Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Take Me to Church, Tell Me a Story: Slice of Life #15

In her link to this week's Slice of Life, Elizabeth Moore writes:  If you're new to our community, you'll love reading what other educators have written--these are not just links to whatever was already on our professional blogs for the day. These are little pieces of creative writing. We are teachers practicing what we preach!
Elizabeth's invitation begs the question: What is a story? and What is creative writing? I thought: Am I getting this whole Slice of Life thing wrong? After all, the Two Writing Teachers Blog targets elementary and middle school teachers. I'm a bit of a squatter!

As a high school teacher teaching primarily seniors, I'm not much of a creative writing teacher. The stories I tell in this space typically fall into the nonfiction genre, and to characterize them as creative nonfiction takes quite a stretch of one's imagination. 

The real-life stories often intertwine with various narrative forms. Biblical parables and the importance of biblical allusions have occupied my mind in recent days. 

This past Sunday I attended church. As a child regular church attendance--Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night prayer meeting, every revival service, and vacation bible school--controlled my life. Like the fixed point of a compass, my life moved in a circle from one church activity to another. I even attended and graduated from a Southern Baptist University, and continued the pattern of church attendance into my adult life--until I divorced in 1994. 

This past Sunday I attended church. My son Corey came for a visit and his faith means much to him. Knowing the important space church holds for Corey, I offered to go, so we went to the service at Chubbuck United Methodist Church. 
I drive past the little white church each day on my way to and from school. I walk past it when strolling with my dogs. On Sunday I walked through the church doors for the first time. 

Since the pastor was out of town, a member delivered a short sermon based on Mark 4: 26-34. The passage tells the parable of the mustard seed, and as the speaker shared, I thought about the story's application to teaching. We teachers cast out seeds and await their germination. We rarely see the harvest of our sowing. Yet in April our system of education forces us and our students to endure the indignity of state mandated testing.  These tests constitute the educational equivalent of premature harvesting of a crop. 

Biblical stories live in the texts of American literature., too. To understand our culture, our heritage, and our literature, we must know and understand bible stories. Writing in The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis says that Thoreau 

was among the first to see Christian literature as only the purest and most inspiring of the fables about the relation of man to nature and about the infinite capacities of the unaided human spirit. The bible...was the finest poem which had ever been written; it was the same in substance as Homeric or Hindu mythology, but it was richer in metaphor. The bible spoke more sharply to the human condition. This was why Thoreau, like Whitman, could employ the most traditional of religious phrases and invest them with an unexpected and dynamic new life. (22)

American writers have employed religious metaphors, retellings, allusions, imagery in their writings throughout American history. Here are just a few:

  • William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!
  • John Steinbeck: East of Eden
  • Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon
  • Herman Melville: Moby Dick
  • Flannery O'Connor: "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
  • T.S. Eliot: "The Waste Land"
I'm currently reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and can't help but think about Christ's wandering in the wilderness as I contemplate the travels of John Grady Cole and his desire to save Jimmy Blevins.  The novel challenges romantic ideals about the west ingrained in our collective psyche. Similarly, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to consider the seeds we sow and what they need to germinate. Simply, biblical stories, regardless of one's personal faith, present opportunities for us to think about life. 

Next year I'll be teaching AP Literature and Composition. I wouldn't be doing my job if I neglect to teach students biblical allusions. Without knowing the stories from the bible, the literature we study will be incomplete. Sure, I could give students a list of allusions, perhaps this one from Quizlet, but an incomplete story, like a sermon without scripture, rings as nothing more than "sounding brass and tinkling symbols." 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stories Students Tell about Their Teachers: Remembering Mr. Meadows--Slice of Life #SoL15

Each Tuesday the ladies of TWO WRITING TEACHERS host the Slice of Life Story Challenge. Head over to TWT for more slices. 

This past week brought news of the death of one of my high school teachers. Charles Meadows taught World Geography and coached wrestling and football in Webb City, Missouri . He was my World Geography teacher in ninth grade (1973-1974).

According to his obituary, Mr. Meadows died suddenly. He was 69, much younger than I realized.
My classmates have been sharing their memories of Mr. Meadows and the influence he had on their lives over on Facebook. Their stories include:
  • Coach Meadows was a jewel! I owe my love of world geography to him...sitting directly in front of his desk in freshman World Geography made me a bit more studious than I really was! He had an amazing gift of making a kid very attentive and never wanting to miss a single word he spoke! Rest in Peace Coach Meadows, you'll always occupy space in the hearts of so MANY of your former students!!!  (Teri Edwards)
  • In remembering D-Day and America's hero's, Kirk Ellis says, Charlie Meadows from Vinita, Oklahoma was a real hero. Not only during his time of service in Vietnam, but also as a teacher and friend to the students he loved and that loved him. His countless stories that we sometimes believed, to his funny laugh that we will always remember. His so-called ability to pole vault, even though we never saw him clear the bar. This was a hero.                                     I do want to tell my favorite Coach Meadows story. He told us while he was in Vietnam a guy was coming at him and all he could hear was "karate". He said he reached into the back of the truck and responded "tire iron". That was his sense of humor and only one of a hundred stories that "Chopper" told us.
  • Charlie...was one of a handful of adult males that had a positive impact in my young life and in the lives of many young men at WCHS. I celebrate knowing Charlie and all of his Chopper quotables. There are some that I've used on occasion to this day, i.e.; skillet paws, panzy-ass, drink milk at lunch, we'll make cottage cheese during practice, and the list goes on. (Kevin Howard)
  • I loved Mr. Meadows. He teased me mercilessly ... and I enjoyed every second of it. I always felt like he and I shared a special kinship but I think he made every student feel like that. The world is a sadder place today. A much sadder place. Thank you for all the sweet memories Mr. Meadows, you made WCHS a lot of fun. Below is a picture from our "Slave Day" ... those overalls are certainly not flattering ... but anyway, he made me do every thing Earl Mahaffey wanted me to do. I cleaned his locker ... and there were still cookies from summer two-a-days, I had to go to his shop class and sand a car, got his lunch (Earl's), and Mr. Meadows made me take notes in class for him during the hour he had Mr. Meadows. He checked on me periodically throughout that day to be sure I was earning the money Earl spent. I can guarantee you I did. I never saw him laugh so hard ... at my expense ... which in turn made me laugh as well. (Margaret Ann Lundien)
Margaret Ann Lundien's photo.

I, too, have memories of being in Mr. Meadows class, and like Teri, my desk butted up flush w/ the teacher desk. This enabled Mr. Meadows to stare directly at me as he spun tall tales, which he always followed with a snicker. "Did you know that Russians only wear red and black, Cowen?" If Mr. Meadows ever called me by my first name, I don't recall it. His head bounced up and down, and I could see his crooked, dimply grin. I believed this Russian narrative for many years and have told this story to my students on occasion.

Kirk's anecdote about Mr. Meadows' time in Vietnam jarred my memory as did Kirk's and Kevin's recalling Mr. Meadows claim that he pole vaulted. I never questioned the veracity of Mr. Meadows' stories. In ninth grade naivete governed my worldview. 

In Mr. Meadows class I learned much about world geography and cultures. We memorized maps and must have read the entire textbook. However, the stories Mr. Meadows weaved into the curriculum kept me nervously riveted to my seat. In those days teachers scared me a little, and I worried about being singled out as the object of Mr. Meadows' teasing, which I soon realized was his way of validating his students, his way of noticing each of us, his way of making us feel important. 

As my high school friends and I share our stories about Mr. Meadows' stories, I'm reminded of the absolute necessity that we do this:

To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature. We seek companionship of a narrator who maintains our attention, and perhaps affection. We are not made for objectivity and pure abstraction for timelessness...As humans, we must tell stories (Thomas Newkirk in Minds Made for Stories)

Reminiscing about my time at Webb City High School and my time in Mr. Meadows' class, I wonder about how students will remember me when I no longer roam the halls of this earth. What stories will they tell? What stories must they tell?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Reinventing Self: We're All Works in Progress #SOLTuesday

Slice of Life happens every Tuesday and is sponsored by the fabulous team at Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here. 

7:33 a.m.

In less than half an hour, I'll find myself in an online interview for contract work with a startup in Boston. Zinkerz, the company with whom I'm interviewing, develops educational apps and seeks to capitalize on gamification.  If hired I'd work on content for an AP English app.  

That I have this interview this morning is something I could never have foreseen when I began teaching in 1981. Such is the nature of self-reinvention. 

How we teachers reinvent ourselves defines the way I view longevity in teaching and reflects the name I chose for this blog. 

In mid May, I had a plan for this summer: Join Teachers Write, work on the professional book(s) I've outlined the past few years, write an article about using children's picture books to teach seniors research, go on vacation with family, read and read some more, do home improvement projects, including purging my closet and home office of stuff. 

But my professional life took a sharp turn a week before school ended, so my plans changed. I'm still going on vacation with family, but I'm also preparing to teach AP English Literature and Composition next fall and attending an AP workshop in San Diego later this month. If all goes well in my interview, I may find myself on yet another new educational venture. 

Who would have thunk? Certainly not I. 

Professionally, I've had to reinvent myself many times to sustain a career that has lasted over thirty years. I spent over a decade in an education desert, metaphorically speaking. During that time, I never knew when I'd feel bludgeoned yet again by a bad boss. I worked hard to persevere, to overcome, to reinvent myself during that time. I applied to state and national programs that accepted me and validated both my professional and personal self. Of course, the Folger Shakespeare Library, as I've often written, is the most important among these. I earned NBPTS certification, I earned a MA degree. 

Opportunities to reinvent myself fed my soul with mana, the collegiality and validation necessary for teachers. 

8:55 a.m.

I just finished my interview with Sam and Eden at Zinkerz. Now I wait. Regardless of the outcome, I'm using this opportunity to think about gaming and learning in my classroom and the ways I can continue reinventing myself and the ways I guide student learning. 

I am, after all, a work in progress, and from time to time I need to shed the old teacher skin to make way for the new. 
Game on!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Teaching: It's All Personal

My friend Mari posted the following meme on her Facebook page: 
This meme reflects the personal nature of teaching for me and for many teachers in my PLC. I've contemplated the extent to which I take teaching personally, perhaps "too personally," as my principal told me a couple months ago. 

At the time, I didn't respond to her comment that I "take these things too personally sometimes." At the time, my emotions wouldn't allow me to utter a coherent thought. She had just finished telling me about two phone calls she had received from parents, and I took the calls as complaints, although upon reflection I'm not sure my principal interpreted them that way. 

Regardless, I took the calls personally because teaching is personal, both in terms of content and students. 

A few days passed, and I had the opportunity to discuss the conversation with my principal. We talked about her never taking anything about teaching personally and my taking it all personally, which I confessed I do. I wondered aloud if this has something to do with a difference between teaching English and teaching math, which she did prior to entering administration. 

Around the same time, I had a conversation with a colleague in my department about a parent call to the principal regarding one of her classes. We chatted about how we take these things personally and about how hurt we feel when a parent doesn't address a concern with us before calling or emailing an administrator. We feel most hurt when a call involves a student for whom we have already provided many accommodations. 

From other posts on social networking, I conclude that I'm not the only one who takes teaching and my relationship with students personally. As evidence, I cite

  • a recent invitation to view prom pictures Sarah MulhernGross posted from HTH. 
  • a blog post from Gary Anderson about #writenight at Fremd High School.
  • the many lessons and reflections about teaching Lee Ann Spillane posts on the Portable Teacher blog.
  • the way Beth Kephart calls her students "My Spectaculars" and writes about their beauty on her blog.
During Teacher Appreciation Week, Sarah Brown Wessling wrote a moving letter to her children about her life as a teacher and the way it compliments her love for her children. My favorite part of "A Letter to My Children: What It Means to be a Teacher" speaks about the personal nature of teaching: 

You need to know that teachers don't see their classrooms as places where you go to make rules and assign homework; rather, they see them as extensions of their kitchen tables and living rooms. We strive to make these places safe and nurturing, welcoming and challenging.

Our classrooms are personal spaces, our homes for 180 days a year, and since our students are also our kids, by extension we want them to feel at home in our classrooms. 

Perhaps the personal nature of teaching and our relationship with students comes from a special teacher in our own lives, perhaps from the personal nature of writing and sharing stories inherent in language arts instruction, perhaps from some other place. I shared these thoughts with my principal. And even though she says she never took things personally when she was in the classroom, I'm certain she cares deeply for our students, which I see in her eyes and hear in her words as we talk about the struggles some of our students face in their personal lives. 

The next time someone tells me I take teaching too personally, I'm going to say, "Thank you. For me, teaching is personal."