My Journey of Life and Learning (with occasional digressions)

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Long Time – No Post

So… I’m paying for this…I should probably use it!

As of August, 2017, I am teaching Freshman and Junior English at a high school here in Texas. I’m not openly stating the name for privacy reasons. Mine is the only high school in our small, rural district and I consider myself VERY blessed for being a first year, in-the-process-of-being-certified, high school teacher. My largest class has 23 students, my smallest only 8! This is a HUGE difference from my own high school where classes had 32-40 learners and our my graduating class had 450 students. This has been a LONG time coming, but it’s happening and I am thrilled!!

Biggest lesson, so far, is that I must institute and apply firmer class rules IMMEDIATELY at the start of school. I made the mistake of thinking, “This is only the first week of school…there’s time to establish rules, consequences and procedures.” Well, that was certainly the WRONG answer! My freshmen, bless their collective lil hearts, are still young enough to WANT to please. So – I teach four wonderfully receptive freshman classes (one of which must be composed of ALL the class clowns of the county), one moderately coooerative junior class, and THE junior class sprung from the deepest recesses of the lowest pit mentioned by Dante! This last one MAY have been tamed if I had been much more assertive.

The corollary lesson is that the smallest victories are most important. So what if the gang in the class from hell climb the walls (again, I’m working on that)? Jimmy came back to school after going truant and is now turning on assignments – the young man who wanted to physically intimidate me is talking with me and “sometimes” completing assignments. A student found the right word he wanted to use by GOING TO A DICTIONARY!

“Romeo and Juliet” was a successful unit, “The Crucible” tortured me as much as them. This second grading period was much less frantic. So…it all goes on!

Welcome back to my blog. Comment, I’ll respond!


Got to Bring It Full Circle!

Today I had the chance to work with the same students I had when I introduced the topics of Antigone and Macbeth. That post is here if you wish to go back and read that so you have some better context. Bottom line is that I actually had the experience of watching students come full circle – from start to finish – with a couple of serious texts. There were, of course, the few that would make a point of goofing around and not paying attention if you told them that what you are about to say would earn them a million dollars with no effort whatsoever. The most, though, were actually willing to work through a decent discussion of the texts, their historic and literary contexts and formed coherent interpretations of their own. During the discussion of Antigone, a student commented, “These guys keep coming back to questions and stuff.” I explained that most of the old Greek playwrights were philosophers. After the bell dismissed the students, I went back to the teacher desk to take a look at the text for the next hour. There was a handwritten note left on my notepad thanking me for my patience and explanation of their text. What an awesome feeling!

There are times when I look back and wonder whether or not I’ve made an impact or been a positive influence. Of course I had positive feedback from soldiers that I taught when I was in the Army, but when you’re teaching someone how to actually survive or enable others to survive, it’s not really challenging to know that you’ve “done a good day’s work,” because you MUST do a good day’s work. When I worked with Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and youth in Church activities, I always kept in mind a quote I saw in a store, “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” If anybody reading this can help me cite that correctly, or knows who first said/wrote that, I’d appreciate knowing. I’ve run into some men who had been Scouts in my Packs, Dens or Troops and I’ve been proud of each. Now I get to teach. One point raised in both of those literary works is the unexpected/unanticipated results of someone’s actions. I hope that little note is just the first indicator that I’m doing it right.

Update from Planet Academia

emcee So, it’s been about a month since I posted anything, maybe longer. Things have been happening. Strange things. Like tonight – a bout with gastro-reflux that will have me up for a couple of hours, so lucky people like you will have something to read!

Found out last week that a good Army buddy passed away. I left an entry on the website announcing his obituary and such. What puzzles me is that they didn’t give the reason of death. He was a damn good soldier and when he retired I’m sure he was excellent at whatever field he pursued. He was only 47 with four boys. I guess when you enter your 50s, I’m 52 now, you start seeing people you know die. I want to use a euphemism there, but “passed” or “passed away” are SO much like what my parents, both 87 now, used. When I croak off, please use terms like “his boat slipped its mooring,” or “he sped off into the stars.” Something poetic. Heck, I’d even be happy with my dad’s old saying, “He croaked!” May not be respectful, but it’s kind of cute. I think I may actually write down some things for people to say about my death, so they don’t have to split their brains thinking of something nice to say and so I can die knowing nothing too ridiculous will be said. So with all that in mind, and I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, I’ll try to share some classroom stories. As always, and if you haven’t guessed yet, I’m trying to maintain privacy concerning the schools, districts and students. I think that’s ethical. I know I’d have raised hell if I found that one of my kids’ teachers was blogging about them.

Macbeth, the Scottish Play…what a joy it was over the last couple of weeks to entice students into a dark, dreary and damp castle to witness the downfall of a mighty Lord. On this reading, I noticed so much about how Shakespeare addressed the damnation of not following along with the “natural order” of things. Macbeth and Banquo are buddies who have been fighting in a war. This naturally makes them friends. Then they meet the witches who are performing unnatural rites and make an unnatural prophecy. When Macbeth balks before murdering Duncan, a natural reaction, his wife, dear Lady Macbeth, goads him on, unnaturally demeaning her husband. Murder is always the unnatural ending of a natural life. I wonder how many times literature or Shakespeare teachers/professors read papers along those lines? Oh, and don’t forget the old man’s scene in which an owl attacks a hawk!

The second literary work, Antigone, dealt with the after effects of Oedipus’ actions. The difference in the two works lies that in Antigone the question of human and divine law become at odds. This question is much more prominent than in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy in which most stage members have to die.

Can all literature be reduced to an argument of what is natural versus unnatural or what is lawful versus unlawful? It almost seems so, since any plot, by our current model (thank you, Greeks) requires a protagonist, antagonist, conflict and resolution. Now, I’m NOT a stage or theatrical major, so anyone reading this, fill me in as to whether or not all mankind’s infinite mental faculties can be reduced to such a simple formula. I’m also asking this here because when I tried to point out those schema to the students in the class I was substituting, about all I received were blank stares.

As for the students I’ve met and continue to work with, what a great group of young people. I can’t say that the future generations are safe and that there isn’t an issue with general mass complacency, but there are leaders among them! And they do learn when we give them reading and writing assignments, but it seems they don’t dare show that in front of peers. I can’t wait to see what my next lessons bring!

Life in the Jungle – Among the Sixth Graders

(…I want to write this post in the manner a military student of mine used in a short piece he wrote concerning his military training…it was long ago and far away…)

With the chiming of the bell, the smallish tribal members entered the clearing. Oddly, the females of this group were generally much larger than the males. After briefly pronouncing my customary introduction, communication was tentatively established. I began the ancient ritual of deciphering names from a list which elicited some degree of tittering among the more ebullient of the group. I made the unfortunate mistake of demonstrating my German skill when I commented about one member’s name being of Nordic origin. I used the correct pronunciation but this diminutive person was quick to laughingly “correct” me with the ill sounding English version. I offered a German verbal response which silenced the throng as they attempted to discern the intent of my words. I quickly regained control and continued the ritual to its conclusion.

The goal of this meeting was to introduce, discuss and clarify matters concerning number usage. Some quickly demonstrated a sound understanding of the concept. Others were tentative in their attempts, but repeated clarifications, varied according to how much comprehension they had shown to that point, enabled the small band to practice several pre-designed exercises. By the end of the hour, I felt comfortably assured that they could demonstrate ample mastery of the subject. A sounding chime prompted each of the group to put away what items they had removed from their respective kit bags and depart, leaving me alone in the clearing.

During the short time of isolation, I could hear the sounds – sometimes softly, sometimes roaring – amidst the mystery of this other world in which I found myself. My self indulgent congratulatory interlude was all too short.

After approximately five minutes, another small group of about the same number entered the clearing and after a few brief attempts to test the bounds set for these encounters, the bedlam subsided. The proper introductions and rituals were then observed. This process repeated a total of six times, each iteration proving successful. At the end of the day, I found my way through the labyrinth of hallways to the office, surrendered my pass and found my way to my conveyance home.

So, in short…Sixth Grade math…some apprehension but another great day! I’ve thought for some time that I had a calling to teach. So far, my experiences are only confirming my suspicions. I accepted a call to substitute tomorrow, but there was no subject or teacher mentioned in the posting. I guess maybe I get to venture deeper into the jungle…hopefully, nothing becomes anything like Conrad’s tale!



Junior High School English

Today I was lucky enough to substitute for Junior High English. The students were a bit more active than last week’s high school students, but were easy enough to handle. Again, I’m impressed by they positive behavior. I had one young lady that wanted to keep her hat on, two young gentlemen who decided that their sport drink bottle was a better projectile than drinking implement and another who had to be the focus of attention regardless of what was happening in the classroom. I firmly asked the young lady to remove her hat and put it away or it would become an issue that we would have to address more formally, she complied. I had the young men bring me the bottle and I kept it at my desk, funny that they forgot it when the dismissal bell rang. The young fellow who wanted attention responded to firm reminders about his behavior and his neighbors in the class were quick to remind him before I had to say much more.

Monday I have the privilege of substituting in a sixth grade math class. I developed my aversion to mathematics between the eighth and tenth grade so I’m  curious to see what and how they have students working on that now.


Euphoric First Day on the Job

Today I finished my VERY FIRST gig as a substitute teacher and I am rather stunned. Looking WAY back into the dusty and foggy memories of my own time in school, I remember the “open season” sensation that came with discovering an unfamiliar face sitting in the teacher’s chair. I remember how “all bets were off” and the substitute had no idea who I was. I had one or two surprises of “Oh, you’re Ricky…,” though in retrospect those may have been well-played bluffs.

A favorite game of mine, especially in high school, was to bait the sub to talk about whatever headline made it onto the evening news. Some of my classmates waited to see where I would lead the sub, those sitting closest to me had the added pleasure of reading notes I would make “predicting” where I could get the sub to go next. It’s gratifying at any age to be able to manipulate a discussion, but when your confused body is enduring the paroxysms of puberty, then any small success becomes a major triumph, especially when it’s admired by peers.

Based on this data, I entered today’s high school assignment with no small degree of trepidation. I have LONG wanted to teach. I’ve shared that desire so many times with anyone willing to listen or read. Finally, after all the applications, training programs, finger-printings and background checks, here I was…standing at the threshold. What tricks were they going to play? What sort of oddball discussions would I be baited with? How much profanity and what displays of improper behavior would I have to endure? What sort of dime-store-sci-fi-paperback mutant creatures would these high school students be? I remembered the first time I jumped off the high dive board at our local public swimming pool. The feeling today was remarkably similar!

A pleasant, smiling secretary welcomes me when I enter the administrative office. The office is clean and there is no trace of any otherworldly inhabitant. I introduce myself, state my business and she kindly hands me a clipboard with a sign in roster and I return it with my photo identification. She thanks me, checks it against a list on her computer, hands it back and thanks me again. About this time, a well-groomed young man in jeans and t-shirt enters the office and waits patiently. She issues me my “Substitute” badge, introduces the student and asks him to show me where “my room” is.

————————The Twilight Zone theme music begins——————

The young man cheerfully responds that he would be happy to do so, introduces himself and says, “This way, Sir,” as he holds the door open for me. In the hallway, I hear no shouting or ruckus as he leads me to a stairwell. Three soft spoken students ascend before us. Posters on the landings show scenes of foreign lands with dates and times for an upcoming social activity. My escort again welcomes me and indicates a classroom about midway down the second floor corridor. He tells me that the current class will soon be out and happily guides me to where my other two “periods” will be.

We return to the first room, which is a computer course in which students are gathering their belongings in anticipation of the bell signaling the end of the hour. The teacher introduces himself, welcomes me and we chat for a moment. When the bell chimes, the students rise, slide their chairs back into place and exit. There is a normal degree of chatter, but I hear no name calling, no profanity, no disrespectful or unkind comments.

Because the class I was to first meet being on lunch, I had at least 20 minutes to become organized. The 1950s, Ozzie and Harriet world regains color. I find the lesson and in the teacher’s version of the textbook and write my name and the assignment onto the dry erase board. The school bell again chimes. The learners enter singly, en pair or as trios. I hear one or two comments of, “We have a sub?” as I greet the eager pupils. The chime sounds to indicate the beginning of class. All but one or two have already seated themselves and when I begin to introduce myself, they sit. I voice my experience with the subject they are study, remind them that the assignment is on the board and that I will do my best to help them if need be. The students actually begin working on their task.

At one point, it becomes obvious that some are having small difficulties. I address and help as I am able, then a true miracle occurs. A female student explains a remedy to the issue and then proceeds, with little prompting on my part, to help her fellow students. This made the experience truly one of the easiest classes/lectures/presentations I have ever had to give. Not a single student, they were grades nine through twelve, made any disparaging comments to this young lady. In fact, once a few more grasped the concept, they busily helped their classmates. Frankly I had too little to do.

The second hour involved students reviewing terms introduced in a new chapter in their textbooks. The “busy work” left by the regular teacher required them to create sentences using each of these new vocabulary terms. This filled most of the time, but towards the end, each student had turned the assignment in, so there were a few extra moments. I used this time to review what the students actually comprehended about the new terms and their significance. We had a class discussion. In this period, there were several youth who were on the football team and with it being a Friday afternoon, they were excited about the impending game. It was during this hour when I heard the closest thing to profanity. One young man used the name of the Lord in vain. When he saw me look in his direction, his volume dropped and he gave me a rather sheepish look.

Midway through the last hour, I was making notes to the teacher to fill him in on how the day went. During this self-congratulatory meditation, the fire alarm went off. This was not a drill. With a sense of calm urgency that I have seen lacking in many adults in crises, these students rose, and walked towards the doors. I saw no running, heard no shouting or loud noises. The students filed down the stairs and out one of the building exits. With minimum guidance, these young adults went to the designated area. Some confusion occurred about what group or class was supposed to meet where, but this was swiftly sorted out.

This was not a drill. I heard from a teacher that there was a small trash can fire. When the “all clear” was given, all made their way back into the classroom. If there were any stragglers, I have no idea where they were. Between the “designated areas” and the school sits a parking lot which, of course, was filled with vehicles. I observed only one person open a vehicle and place something inside. Since the alarm conveniently occurred in the last few minutes of one class session, students returned to their classrooms, gathered their items and ventured on to their next class.

——————–The Dream, the Nightmare and the Reality——————-

So ended my first day as a substitute teacher. I am so happy that everything went as smoothly as it did. Now, being the worrier that I am (Thanks, mom!), I am left to contemplate whether or not this entire episode will ever happen again. It was an absolutely wonderful day!

Next week, I substitute for an Eighth Grade English class. I have already been in contact with the regular teacher and know what their assignment is. There is a huge difference in the developmental maturity between the students I had today and those I will meet next week. These students are in the same district, but at a different location.

Will the experience match the dreamlike quality of today’s?

Will unexpected creatures rise to exact revenge for enjoying my first day?

Is it unreasonable to expect a livable combination of both?

Guess time will tell. As Scarlett said, “Tomorrow, is another day!”

Sometimes, it just seems…

I tried to post this last night from my “Smart-phone.” It didn’t work so well, so either my phone is smarter than I am, or *shudder* I actually believe that’s true. What a messed up world! But that’s another post.

What I wanted to post last night was this:

Church meeting…I’m there early…a lady I knew was there…I tried to make small talk…she was concerned because she was not in “Church clothes” for the meeting and I was there with my tie and coat…I reassured her that since she had likely just come from work, there was no problem…she had just come from work, so I asked what she did…she is a teacher…I said, “That’s great! I’ll need to talk with you and ask for your help because I want to teach and my Masters degree will be done by June”…she looked me up and down, asked me what I wanted to teach…”English,” I reply, like a good, optimistic scholar…”Good luck with THAT!” she says with a, too me, disheartening voice…

Here’s where the title comes in. Why is it that I try so hard to build others up just to have myself trounced? Regardless if she has had a bad experience teaching or not, regardless if she knows that English positions are hard to acquire, why pour rain on someone’s parade? Or, have I just been “brain-washed” through instructor training and in the Church that I need to nurture those around me? I don’t think that last one is true, because that would mean at the bottom of  it all, I’m just a “bad person” and I really don’t think that’s the case…I don’t think that’s ANYBODY’s case. So, the lady at Church likely just had  a hard, busy day in front of students…holidays are coming…Church meeting was early in the evening…she probably hadn’t had time to eat dinner…so she was maybe just cranky. As for continuing to build up others, maybe, someday, someone other than my wife, kids and family will think that I’m worth building up…so all my efforts won’t be in vain.

It’s so easy to tear a building down…a sledge hammer, bulldozer, maybe a crane…all too easy to use. Creating or repairing a building requires so much more…plans…planks cut just right…nails, screws…plywood, sheetrock panels, all those have to be cut to just the right size…