended school there. It begins, "They just gave up on our entire generation / So we were all pushed to the side cuz we didn't see the world through our teachers eyes /When all we needed was a little bit of motivation, But because we wore our pants saggin' y'all labeled us gangstas And said we wasn't worth the time."

I have met students, parents and other people in education that admit they know teachers who hate students. You may think this is an oxymoron because it is. Still, a lot of people teach because of the job security and the schedule. I think this is incredibly selfish and damaging because students know you don't care about them.

It continues,
There are so many things I never asked you /There are so many things I still don't know /There are so many things you never told me /And still so many things that I will never know /and why, cuz I went to City High

In college, I went to school with a girl who graduated from the school. The transition from high school to college was incredibly difficult because as a college freshman, she was reading at a 9th grade level. I suppose this is the basis for the NCLB Act, but the school has very little change.

A school with more drop outs than sign-ups at registration
And the pregnancy rate is at an all-time high, we all know why
Now you would think the classroom's the place for mental stimulation
But it's some brothers outside sellin' that stuff, that'll really stimulate your mind, (talk about gettin' high)

I know a woman who works at the high school. She was in tears the day she walked into her classroom. She was hired at the last minute and when she walked in to her room, there were no chairs, no desks, no books. Nothing. She called her father who was able to find her supplies so her students would at least have a place to sit on the first day of school.

I can completely understand their frustration,
So, We don't need your education /We don't want no pacifier/We are the leaders of your nation/We're gonna make sure the world survives /There ain't no justice there's just us /What happened to the meaning of 'in God we trust'/So as we get older and our children grow up /We ain't gonna teach them what y'all showed us

Teachers play an integral role in the development of our future leaders. I play an integral role in the development of our future leaders. I have a soft spot in my heart for at-risk youth because I should have been one.

All at risk students need someone who cares. Someone that really wants to help. If not, they are left feeling neglected and abandoned all over again. And there were so many things that needed explaining /But you said it was too late for me to learn /You were suppose to be my shelter when it was rainin'/But instead you left me out here all alone, so I gotta make it on my own

Teaching is too important to be taken lightly. It is not something you do for convenience or as a stop over. You teach, I teach because I know I can, and do, make a positive difference in the lives of the future of our country. I don't want my kids to ever have to write something like this because I didn't care enough about them.

For people who did believe what we could do to change our future: You knew the world was in our hands. Help build them strong so they can withstand all the pressures, all the war, all the prejudice. And the others who were sure we couldn't fight the stress in life, for those of you who didn't believe us: Listen to my words for you. Listen to your children sing to you--

We don't need your education
We don't want no pacifier
We are the leaders of your nation
We're gonna make sure the world survives
There ain't no justice there's just us
What happened to the meaning of "in God we trust"
So as we get older and our children grow up
We ain't gonna teach them what y'all showed us

Hear the song here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Who am I Without You?

I read somewhere one time that the reason Emily Dickinson was such a recluse was because she wanted to keep her art pure. That is to say, she cut herself off from the world because she believed everyone you come in contact with has the ability to change you; to influence you in some way. She was not willing to take that chance with her craft so she stayed home. And wore white. And wrote.

You'll have to forgive this rare unsubstantiated claim as I have no idea where it came from. Interestingly enough, I find myself pondering this trivial tidbit of information all the time. I'd say almost daily. Who am I without you? The collective you. You all. This is a loaded question I will attempt to answer now:

My grandmother talked to me and lectured me about things I couldn't understand until I was grown. My aunt showed me that the center of the home is the kitchen and that the love omitted from a kitchen was universal. My mom was a pillar of strength until she wasn't, but remained present to help sweep up the pieces where they fell. Mrs. Wilson was the most incredible teacher I ever had in 3rd grade. I thought she hated me because she refused to let me settle for mediocrity. The woman broke her leg and was in school the next day with an assistant and a wheelchair. Mrs. Blaetz knew I struggled with math, but gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in leadership roles. She helped catch some of those pieces as they were falling. KP got me to declare English as a minor because at 17 she saw the writer in me. Mez. My dear Mez kept me from considering suicide when my rainbow was enuf.

Being around other people is so important even if your experiences are less than stellar. Who would I be without help? Who would I have become without preemptive lectures? What if I'd have settled for that D in math in third grade? If I would have let the fact that my world was crumbling impede my desire to overcome my circumstance? Truth is, I don't know.

I do know that I probably would not have ended up a teacher. But I am. I teach because I love. I teach because I want to become what these women became to me. I teach because each and every one of them has taught me something vital. And sure, I'll never be as famous as Emily Dickinson, but my impact will stick with someone and resurface just when they need it. Kind of like how my memories just resurfaced for this post.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fact Check

Teaching is so terribly fascinating because I am constantly learning as I am teaching. Here I am. 24. Fresh out of college, getting ready to graduate again and I am a teacher. Teaching is my accidental calling (as I have explained in earlier posts), and I'm good at it so why do I sometimes get so nervous? I'll tell you why: My audience.

As an undergrad and in grad school, you sit in courses with like-minded people. All of you are literally and figuratively on the same page. You all show up to class having read the same novel with vastly different opinions and observations ready to share/contribute. After the first couple of courses/papers, you really don't need to prove yourself to anyone anymore because opinions about you have been solidified. In my case, most of them knew I am stark raving brilliant and that I will go tit for tat with them about how Huck Fin is NOT the Great American Novel. I digress. The point is, you're all pretty much at the same "level." I mean this in an academic sense.

When you enter a high school classroom the playing field is DRASTICALLY different. You think you know all there is no to know about something until you have to teach it to teenagers.

My situation is unique. The job I have now landed on my lap. In preparation for my first day of teaching, I had the Head of the English department tell me to make sure I knew Animal Farm front and back because if I didn't "I was not going to be able to sell it." Sell it. Sell them Animal Farm. What does that even mean?

I figured it out the first time I was stumped on a question or a detail about the novel. I was embarrassed, sure, but I learned from my embarrassment. Now, before I open my mouth, I make damn sure I know all there is to know about what I am teaching. If I don't - the lesson falls apart. My credibility is out the window. Trust is stripped. They are a tough crowd and I have a snowball's chance in hell of getting it back.

To avoid this from happening again, I do fact checks. Often. Theories, definitions, parts of speech, themes, pronunciations, literary terms. You name it. I fact check it. I do this for them. Not only because I love them unconditionally, but because they will eat me alive if I don't know. I don't believe in lying to them. I cannot physically lie to my students, so when faced with something I don't know I tell them I have to research it rather than give them false information or say 'I don't know.'

I fact check because they deserve to have a teacher who, though not formally trained as a teacher, can sell them a novel, short story or poem without so much as blinking an eye. If that doesn't work, I am fortunate enough to work in a school where we can (and do) "phone a friend" when we feel a sale is slipping through our fingers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sharing Quotes

When I read literature I tend to be overly analytical. This is an ideal trait in one who is pursuing a Graduate degree in English. The problem is, I tend to over analyze everything. Job interviews, conversations with friends, random thoughts that pop in my head. One night I was pondering the word "quarter." I could not get to sleep until I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia and everywhere else I could find discussion on the word. Crazy. I am simply crazy about words.

I began devouring Willa Cather's My Antonia this weekend in preparation for my MA Exam. I'd started reading it last summer and there is one particular passage I read at least 10 times. Not because I wanted to dissect it, but because it was so simple and applicable. I even went so far as to make it the signature on my outgoing email. (That did not last long) It reads as follows:

"I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

This quote comes at the end of one book one, chapter two. In the beginning of the first book Jim arrives in Nebraska. He is in the garden with his hands and feet in the dirt taking in all the sights and sounds of his new home. Jim has just lost his family, but in Nebraska in the uncharted newness of the land he is entirely happy.

This is how I feel about teaching. It is the one thing that I have found that makes me entirely happy. With teaching I feel like I am an important part of something bigger than myself. And when it comes to teaching and helping my students understand a concept or theory, it truly comes as naturally as sleep.

Full Text of My Antonia c/o Project Gutenberg

Sunday, March 1, 2009

All You Need Is Love

I had a conversation last night with a fellow artist about what inspires me. My gut instinct was to say love. It's true, I do what I do because of love. I could not be a teacher without love.

I then got to thinking about Shakespeare. I am attempting to teach Julius Caesar to my 9th graders. The play talks a great deal about love even though it is a tragedy. Brutus loves Caesar, but he loves his country more. Cassius loves Brutus and is hurt when Brutus represses his love for his friend. Mark Antony loves Caesar and is deeply hurt when he is killed. Though it is a tragedy and everyone dies, the play is as much about love as it is about death.

I am fascinated by the multifaceted definitions and implications of the word 'love'. The Oxford English dictionary has nine different uses for the word. The fourth one is the one I will use here. It reads:

"A feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the oth 'love'er's welfare and pleasure in his or her presence (distinguished from sexual love at sense 4a); great liking, strong emotional attachment; (similarly) a feeling or disposition of benevolent attachment experienced towards a group or category of people, and (by extension) towards one's country or another impersonal object of affection."

You can love a tree or you can love another person. There is the love a mother has for a child and the love a person has for their partner. There is the love one has for their pet and the love one has for their favorite dessert. Add to that list a teacher who loves her students.

I love being a teacher because it gives me the ability to foster intellectual and personal growth in my students. I love English literature because of the way it captures human emotion for people who find self expression to be a difficult task.

Most of all, I move my students. I love them because they want to learn, but they don't know it yet. I love them for their light bulb moment when they figure something out. I love them for having the ability to make me feel like I am a teacher. You know, like when one of your most challenging students tells you the activity you gave him, "made him think." I love them for who they are despite the fact that they can be a tiny bit lazy.

I have a natural affinity, a strong emotional connection to my students and to what I do. I am passionate about my line of work.

I am fiercely overprotective of my students. I protect them from each other and from themselves. I chide self-depreciation and encourage self-actualization.

I could not do this job if I did not love it. I don't understand how anyone teaches when they don't love what they do.

Taylor Mali loves being a teacher. Here is his piece, "What Teachers Make"

Oxford English Dictionary - Love (Restricted Database)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Professors Can Change Lives

I found this while running a google search on myself. (What? I'm applying for teaching jobs. I need to know what I have attached my name to!)

This was a message I sent to Professor Kim Pearson the summer after I started at TCNJ.

To Professor Pearson

From: Nina
Date: 23 Jul 2002
Time: 12:43:05 -0400


I just wanted to post this message and say thank you for teaching us things that we could have never learned from a book. When we first arrived in your class it was kind of rough. No one really felt comfortable. We were in a new surrounding that was foreign to us. You helped us open up. I learned so much about my fellow classmates in the first few days of class than i think i would have by myself. Thank you for teaching us that it is okay to talk about who we are and where we come from. That is a lesson none of us will ever forget. Thank you for guiding me toward the right career path. I promise you, this is not the last time you will ever hear from me.

Professor Kim Pearson (@professorkim) has helped me so much I can not even begin to tell you. The first thing she did for me was get me to change my major. I came to TCNJ as an open options business major. She took one look at the paper I'd written her (arguing for Gay Adoption on some "Love Makes A Family" before I knew what it was...ok?) and told me I should switch my major.

I called mom to discuss it (this was before I knew I had the power and the right to make adult decisions on my own). Mom told me to listen to what my gut is telling me. The next morning I went to Records and Registration and declared English as a major.

Her contributions do not stop there. Professor Pearson is an amazing woman and I am honored to have had the privilege to get to know her. She inspires me to be a better person everyday.

Professor Kim's News Notes Blog

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Teaching as Activism & Social Responsibility

Quick post. I'm keeping to a minimum for the sake of writing too much too soon.

Over dinner last night my dear friend Tyrtle told me her plans to become a high school teacher. Perhaps I am a little biased, but I think she should do it because she is perfectly suited for the job.

Tyrtle is the kind of person who can not stand idly by when she knows there is a job to do somewhere. She is the dirtiest dirty hippie I know. She does her part to greenify her life and the lives of others around her. To her, being green is being responsible and helping where she can. Such is her philosophy with her career path.

Tyrtle has been wanting to join the Peace Corps for years. For her, the Peace Corps is about being responsible and doing her part to fix global atrocities. She is frustrated at her current job because there is none of this going on. She takes classes and learns the statistics of war torn poverty stricken nations and then squirms when she remembers where she is. Armed with knowledge and a tool to make a difference, she leaves the massive lecture hall ready to make a difference. But what about after that? What career goals can a passionate science minded woman select when she feels an overwhelming obligation to make a difference in the world? Why, teaching, of course.

Teaching is about making a difference. It is the only thing I have found that seamlessly intertwines activism and social responsibility. I have the awesome ability, obligation and privilege to show my students that they can accomplish their goals. Tyrtle thinks the same way. She admits she can not save the world alone, but she is ready and willing to take on the responsibility of shaping and molding the leaders of tomorrow one science class at a time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"The Idea of Ancestry"

In honor of Black History Month (which my school has yet to formally acknowledge) I am teaching my juniors African American poetry. The unit is, of course, supposed to teach the different literary devices that they can use to approach a text. Seems simple enough, right?

My class consists of reluctant readers, "dumb" jocks, lazy jocks, a kids with unclassified "learning" disabilities, ESL students, hormonal/horny girl/boy crazy jocks and kids with passive aggressive anger management and/or race related anxiety/bigotry. They are, needless to say, a tough crowd.

My "selling" point for African American poetry, as well as all the other works I teach them, is the lives of poets. The poets I teach them and that I have been taught have sorted lives. Though they are capable of great art, they are imperfect and terribly human. However, their flaws are almost forgiven because of their incredible talent.

The poet I taught on Thursday is Etheridge Knight. I found Etheridge by accident and I can't even remember how. After finding him, I went to the library and checked out every book they had. I, again, lost sleep reading his works. What's amazing is his story and how his story hits too close to home.

Knight was born in Mississippi in 1931. He was a high school drop out, joined the Army, served in Vietnam and came home with a nasty injury. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. He was at one time married to Sonia Sanchez. Long story short (too late, I know) he ends up in jail where he finally gets sober and starts writing. From this man comes the most incredible poetry I have every read.

My brother struggled with addiction in some form or another. (He has never copped to it because that would mean he would have to admit to being wrong - and he never is.) He has been in and out of jail. He lies. Cheats. Steals and is constantly trying to make a quick buck as opposed to an honest one. The killer part is the fact that the kid is smart. SUPER smart. He rolled in from God knows where at 3am the day of his SAT and scored a 1150 without sleep or effort. Problem is: He makes really bad decisions. Decisions that have taken the whole family down with him.

I had the poem on audio and I had them listen to it. I then asked for reactions. My one student didn't understand why the poem is so great. So I tell him. Stanza by Stanza. Line by line. I dissect this poem. I explain the 47 faces and what they represent. I ask them to tell me the significance of salmon spawning and how it functions in this poem. I explain to them the slang used to refer to drugs and how he was ALMOST okay with himself before he came down. I relate it to my brother and how he is smart, but lacks the ability to let it out as Etheridge does so well.

I end class by using what I just told them to explain the title of the piece. There is a moment of pause and reflection and then I dismiss them.

I immediately feel accomplished because I taught them something but heartbroken because my own brother is still unable to overcome his demons.

I can't change either of their situations and I can't change their choices. What I can do is use Etheridge Knight as an example of the transformative power of poetry. If I succeed in doing this, I'll let you know.

The Idea of Ancestry - Etheridge Knight

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Why Threshold of Your Own Mind" and "Speak to Us of Teaching"?

In the midst of a very involved conversation I had on Twitter this evening I made the segue from talking about Tony Rich and is brilliance to the Best Wedding Songs of the 90's to the brilliant of Kahlil Gibran. The gentleman I was tweeting had never heard of him and so I gave him "The Prophet."

(Note: Whenever I refer someone to a work of literature I like to think of it as a gift. My life is richer because someone gave these works to me. For others, I sort of regift...but in a positive and uplifting way.)

I stumbled upon Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" when I was researching the words to my favorite wedding song. It is by Jason Mraz and it's a gritty, live and rather lengthy song called "God Rests in Reason." As it turns out, Jason wrote the song for his sister's wedding because he was so moved by the work. I found "The Prophet" lyrics/book during one of my many sleepless undergraduate nights. I spent the rest of the night devouring this book, playing "God Rests In Reason" over and over and just weeping.

I revisited it tonight and reread the section on teaching. The story is of a man, the prophet, who is speaking to a large group of people about the nature of human experience and how there is beauty and God in everything. The people say "Speak to Us of Teaching" and The Prophet begins telling them that teaching is not about giving someone your knowledge and understanding, but that a teacher leads you to the house of wisdom and leaves you at the threshold of your own mind. It is up to you to take what he he says and as Mr. MRAZ would say, "you can figure out the rest."

That is what I do on a daily basis. My students come to my classroom of wisdom where I give them little gifts of literature. I guide them through the process of opening the package, corner by corner, page by page, word by word. When they leave, they once again pass my threshold but from there is it up to them how they decide to utilize the gifts I have given them.

Full Text: Kahlil Gibran - The Prophet

Where do I begin?

I am beginning this blog from the suggestion of several people. My grandmother wanted me to write down my experiences, @openlyfeminist wanted to know what I did in my classes and quite frankly, I'd like to track my own progression in teaching. My biggest challenge is going to be making a commitment and sticking to it. Since I am not committed to anything at this point in my life besides my car payment and student loans, I have vowed to make this blog my proverbial significant other. So here goes nothing.

I am high school English teacher. Whereas my current position was a bit of an accident, my journey toward teaching was not. I decided I wanted to be a teacher about a year ago. To scrape by in Grad school, I sold all my worldly possessions. When I ran out of stuff, I got myself certificate to substitute teach. I did so at my Alma Mater because it was my comfort zone and I wanted to experience being "on the other side of the desk."

The pay was decent. ($88/day is better than the $0/day I was making at home). What kept me going back was the students. Sure, most of them forgot themselves when they saw I was a sub, but I forgive them. But, the stories I could tell you about them. My Alma Mater is a vocational school and I never understood what that truly meant until I became a substitute teacher.

I was subbing in an English class and Joseph was telling me how much he hated it. He hated it because his teacher thought he was stupid. So, I asked him what he liked. He continued to tell me how his teacher treated him. I stopped him and again asked him what he liked. His entire disposition changed. His face lit up. Turns out Joseph is in a band and he writes his own music and songs. He was in HVAC and when he graduates he has a guaranteed job and a spot in a Union just like his father and grandfather.

Joseph will never love Shakespeare as much as I do, but you bet he'd be the FIRST person I called if my heating/ventilation/air conditioning unit broke. Why? Because Joseph has the talent and the drive he needs to be the best at what he does.

I went home that day and researched. Turns out as an English MA candidate I could teach as long as I passed the PRAXIS II.

So, I paid the $130 and took the test. Then, My grandmother paid the $130 so I could take it again. (My meager budget did not factor in not passing the test the first time. I failed by 9 points.)

October 16, 2008 I got my PRAXIS scores in the mail. 175/200.
October 29, 2008 My NJ Certificate of Eligibitity arrived in the mail.
November 9, 2008 I got a phone call from the headmaster of my school. He is in desperate need of an English teacher.
November 10, 2008 I meet with said Headmaster & Assistant Headmaster. I am given my books and told to go home and plan.
November 12, 2008 I begin teaching English.

The rest will be chronicled here. Making the strides to be able to teach English has been the best decision I have ever made. I am grateful for literature, youth and teaching more and more everyday.