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. 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 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.