A Blog Outside The Schools

The new thing at school is to discover this blog. One kid found it and actually subscribed to my newsletter. Today, another kid came to me with a sly smile. I knew what was going on.

I've kept my blog semi-secret from students because what I do on my own time is my business. That cuts at least two ways. One, what I do out of school isn't determined by my job in the school. Two, my personal life isn't fodder for class. Teaching shouldn't be all about the teacher.

Still, I've known that if a lot of kids find the blog, upper management will find it too and will give me grief. Keeping it semi-secret helps keep things at least a little more quiet and calm.

The grinning kid said, "I had found something really interesting online." He showed me a post I had written about Chris Offutt's book My Father, The Pornographer. It was a teasing moment from the kid (who is likable), one meant to see if I would flinch.

I didn't.

"That book is incredible," I said because it really is. "I read it during our free-reading time in class." I told him how Offutt finds out the extent of his dead father's writing. I described Offutt trying to find his place in relation to his lost and unknown father. It's a book of difficult mystery and masterly prose. "Offutt," I told the class, "is a genius."

While telling this, I pulled up a file and printed copies of this excerpt from Offutt's earlier book No Heroes:

I walked my mother back to her job at a new building that had formerly housed a laundromat. She smiled at the door, resuming her role as a sixty-five-year-old employee in an olive skirt, the ubiquitous green of a redhead. Her hair was a different color now, but her taste in clothes was the same. She thanked me for lunch, straightened her skirt, lifted her chin, and gave me the smile of a receptionist seeing a person out. She nodded once and turned away. I watched the door close after her.

I realized that I knew very little about my mother's life, and that lunch had offered no insight. I didn't even know if she was happy. I hoped that my coming home would allow her to open herself to me. She never talked of her childhood and had told me nothing of her mother. I don't even know my grandmother's name. She died young.

When I was a child, some wild boys drove a hot rod along the dirt road on our hill. It was jacked up in the back with short pipes that produced a rhythmic roar. A large black swastika was painted on each door. I had never seen that symbol before. I thought the car was cool, the driver was cool, the loud music roaring was cool. I especially thought the swastika was cool. For some reason I decided to carve it into the lid of a wooden box on my mother's dresser. I was about ten years old. I used the sharp end of a diaper pen. When my father asked if I had done it, I said yes and told him about the car. He said the box had belonged to my grandmother. It was the only item my mother had from her. I never saw the box again. (112-113)

I read that to the class and we talked about how well it is written, a three-paragraph story that winds and builds like the dirt road along the hill on which he lived as a boy and returned to in My Father, The Pornographer. It was a good teaching and learning moment, perhaps even a moment of grace that began with a kid needling me, my outside-school blog, and discussing a book with the word pornographer in the title. It was a deft bit of teaching on my part, but I'm really glad that I'm quitting.

I love moments such as these. I love to teach. I love to help students learn. And I really love working with kids who push hard against the boundaries. I have learned so much and am glad to have worked with these kids, but I'm still relieved to quit because otherwise I'd worry what upper management might do when they found out I have a blog, that students read it, and that we talk about things in class with supposedly naughty words in them. I would worry about being taken out to the administrative woodshed. I'm glad I'm quitting because I don't have to be consumed by that dread.

The kids' new thing at school is to find my blog. My new thing is quitting school and setting out for new adventure. I'll write about it here on my blog which is open for all to see.

Signs In The Schools

A teacher in our program gave me a sign to hang in my room. Not a good teacher. Not one with whom I have a lot of contact. Mostly I stay away. Sometimes I play like bad teaching is contagious and that helps me keep my distance. She came to my room with a sign saying something like, no kids in the hall ten minutes prior to dismissal. I read the sign and then handed it back to the teacher. "I can't hang this in my room," I said. She said we have to. I circled a mid-sentence word on the sign that was capitalized for no reason and added a carat where another word was missing. "Did you make this?" I asked. She said it was another person on staff.

That other staff member hates when I correct her writing, but if she wants the sign hung, that's the price she has to pay. I explained the typos without fanfare. I've been down this particular road too often with her. On the way back to my classroom I thought about signs and messages.

There are ways to go about running a school such as the one at which I'm currently, but not for much longer, employed. I have my ideas and some colleagues agree with me. Others don't. They make signs that, despite typographic errors, five the stern message that students better behave or else.

In my class we are watching The Green Mile. There's a bit of dialogue I could have written about teaching school:

...our job is talking, not yelling. You'd do better to think of this place like an intensive care ward.

We have had some trouble around dismissal time. A few kids get out of class and cause some bother in the halls. Bother. I can't call it trouble. I keep my door closed and stand with my back against it talking with the kids or just listening as we wait for dismissal. I try to smile.

Now consider what I'm doing. The door swings into the room to open. To go out, a kid would have to pull me out of the way. They're unlikely to do that. This is my kind of sign. It feels gentle. There's an understanding I pass on by standing there. Some kids know what I'm doing and nod at it. Those who don't know at least see that we all stay in the room until dismissal. That's good enough.

I suppose I'll have to hang the sign once it's rewritten. I won't like it and I won't use it. The tone of the thing is too angry. That sign yells at the kids. Me, I'd prefer to talk with them. It's how I would want to be treated.

Brief Thoughts About School Trips

We took students to the Chinese buffet for lunch. Just a few of them because that's all who brought signed permission slips and were willing to go. We invited every kid in the program (a pretty small number, ours being an alternative school for at-risk kids) and were prepared to take all of them.

Shouldn't such a trip be a reward?, you ask.

First, they had to come up with the money. It was too much hassle to have the school pay (though my supervisor tried her best, bless her). If kids have to pay, that's no reward.

More important, rewards are a stupid educational ideas. Here's how to tell: they are done all the time and accepted as a matter of course. Anything at school that is just the way you do it is probably wrong. Also, consider the kid barred from going. It's a punishment and if you're into that, fine, but I'm into teaching and learning. The "bad" kid is taught that she/he sucks and thus learns to be worse in order to reciprocate.

Exasperated, you say, so it's a participation trophy!

If the trip was a reward and we then let every kid go, it's a participation trophy and bad lesson. If instead this is something to which every student is invited because there is a lot to learn from it, then it's just like a class, only tastier. We invited kids, set up a structure for participating, and let them learn from the experience.

Yeah, what did they learn from eating at a Chinese buffet?

  • Swearing in public is a mark of bad manners, disrespect, and idiocy.
  • Take small portions and go back for more.
  • Saying please and thank you makes everything better.
  • Try new things and talk about them.
  • Not everyone likes the same things.
  • We like each other.
  • There's more to learning than four core subjects.
  • Learning is better when it's not graded.
  • Teachers do their best work when they seem like they're doing none at all.
  • Eating too much is uncomfortable but unavoidable at a buffet.
  • There's always room for sugary coffee drinks.

One kid learned that "bring a signed permission slip or you won't go" means just that. He wanted us to call Mom for permission. I said no and when he asked why I told him tennis is best played with a net.

To recap: school trips are good, rewards suck, and remember your signed permission slip if you want to eat at the buffet. Class dismissed.

Development

Ask most teachers "how do you like professional development?" The answers will include boring, useless, and a waste of time.

During staff development I nod and look interested while writing in my notebook. I imagine tunneling out or going over the wall dodging management's spotlights and Tommy Guns. At one particularly awful presentation I calculated the factorials from 1 to 20. (20 factorial is equal to the product of 20 and all the positive integers less than 20. Google tells me it comes out to be 2,432,902,008,176,640,000. I wonder if I got it right.) All this because management frowns on my drinking bourbon while on the job.

It was a nice surprise yesterday wasn't a total waste. A full-day training in restorative circles was actually pretty useful. Though it was mostly a re-run of training we did just months ago, I learned a couple things. I'm surprised but happy.

I may be sanguine about this professional development because it is my last with this school. It helps to know I'm almost gone. Some fads and ideas brought in by management for our professional development are good, most are bad, but all of them fade and disappear after three to five years. Like riding a merry-go-round, we come back to where we started over and over. This time I'm getting off.

It's nice to go out on, if not a high note then at least not a low one. I'm grateful to the trainers, the participants, and the clock which moved steadily and without fail toward our dismissal. I'm grateful to my friend with whom I texted ridiculousness throughout. I'm grateful that I'm done with professional development in this organization. One more step toward something new.

A colleague sitting next to me at the training asked what that something new will be. I said I don't know yet. Ah, he said. What a good place to be. It really is a good place, an interesting place strange as that may seem. I've learned that much even if it wasn't part of the plan. Learning is unpredictable like that. We never know what we'll learn next.