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.