Sweet Spot

spiral notebook and pencilIt’s the first week of my second semester creative writing class, and I’m getting to know my new students.

Half of them have no idea why they’re in this class. They needed an elective and my class needed students. There are twenty-four of them, slightly suspicious, worried about how much work it will be, hoping it will be fun and not too hard. A few did not know what ‘creative writing’ meant, thought it just meant longer essays.

The other half see themselves as poets or the author of the next vampire novel that will monopolize the NYT Bestseller List for weeks. They love to write, and show up on the first day with notebooks full of their writing to show me.

There is a place on the continuum between boredom (under-challenge) and frustration (overchallenge) where they will work their hearts out and actually learn something. I am aiming at that spot. More

More Radishes (i.e. Radical Ideas)

Education is not so much the planting of new information as the weeding out of old, deeply-rooted misinformation.

When I first heard this statement, I didn’t fully believe it. I was in college then, and determined to suck up as much information about everything as I could. I wanted to be smart, have informed opinions, express myself in a way that people would take me seriously. Education was all about information as far as I was concerned.

Having spent much of my adult life as a teacher, I now believe that misinformation is a much bigger problem than lack of information. Once we believe something, we tend to ignore information that contradicts our ‘facts.’ This is why schools will never be completely replaced by e-schools. A kid sitting in front of a computer can find lots of information, but he can’t be persuaded to believe something new if he’s already acquired wrong ideas.

My job is secure; I won’t be replaced by a software program anytime soon, if ever.
The other reason I don’t worry about my job is that I am cheaper than the alternatives. I am not complaining about how much I get paid; as many of my colleagues say, “If I wanted to be rich, I wouldn’t have become a teacher.”

But people seem to be looking at the alternatives a lot these days. Why must learning occur inside a school building? Why can’t children learn in different settings? More

Stickers and Grades

I’ve had a few garage sales in my time. When I move from one place to another, I’m always surprised by how much junk I’ve accumulated. Selling my junk to people who consider it treasure is a good solution for everyone.

It is harder to sell things I no longer need, but am still sentimentally attached to. I can’t keep everything; there isn’t room. Even in the house where I now live, which is huge, space is running out. I’ve lived here over ten years, longer than any other house, and the extra space has somehow become packed with both junk and treasure.

It’s not hard to put stickers on things I have no attachment to – books I didn’t care for, old VHS tapes I can’t play anymore, kitchen gadgets I can’t remember why I bought, clothes that I don’t like wearing.

But putting a value on the guitar I’ve had since seventh grade, or my son’s saxophone (no longer played), or anything I spent a lot of money on is more difficult. When a man picked up my guitar and offered me 50 cents for it, I knew I could never recover what it was worth to me. I kept it.

If I held garage sales more often, I might be able to figure out what I really value.

This is what I hate about grading papers, too, except I’m not trying to sell. I’m the picky buyer looking at a beat-up guitar that someone has loved, trying to decide what I ought to pay for it. More

Kamikaze Pedagogy

It’s grading time again, end of the semester, when I must put a number on everyone’s forehead. Numbers make me a little crazy, which means that this must be Random Radical Idea Day.

I’ve been teaching long enough to have a few radical ideas. I do not equate ‘radical’ with ‘crazy.’ The word comes from the Latin ‘radix,’ meaning ‘root.’ (Whence ‘radish.’)

Radical ideas are those which dig down to the roots of things. True radicals are not those ranting against things. They are not the idiots who plant bombs in shopping malls to make their point. Nor are they the people who lament the passing of ‘the way we’ve always done things.’

True radicals are those who look for the simple idea hidden by all the weedy consequences that flow from its root. When things go wrong, we don’t blithely sprinkle more seed, hoping that something new will grow. We don’t burn down the garden. We go back into the ground, looking for the source of the trouble. We get dirt under our fingernails.

We are seekers of the one true radish. More

Teaching Stories

Teaching is never boring. It may be stressful as well, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go for stress. Without stress we’d all be dead, right? — or at least really bored.

When I tell people that I teach Latin in a high school, they usually question my sanity. Why would anyone want to spend all day with teenagers? And try to make them learn Latin?

First of all, teenagers are some of my favorite people. They have many of the same concerns as adults, just less experience. They are people in transition, and change interests me.

And teaching is a job I will never completely master. I will never arrived at the point where I can say, “Now I can laminate my lesson plans.” There’s always something new to think about, so it never gets boring.

But kids get bored, and no matter how much fun I’m having with participles or subordinate clauses, nobody listens if I don’t make it interesting. Their eyes glaze over. Finding ways to keep them wide-eyed is my quest. More

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