Morning Pages: “So what’s your major?”

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It’s been a heckuva long time since I chose my major, but I remember 2 things about that process. My parents were both teachers, and what high school senior wants to be their parents? Not I.

So in the last month of my senior year, I’m standing by my English teacher, Mr. Ford’s, desk, and he asks, “So what do you want to major in next year?” And my answer goes like this:

CINDY: [slams fist on Mr. Ford’s desk] I don’t know what I want to be, but I will NOT be a teacher.”

MR. FORD: [nods knowingly]

————————————-

Fast forward to college, and three-ish majors later, I decided to major in English Education. Never fear, I called Mr. Ford at midnight on the eve when I decided and the phone call went like this:

CINDY: Guess what? I’ve decided to become an English teacher!

MR. FORD: Tell me something I didn’t already know. Now I’m going back to sleep. [unceremoniously hangs up phone]

————————————-

The rest is history. I wanted to be an English teacher because I loved books and writing, and I wanted to pass that on to students who I would inspire so they could change the world.

In 1987, I followed through and became a full-fledged English/theatre teacher at Owasso High School in Owasso, OK. My motivations to become a teacher haven’t changed substantially, but man oh man, how the times have. Shortly after I started graduate school in 1996, content standards came down the pike, then NCLB, then came make-or-break standardized tests, followed shortly thereafter by the shuttering of schools and firing of teachers when they didn’t make the grade.

In the midst of it all, I because a literacy researcher and a professor of English Education. I gained language to frame the driving force behind my practice that had always been in my bones: social justice, equity, access, critical literacies. Like Sonia Nieto, whom I quote in the sketchnote at the top of the page, I believe in a “discourse of possibility, that is, a way of thinking critically but hopefully about teaching and learning…” (2015, p. 5).

In the course of my lifetime, I can’t recall a more challenging time to be a teacher than today. I don’t just mean this in the abstract sense that we live in an educational era characterized by standardization, testification, corporatization, and all the other              “-ations.” Rather, I speak from a place of personal struggle.

A little over a year ago, my husband lost his job after dedicating almost 3 decades in education. The party line was that he lost it for “political reasons” and the complaints of angry, powerful parents. But the bottom line is that he lost it for educating from his heart, for being true to his unswerving commitment to “do what’s best for kids and teachers,” and for pushing back when power and policy got in the way. In the process, both of us almost lost our hope in education, that is, in our life’s work.

That spring, I had to get up every other morning and go “inspire” my students who were studying to be teachers that making a difference in students’ lives was making a difference in the world. I had to rally the troops around the idea that even though teaching was hard, it was worth it. I had to promise that teaching from a place of social justice was noble and possible and essential no matter what. But inside, I was dying. Inside, I didn’t know if I believed that anymore.

The arc of this narrative is unkind. I’ve just begun writing about it, and the tone is dark, the protagonists forever damaged. Perhaps the most important reality, however, is that we’re re-learning the “discourse of possibility” and remembering how to again embrace a view of education as “an unfulfilled but consequential ideal in the quest for equality and social justice” (Nieto, 2015, p. 5).

Turns out you can’t forget what you deep-down believe. That’s why teaching is still our major. Even now, after everything, we cannot help ourselves.

 

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Morning Pages: “What do you, too, believe?”

For today’s Morning Pages prompt my awesome new group of CO301D students is addressing these questions. In solidarity, I am, too:

What are your core beliefs in regard to teaching and education? How do you anticipate that these ideals will guide your work with students when you have your own classroom?

Every year when I introduce students to my classes, I announce how many years I’ve been a teacher. This year’s total = THIRTY-ONE. Dang. That’s a long time.

I’d say my core belief that guides my teaching has remained mostly the same since 1987, though I’ve refined it over the years.

I believe in the value of every student and that they have something to share through the things they make/write/think/discuss that can shape the rest of the world. 

To unpack:

  • I want to help my students know that I really see them as students, yes, but also as individuals with lives beyond my classroom. EVERY SINGLE ONE of them–not just those with whom I most easily connect or who are comfortable making themselves explicitly known. All of us have these narratives looping through our brains every minute of our lives, and I’m still amazed by what happens when those narratives intersect in the classroom.
  • I want my students to recognize what I take as a given before they even walk in the door of my classroom: they are makers and writers and thinkers and discussants whether they know it or not. I feel lucky for the opportunity to support them in constructing knowledge and articulate it for themselves and the rest of us. It’s my privilege to learn alongside them in the process.
  • I believe my students have the power to have an impact on the world and to make it a more just and peaceful place. I’ve seen it happen every year for over three decades. My job is to help them in the process.

And I’m excited for the chance to do that again this semester. It’s going to be a good one.

yo querida

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Dear Me,

Yep, there you are on the choir page in the yearbook. Junior year. Choir attendant. Tea-length lavender dress, matching shoes with bows that you bought with money from your part-time job at the donut shop. There’s a curling iron burn on your forehead under those spectacular bangs. You tried to trim them yourself, but you cut them crooked, so you had to straighten them up, and they kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter.

Since this picture was taken, a lot has gone right: you’ve revised your world view, married the guy who is still your best friend, had 3 sweet babies, taught high school English, coached basketball, earned 4 degrees, published some stuff, moved to CO, and become a professor.

A lot has gone wrong, too, depending on how you define the word wrong. People say that everything happens for a reason, but you don’t really believe that anymore; what you believe is that the saying helps other people feel better, as if it’s some sort of talisman that will ward off any pending doom in their own lives. What you do believe is that after long, long periods of healing, anger, grief (all the so-called bad emotions, that are actually intelligent ones), you ultimately decide what your purpose will be moving forward to the extent that you can, and that sometimes moving forward means walking away.

If you were my student (and I suppose you have been), I would say, “Lighten up on yourself, lovey. Learn how to breathe sooner. Learn how to be here in this beautiful, terrible world instead of looking forward to what might be better or paralyzing yourself when you think of what could go wrong.”

What do you have to tell me, younger Cindy? What do you wish I could regain from my youth?

You won’t become who you told Ms. Rhoads, your junior English teacher, you would be. (The band you and Cara were going to form just didn’t work out with her turning into a lawyer and all.) You will become what you told Mr. Ford, your senior English, that you never would be: a teacher. You will become someone who’s basically okay in the world–with who you are, with what you’re doing, and with the people in your circle who you so dearly love.

My advice for you, older Cindy is this: Believe that things can still happen, that the present is bright for the most part and all it’s cracked up to be. You should live there more than you live in the past or the future. You should laugh more and write more poetry and be, really be, with your friends. It will be okay.

Love,

Me

what will be your legacy?

Today’s Afternoon Pages prompt comes to you courtesy of Taylor, Rachel, Brooke, and Meg, as follows:

The journey to becoming a teacher is a long one. Along the way, we are posed with many questions about who we want to be as a teacher. How would you want your students to think back on their experiences in your classroom? How do you want to be viewed in the classroom? What will be your legacy?

I recently listened to a podcast, which I highly recommend, called “The Greater Good Project.” It’s connected with the Greater Good research center out of Stanford, who has all kinds of resources, many of them focused on mindfulness practices.

In the podcast, a young woman in her 20s talked about writing a “rubric” for her life. DID YOU HEAR WHAT I JUST SAID? A rubric for her life so that she could measure how she was living up to her own expectations. I can only imagine the descriptors: “I am ‘partially proficient’ in maintaining close relationships.” She said it helped. I find it mildly horrifying.

But it did make me think about mission statements. Yes, mission statements. If you’ve ever had to participate in the process of writing one, you’re probably moaning and groaning by now because they can become so vague as to be meaningless. But what if we wrote our own personal mission statements to guide our teaching, to guide the way we work with students on a face-to-face basis? What if that’s what shaped the legacy we might leave behind?

Most mission statements are short and pithy, but I only have time to write a long one.

My mission is to really listen to my students, to really see them. I want to celebrate who they are right now and to help them (and myself) be here in this moment, expending our life energy to learn together. I want to help them get better than they think they can be. My mission is to help students learn how to plan a lesson, but also to think about the frame surrounding it. I want to help them consider how the work they do every day with students and colleagues has the potential to help all of us read, critique, rewrite and therefore eventually change the world.

 

intentionality

Today, Anna Arcuri (my fantastic TA), has prompted us to think about setting intentions to guide our work/writing/living today. Here’s her prompt:

    • The writer of “Intention Setting 101” Melissa Eisler, defines intentions as “heart-driven and evoke feeling and purpose … Setting an intention is a way to bring your heart and mind into alignment.” Think of a positive intention you can set for yourself today during class. Write about what you need from yourself, your peers, and/or Cindy and Anna; then write about how you will achieve this intention.

I’ve been thinking about intentions a lot this year and have centered them around the word “abundance.” It’s at the top of my calendar, so I see it every day, but sometimes it becomes “wallpaper” that I don’t see anymore, even though I’ve written IN BLUE SHARPIE. Intentions can become wallpaper, too, I’ve discovered, so that I’m sometimes thinking, “Abundance, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Today, though, I looked at it purposely and wondered how it would shape my day. I wondered how every time fear for the future arise (it’s ever-present for me), I could let abundance frame my thinking.

What does it mean to teach from a place of abundance? What does it mean to write from a place of abundance? What does it mean to lead from a place of abundance? What does it mean to walk through my life that way?

It means that right now, at this present moment, I am (mostly) safe, I can see beauty all around me on this sunny day, I have the privilege of working with my students for the next 50 mins. at a very important stage of their lives. I have the opportunity to help them think about this moment as more than just leading to the next one. But first I have to believe it myself.

How will that knowledge guide my work today? I will gift them with abundant, generous listening. I will draw from my abundant experience to try to help them write their way into ideas that the rest of us can learn from. I will give them what I can to help them live abundantly, too.

we are the champions

TODAY’S AFTERNOON PAGES PROMPT is brought to you by Kelsea, Lexi, and Devontay. Here it is:

Watch this video first…and then…

It’s National Poetry Month! Therefore, please write a poem in the format of your choosing. In your poem, address these questions:

How would you advocate for your students? What are specific ways you might be able to be a ‘champion’ for them? How might you go about advocating for students that might be ‘ignored’ in the educational system because of things such as race, class, gender, ability, etc? You do not have to address all of these questions in your poem unless you want to; focus on the ones that you are most interested in.

(what follows is the first draft of my poem.)

————–

#winning

Champion: n., One who wins

Champion: adj., Victorious, winning

Champion: v., To hold another up so that they can be victorious

Teachers embody most parts of speech.

They can win:

at reaching their students, at teaching out of their minds

They can reign:

sit at the head of the class with their makeshift crowns and duct-taped scepters against the odds of insufficient funding, inadequate pay, disinterested parents, uneducated policymakers

Or (and this is it; the heart of the crux of the center of the thing) they can

hold others up–(support, not attack; enable, not thwart;

[students, colleagues, administrators, parents, community members, policymakers — all were students oncewhathappened

Teachers embody most parts of speech.

Teachers can champion champions and champion us all.

 

what’s the use?: of poetry

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Yesterday, the English Ed. program threw a big party and invited the LA spoken word poetry troupe Get Lit to it to share all they know about reading the world to read the word. Today’s giant understatement = a really good time was had by all.

In the course of the afternoon, one of the poets, Monique Mitchell, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Poetry As Insurgent Art [I am signaling you from the flames.]” A beautiful line from this poem is this one: “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.” So our Afternoon Pages prompt for today is to address, if that is the case, how poetry would respond?

Here’s (the highly unedited) response I wrote yesterday:

 

How many days has poetry

saved me?

How many days have I fastened myself

to a word, a line,

gripped it like a grapnel,

Hung on tight

so I could just hang on?

I collect poems like I 

collect(ed) rocks, stamps, crossword puzzles

when I was seven, seventeen,

and even now in the lamplight

before I go to sleep.

I add words to the list of WORDS that

I keep on my cell phone

those I will use now and someday.

Some people say, “Waste not, want not.”

Some people say, “A penny saved is

a penny earned.”

But I say, waste words anyway.

I say, spend them all.

Eat them like cereal from the china bowls.

Slurp them from the good silver.

Serve them up like grilled cheese on the crystal plate.

Use your words (use my words)

this moment, now, not some distant someday.

What if the most important guest 

you imagined to impress

never comes?

Words unspent are wasted,

(as with your vast life)

without poetry,

worlds unsaved.

 

not-knowing is welcome here

not knowing

For today’s Morning Pages prompt, we marked up a page entitled “Not Knowing” from Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He suggests (and this is my favorite line) that “new discoveries and realizations happen at the interface between what is known and what is not known” (p. 73).

Dwell in that for a minute: all the things that we say we value in schools as English teachers–“creativity or imagination or poetry”–come from hanging out in that “interface.” What a lovely, terrifying thought.

So why isn’t “not knowing” more valued in school? And what are the benefits and pushbacks that occur when it is? I have to say that one of the scariest things for me now, even as a teacher with three decades in the profession, is the fear of what students will write on my course evals if I model “not knowing” as an essential part of learning and teaching. In the past, a handful of students have implied that “not knowing” means I don’t know what I’m talking about. Hypothetically, I hope they’re right because that’s the point that I should hang up my hat, but I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t associated costs. Students write evals –> committees write evals of professors –> professors receive (or do not receive) raises, earn (or do not earn) tenure, get (or not get) promotion, etc. Furthermore on course evals, there’s no question that asks to what degree an instructor successfully models curiosity and uncertainty (i.e. not-knowing); rather there’s just the question that rates whether or not a professor is knowledgeable about the subject.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. Still, the absence of the former question seems messed up.

JKZ’s claim, though, comforts me. If we don’t dwell in that “interface between what is known and what is not known” for at least a while, we don’t get poetry, we don’t get creativity, we don’t get imagination. Have we failed our students then? Have we failed the world?

“welcome” to the 80% club

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Speaking to a crowd of teachers, Brene Brown explains the intersections between shame, vulnerability, and learning. She says that 80% of the folks she’s studied over the years can remember a shaming incident by a teacher that occurred to them in school. The good news is that 90% can remember a teacher who has made a lasting, positive impact on their lives by coaxing them toward the positive vulnerability that’s essential to learning. Today, I want to focus on the 80% club and the moment that popped instantly into my mind when I considered whether or not I had earned a membership.

I’m in a small-town high school gym, and Coach Keith is choosing the team for tomorrow night’s game based on what he sees in this practice. I am diving for a loose ball when we collide at half court. My teeth jar together as Sherri Linihan’s chin comes down hard on the side of my head. I’ve run into a cinder block wall. My ears are ringing, but we are deadlocked, and I am not letting go.

Not doing it.

I see red, I feel it surging up inside, but I am not letting go. Not doing it.

Out of my peripheral vision, blurring now, I can sense more than I can see Coach Keith striding toward us. His thick white shoes, his long, long legs in royal blue polyester coaching pants, just like the ones hanging in my Daddy’s closet. He crouches down beside Sherri and me still squirming together on the floor. He leans in close and says, “Don’t you cry, you big baby. Don’t you do it.”

And you can better believe I don’t. And I don’t let go of the ball either. These are battles you do not lose if you want to make the team. I am not losing. I am not doing it.

Looking back still disorients me. My ears still ring.I still see red. I feel my fingers on the rough rubber ball (grasping grasping) trying to scoop it in close to my body so that I can get the upper hand and roll away away (gasping gasping).

I remember now what I still want to forget. Letting go.

Rolling to the side. Reaching my hand to the top of my head, feeling the stickiness before I see it. Seeing red, on my hands this time, streaming through my fingers after I pull my hand away.

My head throbs, my jaw hurts, it hurts it hurts, but I do not cry. I do not worry about blood or stitches or slipping down the grey tunnel as the harsh fluorescent gym lights flare away. I worry about being a big baby and what my dad will think if I don’t start in the Friday night game.

This is what it feels like to belong to the 80% club. The power of shame does not dissipate. It does not lead to learning.

PHOTO IMAGE CREDIT

 

 

see me / see you

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After watching this TED talk by the “8-Foot Bride” (aka musician/performance artist Amanda Palmer), we’re writing to the questions at the bottom of this post today:

This Afternoon Pages entry is the first in a 3-part series on a vulnerability that we’re writing to in relation to being a Teacher as Writer, who’s also a CO301D student, who’s also completing a UGP.

I’m nervous that I’ve made myself vulnerable to some extent by even considering the topic of vulnerability with my students. In the past, my high school students and every so often my university students as well have some observation that we should “just stick to the facts, ma’am” instead of making personal connections to class content or to one another. I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I have just always found the question peculiar because I thought that was partly what this learning and literacy thing was all about–personal engagement and interaction, right? It’s perfectly fine that some students don’t share this view, but every time it surfaces, I think about the false divide that has been created by the schooling system as we currently know it (yikes–passive voice abstracting systems, even though WE are the system) that separates the “student” and the “teacher from one another and also from the reality that we are human beings. There is an intersection here. 

But you know what? I’ve decided to show up, as Brene Brown puts it in Daring Greatly, not just as the “professor,” but as a human being in my classes. Because, guess what? I want my identity to animate my teaching. This is my life energy. This is my students’ life energy. Shouldn’t it count for something?

This intention is also based on the work I’m doing with teachers in the CSU Writing Project around our working theory of action on “sustainable teaching.” From experience, I know that it takes so much dang energy to pretend to be someone you aren’t in the classroom, for students and teachers alike.

This doesn’t mean that I’m never afraid on any given day. I’ve just learned (and will always be learning) that if I give into that fear of letting my students see me–if my students give in, too–we will have missed an opportunity to tap into the beautiful, dangerous experience of being writers, teachers, and learners with one another.

And wouldn’t that be a waste?

What does it mean to really see someone? What does seeing someone require? What does it mean to be seen? What does being seen require? What does any of this have to do with being a learner, a teacher, a writer, and a human being inside and outside of school?

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