Monday, August 12, 2013

It's that time again.

Okay, it is time for school.  In the air is a current of expectation, mixed with soupcon of anxiety.  Here's how this works. The first week you make a seating chart which you will change in the second week which you will change every week until guidance gets all the kids sorted out which they had promised to do in spring last school year.  So do all charts in pencil! 

Then there are the rules you have to establish for your classroom.  Don't go overboard!  Remember they have to be able to remember them.  Here is the rule:  this is not a democracy, so get a grip! Don't even worry about the bathroom rule as someone in greater authority than you will tell you when and how they can go to the bathroom. Same goes for late assignments.  Someone will shame you into rejecting them. Someone will also tell you how to set up your grading system.  So don't worry!

Next we have supplies.  Some teachers look for the perfect lesson planner.  Whoever designed them has never written one lesson plan.  And most teachers wear glasses after a certain age (which we won't mention here), so the space allocated for plans is so small that the teachers cannot actually read whatever they have written.  Every teacher I have ever known goes into Staples, Office Depot, Office Max or Wal Mart and stares at all the writing implements.  Which one, she or he asks silently, will raise less of a knot on my finger when I grade?  How many pens will I need?  Will the department supply me with any?  Will I like them?  Will they be so old, they have no ink in them?  And then there are the pencils.  Teachers stare at the box of 100 and think I am not buying pencils for my students this year.  It ain't happening!  So they put two of the boxes in their cart.  Whatever!

The issue of paper is also on the agenda.  The teacher wonders if buying notebook paper is necessary.  Will students come with paper?  The answer is NO.  So if you don't want them writing on the desk top or their arms, buy paper.  However, if a teacher sees a student taking notes in class, sit down before you faint.  This vision is rare and often absent in a class of 25 or 30.

Now the teacher proceeds to computer and xerox paper. A friend of mine once said that paper to a teacher is like milk for a baby--absolutely essential.  Yet the first item to be cut back in a lot of classrooms is paper for copying or printing.  Best bet--go together with someone and buy a box of paper.  It will last a good five to eight weeks and then you can buy more.

The conundrum teachers now face is textbooks.  Where are they?  Does the school offer enough to assign to each student?  Interestingly enough, some districts don't assign a book to a student because he or she will lose it, never bring it back to class or leave it at a friend's house. So if you are a teacher who offers assignments requiring reading, half of your lesson plan is accomplished.  Of course, you never ask how old the texts might be.  After all literature never changes, only chemistry and physics.  History never changes, only biology.  And, of course, the teacher's copy weighs more than last week's groceries and so by the end of the year, you see this muscle in the arm of overweight, anxious teachers who look like they have been lifting only one barbell all year!

Now we come to the best part--inservice.  I have never understood just what this term means for administrators.  Who are we in service too?  This is not Downton Abbey (although we could wish for a Carson to handle all our mishaps). Does anybody ever get anything out of an inservice?  The data they throw up on the screen is the same data you are going to look at at intervals in the school year.  Why rush things?  What gauls teachers is that this time could be better spent in the classroom running down textbooks and making the computer work. So you sit for a day or half a day and try not to fall asleep since this is the first morning in nine weeks that you have gotten up before the sun!  Teachers congregate at these meetings according to rank and file.  Most of them sit toward the back where it is dark and they can snooze undetected. The coaches seem to collect in one small group; the social studies teachers do the same.  The English department spreads out all over the place looking for a comfortable seat away from other people. And then there are the newly hired and inner circle people who find the front and have stars in their eyes because this is going to be "the best year ever." Everyone else feels sympathy for them.  After the first nine weeks, or sooner, their world will collide with reality.  It's harsh!

Now for those of you who don't teach and would never enter a classroom again, let me tell you this side of the story.  Teachers go through hell to get ready for your kids.  They agonize over IEP's and 504 plans because they want those students to get the very best they can.  They consider how to set goals for all students to achieve and master.  They try to be original and creative, but in this climate most teachers have little leeway in instruction.  They do their best to accomplish a positive and reinforcing experience for your son or daughter. Give them the credit they deserve.  Support them with all you can, including better conditions, more materials and a solid income. 

Otherwise, you will be part of every teacher's back-to-school dream of death and destruction.  They not only dream of teaching naked, but they also dream of the kid from hell and the parent who spawned him. 

Teaching has been my life for the past 45 years and this has been the pattern of it for all of those years.  The kid from hell I took under my wing and taught him to laugh and to learn.  That was my job, as it is every teacher's job. Have a good and safe school year, all of you!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday morning coming down

Writers write.  They gather words like field hands gather beans.  They carefully toss them into "baskets" and take them to be processed for us to pour over in quiet consternation or contentment.  But who are they really?  Do they all  gather for cocktails this afternoon in a hotel in downtown New York or Chicago? Or better yet a pub in Chelsea?  I read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday and wonder.  How did those books get there?  Does anyone really read them?  Do they read them and then go to dinner parties or cocktail parties and impress others with the hours they have spent reading those books?  Does anyone care?  Is there an award one receives for reading the most books on the New York Times Book Review list?  Something like the certificates you got when you were ten years old and it was summer and your mother made you go to the library to get some books for nap time after the beach or swimming pool?  What is good writing?  What is good reading?  Should we be  punished with erudite novels about impossible people or should we be able to plunge deeply into the fictional life of a compelling character who wins despite the odds?  I prefer characters who are imperfect but have incredible moral compasses.  So I don't read about Wall Street or Washington.  I love mysteries because I like not knowing until the very end(sort of like Christianity--the not knowing til the end part).  I used to read romance until I discovered that it was the greatest fiction of all.  Overweight men and women hardly ever inherited their maiden aunt or uncle's mansion at a seaside resort and turned it into a bed and breakfast and then fell head over heels in love with their first guest! More like they baked muffins and made breakfast for slim, "don't each much breakfast" types who left it all for "staff" (that would be the overweight heir) to clean up after. My friend Jane would say I was being too hard on romance fiction, but she understands escapism; I don't. Biographies can be annoying or enlightening.  Some historic figures should remain shrouded in the mists of time; others need broad daylight for comprehension.  I've never been compelled to read "character driven" fiction.  Often the plot is thin and I wonder why I should get to know this character.  What am I learning about myself or my fellow humans through this character's affectations and discriminations?  So the quest for good reading and good writing continues.  And maybe that's why we read and why writers write.  The journey to share stories which may or may not appeal is arduous and risky.  I suppose if the writer is willing to risk exposure, I should risk exposure too.  It's a fair trade.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Whatever took so long??

It takes time to think about what to say to readers. I don't have that many followers but there are the faithful and few and I owe you some time. Retirement has been the theme of the year. Making up my mind happened just before state testing windows of April and May. I wanted so badly to teach a selection of short stories I had collected online from the Library of Congress, but there was absolutely no time. It was devastating for the second year in a row. So I resigned myself to the situation and retired. After all, 45 years seems to be enough of me. Some of it had to do with my mother's death this past January. Some of it had to do with my brother's retirement and some of it had to do with exhaustion. Sometimes the hour comes when you notice the hour glass is not turning over. There is no more sand. In my time to consider what I wanted to do as a result of these influences, I decided to become a student. Below is the blog I wrote the day I came to that realization.

May 30, 2013

Learning for the sake of learning.  Ahh, there’s pleasure in that.  To think for the sake of thinking.  To think about thinking.  To form a vision of the world from ancient times til now and see the cord that stretches from that point to this.  In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya sings about sitting in the synagogue all day “ and that would be the sweetest life of all.” Yes. This is the sweetest moment in one’s life—to arrive at a place of thought and reflection for the sake of thought and reflection. 

I don’t have to take a test or write an essay on what I study or learn.  I don’t have to shape and form my opinion to concur with others or anyone.  I am free to move among ideas and see the shape and essence of them without bother.  And to move at my pace.  Days, weeks, months will pass and I am still on page one and what does it matter?  If I understand page one, do I have to answer to anyone for page two or two thousand?  I accomplish what I accomplish.  This is so breathtaking.  Is this the definition of freedom? 

Does all this come because I have paid my dues to reality?  Because I have given my 45 years to the growth and development of others?  Because I have raised my children?  Because I have sustained a successful partnership?  Whatever debt I feel I have paid, I now walk out of that cell a free person. 

This is the journey I was meant to take.  I am excited, liberated and at peace.  This inner journey will be mine alone with brief stops to nourish the realities of life I cannot nor do not want to escape—husband, children, friends.  But, at last, I have my journey.  Postcards will arrive from time to time telling you of my stops and starts and stays.  But don’t envy me.  I believe we each find this place and if we are prepared to recognize it, we may enter.  Bon voyage.

This is dedicated to Nick, my children,  Ann Bain and Dahna Willis (both mentors to me).