Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.

The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.

A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.

I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)

Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada, 
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos. 
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. 
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella. 
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla. 
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos. 
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca. 
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles. 
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. 
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos. 
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero. 
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, 
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, 
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”

I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.

For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.  

They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.  

They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.

They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.

And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.

Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.

Year 21

I’m from wide open spaces, endless horizons, and Oklahoma skies. I grew up dancing in studios on Main Street and dreaming of city lights and bigger audiences. A performing arts high school was beyond my wildest possibilities. There was no such thing in the rectangular strip of Oklahoma called The Panhandle, but never mind all that.

This coming fall I begin a new chapter, post grad school, and an exciting upcoming job. 1) I’ll be teaching seniors at a performing and visual arts high school downtown. 2) In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach whatever I want. Until now.

Back in May, I received an e-mail from my new department chair. He asked me for my book list. The PTO would be ordering the following week. I had no time to lose. I scrambled to put my list together. I chose some texts that have worked for me in the past and some I haven’t taught before but LOVE. In my experience, if I love it, the majority won’t hate it. I’m determined to make readers out of non-readers this year. Some of my choices are edgy. I’ll need to prepare for alternatives. We’ll see how it goes.

During July, I must go about deciding exactly how I will go about teaching my anchor texts, and so here I brainstorm. With my AP Literature and Composition classes, we’ll begin with a mix of short stories and poetry before they tackle Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel will pair well with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” probably William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ll have to think more on poetry, but Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” should work along with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Jane Eyre is gothic, while  contemporary and feminist. As for Jane herself, she was orphaned and outcast her whole young life. Despite it all, she makes her way in the world and finds love. Granted, the love she finds has major issues, and so Jane picks herself up and moves on. There are some big plot twists here that make this novel oh, so worthy of reading and, of course, a classic.

My English IV students will also begin with short stories and poetry that transition to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. I see opportunities for more Dunbar, more Angelou, some Langston Hughes, maybe “Theme for English B,” Alice Walker’s “The Flowers,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” That should work. I need a calendar.

Both classes will end the fall semester with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins with the story of Kya, a young girl whose mother walks out on the family, leaving the children to fend for themselves at home in the North Carolina marshes with an alcoholic father. Kya’s siblings flee, her father is mostly absent. He eventually never returns. Kya must learn to care for herself. With gorgeous prose, a dual timeline, and the suspense of a murder mystery, Kya’s story is one of resilience. The same could be said of the stories of Jane Eyre and Maya Angelou. I may have stumbled onto a theme for first semester. Resilience. I know I’ll need some beginning a brand-new job, and I know my seniors will, too, as they prepare for their lives post high school.      

After the winter break, both classes will read Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. In medieval Scotland, three witches appear to Macbeth and prophesy that he will be king, except there is already a king. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king, and this murder causes Macbeth some post-traumatic stress. The witches return with another prophecy—Macbeth has a friend named Banquo, and Banquo’s son will become king. To keep his title, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son, but the son escapes. At this point Macbeth goes mad. Macbeth returns to the witches one more time. Their third prophecy is more bad news for Macbeth. Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” works well here.

I’m thinking this semester will be loosely connected to avoiding traps. I have some related short stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates is dedicated to Bob Dylan and influenced by his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hopefully, I can squeeze them in along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

After Macbeth, my AP Lit students will read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Did I mention edgy? I’ll probably need a Plan B here. This seems like a good time for a movie—Oedipus the King. Maybe my Plan B is the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles. (That just sounds mean. This is supposed to be a brainstorm.) In the novel, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. (We should probably discuss the real Kafka). Anyway, our protagonist travels incognito. Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally. Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound. In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life. I’m thinking my English IV classes will read a book of choice during this time, which gives me the opportunity to recommend a plethora.

Both of my classes will end the year with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2018, it’s the story of a failed failing novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging, loneliness, creativity, grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy.  

These are the books I’ve chosen to reread with students, and they have been ordered. Of course, I’m nervous about how the ones I haven’t taught before will resonate. Now what’s left is my mission to make Year 21 the best one ever—for me and my fellow creatives. I’m guided by this thought: The kids won’t care what I know until they know I care, and I do. That usually takes care of the rest. 

Feeling Good

“Today, I want you to compare the tone of Nina Simone’s 1965 song ‘Feeling Good’ and Michael Bublé’s 2010 version,” I say. I stand at the front of my classroom, in between the projector screen with frozen images of the two artists and my computer where I have sound files cued up and ready.

(I’m thinking of my fellow educators here as the school year begins once more. I’ve used this lesson in my high school English classrooms, and I must credit Ms. Sandra Effinger for the original plan. I start with a National Public Radio segment called “Vocal Impressions: Hearing Voices” from All Things Considered. First, we discuss tone, and Ms. Effie has some nice handouts with lists of tone words. We also discuss NPR—like “Who can tell me what NPR stands for?”)

“NPR invited listeners to take part in an originality experiment to describe how different voices sound. I’m inviting you to take part in that experiment. I’ll play a clip, and you write down whatever words or phrases come to mind, and then we’ll compare yours to the NPR Responses. This first voice belongs to Morgan Freeman. Talk to people near you about who Morgan Freeman is and then raise your hand if you can tell me something about him.”

Class continues in the way. In addition to Freeman, students listen to the voices of Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, and Patsy Cline. With each new voice, we compare student descriptions to the NPR audience responses. The class works to top their previous originality with each round.

“Great, you guys!” I say, “Now, we’re ready for Nina Simone. Do you know her? She’s a black American woman who first recorded this song in 1965. Think about her style, her tempo, and what she repeats. List words and phrases that convey her attitude. Here’s a copy you can write on. Michael Bublé’s version is on the other side.” And I press play.

Feeling Good

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me yeah

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
Ouh
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean
And this old world, is a new world
And a bold world for me

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me

And I’m feeling good

It’s fun to watch their little faces light up when the horns start. Afterward, we share some words. “The blues…strength…painful…broken…sadness,” they say.

“Okay, same thing for Michael Bublé. What do you know about him?” I say, and then we discuss some obvious and not so obvious differences. “He’s Canadian, and this is 2010.”

“Let’s hear some of your words,” I say.

They say, “Positive…inspired…optimistic…upbeat…smooth like silk.”

“Okay, now I want you to take your lists and combine your words into an adjective-noun phrase. You might have to play with the parts of speech to make it work. For example, optimistic and upbeat are both adjectives. How do we make optimistic a noun?”

They raise their hands. “Optimist…optimism,” they say.

“Perfect, now add upbeat to that. Upbeat optimism. That sounds sophisticated, right? Now do the same thing for Nina Simone. Do you need to hear it again?” I say.

It’s always a unanimous “YES!” They don’t even realize they’re learning. Ha! And the beauty is, this game could go on and on. Every Monday could be “Remake Monday,” and we can always start with music, and we can always think about “Feeling Good” no matter our circumstances. There is so much power in choosing our attitudes. What I’ve always loved about teaching English is the inherent opportunity to teach psychology. And they don’t even realize. Ha! (I take that back. Some do catch on when they start to know me.)

Eventually, we make it to something like the example below (which may have been written by a teacher), but then the next time around, maybe they work with a partner, and then the next time they’re on their own. After twenty years in the classroom, I’ve discovered kids need this sort of gradual release when trying something new or even when revisiting skills after a long summer. Oh, and I might have a great handout for Verbs to Use When Writing about Literature.

“Feeling Good” with Simone and Bublé

With virtually identical lyrics, Michael Bublé’s performance of “Feeling Good” conjures inspired positivity while Nina Simone’s rendition portrays bluesy strength. Elements of nature relate to each artist. Bublé sings of birds, the sun, fish, and the river knowing “how [he] feel[s]” as well as the dragonfly and butterflies knowing “what [he] mean[s].” The natural world not only influences his mood but identifies with Bublé’s upbeat optimism of each new day.

The racial injustice that ignited the civil rights movement in the U.S. underscores Simone’s broken tone. Her tangible sadness stands in stark contrast to Bublé’s zeal. Her heart-rending tenor conveys that nature knows and empathizes with her woes. When Simone sings, “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life/For me/And I’m feeling good,” her tone reveals both her suppressed pain and her resolute strength. Not only does her “new life” imply that she will overcome the past, but she “feel[s] good” and determined for a better tomorrow.

Ode to Gatsby

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.

sand
Sands to Remember

Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.

That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.

crystal-beach
Destin, FL, USA

Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try. I’ve used this one before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”

The Great Gatsby

The First Time I Fell in Love

The first time I fell in love, I was five—and I fell in love with a monster. The Monster at the End of This Book starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover. The illustrated Grover would read the title page, and when I turned the page, he would freak out in all caps:

“WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the first page what did that say? Did that say there will be a Monster at the end of this book??? IT DID? Oh, I am so scared of Monsters!!!”

Overcome with fear, Grover would muster the strength to politely ask me not to turn the page, which of course, I did. I knew Grover’s words by heart, and in my five-year-old mind, my impersonation of his Sesame Street voice was spot-on. I flipped pages as he tied them together with rope, nailed one page to the next, built a brick wall, and BEGGED me to stop turning pages. In the end Grover finds himself at the end of the book. He. Is. The Monster. And this Little Golden Book taught me some important life lessons.

Lessons from Grover: Labels lead to misunderstandings, and even monsters can be furry and lovable. Fear can be crippling, and more often than not, outcomes don’t turn out as bad as the build-up in your head.

Photo courtesy of listal.com, The Monster at the End of This Book was written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin.

I suppose my love of a good story started here with Grover, and I suppose that same love compelled me back to school to become an English teacher. I suppose this love is why I’ve spent the last twenty years in the classroom, and I suppose it compels me now to write stories of my own. And most of all, I suppose I owe the lovable, furry old Grover a huge debt of gratitude for forever changing my life.

Where I’m From

For so many years, my students have studied and discussed George Ella Lyons poem, “Where I’m From” and then written their own.

So many years later, I wrote mine.

Where I’m From

I am from wide open spaces,
from endless horizons and Oklahoma skies.
I am from dancing lessons on Main Street.
(Pirouettes and plies
and a shuffle ball change,
it felt like Broadway.)
I am from faith and gratitude, peace and hope.

I’m from banana bread and books,
from Sharon and David.
I’m from “Treat people how you want to be treated”
and “Participate.”
I’m from “I can do all things
through Christ who strengthens me” and
“When you know better,
you do better.”

I’m from Ada and George, Catherine and Ed,
many more books and second-hand shopping.
From lifelong friendships
and hometown happenings,
hard work and hellos.
From mistakes and heartaches
and forgiveness.

Turned pages of my history
bookmarked to guide me
through the next chapters of
my unwritten future.

Jay Z and a Little Psychology

Today started with Jay Z.

I wrote his words on the white board stuck to my classroom door. I typed them into my power point agenda right above today’s plan—Timed Write (2 x Minor) and projected it on to my screen. From there I said, “Did you guys know that after today I will only see all of you together three more times before your AP Literature test? That’s including today. And that’s why I want you to remember what Jay Z said, ‘The genius thing we did was, we didn’t give up.’” I pointed to the quote on the screen. “Some of you guys might know that I’ve been boxing and kickboxing since January.” I noted a couple of raised eyebrows. “When I started, I committed to going three times a week for three months, and I did it until about Spring Break, and then I went out of town, and after that I had some company, but I’m still there twice a week at least. And you know what? I can punch a lot harder than I could in January. And what difference does that make?  Well, none, except that I’m sticking with it and hopefully I can defend myself if I ever need to. But my point is—if you spend two to three hours a week practicing anything, you’ll see results, and that’s what we’re still doing today. We’re practicing, and we’re improving, and we’re not giving up.” I forged on. Certain times of the year call for psychology. “I know that the last thing you want to do is write back-to-back essays.”

I know this because yesterday juniors all took the SAT, a four-and-a-half hour timed test, and I proctored. At the end of the exam, I said, “You guys are welcome to move around and talk to each other until they release us.” As if I had spoken Greek, blank stares and a few blinks met my gaze. On top of yesterday, today and tomorrow my AP Lit juniors are all taking their U. S. History final exam.

Also, I know that after today we only have two more days, and so I passed out a packet of three essays prompts—a poetry analysis, a prose analysis, and a theme prompt based on a major literary work from this year—as I continued my pep talk. “And I only share my boxing because first of all, do I look like a boxer?”

I actually heard a “yes” or two, which is hilarious.

“Most days I don’t want to go, and often I think to myself, ‘I want to quit.’ You know how you hear your own voice in your head?”

I saw nods and their eyes. They were with me.

“Well, you can’t believe everything you think. And sometimes, you have to get back into your head and tell yourself the opposite. ‘I can do this…I can do anything for an hour…’ Guys, boxing is hard and kickboxing—” I just stood there shaking my head back and forth. “But I can do anything for an hour, and I’m getting better.”

AFTERWORD

Next class period students will self-score using rubrics and sample essays and spend time comparing these essays to past teacher-scored essays in their writing portfolios. After that, all that’s left is extra psychology, some last-minute tips, a healthy dose of prayer, and maybe some Shane Koyczan.

“We grew up cheering on the underdog because we see ourselves in them”

That’s My Middle West

“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.

In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.

The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:

Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.

That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…  

(You understand where this is going.)

As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.

That Time When I Fell on My Face

Fridays at school usually go something like this.

“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.

A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s Fun Fact Friday!”

Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”

Last Friday’s Fun Fact:  

“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun assemblies back in middle school?”

A sea of heads bobbed up and down.

“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.

“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”

Their faces conveyed expectation.

“I landed on my face.”

“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.

“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head up and down to verify the truth. “But do you know what I did?”

“You quit your job?” One boy jested.

“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said pointing first at myself and then upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”

Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.

“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”

And the next time. You will land that shit.

Making Macbeth Memorable

In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.

My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.

I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.

After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.

If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.

I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:

  • Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
  • Conformity by Solomon Asch
  • Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
  • Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
  • Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
  • False memories by Elizabeth Loftus

Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.

And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.

Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.

Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.

P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.

P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?

P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.

P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!