#sol17 Sestina

“The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way.” ~ Richard Harding Davis

Last week I assigned a form poem to my students: they could write a poem on any topic of their choice, but it had to be in the traditional structures of a sonnet, sestina, villanelle, haiku (5+), limerick (3+) or arun (an awesome new form I learned thanks to GirlGriot!).

The kids were a bit intimidated, looking at these forms, and understandably so: it’s not easy working within such structures. I could show them my own sonnets, haikus, and limericks, but when they asked about the complex sestina and the villanelle, I had nothing. “I tried to write a sestina in college once,” I unhelpfully volunteered.

So I decided to return to that unfinished sestina and give it the old teacher try. Here goes.

Sestina, Winter

I wake in the morning to the sound of my alarm. A light
dusting of snow has covered my car during the night.
I long to return to bed, to drift in sleep
and restfully dream. But my bed must remain empty.
I shower, eat, dress. I rush for the bus, never on time
but always just barely making it. Outside is cold:

it’s winter – a fact I don’t wish to acknowledge, but the cold
broaches no argument, freezing my lungs, my breath. The light
is less now; more moon, more darkness, more time
in the dark, alone. I have always preferred the day to the night –
day seems more full, bringing energy and life. Nighttime is empty,
long hours spent in bed, loud silent thoughts preventing sleep.

The bus bumps over frost heaves, preventing me from trying to sleep
before class. My mind is sluggish this early, the cold
working it like the joints of my fingers, unable to quickly search empty
pockets. No gloves. Instead, I hope for warmth from the light
of the sun, but in winter this is a foolish wish. Last night
I left my gloves on my table. I remember now – I didn’t grab them in time.

That’s something I never seem to have enough of these days – time.
I wake, I go to class, I eat alone, I read, I sleep
and the world carries me words. So many words that at night
I turn them over, spin them through my brain, muse in cold
silence, until I stumble back into the light
and the words escape me, leave me empty.

These are my days – full of activities but empty
of meaning – a black hole sucking away my life and time
and replacing it with shortened hours of day light
and a desire to forever retreat into my bed and sleep.
I’m searching for something, but what? I have discovered nothing but cold
shoulders and words that linger at the edges of the night.

And when it returns on day’s heels, that night
is filled with silent words, an empty
room and curtained windows that let in a cold
draft – my only visitors. No one else seems to have the time.
How I wish it were easy to fall into bed and sleep
and in dreams linger blissfully until I wake at light.

Because I wouldn’t mind the cold all of the time –
if I had someone else there at night. To sleep
in a warm, not-empty bed; to see reflected in someone’s eyes the morning light.

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#sol17 Place Poem

In 2009 I traveled to Israel on a free trip called “Birthright Israel” for young Jewish Americans. A few years later, I turned my experience into a narrative nonfiction essay about travel, identity, and what it means to have a homeland, which was published in this travel anthology

Today, I turned that essay into a poem. My homework prompt for my Creative Writing students is to write a place poem – a poem about the narrative or emotional or sensory experience of a place. Right now, most of them are simply free-writing their poems. With this poem, I modeled for them how to use free-writing and prose writing to brainstorm ideas, phrases, and imagery that they can then shape and manipulate into a poem. 

The Kotel*

As if in a dream
between sun and stone
I move forward to the Wall
suffocating upon prayers
clutching my own inadequate offering
to nest between crevices in the rock
more solid and solemn than history
a motionless wave of hope and mourning
in the fervent buzz of a language I have forgotten

Then begin to shuffle backward
in reverent silent supplication
a pattern unfamiliar that moves my bones
and suddenly I remember why I am here
halfway around the world, crying tears
that fall upon the sand beneath my feet– no
beneath the feet of my ancestors
in this homeland that has never been my home
my heart begins to beat in tune with the stone

* The Kotel is the Hebrew name for the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, arguably the single most important Jewish site in all of Israel. Once part of the main synagogue in Jerusalem, it was all but destroyed by the Romans and shortly thereafter the Jews were expelled from the city. Thousands of years later, it is the holiest place for Jews from all over the world to visit, to pray, to mourn, and to leave small slips of prayer between its stones.

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#sol17 Poetry Day!

Today I started my poetry unit with my Creative Writing class! It’s always one of my favorite days, because although I write nonfiction, poetry is my first love.

I also love this day because I get to spend most of a period breaking down students’ conceptions of what poetry is and isn’t.

“The Road Not Taken”? Yes, universally agreed. (Although we do talk about what the poem actually means, not what everyone thinks it means.)

Then I move into the land of free verse, acrostic poetry, and some really out-there experimental poems, like this one:

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Or “Night Practice” by May Swenson, “The Murder of Two Men by a Kid Wearing Yellow-colored Gloves” by Kenneth Patchen, any of Mary Ellen Solt‘s concrete poetry, Alan Riddell’s “The Affair“:

My students, who have been carefully led to believe that all poetry looks and sounds the same and has Important Meaning, have never seen poems like these.

Poetry is as much about form and play and creativity and emotion as it is meaning; I tell them. As a poet myself, I’m rather horrified to think that a reader must only respond to my work with detached intellectual curiosity. (So was this poet.) That isn’t the point of art. And that shouldn’t be the point of our teaching of it, from the readers’ or the writers’ perspective.

Unfortunately, due to state testing, we don’t have class tomorrow, World Poetry Day.  But as they left class today, I reminded them as they went home and wrote their first poems tomorrow, they should remember: poetry isn’t something to fear or stress about or feel like you’re going to “get wrong.” It lives in us. It’s our heartbeat. It just takes a little coaxing to get it to emerge.

#sol17 How long does it take?

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okay question specifically for my former teachers: How long did it take you for you to feel like you knew what you were doing in the classroom?

When I got home from parent-teacher conferences tonight & logged in to Facebook as I ate my TV dinner – #suchacliche – I saw this question at the top of my Newsfeed, posed by my student teacher from last year.

Julie was an excellent student teacher: had great rapport with the kids, assessed work really effectively and gave great feedback, scaffolded assignments, had decent classroom management for a 22 year old. But even with all of her strengths, this singular question suggests a deep-seated insecurity. And I know all too well where this question comes from.

I went straight through the educational pipeline, from high school to college to grad school to teaching. (It’s kind of amazing to me that I have not lived my life not on a school-year schedule since I started pre-school at age three.) I was 23 years old when I was responsible for educating low-track 10th and 12th graders, some of the hardest classes in the school. I flailed those first few years…

Year 1 was just trying to survive.
Year 2 was the worst, because I thought I had figured things out and everything was still hard, and I thought about quitting.
Year 3 went better – I got into a better routine, had a good mentor, and had more curriculum material to revise rather than create from scratch.
Year 4 was a rollercoaster of feeling confident and totally lost – I was questioned more by parents and students in the previous years, and although I had the answers to back it up, that constant undermining was rough.

I think I hit a groove by the start of Year 5 – finally, enough experience to at least feel like I actually knew what I was doing,

Of course, then I had K during Year 8 and it’s taken another three years to recover from maternity leave and find some semblance of mom-teacher life balance.

I guess what I’ve learned over the past decade of teaching is that I never really fully feel like “I know what I’m doing.” I will always have a brand new class to prep for, a set of students (or even just one) in front of me who will require me to rethink everything, a new PD class or book or conference that provides me with brand-new ideas, a new book I want to teach, a new assignment I want to try, a new part of myself that I have learned that impacts what and how I teach.

Our job isn’t picking apples or engineering machines; not to disparage either of those jobs, of course, but we work with changeable human capital. Most of us may never see the fruits of our labors – children who leave our classrooms at the end of the year, move away, graduate. Like doctors, our patients are ever-evolving, but we are tasked with curing ignorance and insecurity, operating on their minds, healing their souls.

How long does it take to become a good teacher? was really the subtext of Julie’s question.

Your whole life, I want to respond. Good teachers never stop learning.

#sol17 Think Pink

This afternoon, just as the bell rang signaling that Lunch C was over and it was time for students to head to Period 4, I realized that I needed to water my classroom plants. (I’m taking a personal day tomorrow, and I didn’t want them to get too parched over the weekend.) I asked one of the students in my room, a very nice senior named Mitchell, if he’d fill my water bottle at the fountain on our floor.

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A stock image of my beautiful hot pink Klean Kanteen sport bottle. Mine is adorned with a “Bottle Up” sticker designed by our school’s Marine Conservation Club.

“I got a lot of weird looks in the hall, you know,” he smirked as he walked back in and handed over my makeshift watering can. “Guys asked if it was mine. I had to say no.”

***

When I was pregnant, we didn’t want to find out if we were having a boy or a girl in advance of our baby’s birth. “But what color clothes will you buy????” people wailed. “What will you paint the nursery????”

“Um…. baby clothes? Green? Yellow? Blue? Purple? Does it matter???

I remember as a kid dressing in all kinds of clothes in all colors. Green pajamas, burgundy jeans, rainbow sweaters, blue overalls, big heavy yellow sweaters my Grandma Nettie had knit, t-shirts that said “New Zealamb” and “I ♥ NY” from friends and family. Although my sister and I had some frilly girly items, lovingly purchased by my Grandma Yetta who had only had sons, my mother chose to dress us as neutrally as the 1980s and early 90s allowed.

Nowadays, it seems everything is so heavily gendered. When we go shopping, most clothing, toy, diaper, baby accoutrements aisles appear in two stark shades: PINK. BLUE. Sparkles vs. trucks. Dinosaurs OR ponies.

While I do think that raising a daughter in our still-patriarchal environment is enormously difficult – as my recent read Girls & Sex made abundantly clear – raising a son presents its own special set of circumstances. As my students so insightfully point out when I teach critical gender theory, women have had their horizons expanded; it’s appropriate for them to pursue “masculine” jobs, sports, be a tomboy, act tough. It’s still harder for boys to act too effeminate lest they be perceived as overly emotional or weak or gay by their peers; heaven forbid they act like a girl!

Of course, my husband and I try to break every one of those stereotypes with our sweet boy. He loves “boy” things: trucks, dinosaurs, construction vehicles. He flies around the playground with boundless energy. But he also loves “girl” things: taking care of his baby doll, whom he has named “Sister”; cooking elaborate meals on his play kitchen; snuggling on the couch and reading books. Why these things have been gendered is beyond me.

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Image by Kristen Myers via the Huffington Post

***

When my decidedly not-girly mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she told everyone in our family, “Don’t buy me a lot of pink shit!”

This narrative gets played out a lot. There was recently an impassioned discussion in my moms’ group Facebook page about the obsession with pink and princess culture and raising strong women. Lots of moms presented online think pieces about how we need to make room for femininity inside modern feminism. I agree; I was particularly drawn to this idea from one post:

The way forward isn’t to teach girls to be more like boys—that’s just the same old patriarchal shit of privileging masculinity over femininity. Instead, we should be teaching all kids that wearing skirts and loving pink and wanting cuddly baby dolls are totally cool and fine ways to be. There’s nothing inherently bad about being femme; problems arise when we try to enforce femininity on people as a means of oppression.

We feminists tell ourselves that we’re trying to break down the gender binary, which is for sure an admirable idea that should be tackled with enthusiasm. But as we move towards viewing gender as more of a spectrum, we need to make sure that spectrum includes the color pink.

***

Recently, K has taken a shine to things colored pink. On two separate occasions, he’s asked to us purchase pink items, one a water bottle at Walgreens and the other a “girl” Matchbox car. On the one hand, J and I were horrified that he identified the pink car as a “girl” car. On the other hand, I guess I’m kind of proud that my boy chose the “girl” one? I’m not sure what to think, but it’s clear that to him, it’s just a water bottle, just a car, in a color he likes.

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Of the blue and pink Contigo water bottles  on the shelf, K chose pink. “It’s so happy!” he said.
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The “Chill Mill” Fresh Milk truck. Hmm…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m pretty sure that it’s only a matter of time before he begins to eschew all things pink; even if I give the same history lesson I provide in my English classes about how the colors only switched mid-twentieth century, that pink used to be a boy color and blue a girl color, and that before that all babies wore white, I’m not sure how much it will matter. Socialization and culture are powerful.

More powerful, though, than his Mom and Dad, who are always crowing, “All colors are for all people”? We’ll see. Until then, we’ll be thinking pink.

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#sol17 Villages

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
― Dorothy Day

My days are basically the same: Wake up. Commute to work. Teach. Go home. Family time. Sleep. Rinse, repeat.

venn7This is why on the days when I have the chance to engage with communities which break this monotony, or provide me with a sense of refuge within it, I feel so grateful. Like some super-complicated Venn diagram of my life, these various groups allow me to more fully be my best series of selves.

My teaching community

So much of teaching is in isolation. A teacher is surrounded by students all day long – and don’t get me wrong, when my classes are really great, those groups of students become true communities – but aside from specific structures such as staff meetings or shared lunch periods, we do not necessarily spend our time with other adults. Grading is often solitary. Planning is often solitary.

Luckily, we can find ways to carve our time into something meaningful. My school has built-in common planning periods for teachers who are on the same grade-level team. Lucky for me, this includes Tanya. We have taught together for a decade now, and in that time she has become a mentor, constant collaborator, and “big sister.” I rely on the days that we can enjoy a leisurely lunch, share student work, co-plan lessons, collaborate on curriculum, discuss pedagogy and TV and politics. Tanya and the rest of my circle of work friends, people who are like-minded in how they approach teaching and social justice and teens, support and sustain the professional me.

My writing community

This year I’m running a professional development workshop called Teachers as Writers. It’s basically a writing group for and of teachers – some from my school, others from across the district – who come together once a month and workshop each others’ writing. When we enter my classroom for 75 minutes on afternoons such as today, we don’t do it in service of improving pedagogy or assessment of student writing- we do it for ourselves, to hone our own work, to honor our own craft. It is freeing, and it has already made me a better teacher of writing for my students as well.

This community – some of whom I knew well before this began, others I have met for the first time in this course – has become a way for me to nourish that part of myself that craves feedback for my work, that acknowledges the poet and writer within. I leave each session buoyed by my hope for and belief in my own voice.

My parenting community

When K was born, I was a little adrift. In those first couple of months of his life, we moved apartments, my husband changed jobs, and my sister and close friend each got married. I had a lot on my plate. When J went back to work in the fall, I needed something to fill the remaining six weeks of my maternity leave, so I joined Stroller Strides, checked out a free drop-in music class at a local community center, and finally attended a local toy store’s new parents’ coffee hour. This last group eventually led me to my Mom Community  (MoC). Although there are many online op-eds denigrating these spaces as judgmental, catty, basic, I have found an enormous amount of strength and love from MoC.

Although we often get together IRL (in real life), it’s hard to find babysitters, juggle schedules, and deal with myriad illnesses, family visits, etc. So we rely a lot on our Facebook group to share links, get advice, vent about kids/partners/family, find many shoulders to cry on. Our children span an 18-month period in their ages, so some of us can offer advice about where we’ve been; others get to look ahead to see what’s ahead in our journeys. Across our homes, across our families, MoC is a web of support connected by milk and motherhood, here to make sure that no mom is left behind.

It takes many villages

When I was younger, I would watch shows like Friends and silently bemoan the fact that I didn’t have a single close-knit group of friends to share my every waking moment. Although I know that some people’s lives do resemble sitcom television, mine has not been one of them.

Instead, I have many intersecting and individual communities: friends from college; friends from grad school; work friends; mom friends; family members who are also true friends; professional groups with whom I engage in pedagogical and ideological discourse; my large and wild extended family; my own family unit of J, K, and me.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the saying goes. Maybe sometimes, it takes multiple villages. Like an intricate net of solidarity, each of these communities strengthens the various facets of my life, each a small village in the countryside of Me.

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#sol17 What doesn’t kill me…?

slice of lifeThis is my 12th year at my school, and by now I’ve learned a few things:

  1. Period 1 will always see at least 3 kids come in late.
  2. Use the staff restroom during homeroom, or else you’re going to be dying during Period 2. (By 10am I’ve usually downed two travel mugs of coffee AND a whole water bottle!)
  3. Say hello to everyone. EVERYONE. Custodial staff, clerks, students you don’t know, staff. It makes your day – and theirs – that much better.
  4. Laugh at yourself in class at least once a week. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, and show them that you too can have fun, the kids will come to respect you more.

This is, of course, a smattering of the many, many things that a decade of teaching high school English has taught me. But one thing I just cannot figure out, especially after having a kid, is how the hell to not procrastinate about grading.teachergrading

 

I wish I could be like some of my colleagues, breezily exiting the building 10 minutes after the end of fourth period, not an essay or vocab quiz in sight. Nor do I want to be like others I know, chained to my desk furiously marking papers until the custodians threaten to lock me inside.

Grading is and has always been my least favorite part of my job. I love being in front of the class, working one-on-one with kids, and curriculum planning. I know grading is necessary – students need feedback on their writing, they need to be assessed, etc. But I really have come to sort of hate it. (Shh, don’t tell them, they’ll revolt!)

While I like reading their writing, I now find every other part of my life so overwhelmingly tiring that I just. Don’t. Have. The. Energy. At school I’m a whirlwind from 7:30-2:30 (or later) – teaching, lesson planning, meetings, making copies, answering emails, collaborating with colleagues, creating curriculum maps, going to PD trainings. Teaching feels like one of the only jobs where we are expected to simultaneously look backwards and forwards and live in the moment. At the end of each school day, I am turned into a human pretzel.

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Great, now I want a pretzel. (image via Auntie Anne’s)

And then, I go pick K up from daycare and (try to) enjoy being a mother and a wife until he’s finally asleep. Do I grade in the hour or two between his bedtime and my own? Not when there are dishes to be washed and laundry to be folded, a show or book that begs to be consumed, a conversation with my husband that isn’t toddler-safe to be had. Do I even deserve downtime?

Today, as I sit here while K naps, I am wracked with guilt. I *could* be grading, but I also really want to start reading Hidden Figures. Watch an episode of Black Mirror or Black-ish or Fresh off the Boat. Take a nap; I’m exhausted, and K was up at 6:30 this morning, and we have friends coming over for dinner tonight.

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This person gets me.

 

This life is hard, y’all, and I get that it’s hard for everyone. But I don’t think we teachers should be martyrs. I wish our school could figure out some other system for giving teachers time and space to assess student work in meaningful ways. I don’t want my passion for my profession to be snuffed out in a series in deadening, purposeless meetings, crushed under a vertiginous pile of Gatsby essays and reflective responses and grammar and vocab and reading quizzes.

There has got to be a better way.