Saturday, October 21, 2017

Trying not to be a complete b*tch in class

My poor college professor.

I really feel for her having to manage my "chip-on-my-shoulder for not being a traditional school district teacher self" in class.

I know she recognizes the psychological self-imposed "drama" of me already having a MAT, having gone through the state internship program, having classroom experience under my belt, and taking a class with people who do not. She knows I feel a bit like an 8th grader in a class of 4th grade students.

On the positive side, I am certainly learning a lot as a result of the text: The English Teacher's Companion by Jim Burke.

I ran headfirst into my weakness as a teacher, which is that I suck at grammar. I can write well, but don't ask me to define an appositive, an adverbial clause, or to succinctly explain when and why to use a colon over a semicolon.

My professor gave us a list of grammar terms and asked us to rank them in terms of how well we understood them. I gave a "1" for everything, which basically means I've heard this term but could not explain it to you or anyone else. 

And I felt compelled (because I cannot shut my big mouth) to say out loud that while I do understand the importance of "doing grammar," I do not necessarily agree with the importance of expecting students to be able to explicitly name an adverbial clause or a gerund.

A classmate (who happens to also be middle-aged and has a freelance background) responded to me that I (actually, she said "you," but I don't know if she meant "you as in me" or "you as in the general you")  will never be a great writer without understanding the rules of grammar. I understood her comment, but I'm not sure I agree (and I think I also might be a little insulted that she suggested I could never be a great writer, even though I know this is true).

I'm not sure I believe that Hemingway or Steinbeck or Bronte or Austen or Garcia Marquez or Roth wrote or writes from a place of analyzing whether this gerund clause works better than this other gerund phrase in those direct, explicit, scientific and clinical terms. Maybe they do?  Who knows?

I think that to be a great editor, a person probably needs to know the rules of grammar really well. And I realize now, as the editor of my students, that I am lacking in that department. Although, I think there are probably a lot of editors who can't recite all the rules of grammar.

Maybe this is why I've never aspired to write the Great American Novel?
But I don't think so.
I think it is because I have nothing of fictional merit to say....
I think it is because I have no great imaginative spirit that drives me to write in that way....
I think it is because I don't want to put the time into writing like that....
I don't think it is because I couldn't define a compound complex sentence if I tried.

Maybe the stick up my butt is because I subbed 3 days this week with a class of MMD students and worked with them on writing narratives? Maybe it is because even if I explained to these kids what is a subject and a predicate and called them by their official grammatical names, these kids cannot write a sentence better than what my 2nd grader can?

Maybe it is because I only see my students at the cottage school one day a week and think the value of having a class discussion about a text and analyzing it together is WAY more critical than spending that 65 minutes discussing how to write a sentence with an appositive in it and specifically bashing them over the head that it is an appositive.

I suspect I may have come across as a bit of an asshole, but I fully recognize that this was in large part because I recognized in myself my glaring weakness as a teacher: the grammar thing. I have never been able to understand the grammar thing, although I certainly understand it better now as an adult than I ever did as a kid. I could not diagram a sentence to save my life as a kid.  As an adult, I can do it just slightly better than "meh."

And I guess a part of me is also going off the chain right now because what follows are the instructions to the class for next week's homework:

Read Chapter 8. Type 3 text-dependent questions about grading that you encountered in the reading and include page number. 

As a writer and a teacher AND A STUDENT AT THE MOMENT, I am confused by this question. What is she asking exactly?  Is she asking me to type 3 questions I had in my head about grading as I was reading or is she asking me to type 3 questions that the author asked about grading that I "encountered" as I read and, thereafter, reflected upon. Is she asking me to type his questions or my reflections??? Or both?

That "encountered" is a tricky word, I think. When I think of encountering something, I think of meeting it in a dark alley. It brings itself forward to me, which suggests it would be a question someone else asked that I met in a dark alley....or in this chapter. I mean I even looked up the stinking definition of the word "encounter" to try to figure it out.

So I emailed her and asked.

Sometimes it is hard not to be an asshole, and I try to remember that when I think about students who sometimes are asked to do things that just seem so confusing or tedious.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Getting my head back on straight

I am finally getting my head back on straight from this graduate class, and I am feeling a renewed sense of "I do NOT suck."

I suspect I will always have a chip on my shoulder, a feeling of "I am not a real teacher because I haven't taught full-time in x many years," until or unless I do teach again full-time.

But what I have begun to realize for myself is that I have a tremendous amount to offer students because I haven't been in the classroom full-time for 13 years.

I have done a lot in those 13 years, including being a professional writer. It matters a great deal, I think, that I have real-life experience in interviewing, listening, writing, editing, and networking with people outside of the school world. For the most recent article I submitted, I interviewed some local "big-shots" in the community, one of whom told me I'm a fun interviewer.

I'm not the type of person to be awestruck (I don't care who you are or what amazing things you've done, you have had an occasion when you've had poop streaks in your underpants), but I admit that it made me feel pretty good to have someone who has created a millions-of-dollars enterprise offer that compliment.

I have taught for the past 5 years in a setting that has given me a tremendous amount of freedom. I have created my own plans from scratch, and I have taught very difficult texts to students. I do it well, and I know it.

I have taken close to 20 additional hours of graduate class beyond my master's degree in literacy and instruction.

And I substitute teach, which is trial by fire if there ever was such a thing.

I will still be tremendously glad when this class is over, but my attitude and self-esteem have improved.

Your brain is not within your control

The counselors at the boys' elementary school frequently do activities with the students to help develop their character and improve self-regulation.

G recently came home with this paper:

It is am important reminder for him of what is and is not within his control. He often likes to think that he can control others and gets frustrated when he can't.

When I asked him about it, he talked about Wilda Rudolph and how she had to control her mood when things didn't go her way.

I felt compelled to remind him that how for him and for me, it can be hard to control our moods and that is why we take our medicine. We are the types of people for whom controlling our moods can be a challenge. Like Wilma Rudolph, we have to use assists to help us out. She used leg braces and did therapy and had massages for years, and I suspect that she also dealt with pretty intense pain even when she could use her legs to achieve in the Olympics. The stories of our inspirational figures often leave out just how much unbearable pain and frustration they had to deal with even in the midst of their great accomplishments.

As much as I like that we promote self-regulation among kids, and we probably should do so more among adults, it is a bit of a fallacy to tell kids that they can control themselves. They should strive to do this. We should give them logical consequences for when they can't.

But if I had to complete this chart, the word "mood" would be written half inside the circle of control and half outside.

The fallacy that we can control our brains is one reason why people fight so hard to admit they have mental health issues.  They believe they should be able to control their brains, when the hard reality is that the brain is just like any other organ of the body.  It doesn't always work the way we want it to. A kidney may not remove toxins as it should. A pancreas may not produce as much insulin as it should. A heart may not beat as fast or as regular as it should.  And a brain may not pick up enough serotonin as it should.

But our identity, our spirit, our personality comes from our brains, and we cannot even imagine that we can't make it do exactly as we wish when we wish for as long as we wish.

I have not yet asked him what he means by "the demons" in what he cannot control, but I find it interesting that he used that phrase. I suspect he means actual "demons." He is knee-deep in intrigue about horror movies right now and would give his left leg if we allowed him to watch "It." (That ain't gonna happen.)

But for anyone with a mental health struggle, they know their demons aren't the dementors of Harry Potter fame, although they do suck the happiness out of one. The demons are inside, not floating around in the dark and fearsome skies. There are ways to quiet the demons, but they never go away. They don't fly off back to Azkaban, never to return.

It takes a long, long, long time to accept that the demons are real, are there, have moments (or years) of quiet, but can, do and will reappear when you least expect it. So like Wilma Rudolph, you ice it, and use heat on it, and take your pain meds to reduce inflammation, and you rest, and you still achieve, but you don't do it without assists. Those assists just get lost somehow in the story.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

What? No....wait. My baby is actually eight?

Dear M,

I don't care if you grow to be 6'5" and 230 lbs, you will always be my baby.

I cling to every snuggly moment with you, even though I see that it won't be too long before those gangly legs and arms have a heft that I can no longer comfortably hold the weight of.

I try to pay attention to those big front teeth sandwiched in between the tiny nubs of baby teeth when you talk to me about important 2nd-grade stuff.

I enjoy watching you come downstairs in the morning wearing your Guardians of the Galaxy underpants and holding your Papaw pillow, your hair in 14 different directions, and your eyes still heavy with sleep.

I know these days are numbered.

You are still adamant that you like and want the "same thing as G," even though I suspect it won't be too long before you admit that you like what YOU like much more instead....whatever that actually happens to be.

You often say you want to read silently to yourself at bedtime, but you are content to have me or Daddy sit next to you as you do it. You point out funny things you notice or something unusual so we can at least have some notion of what you are reading and whether you know what is going on.

Of my children, you are the only one who pretty regularly likes the vegetables I give you, especially if they are of the squash family and slathered in butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

When I think of your personality, I call you my "Indian chief" because I don't think you are going to fit into a similar mold as your sister and brother. I'm not sure what you'll end up doing in school or in life, but I suspect it will be something that keeps your body busy and not just you sitting behind a desk every day.

I love your current mop-of-hair style. Daddy makes comments about your "wings," but I like all the weird contortions your naturally wavy hair makes. I play with your hair at night as you are trying to fall asleep and am astounded by how long it is when I pull out the curls to their full length.

You've already had a friend stay the night and your big family celebration with G, so today's celebration will be just us with you opening up the small gifts from Mommy and Daddy. Oh, and your "8" cookies, which have become a tradition.

Even though I often think I have no clue who you are because you are so intent on being a carbon copy of your brother, I know that you are super polite, always holding the door for others. You are sweet and sensitive, sometimes coming off the bus and telling me how you got tears in your eyes when you read a book about a dog who was missing a leg. You are, thankfully, so easy-going as to make my life much easier, especially since your big brother is not easy-going in the least.

For the rest of my life, I will always be thankful I got my bonus baby, and that he is you.

Love you,


Monday, September 25, 2017

And turned 10

Dear G,

Tomorrow marks ten years of you doing things on your own terms, in your own unique way, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says.

You have been that way since before moved around so much in utero that at 18-weeks gestation, I would get motion sick from all your fluttering.

You completely upended my plan for natural childbirth by not only being breech but refusing to turn during an external version, resulting in a c-section. You came out ass-first, which should really be a t-shirt motto that you wear proudly.

You refused to open your eyes for the hospital photographer for your newborn photos (even though your more adaptable siblings did).

In ten years, little has changed.

You are growing your hair out with the goal of looking like Finn.

Finn and his sidekick:

You and your sidekick:

Am I wrong?

And your grand plan is this:

As much as I'd sometimes like to hold you down with a pair of shears, I know that this is "you doing you." My goal is to guide you to be the best you possible, and if that is a long-haired you (provided you get periodic trims and keep it clean), I guess I am ok with that.

You doing you is pretty brave, and I'm proud of you for having the guts to be who you are, even if your grandpa and your uncle and lots of other people rag you about your hair.

Most of the time you are a balance between total turd and utter sweetness and sensitivity. I think the turd part is just being a 10-year-old boy because I distinctly remember your uncle being the same way when he and I were kids. Eventually, you will outgrow the turd part, but I hope the sweet and sensitive never leaves.

You feel so deeply, and it is as much a gift as it is a tremendous weight for you to shoulder. Although you often don't know what to do with your own pain and uncomfortable feelings, you seem to know how to help others when they are under their own emotional burdens.  You get it, and I'm not sure many 10-year-old boys do.

Being your mom has challenged me in many ways, but it has also helped me become more flexible and more accepting of things I cannot control. Having a son who is so much like me has made me see that being stubborn and persistent and pig-headed is equal parts maddening and awesome.

I love you and hope you have a fantastic birthday!



Sunday, September 24, 2017

What "taking a knee" represents to me (little ole English teacher)

Nevermind that the president should be governing and not bloviating on Twitter. Let's just put that aside.

I have been thinking about the symbolism of the act of "taking a knee," and it is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that I wish I had an interest in attending a sporting event so that I, too, could take a knee.

When I teach, I introduce students to the words connotation and denotation. 

Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. For example, my wedding ring is a circle of gold, a piece of jewelry.

Connotation is the idea or feeling (or symbolic meaning) that the word evokes in addition to its denotative meaning. My wedding ring is a commitment, a promise, an act of love, infinity.

"Taking a knee" is literally a half-stand. The body is nearly half the size it would be if the person stood on both feet.

But symbolically, taking a knee has many possible connotative meanings.

"Taking a knee" is reverential, although it would be more reverential if both knees were on the ground, as someone might do in a Catholic mass. When I see people lambasting athletes who "take a knee," I think they fail to notice the importance of this reverence.

When we see people knighted, they "take a knee." It is a statement of respect, of dignity in the face of authority. It is a great honor to be knighted. (That link is not high-quality journalism or anything, but the picture serves the purpose for what I'm saying.)

Here is a better one to make my point:
"Taking a knee" is also symbolic of not being on equal footing, and this is why the athletes do it. They are not speaking for themselves but in symbolic deference to others who do not have equal footing.

"Taking a knee" as the athletes do it is symbolic of not being fully degraded. This would be a representation of someone who has given up all dignity at the hands of an oppressor:

Hands and knees on the ground in complete supplication.....that is connotative of complete loss of dignity, power, and self-respect. This body shape can be both negative, as seen above, and positive, as when worshippers do this in prayer, offering up everything to God.

If athletes wanted to give a giant F-U to America, they would stand their full measure and hold up their middle fingers during the anthem. That would be a clear, unequivocal symbol of disrespect.

But "taking a knee" is anything but a giant F-U.

It is peaceful and gentle. When Jesus washed his disciples' feet, he certainly didn't do it at a full stand. He was almost certainly on one or both knees.

And that is another important part of the meaning. "Taking a knee" also symbolizes being ready to offer service to whomever you kneel before. By kneeling during the anthem, athletes may be offering service to the betterment of the country, offering service to those who do not feel they can "take a stand."

I know Twitter is no place for nuance, but it would certainly be nice if it was.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Not a helicopter parent, but an "unable-to-let-go" parent

I try very much not to be a hovering parent.

Part of this is because I don't think it serves the best interests of my children. My goal is to have them become fully independent of me. If I am over their shoulders for everything they have no incentive to learn to be fully independent.

The other reason is because why in the world would a fully grown adult want to be all in their kids' interests?  Yesterday, N asked if I would take her and two friends to Target, and I obliged. In the 10 minutes it took for me to drive the three of them to Target, I had to put in my earbuds. The earbuds were not attached to music; I just needed something to dull the noise. We stepped into the store, and I immediately said, "I"m going to get my stuff; ya'll go do what you need to do," and I made a beeline in the opposite direction of them.

I appreciate my daughter and her friends, but under no circumstances do I want to hang with them. They are 13; I'm 44. Sometimes our interests briefly intersect, but most of the time, they do not.

I texted N and told her she had until 3:30. When I didn't get a text back from her, I texted, "Where are you?" Fortunately for her, she located me. Had she not, I would have texted her one more time to say, "I'm going to check out. If you don't text me back or meet me at check-out, I am having them call your name on the loudspeaker and ask you and your friends to come to the front of the store."

N knows full well that I will do this because I did it to her when she was younger and refused to leave the toy department. I left her, walked to the front of the store, started checking out, and asked the cashier to call my daughter over the intercom.

What I find difficult to reconcile within myself is that I refuse to helicopter my kids, and yet I am seemingly unable to emotionally disengage from them. I'm not even certain that they are aware of my emotional entanglement, but I certainly am.

On Thursday night, I had my graduate class, and the teacher discussed missing her children's open houses because she was at her own school's open houses. She talked about her husband attending with them but said he didn't know what to look for. She talked about being dedicated to teaching, and she is. Decades in the profession, a ph.D., and now teaching soon-to-be teachers at the college level.

I observed a teacher on Thursday morning/afternoon who teaches, does workshops and is clearly highly dedicated.

I have never, ever been able to split my dedication, and it is why when my children are 10, 8 and almost 14, I still cannot do it. This is why I am ever-so-slowly pulling away in my chaotic juggle of part-time employment. I cannot let go just yet. I tell myself that in four years when M starts middle school that I will return to work full-time, and I may.....but I also may not because I don't know what four years from now will bring.

Will G's OCD be out of control? Will he and M adjust ok to middle school? How will N handle high school? Will my parents or my MIL need care or help that I can assist with? Will I need the flexibility that my current situation allows me?

I think about not only the teaching, but the faculty meetings and the grading and the IEP meetings during planning, and all those extras that pull one's mind away from just planning and instruction and keep one busy and distracted beyond the measure of 7 hours.

I wonder sometimes if this inability to disengage is harming my kids. I don't think so; it is probably harming me more than anybody because I keep stewing over it.