Late-Night Musings: Reading, Writing, Teaching, Living

I forgot that I needed this as a place to make sense of ideas and thoughts. Being at OU for three weeks as both teacher and student, I am overwhelmed by the sea of ideas in which my mind is swimming.

Foucault has a quote drawing on Seneca that I read in an essay by David Bartholomae:

Through the interplay of selected readings and assimilative writing, one should be able to form an identity through which a whole spiritual genealogy can be read. In a chorus there are tenor, bass, and baritone voices, men’s and women’s tones: “The voices of the individual singers are hidden; what we hear is the voices of all together…I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.”

I love this quote because for me, reading, writing, teaching, and living are things that are inextricably linked. For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how I’m here to read in order to learn how to write better in order to learn how to teach better in order to live more honestly. And those words–read, write, teach, and live–can be shuffled and that sentence still makes sense to me.

I wonder if we can add to Foucault by saying something like: “Through the interplay of selected readings and assimilative writing” as well as interesting friends, families, coworkers, teachers, and students, “one should be able to form an identity through which a whole spiritual genealogy can be read.”

And so, that is to say, I think it’s time to start using this blog again as a place to polish ideas and thoughts, hopefully with your help, to become a better teacher, writer, reader, thinker, and human being. I can’t promise there will be any regularity to my posts or even that they will be anything more than self-indulgent musings, but I’m going to start using this place as a way to publicly upload things I’m thinking about. So thanks for indulging me.

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“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

How to Teach Ninth Graders

Forget that you are cool. You are necessarily lame. You are the father with bad puns. You are the mother who asks too many questions. Don’t feel bad about this. It’s a role you must play. And it will make it much better when your students are pleasantly surprised when you know who Frank Ocean is or when you can dance beyond the few “white-boy” dance moves.

Forget that you have opinions. When your students talk about abortion or same-sex marriage, remember you are there only to make sure they are supporting their arguments. You want them to be skilled free-thinkers, not brain-washed automatons. Remember that now you are capable of brain-washing, too.

Remember you are not their friend in a ninth-grade sense, but also remember you love them dearly. When you get angry, remember to tell them it’s because you want to best support them.

Remember every student is capable of success. Sometimes, it will seem like many of them aren’t. Sometimes, it will seem like many are doomed for failure. But keep teaching. Keep providing extra help. Keep going over comma splices. Eventually, the unwanted commas will disappear from their writing.

Remember to always be excited. There will be days when you don’t like your lesson. There will be days when the kids are so hopped up on hormones that you almost feel like you are going through puberty again. There will be days when every kid in your class is mad at you. Be excited. Especially on those days. Jump around the room. Yell and scream. Make them yell and scream, too. Remind them that learning is always fun.

And when you go home at night and are thinking about the day, forget you were the teacher. Instead, be a student with fifteen teachers. Remember what they taught you about forgiveness and love and knowledge.

Be inspired.

Lessons from Eighth Graders

I’m in this really awesome national organization called Students for Education Reform. I started a chapter at my university. Our mission is to educate the next generation of leaders about the achievement gap so that we can close it. Because it needs to be closed.

This is our first quarter at OU, and it’s not been terribly easy. A lot of our plans have fallen through, but throughout the quarter, there have been some really great things that have kept me excited. Today, I had an experience that will keep me excited about ed reform for the rest of the year. I got the chance, with a couple of other students, to visit KIPP Journey in Columbus. The school was, simply put, kick ass.

KIPP Journey is a charter school for fifth through eighth graders. Most students enter KIPP well below grade level in both reading and math. By the time they leave, though, they are not only testing better than most of their peers in Columbus but also than most KIPP schools around the nation. That’s incredible!

One of the most notable things about the school was that in most of the classrooms we observed, the teachers had visible and public graphs, tracking each student’s test scores. I have heard stories about teachers doing this, and I’ve always been skeptical. I know in my own public schools, public information like that would have been toxic. Those at the top would have been ridiculed for being nerds and those at the bottom would have been ridiculed for being stupid. At least I thought so until today.

We got a chance to talk to a couple of outstanding eighth graders. I asked them about the charts. They smiled at me, knowingly. The following is a paraphrase of their answer:

Of course we like knowing where we are. It’s important to know where we have come and where we are going. And plus, we can see where other kids are. So we can help the ones who are beneath us. And we can ask for help from the ones who are above us. It’s not really about being smart or dumb. Sometimes certain subjects are just easier for some people. I may be better at math. But she might be better at science. It doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It makes it easier to help each other. We have a goal here of everyone scoring Proficient on the OAA. That’s a tough goal, but we are helping each other get there.

I still don’t know if the chart thing would be successful in my junior high, but I do know that the culture at my school was completely different than that. At my school, being an A student was important in and of itself. I didn’t really care about learning as long as I was getting A’s. A lot of this was my fault, but a lot of it was also that I didn’t know what else to base my academic goals on. If someone had told me, “Hey, you are reading at a tenth grade reading level. That’s great, but here’s what you could do to be reading at a college level,” I would have loved it.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in KIPP Journey. The culture isn’t about valuing the grade. It’s about valuing knowledge and learning. If a student masters a skill, s/he doesn’t say, “This is good enough.” Instead, s/he asks, “What else can I master?” And they realize there is always someone who is above them. That’s so so healthy. KIPP Journey isn’t about being the best. It’s about being the best you can be. And somehow, as the test results show, when kids/people concentrate on that, they become the best.

Leadership as Servitude

As I’ve mentioned once before, I help with a Writer’s Workshop for middle school students. It’s rewarding work. And I am blessed to be able to work with these young people so often. This past Friday we were finishing up our acrostic name poems. We work with them in the school’s library. The volunteers are waiting for the students as they come in and so we watch them group off to the several library tables. Most of the time, this is done down strict gender lines. This Friday was no different. The girls giggled into their respective corners. And the guys guffawed into theirs.

I like to change up who I work with so I can start to get a feel for tailoring instruction methods to different groups of students. This week, I targeted the boys’ table full of the class clowns. Two of them weren’t even finished with the rough drafts of their acrostics. The third was rather above and beyond where he needed to be. I sat down and introduced myself and then waited. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of these kids if I tried to force feed it. So I sat there and watched how they interacted, trying to catch on to their inside jokes and get a feel for their slang and junior high jargon.

After a couple of minutes, I had a rough sketch of how they interacted as a group, what made them tick as individuals and what was holding them back, and then I started instructing. Boy number one, the most creative of the group, was held back by his need to be the class clown, which he mostly achieved by self-deprecating humor. I know how that is. But when I showed him that his poetry could involve things like noises or slang, he immediately took a new liking to it.

Boy number two was mainly held back by his lack of will. All he needed was a few reminders to keep working, and he was fine. Boy number three needed someone to buffer the disruptions from the other two or else he got distracted.

As I have more interactions with people in which I am in some kind of position of authority, I am becoming more and more convinced that I cannot help them unless I actively work against the formality of that position. Leadership as servitude is a very powerful thing.

I’m interested; do you find that it is easier to lead when you are attempting to serve others?