Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections Following the First (Half) School Year of a Real Goddamn Teacher

I don't know how long I've been a teacher.  It's not because it's been a long enough time for me to have forgotten.  Neither has it been because of some crack philosophical musing over the meaning of words or the concept of identity.  I mostly mean that I don't know how long I've been a teacher, because the state of my life since starting grad school in January of 2010 has been deeply confusing to me.

The semester of February to June 2016 was the first time I ever held a full time teaching position in the United States.  But when you consider that I taught for nearly eight months while living in South Korea, or that I was a substitute for two years, or a lowly teaching intern before that, it is difficult to call this my "first year" as a teacher.  When you further consider that I have not yet completed teaching an entire school year, it is even more questionable; nevertheless, I can't really consider 2016/2017 my first "first year".  In this warped mind of mine, in which I am unhealthily obsessed with milestones and categories, all of this is deeply confounding.

But none of it really matters now, because I am a teacher today.  I have my own classes and curriculum and I even get paid for it.  I no longer have to explain my life to people with qualifications and caveats.  As a matter of fact, I don't have to explain anything to anyone.  I'm on summer vacation and that means no teaching until September, suckers!

But it is time, I believe, to reflect on what I have accomplished this year.  Not merely because this is a significant milestone for me, both professionally and personally; I feel I owe myself an account of my achievement.  There can be no resting on laurels: I have to make a career of this, both for my survival and for my satisfaction.  There is so much work to be done, and as the students march on it is plain that the work can never really be finished.

The really good news is that, as some have suspected, I'm pretty good at this job.  I'm not great at it yet.  I don't have the deep wells of self-confidence needed to launch myself into legendary status by force of will.  But my skills and talents are neatly attuned to the task at hand.  Whether it's researching for lessons, facilitating discussion, or building relationships with students, I have met with fine success all semester.  I've met with frustration as well, but my colleagues have indicated that they respect what I am doing, and my weary spirit has not yet flagged from any such discouragement. 

My theory of good teaching is being refined all the time, as I observe the needs of different students and try to adjust myself to them.  In fact, I've needed to be flexible, as I now teach students of virtually every age from seven to eighteen.  This is by no means an easy job, and the fact that I am enjoying myself while doing it is something like a miracle.  Pride comes easily at moments like these, and it's not unjustified.

But I have to be realistic, and I have to be critical of myself too.  As I said before, I'm not a great teacher, and whether I can append the word "yet" to that statement is still only a presumption.  I learn more about the craft every working day, but my weaknesses are apparent and they don't all have obvious solutions.

Perhaps my greatest difficulty thus far has been differentiation, or the adjustment of my lessons to meet the needs of students with different skill levels.  This is a challenge every teacher faces, because students of the same age and grade are not necessarily alike in ability.  In my case, the challenge is multiplied by the peculiar situation of my school.

The school where I teach is a charter school in a small rural community; we have a little over forty students in total, with the majority being high schoolers.  This year I taught three classes of high school, with compositions of 12th and 11th, 11th and 10th, and 10th and 9th graders.  I also taught a single middle school class composed of 8th, 7th, and 6th graders, as well as an elementary class with two 5th graders, a 4th grader, a 3rd grader, and a 1st grader.  So to begin with, every class I taught was composed of students who were already of different ages, which made striking a balance with appropriate material a constantly evolving challenge.

Complicating the problem is the relative unpredictability of their skill levels.  Students come to our school for a variety of reasons.  Some have parents looking for smaller class sizes; some have older siblings with positive experiences in our setting; some have had trouble with socialization, often in the form of bullying in harassment.  Many of them, however, come to us because they lack the skills to succeed in public school, due to learning disabilities, mental health concerns, or personal issues.

I have 5th graders who read more fluently than some of my 8th graders; I have 12th graders who are not truly literate.  Since my subject area is social studies, it is extremely difficult to teach in the traditional way if I cannot count on my students' ability to decypher simple texts.  There is only so much instructional time in the day, and I can become frustrated when I must pass over content in order to perform what I might see as "remedial" skills instruction.

My frustrations in that area, however, may hint at a more fundamental issue: my anxieties over forming working relationships of children from different class, race, gender, and sexual backgrounds from my own.  This is another challenge that all teachers must face; I would argue that is a special concern of social studies, as these factors are consistently relevant to the content of our lessons, in addition to the meta-content of a typical day in the classroom.

It's a fact that I'm a straight, white, cis-man who, despite making a spectacularly awkward and protracted entrance into the working world, has never had to live in a state of genuine poverty or deprivation.  I have my struggles, but my struggles are of a different order from those of my students who cannot relate to the arc of my life.  Likewise, it is dreadfully obvious to me that I cannot always relate to their experiences.

The issue of social class looms especially large over my door.  I have many students who live in real poverty, the kind that needs no qualification or caveat.  Some of my least accomplished readers can be found in that group, and I know that this is not an accident of fate.  Poverty disadvantages children at every stage in the educational process, gradually alienating them not only from the school environment but from the social values that promote academic success.  Then along comes the son of a wealthy professional who has been a precocious reader longer than he can remember, and it's difficult to see what basis a relationship can be formed on.  When I become angry or frustrated with a student who will not even make an attempt to do the work I have assigned, it's hard not to see the failure as mutual.

And there is a stickier patch to consider: when my frustrations spill over from the strictly professional to the personal.  Have you ever believed that a teacher simply did not like you?  You may well have been right: teachers are very capable of disliking children, particularly those who make their jobs harder.  Untangling my animosity for a student who does not know any way to relate to me other than through insults and slurs, from my obligation to educate them to the best of my ability, is as hard as it sounds.  Failing to do so can aggravate the tensions of class and race even further, as well as the old prejudice that adults often have toward children in general.

It became clear to me this year that, for all my youthful pretensions, I really am too old to fit naturally in the head space of a teenager anymore, no matter what their background.  Relating to any one of my students requires an impressive leap of imagination, one that may be neither encouraged nor welcome, and is not assured of a successful landing.  I have never been particularly good at socializing with my own peers; assuming an air of leadership and authority is not a comfortable stance for me, and when I have nightmares they are often driven by a loss of leaderahip.

A great teacher is not beyond these concerns - they are fundamental to the practice of teaching, and every teacher is always engaged with the fundamentals whether they want to be or not.  Nevertheless, I take it as a sign that I am not (yet?) a great teacher that these fundamental questions are my worst stressors.  It would not be accurate to say I have not found the solution: rather, I have not yet become fully conversant in the ever-evolving language of the eternal problem.

Some day, I will know what works and what doesn't; how to assume my role in a manner I can perform with no regrets.  My successes will grow and my failures will further my education - the mantra we all hope to establish as a solid belief, teachers as well as students.  I feel confident predicting this, because despite my struggles I am still having a great time.  I could easily go another ten rounds, however long that expression translates to in the count of years.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Poetries #6

It's hard to take poetry seriously when you're being paid to do something else.  It's also hard to take your own poetry seriously when you're reading some one else's.  I've got books by B.H. Fairchild and Rae Armantrout checked out from the library right now; reading the work of a professional is an important reminder of the vast gulf that exists between me and "them".  It's not just about skill or talent, but rather about the intuitive sense of living in the space between words, manipulating them as naturally as a bird sings in the morning, that a successful poet conveys.  It's also about skill and talent, though.

Needless to say I am easily impressed, which is both encouraging and discouraging for my own poetry.  But since I've been so neglectful of this blog while I've been working my new job, and since in the last five months I have allowed the Dreaded Backlog to resurface, it's time to put aside such small concerns as "quality" and get them the heck online.

The dates of these tiny compositions run from January to May of this year.  So I guess the backlog isn't that big, nor have I been especially productive in the poetry department.  Like I said, I've been busy!

My usual fixation with sex and depression remain a thing here, but once or twice it was happiness which drove me to scribble, and I think that's worth celebrating.

Blessings in Bed

Early on that blessed evening,
I was knocked unconscious by
the fury of your hips, your fearsome
kisses in our private room;

But truth be told, you had me at
a terrible disadvantage, dear,
from all the strength I had expended
on that blessed afternoon.

Rhapsody of Foreplay

Wine and fish, with lemon, butter, pepper;
salty with the pearls of the ocean
and as sweet as apple-flower honey,
warmer than the breath of bubbling springs.

Half asleep I taste your mouth, a fever
burning in my dreams; a sudden waking
in the body of a blazing eagle,
rising up in glory on its wings.

Dancing through the dewy morning flora,
left and right, as quick as thieving fingers,
fiercer than a hive of bees in summer
armed with fatal, suicidal stings.

Wet with pressure, live with storm and gasping
in the sturdy grasp of icy water;
never have I been so fully woken,
eager for the breezes loving brings.


Melissa worships Death, and
Death is praying for her mother,
sweetly warm like honey
baking in the afternoon sun;
Death ascends, and
takes Melissa with her,
again and again and unto
the final generation
she takes her,
somewhere sweet and warm
to die, in veneration
of the face behind Death, the
Mother of Worship, the life of
honey, the face of
dear Melissa.

The Promise of Poetry

To find your voice
amidst the strange disorder
of your thoughts,

to hear the truth
as if within a moment
of creation,

to forge a bond
between your mind and body,
fierce and raw,

to know the devil
of your soul, the angel
in its nature,

for the price
of a sacred promise:
never look away.

But Now I Remember

I wondered why I didn't hear them,
twenty years of wondering, why
the voices in my head were silent.
And tonight, at last, I realized
the voices in my head had never
stopped their howling, their infernal
baying - I had simply, in my
unbounded arrogance, forgotten
how to listen to the hellhounds
and their voices in my head.

Old Frostwine

He lingers in the lower places, cold
as the burning sun of morning, white as a ghost,
sleeping off the wine his gracious host
provided from his vineyards in the wold.
The lights of spring advance across the hours,
bearing swirling storms of migrant birds
on gentle breezes, singing foreign words
and phrases to the lambs among the flowers,
rudely waking him with hot discord
from dreams of thawing flesh, immersed in wine.
He clings in desperation to the vine
with fingers stiff as weary oaken boards,
before submitting to a wakeful piety,
embracing nature in its wild sobriety.

Old Records

She read it from a list
of great ideas for cheap dates;
"spend an afternoon
browsing through some old records".
And I felt intoxicated,
because it hit me like a hot whiskey
that, by definition,
every record is an old one,
just another echo
of a never-ending, infinite present.
It felt so good, I had
to close my eyes to concentrate,
to kiss the girl goodnight,
and fall in love all over again.


This life will be my death, before my time;
I shall approach my end in great excess
of all the limits of cosmic speed, and just
in time to catch the eternal instant replay,
cringing with the angels in their seats.

Running Out

The future is an empty space,
expanding in my heart, and slowly
filling with the resolution
of grainy moments, slipping down;

Like bits of sand the moments race
along transparent slopes, to lowly
rest, a failing destination
that slips to grey from pale brown.

A Token of Courage

The feather in his cap was cool as ice, but red
with thunder's blood in circles all along its length;
and this was called a subtle imperfection, as
the thunder should have never given him a fight.

The Ocean Styx

So long, so insensitive;
deep in the warmth of my
pillow, I long to be
fully dissolved in a
tincture of silence, to
abdicate memory.

Bear me through currents of
dreams, slow, relentlessly,
high on the delicate
wings of an albatross,
further than any have
dared to be taken.

So long, and so quietly
passes the journey, and
this is according to
plan; I am rich among
travelers, fortunate
here among galaxies.


The spear becomes a shield at
the most inopportune of times.
An army captain contemplates
the rank disorder of the lines,
and gives the men their share of water,
whiskey, butterscotch and limes -
they burrow down and bear the winter,
chilling slow beneath the waxy pines.


Aphids, bumblebees,
chef’s delight -
every fly
gives honey
in June.
Keep lemon
meringues nearby,
orange peels,
queued rinds.
Softly, they
utter vanities:
white xanthan,
yeasty zopf.

Mind in Body Blues

Never enough ice in the bathtub, never
enough soap in the water,
never enough time to cool down,
to clean up, to get wet and
dry, cold in a smooth, still breeze -
there’s never enough of this water
to slake me, there’s never enough
of the shivers to keep me in roses.

Miller's Bullshit

You amateur scientists, studying quantum
mechanics, debating the odds of a universe
perfectly suited to life - could it be?

Could it be we exist in the universe, yes,
and we also exist in a second, a third,
and a fifth, but (apparently) not in a fourth?


Evidently, I wrote Blessings and Rhapsody on the same day, which must have been a hell of a day.  Is it a thing where chronically lonely people compensate with fantasies of being exhaustively oversexed?  I wonder what the psychology is on that.  I was trying to be more verbose with Rhapsody, feeling that my poetry of late (or maybe just all of my poetry) has been somewhat lacking in the "color" that comes from a wild vocabulary.  Somehow that led to food entering the mix, which may be your thing, or may not be.  Not sure it's mine.

"Melissa" is a pretty name, coming from the Ancient Greek for "honeybee" (though that's only one of the reasons I find it pretty).  I think I started writing Melissa pretty much just to work with the name, but very quickly went into something dark and symbol-riddled.  It's got kind of a Persephone vibe to it, though it isn't exactly Persephone's story.  I like the slightly mythic tone it takes on.

So, The Promise of Poetry makes me blush a little.  I started working my new job as a teacher in February, and I was asked what elective I'd like to teach in the semester that was starting up.  The first thing that came to mind was creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, and I got really excited about it.  Thinking I might have to dive into the teaching pretty quickly, I decided that in addition to collecting some poetry for teaching example, I should come up with a work of my own to illustrate my philosophy on poetry.  So , I wrote The Promise of Poetry, and shortly thereafter was told that for my elective I'd actually be "teaching" Study Hall.  Not that there's any connection between those two events...

But Now I Remember is the product, essentially, of a rush of anxiety the night before my first real teaching day.  The feeling was so acute, it felt at the time like I'd never really been anxious before.  I don't hear literal voices in my head, but when I'm anxious I do feel like I'm being accosted by what I imagine people might be saying.  So I tried to convey that feeling of being accosted by the invisible or unreal.

And what have we here?  A sonnet!  Old Frostwine was inspired by the spectacular imagery I saw on my drive to work, up highway 99 in the very early morning.  I was deliberately reaching for the mythic again, this time for some kind of sleepy Dionysus-type guy.  It was very early, after all.  I think it's one of my better recent sonnets, very pretty in its evocation of mists and farms.

I wrote Old Records on the night of my birthday, after having driven down the 99 again to visit some friends of mine in Corvallis.  I was drinking cinnamon spice rooibos, listening to kick-ass soul records on the radio, and generally feeling like the king of the goddamned world.  I felt so good, I evidently felt like I could write about falling in love, even though I don't recall an actual romantic prospect at the time.  It just didn't matter when I was motivated by such a relentlessly positive feeling.  I think my friends found me annoying that night; they didn't seem to think my "all records = old records" formula was as profound as I did. 

Precog finds me in a lower mood again, contemplating early death.  The worst part of death, according to my anxiety, is the whole "life flashing before your eyes" business.  I'd be fine with skipping that, going straight to the oblivion.  Except I really wouldn't, I guess.

Running Out is one of two poems I wrote on the white board in my classroom during study hall, the other one being a misfire that I have since consigned to the memory hole.  This one's mostly a rhyming exercize, and I admit that resolution/destination is not an especially dazzling pair. 

I think that A Token of Courage grew deliberately out of an effort to make something out of hexameters, on which front it is technically a success.  It's another of those mythic fragments, a small piece of a story about a daring warrior plucking a feather from a Thunderbird.  I got this idea in my head: would it be considered a flaw in the performance of the myth if the hero did not get away clean?  It kind of rung with me.

I don't do drugs, apart from alcohol and caffeine of course.  Poems like The Ocean Styx are my half-hearted attempts at inducing something like a trip, not necessarily psychedelic so much as sleepy.  Yes, that's it.  I'm trying to put myself to sleep.  It's not always easy.  Dactyls and anapests seem to be the way to go.

Mayday, Abecedarian, and Mind in Body Blues were all written, more or less, in the middle of sleepless nights.  They are more literal attempts at combating insomnia, I suppose.  Abecedarian in particular is barely more than an exercise (I think you can see the parameters of it quite easily), but I still like it a lot.  I worked harder on it than I do on some real poems, which probably wasn't helping with the quest for sleep...

Miller's Bullshit is exactly that, mixed with quantum physics.  Just a fun little lark.