Mississippi Teacher Corps
Best of the Blogs, 2007-2010

Table of Contents:

Chimaobi Amutah

Angela Doyle

Daniel Fram

Josh Smith

Elise Patterson

Brent Bonds

Ryan Bolland

Jennifer Nelson

Karl Mill

Hayley Hill

Alex Funt

Aaron Johnson

Pete Nelson

Karl Nastrom

Anna Morrison

Austin Walker

Michelle Sabatier


Pre-Departure Blog (return to top)

 T-Minus One Month... - May 7th, 2007

This past Tuesday marked the one-month countdown to my departure to Mississippi as a part of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. I'm now in my last month of college with no final papers and no exams left. It's smooth sailing from here.

I've begun reading a few different books that my sister gave me this past Christmas as gifts. Standard "How to Teach" and "My First Day" sort of books. More importantly than these, however, I'm finding the time to delve into leisure reading and taking in stuff like Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie to get an understanding of approaches to social justice, liberation theory, and critical pedagogy within the educational system, and to understand the Black middle-class, especially in the South, respectively. I own these two books but I'm rapidly realizing that upon leaving Harvard and losing access to its 15 million books--the fourth largest book collection in the world after those of the French, British, and U.S. governments--I won't have free access to many others I'm interested in reading. At one point during my Harvard career, I felt that the best education that this esteemed University could give students would be providing us with access to these immense literary resources and then subsequently facilitating unrestrained (oxymoronic phrase?) discussions amongst students and faculty while providing us with a variety of opportunities for experiential learning--the greatest educational tool, in my opinion. In some ways I still feel like that would have been best...

In making this big move in life, one of the biggest things I'm going to have to take care of (maybe one of my classmates in MTC can help me out with this) is getting a license. I need one. Soon. Due to the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, many people look at me aghast when I tell them I don't have a driver's license. They forget to realize that (1) my hometown of Trenton is MAD small...just eight square miles and very walkable and (2) I went to college in metropolitan Boston on a campus easily accessible to airport, commuter rail, train, bus, and subway systems--cars are extraneous.

I'm also trying to figure out where I'm living in Jackson, the city I've been placed in by MTC. My heart tells me that I need to live around the kids that I'm teaching in a neighborhood where I feel like I can personally identify with the residents and their life experiences (bye, bye Harvard Square!). That would put me in West Jackson, most likely. A neighborhood that's been described by fellow MTCers as "a mess of highly-impoverished living conditions," that they don't drive through at night and that contains limited positives. One of my fellow MTCers even wrote, "West Jackson carries a reputation for violence and gang activity. Many of my students live there, but, again, I don't frequent that side of town." I know that few people willingly live in dangerous, crime-filled neighborhoods but the perceptions of West Jackson bother me for numerous reasons. Not only do I feel that not living in West Jackson would give me a view of my students that was less than ideal while limiting my understanding of their living conditions and lives if I don't frequent their neighborhoods (I guess home visits would be out of the question), but I feel that Trenton also has a reputation similar to West Jackson. People think that walking down the street is immediately going to get you shot, robbed, or assaulted, and that everyone who lives there is poor -- though that's not the case. Statistics on crime and lopsided media accounts in the local paper don't tell you the whole picture. Additionally, I feel like more Black professionals are needed in neighborhoods like West Jackson, so that people have role models in their immediate surroundings, not ones that live on the other side of town and just do their teaching as a nine to five. I guess I'll leave my decision of whether or not I should live in West Jackson to next month when I get chances to visit and look at residences out there.

Summer School Blog (return to top)

Evaluative Questioning - June 21,2007

This week I used a questioning technique from Level 6 of our resource file. I gave my students assignments that had them take a particular position on a controversial issue and argue why their position makes sense. For instance, fourth period I asked my students to argue whether then-Governor Calvin Coolidge's decision not to re-hire the policemen that went on strike during the 1919 Boston Police Strike was just or unjust. I haven't graded these yet but I hope that they're good and deep. The students seem very good at spitting back information from books and handouts, but of course, I'm not fan of the "banking" concept of education. Shout-out to Dewey and Freire. Third period I used evaluation questioning as well when I asked my students to argue for and against the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles as if they were Senators from Mississippi. After that section of the lesson, I asked for a volunteer to read me back one of their answers and they seemed imaginative and reflective of critical thought. Wonderful.

A lot of times the questions that I ask seem to fall on deaf ears. A recurring theme in my evaluators' comments has been to make my questions clearer and easier for my students to comprehend so that they can give me back the answers that I'm looking for. I don't want to "dumb down" what I'm asking (and I'm sure that's not what my evaluators mean) but I do what to ask tough questions to my students that require critical thought--not just regurgitation.

Of course, I'm still in college-mode to a significant degree where questions are difficult and complex and philosophical and are asked after students do hundreds of pages of assigned reading. Nevertheless, I thoroughly believe that my students in Holly Springs can get to this point where they can articulate their thoughts and understandings of our U.S. history materials in meaningful and creative ways. It starts with expectations and I'm setting them high. Deal with it!

Some of the questions I asked seemed to almost come straight out of the Level 6 suggestions from our resource file. These questions include "Do you agree with the actions...?" and "What judgment would you make about...?" Does this mean that I innately want my students to get to the evaluation level of information processing? Of course. The ability to evaluate and, more importantly, criticize historical decisions is crucial to social studies instruction. Ideally we would eventually bring in current events as well, and have students critically discuss these. Far too often people who have not been engineered to challenge established authority (usually they're young, minority, and not middle-class or wealthy...surprise, surprise) accept decisions from their "higher-ups" and societal leaders with reflecting on them. For these reasons, I feel that evaluative questioning is crucial to getting students in a challenging mode. We're working towards critical pedagogy, folks. One day at a time...

First Day Blog (return to top)

The First Few Days - August 10, 2007

So teaching at Humphreys County Junior High School and High School has gone pretty well these first few days. Like most first-year teachers fresh from college, I was nervous going in but was not nearly as nervous as I thought I would have been. A number of things contributed to this, including my previous training in the Mission Hill Summer Program in Boston and my summer teaching with Teacher Corps in June and July. I'm no stranger to the classroom, "tough" kids, or academic rigor, so things have been fine on that front.

I've been surprised by how difficult it actually has been to remember kids' names. Of course certain kids get their name remembered ASAP because I have to continuously remind them to stay on task or continuously call on them to stop them from talking or drifting off. However, I still don't know the overwhelming majority of my kids' names. Of course, this morning is starting off only the third day of school and I've only seen two of my classes once (2nd and 3rd period 8th grade history) but in time those things should improve. Some people would say that you shouldn't start doing anything serious until you know all your kids names, but with over 120 of them, and lots of material to cover, that's far easier said than done.

I think my best moment so far came when I was going to Super Value yesterday with Karl, my fellow first year and current housing savior (yeah...still not secure). I was a little nervous about going out and about Belzoni now since school has commenced and a lot more residents, especially kids, know me. As I was walking from the parking lot to the store with Karl and talking about this, from my right I hear a young female voice yell, "Hey, Mr. Amutah!" I turned and saw one of the 8th graders in my homeroom/first period class with her mother waving to me. I was stunned, excited, awkward, and happy all at the same time. This is what I sought: community. The type where teachers aren't geographically detached from their students and they act as an active and visible member (dare I say role model?) for students. I think this is what I've found.

Reflection - Delta Life, Discipline (return to top)

“I’m Just Doing My Job.”- T.I.  - September 16, 2007

In the spirit of Ms. Mayo's mid-9 weeks reflection, I think I'll just offer a fraction of her insight into my own first month and some change in one of the toughest professions known to humankind.

First, the good. I love my students. For real, for real. I do. Even the ones that threaten to "thump" me (meaning beat me up) and roll their eyes every time I open my mouth, as if my class is akin to Middle Ages-era physical torture. I feel a personal identification with them that I can't begin to fully describe. It's based on more overt similarities between myself and my students along the lines of race, age, and geographic location though it's also based on less well-known attributes my students and I share(d) at one point or another along the lines of class, musical interests, and political leanings. Another good thing: I love the Delta. I love my small town that's less populous than my high school in Jersey.

I love the fact that I'm known by my first name or last name by people like the owner of my favorite clothing store in town, the superintendent of my district, the cab driver/tour guide in town, and others. I love the pace of things out here and the friendly folk I meet every day. I love the bountiful catfish that the Delta offers at myriad restaurants that dot highways and byways across this region. It's a beautiful thing. A final good thing: I'm getting better at what I do. I'm constantly getting papers back to students quicker. I'm constantly thinking up new ways to address what could have once been considered trite curriculum. I'm  working my students' IEPs into my lesson plans more and more and addressing the various intelligences of my students better and better. That's really wassup.

Secondly, the not so good. The feelings that I'm becoming more of an autocrat than I'd like to be. On some level, I definitely know that my students realize that Mr. Amutah's discipline policy is not nearly as strict as Ms. So-and-so or Mr. What's-his-name. I don't want to be a teacher from whom my students cower in fear. Fear is stronger than love, or so it's been said, but I definitely find myself going for love despite my advice to others. I have to figure out how make the switch to not being so much of a pushover in certain situations, but still maintain  the respect and cooperation of my students without constantly sending them out of my classroom or paddling them (I haven't done the latter...yet).

Also not so good: my ability to "leave school work at school." I don't. I work. A lot. I'm a “first person in, last person out” type of teacher right now. I usually get to my school around 7 a.m. and stay until 5:30 or 6 p.m. when our custodians are surprised to see me coming down the long, dark hallway from my class and say, "Oh, I didn't even know you were still here." After I get home, I usually have an hour of downtime (meaning eat, change clothes, fix up my house or something) and then I work for numerous more hours at home lesson-planning, grading papers, etc. On many nights I've done a little work after getting home, then eaten a big dinner--usually my only real meal of the day--and then have gone to bed around 8/9/10 p.m. after setting my alarm for 3/4/5 a.m. so that I can get up and work some more. Not cool. My communication with loved ones back in the Northeast from D.C. (big sis) to Philly (lil sis) to Jersey (mom, brothers) to Boston (wifey) has suffered in light of this grind.

Still, I'm here...

Classroom Stories (return to top)

Famous Firsts - October 1, 2007

Firsts of my teaching career that all happened today:

First #1 - First time a student was paddled in front of me.

Context - A student in my first period class (who is very academically astute but seems to have a slight temper problem and talks badly about people in the class) got into it with a girl sitting next to him. After some unpleasant comments were made back and forth regarding each other’s waist sizes and that of their mothers, I sent him outside of the classsroom. I planned to talk to him in a couple minutes and then allow him to come back inside. Before I could do that, he returned to class followed by the football coach who was wielding a paddle and a smile (the student plays on our football team). I thought that he had already hit the student, though what came next really surprised me. The 6'5, 250 lbs. man proceeded to give the 5'6, 140 lbs. student three solid "licks" in front of my whole first period class. After the first "lick" I said, "Thank you, Mr. ____." Perhaps it was an uncontrollable, reflexive defense mechanism of my own, brought about by seeing a student of mine beat in a disgraceful fashion. I didn't want to see more "licks" administered, but the coach said, "Aww naw, there's more." After the public shaming, coach made the student shake MY hand and say, "Thank you." The student attempted to return to his seat, rubbing his bottom all the way, but the coach asked him, "Thank you for what?" The student returned to the front of the class, shook my hand again, and said, "Thank you for caring."

First #2 - First fight broken-up in class.

Context - Two students in my second period class, normally jokesters that try to act hard, got into it. One of them (let's call him "M") stuck out his leg as the other one (let's call him "N") attempted to walk by. N pushed M hard in response. M pushed N back from his chair and then stood up to face N and talk tough. By the time this happened, the whole class was looking. This has happened a few times before between students in my classes and usually my voice or sending one of them out is enough to calm the situation. With their audience, both felt like they had to escalate the situation though it was clear that neither really wanted to fight. An additional push by each caused N to charge into M as if he were tackling him on a football field. Many desks moved and students stood up to watch and not get in the way. I pulled M and N apart quite simply before any actual punches were thrown. I then proceeded to walk both down to the main office of my junior high school, though I was stopped by the football coach who happened to be outside of his classroom door. I had forgotten that both are on the football team. He simply said, "Mr. Amutah, I'll handle this." Case closed.

First #3 - First time a student really sexually harassed me.


Context - A girl in my 5th period class who has slyly demonstrated her romantic interest in me for some time now asked me when I was getting married, out of the blue, during class. I responded with, "Who knows," and didn't think much of it. Other students responded with comments like, "Dag, he too old for you!" and similar statements indicative of their recognition that the young lady was asking me this for some particularly self-interested reason. This is the same girl that has mentioned things like birth control pills and her "headlights" to me, though not in sexually suggestive ways. Today, as we were walking back from lunch and neared a bathroom she linked arms with me and stated, "C'mon, Mr. Amutah. Let's go in there and do something freaky."

Student Issues Blog (return to top)

Why Are All My Students Failing? - October 10, 2007

This is a tough question to answer. I think a number of things are contributing to their struggles with my class--and many are related--so I'll just go through them one-by-one.

**First, let me start by saying that if I have a class of 20 students, about 18 of them are failing right now. In some classes, EVERYONE is failing.**

#1 - I’m not the most effective teacher around.

I know I'm still struggling with certain things (i.e. incorporating tactile activities into my lesson plans for those sorts of learners [reportedly, 40% of students] or making sure my lessons have the necessary student-specific modifications in them) and until I get these handled, certain students just aren't going to learn in my class. It's just tough going the extra, extra, EXTRA mile when I already feel like I'm going the extra, extra mile to be a good teacher. There's never enough, huh? I should really keep pushing until I reach every student, but these days I don't have the energy to pair with my philosophical drive to do such a thing. Every assessment I do where large numbers of students fail makes me re-think my methods and classroom environment and other things that impact student learning. Still, I have to remember that, at the end of the day, I'm not here to impart raw knowledge, necessarily. I'm here to inspire a want to learn and to get my students to think for themselves and challenge all that they've been told by teachers, parents, religious leaders or others to liberate their own minds first and then to share the liberation.

#2 - They're not used to my workload.

My students constantly complain that my class is too hard or that I think they're in college or something. I'm routinely asked for worksheets and more simplistic tasks as opposed to the more common writing/critical thinking assignments that I give out. None of my tests are multiple choice and I've only used matching of key terms once thus far (on tomorrow's nine weeks exam...the matching section won't be worth much). I think I noticed that I give out more work than most other teachers when progress reports came out a few weeks ago. At my junior high school, other teachers included only about five to seven grades and I think that that was about the total number of assignments that they'd given out thus far. I had around 10 grades, I believe...and that was just if I wrote down homework and classwork. That’s not counting quizzes, tests, and binder checks. I know my work is tough, but I try to frequently tell my students that they CAN do it. They just have to put forth the effort.

#3 - They don't push themselves.

My students are used to getting by with the type of work they've been doing above--worksheets and the strategic, well-timed regurgitation of facts. I'm different. If no/few teachers have ever pushed them to really work hard or they've never had to struggle with course material that engaged them in critical thinking beyond the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, then why should they work hard? I try to get students to see my class as a challenge. One that can be overcome with effort. However, they don't usually put that forth. As I said in the above paragraph....

#4 - They are too self-critical/concerned with perfection or see glasses as "half full."

When I pass back writing assignments, my kids sometimes get *angry* that I put red marks on their page and edit it. Some get mad that I read every line and don't just skim. They don't like seeing red marks. That's legit. Though most see it as, "I'm not good," or "I'm not good enough," and prefer to shut down rather than use my edits as a tool to work harder and write *better*. I started a new policy in my class a couple weeks ago, where, if I give you back a writing assignment with edits on it and you complete those edits and re-submit it for a grade, I boost up your grade on that assignment by 10 percentage points. A number of students have taken me up on this and I'm happy to see that. I put up writing process posters in my classrooms and I really hope that students get into the habit of revising their own stuff. Not just when writing in school, but in life in general. Revising future plans when things don't go right. Revising your close relationships when people attempt to pull you down. Revising your outlook on the potential held in a place like Belzoni, despite its size (which is still declining). My students need to be comfortable looking critically at things around them and working to make them better. It's not easy. But it can and should be done.

Reflection - Delta Life, Student Relations (return to top)

Hindsight is 20/20 - November 19, 2007

Many of my male students at Humphreys County High and Humphreys County Junior High claim affiliations to large, Chicago-based gang conglomerates such as the Folk Nation or the People's Nation. Usually I laugh them off and say something like, "Ya'll don't know nothing about no gangs." Through my use of triple negatives, I think that my point gets across to my students. A popular misconception at my school is that I'm from Africa/Nigeria as opposed to my parents. I try to constantly remind my students that I was born and raised in New Jersey but their cognitive dissonance is at times impenetrable. They seem to just not be able to fully register that, despite my name, my nominal ability to speak Igbo, and my (over?) emphasis on African history and geography in my WORLD history and WORLD geography classes, that I am American, by and large. I am often reminded of this by my cousins, mother, and international friends and it is something that I have to accept. In any event, I feel that the more I relate myself to my students the better, and thus, the more I speak in slang around them and make references to rap and my upbringing (not long before them) the better. This is also why I'm averse to wearing ties too much or talking about where I went to college. These things serve to augment the socioeconomic and experiential rift between my students and myself that I aim to bridge.

One of the biggest things that I constantly lecture my students about is the impact of their own actions and choices on their future. I wish that I could show my students the potentially deleterious impact of particular, crucial choices that they are faced with daily. From doing their assignments, to not doing them,  acting up in school or not acting up, selling drugs/having babies to not selling drugs/having babies, life is all about choices. Despite what the students see around them daily, they seem to feel (like many teenagers and young adults) that they will be the exception to the culture, rule, or statistic. I wholeheartedly support this belief in certain manifestations and tell my students that, despite the realities of what is seemingly ubiquitous to their surroundings, they can be different. But being different requires immense fortitude, foresight, and HARD, hard work. If not, local trappings await you. Take for example this kid, who, although from a neighboring and comparably safer town to Trenton called Hamilton, was caught in the wrong part of Trenton at the wrong time in my neighborhood. Seventeen years old. Minority. Gang member. Shot dead in the street.

I tell my students things that other adults in their lives may not because I love them. I really do. Even (or especially) the ones that give me tough times or don't do their work or have significant learning disabilities that inhibit them from getting the most out of my class. Those are the ones who are truly "at risk," in my opinion, and who are only a few steps away from dropping out and entering a lifestyle that I'm sure in their heart of hearts they do not want to lead. People often stereotype the types of students that I and other MTCers teach as thugs, welfare queens, rejects, or whatever. I don't buy it though. I know thugs. I grew up and formed strong bonds with some. I've ran from their bullets when I was only 11 years-old. I've ducked down in my house from their automatic rounds during drive-bys. I've cautioned my little brother of wearing particular gang-affiliated colors when walking through our neighborhood. I've been cautioned of doing the same when I was around his age (16) and thought I was invincible. I know my students. I know that none of them are thugs. Not the 16 year-old in my 3rd period 8th grade class who gets sent out almost daily and has a 0 average in my class thus far. Not the 18 year-old kid in my 9th grade world geography class who's on probation for selling drugs and literally may not own a pencil, pen, or notebook. They're both good kids. Kids that in another environment with a different family and in a different school setting could be just fine. I just hope that they let me be their teacher and not the much harsher, permanent teacher of experience show them the way.


Reflection - Final (return to top)

The Good, the Bad, the MTC Experience - April 13, 2009

My first attempt at this blog ended after summarizing various miseries on two hand-written pages.  Not even I believe that my MTC experience was that bad.  So, I’ve decided to give voice to the good and the bad equally.

The Facts

The Good

The Bad

Well, okay, I’m over my word limit and writing about these things in depth will affect my good mood.   The details are straightforward anyway.

Grading  (return to top)

Man, I’m so good at math. I got a 93. - December 21, 2008

Teachers, please answer:

Is it better to boost grades to inspire confidence in your subject, or to leave grades undoctored to serve as a reality check?

Here are my thoughts on the benefits of each side (drawbacks obviously follow inversely...).

Boosting Grades:

Students like the class more because they think they are good at it.  They enjoy coming to class and would be more likely to pursue the field.  In math classes especially, boosting grades fights the I'm-no-good-at-_____ virus which spreads all too easily.

Not Boosting Grades:

Students earned their low grade by not studying/doing classwork/etc, so they have realistic feedback about their accomplishments; this reinforces (introduces?) the connection between effort and achievement.  Students also can't take the class lightly because they are either failing or not earning the grade they want/need.  Students learn that the minimum effort is not enough to pass.  The teacher gets a reputation for being tough, so students take the teacher's future classes more seriously.

So I've come up with more benefits to realistic grading.  Lately, though, I've begun to see both how far a little confidence goes and how quickly students give up after they receive low grades.  I guess it's all about balance.

other thoughts?

Advice To Prospective Teachers (return to top)

Why Should Someone Join MTC? - December 10, 2008

My response to an email inquiry about MTC:

1) MTC is a small program of about 25 teachers per year.  We all train together, go to Master's classes together, and are a social network.  I like having a support group that is as well-established and reliable as ours.  


2)  MTC offers a free master's degree with a program tailored to us and our experience.


3) MTC gave us a free laptop.


4) MTC is an extremely well-run, intimate program.  They look out for us individually, and we look out for each other.  We mentor each other and check up on each other.  TFA has its own support systems, but I get the feeling that it is more of a corporation than a family.  We are a family.


Other logistics-- MTCers are spread out all over the state, so all 25/50 of us do not live in one place.  Instead, anywhere from 2-9 of us will be in the same county/area, and most of us choose to live together.


If you are going to teach in a high-needs area, I recommend MTC wholeheartedly.  I think it is extremely well-run.  The people are of amazingly strong character, heart, and intelligence.  If you like privacy and want to try this job out on your own, this is not the place for you-- we blog about our experiences and check in with each other.


My only warning is to make sure you really want to teach in a high-needs area.  It is very very hard.  Teaching in high poverty schools is physically and emotionally taxing.  Sometimes pure determination is not enough.  You need to be a very stable and patient person.


Alright, I hope I helped!  I love MTC and have no regrets about joining it.  This job is incredibly stressful, but the program I'm in does a lot to help me through it.  (and I'm almost done!)  I think it was a good experience for me, but I didn't necessarily enjoy it-- I spent my first year on the verge of quitting.  It's like that for everyone, though, and that's how MTC helped me-- we were all in it together.

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Advice for the First Month of School - August 14, 2008

I don’t think I have much advice that hasn’t been said before, but, well, let me blog.  I could write a story or paragraph about each bullet point here, but I'm not feeling it.  It's a lot to type.  Call me if you are interested. Or if you are bored.  Or if you are interested in being bored.  

Essentials for Basic Survival

1) Don’t work too much (i.e. absolutely no more than a total of 3 hours outside of school per day, aim for 1-1.5).

2) Sleep.

3) EAT.  Eat well and eat often.

4) Find something you enjoy doing after school (running, walking, talking to a neighbor, painting, baking, writing, yodeling, whatever)

Advice for the Living

5) Don't be forgiving of misbehavior because students aren't used to your rules yet.  They know your rules.  If they forgot, the consequences will cement the rule in their minds.

6) Don’t reinvent the wheel.  Your time is in very limited supply, so don’t waste it.  Find resources you can print off or photocopy or "steal" from other teachers.

7) Make and find shortcuts—streamlined systems, easy grading.  Don’t grade everything you assign.

Pointers for Efficiency

8) Use your activities well. Have students check their homework and review/correct tests.

9) Go at the pace of your students.  Too fast or too slow causes problems.  They will let you know.

10) Show interest in your students without losing your classroom management. Greet them outside of class, be receptive to their hobbies and stories. Some of them can be annoying or frustrating or clingy or bratty, but they will respect you more if they sense that you care about them.  And, face it, you do.

Failures (return to top)

A Failure Story: April 4, 2008 - June 2, 2008

I decided to stop teaching Geometry on April 4th.  Starting April 5th, my students did review worksheets, watched movies, worked on projects (supposed to be learning experiences), or took meaningless, repetitive notes.  The first question in my mind while planning for periods 5-7 became “How am I going to keep them quiet and away from me?” instead of “What should they learn?” or “How can I most effectively teach this?”  I became the babysitter teacher.

Here’s a journal entry (copied, pasted, and bleeped) from April 4th about my Geometry students.  FYI, my district policy is a mandatory 80% pass rate on tests, and my Geometry classes had 28+ students in each:

They don’t work.  They don’t care.  They copy other people’s work.  They don’t study.  If I force them to do their own work, they don’t think on their own so I get driven completely f***ing nuts doing and explaining everything.  If I let them work in groups, no one works; no one does anything except the really motivated people, and everyone else just copies.  They don’t learn anything, then the test scores are bad.  If tests are too bad, I have to retest.  They’ll all fail on Monday because they won’t study the study guide. Or maybe they will.

F*** this.  I’m tired.  I’m mad at myself for not teaching them today.  For saying f*** you to them.  I’m just too tired to teach Geometry anymore. I explain it on the notes and then have to explain it again and again and again.  I hate it.  There are too many kids.  There are too many kids.  There are too many.  Too many.  If my classes were half this size, I might enjoy it, but I’m just burnt out now.  I’m so f***ing tired of teaching them.  I’m not going to teach them anymore.  I don’t like doing it.

I needed a vacation.  My students needed an invested teacher. I didn’t quit the position, but I did quit caring about their learning.  That is certainly failing as a teacher, and I consider it my biggest classroom failure.  But is disinvestment a sign of failing/failure under the conditions at HSHS?

I don’t think so. Even though I stopped designing stellar lessons, I still gave the students who cared the opportunity to learn.  Even though I reached my breaking point, I didn’t break.  If I had pushed myself any harder, I would’ve left HSHS altogether by April 9th.  Giving up class lessons was the only way for me to remain in the classroom and keep trying to teach someone something.  It was definitely not an ideal solution, but HSHS has never had an ideal solution for anything.

Despite everything, I’m sorry.

Reflection - First Year (return to top)

First Year Reflection - June 18, 2008

I found the following note to myself while I was cleaning out my school things the other day:

Things I learned today 10/29/07:

-    our superintendent sells us out, bending over backwards to please the parents

-    6th period doesn’t care at all.  They don’t pay attention, even when I give them the answers.  Today I tried lecture  (they’re bored and talking), example (bored, no attention, talking), individual problems (too hard), answers to #1 and #5 (bored and talking), you do the rest (too hard).

-    I need to call home and keep parents updated (CYA)

-    I broke up a fight in 4th period

-    The best way to handle this job is to have emotional detachment from everything.

I think that’s a pretty fair snapshot of my year.  By January, I had given up on trying to win my class over with activities they enjoyed and moved into a more “shut up and sit down, you’ll do what I say” approach to my classroom (which worked a lot better).

Yesterday I met up with a past student of mine who is going to a math summer camp next week (yay!!).  I helped her with matrices and fractals to give her the leg-up on the other students in the program.  Talking about row reduction with her over sweet tea and ice cream reminded me of why I burnt myself out tutoring this year.  After a day of students resisting me, resenting me, or (sometimes preferred, sometimes not) ignoring me,  I needed that individual bond with a student—to watch her/him process the information and, more importantly for me, help her/him to trust me enough to make a mistake.

I don’t think I did the best job of being prepared for my students.  I think I was more frazzled than I needed to be because of my last-minute nature.  One the other hand, I know I couldn’t have done any better in letting my students know that I care about them.  Before school, after school, during my planning period, I was there for them.  During class, I’d check up on every single student, work with each one, encourage each one, smile at them, rub their shoulders or pat their backs.  This took a lot of energy from me, but it was definitely worth it.  I don’t think I would’ve made it through the year if I couldn’t care about my kids.

Next year, I want to be more prepared.  I don’t think I want to get rid of tutoring, but I have to figure out a way not to burn myself out.

Classroom Stories (return to top)

A Farmer, a Goat, a Wolf, and Some Cabbage - April 28, 2008

Today I gave my Transitional Algebra students a river crossing puzzle.  If you've heard it before, I told it with my own spin to get their attention.  Here's the (shortened) story:

A farmer is sitting at home one night when his wife starts complaining that they have no money.  So, the farmer decides that he can sell his goat, some cabbage he raised, and a wolf he just caught.  So, the farmer starts traveling towards the market and comes upon a river.  Oddly enough, there's a boat waiting for him, but it's small so he can only take one thing across the river with him at a time.  He can't leave the goat with the cabbage since the goat will eat the cabbage.  He also can't leave the wolf with the goat since the wolf has been looking pretty hungry lately.  How can the farmer get across and get to the market without anything being eaten? (He needs all the money he can get.)

Instead of brainstorming the different orders to take things across, my kids had the following suggestions:

-make the goat get pregnant, then you have two goats to sell

-Milk the goat and sell the milk

-put a muzzle on the wolf

-put a muzzle on the goat

-put the cabbage in a box, but not a paper box because goats eat paper

-leave the wolf cause I don't like wolves anyway

-make the goat swim

-kill the wolf and just take the meat to the market

-kill the goat and do the same

-put the cabbage under your shirt and take the goat with you


They may not think like mathematicians, but they sure do think.

Advice to Incoming Teachers (return to top)

Advice for the Incoming - April 13, 2008

To know

You are prepared to teach, but you will not feel that way and that's okay.  You will feel completely unprepared for most things for almost your entire first semester in your own classroom (maybe longer), and everyone else feels that way, too.  It's okay.

Remember that you are doing a good job, even if you are 100% certain you aren't.  You are, trust me.  You care, you are trying, and you are smart.  You're doing a good job.

I went to a workshop on classroom management with Crystal (and Molly in spirit), and the instructor gave us these stages that a teacher goes through.  This is the "Impact on Teachers of Students with Atypical Behavior."  I've experienced a mixture of these feelings all year, so I'd guess that you'll experience your own concoction, too.  Again, this is regarding your problem students-- the lower 40% of your classes:

1) Bewilderment: Teachers feel they have tried everything and nothing seems to work.

2) Exhaustion: Teachers go home exhausted.  They are just trying to maintain and get through each day.

3) Anger: Teachers say the student is just not trying and will often become frustrated with the student.

4) Revenge: Teachers say the student is just not trying and will often become frustrated with the student.

5) Guilt: Teachers often feel sorry for the student, will lower their expectations, and accept failure.

6) Inadequate: Teachers take on the blame for the student's failure; they may question their own skills, resign, move or retire.

No matter what you experience regarding your classroom-- fear, excitement, embarrassment, pride, inadequacy, over-qualification-- you are not alone.  Reach out if you need to, take time for yourself if you need to, take care of yourself.

I don't mean to scare you.  You will have good days, too, but those are easy to handle.  Write to yourself about the good days and hold on to the nice things students write or say to you.

To do

Practice saying, "Good Job!" "Awesome!" "Perfect!" "Nice!" "Great!" because your students should hear that about 4,000x a day.

Get your life in order.  Organize yourself so when the year starts your life doesn't feel so chaotic (because your job will).  Find a bank, open a checking account, understand your finances/loans/etc,  register your car, clean your house, settle in to your town, etc.  You'll want life's things to run smoothly when the year begins.

Get a hobby and a workout routine.  You'll need to have escapes from work that are easy to fall back on when you are stressed. If you walk, find a walking path in your town that you like.  If you swim, find a pool.  If you lift, find a gym, etc.

And, very important, gather some fun things for your classroom!!  (Horde whatever may come in handy in the classroom.  Buy things on sale-- posterboard, markers, stickers, expo markers.)  Gather books, puzzles, brainteasers, posters, magazines, individual games, group games, free stuff.  I hate my kids being idle in the classroom, so I have a closet of block puzzles, brainteasers, books, and other random stuff.  When they finish a test or an activity early, I slip them something.  And you know what, my students aren't used to brain-teaser games at home, so they love playing with them at school!  Kids ask me all the time for my block puzzles, and one kid tried to steal them...  anyway.  Have things ready to stimulate the smart kids who finish early or the ADD kids who can't stay focused on one thing for too long.

Classroom Stories (return to top)

True Feelings / Optional Blog - April 7th, 2008

My true feelings on April 7, 2008.

My kids just bombed a really easy test and I'm glad.  They don't ever do anything, and they deserve to have failed.  The five students who actually pay attention got 100s, I can tell already without grading the tests, and everyone else failed.  good.  F*** them.

I've worked my a** off this entire year for my students.  FOR MY STUDENTS.  Not for me.  Not for Dr. Hayes.  Not for Ben Guest.  Not for anyone but them.  And they just want to come in here and fuck around.  They didn't even want to stop playing when I tried to introduce the test.  After not doing anything for a week, wouldn't your ears perk up and hang on every word the teacher says before a test you are completely unprepared for?

My kids want to play.  They don't want to learn.  50% of them want to play and will play no matter what.  25% of them go along with the crowd.  The other 25% are the 25% that deserve better.

Every f***ing piece of paper I've graded and lesson plan I've written and worksheet I've pored over for hours has been for them.  They don't deserve a minute of my time when they act like this.  What kills me the most is that they DO deserve this time and attention, but I don't deserve to be treated like this.  They act like fools all day when they aren't, and that pisses me off.  5th period is going to want to come back from lunch and play.  The worst part is, I need to work now a little harder to give them something to do.  Maybe I won't.  Maybe I'll pull something from the book.  Anyway.

I'm in a bad mood. For the first time, my bad mood is not directed at myself. It's pointed directly outward, and I take no responsibility for the lack of learning that's happening here.  I've done my job, am doing my job, and can't do anything more.  I know that now, so, F*** You 75% of my students.  I love you, but F*** you.

Parent/Administration Relations (return to top)

An interesting interaction with a parent - March 10, 2008

As parent conference night wound down in early January, Mrs. Pegues came up to me by saying, “Miss Doyle, I have heard so many good things about you!” Really? I’d never seen her before and I don’t teach any of her children, but she’d heard about me somehow.

Awesome!  Without hesitation, Mrs. Pegues exhaled complaints about her son’s scheduling and grading problems.  How can a math teacher lose a student’s grades for the entire semester? (welcome to Holly Springs).   Why are incompetent teachers rehired for 18 years or more when everyone knows that they don’t DO ANYTHING?!

I felt like I was in good, educated company.

I asked her what she thought the biggest problems were at HSHS, expecting her to say overcrowded classrooms and poor discipline.  Instead, she said morale.

“By the time students get to be seniors here, they’ve just given up.  They know that no one listens to them, that no one cares, and they’re tired of trying… There is such a negativity in these halls.  Students just want to get out.  They don’t care about their grades, nuthin. They just want to graduate.”

And she’s right.  I asked my students last week what they think about HSHS, and many of them said that the administration doesn’t care what they think.   One of my students approached me with a look of hope, “Mid’dole, you gonna do somethin’ about what we said?”  

It broke my heart.  “They’ll listen to you” was the implication.  

I didn’t know how to answer.  I’ll try to do something, but I don’t know what I can do.  The administration is so backwards and broken, what can I do?  Wait until Mr. Chase leaves and is replaced. Pray that his replacement has a little more common sense and a much bigger heart.

For right now, I’m still gathering data.  This is how I operate.  Pretty soon, I’ll be speaking up.  I’ve got to figure out most effective channels first.

Administration relations (return to top)

A meeting with my assistant principal - November 13, 2007

My assistant principal told me today that sending students out of my room should be an extremely rare occurrence-- like once a semester.  WHAT?!  Do we work at the same school?  I guess I should have caught on because she (or whoever is in the office at the time) keep sending students back to my room when I send them out.  Is it just me?  Do they send students back to other teachers' rooms?  Why does that seem like a good approach?  If I sent a student out, how does putting him/her back in my room benefit what is going on in my classroom or my authority?  WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?  How am I supposed to conduct class with students who can yell, disrespect, or ignore me with no consequences beyond writing assignments (which they throw away).  The referrals don't get handled for at least a month-- that's a free ticket for students to do anything they want whenever they want (Alright, phone calls home, I've been doing some, not enough, of that.  But my point about referrals remains).

More excitingly, my assistant principal also encouraged me to press charges against a student who's grabbed and hugged me twice in the hall and followed me into (INTO) my car.  I should and will (especially after today's encounter-- he grabbed my upper arm and wanted to escort me to the library. He didn't let go-- I had to pull away).  I just don't want to deal with this.  I don't want this to be part of my job. I don't want the confrontation of it all.  I just want LR to leave me alone.  But, it's pretty clear he's not going to stop on his own.  F*** the whole thing.

The most interesting thing about talking with the asst principal about LR was that she kept saying, "If something else happens, the heat's going to come back on the school.  Now that you've reported it, I've got to do my job about it.  So you should press charges."  WHAT?  Is her job telling ME to press charges?  I don't think so.  Part of it is, probably, but she should also be doing things like getting him out of my class or, say, making some kind of consequence.  I don't even know what is supposed to happen with this kind of thing.  The handbook is amazingly vague about the whole situation. The most specific consequence I could find was three days suspension.  Ha.

Why am I teaching under these conditions?

Classroom Management  (return to top)

Response to the Reluctant Disciplinarian - July 1, 2007

    When I started reading the Reluctant Disciplinarian about two weeks ago, I was scared I would fall into the  same problems as Rubinstein.  That I would try to have my kids like me, try to be the "free form" new-age teacher or something.  His mistakes seem natural for someone coming straight out of college: I didn't enjoy busy work or endless rules when I was in high school, either.  But he makes the good point that students expect a teacher to do certain things and act a certain way.  To maintain control, teachers need to maintain respect, which they won't keep by acting like a student.  Or at least not proving teacher-dom.

        Based on my MTC award, "The Jekyll and Hyde Classroom Manager Award," I'm less worried about classroom management now than I was a few weeks ago (and when I read the book).  And let me explain: I don't yell at or Hulk-out on my kids.  I don't turn evil, and I don't make them cry.  I just will give a consequence or restate an instruction to a student as soon as he steps out of line, even if that means I have to go from Kinda-bubbly-and-very-excited-about-math Ms Doyle to Don't-even-think-of-tapping-that-pencil Ms Doyle (or Ms Dole, as my students call me) within 10 milliseconds.  Polay and Jeremy promise it's a good thing!  haha  My strange form of classroom management is not strange at all to me.  It just happens.  Which I guess is a good thing.  It probably happens because I honestly think my lesson is super-interesting and very important, so I don't see any reason for the students not to pay attention.  Obviously I realize that not all students like what I'm trying to teach them, but when I'm teaching I want my students' full attention to learn whatever beautiful thing we're learning.  In summary: I'm relieved to know that I do have an inner drive to keep a work-oriented classroom.

        To return to my intended topic... I did learn things from the Reluctant Disciplinarian.  No groupwork until the classroom is used to routine and the teacher knows the students relatively well.  Be yourself and be confident in yourself.  Ask for help.  "...Help students claim the power, and responsibility, for their education."  The best teacher I've ever known did that -- encouraged us to claim responsibility for our education.  I didn't realize that's what she did, but that's exactly what made her so great.  Mrs. Crosby didn't take crap or excuses, and she showed us that we shouldn't make these excuses for ourselves.  Our teaching styles are very similar, actually, but I'm definitely nowhere near her level. Maybe someday.  That's a good goal to have.

        The kids want the teacher to be in charge.  I loved when Rubinstein wrote about the feeling of it being time for another disciplinary lecture.  I totally know that feeling!  For me, I just want to check that my boundaries still exists.  Whether it's to be secure in those boundaries or learn that I don't have them anymore, I tend to push the limit every so often in my classes, jobs, or responsibilities. Having that in mind will be helpful and will help me anticipate and understand behavior problems-- it'll encourage me to use my classroom management, too, since that is what the kids are looking for.  Awesome.

        The last, best piece of advice was that teachers only have a certain number of words before the students lose patience and tune her out.  That makes so much sense, and I've felt that, too!  In college I would be hanging on a professor's every word for the first two classes... or one class... or half a class... and then I'd start to tune her/him out. Students do that!  Man, that inspires me to use those first two days to get procedures and rules understood. Honestly, I didn't see the urgency in dedicating the first few days to rules and procedures, but when I realize that students will quickly learn to tune me out, I know that I have to get those things in quickly at the very beginning.


Summer School (return to top)

Crisis - July 19, 2007

   Today I felt like I really might should leave the program. Before it really begins, I mean.  Even though the physical and verbal confrontation workshops have scared me, what's really made me miserable is the lesson planning.  I feel like I never have enough time, like all my lessons implode, and like somehow, even though I know what a good lesson is supposed to look like, I can't make it happen.  

        Every day this July, I've felt sleep-deprived and inadequately prepared.  Whether I stay up late or get up early, I end up losing key pieces of my plan, forgetting my photocopies or just being too dazed by the time my period comes around to remember what I'm doing.  

        I don't know whether it's the stress or the Southern food or the lack of sleep, but my stomach has been hurting a lot and today it was my head, too.  Full-time, I just want to find someplace to lie down and forget about how terrible my last lesson went, and the naps I try to take on the bus seem to only prolong the suffering.  

        It's depressing, in other words.  It's hard to keep a good attitude.  I need to taste success; I've become paralyzed and hopeless about my lessons.  Today I just gave up and taught a lesson that I knew was ridiculous.  We just read aloud and I asked them questions until the "bell" rang.  There was no independent practice and no learning.  I know.  But I just couldn't do it last night.  I couldn't write another worksheet, and besides, I didn't really know what my objective was.  Our curriculum this July has been so random, and somehow I have no ideas.  

        Ms. Savage talked to me most of the way home and forced me to articulate what I would do differently next time.  She re-explained the structure of a lesson plan and it felt like maybe I hadn't really understood it before; I just thought I had.  Maybe I've just been clinging to some hazy notion that there's another, less fussy way.  Maybe I'm addicted to the seminar.  I'm used to curiosity and interest being somewhere in everyone...I expect learning to be justified by the fact that it's fun, not because it's going to be on a test.  

        Learning how to teach hasn't been much fun so far, but the stakes, for me, are very high.

Student Behavior (return to top)

“Poor” Behavior - August 24, 2007

I guess it really exists.  Of course, it's too early for me to have positively identified which of my students are particularly impoverished (economically), but this week I have seen a good deal of "poor" behavior, or "behavior related to poverty", as Ms. Payne puts it (pg. 79).  I'll give a few examples.

Laugh when disciplined:  Today the cap of a pen was thrown at me in class.  As suggested during our crisis management workshop, I threatened the entire class with detention if I didn't find out who had done it. (Yes, this situation was given me to role-play this summer, and I had no idea what to do.  Jake suggested this threat while Elizabeth was for marching the whole class into the hallway for a stern lecture.  I was terrified of losing control of them in the hallway, so I went with the Roth approach.)  The reaction?  Students laughed and protested, and the two big football players started emphatically accusing each other while denying their own guilt.  I told them that they had just volunteered themselves for the detentions and they of course started massive protests about tonight's game and denials, etc., but what was interesting was that the whole time, they were laughing and smiling and grinning even while they claimed that this detention was the end of the world.  How bad of a disciplinarian am I?  I couldn't bring myself to follow through on this arbitrary assignment of blame nor explain to their coaches that they should be benched because they might have done something, so I forgave them both and tried to teach the lesson.

Angry response:  Several girls got furious with me today.  One told me that I should stop talking to her lest she "go off on me and get put out of my class."

Hands always on someone else:  Several of the boys do their best to spend every moment of the day with their arm around a girl, their feet on a girl's desk, their head on a girl's desk, tripping or lightly pushing a girl or tugging on a girl's hair, making comments to a girl, etc.  Ruby says that this means they rely on "non-verbal" data.  Huh?   I think it means that they have a one-track mind.  I think it means that there are many many people for whom sex and parties is pretty much all there is to look for in life.

Cannot follow directions:  I'm doing what I can to have everything on the board, repeat everything several times, and have students repeat what I say, but what mostly happens is that I have the attention of about one third of the class while the rest isn't listening at all, whether they’re quiet or not.  When I try to check in with these space cadets, the class just laughs and eventually I have to move on to someone else.  Then, they spend the rest of the lesson telling me that they don't know what they're supposed to be doing.  If I try to tell them, they try to change the subject.

Talk incessantly: I see that poverty is "very participatory" as Ms. Payne says.  At one point this week, I actually saw some pretty good reading groups take place.  At first I thought that they were off-task every time they got noisy, but after a while I realized that this often just meant that their participation was less orderly than a reading group of people like me would  be.  They were dissing each other some, but it seemed to be a natural part of their style, no harm meant.  The only problem was that there were now a few other students who wanted to work quietly and independently, and these were being disturbed.

        For the most part, I have been planning on structuring most class time around a substantial amount of independent work, but it seems now that this is going to be very difficult for me to accomplish.  The large majority of the students are extremely social and extremely lazy.  They won't any more work independently than they will compose a treatise on optics.  That leaves me feeling stuck between not being able to lecture on the one hand, and not being able to assign independent work on the other.  Hmmm.

It seems like you have this choice to make: do you set your expectations and hand out failing grades until most of them discover the motivation to meet your expectations, or do you  reassess your expectations according to your insight into the specific limitations and challenges of each student?  Ms. Payne is trying to help us understand the causes of "poor" behavior, but at the end of the day, does it really matter why they don't know what to do?  If you can't communicate with them verbally, what else is there but to show them a brick wall?  

 Reflection - First Days (return to top)

August 9, 2007 - First Few Days

They threw my copying assignments on the floor.  I'm not allowed to give detentions until tomorrow, but the counselor did the amazing and transferred a few of the problem students into my other periods to break them up as I'd asked her to do.  That may help.  Especially with that one period - Period 5, the one that I must take to lunch - things are pretty confrontational.  I hate my style.  I hate what I'm doing in this fairly large, encompassing sense.  They threw paper towels at me behind my back in the rest room.  

        But I'm not even sure that stuff bothers me.  My real problem is that I don't know what to teach.  I feel like a fraud, but maybe it's just been too long since I was in school.  I've forgotten a lot.  Plus, there's plenty that I never really have known about grammar and what not.  The kids can tell that some times I'm unsure of my knowledge; they can sense that my curriculum isn't secure.  I'm staring at the textbook.  It's trying to tell me how to use it to make lessons, but I don't see how I can get it together for tomorrow; I've had no practice.  I want to teach what I'm familiar with, what I'm comfortable with.  Flying by the seat of my pants all year sounds god-awful.  

        At least half of what I spent my time on before school started wasn't worth it.  The first day, three of the textbooks that I had carefully labeled, recorded on a spreadsheet, and stowed under each desk disappeared.  I've taken them all out and stacked them in a different corner for now, and I've re-arranged my desks into straight rows from a more audience-style seating that some other teachers had helped me create.  I look into the classrooms of veteran teachers around me and puzzle over how simple it all seems.  I walk back into mine, and it feels like ink has exploded all over the room.  

        Finally, I'm carrying around an enormous load of papers already - pre-tests and extra credit - that I can't foresee having time to grade, let alone diagnose for pertinent information on the level of each student.  I'll probably ignore my own data, for the most part, and look at the county website for their lexile levels or something.  Maybe someday I'll check whether so and so knew what a verb was at the beginning of the year, mostly to check whether they're forgetting more than they learn while they're with me.  

Classroom Management (return to top)

My Mistake - December 10, 2008

I found myself in the office during lunch today, apologizing to a student.  The young girl had been there since our morning class when she stormed out after I gave her expectations, i.e. a copying assignment punishment, for yelling in class.  

    See, the first thing I knew was that she was yelling out at somebody across the room, “Y'all better shut up talking to me!” The students were supposed to be, and I did suppose them to be, working on a narrative essay about a childhood experience, which I had assigned.  

    “D---,” I said, “This is your warning. You can't yell out in class.”

    She accused “them” of making some kind of noise.  I told her I hadn't heard it, which she found incredibly hard to believe, and she continued in her very loud voice to speak back to me and to her adversaries across the room, insisting that she wasn't going to stop until they did.  I told her to go out in the hall, where I went in a minute and berated her for yelling in class.  To her complaints, I repeated that I had not heard any noise from anyone else, that she was to blame for disrupting class, and that the only appropriate way for her to deal with the situation was to raise her hand and calmly tell me her complaints in private, etc.  She had only sullen looks for this, but I let her back into the class.  

    Soon enough she was yelling at them again.  I told her she had expectations.  She got up and asked if she could go to the office.  I pointedly told her that I couldn't stop her, and other students started murmuring that she would get a referral if she walked out of class.  She asked again, and I said the same thing.

    “You just want me to get in trouble,” she accused.  

    It occurred to me that often this was true; I often appreciate it when students get far enough out of hand that they end up leaving the class.  Things tend to get quieter after that.  But I told her that I didn't want her to get in trouble, I wanted her to take her seat and be quiet.  She left.  I figured I would deal with it later.  

    It was time for our restroom break, which we take together as a class, lining up in the halls and entering the restrooms four at a time.  I saw a girl yell “Stop it” at one of the boys, I didn't know why.  I guessed he might have pinched her or said something.  I asked her about it, but she wouldn't answer.  In a minute, another girl complained that some boys were making noises at her.  I spoke to the boys about being gentlemen and how I would punish them if they were harassing anyone.  I began to be suspicious that I didn't know what was really going on.  

    In the office, during lunch, I finally got to talk to D---.  She told me that the boys had been making sucking noises at her and telling her that she  . . . performed certain services for men.  That was what had upset her into yelling at them.  She had sat there all day, had given a statement to the counselor; the assistant principal was out but had said he would hear her case when he returned.  

    So I apologized.  I felt terrible.  She was crying.  Her tormentors had received protection from me and she had been blamed.  I tried to explain.  I tried to convince her that I was really on her side, that I could and would protect her, that she had only to approach me a little differently next time, that she only needed to trust that the adults would do something if she brought it to our attention instead of taking matters into her own hands.  I apologized.  Because I felt that nothing in my actions so far had given her any cause for believing this.  

    Two themes occur to me.  One is that this habit of defending oneself without faith that adults can provide protection is a common problem in low-income children.  The other is that, they may have a point.  Whether through training at MTC or through my innate perspective, I am so uptight about order in the classroom that I can totally mistake the more important threats to the students I teach.  D---'s safety is clearly more important than her willingness to work quietly.  As I patrol the behavior of my students, I think I focus on very superficial things.  It scares me how little I know about what is really going on.  

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Duck and Cover - April 29, 2009

Dear First Years,

This program you are entering fits the boot camp model on many levels, particularly in respect to the enormous respect for one another that you and your classmates gain.  I'm a bit of a skeptic at heart, none too love-y dove-y, but at this point I'd have to say that most of these people I graduate with are heroes to me.  

I'm not going to tell you about them all.  But one hero likes to make jokes whenever possible, and so he didn't level with you in his letter.  I'm going to quote from his portfolio what he said well about entering the program, when Ben asked him, “Why should someone do MTC?”

Sam replied, “Someone should figure out his/her own reasons for doing MTC.”

That's exactly what I was going to say.  Do you see the full consequences of that?  Have you read John Barth and do you know that nothing has inherent value?  You will have to bring the value to this experience; it's not here for you.  It's not a game, it doesn't match up with almost any vision of fun or even of reasonableness; it's more like something out of Alice in Wonderland or even 1984.  You had better find out quick why you're doing it.  Before I come back to this theme, let's hear Sam's answer to the follow-up question, “Why should someone not do MTC?”

    Teaching is one of the hardest professions out there.  It requires mental, emotional, and physical stamina.  Yeah, we teachers get three months off in the summer, but we pay for it the rest of the year.  I have had nightmares about my classroom.  I have had times where I could not do anything because I was so worried about the next time I would be in class.  I have had moments in the classroom where I have thought to myself "Oh shit, I've lost control of these kids for the year."

    When you teach it is almost impossible to leave your work at work.  I grade on the weekdays.  I plan on the weekends.  When people ask me what I do for fun, I'm a bit clueless.

   As a teacher your job is to mold raw materials into functioning students.  None of these raw materials looks or acts like any other.  Sometimes the raw materials don't want to be messed with at all.  Sometimes the raw materials don't even resemble any sort of materials at all.

    And it is a long-term commitment.  When I worked landscaping I remember hating my job some days, but I knew that, minus not having a job, I had no commitment to that job and could leave anytime I wanted.  As a teacher that is just not the case.  If I leave because of the  administration, I am hurting the kids.  If I leave because of the kids, I am hurting my coworkers.  As a teacher you basically commit from August to July - (almost) no exceptions.

So you've got to have reasons, and they've got to be your own.  I'll give you two or three examples.  Austin W. is another hero, and I think his reasons were always clear to him, but he's begun to talk about them because he was able to make them come true.  For Austin, the whole was worth it if he could prove that there were brilliant “raw materials” in the Delta that were worth his work and polish.  When his Delta students tied or beat all of the best private schools in the state for national Latin awards, he felt vindicated.  His goal: circumstance shall not always deprive the worthy of their potential.  

In contrast, I think other MTC heroes understood themselves more in terms of their impact on the lowest-achieving students, on the culture of the neighborhoods, or on test scores, or simply on their confidence level in the classroom.  Maybe all of us were ultimately shooting for the same thing in some way, like “making an impact,” but the difference would still lie in what we sought as proof that we had accomplished our goal.  

I never accomplished mine except on one level: that I never gave up.  Sometimes that seemed as foolish in me as it would be in Sisyphus.  But I was proving something to myself about myself: that I could maintain a commitment, work hard, face the music every day.  That's what kept me going to the point that goals about student achievement became secondary.  I'm not at all sure how that really adds up, whether it's admirable to spend two years on proving what you can do if you really have to. . . it's like joining the army to prove you're not a wuss and never mind that you don't know what the war's for.  Better to know what the war's for.  Better to believe that you're “making an impact” and to know what that would look like to you.  Either way, get ready.

Reflections - First Year (return to top)

My First Year Experience - April 28, 2009

My MTC Experience

I have already read several of my classmates' blogs on this topic, in addition to David Molina's model of excellence. Like Molina, I have hated and marveled at the idea of the assigned blog; however, I admit a kind of dependence on it: I now habitually read the work of those of my classmates who habitually begin early before beginning any project or blog of my own.  While I'm not trying to plagiarize, I do look to see how others have interpreted the requirements of the assignment, and sometimes it's at least tempting to emulate them.  This was never my style before entering the Teacher Corps – what does this transformation mean?

For starters, it means that I've never before spent so much time with technology, and this whole idea of using blogs and Powerpoints and pbwikis was brand new to me.  I was a member of the “old folks club” in my class.  I identified with George (who quit), Michelle, and Karl as not-of-the-average MTC generation, as over the proverbial hill with respect to the young, athletic, prime-of-life workaholics that filled out the rest of my class.  Chimaobi took my breath away with his blogs embedded with links and videos.  Even now, more comfortable with the computer than ever before, I regret the barrenness of my portfolio; these digital cameras they have these days are fascinating.  

So I've never before been in a class where peeking at other students' work was normal.  I want to say how I find it: useful because of the pointlessness of the assignments, interesting insofar as my classmates are so inherently.  In other words, the MTC blog assignment has ultimately become the unworthy archetype of my academic work, and as such, it is symbolic of my experience over the last two years.  

Throughout my time in MS, I became more and more distressed by the hypocrisy of my life as a teacher and member of the Teacher Corps.  The students in my classes felt exactly the same way about my lessons as I tended to feel about the lessons I was receiving in Oxford.  I would notice this every Oxford Saturday and every time I had to sit down to write something for one of MTC's classes (with the exception of the class on Ed. Law which, ironically, was probably the least practical class we were given.) I'll try to break this down by category.  

First Summer

We fold paper.  I remember the part where we fold paper and the part where we learn about types of lesson plan/ styles of instruction by bullet point.  (I believe I can safely say that I mastered both of these skills.)  In the classroom at Holly Springs, I develop this horrible feeling of embarrassment and stress that grows in me for the rest of the year as a kind of incredible sense of indigestion.  I neither eat or sleep for the first couple of weeks of the school year, as I recall.

First Year; Fall

My students fail the tests I give them in such droves that I spend whole weekends trying to find an appropriate curve.  The sheer number of hours that I devote to work is dizzying; the inefficiency of my labor as daunting as the hill of Sisyphus. I carpool to the high school with a second year, bracing myself against the morning.  

First Year; Fall Methods Class

We read facts about Mississippi from lists.  The professor requires us to make a file folder, organized in a specific way.  I mistakenly assume we're supposed to then file lessons and worksheets that we've created; wrong, we're supposed to just file the handouts she's given us in class.  I narrowly escape an F because I am constitutionally incapable of believing that such an assignment could be required of me.  

First Year; Winter

I fly home to Boston and before flying back I cry in the airport for several hours and then cry on the plane.  

First Year; Spring

I give up.  I'm teaching, but I'm really just hanging on and waiting for the end of the year so I can quit and go back home.  I've moved out to a house near the high school so that I can a) sleep in an extra half hour and b) not spend time driving with that second year because she's very depressing and always needs me to listen to the bad parts of her day and we don't seem to have the same attitude about things.  

First Year; Spring

I give up quitting.  No, not in that way; I mean that before coming to Teacher Corps I'd been clean of cigarettes for two years, but now it seems like they sustain me.  I start sneaking off campus to smoke during my planning period.  It reminds me of my own days in high school, which involved a lot of this kind of sneaking off.  I wonder how in the world I ever got involved in this and whether God is all about irony.  

First Year; Spring; Mullins’ class

What is this thing called? Innovations in education?  Where do those come in?  Kozol says things stink.  Sure, that sounds right, so what?  What's the innovation?  Oh, we're to write a . . . a what? Design your own school district with strict accounting for your budget, etc, etc. . . Based on what part of our studies?  From where should we get our opinions on this?  Did I miss a class?  When was anything even remotely like this covered.  Ok, so I get it; let me see what my classmates did with this; Oh, wow, some of this is very good; well; I'll bs the best I can, I suppose.  Do you know that I've never done that before?  Seriously.  I don't bs.  Wait, now I do.  

First Year; Late Spring

I should quit; I shouldn't quit.  I hate this; what else will I do?  I'll never get better; sure you will.  Call everyone you know, what should I do?  Consistent: finish the program.  Ugh. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  ok.  

Second Summer

When did I get so cocky?  I think it's because my school let out a good week or more before I had to be in Oxford.  Somehow I get cocky whenever I have enough days off.  I start daydreaming and forget that none of it will ever work.  What a wonderful week.  I just clean house and sit in the yard and compose music on my porch.  It's all worth it.  Up in Holly Springs, man, can't wait to meet this first years.  I've got it all figured out.  I'm an amazing teacher.  Can't understand why my lesson plans always run over and there's no time for the assignment.  Must be something wrong with the clocks.  Shoot 'em with these here shotguns.   Thank God for these good people I know.  Really like them.  

I'm not going to go on in this style.  I can see how little I've said already, how few details I've managed to bring in, how boring it would be to go through another year.  Nothing so much changed.  The second year was like the first, a little easier and a little less interesting.  I worked way less hard; I played music with friends every night; and I dragged myself to school every morning with a bleary, ready-to-go lesson plan face. I got good at winging it with my first period lesson planning time.  I stressed out hard during my workday and let it all go after I left the building.  I built a social life in Jackson, and I made myself comfortable in my apartment.  Once in a while, I wondered about how to teach.  Once in a while, I had to do another assignment for MTC.  Cut and paste this blog and post it.

Teaching Style, Assessment  (return to top)

Assess Meant? - June 18, 2008

I don't like to lie; I really didn't have much of a clue most of the time what my students did or did not know about what I had taught.  When it came time for tests, almost all of my students would fail.  On revue, I saw that oftentimes there were at least a few test questions that were inexcusably vague or otherwise flawed. Many times the tests were written at a higher DOK level than the material had been taught.  Many times the material had only been taught once and I had done nothing to check the students' understanding before giving the test. Of course, the very worst was the first semester exam, which my principal, having rejected my proposed essay test, composed out of a district database of test questions that were almost totally irrelevant to what I had taught, simply because he believed that my test should be multiple-choice.

I don't know whether MTC failed to emphasize the importance of assessment during my first summer or whether the blame lies squarely with me for ignoring it.  My tendency was to focus on the set and the first half of the lesson. Definitely on me is the fact that I had time-management issues, which often resulted in the failure to give students an adequate chance to complete independent work, minimizing my opportunity to reflect well on what they had learned.

For next year, I plan to focus much harder on both pre- and post- assessment.  I taught many lessons without getting a good sense of what prior knowledge was available and closed many lessons without establishing what gains had been made.  At the time, I thought that I was teaching if students were engaged in my activities or paying attention to my lectures.  This summer I have started to work much harder at questioning all of the students in my class and checking in with their work regularly.  Next year, I want to spend more time getting to know the ins and outs of my students early on and setting goals for what they will accomplish with me.

As far as format goes, I have only grown more opposed to multiple-choice exams.  Too many times, there are answers which are defensible that get marked wrong.  These so-called "distractors" introduce the dilemma of marking an answer that actually makes sense incorrect. Again, the vocabulary and phrasing of the questions determines too much in such a test.  I think that the English II state test, for example, is a rather good tool for teaching teachers what they should be trying to accomplish through their curriculum, but not a very good tool for assessing whether they have done so.  Finally, it is simply boring and painful to prepare for and to review such tests.  Instead of encouraging students to generate their own sufficient answers, it reduces the lesson to pure strategy.

I got the most satisfaction out of creative projects, and I think that most of the students did, too.  The challenge here is definitely the rubric and the expectations.  I think that rubrics which delineate what is required for each level of letter grade are best. Some students may need a lower bar to aim for; presenting only the highest bar somehow gives them no idea that what they're actually producing is worth an F.

I plan to do portfolio assessments next year; I think that the student will benefit from the opportunities portfolios provide to take pride in the assembled productions, make choices about what to put the most energy into, and reflect on the quality of the work. I am to be a reading teacher next year, however, and so I am still in some doubt as to how much writing I can require.  I intend to push for it, though, because I think that writing and guided reflection on writing are the best way to show mastery of text.

Classroom Management (return to top)

Manage, if you can - June 13, 2008

Let me start with my warnings, and then proceed to my attempt at an explanation of my position.

First of all, there really are multiple ways to manage a classroom.  However, there are a number of pitfalls that can be avoided.  

There is no such thing as an inconsequential rule, any more than there is such a thing as an inconsequential law.  There may better and worse systems of consequence, but a law with no teeth is not a law. Therefore, we teachers must have teeth. An unwillingness to use your teeth is a willingness to forgive transgressions of your law. That is, your law absolutely will be disobeyed, and that continuously.  No amount of reminders will suffice to prevent future abuse.

That said, there is no law that you are obligated to create and enforce.  Focus on the behaviors that you actually care to prevent, and legislate accordingly.  You don't have to make them raise their hands if all you really care about is that they don't talk when you're talking, but then you have to actually give consequences and not warnings to students who talk when you're talking. And, as everyone has said, you absolutely do have to be consistent. I learned the hard way that students will positively eat you alive for inconsistency. You are the umpire at the ball game.  If you can't create the impression of impartiality and fairness, there will be no peace. On the other hand, you can be fairly draconian if you can be entirely impartial and fair.

Last summer, my classmates heard from several experienced teachers, and one of them suggested that we didn't need to give warnings.  At the time, most of us felt that this was too cruel.  Students need that safety net, we thought.  At this time, I would say that the practice of giving warnings is very over-rated.  If you have explained your rules, think of them as laws that are on the books.  A person who breaks a law may get a warning or a light sentence the very first time, but to reappear before the judge is to be punished. A cop may let you off with a warning instead of a speeding ticket, but they are under no obligation.  Just so, you are under no obligation to warn students that they have broken a well-established rule for the fortieth time this year.  If they can't remember your three rules, what can you possibly hope to teach them about your subject?  Two things?  Explaining your rules is fair warning, now it's up to you to fairly and religiously enforce them.

There are two main factors in play: One, the students whom you will find in the public schools do not heed warnings, they test them.  A conversation will not teach them to better understand the purpose of your rules, it will only teach them that they can get away with breaking your rules.  That's what they want to know.  

Second, your job is exhausting.  You may find yourself hoarse at the end of the day simply from using conversational tones.  Shouting at your students daily is not an option.

The consistent application of rules has been fairly difficult for me to master.  But what's probably been harder is learning not to take it personally.  The two are related. Because if you try to base your control of the classroom on the students, then it's difficult not to feel abused and taken advantage of when they ignore you.  I get a very tight feeling in my stomach when I have to give a consequence, and my emotional state when I get flustered makes it difficult for me to proceed calmly and rationally.  As I gradually learned to maintain my own inner composure, I think I did get better at dealing with situations as they arose.  But even in the spring there were times when I had let the students get me so angry that it ruined my week. Anger is a killer.  Going into my next year, I hope to learn a lot from working within an administrative structure that is consistent and strong. But as much as that will help, there is no substitute for walking into the classroom with confidence in yourself and your plan.

First Day, Year Two  (return to top)

My First Days a Second Time - August 14, 2008

The difference between the first few days of this year and of last year can best be summed up by the word “confidence.”  I finally have something of a vision of myself as a teacher, of what my classroom should be, and it allows me to relax in a way that I couldn’t last year, not at all.  I’m working smarter because I’m less anxious.  I believe I’ll be getting better results because I’m not afraid.  

I put plants in my classroom; my homeroom is in charge of keeping them watered, as they are similarly responsible for filing my papers, arranging my desks, erasing my boards, changing the date, and whatever else may come up.  

The teachers on my team have commented on how organized I am.  This is outrageously funny to me, especially since I’m currently on the brink of being unregistered for fall classes due to failure to renew my Ole Miss library books on time.  

I’ve been playing the guitar in the hallways as the children leave for their buses.  I leave the thing set up on a stand behind one of my desks.  I’m determined to bring myself to the classroom this year, not a stand-in, dressed-up, mock-up of a man.  

And I’ve worked the inverse of that, too, making every effort to know my students’ names as soon as possible.  Last year I was so preoccupied with worry over curriculum and organization that I barely noticed my students’ individuality for months.  I’m determined to be more personal.  

I’m also determined to be more positive.  I’m focusing on rewards over punishment and taking student motivation seriously.  Today I faced my first real discipline battles and it wasn’t all pretty, but I’m smarter than I used to be: time is on my side if I use it.  It’s not battles I need to win, but a war.  I can be patient.  When they started to make rude noises behind my back, I kept teaching and waited.  When I knew who it was, it was over.

This year I know that a lot can happen, a lot can change.  And I know that the measure of my success will come on many different levels.  I fully intend to start a recycling club and to offer guitar lessons; I intend to make an impact on my students and my school.  

Some things have not changed: I still feel emotionally ill some mornings as I ride to school.  I miss home.  I wonder whether I’ll want to teach another year.  I just don’t feel overwhelmed.  I don’t feel that there is no time.  I know when I’m burnt and need a break.  I know that the students will do what I expect them to do.  I know that I’m doing enough.  


State Test (return to top)

Testing For Graduation - February 3, 2010

The article, “As School Exit Tests Prove Tough, States Ease Standards,” discusses state exams as a tool for graduating.  Many states are adopting statewide exams that must be passed in order to graduate high school.  This has raised some concern.  The concern has not only affected many high schools around the United States, but also the high school in which I teach.  At Holly Springs, we are constantly faced with the dilemma of the state exam hindering the students from graduating.  Is this the students’ fault?  Partly yes.  In reality, their failure on these state exams is a direct correlation to how successful the teacher is in the classroom.  Yes, there are students who refuse to work or cannot understand the material.  This should not be an excuse.  It does not justify seventy-one of the students FAILING!  Every teacher should be able to at least get seventy to eighty percent of his or her students to pass the exam.  With that being said, excuses will fly.  “I can’t teach students with behavior issues.”  “I can’t teach students with handicaps.”  “I can’t help students who are so far behind when I get them.”  “How can I really change a failed system?”  Well, get your head out of the sand, stop making excuses and begin to teach.  If students are held to a high standard, there is no reason they can’t succeed.  In the past they have failed because they have not been made to work.  Teachers have allowed classroom misbehavior to govern their students learning.  The teacher expect the students to understand the material after only working out one problem on the board.  Wake up teachers and start to teach!  State exams are necessary!  They need to be in place to hold not only students accountable but teachers.  Too many teachers are not teaching.  Too many teachers only collect a check.  State exams evaluate teachers.  They show the students, parents, community, school, and state how well the teachers are presenting the material.  This information should be weighed into consideration when thinking about firing a teacher.  A teacher who can’t raise achievement, or maintain high achievement, shouldn’t teach.  A teacher who doesn’t hold high standards, not only for their students, but for themselves, needs a new career.  Aside from students and teachers, state exams assess schools themselves.  It assesses how well they are hiring and training teachers.  If a school continually brings in poor teachers, exam scores will be low. Once good teachers enter the classroom and truly teach, state exams will be rewarding and no longer an obstacle.


Successes (return to top)

Success Story - June 24th, 2010

Writing this blog two days after getting back my state test scores, I feel like (for once) I have too many success stories to write about just one. I am so proud of my kids.

One student in particular stands out.

“J” was a repeat 9th-grader who nevertheless passed English I, thanks to an administration that was desperate to get kids out of English I after half a year without a certified teacher. Most of my 9th-graders were obvious behavior problems, or kids who rarely wanted to do work. In the first term of the year, J fell into the latter category (at least in my classroom). He was quiet, and never caused management issues, but he didn't do most of his work. As overwhelmed as I was in the first term, and as focused as I was on management, I wasn't good at paying attention to my kids who were quiet but not necessarily on task. He was one of those kids who was probably destined to slip through the cracks: quiet and not high-performing academically. Plus, he was often in ISS, suspended, or absent, and when he did make it to class, he was almost always tardy and without any materials.

In short, I would never have noticed him. Until I played trashketball with my kids--and Jeremy got every single grammar question right. From that moment on, I started calling on him in class, praising him constantly, showering him with tickets whenever he came to class on time or brought his own pen. I made him the English II Student of the Month in December (of which there is only one per month out of the 300 kids in English II). Around that time, I began to figure out that he was actually known as a troublemaker--he was suspended twice first semester for cursing out teachers and for walking out of ISS. He was the close friend of my craziest kid--who, when I put up J's Student of the Month certificate, responded, "Am I blind, or is J Student of the Month? Mah BOY!!!"

And yet, in my class, he began to do his work religiously. No matter what anyone else in the class was doing, J was focused on the work, asking questions, participating, reading quietly. His test scores began to improve, too. So I was extremely upset when he was suspended again right before the second 9 weeks test, missing both review days. When he came back, I cornered him in the hall and told him firmly that if he missed my class again for ISS or suspension, I would kill him. And he didn't--he didn't get in trouble for the rest of the year. When I asked him why in May, he told me simply, "'Cause you said you would kill me."

Meanwhile, he was making huge improvements academically. One day at the beginning of the third term, after we finished reading "The Tell-Tale Heart," J raised his hand (without being prompted by a question--EXTRAORDINARILY rare in class discussions) and said, "So in the beginning, he was obsessed with the eye, and in the end, he was obsessed with the heart." It may seem to an outsider like an easy connection, but I was floored--I had struggled so long to get my kids to make any kind of text connection, and here he was doing real literary analysis! On his own! I was so proud that I wrote him a long note on a Post-It and stuck it in his folder--he kept it all year.

In the six weeks before the state test, he stepped it up again, coming to my room for tutoring on my lunch-block planning period every single A-day, working the full 100 minutes. The first time he came, I told him to go to first lunch and then come back after he had eaten. He just stood there. I figured he was worried he would get in trouble for going to lunch without a teacher, so I told him he could just slide in with another teacher's class. Still, he stood there silently. I asked him if he wanted me to go down with him, and he nodded. As we were walking down, I told him I would talk to another teacher, and he would be able to eat with her class. He stopped walking, looked at me, and said, solemnly, "You ain't gonna eat with me?" My heart melted.

What I'm most proud of, though, isn't that he liked me--it's that he went from being near the bottom of the class in both performance and motivation to the top, because of his own hard work. The icing on the cake: he scored proficient on the state test. I couldn't be prouder.

Classroom Stories (return to top)

Irony - April 28, 2010

A few weeks ago, I had a fight in my room.

It was in my best class, the class I’ve written about before as being the one that has gotten me through weeks that have otherwise been bad, bad, bad. Until the fight, I had never had to have a student removed from this class.

It was two good kids. CS, the smartest of all the kids I’ve met at Forest Hill, a typical nerd, tall and skinny; never been in a fight in his life. The other, QW, my student of the month, a big participator in class and a consistently high scorer on tests. A little over 6 feet, 220 pounds. Aside from an issue with cursing that had been mostly resolved months ago, no problems. He’d been gunning for student of the month since September and had finally earned it.

It was Monday morning, the first block of the day. The first 40 minutes of the period had been typical—which is to say, without any problems—and we were transitioning into the same partner SATP review activity we’d been doing every day since spring break. CS sat behind QW and was his regular partner; the two had always liked working together. That day was a little different; CS was going to be working with another student across the room who was coming in from another class for extra help.

What I saw: CS moving across the room. What I heard: QW saying, “That man slapped me.” What I thought—one of a million snap decisions every teacher makes every day: Ugh, it’s so annoying when they play like this—QW wants me to give CS a consequence; I didn’t see it, so I’m not going to do anything.

Then: QW got up and moved across the room toward CS silently. He didn’t have a particularly angry look on his face, which made what happened next that much more shocking.

QW was on CS, punching him fast and hard, hard enough you could hear it.

I don’t really remember much after that; I’ve run over it in my mind so many times already that it feels like I lose a little piece of the memory each time. There are three very fuzzy images. The first time I looked, QW was on CS. The second time, I was yelling at them to stop and running towards the buzzer. By then three of my boys had jumped in, and at that point I couldn’t tell if they were helping or joining in. The third time I looked, PO and DR had pulled QW off and had him back two yards while SG had CS up against the wall to keep QW away from him. The security guard arrived a split-second later, making the whole episode probably no more than 9 or 10 seconds, even though it felt like an eternity, or at least 5 minutes.

Right afterward, my adrenaline was running so high that I was able to keep myself from crying through the end of the class—about an hour was left in the block—although my kids could tell I was shaken up. One asked me if I was going to cry (I said no) and one of the boys who broke it up said to himself, “Man, Ms. Patterson all spaced out.” But I did manage to recover and got the class right back into the activity we had been about to start. They did their half-hour of practice in pairs and then took a quiz on the same material, working silently throughout.

I, on the other hand, cried on and off for the next 45 minutes during my planning period.

I was so, so grateful to the three boys who stepped up right away to break it up. They reacted much quicker than I did—probably because they had seen a fight start before. One of them, PO, had broken up a fight in his Biology I class just two weeks before. But after the initial shock wore off, I was angry—angry that they even knew how to deal with it. I managed to go 23 years before I saw someone over the age of 10 or so strike someone else out of anger; I wish they had, too. It’s straight out of Ruby Payne—in middle-class culture, it’s not valued to know how to break up a fight. But these kids were experts.

I was also angry with myself. Here I was, congratulating myself on having at least one class that functioned smoothly every day, but I couldn’t even keep my own kids safe. No matter what my wonderfully supportive fellow MTC-ers, at my school and elsewhere, could say, it’s hard not to blame yourself for something like that.

It’s been two and a half weeks now; both kids have been back at school after serving 5-day suspensions. The first day I had the class after the fight, I was nervous; we ended up having one of the best classes all year as they worked on group projects. If anything, it may have brought the rest of the class closer together as all of my kids really rallied behind me. The first time I saw QW after he came back, he was sheepish and apologetic, and he immediately asked for his makeup work. CS was absent one additional day after his suspension, but came back and immediately reclaimed his place in the class as the kid who looks up every once in a while from his book to get an answer right.

As fights go, then, it was pretty much the ideal. Still, weeks later, I guess I’m not entirely over it. Maybe there is a special kind of innocence—a denial of what my kids are capable of—that I had managed to hold onto, in spite of all the crazy things they've said and done this year, until the moment that I first heard QW’s fist against CS’s cheek. As one of my kids said afterward, man, I just didn't see that coming.

Classroom Stories (return to top)

Context Clues - April 3, 2010

So we're working on a context clues activity with the following question:

The thought of eating a rat is abhorrent to most people. What does abhorrent probably mean?

Ms. P: So DG, what are your context clues here?

DG: Eating a rat.

Ms. P: Good. So what does that tell you about what abhorrent might mean?

DG: It probably a good thing.

Ms. P: Hmm. Do you think most people would like to eat a rat?

DG: Yeah.

Ms. P: Uh, do you know anyone who likes to eat rats?

DG: No, but you know. White people. No offense.

Ms. P: Do white people eat rats?

DG: They be eating all kinds of things. They be eating rats, they be eating squirrels, they be eating deer. You know. Country.

Classroom Stories, Administration Relations (return to top)

A Gun - February 10, 2010

Was brought to my school yesterday. By a student. Loaded. To sell to another student for marijuana.


I was disappointed when I talked to some of my best kids about it at tutorial, and one just shook his head and said, "Yeah, and she was only going to get two dime bags out of it."

And the other piped in and said, "Or she at least should have done that at the house." What?

Also, why has the administration still not said anything to teachers? Why is this something that should be kept quiet? It's all over the news. The only communication I've seen has been in the form of standardized surveys (asking questions like "do you feel safe at school?" or "How often do you use drugs?") put in my box when I left school tonight.

So let me guess: we pass out these surveys, and we don't talk about it? Jeez, when I left New England, I thought I was getting away from that whole WASP let's-just-sweep-it-under-the-rug thing. Though I could definitely go for one of them let's-drink-away-the-awkwardness-of-our-non-communication cocktails.

Mississippi Life (return to top)

A Deep and Abiding Sense of the Absurd - January 3, 2010

As part of my Mississippi education, I’ve been reading North Toward Home, a memoir by Yazoo City native Willie Morris (he also wrote My Dog Skip). The book is divided into three sections: his childhood in Mississippi; his years in Texas, first as a student at the University of Texas and then as editor of the Texas Observer, an independent liberal-leaning paper that covered Texas news and politics; and finally his move to New York to work as an editor at Harper’s. The whole book is wonderful, but what he had to say of his experience covering Texas politics is so true of what I’ve experienced in MTC that I wanted to post it, especially as a response to the last paragraph of my previous post:

“As often happens in America, I think I relaxed, or perhaps weakened, as a means of survival. In the Texas legislature at the time, even when one's every human decency was violated, and many of the violations actually put into law, one learned that there was little future in indulging outrage and anger at the personal level. Otherwise one's daily existence would have consisted of more or less uninterrupted physical violence….In this environment it took me a few weeks to learn that the heavy hand was not only ineffective, it was usually irrelevant. Humor was essentially a way of surviving, and it was no coincidence that every good man I knew in the political life of the state had a deep and abiding sense of the absurd.”

Right on, Mr. Morris.


Administration Relations, School Stories (return to top)

        Strippin’ at the Schoolhouse - December 19, 2009

We had a talent show Friday, a way to "organize the chaos" as our principal put it.

On the whole, the talent show was a success, and everybody really got into the program. Several times the kids were up out of their seats and dancing along to whatever was going on on the stage.

But there were a couple things that, I would think, simply shouldn't have happened. In one act, a student performed "Birthday Sex"...which is a pretty good song, and he did a hell of a job performing it (he sang AND played the keys)

...but... should students be singing about prying between legs and touching the g-spot in a school assembly?

In another act, two male students sat in chairs while two girls, around them, danced, dipped, and generally shook their asses in ways I'd otherwise have to pull out a wad of ones to see.

A concerned teacher brought these acts up at a faculty meeting shortly after, expressing a need for censorship of overtly sexual behavior, especially in light of living in an area plagued by teenage pregnancy. The teacher was shut down in short order, his point being diverted to a number of tangents:

1) to say anything negative about the talent show was to personally offend those who were in charge of the talent show,

2) any teacher who agreed with the teacher was instructed to, if they had a problem, take a more active role in extra-curricular programs,

3) the students had been denied any programs up to this point, so [it was implied] we were to reward good behavior by offering concession (the greatest reward for good behavior is apparently a moderate allowance of bad behavior), and

4) these types of acts are simply representative of the generation: It was said by many present that the majority of things we did in our teens was frowned upon by our parents so we should accept what the children do--especially in light of their modern music being so sexually explicit. We are to simply accept this.


As teachers, in one meeting we are instructed of the importance of professional dress (i.e. not wearing jeans or a shirt that isn't button-down) to 'model' for our students...and then in another, we are instructed to accept and congratulate students on performances that, though they exhibit talent, are emblematic of the self-destructive behaviors that are weighting their communities down, miring them in poverty. This simple talent show exposes so much of the shallow value structure and hypocrisy that plagues our low-functioning schools. Don't wear jeans, but clap for an act where a girl practices a prelude to a dry-hump on another student who simply looks down in a noncommittal, misogynistic way. Don't give a student a ride home--this would be horribly inappropriate...but put them on a stage and let them do whatever.

I was talking about this with another teacher...I asked her what she'd think if it happened at her school. She only replied, "I wouldn't be surprised; our cafeteria staff performed a stripper routine at our faculty Christmas party..."


I don't know the answer to this problem. From my observations in my faculty meeting, these occurrences are normal, they are cultural staples, and to question them is to intrude without authority.  

I don't know.

How would you feel as a young(ish) male teacher having to watch your students gyrate on stage?

I don't know.


Advice to First Years  (return to top)

MTC Class of 2010: You Have No Idea What You’ve Done - April 27, 2010

You really don't.

No, don't start emailing your change of plans to Ben.  Hear me out:

I don't know what any of you have done prior to this moment.  By the very nature of the program, though, I know you have not taught in the kind of situation almost all of you will be in for at least the next year.  You have a tremendous opportunity in front of you.  (See, its not all negative... hear me out...)

MTC is by far the most difficult thing I have ever done in my entire life.  It requires so much of you for so long, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  But only things with this high a degree of difficulty lend themselves to great outcomes.  Things that are easy will not have nearly as profound an effect on your life.

As I'm sure my colleagues will volunteer to tell you, I will be happy to share the dark and dreary side of MTC to you.  We all experience it; I pay particular attention to it.  I neither desire to nor intend to write this to scare you.  I do, however, want to challenge you.  Pay attention these next two years.  Pay attention to everything.  Know your goals coming in and pursue them.  Losing sight of them will be too easy... don't.  Pursue them and pay attention to how you are changed and how you change others.  Pay attention to when and why you fail, then figure out how to succeed.  Repeat.  Repeat again.  Repeat again.  You will fail.  Don't be afraid of it, but don't grow accustomed to it, either.  Try to embrace your failure as a means of growth and move on.  For God's sake, move on.  As certain as you will fail, you will improve.  Look forward to that.

This next year is a beast.  Learn all you can this summer (mostly from better teachers than me).  I will help you in any and every way that I can, and you can count on me to not pull any punches.  I'm teaching summer school because I want desperately to make sure you're as ready as you can be for August.  Ask lots of questions this summer.  Ask lots of questions in the fall, winter, and spring, too... just know first who to ask.

You all are in this for the right reasons.  Don't forget those reasons.  For me, that was probably all that has kept me in it.  At the same time, be a little selfish when you have to.  If you don't survive then neither do the reasons you're coming down here in the first place.  Survive.

You don't know what you're getting yourself into.  But that's ok.  MTC will give you the opportunity to change the lives of any child you encounter and will change you.  Pay attention to that and try to value that.  You don't get this experience anywhere else.

Reflection - Final  (return to top)

The Charge of the Light Brigade - April 28, 2010

Trying to look back and put together a coherent and meaningful reflection is an impossible task for me at this moment.  I seem to either see a montage of events flashing through my mind in pieces, or I get an overwhelming feeling of frustration, exhaustion, disappointment, and defeat.  The latter makes it sound like nothing good ever happened in my time here.  This isn't true, but I can't help but summarize my efforts as a teacher as failing.  I did not have a revolutionary classroom.  I was not the savior that so many of my students need.  Hopefully I positively affected some, but I think that I'll never really know that for sure.  What happened during the last two years?

In trying to find an anchor around which to organize my reflection, a poem came into my head.  I'm not much for poetry (although I do love quotes), but I sought out a copy.  I couldn't stop thinking about The Charge of the Light Brigade:

The Charge of the Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns' he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'

Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldier knew

Some one had blunder'd:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do & die,

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volley'd & thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,

Flash'd as they turn'd in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army while

All the world wonder'd:

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right thro' the line they broke;

Cossack & Russian

Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,

Shatter'd & sunder'd.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volley'd and thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

While horse & hero fell,

They that had fought so well

Came thro' the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of Hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wonder'd.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!

Perhaps a stretch.  Perhaps an over dramatization (we are all still alive, after all).  Perhaps more fitting than it should be, nonetheless.

Sometimes I feel like I was duped.  I wasn't, but sometimes I feel like it.  I think it’s just impossible to really tell somebody how challenging MTC (and, really, teaching in general) is.  I took it upon myself that first summer to try to find out exactly how hard it was so that I could be mentally prepared.  The 2nd years answered all of my questions, and seemed to answer them honestly, but they left out some truth.  They told me how hard it is, they didn't make me feel how hard it is.  I struggled some the first summer learning how to teach creatively and effectively and had a very healthy fear and respect for the task at hand when August rolled around.  However, I rode into the school year thinking I had a legitimate chance to make an impact.  I'm really smart.  I'm very competitive.  I do NOT quit and I hustle.  I enjoy solving problems and I like helping others do the same.  I'll be fine.

I was not fine.  My school was my Valley of Death.  There were plenty of cannons.  I taught 140 of them and worked for a couple more.  Perseverance was required, and the well ran deep.  Mentors and friends in the know helped a lot.  Mentors, friends, and family on the outside tried to help and offer consolation and solutions as much as they could, but mostly just fed the frustration.  There were 40+ people going through the same thing I was but I have never felt so isolated.  It’s similar, but not the same.  Thanksgiving could not come soon enough.  It didn't, but when it did I could scarcely stomach coming back.  I did, back through the jaws of Death.

Spring afforded a measure of stability as I began to truly adjust to struggle.  While coaching emerged as a true passion, its end allowed me much needed rest in the last third of the year.  I wanted desperately to make it to the summer if not for the break than to just be able to start anew knowing from the beginning of a school year what I had learned in the chaos of my first.  My lessons were more efficient, better managed, and precise.  I knew my kids.  I knew when to stroke them and when to chide them, and which ones to leave the hell alone when they put their head down to go to sleep.  Despite the great calamity that was my first year of teaching, I came out of it with a lot of hope for the second year.

I felt invincible my second summer.  My lessons were simple, clean, and effective.  Planning them was easy.  I could breathe and relax and smile and laugh and socialize and recuperate and celebrate.  My hope endured.

My invincibility remained intact most of the fall of my second year.  My lessons remained simple and well managed.  I was disappointed by the lack of achievement of my students given the vast increase in classroom stability and the degree to which my students were on task during each lesson.  Small adjustments yielded some gains, until the approach of Christmas break stripped me of my invincibility.  Cannons resumed firing as my classroom no longer served as a haven from the rapidly deteriorating school atmosphere.  Christmas could not come soon enough.  It didn't, but when it did I could scarcely stomach coming back.  I did, back through the mouth of Hell.

The second semester of my second year makes me cringe.  It has been by far my biggest failure in MTC.  I have seen myself fall into many of the horrible qualities that make the schools we teach in so poor.  My management is suffering greatly.  My lessons are dull.  I am not a good teacher.  I hate my job and there isn't a single day that I don't wish I wasn't here.  I dislike very much that I have become lazy and apathetic in my teaching and, honestly, in much of my life.  I have been worn down, hollowed out, and beaten up.  I'm still proud enough to be disappointed in myself for how far I've fallen this year, but don't have enough left in the tank to stop the fall.  I've never been bright, cheerful, and optimistic, but I've also never really been perpetually angry, either.  I am angry.  I have never been more angry.

We join the Mississippi Teacher Corps because we hope to do something good.  My goal was never to have fun or enjoy this.  I wanted to do something good.  I knew I was getting into a difficult situation where there are a lot of problems.  I knew that if it were easy then they wouldn't need me to be here.  I didn't make the mistakes and bad decisions that have put Mississippi's educational system at the bottom of the list.  I didn't sire children I could neither educate nor raise nor feed nor love.  None of us did.

Teachers are called upon to do far more than is humanly possible.  Teachers are not the problem.  Teachers, really, are not the solution.  But just as soldiers in a battle, teachers can be fodder and the right teachers can be the difference.  We sought to be the difference and, maybe, some of us were.

We all, as a Light Brigade of teachers, charge daily into the Valley of Death.  We question and we reason why (especially in MTC), but we charge anyway.  My charge, as I see it now, was unsuccessful.  I will emerge from this experience significantly altered, opinionated, and hopefully better armed to aid those who continue their charge.  I will forever respect the work of educators, even administrators.  I hope that soon they will stop being wasted.

Teaching Style, Mississippi Life (return to top)

Freely Written, But Not Freely Lived - March 30, 2010

I'm afraid that I'm starting to become almost less effective now, at what is likely the end of my teaching career, than I was at the very beginning of my teaching career.

I feel like a lame duck teacher.  I have decided that I will not be returning to my school for a third year.  I will definitely not be teaching next year.  I may not ever teach again.  Saying those three words feels good to me.  I NEED to get away from teaching.  I have, in such a short two years, become a definite victim of new teacher burnout in an urban school.  I have been ravished and conquered and am, without trying to sound dramatic, a shell of the teacher I sought to be two years ago.

I notice this when I lesson plan.  I am not designing fun, engaging lessons.  I am designing efficient and manageable lessons.  How can I teach the kids the most while keeping them under control the best while doing the least work?

I notice this while I'm teaching.  I get frustrated more easily than I used to.  I am more negative in my interactions with the students.  I am less careful with my tone and, sometimes, my words.

I notice this when I think about my students.  How is it so hard to follow simple, straightforward directions?  Why don't you listen?  Why do you repeatedly try so hard to piss off the people who are constantly trying to help you and want to like you?  Why do you make it your personal mission to make me miserable every minute of every day that I am within earshot or eyesight of you?

I notice this when I am inside that school building.  I see signs of incompetence all around me, including in my own classroom.  I am disorganized.  I have to use textbooks with torn pages and missing covers.  I don't have enough chairs for my biggest class if nobody is absent.  I hear announcements for things scheduled haphazardly and last minute that are ill thought-out and poorly-executed.  I hear things like "on tomorrow...", "the student have", "aks", "endolphins", "on God, joo", "skreet", "have the students to write", "I gotta use it", and "Teachers and students, please excuse the interruption.... please send the following students to the auditorium.... there will be an assembly.... this is a lockout period, any students that is tardy will receive four hours of Saturday detention.... Mr. Williams, please report to room... and have a wonderful Chastain Warrior Wednesday."  I feel saturated with the oppressive feeling of failure, discontent, and chaos that is painfully apparent to me while in that building.

All of these things eat at me and drain any motivation I have to make a difference.  I feel wholly unable to overcome these problems and that any attempt to do so is futile and self destructive.  I am disgusted at my own ambivalence and selfishness.  Why am I here if not to enact or, at least, influence change?

I have NOT given up on the kids.  I'm not sure I haven't given up on the system.  But independent of both of those, I know that it is at least in part because I do care about the well being of those kids that I have to get the hell out of here.  Those who can function successfully in this environment are special people.  Those who can survive it are tenacious and/or stubborn.  I don't have left what it takes to hang in here.  Hopefully I'll be able to take what I've learned these last two years and apply it in a career that brings me joy and fulfillment and still allows me to help solve problems.  It's hard for me not to think that I am abandoning a lot of these kids.


Reflection - Post MTC Plans (return to top)

Making Plans: More Three-Dimensional Than Expected - March 15, 2010

There is nothing I would rather write about right now than my plans for next year. So, here goes!

Ever since freshman year of college, I have aspired to be a college professor. Rewind two years. Ever since junior year of high school, I have aspired to be a high school English teacher. While the primary aspiration is intact and sturdy as a table built by a legendary great-grandfather, my earliest hope and dream is a reality right now, and I do not feel prepared to leave high school teaching behind. Add to my love of my profession my queer love for my setting; I have a bond with Jackson that I cannot make sense of to anybody (except some Jacksonians and one family friend). The weeks are ticking down on the MTC clock watch. But beyond my vows to the program, my heart desires to stay put. Something beautiful has bloomed in this stage of life, and to sever it short just because the obligation is up would seem to be foolhardy. I keep quizzing adults in their late thirties and up, “Is it unusual to love where you live?” “Is it rare to love your job as much as I do?” I want to ensure that I am assessing my current livelihood and passions correctly. I don’t want to be lulled into loving Jackson and my job just because I find it so darn comfortable. On the other hand, I do not want to be hastily skeptical of my affinity for my vocation and lot, just because the corporate flow of middle-class life and the steadily rising undulations of America’s ever-beckoning siren’s song of success are calling me to “move on.”

I applied to three doctoral programs in sociology this year. I thought my application was pretty good, but I was afraid I would be accepted, thereby cutting short this phase of life prematurely. Oddly enough, in the intervening months between applying and hearing back, I prayed for denials. Well, I heard back from all three the week before spring break. All were variations of negatives: one wait list, one admission but MA-only, and one outright rejection. It stings, but I am actually fervently anticipating a new direction: stay in Jackson, keep on teaching, and pursue an MA in sociology at the city’s HBCU, Jackson State. I love teaching, I love Jackson, I love sociology. Too much love, if you ask me. One of the deepest desires of my heart now is to grow in understanding and to invest more in the city of Jackson. Now that door might be opening. The only phantom of doubt that remains is whether the school that wait listed me will come back with a “yes” in mid-April. And my prayers are still something like, “Please, God, don’t say my time here is up yet.”

“She’s nuts!” you’re thinking. “Every person has choices and in making them is in control of where she goes” – well, every educated young person who was born into a thick sleeping bag of opportunity (like me) can control and choose where and when she goes somewhere. “So just choose to stay in Jackson, already, if you love it so much!” you’re thinking.

There is a morsel of hesitation in my ambitions and plans for the future, though. And I think I am slowly being weaned of this influence, but I am not sure I’ll ever be entirely free of it. I don’t think my family or friends who have known me for a long time have really given their unfettered seal of approval on my plans or desire to stay down South. I also feel that the longer I stay here, the less understood I feel by my own kin and might-as-well-be-kin. I feel like I can’t explain why I love it here so much, or why I find myself feeling so at home in black culture. I feel fully alive, in that my abilities and passions and talents are utilized here. Spiritually, I have grown. Relationally, I have been blessed and stretched. Physically, I think I am stronger than I ever was in high school or college. Intellectually, being here keeps my sociological and literary mind in shape. Still though, even with all these feelings, I think one of my friends, who I know through my more recent involvement at the Perkins Foundation in West Jackson, has hit the nail on the head: often, he has observed, when young whites come down to Jackson to do some do-gooding, then conclude that they are fond of this place and can find no reason to want to leave, their parents do not take the news with a smile. More like, with a sigh. Can I withstand that ambivalence? The support that streams from family members, at least what I am used to, is wholehearted. Why has this changed? It does make me check myself when those who have had my best interest in their hearts for so long are uncertain. There is a chance that I am imagining all this pressure. Perhaps the footsteps of any twenty-something that forge forward are tread with undue second-guessing. After all, this is when we become our adult selves, is it not? Don't want to mess that up.

Reflection - First Days, Year Two (return to top)

First Week: Year One Versus Year Two - August 29, 2009

The first week of school this year, as compared to last year, was much easier. I didn't have that knotted-a.m. stomach, I didn't feel too young to be a teacher, and I didn't have that wavering facial expression of "I'm tough--but please don't test me!" Rather, I was free and able to slam the classroom door fiercely to punctuate the tardy bell and command, "You should be on page 3 doing your warm-up, with your homework on your desk!" Best of all, the dread I felt last year was far weaker this year. Of course, part of me dreaded kissing the freedom and rest of summer goodbye; on the other hand, I had a newfound ease and sense of direction and orientation and know-how that I lacked last August, which equipped me to settle more comfortably into the rigamarole of teacherly duties.

I felt at home in my classroom, which was a great and welcome difference. Also, I cannot express the sheer joy of former students saying, "Hi, Ms. Nelson!" in the hallway. To be known in a place is one of life's sweetest privileges, I think. I have a new belonging here, and it's a thrill. Investing in a place brings about a multiplied blessing, it seems. It's an undeserved but much-welcomed upgrade to this job, the second year. I mean, I guess some of the newfound ease is "deserved" insofar as it has been "earned" through a year's worth of struggling and figuring-out. Ah! My second-year cronies from last year told the truth when they said, "it's all about the second year."  I feel like I am at the point I reached by February last year, now. I feel ready to roll, ready to grow, ready to work, ready to get to know new students. Also, knowing the stress that lies ahead, the nights of being drained and overloaded mentally, (strangely enough) relieves some of the stress.

I admit that at first I was apprehensive to receive new students because losing the former ones was a tearful parting. But already, I can foresee the attachment I will develop to them. Of all things, sitting with a student as he waited for his auntie to pick him up from my detention this past Friday brought that realization to the fore.

I anxiously await what new things I will learn this year as a teacher. This profession is so rich, so full of potential (probably because it entails just TOO MUCH! My coworker told me about an article that added up all the functions teachers play in a functioning society -- i.e., therapist, tutor, babysitter, etc. -- and a teacher's economic worth to society is astonishing!).


Reflection - Final (return to top)

My MTC Experience - April 28, 2010

My Teacher Corps Experience:

At the end of the day, I can describe no unified “Teacher Corps experience” as this process has taken place through a variety of selves, all of which have their own arcs.  Some of them are dead, while others are becoming only more vital by the day.  I will let each tell their story.

After-school (Normal Day) Me:  My Teacher Corps experience has been one of sustained perseverance and gradual professional development accompanied by a perversion of beliefs I once had about the educational system.  Each day, I return home thinking that another day had passed and that I was some length of time, albeit an infinitesimally small amount of time, closer to whatever happens next.  Through the experience of these afternoons, a greater awareness of time has grown inside of me.  The distance of time between any given moment and the end of the school year or end of the week or end of the marking period became more than how long I had to wait until I got to be reunited with the people I care about.  It became some significant fraction of the time between now and the moment of my mortality.  Each day that I spend exhausted before, during, and after school, is one of the seemingly few that I have left.  It seems a shame to spend so much time in a state of dread, as I have for much of the past two years.  I used to think of myself as someone who lived in the present.  Teacher Corps has made me anything but.

After-school (Good Day) Me:  Teacher Corps has gone too fast.  It might be the last time in my life that I devote myself completely to doing meaningful work.  I think about the kids that ask if I can make sure that I'm their teacher next year.  As the months have gone on, my answer has slowly had to change so that I could even approach honesty.  The first year I could say things like, “Yes, I'll be here next year, actually, I'll be forever.”  That slowly evolved to “Probably” to “I'll see what I could do” to “Maybe not” to “You know what, whatever happens, you'll be fine” to “Yeah, I'm probably going to New York City, sorry about all of that.”   I know that there are too many moments when I have felt differently and too many things pulling me away from here to seriously consider staying for a third year, but am I honestly better off doing something else?  When I first got here, I wondered how I could do a job where I never feel like I could be myself.  Now, I often feel like I'm only myself in my interactions with students, that those moments encapsulate me far more than anything that I will do in law school or have done before.  Why should I rush to give up on an occupation that, while it may not be my career, gives me a chance to enjoy relationships with lots of people and feel, whether its supported by numbers or not, like I'm making an impact on people?  Why not stay at least a little longer?  Of course, like I said, I know the answers.  I'm getting married.  I'm in too much debt to keep getting paid nothing for something I”m not going to do forever.  I want to go to law school and challenge myself a little bit more, mentally speaking, than I will by sticking around.  But still, I feel both satisfied and guilty.  The feeling that my time here has been unsuccessful has dissipated, but so has the comfort that comes in being a failure, namely that one can leave without feeling like you're taking anything away.  I know I'm taking something away and that the next person will have the same learning curve as I did and that there will probably be another person after him that will have the same curve and that things might never be as good as they might be, in the Algebra department anyway, as they would if I could commit and stay on for the indefinite future.  But, I can't, so it is as it is.  Things have been far worse than they are now, but the responsibility that comes with feeling like one matters, even a little, can weigh heavily in moments like these, especially as the end is mere weeks away.

After-school (Bad Day) Me: God damn it.  After two years, I'm still wasting entire days talking to myself.  I'm doing everything right, or at least as right as I can reasonably hope to do them, but I feel like I might as well have stayed home.  Only __ more days.  If I just packed up and drove home now, what would be the actual consequences?  Would they have trouble finding a substitute?  For a while, yes but the state test is here anyway, so they won't really care pretty soon anyway about what happens.  Will my kids miss/resent me?  Sure, but, honestly, I'm going to be forgotten sooner or later anyway, whatever I did.  And I'll get to go home.  I'll get to be with Sarah.  I'll get to sleep in.  I'll get to be left alone.  I won't break up any fights or be disrespected.  I'll do something that I always feel good at and up for.  Maybe I won't, but it'll be different and I've done this enough.  Of course, I can't go and I don't even really want to, not really, but it would certainly be nice to just disappear from here.  

Idealistic Me – Deceased.  His last words:  “55 percent....what do you mean 55 percent.....?  So they didn't learn....anything?”

Cynical Me: utter silence, looms ominously above all other selves, glaring at them with look that reflects complete and utter dominance

Night out on a school night (probably at trivia in Oxford competing against morally bankrupt opponents like Ben Guest):  My Teacher Corps experience has probably, in spite of all the times I've dreaded waking up, represents one of the best decisions of my life.  I wasn't sure what I was really doing when I first came here.  I mean I had my answers to the questions and I believed them, but I didn't really know why I wanted to help by being a teacher as opposed to any of the numerous other ways that people try to help other people or, more accurately, make some sense of their lives.  As it turns out, one of those other ways might be for the best or maybe this really is what I should do, all things considered.  So I sort of learned something about myself professionally.  But when I think about this experience, I will ultimately remember the friends I've made.  I can honestly say I don't think I could have made friends as good as the ones I have now were it not for the circumstances of our employment.  Forget about classroom management, when you're being subjected to week-long professional development sessions consisting of pure inanity, it can only be overcome by sharing disrespectful and disdainful comments with friends.  On nights out, school nights specifically, the only way to let go of the dread and embrace your situation, which hopefully but not necessarily adds renewed effort to the struggle, is to enjoy the company of friends.  I've spent more money and time than I might have otherwise, but I would undoubtedly have quit and returned to the comfort of friends, family, and girlfriend were it not for the relationships that I have formed here and, most of the time, I”m grateful for that.  Even as the clock ticks well past midnight, I sit back and feel contented in everything that has happened and, aided by the simultaneous advancement of the calendar, able to release all regrets and anxiety.  In these moments, I look back and recognize the value in coming here, taking myself out of my comfort zone so that I may eventually return to it a more complete, if also less sane, person.


Reflection - Final (return to top)

A Summary of My Experience - April 28, 2010

A summation of my experience, huh?


            c. The student will evaluate or revise a summary or paraphrase of the

            events or ideas in one or more literary texts, literary nonfiction and

            informational texts of increasing length and difficulty citing text-based

            evidence. (DOK 3)

This is a skill I'm required to teach my students, yet here I am having just as much trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of this task.  Ironic, right.  That's another thing they're supposed to know.

            2) Literary devices (e.g., imagery, exaggeration, dialogue, irony

            (situational and verbal), sarcasm)

Maybe this summary is so difficult because it's a depth of knowledge 3.  Heck, that's not even right.  Since I'm actually generating a summary, it's become a depth of knowledge 4.  My stars, can DOK 4 really be expected of a busy teacher who desperately wants to get back to her Netflix?  Or maybe it's just that these two years have been indescribable.  Perhaps this isn't the sort of thing one summarizes.  Perhaps this is the sort of experience just left alone.  It is what it....was? is? will be?

I know what I'd tell them to do.  I'd tell them to read the question first.  Circle any buzzwords.  I can imagine them doing this.  The stars would correctly circle the word summation and underline 1200 words.  I see the other kids in the back who merely look down at their paper, circling nothing because they weren't listening to me.

“C, what is a summation?”

         “Making something long into something short.”

“M, tell me about a good summary.”


“B, tell me about a good summary.”

         “A good summary don't have too many details.”

“What else, C?”

         “It's shorter than the original?”

“True enough.  Now analyze each answer choice.  Which of the following answer choices is the best summation of Ms. Hill's Teacher Corps experience?”

         “Ms. Hill, it ain't letter A.  A be too big.”

“That's right.  Letter A is my personal memoir.  It has all the saucy bits in it about how crazy you all are.  I can only guess that it'll be published within the next ten years.  I might even change your names.  So, take a good look, kiddies, A is going to make Ms. Hill a lot of money some day.”

         “Really, Ms. Hill?”

“No. No, not really.  I wish, though.  It looks as though I'll just be teaching you guys forever.  Anyway, the MCT2 is only eight days away.  Let's focus.  Yes, E, which answer did you circle?”

         “I can go to the bathroom?”


         “It's an emergency”


         “I gotta go bad.”


… “Fine.  Take the pass.  Who else?”

         “Who else wanna go to da bathroom?”

“No, no, no.  Who else graced their paper with an answer? Yes, D?”

         “Naw, M'Hill.  Letter D ain't be the answer either.”


         “Letter D be makin it sound like you done only good stuff.  D be leavin out the bad.”

“What do you mean?”

         “Mane, M'Hill, you remember dat time you cry in da back of yo room?  An Q knock that water bottle all over

yo stuff.  Yo face got red dat time.  You were feelin it.”

“What's your point, D?”

         “Naw, mane, I'm jus saying. Letter D jus don't feel right.”

         “She right, Ms. Hill.  Last year you ain't have such a good time.  You gained like 50 pounds or something.”


         “Yeah, 35.  But you done got little now, so it don't matter no more.  I was just sayin that it was a bad year, so letter D can't be the answer.”

“I see.  Well, that leaves us with a fifty-fifty chance of getting this one right.  Mr. Timms, what did you get?”

         “I didn't have my hand up.  I was just resting my pencil on my head.”

“I don't care.  What was your answer?”

         “Oh, I done got that one wrong.  I'd picked letter A.”

“But that's the longest one.”

          “That's why I figured it was right.”

“But this is supposed to be a summary.”

          “Yeah, so that's why I picked A.”

" … "

         “Ms. Hill, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Okay, class, let's keep it up.  It's B or C, B or C.  Anyone have any insight?  Yes, Ms. Y, what can you add?”

         “Well, I was looking at both of them, and I think B can be taken out.”

“Why is that”

         “Well, it mentions the bad, which I agree has to be there.  And it talks about the fact that you got better as a teacher.  That's true, too.  It just seems to say too much.  I don't know.  It makes you sound like you were content.”

“You don't think I was content?”

         “No. I mean, sure.  I mean, you just weren't ever satisfied, you know?  You were really unhappy last year, and this year, even though it was better, you still weren't satisfied.  Letter B makes it seem like you were really happy with the way everything turned out.”

“Be specific.”

         “Like, even though we didn't ack out like we did last year, you still don't think we're good.  And we read so many more books this year, but you're always sayin how you aren't sure if we really got it.  You keep saying how things have to change next year.  And letter B even says you had a life outside of school.  We all know that's not true.”

“Okay, okay.  We can stop right there on that subject.  So B's out.  Raise your hand if you agree.  All we're left with is letter C.  M, I noticed that you circled letter C from the beginning.  Care to justify your answer for us?

         “Mr. Buford told me that if I didn't know any answers, I should just letter C my way through the test.”

“Mhmm.  Well, why don't you call on someone to help you.”

         “Make C do it.”

“He's asleep.  Pick someone else.”

         “K does his work.  Call on him.”

“Okay, K what have you been working on so furiously?”

         “Ummmmm … I was just writing … “

“K, this is a drawing of stick figure ninjas.”

         “Why, yes it is.  And they were fighting over the best answer.”

“Well, who won the fight?”

         “I believe they were about to letter C their way through this fight.”

“Good.  Can you justify it?”

         “Um … C is the shortest answer with the best information.  I dunno.  It just felt like the best one.”

“Okay, good.  Why don't you read it for us?”

         “Ugh … it says, 'The first year was tough.  The second year was better.  There's still a lot to do.'”

“Exactly.  Now if only I could have written that for Ben Guest.”

         “Why couldn't you?”

“Because my reflection had to be 1200 words”

         “That's lame.”

“I know.                        Let's look at the next question.  Go ahead and circle any buzzwords.”

Educational Policy, Mississippi Life (return to top)

Assigned Blog on Budget Cuts - October 21, 2009

     I watched the video from MPB about Barbour's state budget cuts.  I will admit ignorance and say that even after Dr. Mullins taught us some things about this stuff, I still do not fully understand the situation.  I decided to watch the video primarily because my school seems to be pulling a lion's share of Marshall County cuts.  Last year, at a certain point in the year,  our school eliminated the use of substitute teachers, separate bus stops, field trips, hallways lights, and most classroom lights.  Just yesterday, my colleagues and I received a memo telling us that already these measures are under affect for the year.  Needless to say, I thought it to be quite interesting that Barbour repeatedly states that even with cuts, schools will have more money to use than they did last year.  Also, I hate hearing that other schools in my same district do not have to do these things.

         My whining aside, as much as cutting education budgets (and not cutting corrections budgets) pains me, I think the real issue is the misuse of what funds are available.  I have such little faith in how Mississippi's school districts are using the money they have, especially in schools like mine that have generally incompetent people making the big decisions.  I was placed on our school's Title I committee (I know that falls under federal funds, but misuse of money is misuse of money), and I got to see firsthand how haphazardly our school decides how to spend federal dollars.  One older lady on the team, a math teacher, kept insisting that all our school needed was new math manipulatives, math posters, and some discipline training for teachers.  Lo and behold, she got her way.  I can tell you that our school needs much more than this, and many things of much more importance.  My suggestion that some funds be used to get newer books for the library was turned down.  You can ask Ms. Young; I had a good case to make such a suggestion.  I also see loads of technology being wasted at our school.  Computers sit idle because of wireless difficulties.  Our principal spends a large amount of money buying colored vests for the children to wear as hall passes and activity passes.  Smartboards hang on walls without being used because someone lost the software or someone else hasn't been trained in using the technology.  Huge amounts of money are used to pay for the rights to use Kid's College, Academy of Reading, and Accelerated Reader, and yet none of the items can be accessed because only a handful of computers work in our school.  Budget cuts might just be the least of our state's problems.


Student Life, Educational Policy (return to top)

Creativity - October 6, 2009

The following is a response to this speech:


This I would have eaten up in college with affirmative head bobbling and all that.  But now, a little sadly, I give it the red strike-through, with partial credit for the gentleness and kind intentions.  The dainty Mr. Robinson first lost me here: "My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."  To which I say first, “Fine, but who dare malign “creativity?”  As nice as “creativity” sounds, when you consider whether or not you’d rather have a society lacking in "creativity" or in literacy, this contention seems absurd.


I see and hear from the creatively illiterate every day.  Take this, for example, from “Jarmal”: “Mr. Funt, go on and rang that bell.  Watch: Malik mama gon’ come runnin’!”  A creative, real world application of, say, metonymy.  My students, for the most part, do not lack creativity.


Nor do they lack the courage to be wrong.  Failing to acknowledge or see how easily this idea can be corrupted, Robinson continues:

What we do know is if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.  If you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

Which reminds me of an interaction with a student that happened mostly like this:

Me: Mr. Lyles, what is the part of speech of ‘about’?

John: Adverb.

Me: No.

John:  AdJECTive

Me: No.

John:  Wait, noun, no, verb, pronoun…that other p word….I don’t know…what’s an adJECTive again?

I agree that one should not live terrified of failure or of being wrong, but some degree of respect for right and wrong is proportional to the amount and quality of thought invested.  And to Robinson's other point, do most positive developments in a society really emerge from creative risk-taking?  In some cases, creativity has been the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, but isn’t it a higher percentage play just to figure something out when it, gasp, simply follows?  Sure, there is some risk involved in the process of moving the facts further, but there is substance and logic behind that kind of risk, not some unsheathed scabbard of lightening.  Some people are poets, but when you talk about educating a society, there has to be some regard for the percentages.  Regardless of what we’re talking about, without doing the work to learn the existent array of human truths, sensibilities, and decencies in a given field, a person is like the kid in class who doesn’t bother to read the book, and opines nonetheless.


But we all are born with the creative faculty to skip steps, right?  We can do or be anything we want.  This lie is frustrating to me because you are immediately accused of being cynical for suggesting it.  Why has our culture belittled the mule as a mindless drudge?  At least the mule does his work.

I likewise would have been tempted in my coffee shop years by one of Robinson’s related arguments.  He says,

Picasso once said this: he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately: that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.

In my view, we aren’t educated enough out of creativity.  Social contract has its high points, such as electricity and hand raising.   Since there are things to be done, it’s better for everyone to have a role and some rules to conform to.  It is true that you can become, with hard work, dedication, a good plan, luck, etc., in a former colleague’s words, “Somethin' you isn’t.” But without any real will or accountability, that process becomes delusional, e.g. “I can go to collage without learning how to spell it first?”


As long as we keep idealizing education in terms of fluff—e.g. “…seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are”—we will continue to require very little of young people.  We will continue to enable a culture with an increasingly minuscule sense of industry or obligation.  And we will continue to create and pass on weak, hollow, entitled, and generally factless citizens.


Race (return to top)

Response to Rita Bender’s Race Discussion

   I often find that our discussions on race, however well-intentioned they are, rarely make any progress in dialogue and understanding.  This discussion was one of those times when I felt that, although everyone went in with good ideas, nothing really came of it. Her presentation was successful in shock value and illustrating that council schools were founded upon and perpetuated racist ideas, but nothing was really discussed. The race issue is a very tough one. On the one hand, I feel that dialogue might be helpful, but then it turns into finger pointing and feelings being hurt, and so on the other I would rather that we just live together and integrate further. I think more gains will be made from living together and gaining cultural and ethnic awareness than with rubbing salt in old wounds. I find that many of my students do not really concern themselves with race, and those that do, have had those notions drilled into them by some adult in their life. The entries from the Mississippi textbook used in the council schools were shocking and terrible, but really not that surprising. I support racial dialogue but I am not sure about the best way to carry it out. I found that she was an interesting person but felt that the discussion was fairly useless.

Educational Policy (return to top)

High Expectations?

I enjoyed the blog about high expectations. I have found in my meager experience that in order to be successful you need to set attainable goals. When I set goals for the year (I am a nerd who tapes them to my mirror), I choose ones that with effort I can actually reach and still feel a sense of enormous accomplishment. Educators and policy makers  can sometimes set unrealistic goals (cough cough Bush). My Principal has set the goal for our school's QDI to be a 180 this year which would put us on par with Batesville and the like. However, we are located in Holly Springs and there is no way in hell that we will reach this. We had a 71 two years ago and a 97 last year. We made great gains which we should celebrate. I think a great goal would be a 120, which we could reach with Jesus' help and quality instruction, and that is something we could all shoot for. However, it is etched in stone that we reach a 180, and when we fall way short it will all be blamed on the teachers. So there is a difference between high expectations and poor goal making.

I agree with the message in the blog. We do not want our kids to lose confidence. Let's set a goal that they may reach and then pat the on the back for making it. Rather than expecting historically failing districts to become star schools overnight and making the kids feel like failures for not reaching our inflated goals.


Student Relations (return to top)

Dealing With It - March 7, 2009

Last weekend one of my best and favorite students died in a car crash. She was in a car traveling on an already windy road. The driver was texting, their car was clipped, and she wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

In the past, I have had many disrespectful students. This often made for bad days or even weeks spent wondering why the hell I was even making an effort anymore. However, students like W, if run into at the right time of the day (usually the end), made me force myself to show up the next day with the necessary energy to teach like I needed to teach.

Of all those bad days and weeks, this past week has matched them. Without W, my anger and frustration towards the disrespect and apathy that surrounds some of my students has intensified. It seems so unfair. The life of a wonderful student and person is over, but LF, FW, and YW will continue to sleep, skip, curse, and smirk their way through life. I want to shout at them until their ears bleed, but it is useless. Everyone knows that isn’t the way to get your way with these kids. With one regrettable exception, I have kept my cool this week. I have tried to be upbeat but have spent most days silently hating my “bad” students and missing W and what she stood for.

Things will get better, I know. There are other students like W at our school and even the most difficult students have their bright days.  It’s just frustrating and hard.

At the family’s request, I spoke at her funeral today. I knew she liked my class but was surprised nonetheless. Although I don’t feel like it all the time, I am an outsider. It was a great feeling to know that I wasn’t an outsider to W and her family.

 It was my first Delta funeral. Hell, it was the first real funeral since I was about 10. The extreme theatrics of the people involved, the general set-up of the funeral, and the fact that I was the only white person there made me slightly uneasy, but I managed to muster up enough courage not to stammer too much in front of everyone.

Anyway, W was a student that deserves to be recognized. I’m including the words I shared at the funeral below.  

When I found out that I would have the honor of talking about W here today, I sat down to write. Now, normally when I write, I don’t know where to start or where to go – however with W the words seemed to come instantly.

There aren’t many people that can directly affect the mood of a room. W, however, was not like many people. She could walk into my second period class (I am sure everyone in it would agree) and the energy would immediately shift. She would smile, laugh, ask questions, and in the process would challenge everyone to hang with her energy. And, I mean, W was a great student. Yes, she raised her hand, yes she did her bell-work each day, and yes she was usually on time to class. But these things are only superficially good. In the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter all that much. What matters – and what made her so special, was her natural curiosity and genuine interest in learning. She wanted to improve herself and she wanted to improve other people.  She didn’t want to know the answer for the test – she wanted to know the answer to know the answer. Even on a teacher’s worst day, W was one of the students that reminded us why we are in education.

W was a wonderful person. Everyone here knows that. And I am honored to be here to tell you how wonderful she was. I knew her for not even a year and she made a life long impact on me.  I can only imagine what role she played in the lives of the family and friends that have had the privilege to know her for her whole life. And today, I think it is truer than ever that we don’t only grieve for the amazing person that W was, we grieve for the woman that she was destined to become. We grieve for a loyal wife, a loving mother, and a lifelong learner that would have undoubtedly touched the lives of countless others.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my feelings about W today -- although I think it is safe to say that my words are representative of not just my own feelings, but those of everyone at SHS. These classrooms and hallways will be much emptier without her but she will forever be in our hearts.


Reflection - Year Two (return to top)

This Year = Much Better - March 1, 2009

As February turned to March in 2008, I was miserable in my job.  I had thought several times about quitting -- either my school, or teaching altogether.  I didn't like the experience.  MTC seemed like a front man for a mean God, like a hawker at a fair calling people into a house of horrors where the horrors are real, not illusory.  It sucked.

At this time last year, I knew my students were failing by any measure.  Sure, a lot of that can written off as bad preparation by earlier teachers and bad attitude on the part of the students, but at the end of the day the teacher is also involved in what happens in the classroom.  Last year, I wasn't what I needed to be, and it showed in test results and how the students responded to me.

This year, things are very different.  I've moved schools, but the students at H.W. Byers are not so different than the students in Tchula.  They're not as far behind, but they are still behind.  They're not as violent, but they're every bit as disruptive.  The administration is better, but not several levels better and in any event the ratio of crap teachers to good teachers is about the same.

So why the difference in the experience?  One thing that's helped is having a copier that works.  During training new MTCers are told that lack of copier is no excuse, and yes we must teach no matter what the circumstances.  But it's awful teaching without a copier.

Another thing that's helped is some good mentoring.  Last year the only people who came into my room to observe me were people from my school and a consultant who didn't seem terribly engaged.  They told me I was doing fine, which made me feel better, but I knew they weren't right in their assessment.  I wasn't doing fine, and my students weren't learning.  This year I've been fortunate enough, because I teach a state-tested subject, to have a truly gifted teacher sit in my classroom a few times and then spend an hour debriefing me on ways to improve.  That's been so helpful.

I've also gotten better at not being the biggest obstacle to learning taking place in my classroom.  One of my biggest assets has always been a refusal to back down from a challenge and a willingness to engage in confrontation if necessary.  However, I've often taken things too far and turned that asset into a liability.  The town of Tchula is unlike anywhere I've ever been, and the school that serves it reflects the town and its violence.  Looking back, that probably was not the greatest place for me to be as a first-year teacher because I felt that to back down would be to lose credibility, and I sometimes took it too far and made a scene when I should have kept my mouth shut.  Don't get me wrong -- I don't think Tchula would be a good place for anyone to go as a first-year teacher, and unlike a lot of other teachers I made it through the year -- but education can't happen amid constant fighting and battling.  This year I have been much better at picking the moments to make a stand and the moments to let things slide.

Then there are the intangible things like the subconscious radar that picks up impending conflict between students long before anybody does something stupid, and the ability to spot the transition from school talk to social talk as it happens.  For example, the other day I told two girls that I can tell from across the room when they've stopped working and started talking about who said what about someone's cousin, just by the cadence of their speech.  I don't think they believed me, but it's true.

I guess I'm reflecting so much lately because I remember how crazy things are after Spring Break, so in a way it feels like the year is almost over.  And, unless some school district gets a lot of miracle money to pay me a double salary, this will be my last year teaching.  Like I told a non-teacher friend the other night, this is still the hardest job I've ever had, and the bad days still leave me barely able to drag to the car with my satchel of work I won't do.  But the good days are incomparably rewarding and it seems a pity to go now, when the good is finally starting to outweigh the bad.  Oh well.  

Poverty, Discipline (return to top)

Vast Expanses of Abandoned Nothingness - January 28, 2009

    I’ve been to haunted places before and seen fallen glory in many different forms.  Some areas, like the Mississippi Delta, beg the question: is it really fallen glory when there never was much glory in the first place?  

    There is also East St. Louis, the city chosen by Jonathan Kozol as the first in his litany of Savage Inequalities.  

    In my last years in the Air Force one of my troops was Sarah, a young woman from East St. Louis.  She was two levels below me, but I was the first commissioned officer in Sarah’s chain of command.    

    Sarah was an enigma to me.  While other young enlisted women in the unit were in trouble for things like drunken date rape, adultery, or being a suspected lesbian and a lot too much overweight, Sarah was simply late: five minutes in the morning without excuse, ten minutes coming back from lunch saying she had been at church and it ran over.  

    The thing is, Sarah did this crap all the time, and no punishment seemed to make it stop.  As time went on and her discipline file grew, each new situation, no matter how small, made it seem like Sarah fundamentally disrespected military authority.  Her immediate boss and I used the prescribed counseling and disciplinary procedures, culminating one sad day with Sarah standing at attention while I read her a formal letter of reprimand.

    Despite the continuing connection between church activities and Sarah’s habitual tardiness, I never thought to call her minister.  In fact, I remember wondering how anyone could possibly have such need to spend so much time in church and how spending so much time in church could fail to cure a small thing like tardiness.  Instead of trying to put myself in Sarah’s shoes and consider what it might have been like to be the only person from a background like East St. Louis in a unit full of people from happier places, I thought, “Doesn’t she have a fucking watch?”

    Sarah’s situation was compounded by her comparatively lackluster job performance.  She accomplished her tasks but made more mistakes.  She worked a little slower than others and needed more supervision.  She also didn’t have the lightning three-steps-ahead instinct that characterized the very best troops, or if she had it she didn’t share it with us.  Although her act would have grown old no matter what, I’m sure at first we would have been a little more forgiving of Sarah’s petty transgressions if she had been a top star troop.  

    The last I heard about Sarah involved her reassignment.  Her immediate boss had gone against all advice and formally recommended that Sarah be retained in the Air Force and allowed to reenlist.  This infuriated a lot of people and didn’t make much sense to me, but I was in law school by then and more worried about the Statute of Frauds than where my former troops were working.  I think both of them were sent to Alaska.

    For 10 years I didn’t think much about Sarah.  Then last summer, intrigued by Kozol’s descriptions, I visited East St. Louis twice.  The first time, in July, Angela and I drove around a bit.  We saw many of the streets and landmarks mentioned by Kozol and discovered home pregnancy test kits next to the candy bars in a Save-A-Lot check-out aisle.  Angela bought tape that didn’t stick to anything and went into the school district building and the high school to look around.  I bought a Coke and stayed in the car so no one would think Angela was looking around with a law enforcement officer in tow.  

    The second time, in late August, I was in St. Louis for a conference and walked across the bridge with my camera over a lunch break.  Crossing the river with the Arch at my back, feeling the emptiness ahead of me like the back of a deep cave, smelling the raw sewage and burnt chemicals, seeing what I photographed, and hearing nothing but dull distant sounds, I remembered Sarah.  

    Generally speaking, military intelligence draws from the upper few percent of enlistees, so Sarah had accomplished a lot just by getting into our unit.  I did my best to help her succeed in her work, but I know now that my best at that time wasn’t nearly good enough.  I wish I had better understood a decade ago what teaching high school students in Mississippi has taught me: that using different, sometimes unorthodox methods to address the same disciplinary infraction in different people is not wishy-washy or indecisive or inconsistent; it is mature and responsible and often the only way truly to care.

Failures (return to top)

Failure Story - Playing Favorites - July 2, 2008

The first thing I did wrong was to tell Dominique to stop talking during the test.  We'd been in school for over 2 months at that point and I'd always said, "No talking" before the test started and written the same prohibition at the top of every test instruction sheet.  Students had violated the rule, and I'd torn up a few tests.

But when I saw Dominique talking to her neighbor, instead of taking both their tests, I decided they probably were talking about something benign.  I did this because in a class full of behavior problems (at the time that described all my classes) Dominique was the bright spot.  She did her homework and made the best or nearly the best mark on every test.  As a result, she had the top grade in the class (and would have all year).

So I treated her differently on that occasion and it went bad in a hurry.  After telling her to stop talking, I expected her to comprehend the mercy in my action and react accordingly.  Instead, next time I turned around, she was again conferring with her neighbor.

That pissed me off.  I rushed over to her and leaned on the table, a very confrontational physical move, and asked, "Do you speak English?"  When she protested, I continued, "Habla Espanol? Parlez-vouz Francais?  I told you to stop talking during the test."  She told me I better get out of her face, and I told her she better get out in the hall.

After telling the class to disregard what was happening and concentrate on their test -- perhaps the most futile instruction I've ever given -- I followed Dominique into the hall.  I asked why she was acting so foolish.  She said her momma said to never let anybody call her a fool.  I told her I wasn't calling her a fool, I was saying she was acting foolish, and there's a big difference.  She said, "I'm not stupid."  I said maybe not, but talking during a test is a stupid thing to do.  With that I sent her back in.

A couple minutes later, an administrator who knows Dominique's family well came to talk to me.  She had walked past and seen what was happening in the hallway and wanted to know if she could help, "Because this just isn't like  Dominique."  Right about then I heard Dominique in the classroom loudly telling the entire class, "Mr. Nastrom just called me stupid and a fool.  He said I'm stupid and a fool."  I told the administrator I couldn't conduct class with Dominique causing that racket, and the administrator took her away.

A few hours later on my planning period I got buzzed to the office.  Dominique's mother stood there, arms folded.  Dominique's eyes were still red from crying.  We were supposed to wait for the administrator to return, but after a few minutes passed and no administrator, I suggested we go to an empty office and talk (that was the only thing I did right throughout the incident).

Dominique started to talk and her mother shushed her firmly, then turned to me and demanded to know if I had called her daughter "stupid and a fool."  Before I could answer, she went on, "Because I don't believe in grown folk and children talking to each other like grown folk.  Dominique knows she's not grown and needs to leave the grown folk talk to grown folk; but I also won't have grown folk calling her names."

She spoke long enough that words came to me and I said, "Yes, the word 'stupid' and the word 'fool' left my mouth, and let me tell you why."  Whereupon followed a bunch of smooth talk that took the edges off some details, omitted others, and made me look barely good enough to escape the wrath of Dominique's mother.   I'm sure Dominique noticed the subtle changes; whether her mother did, I'll never know.

Eventually everyone shook hands and we went back to our business, but my series of mistakes -- each proceeding from the last like a well-designed morality play -- harmed several people.  It wasn't my only failure of the year, but it was my most complete.

Later in the year, when I caught two of the best students in that same class cheating by passing notes with answers, I took their tests, told the administration, and called their parents.  Those kids gave me grief for over a month, but it was no big deal for me, and the next term they both worked hard enough to pull their year average up to nearly what it would have been if they hadn't been caught cheating.  


Reflection - Final (return to top)

The Final Required Blog: My MTC Experience - April 24, 2009

Every time I sit down to write this blog entry, I draw a complete blank. I said once before (in an oft-shared Ben Guest film clip) that it is just too difficult to put this experience into a short soundbyte or nicely-written reflection.

But of course, no one wants to lose their stellar GPA over a silly blog assignment, so obviously I am writing it. I am not proud of what follows; in fact, I have rarely been proud of my blog entries this year. I am perfectly capable of writing a reflection about educational topics, or about the Delta, or about social/economic/political topics in my community. But when it comes to personal reflections, I have become simply uninspired.  So, perhaps that is a good place to start....

On the personal side:

I think my inability to reflect on my personal performance this spring stems from my complete disappointment in myself these past two years. Yes, I understand that I have impacted many students' lives in positive ways. But that doesn't stop me from pointing out that there are a thousand and one ways I failed. Things I did not accomplish, students I could never reach, decisions that were not smart, etc. and so on, ad infinitum.

 My biggest failure is that I was never able to enjoy my job – I have always prided myself on being an optimist, on always being positive, and on my ability to enjoy whatever happens to comes my way. But for some reason, I couldn't see the bright side of this experience when so fully entrenched in it. (I imagine it will be much easier starting May 22nd.) I dreaded going to work much of my first AND second fall, and grudgingly resigned myself to it my first and second springs. Even now, a day where I get out of teaching for some reason or another is an unbelievable relief.

It's hard to believe I could so misjudge myself by agreeing to come to Mississippi – I thought I could prepare myself for anything. And there is the root of the problem – this is the first time in my entire life I did not absolutely excel at something. Ever since I was born I've been practically off the charts in whatever it is I happened to be doing. I don't mean to brag –  because I don't feel like I did much....it's almost has if I didn't really even have to try. (Insert explanation here of all the built-in advantages of a white middle-class child with educated parents) I have gotten so used to hearing praise from teachers and parents and friends and coaches and professors that it became second-nature. Not only did this experience yank all praise from my life (No, your students will not tell you how much they appreciate you, and neither will anyone else in your school district), but it also forced me to come to terms with the fact that I am not a “great” teacher. A “okay” teacher, maybe. I might have a few “inspirational” days here and there, but then again I have a lot of “ineffective” days too. Totally average. And that is hard to accept, day after difficult day.

I said once that this experience has been more emotionally difficult than losing my mother. It's true. Not because it is more painful (It isn't), but that I was forced to endure that disheartening feeling over and over again, for 8 months, and then 8 months again. I couldn't shake the constant feeling that I wasn't living up to the person I had always imagined myself to be. Having your entire faith in who you are completely pulled out from under you is an emotional experience I wish I had never had to live through.

Ben Guest once asked me if I regretted coming to Mississippi, or regretted staying a second year. I immediately answered in the negative, but I felt at the time like I was lying. In many ways, I do sort of regret coming to Mississippi– it did not further my career in the direction I now want to be going, it put me through some of the worst days and weeks and months of my life, it probably took at least two years off my lifespan, and it lowered my self-confidence in multiple areas.  That being said, there are two reasons why I do not regret coming (or staying) here. Notice: neither of them have to do with the actual job.

1. I met my best friend and fell in love.

2. I would have regretted it more if I hadn't come in the first place.

So, there you have it. If I could do it all over again, yes, I would still end up right here. But I sure as hell would not be happy to go through it all again. If you are still with me and reading, I suggest you stop here, as it is really a good ending point. The personal reflection is the most interesting part right?

Plus, the rest is just here to fulfill the 1,200 word requirement. (Sorry, Ben)

On the logistical side:

For the past two years, I taught a total of ~250 students (plus 20 homeroom students) in 5 different classes – English I, English II, English III, English IV, and Learning Strategies. I arrived at school each day by 7:30a.m., and usually left between 4:30 and 5:00p.m.  I planned 200 minutes of instruction each day for about 180 days my first year (That is a LOT of time spent planning). My second year I only planned 100 minutes a day, and only for about 100 days (re-using lessons was a blessing, when possible).  I gave quarter exams 16 times, and proctored state tests almost as often.

I coached the track team diligently my first year, half-heartedly my second. I spent most waking moments my first year working, or thinking about work. My second year I spent most waking moments avoiding work, or trying not to think about work. I kept a running tally next to my desk of days until school was over, both years.

On the professional side:

Over the course of these two years, I became an actual professional. I managed to develop a whole range of skills that will serve me in any future job. I developed a professional discipline unlike anything I’ve ever had. Just to get up and go to work many days took more discipline than I’d ever needed before.

For example, it took an incredible discipline to grade the 58th paper on a Sunday afternoon knowing there is still a stack more next to me, and lesson to finish for Monday, and at least 6 parent phone calls whenever I finished those. It took discipline to put on a teacher voice and make sure to never swear. Or to tell Kinddricka she cannot go to the bathroom when you know she will throw a fit as soon as the words come out of your mouth. I took discipline to not yell at an obnoxious student and publicly embarrass them when you get frustrated. Mostly it just took discipline to continue caring about doing this job well every day when there are certain days that a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t cloud your vision.

Beyond discipline, I developed another skill that began to influence me personally, as well. Somewhere in the madness of the every day details, I developed the ability to see the big picture. I have always been a writer, but until recently, I could never think thematically. I couldn’t create an allegory from an anecdote, or see a larger thread of meaning from a single, isolated event. Now, I find myself constantly making connections, and pulling deeper explanations for the details in front of me.

In part, I believe it came from unit-planning; I wanted to try to help my students see how each seemingly-unrelated English skill played into a bigger whole. How grammatical perfect tenses on Monday had a connection with types of irony in literature on Wednesday. It probably also came from teaching the research paper so many times - realizing that these students needed to always be aware of the way that details build into the whole. As a second-year teacher, my units suddenly had more coherence; I could see the way each concept could be linked together into a bigger picture.

Partly I probably developed this sense from all of the split-second connections in the classroom, and how a student’s question could suddenly become a “teachable moment”, leading us on to other directions or tying in to previous lessons. These moments were few and far between at the start of my first year; now they are near-daily events.

But I think the biggest influence on this “wider sense of things” was simply the draining nature of this job. I came so close to quitting my first year after seeing how all the little negative aspects could gain momentum to drag me down. I realized that sometimes you have to see the bigger picture, if only to make it through a particularly discouraging day.

Classroom Stories, Student Relations (return to top)

Teaching “Things Fall Apart” - April 23, 2008

The complaints began the moment I started passing out copies of the novel "Things Fall Apart" to the 17 and 18-year-olds of my English IV classroom. "What this book is?" moaned LaJohn, a big football player who always nabs a seat in the back of the room. J.T. was even more pointed when he turned to Tierra, shook his book in the air and said, "Man, she ain't gonna make us read this whole book!"

As a public-school teacher in the Mississippi Delta, I have become accustomed to this sort of aversion towards literature. My students are not comfortable readers. They have been raised almost entirely on television and the Internet; very few have access to books at home. The majority of the teachers in our school system use the textbook exclusively, so many students will finish high school having read only one or two books in total. With this in mind, I try to teach plot-driven stories that operate on a fairly basic reading level, without denying depth of content.

In "Things Fall Apart", Achebe weaves his tale of Nigeria in the 1800s with beautifully simple language. He enriches his descriptions with poetic references to the Ibo culture, filling the pages with their proverbs and natural metaphors. My slower readers would be able to keep up, while the more advanced might find some of the nuance in the poetry.

When I first read "Things Fall Apart" in high school, I was just as sceptical of its funny-sounding character names and its far-off setting, all which couldn't seem further from my life. But the novel's themes are universal, and Achebe quickly captured me. This year I chose his work knowing my students would relate to its emphasis on the inevitability of change, the struggle to succeed in life, and the title's simple creed: that things do fall apart.

The first day I briefly outlined the story: it chronicles the life of an Ibo tribe faced with a changing world. At the centre is Okonkwo, a man driven to success at the expense of his personal relationships. I ask, "Could you tell me something we might know about life in Africa already?" and am met with blank stares. Reginald raised his hand and calls out, "Slaves!" Someone else mentions lions and elephants.

I am often shocked at how little my students know about the world outside their own. As teenagers they are entrenched in the intensity and drama of their own relationships and culture. As teenagers in rural Mississippi, most are completely sheltered from the realities beyond the streets of their poverty-stricken town.

I began to teach the novel with an eye towards its two most important themes: the ways in which the values of a society can conflict with those of its members, and the internal struggle of an individual attempting to overcome his or her own failings. As we begin working through the first few chapters, I want to establish with my kids the values of the Ibo community--kinship, hospitality, courage, achievements--and discuss the ways these principles are reflected in their own community.

My students themselves value many of the same things. During discussion Sarina says firmly, "You should always help your family, and your church, and the people that need help in your community." In a school where over eighty percent of the student body receives free or reduced-priced lunches from the federal government, and where extended families share the responsibilities of daily life to make ends meet, my students certainly identify with the Ibo concepts of kinship and hospitality.

I also push them to examine Okonkwo's own personal values--success, wealth, fame, strength, masculinity--and the ways in which these values conflict with his community, and threaten to pull him down. He spends much of the book battling his own insecurities. Once again, I see the text mirrors my students' lives. This particular class is almost entirely male, and like most teenagers, they are fiercely insecure about their own manliness. I have more than once had to diffuse an oncoming fight between boys seeking to prove themselves. A joke gone too far, a perceived gang affiliation, and suddenly shirts come off and spectators start cheering. Perhaps because many have grown up in single-mother homes, without male role models, they seem to pick up instantly on the notion that Okonkwo's "greatest fear was ending up like his father", a man of very little honour.

As we moved through the book, the students began to pick up on my subtle (and not-so-subtle) nudges towards these ideas. I overhear them explaining concepts to each other in their own vocabulary, and putting the stories in the context of their own lives. Sarina points to a passage earnestly, "So before he go, Okonkwo threw the krunkest party of all time! People goin' to remember him--that man who threw that krunk party!" Anthony nods slowly at her explanation, then marks down his answer: Okonkwo must have slaughtered extra goats so that he would be remembered by his mother's village as a man of importance.

Later, they began to incorporate the events of the story into their own vernacular and jokes. LaJohn, under his breath, tells Travis to quit bothering him or "else I'm gonna go all Okonkwo on him." LaJohn, like Okonkwo, values his masculine role--not in war or as the head of a family, but on the football field, in the weight room, among his classmates.

As my students grew more comfortable with the story, a pattern emerges in their written answers and classroom discussions. Where I always tried to steer the conversation towards the concept of individual versus society, they would return again and again to the nature of Okonkwo's relationships. When he beats Oijugo, a strong woman and his favourite wife, Carolyn responded with an emphatic shake of the head, "He wrong for that. She shouldn't be staying with him." Later, when Okonkwo stuns the community with his anger, Nate has no pity--"He should have listened to his best friend. He didn't even go with what his friend said."

They see Okonkwo's world just as they see their own--a complex network of interpersonal connections. In their minds, this wasn't a man at odds with his community at large, or struggling internally with himself, but one who chose to break the bonds with those most close to him.

Of course, this had never occurred to me. But as I began paging through the novel, their observations popped out everywhere. Okonkwo systematically severs ties with friends, family members, and his own father's memory. To my students, who value their friendships above all, this was abundantly clear. Their lives, like most teenagers, are measured in moments spent with friends, siblings, and cousins. Their cell-phones are practically extensions of their hands--text messages fly by the thousand each day. Students are constantly introducing me to the people in their lives: "This is Cheri, Ms. Morris'." they'll say, and then, without skipping a beat, "She my best friend."

In an age where parents are "uncool", or at least absent and deemed unnecessary, these adolescents look out for one another, and act as mentors and confidantes. It is an unspoken rule that no one will "rat out" misbehaviour to an adult. So, of course my teenagers saw this story as fundamentally about the complicated nature of relationships--the ways in which we must sacrifice ourselves to help those we love, and how it is of the utmost importance to remain loyal those who are loyal to you.

In our final discussion of the book, we talked about the significance of the title. I asked them whether they believed that things really do fall apart--either entire societies or individual lives. Reginald, a mountain of a student with a perpetual grin, immediately shot his hand in the air. "Well, yes. Things do always fall apart. Just like us. 'Cause we'll be graduating in three months and then we will all disappear and not be friends with the same friends again...and that will be sad."

I realised that he was not only talking about his own life, but also Okonkwo's. The main character's tragic, self-inflicted downfall was, in the end, propelled not by his own weakness, but by his choice to cut himself off from all who cared about him--a choice that, to my students, would destine him for failure.


Poverty, Delta Life (return to top)

Ira Glass Must be a Pseudonym, Right? - June 6, 2007

Impressions from Lalee's Kin?  Sam and Dan and I have already volleyed ideas back and forth, so there may well be some overlap of my blog with theirs (which is the kindest way I can think of saying that I'm taking all their best insights).

I was struck by the lack of positive male role models--or even more basically, of successful black males--in the Delta.  As far as I can remember, only two middle-aged black men appear in the movie:  Lalee's drug-dealing son and Main's Boyz-to-Men Mentor (as Sam put it).  While there was a great deal of necessary focus on Lalee herself and the systemic poverty surrounding her, I thought the documentary was too sparse in its characterization of these two men.  I understand that the movie's "silence" is damning--if there were more men present there would be more to report, but an interesting dichotomy could have been constructed between the son-gone-wrong and the mentor trying to make right.  The contrast would have taken on an extra poignancy insofar as Ben revealed that, despite the mentor's best efforts, Main dropped out of school.  This sort of poetic despair is common of tragedy, and powerful as well:  although Oedipus tries his best to solve Thebes' problems, he can't escape his fate; though this young, successful black man has sacrificed opportunities outside of the Delta in a hope to rehabilitate the area's youth, his single efforts cannot overcome an endemic trend...and I'm a classics major.

In part, I joined MTC because of a few good high school teachers of mine who introduced me to a greater and grander world than I knew existed.  In other words, I learned about Walden and Emerson and Woody Allen and the San Fran psychedelic scene from a couple of guys who were cool enough to care.  This is the sappy part of this post, but I'd like to do a bit of the same (including, yes, the founding of a chess club) with some kids whose only experience, as the movie said, has been cotton and soybean and corn fields in both their waking hours and dreams.  For a kid like Granny, I'd imagine, it would be liberating to know that there is a great tradition of thoughtful people who weren't ashamed of a devotion towards hard intellectual labor.  There are smart kids everywhere, I imagine, and it's got to be lonely when none of your friends give a damn about abstract thought or learning in general.  Obviously, I realize I'm in a delicate situation as a white dude trying to proselytize the accomplishments of the West to a group of people trod underfoot by some of those same accomplishments, but...I'm a classics major.

Summer School Self-Evaluation (return to top)

The Required Video Self-Eval -July 8, 2007

I would like never to watch myself on film again.  I think the lesson went alright, but there’s just something about watching myself do all the stupid things that I only half-consciously know that I do, which is not really a lot of fun.  It’s the same with mirrors; unless I know I am approaching one, it freaks me out to look over and see myself doing whatever I was in the midst of doing before I looked over.

So now that that’s done with, to the lesson:  it seemed to go well enough.  This was the first of a two-part lesson about writing persuasively; in this lesson, they debated each other aloud, in groups, as to who the best rapper and basketball player were.  The next lesson would focus that energy and show them how what they just did could be as easily done in writing.

I think the kids understood the lesson.  My main problems were twofold:  1. I have this idiotic habit of, when I’m walking around the classroom lecturing, staring off into space like Plato pontificating, instead of looking at my kids as I talk.  It is absurd.  Let’s hope I can cut down on it.

The second problem is with classroom management.  The kids were well-behaved until they split up into groups.  Slowly they started veering off-topic, but there was never an instance where it would have been easy for me to drop the hammer and shut them up by making an example of one kid.  So instead I did nothing and the lesson slowly degenerated.  Ultimately, everything was fine; the kids debated and cheered and seemed to learn something, but there was a lot more off-topic talking than I would have preferred.  How exactly I would go about being a better classroom manager, I don’t know, but that’s what they pay the Ed. School professors the big bucks to find out.

Summer School Second Self-Evaluation (return to top)

The Second Required Video Self-Eval - July 21, 2007

It looked better this time.  I didn't stare at the ceiling so frequently.  As I mentioned in the other review, I said "Okay?" too much.  All in all, the lesson was just fine, except for the fact that the kids were struggling with the concept I was trying to teach them.  I don't know what else really needs to be said:  poise was fine, knowledge of the subject looked good, I called on all the students, I turned off the lights and the kids didn't fall asleep, I've mastered the use of the overhead, I even improved a new part of the lesson when I realized that time was going to become an issue.

I've realized I can't beat myself up over the fact that the kids are struggling with the information.  So it's still a failure on both my and their parts, but I'm not going to take it personally and I'm not going to lose sleep over it.  There are other days and other lessons to tighten up the kids' knowledge.

And after seeing their final exams, it looks like they understood everything just fine.

MTC Program, Technology (return to top)

MTC Technology - July 21, 2007

Is there a better topic for my final required blog than that I don't enjoy the emphasis being placed on technology?

I realize that there are numerous advantages that can theoretically be garnered from the blogs and the video cameras and the iLife or whatever the hell it is called, but I simply am not a fan.  I see all these things as shiny bells and whistles; unfortunately it seems that they are being regarded not as an adornment, but as some necessary and critical aspect of the program.  I have no problem with the use of computers or whatever else; I just see it as a little absurd when their use becomes required.  I also don't want to waste my time fiddling with some camera or program I don't understand when I could be writing lesson plans or sleeping or eating or reading a book.

But the iMac chess game is fun.

First Day (return to top)

First Day of School - August 10, 2007

First day of school, revised:

-Don't have much to say.

-Teaching rules and procedures isn't really scintillating

-Surprised that the kids follow orders, even if only for a couple seconds

-Obviously, intimidating at first.

Poverty (return to top)

Ruby Payne - August 25, 2007

I don't necessarily have a lot to say about Ms. Payne's book other than that I think it is first and foremost a moneymaking scheme for her and her company.  It takes a rare book to be completely devoid of salient points (the broken clock rule), so if you search hard enough you can find helpful bits of advice and whatnot (the "this is how poor people respond do adversity" chart), but on the whole this book is maddeningly trivial and unsystematic.

What needs to be realized first is that this is NOT an academic book.  Payne may list herself as a PhD, but nowhere in the book does she tell us the university from which it came.  Furthermore, you have to dig deeply on her website before she reveals the university to you (South Texas something-or-another).  Her research is shoddy and seems to rely almost solely on anecdotes she either witnessed or heard about (for more on this, check out academia's virulent online response to Payne's books).  An example:  She has as a "case study" Jose or someone who: 1. is dirt poor 2. has a drug addict mom 3. has a gang-leader uncle 4. no one speaks English 5. the gang-leader uncle wants to take Jose out of school and hide out in Mexico because the uncle wants to spend time with Jose before he dies since in the gang business no one lives past 30.  ETC. ETC. ETC.

This sort of story may titillate a speaking-tour audience, but I doubt that it's relevant to the great majority of people in poverty that Ms. Payne professes to want to help.

That, and her "hidden middle-class rules" make me want to set her book on fire.  As I see it, these are anachronistic and bigoted: the "upper-class rules" have more to do with an imagined Victorian society than anything else, and the "lower-class rules" stem from the worst sort of prejudices about the black poor.

In summary, Ms. Payne's book is full of nonsense that could have been avoided if she'd approached her topic from an academically rigorous angle instead of some misguided philanthropic one or (what is much more likely) a cynical attempt to cash in on the sympathies of well-meaning people.

Classroom Management (return to top)

Classroom Management Update - October 26, 2007

I want to talk about discipline and rewards separately, so I'll split this blog into two sections:


 Taking Ben's advice, I reviewed classroom management and discipline with my freshmen last week.  I don't know if it was the review, or that I've tried to stay consistent with discipline, but in these past two days I have seen positive dividends paid.  I still have to give out writing assignments willy-nilly, but the kids are now starting to link the cause and effect of behavior and punishment.  To wit, on Wednesday I had to give out seven (seven!!!) writing assignments in my 4th period, but for all of Thursday they were angels.  This is the dramatic improvement from the daily kangaroo zoo 4th period used to be.

My real improvement has come in managing behavior.  I can now look at a kid, catch his eye, and stare hard enough so as to make him stop misbehaving.  This has been 10 weeks in the making, and it's probably the best classroom management tool i have, because freshmen can't help but laugh when I say, "XYZ, that is your warning" or "XYZ, that is a writing assignment."  By quietly controlling them with my eyes, I don't draw attention to their bad behavior.  And if they don't get verbal recognition from me, they don't get attention from their friends.

I win.  They lose.  They learn.


Big success.  Originally, I thought a Ticket Policy for-things-well-done was too kitschy.  I stand corrected.  It has been a resounding success.  Kids will shoot each other for tickets.  Kids will jump around naked for tickets.  Mirabile dictu, kids will even participate in class for tickets.

I have a varied rewards list that goes from 1 ticket (tissue to blow your nose - this keeps kids from asking for tissue so as to have something to do besides take notes) to 500 tickets (5 ppl x 100 tickets - Mr. Walker shaves his head).  The kids are nuts for this stuff.  I have some seniors who are saving blocks of tickets, refusing to use 10 to buy a bathroom pass, doing their homework so they won't have to buy a 5 ticket homework pass, all so that they can see me shave my head.

I even have freshmen who don't like participating in class, but will try to find ingenious ways to win a ticket (Mr. Walker, let me clean your board.  Mr. Walker, please let me read the overhead.  Mr. Walker, can I write the bellringer on the main board?).  I don't tell them that they are actually engaging the subject of English, and they don't realize that they are being duped into being energetic and staying awake in class.

I win.  They lose.  They learn.

Now a disclaimer:  This is only a partial representation of my classroom management status.  I also have at least 3 freshmen over whom I have no control.  This is mostly due to the weak-kneed nature of the school board, the total lack of support from particular parents, and the dearth of community resources to deal with chronic delinquents.

Any of the three can take a class straight to hell.  Trying to control the rest of the class while finessing a touch-and-go policy with them is a harrying experience.  If only I had a paddle...

I think, overall, this should be the summation of my feelings on classroom management:  If only I had a paddle...

Reflection - First Semester (return to top)

Fight - December 1, 2007

I'll let this story stand for my experiences in general:

On Friday I broke up my first fight at Simmons.  Two kids in my fourth period--my lunch period--were involved.  I should have seen the fight coming;  while walking back from lunch on Thursday, the two got into each other's faces.  I pulled them apart, but I thought nothing of it:  these two were not the usual suspects to do something stupid.

Friday was destined to be a powderkeg.  It was the day of our playoff game against Rosedale, THE 2A football team in the state of MS (though when i saw their 70 person band and 50+ person football team, I wondered why exactly they were in 2A at all (as opposed to Conference USA, for instance), but those are sour grapes and anyways it's not my story to tell...).  It goes without saying, the school was electric with anticipation.

To add to the general mayhem, a subplot of intrigue:  In October, the school was witness to a...well, a brawl.  15 kids suspended.  A big to-do.  Humbugging and knit-brows (but little else) from those in position to do more.  The genesis was straight from Shakespeare: two rival cliques (Arcola vs. Hollandale; A-town goons vs. Get-Money-Boys) feuding because it's what they've always done.

When the dust settled and the suspensions expired, our principal added an addendum:  the cliques are to stay apart, disband, not meet one another in the streets.  Right...ask the Prince of Verona how that worked out.  The edict lasted two days at most.  The groundswell of these kids' natural inclinations could have been checked by diligence or perseverance or at least giving-a-damn, but we were as inert as the rocks that a stream burbles over.  By gameday Friday, our idiots were grouping together again at lunch, harassing girls and jabbering like fools.

Though the record may not bear me out, I have no doubt that the first of these cliques reignited my freshmen's dispute (seeing as one of them wants to be accepted by that crowd, for reasons that I cannot divine).  In respect to my classical instruction, a jump to the historical present:

While eating whatever was served for lunch (baked chicken, perhaps), I notice a rush of bodies towards the cafeteria exit.  High school etiquette being what it is, I realize that so much movement, so quickly, can only presage a fight.  I leave my lunch (let 'em tamper with it, I won't be back to finish it) and bulldoze through the gathered pack.  My two freshmen are outside the cafeteria, against the wall, face-to-face, and bumping chests.  It's all bluster at this point, so I take one and shove him  into the cafeteria while restraining the other, holding him outside.

What's happened, though, is enough to taint the water and all our sharks have scented blood.  The scene outside is giddy and unrestrained: the gathered students are hopped up on hope of a fight, shouting and screaming, jostling and pantomiming what they hope to see. I make a mistake; in my own way I'm as hyped as they are, except I'm high on my own feeling of disciplinary control.  For 20 seconds, I think I can reign them all back into line.  Not content to defuse a fight, I try to defuse the whole situation.  I hand out writing assignments and bark reprisals, to limited effect.

Those 20 wasted seconds are time enough.  The freshman I had pushed inside the cafeteria has come back out.  Preternaturally, I turn from my peace-keeping duties in time to see the two back together, tensed up.   One throws a fist; all order breaks down.  As if through an imagined muscle-memory, or some instinct previously lain dormant, I'm immediately between the two, bracketing one behind my body, arms back, thrusting him into the wall while I shield him from the blows of the other.  I keep my face and body towards the one who's free, while I pin the other to the wall, preventing his reprisal.

Amidst the chaos, something amazing happens.

Another of my freshmen--one of the clique leaders--pulls the unbracketed fighter away from the brawl.  I say to this new entrant (D, we'll call him): "D, take C back into the hallway.  Get him out of here."  While all the world shouts and screams and lusts for blood, D steers C into the school proper (the cafeteria is in an adjacent building) and away from the fight.  I wrestle the bracketed K circuitously towards the office.  When I arrive, K in tow, who should I see but D standing legs apart and arms crossed, staring holes through C, who's sitting petulantly in a corner.

It was the proudest I've ever been as a teacher.  This is why:

As I said, D was one of the clique leaders.  During the big fight, he was an instigator and major contributor.  When he came back from the alternative school I told him that I didn't care if the other kids who weren't supposed to hang out at lunch did actually did so, HE--since he was in my class--was not to sit with them.  If they came and sat next to him, he was to get up and sit by me.

I told him that and he ignored me.  I asked him how many times must I repeat my order.  He said 27, but he didn't mean it.  He asked me to stop after 18.  And damn it all, he followed through.  He stopped sitting with the idiots and sat with his class (like he was supposed to).  On Friday, when his idiot clique buddies tried again, he left and sat next to me, taking in stride their taunts about "leaving us for a teach."

And then he took the most responsibility I've ever seen any freshman take, helping me to break up this fight and actually get his kid to the office before I got mine there.

What this says to me is that, regardless of anything related to the subject of English that I may or may not have taught, it looks like--on one day when it mattered most--a kid who had every right to act worse showed me that he'd learned how to act better.  And that's a hopeful sign.  Ironically (if that's the word for it), by having to break up my first fight, I realize it's been a good first semester.

Educational Policy (return to top)

A Blog Loosely Centered Around the Topic of an Improved Student - March 31, 2008

 Why dropout-prevention assemblies kill the motivation to live

Last Tuesday I was lassoed into chaperoning a Dropout-Prevention Program.  Simmons High's 25 biggest malcontents were herded into a bus and shipped to the middle school, where we picked up 15 more malcontents and headed off to Greenville.

Washington County had gone to an assuredly great expense to put on a "Get-on-the-Bus.MS" Dropout Prevention program.  Why that money was spent is still being debated.  The collected dropout risks from around the county gathered in the convention center and sat for 3 hours, listening to Washington County's 4 (repeat that: 4!) different school districts' representatives summarize their prevention plans.  Then a State Dept. of Education Secretary took the podium and--after apologizing in advance if she ran over her 5 minute time limit--regaled us with rambling reminisces, recriminations, and repetitions for well along half an hour.

Lost in the shuffle was any shape of speech directed towards our kids, to inform or inspire them to stay in school.

As soon as the show began, and I saw what was to come, I knew there might be trouble.  I sat myself next to L.S.W., the school's alpha troublemaker.  He chomped and kicked when I sat down, but took it well enough thereafter.  Despite three hours' nauseous natterings, he behaved better than I'd believed he would.  And, in a fit of misguided and ignorant inspiration, he leaned over to me during the proceedings and, passing judgment on the prevention program, said:

"If I'd have known this is what we'd be doing, I would have just stayed in school."

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Advice - April 29, 2008

Many things that I would like to say have been admirably covered by others (beware the Messiah complex, etc.).  I want to individually stress these two points:

1. Prepare to be miserable.  Eventually your misery will buy you back some happiness, but be prepared to wait six or eight months before you can start purhcasing any.  You will have a lot of work to do, and you will not know how to do it all.  The Summer School will prepare you as best we can, but this profession in this area is a sink-or-swim proposition.  In the end it's up to you: keep your head above water in the fall, and learn how to swim in the spring.  By the second year, you'll be diving for pearls.

2.  Find a hobby that involves what Mississippi does well.  If you have joined MTC because you wanted to find traditional high culture, you will quit.  If you joined MTC because you wanted to find traditionally liberally-minded people, you will quit.  If you joined MTC because you wanted to find an enlightened public school system, you will quit.  Many things Mississippi does poorly.  If the things we do poorly are the things that get your rocks off, you won't make it.  What you need to do is find a reason to love the state: do you like to hunt? do you like the outdoors? do you like Civil War history?  do you like to fish?  do you like to gamble in riverboat casinos?

If you can find a reason to love the state--and if your reason to love the state will also help relieve stress--then your time here will be much more enjoyable.  Mississippi is rural; don't come here with a city-slicker carpet-bagger mentality.  If you want to stay sane and have fun, you'll have to accept the state (and its people) on their own terms.

Classroom Management (return to top)

Classroom Management - June 13, 2008

My first classroom management plan was nonsense.  It had little association with how my class would (or could) actually be taught.  In the Powerpoint detailing my first discipline plan can be found a solicitation of student recommendations for authors; a one-day-then-no-tolerance policy for late work; a delusional attitude toward parent contact ("letters will be sent home before every nine weeks' exam"); and generally misguided bathroom, cleanliness, and entrance/exit policies.

The classroom rules themselves are inconsequential: Pete already mentioned that our principal passed down from Sinai a set of rules we all were to use, so the ones mentioned in my plan were still-born.  Pete made another good point, that he came to rely heavily on his procedures.  As did I, so they were in constant flux as I searched for a way to integrate (DOK 4) a well-ordered classroom with my innate listing toward laziness, irresponsibility, and poor filing-and-recording procedures.

My bathroom policy stands as a metaphor for my classroom management in general.  In my small attempt to discredit the welfare-mentality, nothing in my class is free of charge (not tissue paper, not pens, not paper, not the bathroom, not nothin') but must be paid for with tickets.  Prices inflate as the year progresses.  During my first year, the easy part of my bathroom policy was the price--I could afford to be inflexible on that.  The tough part was assigning a once-per-nine-weeks pass.  At the beginning I gave everyone one, but did a poor job keeping track.  Then I got angry at the idiots who seemingly had neither kidneys nor bladder, so my policy morphed into a "females only, and only for female problems" policy.  That was unfair, and totally unable to be adequately regulated and verified.  A "no-pass" policy briefly appeared, but exited just as quickly.  By second semester's end, I was back to the one-pass for all rule, with all the problems from year's start as concurrent baggage.

My solution for the coming year: take the work out of my hands and put it in the students'.  At the beginning of each semester, they will design an artistic bathroom pass, replete with all and sundry references to whatever they want.  When they want to use it, I mark nothing down, I only tear up their pass and throw it away.  The cut of the paper will have uncopiable irregularities to prevent forgery.

Same with all the rest.  Students will take attendance and absences.  Students will be responsible for taking a spare copy of the overhead notes and filing them in a missed-work binder.  Ditto homework collection.  Ditto room cleanliness.  Most of my kids can't tie their shoes and would steal mine if given the chance, but a few are worth their weight in shoelaces.  I gave this idea a dry-run in my homeroom halfway through the year, and I can say that since January I can count on one hand the number of times I had to take attendance or write my objectives on the board.

Granted, sometimes the attendance was wrong and the objectives indecipherable, but I wouldn't feel right in SHS with a perfect system.  I'd be out of place, like heraldry on a mule.

 One with a limp and with mange.

Reflections - First Year (return to top)

A Coon Huntin’ Story/First-Year Reflection - June 18, 2008

“My friend John Eubanks was a great American.  He always said, ‘Give everything a sporting chance.  When you go coon huntin’, either take a cross cut saw with you so that you can cut down the tree the coon is in, or climb up the tree and punch him out and make him jump in among the dogs.  Give him a sporting chance.’  Many times my brother Sonny and I would make a coon jump in amongst twenty or thirty dogs.  But at least that coon had the option of whuppin’ all them dogs and walkin’ off if he wanted to.”

-Jerry Clower

It’s funny; my principal is a big coon hunter.  The teachers tell me that every year he shows up to school one day with a new pickup truck because he stuck his old one in an impossible bog the previous night trying to chase a coon down.  When the year began, I sympathized like never before with the coon in Jerry Clower’s story.  Somehow I’d gotten myself up in a tree and here came my principal to punch me out.  The year’s start was rough: many a time I jumped out of the tree and was torn up by those hounds.  Eventually, though, I realized that I had the option of whoopin’ the dogs, and even later on in the year I learned how to.  Granted, the odds are always against the coon—and I’m not by any means a prodigiously successful teacher—but every now and then the coon steals one.

As the coon jumps, one of two thoughts can cross his mind:

1.        it’s really not fair that I got punched out.  I should be able to stay in this tree and live my life the way I want to.  AND, even if the hunter had to punch me out, he could have given me a stick or a knife or SOMETHING to fight off these dogs with.  And why are the dogs so mean anyways?  Are they bred for this sort of thing?  They’re certainly ill-bred, I know that much.  The daddy hound probably left home when they were a little litter of pups.

2.        These dogs don’t know what’s about to hit them.  They’d better be in their seats and working on the bellringer when I hit the ground or I’m gonna whup ‘em all.

My first year has been a lesson in stoical responsibility.  My dad used to say of me that I had a “justice problem” because I’d get myself in trouble whenever I perceived some unfair treatment of me (and of other people too, but to a lesser extent...It can’t be unusual that many of the most selfish people are also the most concerned about “fair” treatment).  Throughout high school and college I was—well, to be honest—monumentally irresponsible, and always ready to solipsize away any criticism of it.

The Teacher Corps certainly hasn’t entirely cured me: far too often I leave assignments ungraded; I fall asleep at 5pm after a tough day; I eat at Sonic, unhealthily and expensively; I exercise about never; hardly ever do I return phone messages and emails; and I don’t push my students as hard or as far as they should be pushed.

Nevertheless, while my first year may have been a failure on many fronts (can you only have a Maginot Line if you also have some well-guarded borders?  Or can your defenses be a series of Maginot Lines?), I am proud to have finally given up on the idea of faulting the whole world for my problems.

Certainly our students could be better parented, they could be more interested in school, the administration could be more supportive, the bell schedule could be regular, the secretaries could speak proper English, etc. etc. etc.

Ultimately, I am responsible for how my class is conducted.  If the class is derailed, I did not take appropriate preventative action.  If I’m going to teach my kids anything, I’m going to have to fight them and outsmart them and win them over WHILE holding them to a high standard.  I’m going to have to whup ‘em all, one way or another.

What I’ve mentioned isn’t what I’ve accomplished, but thinking any other way—or blaming anyone else—is more destructive.  I overheard another teacher defend his disciplinary stance towards his kids (they were overrunning him) by saying, “When they get bad, I say to myself ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’ and then I just don’t bother with them.’”  I didn’t say anything at the time (I also developed a shrewd politicism this year), but I cannot imagine a more malignant, a more cankerous attitude than this.  Is this the role of a teacher, to feel uniquely persecuted and to withdraw in a monastic non-resistance?  You certainly have to ENDURE, almost endlessly, as a teacher, but your justification comes not in a pious acceptance of an unbridled fate, but comes instead through wrestling oppositely-running horses into harnesses and cracking the whip.

Or it comes from whuppin’ all them dogs and walkin’ off.

Editorial Note:  I realize the danger that comes with comparing students to dogs.  I love my kids to death and was merely working out a metaphor.  And maybe 15 of them will take Latin with me next year, which is something ANY dog is incapable of.

Successes, Failures (return to top)

Hopefully the last damn first-year reflection I have to write - June 30, 2008

One Success and One Failure Story from the First Year

I am so oversaturated with reflection requests that it is now impossible for me--without some external and unrelated stimulus--to once again dredge up last years' memories.  I read a Eudora Welty story about a husband who found a suicide note from his wife; she said she'd drowned herself in the river.  He and a pack of friends borrowed a net to dredge the Pearl River, though it quickly became apparent that no one (least of all the husband) believed that the girl had really drowned herself.  For some reason, they followed through with the charade, I guess because it was something to do.  They enjoyed themselves, perhaps, but the idea of "getting together to do something" didn't justify their action, nor did it give it any meaning.  They were just a set of folks doing a rather useless thing, but doing it nevertheless.  On with the blog, right?

When Dr. Monroe asked for volunteers to run the summer clubs, I quickly volunteered to head up a Holly Springs Chess Club.  My Simmons High Chess Club had been a big success during the year.  Anywhere from 5-10 students stayed after school for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday to learn the game.  At the year's start, maybe 2 people at Simmons High knew how to play chess.  By year's end, 30-35 could move the pieces with some degree of authority, and 4 or 5 had become real, honest-to-god chess players.  State chess competitions were always on these kids' minds--a thing which we weren't able to attend this year, but next year will be able to.  The experience, as a whole, was a success (thus the blog).

The summer revealed the Holly High version to be something far different than I'd imagined: during its first incarnation, the club was 5 teachers, 1 student, and a hell of a lot of fun.  Mr. E spent the 45 minutes whipping my ass, and the other teachers played each other and mentored our one student.  After P.E. club was (rightly) canceled, we wound up with 7 more students and a bunch of checkerboards.  The club became something I grew to hate: the students were not interested in playing chess, but in wasting my time, in leering at any females who entered, and in cursing under their breathes.  It's the sort of adolescent shit that my chess club during the year did not have, because I kept the jackasses out; also, none of the jackasses would stay two hours after school to learn a white man's game from a white man.  Being in a maladjusted chess club made me realize how much I missed MY chess club and how proud I was of my students who put in the time to learn the game.

Now to the failure story:

I've been told that the Delta's chemical fertilizers seep into the water supplies and into the peoples of the Delta, the effects of which supposedly explain the monstrously high early mortality rate.  While the land does effect its citizens, I think this wive's tale goes wrong by using chemistry to explain the Delta's influence.  There IS, though, a sort of gravitational pull that the Delta effects on its inhabitants, which changes mindsets as much as it does metabolisms.

After the last day of summer school, X, Y, and I visited a juke joint in Holly Springs.  Driving east from the school, we took a right and left, drove under a (working?) railroad track, and parked in gravel to the left of the juke joint, to the left of the road.  I was driving; I didn't pull into the juke joint the first time we passed it.  I drove past, flipped a u-turn, and on the way back pulled into the parking lot.  The shock of my first impression made me drive by and hope that, on the return trip, the joint looked different from south-to-north than it did from north-to-south.

It didn't, though.  Ever read Dickens?  Ever read Riis' "How the Other Half Lives"?  Well, neither have I.  As best I know, it's one of those books that shows up in history books ("The Jungle", "Bleak House", "Paradise Lost") but no one's ever read, though particularly influential people will have bought and displayed it for dramatic and social and political effect.

Nevertheless, I don't have a desire to read the book after having been in this juke joint (and after having taught in H-dale this year).  A fat black man exhausted by sitting sitting out front; a passed out black lady in an easy chair ; pooltable, jukebox, stove, and cooler strewn inside.  Ubiquitous roaches--when you move a stool, when you pull a napkin, when the black lady drops her purse on the table to make change, the damn things scamper in all directions.

They weren't the cigar-sized roaches that fly and buzz and scare the dickens out of you.  They were the small, half-cigarette sized buggers that are too fast and too unobtrusive to physically represent the decay which they should symbolize.  (Ever read Moby Dick?  Where Melville extemporizes on the genus and species of whales?)  The big roaches, while disgusting in appearance, are mostly harmless.  9 times from 10 you will catch sight of them outside, scurrying away from light or flying into your glass windows.  They live primarily outside and eat decomposing plant matter.  For all their girth, they're harmless and probably helpful.  The little roaches, however, spell trouble.  They, as best I understand, have hitched rides with migrating tribes since the Crescents became Fertile.  If you see the big roaches in your house, you've left a door open too long; If you see the little roaches inside your house, you'd best check your Cheerios, chips, and sink cabinet corners.  The little ones are signs of infestation, and feast on irresponsible human cleanliness practices.  They're also nearly impossible to eradicate.  Once you've erred in leaving week-old leftovers on your counter-top for a fortnight, the roaches will eternally remind you of your mistake (kind of like the Clap).

The little buggers were everywhere in the juke joint.  We bought a couple of 24oz bottles from our strung-out hostess.  The juke box ate 75 of my cents.  I couldn't knock a billiards ball in a hole to save my life.

And I was viscerally uncomfortable the whole time I was in the juke joint.  But it wasn't the filth, or the roaches, or the wrecks of humans serving us, or the hungry juke box, or my ten-thumb operation of a pool cue that bothered me.

After we left the joint and I had time to think about it, I realized that I was uncomfortable because I felt out of place.  I was a white boy in a black joint.  I had my culture, they had theirs, and I had no business pretending that the two of them intersected.

A year ago, the idea of being a white boy in a black joint would have exhilarated me; last summer's Teacher Corps visit to Club Ebony was a culmination of what I imagined the Delta would be about ("I played guitar on the same stage as BB King!!!" etc.).  Many people in college (and myself), I believe, pretend to live in a post-racial world; they (and I) not only make the mistake of thinking that this post-racial ideal can be exported, but also delude themselves into thinking that the ideal IS the real world.  (Is it any wonder that Barack Obama's support is strongest and most virulent on college campuses?)  In college and covering blues standards with like-minded folks, a perfect pilgrimage for me was to rub shoulders in Mississippi with the black folks I'd read and sung about and listened to.  What an idea, huh?

A year's reality in the Delta changed me.  I don't know when, and I don't know how, but I have come to see and feel the Delta's racial demarcations.  This life was for me; that life was for my students and my students' parents.  Part of this is understandable: I have no business hanging out in a disreputable (even for black folks) juke joint in the same town where I am to represent the paragon of respectable education, culture, and restraint.  As a teacher I know that the life I can live is circumscribed by my responsibilities to the community.  In a way, we're like NBA players--I remember Charles Barkley saying, "I'm not a role model" after he'd thrown a man through a plate-glass bar window, but no matter what he said, kids looked up to him.  No matter how young I am, or how I feel about it, I have to present an image consistent with...well, "the Man", if that means respectable moderation.  I have no business being radical or paradigm-shifting; my actions, if emulated, need to produce results in the business world.

But the respectable/disreputable dynamic doesn't explain why I was uncomfortable in the Holly Springs juke joint.  I was uncomfortable because I was crossing a racial/cultural line that I felt like I had no business stepping across.  I was bucking a racial reality that I wanted to succumb to.  The separate-but-equal, emphasis on "separate", had impressed itself upon me.

This is a failure story for me because I cannot cogently wrap my head around the experience.  I don't know if I should be abhorred that the Delta's (and Mississippi's) racial status-quo has infiltrated my consciousness, or if I should be proud that I am no longer acting like a sight-seeing ignorant Yankee who would visit for a day to rub shoulders and  flippantly ignore the painfully complex racial history of the state.  And if there's a third way to see it, I don't see it yet.

I simply don't know.

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Unsolicited Advice - August 9, 2008

It's an accomplishment to have gotten this far.  It really is.  But as Jon Z. says, "It'll only get harder."  With that in mind, I want to take the road less traveled in order to give you some advice:

So the first week was tough.  You're drained, mentally and physically, and you've got to get up and do it again.

This job ain't really easy, but you didn't sign up for easy, right?  Enough people have given you enough good advice.  You need to remember that if you put your head down you'll get through this shit.  Perseverance is your only card in this game.  And you don't really have an alternative, do you?

It isn't Iraq.  It isn't Georgia.  You may feel miserable and worn out, but feeling sorry for yourself won't get you ready for tomorrow.  I understand how tough it is, but you have to compartmentalize, and work, and grind out another day.

Another piece of advice is to remember that, for all your righteous indignation, you are a guest and a visitor to this part of  the world.  What's right in your district is RIGHT, whatever you or more enlightened people may believe to the contrary.  Don't stick your foot in your mouth because you think you know how to do something better than someone who possesses more authority than you.

Your first job is to serve your students.  Your second job is not to get your ass fired, so that you can.

Classroom Stories, Delta Life (return to top)

The Champs - February 16, 2009

Karl already beat me to it, but I'll go ahead and put the full story up on my blog.

As with all academic disciplines, the Classical Arts has its share of professional organizations.  One of the most active is the American Classical League (ACL), the scholastic branch of which is the National Junior Classical League (NJCL).  If memory serves, 48 states have an NJCL chapter, and in each of those 48 the local NJCL holds an annual conference for students and teachers to meet, greet, and compete.  By some stroke of luck, we were allowed not only to join the NJCL but also to attend this year's conference, held in Clinton, MS.

We left on Friday at 11am for the 2:30pm conference.  I overestimated the time it would take to get to Clinton (also, our bus driver rolled along pushing 70 instead of the 55 I had thought was required by law).  By 1:20 we were in Clinton but burned the extra time at the local Wal-Mart.  When we drove back to the high school, my students mistook it for Mississippi College.  The place was enormous.  It was shaped like a cross, with one two-story hallway intersecting another.  Above this intersection was a dome--an honest to god dome, with skylights in it--and when a person entered from the first floor he could see students passing overhead on a second-story elevated crosswalk that spanned the length of the central lobby.  The students who had been so raucous on the bus were suddenly taciturn--as was I: we were all out of our element here.  On a good day Simmons has 250 in attendance;  we probably saw 250 students use the elevated crosswalk when the bell sounded.

We were escorted to the 150-person half-rotunda lecture hall with a raised stage where the NJCL conference was being held, and entered.  I had not told my students that this would be a mostly white affair, so they were caught unawares when they entered and 80-odd pasty faces looked back at them.  We were still 10 minutes early, so by the time the conference began and we had nervously slunk into a corner, the lecture hall was filled, with people sitting in the aisles as well as in the seats.  Present were: Jackson Academy, Jackson Prep, Marshall Ridgeland Academy, Madison Central, Ridgeland High, Oxford High, the Veritas School in Jackson, The School for the Performing Arts in Brookhaven, Clinton High school, and the seven of us from Simmons.

The first item on the agenda was a friendly Quiz Bowl.  Four students from each school were to face off against another school.  Two schools who knew the regulations were slated to go first, and I volunteered my kids to compete in the second round--they were petrified, being around so many strange people, but I wanted to see at least 4 of them find the courage to get up there and do their best.  When the quiz bowl started and the clock started ticking, one of my students touched me on the shoulder and said, "Mr. Walker, I've never been this nervous in my life.  My heart is beating so fast and I can't make it stop."  All seven were in various stages of queasiness, so I decided to take them on a tour of the school to calm their nerves.  After 10 minutes of walking, we returned just in time to hear, "Simmons High School, take your seats."

The long and short of it is that we got plastered.  Out of 9 questions, we lost 5 to 2.  With that said, all of the questions were on either Roman history or mythology, subjects which I hadn't taught to my students yet.  This conference itself was but a preparation for the National Latin Exam in March, and as the NLE focuses primarily on grammar and translation, I taught what was most important.  Nevertheless, they got 2 questions right and had the courage to compete in front of everyone.

After the quiz bowl, we moved from the lecture hall to the auditorium where the students took a series of individual tests in the different areas of the classics: Grammar and Translation, Vocabulary, English Derivatives, History, Mythology, Private Life and Customs.  Some tests had two sections, a Latin I and Latin II test; others had a single version.  Each test was 50 multiple-choice questions.  Students could take more than 1 test, but time was limited.  After the individual tests, the students played basketball and ate pizza while the teachers graded the tests.  Awards were given for placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in an individual test.

I told all of my seven to take the Latin I Grammar and Translation test since that was information that they knew and were prepared for.  Six of them did; one, for reasons known only to himself and his Creator, took the Latin II Grammar and Translation test.  Some of the six took a while; others turned it in almost immediately.  To belatedly make a long story short, out of the 50-odd people who took this Latin I Grammar and Translation test, out of the 50-odd people from JA and MRA and the Veritas School and the Level 5 Public Schools and the $6k a year private academies, out of the schools with established Latin programs and established Classical Traditions, the placing broke down as follows:

Xavier Clay, Junior, Simmons High - 3rd place

Alexis Hicks, Sophomore, Simmons High - 1st place

In other words, of all the students in Mississippi who are taking Latin I, Alexis Hicks is the one who knows the most about the grammar of Latin and about the turning of Latin passages into comprehensible English.  For good measure, Ulysses Aldrige placed 5th in the Latin II Grammar and Translation test.  If he had taken the correct test, we could have swept the awards.

This result is doubly sweet: first, it serves as a well-deserved prize for these two students who have tirelessly labored over Latin's jumbled syntax and daunting vocabulary; second, it justifies the reason I joined MTC in the first place.

The horse I'd chosen to ride for the past two years was the one that said there were exceptional students everywhere who, given the opportunity and support, could match the achievements of any more socially-privileged students.  Until now, I had only rhetoric, sentimentality, and best intentions.  Now I have proof.

Again, just to restate what happened:  In the competition of all the most privileged students in the state of MS with all their built-in advantages, Alexis Hicks--being raised by a grandmother in a know-nothing Delta town--came out on top.

Advice to First Years (return to top)

A Letter to a First-Year Teacher - April 27, 2009

As regard the specifics, I don’t know what advice I can give you or what I can tell you to be prepared for.  I feel that my experience in Teacher Corps has been a singular one, from which it is hard for an outside observer (or myself even) to draw any lessons.  We annually recruit fewer teachers for the Delta schools; we annually place fewer teachers in rural districts; and rarely do such a lack of oversight and sheer managerial incompetence coincide to produce the latitude in which I had to operate (operate, that is, in a rural Delta district).


What advice I can give is relatively simple to say but nearly impossible to carry out:  Find a way to forgive your students on a daily basis.  The biggest mistake I made during my second year was to turn my classes into a perpetual power struggle: to prepare to battle a select group of malcontents; to beat them and to assert my dominance.  This view—and this behavior—by a teacher is necessary, to a degree: if you cannot wrap your head around the hierarchy of power in the classroom then you will never accomplish anything as a teacher.  But at the same time, this maintenance of dominance is both intoxicating and exhausting.  It’s easy to take too far, and it wears on you both as a teacher and as a human being.


I have forgotten until recently that some of the chief virtues of Western Civilization are humility, forgiveness, and patience.  Until I embraced a (limited) humility, I was not able to view my worst students as human beings.  Until I embraced forgiveness, I was able to do naught but disdain my worst students.  Until I embraced patience, I was not able to stretch my humility and forgiveness beyond a day’s length.


None of this absolves a student from either his own personal responsibilities or the ones he accrues in your classroom. But—in my experience at least—until I embraced these virtues, I established responsibilities as stumbling blocks for my students to trip over and not as checkpoints on the way to adulthood.


I guess my advice is to find a way to approach each day anew, as trite as that sounds.  Understand a student’s past weaknesses and failures, hope for him to succeed today, dispose of your anger or hatred when you leave the building.

Reflections - The MTC Experience (return to top)

Fathers and Sons-An MTC Reflection - April 29, 2009

Occasionally people tell me that I should be a writer.  I can’t, and shouldn’t, because I have very little of what Keats calls the “negative capability,” or the penchant for empathizing with someone (real or fictional) to such an extent that one can emulate the subject being studied. With that said, I wanted to approach this MTC reflection from a slightly different angle.  I am going to do as best I can to reflect on my MTC experience in my father’s voice and through his eyes, and then pen a response to him.

The things that my father says have a certain legitimacy; and while his view may not comprehend the entirety of the experience, it is valid in its own way.  For anyone who has completed the program, this perspective should resonate; for anyone attempting to complete the program, this viewpoint should at least be acknowledged.

I want to say first that I am exceptionally proud of my son and what he has done.  I can’t claim to understand why he has done what he has, but I am still proud of him for it.  He has put a lot of hard work into these last two years and I am happy—and he is happy—that this work is starting to pay off.  He told me that one of his goals was for a student to earn a medal on the National Latin Exam before he left Simmons.  Austin had a student—two, actually—accomplish that this year.

When he and I were talking about the exam results, I asked him, “If that’s your goal, and you accomplished it, do you need to stay on for a third year?”  I don’t know if he gave me an answer or not, but it wasn’t sufficient.  He has fulfilled his obligations and served his time these two years.  He knows that I feel like he doesn’t have the support he deserves and I remind him: “It seems like no one at that school has your back.  They’re happy for the publicity you bring, but that publicity wasn’t their idea and some of them may resent you for it.  If it comes to it, son, you could be thrown under the bus without a second thought.”

And I worry about the environment in which he works: a girl was sexually assaulted in the haunted house my son’s Drama class put on and the principal, to put it kindly, did not follow the proper procedure for their punishment.  That’s what I see:  my son kills himself to put together a haunted house, two bad seeds molest someone and the principal doesn’t back my son up.  Why stay there longer?  How does this benefit my son?

I am proud of him for how he handled the sexual assault.  He took it as high as it could go and did everything in his power to address the situation.  But I would prefer for my son to be able to demonstrate his judgment without a sexual assault being involved in any way.

I am happy my boy is in Mississippi.  It means I get to see him more than when he was in North Carolina.  I am happy that he is doing great things.  I wish that when I talked to him, he was happier and less tired and didn't have to teach 4 preps.  And I don’t want to see him in the Delta as a teacher forever.  He has bigger things to do before I retire.  He’d better!  I’m not going to be supported by a teacher’s salary when I’m 90.

Dad, you know that I can’t respond to any of your observations.  I cannot consistently depend on anyone’s support; I’ve seen things here I’d never hoped to see; I’ve been treated in ways that civilized people aren’t and don’t expect to be.  But still I’m here.  And I’m still here because of the students.  If this were some other job like cotton inspector, I’d quit in 10 seconds flat and be in Houston before the sun set.  But whereas you have coworkers who surround you, I have still-unformed young people around me whose eyes can communicate hate and boredom and amusement but most of all the “Yes!  Please!  I always knew there was more than I’d been shown!” yearning.

You know I felt the same way when I was 14.  I still feel the same way today.  But I had Mr. McDermott and Mr. Mac.  And I had you:  who else gave me his 25-year-old copies of Dune,The Foundation trilogy, and a beaten-up Lord of the Rings?  Who else took me to a Barnes and Noble to buy Jethro Tull’s greatest hits because we’d heard “Bungle in the Jungle” one too many times on a road trip back to Houston from Andy’s hunting camp in Mississippi?

I had the opportunity to attend UNC and study Classics and literature with the finest minds in the country.  I know what the world holds; or if I don’t know what it is, I at least know where to look to find it.  But what about the curious mind with only corn fields and a weak internet connection to look to?  The internet has everything, yes, but unless you have someone to guide you the internet will only reinforce your worst habits and circumscribe your world even further.  Without someone to say, “Look at how large the world can be! Look at all these men who felt like you!  You are not alone,” what becomes of that curious child’s mind?

That’s why I’m here, Dad.  That’s why I put up with all of the disrespect and the low blows. As a teacher, I will support my administration, but that’s not why I’m here.  I am not here to provide the school district a docile employee.  I am here to show to whoever-that-student-is a collection of like-minded men across the expanse of time, conversing about things that matter.

I cannot say that this job—these past two years—has made me happy, because “happy” isn’t a deep enough emotion to describe how I feel.  In my experience I have seen students scrape the bottom of humanity’s barrel and I’ve felt myself work to the very limits of my energy reserves.  But those feelings are offset—not replaced, not expunged, but offset—when I watched X.C. discover that he really was among the most accomplished Latin students in the country or saw S.N. and J.S.—two girls who’d previously eschewed responsibility for gossiping—rehearse “A Raisin in the Sun” for hours on end and then say, “What do we do next?  I’m not tired.”  To see these students take pride in the admittedly admirable things they are doing and have done is a dividend beyond calculation paid on the pains of this endeavor.  I stay for these students’ actions; I stay for these students’ opportunities; I stay for these students.

This is my Mississippi Teacher Corps Experience.  I felt this way when I entered two years ago.  Two years later, I can go back to that same well without cynicism and without doubt. I have found my experience trying, overwhelming, and counter to everything I’ve known.  I have seen my efforts thwarted.  I have seen myself fail my better instincts and resort to lower impulses.  I’ve felt myself hate; I’ve heard myself gossip and undercut others.  I’ve rooted for failure.

But those failings don’t define my experience.  They are indelibly a part of it, but they are not its summation.  My father’s criticisms are valid, but limited.  After all that has happened (both good and bad), I can still return to the note I sounded when I joined MTC and echo, redouble, and surpass it.  I have been able to do what I set out to do.  I will continue to do it. I have not been beaten down.  Not yet.


Delta Life, History (return to top)

alluvium - March 25, 2006

"The river bore the alluvial plain that is the Mississippi Delta, and the Delta bore fruit ..."

-- Luther Brown, Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning.

Alluvial. Roll that around on your tongue for a while. What a sensual sound. If Mississippi is alliterative, then alluvial is onomatopoeic. You can hear centuries, millennia, of water relentlessly carrying with it everything it passes. Stand in a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta, and the talc-fine soil will work its way into every pore and crease of your skin. When you pick up a handful you’re sifting Montana through your fingers. The Rocky Mountains are reduced to this. The river has drained 41% of the continental U.S. for 15,000 years. Our history is – literally – deposited here.

This river is a perfect metaphor for our country’s dark closeted history. Alluvial: 4.) an accession to land by the gradual addition of matter that then belongs to the owner of the land to which it is added. Our history has drained and collected in this alluvial plain, and now it belongs to the soul of that plain. This deep fine soil and these deep fine people have come to symbolize – and to carry as their own – the most shameful part of this country’s past.

I do know this: You can’t heal what you won’t look at.

I’ve known far too many sanctimonious folks content to sit in their smug banality, turn a blind eye, and let the South continue to carry the burden of all that happened a century and a half ago. I’m not a Confederate sympathizer. Far from it. Slavery is an immoral and shameful practice. (I also happen to be deeply offended by the slave labor used to perpetuate the coffee and chocolate industries. And by the quaint glorification of colonialism at amusement parks and furniture stores.But that’s another post for another day.)

The history of civil rights in this country is bathed in the blood of Southerners. Lyndon Johnson forced passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, knowing it would lose him the support of his party and ultimately destroy his presidency. In 1922, the Klan controlled elections and installed mayors in Portland Oregon, and in Portland, Maine. LeRoy Percy, U.S. Senator from Mississippi defeated the Klan deep in the Delta.

The Mississippi River carries more than silt. This river has washed the nation clean of the stink of slavery, and has deposited everything right here in the Delta. The Union sold the war on moral grounds. Just like our invasion of Iraq was sold on moral grounds. The Union didn’t want secession because it would mean they’d need to pay import tariffs on the cotton and other agricultural goods that fed their mills, their railroads, and their export businesses. Empires as grand as any antebellum plantation: and all built on the backs of slaves. But politicians couldn’t sell that to the public any better than they are able to sell the real reasons we ignore Darfur and invade Iraq.

It hurts. It really hurts to own responsibility for inequity. But until this whole nation owns,  the shame of what still happens every day in the Delta, it will never heal the shame of the past. It will just keep on washing itself clean and turning its back on the alluvial plain of rich deep pain.

Delta Life, Educational Policy (return to top)

Pork Chop, Pork Chop - June 6, 2007


One step. These are the words that should have been tattooed on my arm. Watching LaLee's Kin, an HBO documentary chronicling the generational effects of poverty and the uphill battle of public education in the face of that poverty, I'm struck by these three things:

• Even one step forward will be a huge accomplishment.

• Those who are embroiled in the struggle are real heroes.

• I will always be an outsider in the Delta no matter how long I stay.

Dr. Mullins, Dr. McConnell, and Ben have all warned us that we cannot ride into the Delta on our high horses and change the culture of the schools and the towns where we live ... and I knew that was true. But seeing this family, daily living the legacy of cotton, I realize how very deep the poverty is here. I've read about it, I've photographed it, but I still think I am only just now beginning to comprehend the full reality. Granted, LaLee's family is at an extreme end of the spectrum, and apparently the editing choices made in this film reinforced that image by not showing the well-kept trailers next door, but the fact remains that children raised in poverty and its accompanying chaos, violence, isolation, and emotional upheaval simply cannot overcome those obstacles in a generation. Or two. Or three. As Ben Guest says, if we can just nudge that needle a tiny bit on the dial we will have accomplished great things.

Reggie Barnes, the then-superintendent of the West Tallahatchie schools where the documentary was filmed, drives it home when he points out that these children -- some of whom come to kindergarten not knowing their full names -- are expected to take the same ITBS standardized tests as middle-class children who have benefited from every enrichment program money can buy. As his school is preparing for the tests, with the threat of a state take-over looming if scores don't improve by a tenth of a percent, the students have a pep rally complete with raps and cheers.

Pork chop, pork chop.

Greasy, greasy.

ITBS test:

Easy, easy

Spoiler: The school manages to raise their level from 1.9 to 2.0, meeting the minimum requirement to avoid state takeover, and the cheering is wild. But Barnes soberly admits that the improvement from 1.9 to 2.0 is so small ... but you take what improvement you can get, and he is a master at portraying this as a great victory to his administration, faculty, and ultimately to his students.

Can I maintain this kind of positive energy?

After the film the class discussed LaLee and found out about the fates of her many "grands" as though they were specimens in an experiment. (And I suppose in some sense they are the outcome of a grand social and economic experiment gone terribly wrong.) I wonder during our discussion what they must think of us:  privileged, by most any standard, and utterly foreign to their realm of experiences. Do they wonder why we leave behind easy lives to provide a service that many of them don't seem to value?  Will I forever be a foreigner here, always a "come here" and never a "from here?"

There are so many questions right now. I don't know if I'm really prepared to see the answers.

Delta Life (return to top)

Electrified - June 27, 2007

"Why, yes ma'am, I do hope you can help me," say I to the nice lady at City Hall. "I need to have my electricity and water switched over to my name in my new house."

[This is after discovering that in this town one doesn't call the actual utility company to have this done. We call City Hall. And while I'm on the subject: Electricity and water are coming from the same utility company? Aren't these two never supposed to be friends?]

Back to our story: "You just come to City Hall with your ID." Come to City Hall? Wait. Let me guess the hours. Monday through Friday 8-4. I explain that I work (nearly around the clock, I'm thinking, but don't say) 150 miles away and cannot take time off.

"I can fax you the form."

"Oh, wonderful. I can go to Office Depot after my last class, and find out the fax number." [Because my fax is in storage and I don't have a land line.] "But then I couldn't tell you the number until tomorrow. And then I'd pick up the fax that evening and fax it back to you the day after tomorrow. Is that OK?" [Ignoring the fact that the ID is apparently no longer an issue.]

"Yes, that's fine. Just sign it and include your $70 check and we'll turn on the water and lights as soon as we get the check in the mail."

"Oh," I say, "I'm a little doubtful that it  will arrive in time for my closing on Friday if I don't put it into the mail until Thursday."

"Oh, don't worry. No one has called about turning it off so there will be a little extra time."

Bells go off. Did I ever actually tell her the address of my house? Nope. She just knows. I ask her, and she knows. Word travels fast, I guess.

"Well, now that I think about it, I have to drive through town on my way to Greenville where the attorney is doing my closing at 4. I'll just leave a bit early and stop by City Hall and get it done in person if you can make the switch the same day."

"Of course we can, dear. Just bring along the signed electrical inspection from the fire chief."

"Wait. The electricity is already on. I'm not starting a new account. Just switching the billing."

"The fire chief has to inspect it." [subtext: He gets his piece of the pie, too.]

By the time I get my keys it will be 5:00 and I'll be half-hour away. And do you want to take bets on whether the fire chief works after 5 on Friday?

And this is why my realtor is earning his fee. He'll let the fire chief (who it turns out lives next door to me) in and all will be well. Then next week I'll go see him play jazz sax and he'll recommend a chimney sweep and a carpenter I can trust. And he'll handle contractor access for me between the time I get the keys and actually move in sometime in July.

I am, as Karl wryly says, among the landed gentry of Leland now. And we look after each other.

And the lady at City Hall knows all about it already.

I think I'll bake her a pie once my kitchen equipment arrives.

Reflection - Joining MTC (return to top)

I Learn by Going Where I Have to Go - June 29, 2007

There are a lot of reasons I packed up my life and moved to Mississippi to teach. And I suppose the fact that I did it says any number of things about me, as I've learned by listening to people's reactions as I've told them over the past year or so. But of all the qualities it apparently reveals, bravery is the one I least expected to have reflected back to me. And yet that's the comment Ben Guest made at the first day's group introductions.

I really don't mean to be self-serving here, but I honestly did not think of this as a particularly brave thing to do. Rash, perhaps, or maybe even stupid to leave behind a career at the peak of my prime earning years. And there's a dash of idealism and romanticism, and some selfish reasons, too. Though particularly brave? It didn't really cross my mind.

But at last night's dinner, where second-years bid farewell to first-years until we meet again in August, the superlative awards were handed out with much fanfare and good humor. There were the usual; "Most Likely to Open a Roadside BBQ" given to a vegan; the requisite inside jokes. My award, like a few others, didn't have that edge but was given as a compliment. The young woman who presented it pointed out that I am probably 10 years older than her mom (pretty close!) and I know what that means. I'm sure most of my classmates can't imagine their parents doing what they're doing, but many also are at the age when they don't quite yet have a clear picture of who their parents are or ever were aside from parents. My award was for "Exceptional Bravery."

Frankly, I see many of my classmates -- my colleagues -- as brave. Several have never been in the South. Some have never been around people outside their socioeconomic background. A few haven't been more than 100 miles from home without their parents along. For many, this is their first real commitment to the adult world. I have financial security, a skill set, and experience I can go back to. The idea of a commitment to something bigger than myself without the option to bail when it gets tough isn't new to me. I've been tested.

I do, though, feel like my life has been leading to this all along. I could not have done it 5 years ago. I can only do it because I am who I am now, and that includes all 52 years of becoming who I am.  It was kind of my only choice of what to do next. It almost wasn't a choice.

The past few days as I've been dozing on the rackety bus from HSHS back to Oxford each afternoon, the first line of a poem wormed its way from some ancient depths into my consciousness as a sort of mantra I repeated to lull myself into slumber . Last night, after dinner, I finally googled those lines and found this:

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me, so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

                                            ---Theodore Roethke

First Day (return to top)

Finally the First Day of Teaching - August 9, 2007


This will probably be the laziest piece of writing I have ever done. I'm mentally and physically spent from my first day. (South Delta starts later than the other schools.) My 2nd year mentor tells me it sounds like it went well ... so heaven help those for whom it didn't.

Actually, it did go OK, but the first class (not technically first period, but a homeroom, something new for SDHS so they haven't quite figured out how to do it yet) was very difficult because I basically have no real power and they know it. There's no grade to threaten them with. They are all 10th graders (I teach all sections of English II) so they'll eventually figure out that I do have some ultimate control, but they sure didn't know it this morning. McG refused to pull up his pants, and when I took him to the hall for a one-on-one he completely undid them, including the zipper, in order to tuck in his shirt. I maintained eye contact and addressed his statements about his inability to have me as homeroom teacher by suggesting he fill out a schedule change request form. Which he did. And didn't put his name on.

On the good side, I was able to flex my discipline muscles a bit by having a few other hall conferences (my second consequence in the list) for fairly minor issues -- but they gave me some cred.

And the best part is: I have already identified the one or two in each class who will become my trusted helpers. Some I know by face and action, and some by their responses (In full sentences!) on my student info sheet. Speaking of which, it was so enlightening to read the responses to the questions about what other teachers had done that made it easy or hard for them to learn. Almost without exception it was some version of breaking down the lesson and not moving to quickly through the material. Many told me in the "anything else?" section that they are afraid to ask questions when they don't understand, so I'll go back to my "Why English class is so much better" talk and have some brainstorming tomorrow about a way they can let me know they need more time or more info without calling attention to themselves. Plus, just modeling the brainstorming activity might be a good way to establish a safe environment for the exchange of ideas.

There is no copier in my building. I had a dead mouse in my file cabinet. I have no books. I have 27 desks and 33 students in fifth period. And 4 in second period. I am told I should rememborize the bell schedule. The first three words spoken (if that's what you want to call the tone of voice used) at this morning's all-school welcoming assembly and prayer meeting were, "Shut. Your. Mouths."

I'm doing it again tomorrow.

I hit my first armadillo in the road tonight on the way home from WalMart. I no longer live in NoVa.

Good night.

Delta Life (return to top)

Delta Autumn - September 23, 2007

There's no telling. There's just no telling what it's really like in the Delta. I read and wrote about it, but nothing could really have prepared me for how the Delta has gotten into and under my skin.

Faulkner, in the "Delta Autumn" chapter of Go Down, Moses, tells us that that some men are good despite awful circumstances. The allusion isn't lost.

I drive each day, starting out in darkness, the 40 or so miles down famous Highway 61 (Though actually Broad Street, the next street over from my house is the real Highway 61 of blues legend. They've since built the state highway.) to South Delta High School in Rolling Fork. It's as deep into the Delta one can go before you start heading out again. I suppose I should get off the highway and go into Mayersville or Grace or Tallula or Panther Burn sometime, where the towns don't have any businesses or a courthouse like Rolling Fork's. They consist of a  cotton gin and a few homes. Those towns are where my kids come from. My school serves Sharkey and Issaquena counties. That's about 6,580 and 2,274 souls, respectively, and just over 1,000 square miles. There are 3,141 counties, or equivalents, in the U.S. On the poverty scale, Issaquena is 30-ish from the bottom and Sharkey is 70-ish depending on which measurement you're looking at. But even those stats don't tell the story.

cotton along highway 61

It's flat. It's huge. It's ancient. It's time-travel. The air is thick with pesticides, dust from the harvest, or yellow smoke from the burning of the fields every day. The  water in my tap is brownish yellow. And still you don't know what it's like. It's unspeakably sad. It's unspeakably beautiful.

I read Delta Autumn: A Guide for First-Year Teachers in the Mississippi Delta over the summer, but it was like reading about sex or marriage or parenthood. You can't possibly appreciate it until you've done it. The book was written by some of the first MTC participants, and lovingly tended by Dr. Andy Mullins, the patron saint of MTC. They describe beautifully the social and economic history of education in the Delta. How integration, and the way it was handled in different towns, changed everything. My real estate taxes are $350 a year. That's so the property owners won't have to pay to educate "them." But that doesn't tell the whole story, either.

Of all the required reading we've done, this book has helped me the most. I turn to it on some mornings when I awaken too sad to move. It begins to capture the hugeness of what we face every day.

The authors describe the particular challenges in teaching various subject areas. English, and language in general, is an enormous challenge here where students simply do not hear standard English spoken. They are not given the opportunity to learn to think critically. And it's been generations. The wheel continues to turn. Other subject areas are able to use alternative assessment methods to allow students to show they've grasped the concept of the Industrial Revolution or can add fractions. But English. If you can't write you can't write. If you can't read you can't read. I can't fake it for them.

My kids. (And that is, indeed, how I think of them.) They drive me nuts sometimes. But I can deal with that. The biggest challenge in the Delta, I think, is not the students. It's the administration. It's the culture. Oh, the culture.

As I'm preparing my first nine-weeks' exam, I realize there has not been a single week in which I have seen every class every day. Not one. This week, for a variety of reasons, first period lasted almost five hours on Monday. On Wednesday, first and second were 60% and then fourth lasted 90 minutes instead of 50, and then they took everybody to a presentation on abstinence and sent them home at 1:30. Today I proctored a make-up for a state test, so I had a sub, and appropriate sub-quality activities for first through fourth. Then tomorrow -- drum roll, please -- the entire 9th grade (along with the entire middle school) is taking the day off to go to a movie in Greenville. There goes sixth and seventh periods. This is not an unusual week. I've lost almost 15 pounds since arriving in Mississippi, largely in the past 2 months, and largely due to living in a flight or fight adrenaline response state.

I know that some of you (both MTC and others) recount tales of teaching in developing nations where you taught in far worse physical conditions. I have air conditioning (mold-filled and noisy as the window unit in the corner of my room may be) and I have a classroom set of literature books from 1986. And my new grammar books just came in this week. I have white boards. My students all have desks now that 8% of the sophomore class has dropped out since the start of school. The copier has toner at least 3 days a week, if I can get to the room before they lock it at 3:15. But -- and this is a big but-- you were not being asked to bring students who are 2-6 years behind grade level up to speed for a state-administered test mandated by a pile of crap piece of federal legislation in eight months. You weren't being told every day that everything you do must be justified by preparing those students to pass that test, and being asked to justify every word of every lesson by pointing to the exact item on the frameworks -- with grammatical errors in them -- that are not aligned to the updated state test instrument.

This is not like teaching in a developing nation. Because this is a crumbling, declining, and fading nation. The Delta.

Advice to Incoming Teachers (return to top)

Between the Wolf and the Dog - October 27, 2010


Entre chien et loup

What is my favorite time of the day, and why? I think I have to say it's setting my room for the next day. I know, I know, you're thinking it's because it's the end of the day and I'm about to go home ... but that's not it. Yes, it's the end of the day, but it's also the beginning of another.

It's the time between. A threshold. Entre chien et loup:Between the wolf and the dog. The French idiom for twilight, when the light is just dim enough that you can't distinguish between a wolf and a dog. It's also used in a more symbolic sense as a threshold between hope and fear, the familiar and the dangerous. And that's kind of where I am in that time.

At first, I would get my room and the boards all set just out of a sense of responsibility, thinking that I should close the loop between that afternoon and the next morning. The old publishing production habit of eliminating all possible variables because something you haven't thought about yet will surely go awry.

But now I find a wonderful sense of peace in that time. I've written before about Camus' essay on the Myth of Sysiphus -- probably one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction writing --- and I think this hour or so in my classroom is when I feel closely tied to its spirit. There's the obvious metaphor: returning each day to repeat what seems like a futile mind-numbingly difficult task. But Camus was interested not in the struggle to get the rock up the mountain, and not in the tragedy of its repeated descent, but in the moment of Sysiphus' turning, his moment of awareness of his fate.

At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

I feel that strength each day at this time. I feel stronger than, and ready for, anything that will happen in that room.

robin & gelisia

The other question: Why should someone apply to Mississippi Teacher Corps? I'll tell you why not to apply: You're not sure what you want to do next, and this seems like a good way to kill two years while you decide. You've never been in the South and are curious about it. That's like saying you're curious about mountains so you're going to climb Everest.

I will tell you that you should really want to do this before you get here. You should be passionate about what you want to do here, and at the same time ready to admit that you will probably not be able to accomplish that goal. But you will find a new goal that you've never dreamed of yet. I've done a few more things in my life than most of my colleagues here, and I will still say, as they do, that this is right up there with the most difficult. (Considering that giving birth did not last 2 years with a one-month break next July)

Please visit first if at all possible. See the Delta. (There's room in most of our homes for you.)  Read the blogs and talk to us. Invest in a really good 3-hole punch.

Read Sysiphus.  

Classroom Management (return to top)

Crank Dat Classroom Management - October 24, 2007

If you'd asked me last week how the classroom management plan was going, I'd have been pretty pleased overall. This week? Not so much. Or maybe it's just today, or the weirdness that happens on weeks that have a 60% day, an assembly, and a pep rally. They get restless.

Am I following the basic plan I outlined during summer training? Yes. Have I been able to avoid giving essay writing as a consequence? Yes. Do I give math as a consequence? You bet. Write those times tables. To 5, to 10, to 12. Do it again. Problem is, it becomes something else for me to keep track of.

Like many others I am stumped for the meaningful intermediate consequence between the warning and the write-up that doesn't end up taking away instructional time. My school doesn't do detention so I don't have that option. I can't enforce an after-school detention of my own (even though I'm there Tuesdays and Thursdays until 5 and there are late buses) because so many of them work or have childcare responsibilities.

My basic plan of rewards is working well. At first they were too cool for the tickets, but now they work hard to get one for using a vocab word during a discussion, or for asking a challenging question, or for working at the bell, or whatnot. A few have made decorative envelopes to keep them in. They love seeing me reach into my little apron as I head down the aisle in their direction.

Competition between classes has worked, too. I don't have much empty wall space that I can reach without a chair, so the class-on-class competition had to be displayed vertically, and in a place where they couldn't get to it during class changes. So the back of the classroom door is the "Race to Space" where there are six Velcro strips (yes, those of you who know me know how much I detest the sound of Velcro, but that should tell you how much I care about this) with cut-out spaceships numbered for the class periods. They move up or down each day depending on the behavior of the whole class. Peer pressure works.

The progress of the other classes is a huge topic of conversation. And I hear them shushh each other by saying "Hush, y'all. We're gonna move down!" Sometime all I have to do to quiet the hum of chatter is walk silently to the door, slooooowly peel the spaceship off (This is where the vile sound of Velcro comes in handy) and move it down a bit.

The first class to the top of the door gets a full class period break. In the meantime, the first class to the level of the doorknob got to teach me to Crank dat Soulja Boy. I will admit I vetted the competition a bit because there are some classes in which I knew it would be unwise to show vulnerability. First period won. My class of 12 unusually mature sophomores.

I am learning that the front row is not always the best place for the clowns who talk too much. They sit sideways and can catch everyone else's eye. When I put them in the back, no one looks at them. They lose their audience. And it's easy enough for me to stand in the back to be near them.

I am learning that sometimes stopping in the middle of the hall and simply watching them will quiet them in the lunch line.

And I've still got the kitten.

My biggest problem? Not engaging. Not getting sucked into their deal. This is a problem for me in general. I tend to be a responder so it's very difficult not to have a retort when they mouth off. I can get sarcastic. (Who me?) And that's wrong. I've lost it and shamed a student. I lose sleep over that.

Reflection - First Semester (return to top)

Like Drowning Everyday - November 29, 2007

It was yesterday and it was a million years ago that I started this blog to chronicle the immense changes I was about to undertake.

Change was what I wanted (thus the name) and I got it. Pretty much the only aspect of my life I recognize lately is the smell of my shampoo (which I now buy online because no place in the Delta sells it). I wanted a challenge, and I certainly got that, too. But how do my expectations match up to the reality?

I'm not sure at this point I even know what "the reality" is. Using the single article assumes there is, indeed, only one reality. And of course there isn't. When I read over the anticipatory entries, I realize that I had no idea how all-encompassing the experience would be.

It's like drowning every day.

Every day I am completely immersed in the reality of the Delta, the reality of teaching, the reality of what my life (oh, it was so nice just a little while ago) has become. I thought the year without an actual job would be a challenge. It was, and I suppose that by meeting it, and by learning to live with a lot of uncertainty I was preparing myself for the challenge of teaching in the Delta. Surely getting up at 4 a.m. to unload a truck gave me the physical stamina I've needed to get up and teach every day. I had never before appreciated how physically demanding teaching would be. 

nathan at the rolling fork plantation house

Other expectations -- cultural, professional, social -- were also shaken. The Delta culture is even more extreme than I'd anticipated. I remember being fascinated by the way the powder-fine soil worked its way into my skin the first time I visited here. I wrote about it, trying to get my head around it, but even then I didn't understand the full power of that metaphor and how completely the Delta would become a part of every piece of my life. From the nightly pesticide-spraying trucks in the summer, to the damp barren fields of the winter, I know I'm in the Delta by the smell and weight of the air. I'm drowning in it.

Professionally, I'm still struggling with whether it was wise to make a move like this, but I do think I'm succeeding as a teacher. What has amazed me most is how quickly I feel like I've been doing it a long time. I remember those days in summer school (remember those lesson plans with every second stage-directed and planned?) thinking I'd never be comfortable and confident in front of a class. How would I remember where I had set things down? How would I know everyone's name? And now, I'm completely at ease. It seems so natural to be there. And I know, it's a cliche, but really love those moments when my students "get it" -- even if it's only a few. In a way, that makes it all the better.

Students have told me, directly and indirectly, that I'm different from other teachers; that I make them work but in a good way that helps them learn. OK, some hate me, but if none did I wouldn't be doing my job.


Several others in this program have written about the shock of realizing the enormity of the challenge. I think I had a head start on that having been a parent and knowing what it means to have a daily challenge that doesn't end when a given hurdle is cleared. I've experienced the false horizons and learned to continue to put one foot in front of the other.


What I did underestimate, I think, was the depth to which some of my students don't care about school or about anything, for that matter. I remember thinking I didn't care about school, and I remember hearing other kids say they didn't care. But what we really meant what that we didn't care at that moment about school more than we cared about some other urgent adolescent matter. So many of my students truly don't care a lick about school or anything that happens here -- except, perhaps, the free meals and socializing. There is simply no way to make any curriculum relevant to someone who doesn't care about his or her own life.


The hardest realization has been that I will, in the end, leave some behind. But not without a struggle.

And once again, I'm drowning in it. Every day. Weeks go by when virtually every conversation I have is about teaching. With one welcome exception, every person I interact with on a regular basis here is a teacher or somehow affiliated with a school. I know, or I hope, that at some point my life will begin to have some balance again. Workin' on that. But it's hard. I'm immersed. I have to force myself to leave school and teaching behind occasionally for a few hours.

Can I extend this metaphor? Can I tell you how the cycle of planning, teaching, adjusting, planning, grading, adjusting is like the waves that simply never let up?

Can I tell you I don't actually know how to swim?

Student Relations (return to top)

The Long Goodbye... And Touching Immortality - January 6, 2008

My brother died suddenly in November 2003. We scattered his ashes, combined with those of his pug, Sarge, on Christmas Eve this year. Worked them into the soil of the patch of garden he tended around the corner from his home at Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore.

In many ways he -- his life and his death -- was the start of the path that brought me here to Mississippi to teach.

While I was home with family and friends, I realized how much I think about my students. It was very emotional every time I paged through the photos on my computer.

Reciting their names. I could hear their voices.

I remember wondering if I would ever know them all. And now I feel like I can never forget them. I know a few veteran teachers -- 20, even 30, years. They talk about teaching the children of their students.

The image this calls to mind is looking into parallel mirrors at the endless reflections. Is this what it will be like after I've taught for years? Starting at 52, I surely won't have 30 years, but a dozen perhaps. Enough to touch generations. Enough to see them grow up. Have babies.

I thought that having my own child was the closest I would get to immortality. And I suppose in a strict biological sense it is. But somehow the sheer math alone of 125 or 150 students every year for 10 or 15 years is staggering. If these 122 have affected me this strongly, what will it be like? Will they say my name to their children?

I imagine my last thought will be to see their faces, looking expectantly at me.

Remember that final minute of the long last scene of Six Feet Under? "You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone."

MTC Program Stories (return to top)

Horseplay Ensued... - April 7, 2008

It started -- as most near-disasters do -- innocently enough: A plan hatched a few weeks before for three friends and a newly acquired Expedition to head out of the flat Delta and into the north Mississippi hills on some family property to shoot at things after Saturday classes in Oxford. Things like cow patties and clay pigeons. A little target practice and some skeet shooting with a variety of firearms.

As most plans do, it morphed and grew as the day's classes dragged on; soon it was eight people, three vehicles, and an excellent lesson on the differences among firearms, general firearm safety, a guitar solo I wish I could remember, and some preparatory target practice. (Note here that I was shooting straight: hit my targets on the first shot with both the shotgun and the pistol.)

And then: Horseplay ensued.

Time to set off the moving targets. Who'll shoot first? Being older, female, wanting to play those cards, and having demonstrated pretty good skills, I jumped up. But I was to be thwarted by a Fram. The next thing I knew my arms were pinned to my side and I was running backward as Fram was running forward on wet slippery ground. Just as I was thinking this was not really a sustainable plan, I saw the ground coming toward me.

BONUS. Extra Credit DOK 3 Question: Explain why snowshoes are more successful than crutches or high-heels when walking across fragile snow.

I have only one bruise on my body. Fram has none. The bruise I have is on my left hip. The impact of our combined weight -- admittedly only about 260 or so --  was taken by my left hip.

That would be the hip that's broken.

on the left side, just like mine

Realized pretty quickly I was hurt, and couldn't stand. I remember having my arms over Fram's and Tabitha's shoulders, then the next thing I knew I was stretched out quite comfortably across the back seat of the Expedition.  Relieved at not having said anything embarrassing or wet myself while out cold, I agreed -- after much persuading -- to stop by the hospital. Perhaps some Vicodin and Flexeril would be nice before heading back into the Delta and surely we would stop at Chamoun's Rest Haven as I usually do for Kibbe and grape leaves along the way home. Molly supplied a large ice bag, and with Beethoven's 7th blasting Austin led the convoy to First Baptist Hospital in Oxford.

Scooted myself out of the truck, into a wheelchair, and suffice it to say that the whole waiting room adventure deserves a blog entry of its own. You'll hear the stories someday. There had been carpool arrangements involved, so we ended up as a small crowd watching the UNC/Louisville game, eating Sonic, and generally disturbing the peace. Clearly the theory of a natural release of endorphins following traumatic injury is true.

Fast forward through a hellish night: Once the X-ray tech torqued my leg to get me out of the wheelchair and I felt the bones grind, I believed it might actually be broken. Endorphins gone. Gimme the morphine. Tabitha spent probably 30 grueling minutes helping me carefully take off my jeans and my first-issue Daring Fireball t-shirt. She and Fram both stayed by my ER bed, holding my hands, patting my head, and coaching my yoga breathing until I was finally stable enough to be moved to my room. Dani bought me a new phone charger. Lisa gathered up everything I might need from home for the 5-day stay. Tab took a day off to bring things up to Oxford. So many people did so many nice things. People in uniforms drugged me and tied me up in traction.

Went into surgery Sunday morning: three screws and a washer. (A washer?) Dr. Lamar gives me about a 2/3 success rate on this repair. Success being the blood supply to the ball of my hip is not compromised and the ball doesn't die. If not: Full hip replacement in about a year. Plus I'm thinking that when your surgeon's name is the same as the street the hospital is on, you're in pretty good hands.

Hospital stay is a blur. People came to visit. Thank you. Sorry you had to look at all the various fluid bags and tubes running in and out of me. The food was good. A nurse threw all my flowers away.

Hospital etiquette tip: Don't pull your sheet over your face to block sunlight when napping during the nurses' shift change. It tends to freak them out when they walk in and see you like that.

Home Thursday. David and Michael carried me up my back stairs like Cleopatra on a porch chair.

Emily will stay here to care for me until I can get myself into and out of bed and maybe use a cane instead of a walker so I can carry things like plates of food. In-home physical therapy three times a week. House-bound until April 25 when I'll find out whether I'll teach again this school year. [Reality check update: Probably not. But will be able to do my MTC work in June.] Still have some minor vision problems in my right eye from general force of impact (no direct hit to my head) and am now an expert at giving myself subcutaneous blood-thinner injections.

Those of you around (who are still reading) I'm always home, so stop by. It helps the time pass even better than drugs. The back door is unlocked -- just holler when you come in.

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Fasten your Seatbelts... - April 29, 2008

... it's gonna be a bumpy year.

You've read the other second-year blogs that tell you to make the most of the summer, enjoy your time now, make friends, build a network, and whatnot. So I won't go there.

Here is my most important advice: Take to heart the advice you get about classroom management and organization.

As my school security guard says whenever I'm at my wits' end: You in the Delta now, darlin'. In other words: All bets are off.

During summer school you'll be told to manage your classroom in a way that seems dehumanizing and demeaning. Do it. It won't seem necessary in your summer school class. Ignore that. Your students in your classrooms come from families that are chaotic and tragic beyond your wildest imagination. They see more violence and fear before they come to school some days than you've probably ever seen in your life. What they don't have is structure. They are in free fall in terms of self-regulation. They do not understand nuanced behavior. Many are nearly unable to self-regulate or exhibit impulse control. I know it seems demeaning, but these students need the structure that gives them an anchor.

You'll be tempted to think, "I'll be the one who's different. I'll show them respect and they'll respect me for it. They'll want to please me because I'm the first person who's ever smiled at them and shown I care." You will be fresh meat. It won't happen. Believe us.

I'm going to make an analogy that will probably get me in trouble, but not establishing strict classroom management in a critical needs classroom is a little like having a dog and not training it: Neither of you will be happy, but you'll be the one who gets bitten. You have to immediately establish yourself as the alpha figure. This can be difficult when some of your students are bigger than you, more worldly than you, and maybe only two or three years younger than you. The only way to do it ... THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT in their world is through power. It's what they understand. It's the only coin of the realm here.

Your students interpret politeness and kindness as weakness.

If you hesitate a split second they smell it and will wedge that little crack of insecurity open until you have no control. And believe me: That's a scary place to be. Fifty or 90 minutes of trying to control 25 or 30 teenagers is an eternity even in the best of situations (which this isn't), and it will leave you rattled and not ready for the next 30 who are walking in as the bell rings before you can fight back the tears.

Believe me, in the long run, your students are happier when they are in a controlled, calm environment where the expectations are simple and clear. They'll complain about that, but it's what they want whether they know it or not. You can always loosen up once you've gained their respect, but you can never -- and I mean NEVER -- regain the ground you lose by letting them control you and your class. They are masters at wresting control from you. You are a rookie. You'll hear some of us say "Don't smile until Christmas." It's not so far from the truth. Maybe Thanksgiving.

Once you've earned their respect -- and I've had students tell me they put new teachers through a trial by fire -- you'll be able to quiet the room with a simple glance or stance. But you must earn their respect first, and for the most part, they respect only someone who is in power. What you hope in your heart of hearts is that they will realize that your kindness and fairness is more powerful than the irrationality they encounter elsewhere. But maybe not. You need to be at peace with that.

OK. Next up: Organization. 

You think you're organized. You organize your stuff. You have cute little folders and you label everything and you have a system. Take that system and multiply it by 150. Gonna label everything? Or maybe you just keep it all in your head because you know where everything is. Dominique asks you what you did with that worksheet. You know, the one with the questions? About that book? The one from the day she left out early? She put it on your desk. Don't you remember? Times 150.

Touch each piece of paper as few times as possible. Have an absolutely iron-clad, fail safe system of where paper travels. Turned in, waiting to be graded, graded, handed back. What do you do with work you're handing back if the student isn't there? (Remember you have about a 25 - 30 percent daily absence rate.) What about late work? When was that due? Late because he was absent or just didn't do it? Now it's not with the others. Where does it go? Your students are, again, masters of the con.

Streamline all of your systems so that each one involves the fewest steps possible. Eliminate all redundant procedures. Record things once in one place. Establish self-sustaining systems that don't need your constant tracking. There will be a session during summer school about organization. It will be in the afternoon and you will be tired and would rather be swimming or drinking. PAY ATTENTION! You are about to be hit with an avalanche of paper and humanity demanding your soul.

Keep meticulous daily attendance records, and a daily activity log for each period. Your school might or might not require it. I have never turned in an attendance sheet other than for homeroom. It's a joke. I was tempted to let it go.

But when Lajeryl is failing and his formidable grandmother wants to know why, nothing impresses like your showing up in the office with a big-ass binder full of weekly attendance records, a printout of all the assignments he missed, and copies of the tests he cheated on.

When DeKindrick insists he never got that handout or didn't know about that test, nothing shuts him up like your silently opening the binder, calmly flipping to the page for the day you did that work (And you know that day because you've kept a meticulous daily log of what happens in class) and showing him that he was there. Maybe you made a note that he was sleeping or talking. Even better.

When classes are randomly cancelled or held in a four-hour lockdown, it's impossible to keep each of your six periods aligned in what they're doing. Use a notebook to record the daily lesson or activity for your students to see when they've been absent. I suggest also keeping a "teacher calendar" for yourself that has 6 blocks for each day so you can jot quick notes about each period.

The sheer amount of information, the millions of details will overwhelm you. Leave nothing to chance.


You're coming to Mississippi. Somewhere in your essay I'll bet the words, "make a difference" appear. You'll make a difference. But remember the MTC motto, the ever-present "One child at a time." When I got here I thought that meant lots of groovy one-on-one time with kids who needed my help. And there will be. What it refers to, though, is that you might only help one child. You'll get to know maybe 120 or more. They all need your help. But they also reject your efforts, and that hurts. You need to be OK with not fulfilling every aspect of your intention.

You have to know that on your worst day -- and your worst day will suck beyond your worst nightmare -- you are still probably the best thing that will happen for many of your students that day. You have to know it -- really KNOW it -- because they probably won't tell you. Until Christmas. Or maybe Thanksgiving.

Ah men.

UPDATE: This post obviously caused a bit of back and forth here and on other blogs. My response to responses is here. I hope that those who suggest meaningful discussion of the issues as part of the answer will prompt those discussions in the months to come.

Classroom Management (return to top)

In Which She Writes of Colonialism, Caricature, and Hyperbole  - May 8, 2008

Thanks for the many thoughtful comments. Obviously, I do not want to get into what someone has politely called a shin-kicking contest, but I do think I should make a few points.

Prologue: No one who commented on my post has ever been in my classroom for so much as a second. I do not run the "silent classroom." It is a classroom run on mutual respect. Students speak freely in discussion, and engage in candid banter. I do not require raised hands, though many choose to do so, and are acknowledged. Students manage their time and move from one task to another. More days than not they participate in the teaching as well as learning. They know exactly what's expected of them. If you had come into my room in March (the last time I taught due to my accident), you would have thought I had no rules. Again, students know exactly what's expected of them. There's only one road to that. It might have many entrance ramps, but it's the same road: Tell them what's expected of them. Insist they live up to it. Do not tolerate it if they don't. Expect them to succeed in living up to your expectations. Respect them for it.

And now, for the main event:

First, anyone who knows me or has spoken to me or read my opinions about why I am teaching in Mississippi knows that my motives are far from what has been suggested in some comments. Specifically, I refer to accusations of "colonialism."  I assume what is meant is an oblique reference to some sort of systematized noblesse oblige in which privileged white offspring descend into the depths of savagery to sprinkle hope and salvation to the poor and oppressed. Paternalist, perhaps, but not colonialist.

My heritage, my experience, and my motives could not be further from that model. Of course, if one's only experience with me or my opinions was to have brushed me off at an MTC alumni event, it's hard to know this. Perhaps the prejudging of prejudice works in both directions. Having spent more years involved in various social justice projects than some of my commenters have been alive, I think I've gotten my head around why I'm in the Delta teaching. If you're interested in knowing, contact me directly. Better yet, drive into the Delta and join me with a cold one on my front porch for a conversation.

As for the inferences that my statements about adolescents reflect what "can only be racialized undertones," I ask you to take a moment to consider this. There's a saying that "he [who] is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail." What is your filter? Why, specifically, can this "only" be a racial issue? In my experience with raising a child, in dealing with adolescents from every geographic, racial, and economic strata, I find (and am in agreement with psychological and sociological research) that adolescents in the best of circumstances often have trouble with the self-regulation that make it difficult for them to appreciate the nuances of behavior necessary for self-regulation. That is, "You can talk, but not too loudly;" "You can be late to class if you have a good reason," and so forth. Additionally, children with developmental problems caused by a variety of things -- but most notably here in the Delta by poor prenatal nutrition, little or no verbal/cognitive stimulation in early life, drug or alcohol consumption by the mother -- are known to have problems with over-reaction to stimuli, poor self-regulation, and social management issues. This isn't a racial problem. It's an economic and class problem. In Mississippi these go hand-in-hand with race. But a wider and longer perspective might provide you with a different way to frame it. (The hammer quote is, interestingly, from Abraham Maslow, whose theories could inform this line of thought.)

Second, I do not need to caricaturize my students to make a point. Before the age of five, one of my students saw her mother shot in the back, and another saw her aunt shot in the chest by her uncle (about which she testified as the only witness). Another saw his mother set on fire (by the father, who later killed himself, of the student who sits next to him in second period). They've seen family members beaten, knifed, and run over by a car. A male student, recently more involved with town-rivalry gangs, regularly leaves blood stains on his chair from the crotch of his pants. At least seven that I know of are primary caretakers for grandparents or other relatives disabled by strokes, mothers who are crack addicts, or younger siblings. One student has eight children in his bedroom. He lives in a trailer with attic insulation blocking broken windows. Of the five current pregnancies, only one is by a boyfriend. The Delta certainly doesn't have a lock on family tragedy, but the isolation and stagnation of life where there are fewer than 3,000 people (people, not students) in a school district of 1,000 square miles does add a different dimension to how each of these incidents affects the student community as a whole.

One of my MTC colleagues mentioned that she'd never heard voices raised in anger in her family. Many MTC participants come from areas where there is little racial tension because there is little racial diversity. I think it's safe to say the several of us had not imagined the lives many of our students live every day. This was apparent in the shell-shocked conversations of the first few Oxford weekends.

Which brings me to hyperbole: A useful rhetorical and literary device, successfully employed for emphasis by revered third-years during my own summer training. Upon telling a summer student to try a new vocabulary word on his parents that night at dinner, one of this year's class was told in no uncertain terms, "They don't have parents, and they don't have dinner." We were advised not to let students use the bathroom during class because "they'll just gamble, do drugs, and have sex there." The line in my post that students interpret kindness and understanding as weakness is a direct quote from a TEAM teacher.

At the time many of us thought it seemed reductionist and harsh. Seemed. But the first few Oxford weekends proved that many had not taken the message seriously enough. Classrooms were disasters. Students were pitching quarters not in the restroom, but in the back of class while a teacher was in the room. Summer training, as easy-breezy as it seems now in retrospect, needed to be boot camp. An exaggerated experience that would get us to a point where classroom management was second nature and energy could be directed where our aspirations flew.

Many of my students have parents, or step-parents they live with. Many of them might eat dinner with their parents. (Though if they do, they are in a minority even among the most affluent and well-educated.) And I'll even give the benefit of the doubt to most of the students who ask to go to the restroom. And those students, for the most part, are not the ones who cause the classroom management nightmares. I am grateful every day for the parents like the woman Karl met at the laundromat, and the ones who own local businesses, and come to parent night. (Twelve parents of my 128 students.) The issue is that the students who cause problems, while they might  be a minority in the classroom, occupy the vast majority of our time in classroom management. Those students who don't require cut-and-dry black-and-white rules to follow will manage themselves. They, for the most part, are grateful that there is a system in place to provide structure to the class. They've told me this. Thanked me for it. And as the months rolled by it was easy for me to see who was who. But the learning curve was steep.

In the first eight to twelve weeks of school, unless a teacher establishes himself or herself as the authority in the classroom, there will be problems down the road. It might come naturally to some, so they don't realize they've done it. But for most first-year teachers it's a struggle. Read the blogs. Listen to the conversations.

Authority in and of itself is not evil. It can be misused, and often is, resulting in oppression. But children feel safer and happier when they know someone is in charge. Someone is making sure their needs are looked after. For many of our students, no one does this for them. Far too many have been doing this job -- even taking care of their parents -- and are relieved to have someone in a classroom as an authority figure. I know this sounds patronizing. But the effective use of authority is (dare I say it?) nuanced. The nuance lies in establishing it well enough so that it never needs to be used. Like an insurance policy, or keeping a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

Epilogue: Lastly, I'd like to point to a question.

And I wonder, why aren't you teaching anymore, really? Of course there's no simple answer to this question, and there were opportunity costs and so on, but I do think you came to believe that classroom teaching was not a sustainable choice for you (it's not for me, either), and I wonder why. What was the problem teaching math to the 25 kids in the room? Why couldn't you explain to them the philosophical corruption of the system, the moral corruption of the stimulus-response model of education, the importance of a social morality based on mutual respect and empathy and reason and the toxic effect of one built on a fear of punishment, and make it all better and more sustainable? ...

...I know you remember how mutually oppressive, how corrosive, it is to be in this place and governed by its bells every day. I may be sympathetic to a claim that this system is so corrupt and corrupting that one cannot long maintain philosophical and moral purity when acting as one of its central cogs. But replacements are on the horizon, and they're supposed to last two years. What you're not acknowledging in your response is that Sabatier is -- with whatever imprecisions and inaccuracies -- waving toward a way to cope with that constant, stifling hostility without taking it personally or ending up a wretched, tortured heap. You and me, we just "walk out of Calculus."

I spent nearly 20 years on the policy side of education, and decided to leave theory and enter practice. Not as a two-year stopover, but as a life. I gave up a successful, comfortable midlife to do it. I find "opportunity costs" an interesting euphemism. It's very easy to know how to do something from afar. It's much more difficult to find a sustainable way to enact it. It requires a balance that often comes only with experience and maturity. The thousands of split-second decisions we, as teachers of a special-needs population, make every day is a tightrope walk not many are able to finish. Knowing how to establish an authority strong enough that it doesn't need to be brandished takes (wait for it) nuance.

On Leaving (return to top)

Have a Little White Whine... - July 9, 2008

Are there individual students whom I feel I've failed? Ha-ell yeah! Isn't that what the "one child at a time" jingoism pretty much guarantees? GIve me 120-something students and then let help me feel good about "making a difference" for one. Do the math.

But I have to admit confess that my biggest sense of failure has come from not being able to stick it out at SDHS. I made a commitment. At this point in my life, commitments are not made lightly. And I said I wanted a small Delta town, knowing these are the toughest assignments. Did I not fully imagine what that meant? Well, yes, but we never do. I didn't fully imagine what being a parent would be like, either, but I stuck with it for whatever it would be. How can I even begin to compare another 3 years in Mississippi to my commitment of the past 25?

I've said before and I'll say again (but now I'm changing the tense): All the reasons I left are the very reasons I should have stayed.

That pretty much says it all.

White Whine: The lack of leadership made my efforts there futile. Teacher Corps is not sending a new group of teachers there this year and I'd be alone, further isolated. I can ultimately help more students by being in a school with some degree of leadership and organization. The school I'm going to is still classified as critical-needs. There are still hundreds, thousands, millions plenty of students whom I'm not teaching no matter where I end up.

But then I see NW's curious eyes tracking me. Or I hear DT's soft voice as he asks my approval of every sentence he writes. I see DC's little stack of books she stores on my supply shelf. I reread SB's metaphor poem about her dead mother and compare it to the weight of her armor she wears every day.

And I know Dr. Mullins is right: It's not really about me. But I made it about me when I decided to leave those students.

White Whine: There will be students I love at G-W. I'll probably succeed in educating some of them. But I will not succeed in educating 120-some others to whom I made an implicit and explicit commitment. I told them all that they were not the reason I was leaving. It smacked of the "divorce speech," whereby parents veil the fact that it's the other parent they can't stand. But the kids are still left parentless. Do we I continue to soothe our my conscience by saying they'll feel better because of that fact?

I dunno. But now I know why I'll be sticking with gin.

Successes  (return to top)

Chaos Theory of Teaching - July 9, 2008

Why is it so much harder for me to write the success story than the failure story?

I can think of small and large things I was successful with in my first year teaching: I can teach the hell out of vocabulary in a way that makes it constructive; I can break down an essay so that almost anyone can write one that will pass the state test. I am supremely organized. (To look at my home, you wouldn't think so, but my classroom and its documentation are impeccable.) I can write really good chapter study guides for novels and the quizzes that go with them are the perfect mix of comprehension and critical thinking. I did well with group work, and with letting my students teach. I can make grammar make sense.

But can I point to one student and say, "I made a difference in his/her life," and really mean it? "Make a difference." What does that mean anyway? How do we measure that? I didn't send a kid to Phillips-Exeter. But did the letter I wrote for KJ get her into that Tougaloo program? Will that change her? Did the gift certificate I gave RW to make up for the day he missed the class reward hot wings party allow him to feel like I cared? Will he remember it? Who knows what each butterfly's wings will do?

Here's what I remember: The day I returned to the school to resign and tell my students personally I would not be back (I'd been out for 6 weeks on medical leave and would not finish the school year there.) I found RK and pulled him out of his Biology class because he'd skipped second period when I usually saw him. He was terrified, of course, thinking he was in trouble again. He and I had gotten off to a rocky start. He was resistant to the work I assigned and challenged my motives. But by [what would become] the end of the year he would knit his brow and listen to my lessons, and pour himself into the worksheets I gave. If he wasn't finished when they were being collected he'd protest that he didn't want to turn it in until he'd gotten it. He wanted to understand. And the look on his face when he did was pure joy.

In early October I was told my job was to get enough documentation to get him into alternative school. In January I had an incident in the class that resulted in five students being suspended. He was sitting in the group and got lumped in with the crowd. I could see he was hurt and felt betrayed. Did I sleep that night?

The next morning I spoke with the assistant principal, who managed discipline referrals. I appealed for RK, explained that he had been the victim of a "sweep" and that I wanted him back in my class. He never thanked me, but that's when things changed.

So when we were standing face-to-face outside his Biology class in May, I told him he was one of the reasons my decision to leave had been so difficult. I asked him to remember how good it felt to succeed, and to try to keep doing that. I told him I appreciated how hard he worked in my class, and that I knew he was doing it for me as well as for himself. He kicked his foot and looked down.

Advice to First Years (return to top)

Should. Is. - August 10, 2008

Yeah. They should. But they don't. So how will you deal with that?

Most of you will come to realize by the end of your first month that it's not your students who make your job and your life so difficult. If you could talk to anyone who has aborted MTC, they'll undoubtedly tell you it was largely administrative issues that broke that camel's back.

Or rather how they chose to react to administrative issues.

You'll also realize (and the sooner the better) that you are a perpetual outsider. No one really wants your opinion about how things ought to be done. You aren't going to change the culture you're visiting. Neither the black one nor the white one. Both are products of their environment and are more deeply intertwined and dependent on each other than you might think. Like trees that grow around rocks, they've lost any distinction of which is supporting or constricting the other.

Meet each on its own terms. They are both foreign to you.

And if you try to change the culture of your school, you'll only hurt yourself, and ultimately, your students. It's your turn now to say, "Yes, massah," and keep showing up every day. If you're lucky, you'll discover that the flip side of the coin of ineptitude is that once you've proved yourself reliable and have objectives on your board, you'll pretty much be left alone by people who can, if you challenge them, make your life hell.

You were told to eliminate the word "should" from your thinking and your vocabulary. If you do, it will make life easier. It is what it is. They should. But they don't. What will you?

This is what you signed up for. Two years out of your privileged life. And if you didn't come to Mississippi thinking you are privileged, the sooner you realize you are, the sooner you'll put it aside and concentrate not on what should be, but what is.

What is: There are students in your class who need, deserve, and want what you can give them. Some will be left behind. They shouldn't be. But you're not here for should.

Advice to First Years  (return to top)

It’s Not All Bad You Know - August 10, 2008

I'm sitting here recording and filing the student information sheets and rules/procedures contracts my students completed on the first day of school.

The student info sheet includes questions about things other teachers have done to help/hinder learning, and a "what else should I know about you" option, along with parent contact info, and assorted stuff. The contract is a one-page list of my three rules, and explanations of the basic procedures. Students initial each section as we review them in class, and then sign at the bottom that they understand and agree to abide; subject to change; etc. Then they write a paragraph on the back about any one of the procedures so I also have a mini writing sample from them.  I keep them in their student files as a part of the arsenal of documentation when a parent conference pops up.

At this point, though, I can't really put a face to each of these as I'm filing them. They're charming, but of little real use in the swirl of these early days. If you have something along these lines from your students, take the time over your long Labor Day weekend (it's not Oxford!) to read through them again. Believe it or not, you'll know your students by then, or at least be able to picture the person you're reading about. And that's when the information they reveal between the lines will stick a bit better in your mind as you create a fuller picture of each student.

But wait, there's more.

Go to athletic events as soon as possible. Last year, I waited until my school's team was playing an away football game in the town where I live because I was teaching 45 miles away. I really wished I'd started sooner. It immediately changed my relationship with my students. And not just the athletes. Their friends, families, and parents will see you there. (I remember being worried if they'd see me in the stands. Uh ... yeah, no problem.)

While I'm not a dictator, I do keep a business-like tone in the classroom for the first months. I use Mr. and Miss to address students. I did it originally as a way to deal with the difficult first names and to more quickly work with files, but found that it had a secondary benefit. When I run into students outside of the classroom -- at a game, restaurant, store, or even in the hallway -- calling them by their first names establishes a boundary that keeps the classroom as a special place where there are different expectations than in the rest of the world. And when I do call a student by first name in a private conference it signals the nature of the conversation, and makes it instantly more personal.

And that's where the smiles can start.

Mississippi, Delta Life (return to top)

Living in the Median - March 23, 2009

This entry is an assigned response to the Executive Summary of A Portrait of Mississippi: Mississippi Human Development Report 2009 published by the American Human Development Project.

If my hair is on fire, but I'm standing in a bucket of ice water, I will be -- on average -- comfortable. Talking about medians and averages in income, human development, education, or health paints an equally skewed picture of reality, and certainly not one on which policy can or should be made. How can we effectively discuss individuals living lives of "choice, value, and dignity" unless we discuss individuals?

A short aside: While none of these statistics is likely to come as a huge surprise to most of us in MTC, it's fair to say we are not the intended audience. The audience for a such a report is policy-makers, many of whom probably have a one-dimensional view of rural life, poverty, and the unendingly complex role of race in a place such as Mississippi. And while we're at it, let's go ahead and acknowledge that we're really talking about a few specific regions of Mississippi here. As one of our guest speakers said in a first-year class (sorry, I can't remember who or exactly when) if we subtract the Delta counties from Mississippi's well-being statistics, while still not exemplary, our state falls in the lower third of the nation rather than dead last. Ahead of a dozen or so other states that do not suffer the same indignity. Sure, there are pockets of urban poverty and its attendant woes in and around cities such as Jackson or Greenville. But that's true of all states with urban centers: Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Oakland, etc. and it's mitigated statistically, much like my flaming hair, by the suburbs and viable smaller towns.

In the Delta, a place ever haunted by extremes, there is no average. Almost no one exists at the median.

So, all that being said, what do we do? I think we need to start by looking past the averages and medians. Using such figures gives the false impression that there is a gradation. Living and working in Washington County, the seat of the county group that has some of the highest white and lowest black incomes, and lowest HD index, I see the results of a cluster of wealth, a cluster of poverty, and a huge gap in the middle. That gap, that missing middle, is the story of individuals, not averages. And there lies the problem with reports such as this. They spent a pretty penny on gathering facts, paid a designer five or six grand to produce a book that is probably printed on glossy premium paper, and we can pat ourselves on the back for bringing these issues to light. Like we didn't know this already in our guts?

And then what? "What will it take to improve Mississippi's ranking on the AHD Index?" What, indeed?

These are lofty recommendations, to be sure, and well intentioned. But they smack of what journalists refer to as "the no-shit lede." Well, fine then, let's improve the health of African-American men. Geez. Why hadn't I thought of that before? Hey, let's improve the quality of public education. Now there's a new idea! Connect at-risk boys to school. Ok, sure. And could you please do something about the humidity, too, while you're at it? And water my tomatoes while I'm in Oxford this June? These sorts of bromides help us feel like we're doing something, but I don't see any substantive information on how these things will be accomplished.

In looking through the full report on the web site, it appears the "What will it take ..." section of the executive summary suggests something the report does not deliver: There are no recommendations, no policy guidelines, no pathways, no suggestions. Granted, the AHDP's stated mission is to "stimulate debate about political and human issues." I'll give them that. But to "empower people to hold elected officials accountable for progress on issues?" Not so much. Without offering policy recommendations or guidelines, how can simply presenting facts make elected officials more accountable? I worked for an education policy non-profit for 18 years. I didn't make policy or set editorial standards, but fish don't create water and they get pretty wet during the course of their days. One thing I took away from my years there is that it's very easy to present facts, to wring our hands, and rend our garments. It's another thing altogether to recommend, create, or enact policy; to live and work where the statistics live and breathe; where averages become individuals; to, you know, make a difference.

It's so easy to point to Mississippi and its glaring deficiencies. It's so facile to point to the gaping discrepancies between white and black, rich and poor, and decry the status quo. But few who have not lived here or have no roots here can ever understand the deep complexity of these issues. They go far beyond simple minority/majority. (In my town, I'm a minority. There is no diversity. My language and culture are marginalized.)

"Choice, value, and dignity." Easy terms to throw into the wind. Frankly, I find the opening paragraph of the "What will it take..." so full of jargon and feel-good buzz words it angers me. I've sat through enough of those meetings crafting the perfect mission statement that includes every conceivable piece of empty rhetorical claptrap, and can recognize the product.

I made a living producing reports and books just like this. Now I teach children. I teach individuals, not medians.

Advice to First Years

Advice to First-Years - April 29, 2009

First-years (get used to the name), I'll be meeting you soon, and working with some of you during your Holly Springs summer school training. There's a lot we'll do, but there will be much left undone, and much that no one can teach you during summer school. Some things just need to be learned on the ground, no matter how much we tell you beforehand.

You'll probably learn far more than you'll teach during your first year. You might not know that until you reach the midpoint of your second year. I'm not saying you won't teach much. You'll teach a lot. In fact, it's kind of all you'll do for a while (see below).

I'm saying that no matter how much you teach, your own learning curve will be enormous. You'll learn your own limits, your strengths, your weaknesses, and you'll discover parts of yourself you never knew about, and might let go of some parts of yourself you don't need anymore.

That being said, here's a couple of things to remember along the way:

First, try to always see your students as individuals. A classroom dynamic is the embodiment of the "one bad apple" idiom. You'll be amazed at the difference the presence or absence of one or two key knuckle-heads can have on an entire class. Don't listen to us second- and third-years when we talk about fourth block as good and second block as bad. We're just a bunch of cranky old burnouts. If you fall into the trap of seeing them as a group, it will be a very long year or two. Find something to like about each student -- or most of them anyway -- and keep that in mind on your dark days.

Second, make some time to explore your new home state, and get some perspective. If you're in Jackson, spend a weekend in the Delta. It's a world apart, and like no place else. (We love company!) You'll never complain about a lack of places to go or things to do again. You are so fortunate to have suburbs around you where there are stores, theaters, and things that aren't literally falling apart. Just imagine living within a block your school building, where everything is broken or abandoned, 24/7 for months. That's kind of what living in the Delta is like. We drive 2-plus hours just to be able to go to Target or get ice cream. I was never a fan of the suburbs, but lately it feels like a trip to Disney World just to sit on a bench (that has all of its slats and four legs!) in front of the Apple Store in Ridgeland. Seriously.

Which leads me to... If you're in the Delta, try to get to Jackson or Memphis once in a while. I know it seems like a lot of driving, and you're really busy. But here's the thing: Your school, and the Delta environment can suck the life out of you. Going to Jackson or Memphis gives you a chance to get out of the "third world" mentality. Get some ice cream. All of Mississippi is not like the Delta. You'll come back refreshed and able to appreciate the weird quirky charm and beauty of this place.

See you soon.

P.S.  So, last year, I was in a really different place -- specifically, unfiltered due to serious pain meds. I still agree with everything I wrote, but it was a lot to lay on the new kids. You might want to read what I had to say toward the end about being organized, though.

Reflection - Final

Twelve Hundred Words - May 1, 2009

Assignment: Twelve hundred words. I have 1,200 words. I spilled just over 9,000 of them into my portfolio. I probably have a few left.

What I can’t seem to find is exactly the right 1,200 words. How can something so small sum up something so huge? It’s just a tad more than a word-and-a-half for each day of these two years. There were days, surely, that deserved more. And there were days for which there are simply no words available.

I thought about harvesting my 18 months of twitter feeds.

Here are some words:

desire restless anticipation trepidation fear good-bye mountains valleys highway truck wondering welcome hello ice-breaker dormitory roommate swelter rookie dawn preposition cheese-toast tickets chocolate-milk strong companion baloney vis-a-vis home lost interview jesus horror solar-plexus creek cotton dread classroom gin cardiologist crawfish referral theft duty framework cremation wait alone inhale exhale femoral neck rain morphine resignation abandon reunion plucky permanence shelter adrift anger flood roster prayer betrayal love stop doing evil redundant nutella blood history chicken-spaghetti obamaobamaobamaobama gimme gimme hopeless exhale inhale vascular event snow-peas mentor commitment vodka moths coloring squirrels reflection inadequate peace

Sometimes words become arranged in such a way that they begin to tell a story.

I can tell you why I came here. I had spent almost 20 years surrounded by, and arranging, words about education. I had raised a daughter and seen what happens when a child’s mind is engaged and nurtured. I wanted to find the peace that comes with balance, and my life was heavily weighted to the side of fortune and prosperity.

Fifty stalks, one put aside, divided between my left and right hands again and again gave me these words:

It furthers one to undertake something.

How is this to be carried out?

One may use small bowls for the sacrifice.

There has been sacrifice. And I fill these small bowls every day. Some are broken.

I can tell you what I thought I knew.

The bright path seems dim;

Going forward seems like retreat;

The easy way seems hard;

The highest Virtue seems empty;

Great purity seems sullied;

A wealth of Virtue seems inadequate;

The strength of Virtue seems frail;

Real Virtue seems unreal;

The perfect square has no corners;

Great talents ripen late;

The highest notes are hard to hear;

The greatest form has no shape;

The way is hidden and without name.

I’m still haunted by leaving my first school. As I said at the time, the reasons I left are the reasons I needed to stay. I count it as a failure. The school where I teach now is still critical-needs. The administration is still woefully disorganized. Decisions are made without regard to their outcome. Money is wasted. All of the things that go into the making of a failing school district are here.

My central quandary remains: What level of sacrifice is made, and whose sacrifice is it? Was SDHS so hopeless that I can ultimately help more children by teaching in a district where more children will take advantage of my teaching, and benefit from what I do? Or is it more noble to find the one among those who are most deeply lost?

The highest notes are hard to hear.

I come back again and again to the popular ethical dilemma of the children on the train tracks. You know the one: There are several children playing on a train track, and you see an oncoming train. You can throw a switch and divert the train, saving the group of children, but the diverted train will kill a single child playing on the branched track. Do many children die because you do nothing, or do you actively cause the death of a single child in order to save many?

And I never know the answer. But some nights I wake in a sweat as the train itself is bearing down on me.

My wealth of virtue seems inadequate.

And then there are the words about my life.

In the past two years I've spent more time in hospitals -- in emergency rooms, cardiac ICU, neurology ICU, and orthopedic recovery -- than I've spent with my principal. For that matter, I've spent more time under general anesthesia than I have with my principal.

My mother's heart surgery during my first month of teaching; my own accident that took me out of school at the end of March last year; and my mother's recent stroke last month have all taken a toll on my energy and stamina. It’s taken a year to be myself again and recover both from the initial shock of teaching in a critical-needs school, and from the physical trauma of my accident.

There’s almost no way in which MTC has not impacted my life. Not being in my 20s with the safety net of “going home” beneath me, my commitment to this change was a serious one. I have nowhere to land if I fall. There’s almost no aspect of my former life that I recognize, apart from the furniture in my house — and the moths have made major headway on my Turkish wool rugs.  For the first year I lived, breathed, ate, and slept teaching and planning. I’d like to say I am more optimistic about the future now, but I’m not. I’m more resigned, though, to the concept of slow change. I’m beginning to understand the intricate complexity of the dance of race, poverty, privilege, and history. I’m beginning to get the barest glimpse of just how much I still don’t know. I do know that I no longer believe that our present system of social services helps lift generations out of poverty.

We have code words, too. Like poverty.

I’ve had conversations with several of my fellow MTC’ers in which we lamented that we are now racist in situations where we wouldn’t have been before. I’ve felt the very strong effects of reverse discrimination. At one time or another I’ve heard at least three of my colleagues say that they didn’t come here to hate, but feel hate every day.

We come here with love in our hearts.

I met a man who worked for 40 years without ever taking a day off except holidays. He usually had his allotted 30-minute lunch at Tony’s Grocery, a little market lunch counter in Mayersville, a town of about 700 people on the levee in Issaquena County. He’s worked and paid his taxes. But every day at lunch he’s ridiculed for paying those taxes by men young and old who spend their days sitting on buckets or going fishing. This is the legacy of poverty. This is why there is still hate.

Here are some words:

crazy check earned income credit obamaobamaobama now we’ll have freedom

I came here with love in my heart. It’s still there.

I’m staying on, at least for a third year, and probably beyond. I live in Mississippi now. So this doesn’t feel quite like an ending. My relationship has been less with MTC than with Mississippi. I know we’re gathering for what is probably the last time tomorrow.

But I will continue to gather Mississippi.

Twelve hundred words. Let me show you them.

Mississippi Life, Race (return to top)

The Racism Talk

My students accuse me of being racist.

It's a common response to disciplinary actions. I teach in a high school with nearly 2,000 students, about 8 of whom are white. There are maybe 4 Hispanic students. The rest (and all of my students) are black. (No, I don't use African-American. My students, as most of the population in the Delta does, self-identify as black.) The accusation of racism is a knee-jerk reaction to perceived unfairness. It's one that might work in some situations, but not in this one. "You only punish the black kids," doesn't cut it here.

Today, after being accused of racism by both students and parents over the past months, I gave each of my classes my talk. When I was finished, they applauded. Second block stood up to applaud. Several came up to me privately later in the day to apologize for my having to hear the accusations.

Roughly, this is the talk:

First, let me say that if I happen to catch your eye as I'm speaking it doesn't mean I'm speaking to, or about, you individually. I'm talking to the class in general.

Several of my students have asked me if I'm racist, or have accused me of being racist. It happens that those students are also ones who have had several detentions or office referrals. They seem to think that these discipline actions are based on race. If I were treating them differently because of their race, that would be racist. Look around. Is their race what makes them different from the students who are not getting discipline actions? If someone accuses me of being racist just because I'm white, that's racist.

When students have asked me if I'm racist, I usually ask them, "If I were racist would I have come to Mississippi to teach in the Delta?" The next question they usually ask is, "Then why did you come here?"

Let me tell you why:

The county I lived in before I moved here from Virginia, Fairfax County, is the wealthiest county in the U.S.  Now I was hardly among the wealthiest people there, but it did mean the living was pretty good, especially the schools. I could have stayed there. I could have taught there. If I had taught there, I could have taught a bunch of lily-white spoiled rich kids. English II there means teaching Shakespeare and poetry, reading long complex novels: the stuff English teachers love to do. It could have meant teaching in a school where over 90 percent of students score advanced on state tests.

I did leave another job to come here. The paycheck I got for that job was almost four times the paycheck I get here.

And there was one reason I did it. I did it to prove that people who are racist are wrong.

People who are racist have told me that the kids in Mississippi can't learn. That they don't want to learn. That they don't care about school. That I'm wasting my time. I know I don't have to tell you the kinds of things I heard. You've heard it, too.

I'm here to prove them wrong.

I'll tell you this: When you act a fool [a specific term of art here in the Delta]; when you tell me you don't care; when you disrespect me or give me your street backtalk; when you deface your school; when you steal supplies; when you cut class, cheat, and lie; when you can't walk without holding your pants crotch up; you are proving them right.

I'm working as hard as I can. I left my family, my friends, my home, and a successful career to prove some haters wrong. When you try to use racism as an excuse for your behavior choices, or to avoid facing consequences of your choices, you're proving them right.

It's your choice who wins.