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Once You’re Out Of The Business Of Daily Public Writing, It’s Hard To Remember How You Ever Did It. Or Why. Or Even If You Could Ever Do It Again Because Where Did That Time Come From And Where Does It Go Now?

March 11, 2012

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium. • Norbet Platt

I miss my daily writer self—the one who blogged every day for an academic year, putting the words out there, good and bad, and moving on without regret or revisiting to correct, expand, or edit. What I wrote that year is a treasure trove from which I can draw gems to polish and use in further iterations of thought. There are plenty of clunkers too, but I’ve always been a treasure hunter, a woman of the “sharp eye,” the eye that my Grandpa Wilkins used to tell me to use during our weekly visits to the dump and to the Shantytown that surrounded it where his best friend Whitey lived. I found lots of useful trashy treasures there.

I have other blogs now and usually write once a week on at least one of them. I post occasional pairs of breast quotations and related thoughts. I just began dog8, a place where I’ll post alternative “homework” assignments. I have a blog devoted to autobibliographical musings and another that focuses on the use of quotations as inspiration. Insights into the various Collectorys that define my professional and artistic life can be found in my blogs and my posts. But what I miss is the regularity and inevitability of that daily public commitment. It’s different if I don’t have to do it.

If I don’t have to do it, I usually don’t post because nothing feels significant enough. Why bother? But as I reread my work from those months of dailies, I realize that significance sometimes arises from the seemingly insignificant. Thought is complicated and thinking my way into meaning often takes time. There are seeds planted in one post that reappear as delicate and tender shoots in another, get nurtured to sturdiness in still another, and blossom months later online or elsewhere in my life. Meaning is hard to make and significance accrues. Some people blog to see how many followers they can acquire. Although I know that this would be satisfying, I can’t bring myself to care. I write because I want to remember what I’m thinking, and while I entertain the fantasy that some of my words might mean something to someone else, my first audience is me: are my words true and meaning•full?

I toyed with the idea of making a new year’s resolution to post every day for an entire year. I know myself well enough not to engage in this foolish failure set-up. I do write every day, but I don’t write finished pieces daily. And I want to write poetry. And make art. And do research. And plan classes that will be fun and entertaining and significant. I want to put together the perfect outfit with seven varieties of leopard print or one that mixes and matches eleven different patterns in a fiesta of subtle and harmonious clashery. I want to find a place for the latest mask I found at the Goodwill. I want to read. I want to stay connected to countless people and things and places. And I want to take a walk. I want to take a walk to the Goodwill and look for more masks and leopard print and plaids and books and all the other realia that enchants me and makes me smile. And I want to sit and do nothing. And think. I really like to think and record my thoughts. That’s why you’ll see some of them here.

What words are true and meaningful for you? What thoughts do you record?

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. • Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

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Save A Hard Copy Of Everything That Might Be Important To You. This Does Not Mean You Should Keep Everything, But Some Day You’ll Be Glad You Did Some Selective, Creative Savery.

March 10, 2012

And bring me a hard copy of the Internet so I can do some serious surfing • Scott Adams, Dilbert

During the latter part of the twentieth century (golly, that sounds self-important!), I taught in a high school dropout prevention program. I often recorded my students’ words so I would remember them. Years later, I’ve forgotten most of those words, but I can revisit them because I have that written record. Now that I teach teachers, I’m especially glad I saved so many things that help me be first person present in my high school teaching past. I’m also glad that I have hard copies of my related reflections. I am both amused and saddened when students tell me that they have electronic copies of materials and don’t need hard copies, dismissing my pleas to print and file. Today’s computer is tomorrow’s obsolete, toxic landfiller. And all those electronic files you saved on your Apple IIe? G-O-N-E!

I’m especially happy that I saved what follows here. When teachers are frustrated by their students’ behavior, it’s easy to forget that what we want them to do may matter very little in the bigger picture of their lives. Sometimes acknowledging those realities is a first step toward helping students engage in the kinds of empowering educational experiences that really do change lives, or at least change perceptions about possibilities. In the quotation/reflection that follows, students’ comments are in italics, interspersed with my own reflective thoughts:

Always the Same • Always Different

So I sit and listen and again I am overwhelmed by all I cannot do, a thousand problems that I cannot solve, the pain I can’t prevent, the angry lives unfolding opening sharing revealing more than I want to know because I’m only one and I’m carrying this invisible sack of worry and troubles of my own, the one that’s hidden from them behind my sunny smiles, the smiles they crave like candy or even some kind of drug, smiles withheld so often in so many places that when they get one, they cannot get enough.

And so I sit and listen and begin to understand that this always comes first. This dreadful torrent that pools in front around among us—each story adding to the waters that swirl with blended colors of our private agony. We stir the waters, salty with our tears, seeing each other with eyes washed clean. Every year the same. Every year different. Games and names and sharing our shallowest safest memories until we cross this bridge over our waters into another world. A place that’s real. Circled round, lounging on floor and couches, waiting for someone else to trust. Open. I’ve seen this many times, but I always wonder if. If the time will come when ones together become us, when we see the sameness underneath the difference, when what matters less is overwhelmed by what matters more. And so it begins.

My stepdad says I can’t go nowhere in the house. Just stay in the garage he says and if I want to be there I got to pay rent.

He stops.

There’s a freezer out there, but they got a big ole lock on it so I can’t get in. The only bathroom I got is in this trailer my grandma left in the yard, but it don’t work so I go in the yard at night if I have to and just cover it up.

He stops again. We wait. He doesn’t sa anything else. No one says anything. He’s hanging out there. Naked. Me? I want to jump in and say something. Offer something. But it’s not my tie. Another voice, so quiet we can hardly hear begins.

We sold our Levis yesterday. We were holding on to those, my mom and me. We like them a lot, but they wouldn’t give us anything for our Wranglers. My mom is gonna get a job pretty soon. Waitin’ for a call. I wrote a poem about being homeless. Wanna hear?

She pulls a piece of paper from her backpack—her new backpack—we can still do that much around here—supplies and backpacks and winter coats and PE clothes and bread and peanut butter and Ramen noodles and sometimes milk and even juice. She reads her words about doing homework by the glow of a cigarette lighter and dreaming of the better life she’ll have if she can only graduate.

And I wonder. What the hell am I doing? What am I promising? Acting as if this place we sit ifs the gateway to some promised land that offers all the things they’ve never had and maybe never will. We sit surrounded by pictures of their dreams and homes and happiness, cars and children, freedom to be to do to have to dream and have it all come true. I lose sight of why I’m here. What I can do. It gets lost in the sea of what I can’t. But still I, still we, listen.

I’m pregnant. Again. You’re gonna know soon enough so I might as well tell you. This time, it’s twins.

Period. We wait, but she just sits and glares. Folded arms and I know she’s just waiting for the word—any word—a wrong word—so she can up and bolt and leave this place and run to get the only piece of love that life has given her. Pick him up from daycare. Go to the park. Push him on the swing. Imagine that the life he’ll have is different form her own. Now this. And what’s it going to mean? We wait. Staring into space. Avoiding eye contact. Is it safe? Will it stay here? Will he be broken never to be fixed if we remove these masks, dismantle the facades, discover we are all in places we would never choose?

So I’m sleepy, you know. And you all poke me when I drift off and yell in my ear and I jump and you think it’s pretty funny, don’t you. Well, I’ll tell you this and you can see how funny you think it is. My dad left and he isn’t coming back and I’m working now ‘cause my mom’s two jobs just don’t cut it any more, not with five kids. I’m the oldest, man of the house now, my mom says. I work till four every morning and damn straight I’m tired. So leave me the hell alone, okay?

He slouches back and closes his eyes. We wait some more. And so it goes.

There are many spaces we inhabit that are filled with adolescent or adult angst and challenges, but often we don’t know our students or our friends or our colleagues or co-workers well enough to know what kinds of difficulties they may be grappling with. Sometimes we don’t even know these things about our families. As you go through your day, I hope you’ll take care of yourself, of course, but I also hope you’ll be charitable and kind, knowing that you don’t truly know what kind of burdens may be weighing down the others you encounter.

I also hope you’ll keep a hard copy of important information you may want to revisit some day!

What is it about today that you may want to remember tomorrow? How do you plan to do it?

I finished the paper, but the computer ate it. It’s gone. I have my notes, but nothing else. • Comments I’ve heard countless times during my teaching career, W-OZ

 

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Pondering Poetry’s Persistent Elusiveness

March 8, 2012

I love poetry, just not in the station. • Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector in Hugo (2011)

 

May Sarton, poet, memoirist, and novelist, wrote that “[w]hen one’s not writing poems—and I’m not at the moment—you wonder how you ever did it. It’s like another country you can’t reach.” I do not know where poetic inspiration comes from even though I can often identify the origin of my poems. What I don’t know is how to make inspiration arrive on my schedule. I want to reach poetic country when I’m ready to write. I don’t want to have to wait for it to ambush me and carry me off when I’m trying to do something else. I want to board its train of thought and get off at its destination when I have time to take the trip. I admire the discipline of those who approach versifying as daily vocation, but I am often distracted by necessity and duty and even by the bright shininess of other equally-tempting-yet-somehow-more-concrete creativity (yes, even this is that), but as much as I might want it, I do not always have the luxury of contemplative time for the mysterious miracles of poetic coalescence.

 

Some years ago, well-meaning colleagues told me that I should decide whether I wanted to move ahead in my career or wanted to continue being (or trying to be) a poet and an artist, spare time activities that were perceived to be taking time from other, more traditional, academic pursuits. Please note that I was not poeticizing and artmaking while I ought to have been doing my work. I was doing all my required work and then some. But no one can work all the time. Running, playing soccer, cooking, gardening, watching football or baseball, reading, walking the dog, taking a hike, going to the movie—these pursuits also take time, but bring less criticism. Perhaps it is the intellectual work involved in some pursuits that shifts perception that the brainpower they consume could be put to better—more useful—use. And then, of course, there is the product: visible, useless evidence of my timewastery.

 

Author Ken Kesey said that “[y]ou don’t lead by pointing and telling people someplace to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” I decided to ignore the well-meaning advice and to instead begin to integrate my passions, taking my inspiration from Mary Catherine Bateson (Composing a Life, 1989) who describes an integrated life as one in which “we are nurtured by our work and combine different kinds of tasks so they feed each other–mostly–instead of competing.” It was not—is not—an easy integration even though my artistic pursuits make a case for it, representing a synthesis of creative and scholarly activities that allows me to combine my vocation as a teacher educator with my creative obsessions, providing visible evidence of what can be accomplished using bits and pieces of time that are all that is sometimes available in a life bounded by personal and professional obligations. But still, why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier—and better—to either relax and do the mindless, or to care about something that matters more and do something that’s visibly—and usefully—productive? Less fecklessly frivolous?

 

Perhaps. But then there’s this: I use my creative work in my teaching and I think this matters increasingly in a world where data and accountability are watchwords at every level of education and where it is easy to lose sight of why schools matter—really—to the people who attend them. What does it mean to view my work as an educator as driven by more than pragmatic necessity, to see it is an integral part of my creative expressiveness? How does one kind of creativity feed another in a symbiotic dance of significance? The answers are complicated, but the questions are ones I must continue to ask.

 

And finally, here’s a poem. I know its origin. Although poetry often comes to me while I’m working on the pragmatic realities of my professional life, it’s everywhere and it doesn’t care if you’re looking for it. I found this one when I walked by a building in Chicago labeled “The Poetry Foundation.” I stopped, and as I sat inside surrounded by shelves full of other poets’ work, I wrote this poem:

 

The Foundation of Poetry

W-OZ, November 2011

 

It’s silly to be crying.

No one is dead.

I am not sad.

So I suppose that these are tears of joy,

 

but who cries over poetry

except the poets whose

rhyme or meter or

perfect word won’t come,

 

or those who find resonance and

sustenance and

comfort in the poet’s lines

that lead to consolation,

 

or those whose broken hearts

find edges matched

by jagged others’ penning,

inky residue that sticks the

heart in place

and holds it still to

contemplate a future

without pain.

           

Yes.

 

Who would cry in such a place

except the I of lonely

wandering in fields bereft

of poets and their words.

 

So when I find them here,

so unexpected and so welcoming,

the silly I doth drip.

 

Poetry inspires. Poetry connects. Poetry instructs. Poetry comforts. Poetry has many purposes. And poetry is elusive. I need it today and cannot find it anywhere.

 

Whether or not you’re a poet, where do you find the poetry in life?

 

Poetry is life distilled.• Gwendolyn Brooks

 

 

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Losing What Can’t Be Found

January 2, 2012

I have nobody in my life where I can say, “Remember when. . .” • Joan Rivers

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart so long. If we’re in each others’ dreams, we can play together all night. • Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

My youngest brother died in 1988 and I’ve only dreamed about him once. I still remember talking to him, walking as we did so many times, to Norm’s to share a hot fudge sundae. I didn’t record this dream and although it happened many years ago, I can still recall my disappointment when I awoke. Most dreams are forgotten unless they’re written down, but some dreams are remembered even though we long to forget them.

I had such a dream last night. I do not think I will forget this one either. My Aunt Mildred had died and I was packing up her house. I felt the pain of her death as I worked. My mother and my cousin Sugar—Sugar somehow mobile after many bedridden years—were taking boxes to their cars after I packed them. I never saw either of them, but I could hear their voices, laughing and arguing about what would fit where, reminiscing about my aunt—mom’s sister and Sugar’s mother—telling stories about her life. I shouted to them, but they didn’t answer.

The house was strange, circular with narrow corridors walled yet open at the top so I could hear the other two, yet never see them. The walls were always between us and their voices were always around the endless corner in the endless corridor. I walked toward the voices, hoping to catch the two, but their voices receded as I got closer. I wanted to see Sugar walking and laughing. I wanted to see my mother’s face. I wanted to touch her hand. Talk to them. Hug them. I remember being frustrated but hopeful, sure that I would eventually catch up with them. But I never did.

And I never will. They are all dead: my mother a year ago this month, Sugar in September, Aunt Mildred several years ago, and even in my dreams I cannot find them. Once we were The Four Musketeers and now I am the only one left to remember the fun we had in our matching black watch plaid jumpers and purple shoes. I am the only one who can picture the four of us in gingerbread man bathing suits with ruffled bottoms. The only one who knows about the gardenias we bought at Union Station. Holidays are fraught with memories of what once was and will never be again and it is easy to be sad. But this morning shortly after I awoke, while I was feeling sad and looking for work to distract me, I found this quotation from Patsy Cline in my mother’s handwriting: “You don’t get anywhere wallerin’ in misery.” And that’s the message I’ll remember when I think of this dream.

What have you lost? What have you found?

Pain comes like the weather, but joy is a choice. • Rodney Crowell

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Some Thoughts On Inspiration Accompanied By A Poem About The Same, Untitled Because I Suffer From Titular Disinspiration*

June 2, 2011

When I’m inspired, I get excited because I can’t wait to see what I’ll come up with next. • Dolly Parton

I often feel uninspired, empty, unable, unmotivated, even disinterested when it’s time to write whatever it is that I ought to write or have to write or even want to write. It doesn’t matter how urgent the task is, there are times when I need to put words together and I can’t prime the pump. Not only do the words refuse to flow, I can’t even squeeze out a sentence or two. I’m reminded of this as I listen to my students grapple with finishing final projects this quarter. They don’t have any words left—everything has been wrung out of them and flung onto a page somewhere. They are dry.

Because my own writing isn’t done at the end of a quarter, finding inspiration is a daily challenge; experience has taught me I need to jump on it when it arrives. This jumping can be jarring to someone who’s talking with me—and I’m often inspired by things that other people say. I try to capture them immediately because I know if I don’t, these ideaseeds will disappear. I am aware that this habit of writing things down while someone is talking could be considered distracting and rude, so I always try to explain. That’s why I was delighted recently when a friend pulled out her journal and began writing after I started jotting down what she was saying. “Take your time,” she told me as I started to apologize, “I want to write a poem ‘cause you inspired me too.” As she wrote, I began this as-yet-untitled poem (I am loathe to disturb another poet at work):

Working title:

Untitled Due to Avoidance of the Obviousness of the Repetitive Line and Subsequent Titular Disinspiration

W-OZ, May 2011

 

Inspiration is hard to find.

It’s sneaking away,

hiding out, hoping you’ll

quit looking, pretty sure you’ll

give up the search. It

might be stashed in

the garage, up in the

rafters with the unicycle that

broke Uncle Charlie’s arm. Or

maybe it’s under the

stairs in a blue cardboard hatbox

filled with family photos from

that long-ago outing to the

Grand Ole Opry where cousin Sugar

danced in the aisles while

Dolly Parton sang.

 

Inspiration is hard to find.

It’s eluding the search,

and it could be

lying low, disguised,

hunkered down

in the basement behind

those dusty boxes of old Mason jars

grandpa was going to use

to brew beer till

grandma found out and put

the kibosh on his plans. Perhaps it’s

at the pool hall where he

went for consolation and you

tap danced on the bar.

 

Inspiration is hard to find.

It’s camouflaged as banality,

dressed up as the prosaic,

costumed in the ordinary,

masquerading as the

dull. It’s pretending to be

boring, up in the attic tucked

away beneath the eaves in mama’s

maple dresser, under the mothballs

and ballet slippers and dried

carnations tied with

pink ribbon from the night she

met your dad.

 

Inspiration is hard to find.

So when you do,

you need to grab it,

pin it down,

tie it to the bedpost,

lock it in the closet,

handcuff it to the banister,

set it in the rocking chair and

tell it to stay there—or else.

 

Inspiration is hard to find.

You need to drag it from its

hiding place, sweet talk it out to

the back porch, charm it,

cajole it, coax it onto the swing or

sit with it on the steps or

lie beside it on the soft summer grass,

staring at the stars and the moon

together until it can’t

resist you.

 

Because.

 

I’m sure you can ferret out the meaning in this poem, although while I was writing it, I was not thinking of any particular point I wanted to make. It is only in retrospect, after finishing multiple iterations, that I see the relationship between the poem and much of my work as an artist and poet and teacher.

What is your advice for the uninspired?

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning. • Peter DeVries

* Come up with a good title—and not the obvious one that I am avoiding—and I will include your title with your name (title provided by. . . . .) whenever I use this poem.

 

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I Am Motherwise; I Cannot Be Otherwise

May 8, 2011

There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness. • Pearl S. Buck

It is Mother’s Day, my first Mother’s Day without a mother to call, to get a card for, to send something special that would tell her that I see her as a human being, know her as a person, hope to make her happy because I understand how impossible it is to feel that your work as a mother is ever enough. But she is gone and instead I celebrate the wisdom that permeates my being.

I was looking for examples of my educational philosophy to include with materials for Humanizing Instruction, a course I’ll be teaching this summer, and I came across a speech I gave several years ago for a local alternative school’s graduation. As I reread what I shared, I thought of the words of Pericles who wrote, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” My mother’s wisdom is woven into the fabric of my teaching life:

Congratulations. I am honored to be part of this celebration. I was also daunted when I tried to think of what to say to you. As most of you can imagine, no matter how many times you speak in front of an audience, it’s challenging. And on an important occasion like this it’s particularly challenging. What can I say that won’t sound like a bad Hallmark card or a particularly cheesy self-help book? What wisdom can I share that will be memorable in any way?

At first, I was going to speak about the importance of alternatives in education. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know from our own lives how important it is for schools to value each human being for whom she or he is. But I can’t bring myself to talk about systems today, regardless of how meaningful they are. Instead, I hope to talk with you about things that matter as you continue on into the rest of your life.

I decided to ask other people what they would say if they were speaking here today. I asked my relatives, my students, other teachers, my son, my husband, and even a couple of people in the checkout line at Target. Some of them told me not to worry, that no one ever remembers what a speaker says anyway. Others offered me the kind of heartfelt sentiments I believe in, things that have been said so many times before to so many people celebrating important milestones that they sound like clichés. But there is truth in clichés, and Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that what is not spoken from the heart will not reach the heart of the listener. These words are from my heart, and I hope they will reach yours.

I’d like to share a story about my mother. She’s 85, and still working as a musician. She’s also filled with wisdom that comes from closely observing the world and thinking about what she sees, hears, and experiences. And that’s my first piece of wisdom. The world is vastly interesting for anyone who really sees it. Don’t be bored. Be interested.

But back to what my mother told me: One of her friends called her in tears, distraught because someone had stolen her purse and was using her driver’s license and her credit cards and even her Social Security number. This friend kept crying to my mother that her identity had been stolen, and this is where my mother shared something with me that I cannot forget.

She said, “Even while I comforted her and told her she would get past this, I couldn’t help thinking that we get very upset about this kind of identity theft, and yet every day we allow other people to steal our personal identity when we compromise who we are or what we want to do or be because of someone else’s expectations or because we’re afraid that they won’t like us or we’re worried that what we want to do will seem silly or impossible to accomplish.” My mother was speaking from her heart. It isn’t easy to grow old in our society, particularly if you are still active and still talented, and still want to share your talents with the world.

There are times when it seems that you are always too something: too young or too old or too inexperienced or too unrealistic about your hopes and dreams for your life. And here’s my second piece of wisdom: Life actually is tough sometimes if you aren’t independently wealthy and you have to pay everyday bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision of who you are and what you can be.

I am a poet and an artist and I don’t make money doing those things, but I love them, and they allow me to love my life and stay interested in my own possibilities even though I also have to work for a living. It’s actually not true that any of us can be anything we want to be—the NBA is unlikely to have wanted me no matter how much I wanted it—but each of us can be far more than we imagine if we accept that some of the things we choose to do will feed our souls, but not our pocketbooks. Despite the fact that Mark Twain said that be yourself is the worst advice you can give some people, that’s my third piece of wisdom: Be yourself. Be your best self. Believe in—and live—your possibilities.

Here is my fourth piece of wisdom. It is more challenging to live in personal truth than you might think. No matter how old you are, there are likely to be well-meaning people who think that they know better than you do what you ought to be doing with your life. The late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau followed his dreams throughout his life, and often faced difficulties. He was asked why he persisted despite them, and he replied: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

Here’s what I believe to be the true alternative message needed in every student’s education and it’s my final piece of wisdom: You matter. What you do matters. How you live your life matters. Your small acts of kindness and goodness and truth and beauty and hopefulness can change the world. These are all clichés. But they are all true.

If we have lived ordinary lives, it’s difficult to imagine that our passing will matter to anyone except those who knew and loved us, but you do not have to have known my mother to know who she was. Her wisdom lives in me and her influence lives on in every classroom I create. I am motherwise and I cannot be otherwise.

What is your wisdom?

There is a wisdom of the head, and…a wisdom of the heart. • Charles Dickens

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Ten Reasons To Consider Writing A Teaching And Learning Blog (Reason Zero: You Can List The Main Points Of Your Presentation In An Easily Accessible Format That Also Illustrates Your Topic)

April 22, 2011

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether people do. • B.F. Skinner (1969), Contingencies of Reinforcement

I am presenting at an educational technology summit today and although I have a handout with examples, I also wanted to illustrate the use of a blog in some related way. As I was working on something else, it occurred to me that all I needed to do was write a post that listed the main points I’ll be covering. I’ll have something to show and I’ll also be creating an outline for the presentation (and yet another reason to “consider writing a teaching and learning blog”). Ain’t life grand?

Here are my ten reasons to consider writing a teaching and learning blog:

1. You Can Embed Class Assignments In Your Posts

2. You Can Address Concerns Without Singling Out Offenders

3. You Can Model Civility Through Your Digital Fingerprints

4. You Can Create Content Collaboratively

5. You Can Provide Easily Accessible Assessment Help And Hints

6. You Can Reference Research You’d Like Students To Think About

6. You Can Encourage Reflective Journaling And Metacognition

7. You Can Connect With Colleagues Who Face Mutual Challenges

8. You Can Provide Food For Thought About Important Issues In And Out Of The Classroom

9. You Can Learn To Write Brief—Or Relatively Brief—Pieces Quickly

10. You Can Learn About Yourself As A Writer, Teacher, Learner, And Otherwise Creative Person, Even If You Don’t Intend To!

I can think of other reasons, but I’m not planning to talk about them today, so, well, never mind! Here’s some home•work for you:

If you were beginning a blog—or starting a new one if you’re already a blogger—what would you write about first? What would you call your blog? Why? What advice would you give yourself—or any other blogger—related to carefully crafting a public persona?

This is perhaps the most beautiful time in human history; it is really pregnant with all kinds of creative possibilities made possible by science and technology which now constitute the slave of man—if man is not enslaved by it. [Women too.] • Jonas Salk

 

 

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It’s Mirthday Sillybration Day! Remember The Wisdom Of Beaver Cleaver’s Father, Ward, Who Said, “You’re Never Too Old To Do Goofy Stuff!”

April 16, 2011

Find something to laugh about. • Maya Angelou

I have long believed that this country needs a day to celebrate joy, silliness, delight, happiness, laughter, and other associated positivities. I am not a Pollyanna since I am prone to my own discouragements, but I do believe that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the negative. Thus I declare that April 16 (guess why!) is Mirthday Sillybration Day.

On with the dance, let joy be unconfined is my motto, whether there’s any dance to dance or any joy to be unconfined. • Mark Twain

Clearly, a Mirthday Sillybration requires no cards to purchase or gifts or decorations or special foods. There is no associated stress and zero expectations. You don’t have to invite company over unless it makes you happy and you don’t feel you need to clean up the house first and/or fix a fancy meal (unless, of course, these are things you enjoy). There’s nothing you have to do except take an hour or two or more to relax or have a good time or reconnect with someone or do something that brings you delight. In the spirit of non-stressful Sillybrating, you can even postpone it if it’s not convenient today and you truly must keep your nose firmly attached to a grindstone.

We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. • E.B. White

If you’re wondering about what you might do, here’s some advice from that master of silliness, Shel Silverstein:

Draw a crazy picture

Write a nutty poem

Sing a mumble-gumble song

Whistle through your comb.

Do a loony-goony dance ‘cross the kitchen floor

Put something silly in the world

That ain’t been there before.

Some time ago, I wrote the following from the Berkeley Health Letter in my journal: “One of the keys to reducing stress isn’t just removing negative experiences from your life, but adding positive ones.” I hope you’ll add something positive to your life today!

Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans; it is lovely to be silly at the right moment. • Horace

Have some fun today! Sillybrate a Mirthday.

Cultivate more joy by arranging your life so that more joy will be likely. * George Witkin

 

 

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I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.

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A Poem Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned.*

April 11, 2011


A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. • Robert Frost

I told someone I lost my mother, but I find her everywhere. She’s lurking at the grocery store and at the movie theatre. She’s hidden in the pages of the books I used to buy and send to her. I see her among the bargains that she loved, like necklaces and earrings discounted seventy-five percent from their lowest marked price. We say the one who’s gone is lost, but I am the lost one, adrift in a world where I founder in the shoals of sadness, snagged by jagged rocks of memory that hide beneath the normalcy of life-goes-on. I try to find the poetry in my remembrance.

I am never sure when a poem begins because the words I write are not usually meant to be poems. I seldom sit down and say “I will write poetry today.” More often, I say “I will write,” and sometimes what emerges is the seed of a poem. Very seldom, a poem springs into being, words rushing onto the page or screen as fast as I can write. Instead, fragments arrive unbidden to be captured, saved, revisited again and again until they spark some resonance within. In my life, poetry cannot be forced and almost never flows no matter how much I might wish that it would. Right now, I very, very badly wish it would.

How do poems grow? They grow out of your life. • Robert Penn Warren

It’s almost three months since my mother died and I have begun many poems since her death. Most have been abandoned and I do not think that I will ever finish them. Revisiting the words is painful, leading me to sorrow, immersing me in grief when I want to remember joy. My mother was asked to leave a grief group shortly after my youngest brother’s unexpected death because she was not sad enough. Her upbeat attitude brought the group down, she was told. She would not want me to wallow in sadness either. “Remember me,” she’d say, “but it would make me sad to see you sorrowful. Enjoy your life and focus on the fun we had together.” I want to. I really do. It is not easy.

A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings—about human feelings and frailties. • Anne Stevenson

I do not want to hide these words where I can find them and be tempted to wrestle them into poems. Instead, I’ll abandon them here and call them done.

February 12, 2011. I wanted to play with the meanings of the word rest, the euphemism for death, the remainder, the break or relaxation, but it won’t come together as I make notes on the back of an envelope while I’m in the car. It’s a perfect example of a notion that could become something but likely never will.

A final heartbeat, a last breath,

and all my life becomes the rest.

Eternal rest

is followed by this daily rest when

life shifts into

days without and every day

I find no rest from emptiness.

I am ambushed by little things , a song on the radio, a pair of ticket stubs in a winter jacket I pull out of the closet when the weather unexpectedly turns cold, daffodils in the snow. I am adjusting to the bigness of forever, but these small reminders pull me back into my grief. As I am looking for course materials, I find something written by the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who authored the novel Gigi on which one of my mother’s favorite movies was based. She wrote: “It’s so curious:  one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions known what it means to want to escape from these things. • T.S. Eliot

February 14, 2011. I get emails from Disneyland addressed to my mother—an annual passport holder—because she didn’t have a computer. Their offers often begin with her name and I cannot bear to cancel them. My jewelry boxes are filled with rhinestone-encrusted landmines of remembrance and letter bombs await in the bookshelves where I secreted mothermail to read again. In the Goodwill, I begin another poem about these unexpected reminders:

I am ambushed by your absence and

every time I forget that you

are gone, you find me.

You lie in wait in the thrift store

where the empty sleeves of sweaters

in your favorite pink grab me

as I troll the aisles.

In the front yard the violets breathe

your name and I know that lilacs will soon

scent the air with your memory.

There are reminders everywhere and I cannot escape them. I do not know if I want to.

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. • William Hazlitt

February 26, 2011. I love wordplay and make these notes while we’re on the way to the grocery store:

Rest in peace, we say,

but in their end, it is our own

peace we seek:

a piece of precious remembrance without tears,

a piece of happiness without regret,

a piece of delight in what once was and

never again will be.

Yes. Rest in peace while we pick up

the pieces and move on.

March 2, 2011: The poet Robert Frost said that poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. I am still looking for the words that will help me remember and forget.

Forgetfulness is easy

if the heart is hardened,

if every thought of you is

abandoned,

if the mind refuses to

stoke the fires of memory and

lets the embers grow cold

from neglect.

Forgetfulness is easy

if all reminders are ruthlessly

purged, brutally

neglected, systematically

destroyed, efficiently

deleted, rooted out, leaving

nothing, not even ghosts of memories

behind.

My Saturday begins and I do not think of loss, but then the phone rings early—my mother was the only one who called me early—but, of course, it is not her and all the work I do after this wrong number bears the imprint of distraction. I cannot find the words today.

What words do you seek? What words do you find?

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. • Charles Simic

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal. • From a headstone in Ireland

* Thanks to French poet Paul Valéry for the title quotation.