Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On being real

A friend is at home, recovering from knee surgery. The culprit--competitive yoga, I needed to do the full expression of the pose, he said.  And I said--if it caused you pain, then you weren't doing yoga. He is now persuading me, in my pursuit of a studio to study at, be careful!

Careful I was, last night at a studio on my list of places to take my teacher training. Because I was there, not just to practice, but to check them out, I was competitive in a completely different way. It began with the teacher not asking if anyone had injuries. I could have tried to get her attention and mentioned my right shoulder cuff issue, which eliminates "the full expression" of numerous poses. Instead, I noted her lapse on my imaginary list of "how I would teach differently." 

It's not a bad idea to note what is missing from my particular brand of a good class; my English teacher-self was formed by doing the opposite of my grad school teachers. Two, in particular, spent half of each class talking about themselves and their books. That set me up to almost never say anything personal, including my own writing. A student once told me "You have no ego," and that was my greatest teacher compliment. Slowly, I loosened the reins; at my community college classes, it's to my students' benefit to know I was a community college grad. Ditto on being the daughter of immigrants--so many of them are first generation. We have much in common, likely why I am a different teacher there than at my other schools where I'm more buttoned up and formal.

But I digress. As class went on, I began to crave the teacher's attention when my lower back issues (let's call them being-a-yogi-of-a-certain age) made any sort of expression a bad idea. I heeded the call of the present moment and got her attention, pointed at my back. She nodded, continued with her script (did I mention she is also a yogi-of-a-certain age?) My yoga-teacher-self crystallized as I pictured myself walking over to a yogi in need with props, suggestions, kindness, as most teachers do. The point isn't to cuddle, but to make a practice accessible to everyone. The alternative, sitting it out, shouldn't be the only solution.

It's good for me to remember that, when I'm in English teacher mode. Students who leave the textbook home, the assignment in the wrong notebook, a writing implement in the other backpack, and on and on, may be conveying something other than disinterest. How good am I at accommodating them? Two weeks ago when one-third of a class was unprepared, I told them the view from where I sat was dismal. I was relieved when at the next class, the view improved.  

Unlike many of my students, I have the luxury of crossing that studio-school off my list.  (Photo: view from the studio I won't be seeing) There are tons of others that I can choose from. And then there's the ultimate question I must get very honest about: am I up to the physical demands of this discipline? Did someone once say I had no ego? Not so. I understand why my friend (70+) pushed himself to the point of needing knee surgery. I hope I heed his message to be careful, and my own, to go forward--in yoga-speak, mindfully.    

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On living simply

Timing is everything; this morning the chaos of student papers to grade makes me want to hide. And so I grab my yoga mat, go out into my building's courtyard and take cover. (Photo: view from the mat)

As the choreographer of my life, I own the fact that I messed up big time--note to self: never again have papers from four classes due at once. The good news is that this work sent me to the mat and (capital And) drew me from a chaos far worse, the election nightmare. I will say no more, dear Reader; from hereon consider this blog your safe space.

Deep sigh. I have once again (this is a biyearly event) begun seeking out a teacher training program for yoga. Each time I enter this phase, I'm called by a different yearning: learn the poses perfectly, an income source, philosophy immersion, injury management. Today, it is an amalgam of all the above, plus my yearning for knowledge. I want to throw myself into a fresh subject, one I'm already intrigued by, removed from my English teacher self, my New York City self, all the selves and personas I've inhabited in life and on the page. And this calling feels the realest.  The one, hopefully (it is dangerous to post this, I know), I will heed.

Once upon a time, the thought of teaching on a college campus sent shivers through me. I still recall the first morning I walked across a leafy campus--it was all I'd imagined--sprawling lawns, benches filled with students clustered in conversation (pre-texting mania), and me, holding my books, a hazelnut coffee, inspiration! I was incredibly happy. My first weeks unfolded in a breathtaking dream-come-true way. And then. So many (many!) and thens. There were all the Academic writing rules I hadn't learned in grad school, rules that are anathema to creative writing innocents. There was the grading itself; how in the world (in my world) did one figure that out? Ah...did the paper have a workable thesis? (Thesis?) That first college, first class, they go down in my book as one of my most grueling lessons in learning on the fly. (Not Always Good.)

Today. I still carry into school (not aforementioned school) my coffee, my books, my inspiration (note: no exclamation point). I know the rules. I understand, give or take, my students. My job has a reality to it that could never match the dream of a person who never thought she'd go to college, much less teach at one (actually three). I like it (minus the papers). Especially those magic moments when we're learning from each other, when I'm not always the expert. Students delight me when they have insight into a piece of writing I hadn't seen.

And then there is my need to learn more. The long arm of Yoga reaches out to me. My mat is one of the places I go to settle. To stop the whirl of papers, of must do's, of self-recrimination (my greatest flaw). I almost write it is a place of healing, but truly, it is a place of living.

Ah....so much to say this gorgeous Sunday morning. Thoughts of Prague, of returning to a place that felt simple and easy. (Photo: Bridge Band on the Charles Bridge.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On being a teacher nerd

This semester, I won the English class lottery--four good classes! And yesterday, while teaching a lesson on conjunctions (those pesky ands, buts, yets), I had a sacred moment. In fact, several, as I heard:  I get it. Ah...I see. And in my students' seeing, I saw, too. I'm a different teacher this semester, and it is paying off. More patient, moving slowly through lessons, repeating, repeating, repeating. It's not always the demon texting that has students' attention; sometimes, they simply need to hear a concept twice, three times, and more to grasp it. When I took classes last summer, I churned new ideas around and asked often, "Can you repeat that?"

Yesterday, I was all set to leave home early for a Professional Development workshop, when I opened my email.  It's been cancelled. The day before, at the same workshop, only one person showed. But I'll show, I wrote. Cancelled came back, with the handout emailed to me. In a sea of nerdy English teachers, I hold the title. I Love professional development!

When I first began teaching, each time I wrote my day's agenda, I learned. In fact, writing an agenda was similar to writing an essay. I began by thinking on the page about how to discuss a book; Frankenstein was my text du jour in those days. I didn't know where I'd take it, until my fingers were on the keyboard. Is knowledge dangerous, was a question I loved exploring. As I wrote, ideas and beliefs exploded on the page. I discovered what I didn't know I knew, deep in a place I'd never explored. Today, my agendas are set, except for the few stray readings I may select, that are fresh. But, usually I go with what I've done. It's easier. I choose easier, often. Learning-by-agenda has lost its glow.

Yes, I love to learn. But i-confess. I printed out the handout that was emailed and put it somewhere without looking at it. Maybe what I really like is the feel of the classroom, with me as student, watching someone else do the work. I love the way I can regress to fifth grade or not "get it" and then get it! I love to pick up a trick or two, to talk English teaching talk, to engage face-to-face, rather than technologically. Is learning fun because I'm long past my school days when it was required? Now, it's a choice. Or, do I just feel young and alive, still taking on the world?

One of my classes is situated right beside the glass doors opening to campus. I love to arrive early and go outside, sit on the steps, gaze. It's not the Ivy campus where I had many years ago hoped I'd teach. But that's not important anymore. What is important is the world that looms up at me, what I can reach for. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On finding shacks

In my teaching life, synchronicity happens when all my classes simultaneously read the same essay. Last week, it was "Shacks" by Edward P. Jones. I love to give this essay to students on the first day of class, since it's about Jones' experience as a lonely college freshman.  And it provides good food for thought: how do we create places of comfort for stressful times?

Jones found his comfort by writing volumes of letters to a girl back home. The letters, he knew, were hardly read, yet he held out hope she would respond. It was only when he was ready to let go and move on, did he see that the activity had been his shack. He encourages students to find their shack, for his led him to realize his writing talent (and got him through freshman year). 

This essay brings interesting responses from students, especially when they ask, "Can a shack be negative?"  This takes us from the standard comfort zones like music and friends, to discussion of taking risks and being uncomfortable in order to grow. The word "shackles" came up, with references to slavery and also feeling tied inside a shack This is when I get reflective and wonder about my own shacks--my tendency to self-analyze (huge time waster) and to live in a risk averse universe.

When in Prague this summer, I found, of all things, one of my very favorite city shacks, a Starbucks (actually dozens). And, in the spirit of truthfulness--I caught my breath in one or two (possibly three), found a sense of home as I checked my email, caught up on the news. I don't call it a "bad" shack, just a nod to how welcome it was to capture a sense of home. (FYI, The SB at left was about 100 yards from the castle..Prague Castle!).

My teacher shack is essay writing and reading. It's my comfort zone. I have one developmental class that starts this week, and I am shack-less. I need to prep...in a hurry, but am having trouble settling into it. It's a new class, new book, new everything. I'm having a sick day--a real one--and I'm tempted toward my at-home shack, my art-table. 


Thursday, August 25, 2016

On returning to the page and the classroom

From the photos on the right, it may seem this blog will be all about Prague...if only. For Prague is the most huggable, sweet, stunning place I've been, startling in its accessibility, its ease, its warmth. But alas, I am back on New York soil, the soil where I'm rooted, the place that I call home. My eight days of wandering in Prague and a bit of the Czech Republic, into a past that belonged to my parents, is now a piece of my present. It informs all I am since returning on July 23rd.
(Left photo, Cesky Krumlov, Right, on the way to Prague Castle)

This morning I'm awake since 3:20 (not waking from dreams of Prague, or surely I'd still be asleep). I hate it when I can't sleep. So much to do today: normal daily putterings, prep for a class that starts next week, then over to the west side to a class that's started, cram into the new working space 70 English adjuncts have been allotted.

Nice work space for adjuncts is rarely a given--but we were spoiled for two years with two large offices with floor to ceiling window views, reclining chairs! (for serious Kafkaesque brooding)  and--in my book, best of all, our own copier  (Photos of the defunct space to come). We convened last Thursday and got out of our systems the necessary grumbling and kvetching. Then realized--it must have been me (always on the lookout for a silver lining) who pointed out another reality--we were friends who actually had the same schedule.

I went to my first class with big plans--not my agenda--but for myself. After starting the summer with a professional development workshop, then my workshop in Prague, then a fiction class back in New York, I had learned some new tricks, plus a few things to never (ever!) do again--like asking students to go around the room and introduce themselves (no one listens after the first three, and as a participant, it's mortifying). But I was determined to be a better listener, to not get ruffled (aka annoyed) when students ask me to repeat things. Students learn by repetition. That's what I was taught. And I learned, too, that I can be quite mischievous when sitting next to a friend in the classroom--third-grade behavior is always waiting in my wings.    

The last post I wrote back in May, I said I was off the blogosphere due to a series of mean-spirited notes I had received. I said, too, that I had run out of steam, and the blog distracted me from more serious writing (which I still didn't do). In the time since then I've missed this forum, this place where I check in with myself and the world, and flatter myself that readers stop by. And, too, I want to keep Prague alive as a place and a mindset, a reassurance that stories can be relearned and rewritten. And, too, revisited.