Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rethinking Poetry

I love when lines of poetry subtly slide into a conversation. Poetry takes hold of us, lurks somewhere in the recesses of memory until the moment we need it again, whether for reference, humor, or comfort. Good verse follows us all the days of our lives. So why is it that when students enter my classroom each fall, they nearly froth when I introduce the first poem, ready to rip it to shreds. They strangle the vocabulary words with red circles, never really planning to look up the definitions. They slash through the metaphors and similes, and cage the first letters of words to jail the alliterations, and they do not feel the poem wailing against such injury. The poet Billy Collins expresses this same sentiment at the close of his poem “Introduction to Poetry.”
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

This is what English teachers do to poetry, myself included. We are wonderful teachers of device; we help our students understand the difference between metaphor and metonymy, introduce allusions and analogies, and dissect significant stanza breaks. But do we put the pieces back together? I’m guilty of letting students walk out with the bell, leaving a poem bound and gagged, slumped lifeless in the shadows of room 203.

I am not arguing that the craft of poetry should not be taught. In fact reading some of Nancie Atwell’s pieces has me thinking about how I could utilize poetry more often and effectively in my classroom. Except this time, instead of solely focusing on the style and structure of a poem, I want to find more opportunities for students to react to poetry on the visceral level. As Atwell describes in the introduction to “A Poem A Day: A Guide to Naming the World,” poetry as a genre gives students a “vocabulary for naming emotions and relations” (8). It is from these shared emotional responses and connections to poetry that students begin to also understand and appreciate the craft of the genre. Their connections to verse help them “figure out what matters, explore it, try to make sense of it, endeavor to change it, and help themselves begin to live lives of worth” (2). It is imperative that I present poetry in such a way. It was the poet Wallace Stevens who stated that the very purpose of poetry was “to help people live their lives.” What could be more essential to my teaching? If nothing else, I want students to find one poem or just one line that they can carry around in the pocket of their memory for a lifetime.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sometimes a pebble is just a pebble

”Don’t write about the pebbles. Write about a pebble.” Nancie Atwell, Lessons That Change Writers

Out of breath, I stumbled into room 326 this morning just as the professor was giving his morning greeting. Today began my journey in the course Teacher as Poet through the Pennsylvania Literature and Writing Project, a week long intensive study of the craft of writing and teaching poetry. An eight and half hour a day, week long course that I’ve been looking forward to all summer. It’s part of the reason I teach. I love being in the classroom, always have. As a 10, 15, 20-year-old student, I eagerly anticipated new classes, new books, new assignments, the energy and the creativity that is sparked by a good teacher, great literature, and a willing class.

With the formalities out of the way, we began this morning’s class with the above quote by Nancie Atwell, a quote that got me reflecting not only on how I teach writing, but about my own writing process as well. Like many emerging writers, I had a problem with generalities. I’d lift those large abstract clichés to unfound, existential, angst-driven glory. But thanks to some wonderful writing teachers, I’ve started to shift my attention to the particulars. In fact, now I find myself in quite the opposite predicament. I load my lonely pebble down with so many hefty adjectives, shackle it with so many prepositional phrases that it sinks to the bottom of my writing. That one lonely pebble, yoked with so many alliterative allusions, creative colors, protracted phrases, weighing it down. But I keep digging at the bottom, sifting through the silt, trying hard to unlodge the same old pebbles. Maybe it didn’t quite fit into one poem, so I’ll lug it into another, only to drown another poem.

I need to let the pebble be just a pebble.

So, below is the first draft of a poem that stemmed from this reflection, the need to let words, ideas breath on their own:

The Phone Call

Fumbling, faltering,
her mouth miles from the receiver,
it takes an anxious minute
for my name, the connection,
to get through the line.
soft sigh
of relieved recognition.

We do not talk often,
preferring to send letters
scrawled across the open spaces
fronts and backs of Hallmark greetings
extending to one sheet of pale pink,
then two.

I call
to say thank-you
for the birthday wish,
rhyme signed with Love,
Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Harry.
I cannot ask,
do not touch
the question of her memory,
the one left holding the line.

I'd love feedback if you have any thoughts. Feel free to post a comment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Village of 100

If you have a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator for food, a closet for clothing, if you have a roof over your head each night, you are wealthier that 75 percent of the world’s population. According to the Minature Earth Project, if the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, 6 individuals would control 59 percent of the world’s money. The “State of the Village Report,” originally published by Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows in 1990, was used to calculate the statistics which many of us have seen in the form of an email titled "Village of 100." If the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, what would our global village look like? Since 1990, Ms. Meadows’ research has been circulated through millions of email inboxes and shared in thousands of classrooms, mine included. The updated version published by the Miniature Earth Project includes recent population statistics from the UN and the Population Reference Bureau.

The statistics are overwhelming. An estimated 4.3 people are born every second around the world. Around 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. Almost 2 million people died from tuberculosis last year. More than 500,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. But it is especially hard for students to grasp the significance of such large numbers. Can you picture 2.5 billion people? How about 2 million? What about just 500,000? Students cannot fathom the enormity and the implications of such statistics. I would argue that none of us can. It is when these statistics hit home, when we put a face to these numbers that they have power. We discuss a similar sort of phenomena in class when we talk about Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is shocking to hear about the Jews, political prisoners, mentally ill, handicapped, homosexuals – the millions and millions of people who died in concentration camps during WWII, but it is not until we can put a face to the horror that the numbers and the story become real.

Similarly, when our world population of 6.6 billion is reduced to 100, we can begin to understand the statistics. Yes, it is an over simplification, but it is one that we need to make the statistics real. It would mean nothing to my students if I told them only 1.98 billion people in the world have a bank account; it sounds like a rather impressive number. However, when I tell them that in a village of 100, if you have a bank account, you are one of the 30 wealthiest people in the world, suddenly the statistic starts to make sense. Seventy people do not have the means or the money to open a bank account, something all of them have. Or, instead of telling students that 3.5 billion people struggle to live off less than $2 a day, I have half of my class stand and tell them to think of our class as a global microcosm and those standing would have to find a way to clothe, feed, shelter, educate, and entertain themselves with less than $2 a day, the statistic comes alive. The numbers have a face. They become real.

So what do I do with these numbers? How do I help students understand their responsibility to our global community? Especially at the start of each semester, I am stared down by students who declare they have no responsibility to a larger community. “We all have to work for what we have, so everyone else should,” is a common first response. As the semester unfolds, students begin to understand that it is sheer luck that they were born when and where they were as most people in the world do not have it so fortunate. But even for those students who make that connection, fewer still understand the responsibility, connection, power they have to help those less fortunate. Is this a by-product of the American dream? Have we really all become so myopic that we believe the myth that it is possible for every human being to “pull themselves up by their boot straps”? One of the statistics that breaks my heart is this:

Of the industrialized nations, the United States has one of the largest populations living in poverty, about 17 percent.

It is pitiful that the wealthiest nation in the world does not even help its own people, let alone those outside her boarders. When did we stop caring for our fellow human beings?

(Statistics taken from the Population Reference Bureau)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Power of Poetry

Next week I start my Teacher as Poet course through the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP), and it has sent me rifling through the dog-earred pages of my poetry books. I’ve been flipping through a book that I received last semester as a gift for participating in some committee or other. Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach is a beautifully organized collection of poems and essays submitted by educators from around the nation. The day I received this book I very clearly remember nearly missing my bus stop on the way home as I was absorbed in its pages, chuckling at some of the teacher essays, tears hovering at the corners of my lashes reading others.

The first poem that I flipped to this afternoon was one submitted by Jim Burke. As he explains in the essay accompanying his submission of a Seamus Heaney poem, “Through words, through poetry, [the students] cure themselves for that one hour when their hopes and hearts rhyme, while I sit in the back, bearing witness to their voices, their lives, and all they have to say if we can only find the courage to listen.” I wish I had remembered flipping down the page on this poem. I wish I could now give it to my student who turned to me and sighed, “What does it matter? Teenagers don’t have power, anyway. We can’t change anything.” Poetry has power. I want to find ways to share that power with my students, to feed even the smallest spark of hope until it burns like a fire within them. Poetry has that power. So now I’m thinking about ways to add more poetry into my curriculum.

From “The Cure at Troy” by Seamus Heaney
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Public Grading of Teachers

Apparently, I don’t know what good teaching looks like. Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel starts her recent article titled “The Biggest Problem in American K-12 Education?” by asking the question, “What is the ‘crisis’ in American public education today?” Her answer? Teachers, and by extension the general public, do not know what constitutes “effective education.” Actually, the reporter states that “nobody agrees” on what effective teaching looks like. Unfortunately, what the article does prove is that Ms. Richards does not comprehend all that is involved with being an educator. It is unfortunate that her readers’ perception of what constitutes effective education is in part shaped by poorly conceptualized generalizations based on her impressions of a 12-minute video clip.

Ms. Richards’ reactions are based on a presentation given to reporters this past weekend by Tony Wagner of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. Attendees were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher based on a 12-minute video of the teacher conducting a lesson on Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Ms. Richards did not specify whether or not this was an introductory lesson or a closing lesson on the text, whether this was a group of eighth graders or a group of seniors, whether this was taught to a homogenous ability group (leveled-course) or a class of mixed-ability readers and writers, whether or not this was one of the first lessons of the course or the semester’s final discussion. All of these questions should factor into her evaluation of the teacher’s effectiveness. Lacking all of this information, or at the least not sharing this information with her readers, Ms. Richards emphatically declares the students’ writing as, “abysmal in terms of grammar, complex sentence construction and critical thinking,” stating later that “I'm sure we all would have scored the lesson lower if we had seen these writing samples first.” This statement has me the most concerned. Is it fair to grade an educator based on the work produced by his or her students? There are several problems with the approach of grading teachers based on the performance of their students, which is especially evident with the example 12-minute clip that Ms. Richards and her colleagues were shown.

First, by what criteria are teachers judged? Ms. Richards reports that the speaker simply told the room of reporters to write a grade on an index card. No criteria were given, explained, or demonstrated. I highly doubt any teacher in the American educational system today would simply slap a letter grade on an assignment without first explaining a specific set of goals and criteria for how that the piece was to be evaluated. Were the reporters looking at how well the teacher engaged the entirety of the class? Were they evaluating the teacher on his classroom management and discipline style? Were they evaluating the teacher on the content of the lesson? Of course the room of reporters would give varying grades for the teacher in the video. Each reporter in that room was grading the video on a completely different and likely idiosyncratic set of standards. So the crisis more accurately identified by Ms. Richards is not that teachers do not know how to effectively teach. The crisis, instead, is that she and her colleagues do not know how to grade.

This sort of approach to grading teachers is methodologically flawed. Had Ms. Richards’ been educated as a teacher, had this been a room of teachers and educational professionals sharing equivalent levels of educational training and pedagogical concerns, my reactions would certainly be different. But this was not the case. Unfortunately, her words carry added weight as they are presented in a public forum. Her words declare that education is in a crisis because no one is paying attention to what teachers do in the classroom. This is certainly not the case. Just pick up any newspaper in America today. Everyone is looking in on America’s classrooms, from the most qualified to the least.

Am I arguing that public does not have the right to comment on a teacher’s performance? Of course not. Teachers are public servants. Especially, when it comes to the education of children, parents and communities must be involved. However, what I am arguing against is giving a blanket grade to the educational system as a whole and teachers specifically based on one presenter’s comments and a 12-minute video snippet. It is irresponsible and misleading on the part of the media and on the part of Ms. Richards. How should we grade her report?

However, her article does raise a couple of significant questions: 1) Should teachers be “graded” based on their students’ performance? 2) Should there be any national criteria (outside of the employer’s criteria and state criteria already in place) for teacher evaluation? Thoughts?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Can't Make Me Shut Up

In my attempt to learn more about blogging and its culture (and there most definitely is a blogger culture), I’ve stumbled across a number of wonderful blogs by teachers. You’ll see I’ve started to add them to my blogroll at the lower-right. Today in my adventures through blogsville, I ran across an article posted yesterday by Joel on So You Want to Teach titled ”Shut-up And Teach,” which sparked a bit of a controversy:

"I get so tired of hearing teachers complaining about No Child Left Behind. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about administration. I get so tired of hearing teachers complain about parents.

Shut up and teach!
It’s a simple concept, but some teachers seem to derive greater joy from feeling victimized than they do from feeling victorious. After all, it’s much simpler to complain than it is to create solutions.”

There is impotence in the complaint. Although it feels good to have a complaint validated by another, alone the complaint is impotent. It alone does not evoke change. Action must be taken it order for the complaint to give life to change. I agree in part with what Joel is attempting to say, but I think it could be taken a bit further. I hope that no educator would abide by the philosophy of play by the rules and don’t make waves. Otherwise, we can hope for nothing more than the same. Change does not happen in moments of silence and stillness. To quote the old aphorism, "silence equals consent.”

Joel’s article serves in part as a call to action. His sentiment is similar to the values that I try to instill in my high school students. Don’t just complain about a wrong, figure out what you can do to fix it, and do it. I want my students to problem solve. As educators we empower our students. We don’t want our students walking out of classrooms feeling disenfranchised, demoralized, and impotent. If they are the hope of our future, we must show them how change happens, so they can successfully claim the future as theirs.

And while I do know and very much feel the squeezing tentacles of NCLB in my own classroom, if it is something that directly interferes with how I can best do my job, I will not just shut up and teach; I will stand up and take action. I choose the world of Paulo Freire when he writes, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007


In so many respects, teaching is a balancing act. The balance between the professional and the personal, the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear.

I’ve been reading and researching a number of memoirs recently. The stories of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and those forced from their homes as a result of the civil war in the Sudan haunt me. I’ve reread stories of young men who survived unthinkable atrocity under South Africa’s apartheid and stories of girls living under strict Shira law in the Middle East. How poignant and important these stories are, the stories of youth surviving the harshest conditions and clinging to their hope for a better world. Of course such memoirs would be of the utmost significance in a world literatures course like the one I teach, the stories of young people the same age as my students persevering, reflecting on their experiences, and making a difference in their world. But I’m caught in a balancing act.

In some respects, educating teenagers is perhaps the most difficult age group to teach. In middle school, parents and teachers need to shield adolescents from some of life’s most grotesque realities. As college students, no content matter is taboo. High school is a time of balance for teachers, students, and parents alike. It is a time when students are initiated into the world of adulthood, truths revealed and fantasies shattered. Students are initiated into the realities of our modern world in the hopes that they will learn from the mistakes of the generations before them. But how much is too much?

I’ve just finished Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. It is the heart-wrenching journey of a young man who loses his family and at twelve years old is forced into fighting Sierra Leon’s bloody civil war. Drugged and brainwashed by unthinkable acts of violence, Beah’s story is important for all readers, but for especially high school students. Such a memoir would help students begin to question the nature of violence in our modern world, contemplate the effects war has on children, question how such violence toward and against children is sustained and in some cases funded by the western world, and reflect on the privileges that they have as a result of growing up in the suburbs of the United States. It is from memoirs like Beah’s that students learn to take an interest in their world and hopefully take action to make it a more peaceful, more just world. But is it too much, too early?

Stories like Ishmael Beah’s are violent. How could they not be? Beah’s story would not be as poignant, as real without his vivid descriptions of how he was kept in a drugged stupor in order to perpetrate horrendous acts of violence against his own countrymen. To leave such reflections and descriptions out of the book would lessen the importance of Beah’s journey. His is a story begging the world to wake up to the realities faced by child soldiers throughout the world today. Without such descriptions, his story would not have the impact that it does. But is this too much for a 15 or 16-year-old to grapple with and understand? Some would argue that Beah was forced into this violence at 12, so of course American high school students should not be shielded from such a memoir. In fact a story about the atrocities of violence would be one that is especially important to an increasingly more violent youth culture in our own country. Others might argue that such a story is too violent, too profane for the high school classroom. Where do we draw the line?

I’m not sure if I will add Beah’s story to my list of recommended books this fall. In an ideal classroom, I would. In fact, the story was recommended to my by one of my former students, so I know I have students that would be moved by Beah’s words. But in a society where the threat of litigation is ever present, especially for teachers, I am stuck between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear.

But in case you’re into some good non-western memoirs, might I suggest:
  • Ishmeal Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

  • Alphonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak’s They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky

  • Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

  • Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

  • Paul Rusesabagina’s Ordinary Man

  • Yang Erche Namu’s Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

  • Farah Ahmedi’s The Other Side of the Sky
  • Wednesday, July 18, 2007

    Dillard Calling

    So writing about Annie Dillard last week, sent me back to her book The Writing Life. It also forced me to reconsider how I was living each day, each hour. I’m struck by how much time I spend putting out fires in the classroom, and I recall a moment from this past semester that has me reconsidering how I teach.

    It’s the middle of my second block class. The January winds are tearing at the window screen, a whispering howl sneaking in. Inside, my tenth grade World Literature students are bustling around the room, finishing their work on a semester’s long research project that they will be sharing with their fellow students, staff, and family members at a cultures fair later in the week. At the moment, I have a swarm of students surrounding my desk at the front of the room. One needs a fundraising permission form signed, another wants to double check on the proper citation rules to follow for an interview, three are asking for permission to go to the art room, and another needs help finding up-to-date research on the current status of the African Union’s troops in Darfur; the rest are hovering over stacks of art supplies and folders of research. I’m simultaneously reaching for my pass book, jotting down a website address, and attempting to find my lost cup of now cold coffee among the clutter. From out of the chaos comes a small voice, “Geez, Ms. Ward, it’s amazing how you keep track of all the stuff going on.” It stops me in my tracks.

    I’m involved in a million different things at once, but not engaged with any single one, caught up in what comes next, not thinking about the moment in front of me. It is unfortunate that I find myself in many of these moments as a teacher – putting out one fire while trying to light another in a student. I get drawn into, enveloped by grading, disciplinary reports, departmental meetings, parent phone calls that still need to be made. All teachers do. It’s in moments like these that I need to be reminded by Annie Dillard to think of how I am spending this hour. It is this moment, this hour that makes me, not how much I plan ahead or how many tasks I can complete in a day. It was in a moment like this that I printed out the Annie Dillard quote.

    Crumpled and coffee stained, the quote clings steadfast to the top of my computer monitor, centered above the screen. I found it recently while clearing away the books and random notes scribbled on scraps that used to call my desk home. I had printed it to serve as a mantra, a reminder, but it had been shuffled into the daily clutter. The quote has since re-established its presence, its place of prominence. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Annie Dillard, whose writing I first encountered in an undergraduate literature course, is a writer who calls us, who calls me, to engage fully in the world. And this past week, she has been calling to me quite a bit.

    You’d think I’d need to be beat on the head for her message to sink in. =)

    Friday, July 13, 2007

    Thurber and Dillard

    Apparently, I have read at least a portion of James Thurber’s autobiography. I don’t remember doing it, but apparently I did. A friend recently asked me to send her a couple of my graduate course essays as she is in the process of applying to an English program and wanted to review some example pieces of writing. But after scouring through old hard disk files, I have discovered two things: 1) my writing is atrocious and I should go back to school, and 2) I was a much better writer when I was in school. Yes, I realize these two things contradict one another.

    My essays are riddled with citation errors, grammatical faux pas, and repetition. Lots and lots of repetition. I restate the same thing over and over again. Hitting on the same point way too many times. Like a hammer hitting a nail that is already sunk, I repeat the same ideas instead of actually clarifying subtleties (and use cliché analogies to do so). However, even in the essays most mired by mechanical and grammatical errors, I come across moments like this:

    “Gone are the inflated egos and highlighted accomplishments; Thurber does not stand on a beautifully adorned pedestal. Instead, James Thurber has purposefully smashed the pedestal of the well-made man into a million difficult pieces. Unlike Benjamin Franklin's self-glorifying autobiography, Thurber creates himself, the narrator of "University Days," as a failure. Whereas Franklin and other ego gratifying autobiographers have attempted to sculpt a successful mask of themselves, Thurber's exploration of his shortcomings creates a type of unlikely hero, secure in his individuality.”

    Okay, so there are problems with this too. Some punctuation errors and structural problems with the third sentence, but overall, not bad. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I called a memoirist an “ego gratifying autobiographer.” I don’t remember the last time I made a comparison using Thurber or Franklin, which tells me I am I better writer, a more critical thinker when I am engaged in a community of writers and thinkers. So – I need to be engaged in a community of writers and thinkers.

    One of my very favorite quotes by writer Annie Dillard is “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” This quote is taped to my computer monitor. It has become my mantra, a daily reminder to spend my life engaged - engaged in my writing, engaged in my relationships, engaged in my thinking, engaged in the world around me. I do not want to be remembered as a great television watcher or an exemplary consumer. I want to be remembered as a writer, as a photographer, a thinker, a teacher, an activist, an idealist. If I want to be a better writer, I must write; it is how I must spend my days.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Change in status

    I looked up and realized that I had just spent the last three hours remodeling a kitchen I don’t even own. Pictures of cabinets, countertops, and flooring now litter my desktop. We put an offer in on a house today - a daunting and exciting process. Daunting to realize how much time, sweat, and money will go into renovations to make the place ours but exciting to also realize we are – making the place ours. Having lived in apartments for the last ten years, I’ve gotten used to the sort of transient way of life. There are boxes still crammed into the backs of closets that remain unpacked from our last move over six years ago. In an apartment, one always anticipates another move. You don’t live in an apartment permanently; it is a transition. And at this point in our lives, moving into a house is symbolic of a much larger sort of transition.

    Apartment living has always signaled that either my husband or I (or both) were students, unsure of where we would be following the degree. But since my husband finished his doctoral degree last May and was offered a full-time (paid!) position starting in August, we’re moving out of the student lifestyle, an anxiety-provoking prospect. Our entire married lives we’ve been connected to institutions of higher learning; we’ve always been students. We have always known one another as students. And although both of us will continue to take classes here and there, we’ve moved out of the status of full-time students. As we move from temporary housing to a permanent residence, it singles a change in our relationship as well. We’ll both have real jobs, two incomes…gasp…we’re adults!

    I realize that this is a bit of a delayed realization. I think in some ways my husband and I have resisted this change in status – student to employee, apartment dweller to home owner. As students we are free to try on new ideas, take risks, be unabashedly idealistic. I am perhaps a bit afraid of losing that which has defined me to date. So I think the trick with this move, this transition, will be to embrace the change in residential status, but try to retain some of that mindset of a student – to continue to grapple with new ideas, try new things, and be unabashedly hopeful and idealistic.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007


    I think I’m cheating. I’m listening to Joan Didion’s latest memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Yes, listening. Thus the reason why I believe I’m cheating.

    I love Joan Didion’s simple and pithy sentences, her uncanny way of describing the ordinary in a fresh light. I love the way that she uses scientific and medical jargon to distance herself from the gaping chasm of grief left in the wake of her husband’s death. I fell in love with the way she described the whining Santa Ana wind in her essay about Lucille Miller that opens Slouching Toward Bethlehem when I first encountered it as part of a course packet. Joan Didion was the very first writer I studied as a part of my Nonfiction Literature course seven years ago. Shortly after reading that first essay, I devoured that book, reading until the wee hours of the morning despite the fact that I would get up for work early the next day. So I feel I might be committing some sacrilege by listening to her work instead of admiring the look and feel of her written pages.

    But, I’m obsessed. My library system has just introduced a new digital download section of their webpage. I can temporarily download audio versions of nearly any book and listen while I’m cleaning, driving, working on lesson plans (see earlier blog about how I never seem to be able to leave school behind even while on summer vacation), or like today, blogging. I must confess that I tried something I think only an English teacher might attempt. Yesterday while listening to This I Believe, a collection of essays that came out of NPR’s weekly program by the same name, I attempted to read something else. Granted, it was a text version of a number of the essays I was listening to, but I found myself reading different essays than the ones that I was listening to, half-tuning in to the audio version, realizing I wasn’t comprehending what I had just read, then refocusing my attention on the text version, an ever looping cycle. I think this is the pitfall of technology.

    Technology begs us to multitask. I have learned to multitask, and those high school students that I teach have grown up multitasking. They IM and draft an essay while they listen to the latest Fallout Boy cd. I’m attempting to listen to one of my favorite writers and write myself. It is an attempt, a futile attempt I now realize. As I write these words I realize that I’ve just missed the last few lines of Joan Didion’s novel. I’m attempting to accomplish too much. Technology promises to make our lives easier, but I wonder if it also turns our attention away from fully engaging in one activity, one idea. As we multitask, we distance ourselves, much like Didion uses her scientific inquiry into the brain and the body to distance herself from the reality of death and grief. Technology distances us from our lives, from fully engaging in the world just outside our door. So, maybe I should stop listening to The Year of Magical Thinking and go pick up the book. Unfortunately, I also have Barbara Kingsolver’s new memoir already in my cue downloading to listen to later.

    Saturday, July 7, 2007

    Is Change Possible?

    In the last 24 hours, I’ve been beat over the head with a call for change. Last night I went and saw Michael Moore’s new documentary Sicko. A number of moments spoke to me directly as I have family members who have been near some of the same situations depicted in the film, but one interview in particular connected with a class discussion from last semester. Tony Benn, a former British politician, spoke of how people become disenfranchised and disconnected from their government and world in general. Although he was speaking specifically about voting habits, his quote can easily apply to apathy. Paraphrased, he said that people lose their sense of power as a result of fear and/or being demoralized. Recently in a class discussion about how the memoir Night by Elie Weisel might be applicable to modern times, one of my students proclaimed with a sigh, “What does it matter? Teenagers don’t have power, anyway. We can’t change anything.”

    I stood there gaping for a few moments, the class watching intently to see how I would respond. How could someone so young, just at the start of his journey, be so disenfranchised? How does someone at 16 years old lose all hope? What is it that this student and others in the class who agreed with him be so afraid of, be so demoralized by? Now I know in part that such a comment was meant to goad me; I’m obviously a teacher who believes that the individual can make a difference, can change the world; otherwise, I wouldn’t be a teacher. It is the position, the power of the student, to try to test the teacher, but I believe in part that the student and others in the class truly felt there was nothing they could really change, so why try. How is it that as a nation we have become so cynical, so demoralized that these are the values that we are passing along to our children? It is a sad day when our future leaders lose their idealism, a belief that they can make a difference, can change the world. What hope does that leave for any of us?

    But then I also have been watching the Live Earth concerts this morning and see all the young people engaged in a worldwide effort to change the practices of the world’s governing systems. What a noble cause – to raise awareness, to make a pledge to change our Earth damaging habits. I sincerely support this effort, making sure that I recycle my paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, and cardboard and switching to the low-energy florescent bulbs. It truly breaks my heart to see the natural, untouched areas where I grew up ripped down to be turned into sprawling strip malls. However, on the top of my webcast screen I see that the online coverage of Live Earth is in part sponsored by Chevy. Now, I’m the one who turns a bit cynical. Okay, so GM and Chevrolet have made some strides toward helping the environment with their soon to be released hybrid versions of their SUVs and trucks…their SUVs and trucks? Forgive me, but if you really want to make positive environmental change, you should think about driving something other than a gas-guzzling SUV. Even if that SUV is a hybrid, it still does not get nearly the same gas mileage as compact car, or better yet, a hybrid car. I understand that we must start somewhere, but I do worry some of the contradictory messages sent by such commercial awareness raising events. What happens after the concerts? How do we follow through with the promises made by such a corporate-sponsored event? A student from Sri Lanka helped me understand this better.

    In December of 2004, South East Asia, especially Sri Lanka, was devastated by the largest tsunami of the 21st century. The world pulled together and as an international community, donated more financial aid to organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross/Red Crescent than the governments of many industrialized nations. However, just over two years later, Sri Lanka is still in desperate need of suitable housing, medical care, and food for its displaced citizens. Although as a global community we pulled together in the moment, many of the international aid agencies have left Sri Lanka, leaving local agencies scrambling to provide services. As my student from Sri Lanka shared her research about the current conditions in her native land, I was appalled. How could we leave our fellow human beings in such dire circumstances?

    Are we a culture, a nation, a world that will empty our pockets in the moment, but when it comes to making lasting, effective change are we too fearful or too demoralized to get our hands and hearts invested? In all my rambling I am reminded of the sentiments of writer James Russell Lowell who said, "All of the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action." And so, I’m signing off and going to turn off a light.

    Friday, July 6, 2007


    I'm still strangely trapped between "homes," a kind of dysphoric limbo. Recently returning from a week in Michigan, I catch myself calling many places home. "I've just come back from a trip home," I said to one of the staff members at the high school the other morning. I got this quizzical look in return.

    "Come back from home? What do you mean?"

    His question jarred me. I haven't lived in Michigan for almost ten years. And, for a long time, I haven't really felt like Michigan was home; it is the place where I am from. I occassionally say that it is the place where I grew up, but it's not the only place.

    Where in Michigan am I from? When my husband introduces me to someone new, he holds up his right hand, palm facing the stranger in a high-five sort of gesture, and points to the tip of his pinky finger. And he's right, in some respects. I lived near Traverse City until age 11, when my parents moved us down to a suburb just outside of Grand Rapids, more near where the head line ends on my palm. But when I introduce myself, if I don't just generically say I grew up in Michigan, I'll say that I'm from near Grand Rapids, assuming I'll be lucky if the person knows where that is, not bothering to give the exact name of the small town where my parents still live. It is where I went to middle school and high school, where I tried on a number of interests and identities, and started to shape and understand the person I am today. I consider Grand Rapids to be the place where I grew up, my former home; whereas my husband, who was born and raised in that area, to this day considers me to be still a bit of an outsider. A stranger in my home.

    But of course, I haven't lived there for many years. I've done just as much growing up here - in Pennsylvania. First living in Pittsburgh and now just outside of Philadelphia for the past six years. Yet, I don't quite consider myself to be a Pennsylvanian either. I couldn't tell you the name of the state bird or state flower; I still feel like a visitor to this state in some ways. And even though I can tell you the state bird, flower, and fish (the robin, apple blossom, and rainbow trout, respectively), and that Michigan was the first state to start roadside rest stops for travelers (thanks to a my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mummert), it is no longer my home.

    And so I am in limbo, occasionally calling both Michigan and Pennsylvania home, but feeling a little like a visitor in both.

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