"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Friday, February 29, 2008

Internet Puberty

Humorous Pictures

My sentiments exactly.

Listen everyone. All five of you. Two days ago I used blog as a verb. I have been known to show Youtube videos in my classroom. I edited something on Wikipedia last week. Things are happening that I don't entirely understand...like when changing in gym class suddenly became a thing of horror.

But just like when these two perfectly shaped behemoth enchantresses began to grow on my chest in fifth grade, I am coming to accept the fact that the internet can be useful. Given my age, I SHOULD be one of the kids who grew up right alongside the internet. But I didn't even have cable television until age 9 or 10. A computer?! A computer is on the list of things we requested as children, sure. And it met my mother's only response to inquiries about material possessions. She would throw her head back and bellow, "You can't always get what you want...but if you try sometimes..." and raise her eyebrows. We would stare back, forced to glumly admit that we had what we needed.

When I was a teenager I could walk a mile and a half to my best friend's house, and she had the internet. But she also had a pool. So I squandered my only pre-adulthood chance to get acquainted with this...this "internet" for the sweet cool chlorine bath out back. We spent entire summers on floats shaped like alligators, eating sandwiches made from white bread and mustard. At night, the neighborhood convened in giant games of capture the flag. I never had to go home and I never had to go on the internet. It was perfect.

Thus, I went to college having used email once or twice and able to type. I sailed through college as a writing major, researching the depths of my own imagination. Sinking into the glorious world of fiction. All my papers were composed on collections of loose leaf paper, napkins, in the margins of other books. I would gather them up, spread them out on a table at the library, and type them in one shot. My thesis was written almost entirely at a dusty old man's bar three doors down from the library. I took to drinking red wine and letting the neighborhood regulars listen to late-night paragraphs of my work. This sort of madness suited my college identity rather well. There were people around who thought I was a crazy Luddite. There were the "media studies" kids, who to me were just as crazy as the theater arts kids. Their art wasn't my art and I wasn't interested in being anything other than a writer. I couldn't understand what the hell was so interesting about the computer. I could spend six weeks in a tent with nothing but a copy of Babylon, Revisited and not get bored. There were whole worlds in single sentences, what the hell did you need a computer for?!

Then I went to grad school. Oh fuck. These people get their research on. Here, a computer becomes a necessary tool. Syllabus: online. Class discussions: online. Test results: online. Okay, okay. I give. I purchased a computer. An adorable little laptop. It plays music; it plays movies; I can send email from the toilet. These are useful, enjoyable things.

HOWEVER I still did not really grasp the extent to which people engaged with this "internet." I thought I did. But I did not.

There is a bunch of knowledge out there that seems ubiquitous. I take great pleasure in being ignorant of most of it. People magazine is a collection of beautiful strangers; I know nothing about Hollywood and all that noise. But this is the conscious, deliberate result of watching almost zero movies and refusing to own a television. Recently, I have been blindsided by a whole other world of things to which I have been blind. Perhaps you are familiar with the website whose charming assault on grammar involves photographed cats. Until recently, I knew only the "Hang in there Baby" cat. Apparently, cats and captions have been married for some time on the internet and I had no idea. These cats are everywhere. Literally everyone knew about this except me. As it is with any new knowledge, I am starting to notice references to these grammatically horrifying pictures all over creation. I feel I have joined some other realm. I have moved to the lunch table where the girls talk about periods and boys and shaving their legs instead of...of...whatever we talked about before that. I have got internet pubes. And with them comes all the uncertainty and weirdness of that first real bout with adulthood in grade school. The internet awkward phase. iAcne.

Thanks to my workplace, my status as computer pubescent is paradoxical. No matter how tech-inept I may be, simply by virtue of my twentysomethingness and my coworkers' babyboomerness, I am The Resident Computer Genius. Countless are the times I have heard: "Kelly, you're good at computers..." followed by a request to, say, explain why the machine was suddenly "typing in only capital letters." My love for learning is second only to my love for knowing things my coworkers don't, so this works out for all of us.

This is a recurring theme with me, this being dragged into my generation. At a sleepover in grade school I remember sleeping on some girl's New Kids on the Block sheets wondering, self-consciously, "Who the hell are these guys?" When my girlfriends were making mixed cds I was still pushing the speakers of my turntable up to a taperecorder, recording all my Beatles albums onto cassettes. At a birthday party when everyone went to see Ace Ventura Pet Detective, I left them and watched Mrs. Doubtfire by myself. I identified with middle aged divorcees, it seems. I watched The Breakfast Club for the first time three years ago, yet I owned a copy of Gone with the Wind by eighth grade. I denied being a member of my own generation.

This has made for a great time in adulthood! Two years ago I started listening to Radiohead and Pearl Jam. They are GREAT! While everyone else who grew up in the eighties actually GREW UP IN THE EIGHTIES, I created a little world for myself and grew up in the sixties and seventies. Looking back, this was a smart decision on my part. So, now I'm using blog as a verb. One thing is for sure, though, I will retain my grammatical prowess, and resist the temptation to find subject verb disagreements cute.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Ok, I was blogging about teaching Hamlet. But I'll do that later because I cannot possibly allow this moment to pass without sharing it. It'd be like Horatio choosing to die at the end instead of promising to tell Hamlet's story. It is that serious.

I am at my desk. It is...let's see...4:30. School has been over for a long while now. The halls are silent. There are open rooms and offices in abundance. If you wanted to, I don't know, have a remarkarbly personal conversation or marital spat, there are ample spaces in the building.

I am sitting approximately four feet and seven inches from the desk at which my boss is sitting.

She is in here. Now.

You are thinking: "Kelly, shouldn't you stop typing and talk to your boss? I mean she's looking right at you?!"

No she isn't!! She is ON her CELL PHONE arguing IN SPANISH with her husband. I can hear him yelling from here. He is very very pissed off. So is she. She keeps trying to cut him off....

"Entonces...entonces...ENTONCES MI AMOR...mi amor...si, si...mi amor..."

I'm going to go ahead and file this under "Fucking awkward."

Monday, February 18, 2008

just like riding a bike

There's lots of stuff I don't like to admit. Like: I don't buy peanut butter anymore because I was consuming a jar a week. Or: I wept like a beaten child at the end of Ice Age 2*. Also: I have never seen any of the Godfather movies, and I probably never will. And of course: When I lived in Kentucky I watched Project Runway. A lot.

Up until recently I had one admission that didn't bother me so much. Said admission being that, other than the one time in France, I've never ridden a bike. I just never learned. And I've told people over and over again, always savoring a bit of satisfaction in their shock: "What?!" "Really?!" "Where the hell did you grow up?" "Can you swim?!"

I can swim.

Typically, this encounter involved me and one or two other people at a time. Yesterday, however, I was submerged into a world wholly unknown to me: the indoor bicycle race. Far be it from me to refuse an evening of beer and sweaty men in spandex. This is a world of people obsessed with bicycles and riding them and talking about them and fixing them and reading about them and bragging about crashing them. A world of uniform uniqueness just like good ol Emerson College. With their tattoos, hooded sweatshirts, "no one else here has ever seen this t-shirt" t-shirts, and tight pants. Also beards. They love beards.

I'm sitting in the middle of this bikefest like a dude with herpes on Spring Break. Do I tell them...?? Can they tell anyway...?

It is like any subculture, I guess, so the concept isn't new to me. Any gathering of runners is just as ridiculous in its obsessiveness. I have purchased my fair share of runner crap. I subscribe to Runner's World; I have a runner hero; I have run a race with a broken foot. I love talking about running, reading about running, looking over my running log, and of course actually running. But running can be painful, arduous...I can understand why someone would think that loving it is pure madness. In fact, at any of the bizillion running events I've been to, never have I heard anyone trying to convince a non-runner to run.

Not so for the bikers! They will make you sit on a bike, they will offer to teach you to ride a bike, they will offer to find you a bike, they will offer you a bike they have sitting in their basement. They will stop at nothing.

[I just need to interrupt myself here for a second to report live, from my desk, in the deserted basement o' learning: I just bought a bag of peanut m&ms from the vending machine upstairs. I am about 3/4 of the way through this sucker and I have to let it out: There are NO peanuts in this bag. They are just giant m&ms. Forgotten peanuts. What the fuck, Mars, Inc??]

Enter Wicked Mature Kelly. I ask you to envision the following conversation:

Me: I will not eat the broccoli.
Adult: Yes you will.
Me: No. I won't.
Adult: Eat the broccoli or you can't watch a movie after dinner.
Me: Fine.
Adult: Okay, no movies til you eat broccoli.
Me: I will never watch movies again.
Adult: Kelly, just eat the broccoli....

This might as well have happened when I was 25, because nothing has changed. My decision to NOT do something involuntarily cements itself at the exact moment I am told I should do the given thing. It's the eight year old reflex. I've got it big time.

In the midst of my internal resistance and surrounded by sweat and spandex, a tiny tiny microscopic portion of my stubborn constitution gave a little. Mentally, I revisited the sole instance of my bike ridership. The following conditions applied:
1. I was in France, and therefore all drunk on cheese
2. The bike path was entirely closed to traffic
3. The person with whom I took the ride had also never ridden a bike
4. The temptation for "it's just like riding a bike" jokes was just too strong

...What I didn't realize was that the distance between the bike path and the sheer rock face of the cliffs of insanity, a reassuring fifteen feet at the rental shop, narrowed to approximately three inches for the last several miles of the trip. That's another story entirely. It involves elevated blood pressure and walking.

Like most everything I see and do in the world, I relate this back to teaching. The conditions necessary for me to try a new thing (which is all that learning is) were:

  • I was in a place that held no memories of previous failures. While I feared for my safety (and the safety of anyone biking near me) I didn't worry about being judged.

  • The place was secluded from real or perceived dangers (at least initially, the dangers being cars. The cliffs of insanity kinda ruin this part of the analogy.)

  • The person with whom I DID the learning was learning herself.

So, how do I make my classroom like a small fishing village in France? It seems like the work to be done first is twofold. One, getting students to abandon any negative associations with the classroom. Too often the simple act of sitting in a desk and looking at a white board immediately brings back negative feelings in students, especially those who have left the mainstream system. In my opinion this is best done by getting the hell out of the classroom. Field trips don't have to be elaborate, expensive, or rare. One of the best trips I've ever done was just a walk down the street to practice descriptive writing. They could have just as easily described the classroom, but the act of walking out of school and describing a neutral place brought out some great writing and some improved attitudes. And it was free! Two, making sure you are willing to be wrong in the classroom. Being fallible in the classroom helps build trust and makes students feel like they aren't being judged. This is my rationale for being wrong a lot, but I'm pretty attached to it at this point. Also, I have found that cheese and baguettes serve a person well in any situation.

*I am sorry, but when Queen Latifah and Ray Romano realize that they are not the last Woolly Mammoths on Earth, and that they do not have to stay together to save the species, but choose to stay together for LOVE, that shit is a tissue-fest and you know it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Code Talkers

boxer shorted well into
a tuesday afternoon,
it is summer.
he's showing me

the dictionary left
for him
after the war -
our grandfathers'
born in letters
the same year,
invisible from the Pacific -

how quiet I had to be,
pondering a list
of words
that had forgotten love
(or thought it
and made fighter planes
of humming birds.

Pall Thee in the Dunnest Smoke of Hell, Jerks!!!!

I have written before about my school's opposition to Shakespeare. When I tried previously to bring it into class, I was shot down for being unfair to students who "weren't ready" for that kind of material. Lord what fools these administrators be. But...Huzzah! Those crusty botches of nature that are the administrators allowed us, this fall, to incorporate electives into the schedule and eliminate "study hall" (formerly known as "myspace hour.")

Thus came the happy task of designing two semester's worth of electives. My first one was a community organizing/civic engagement jobby that had us writing letters and making phone calls and yelling a lot, which was a blast. And now it's time to register again! After February vacation we begin the next round of electives. We're pretty low-tech around here, so they register by signing up on pieces of paper posted in the main hallway. There's "How to Make Lunch," "Looking up Words in the Dictionary" "Stuff to do In Line at the Bank" and "Hamlet Will Kick Your Ass."

Six brave souls have elected to allow Hamlet an ass kicking, and not ONE peep has been thrown my way about deciding to teach it. I can't believe I'm being allowed such cruelty, asking inner city homeless kids to read Shakespeare, when we all know that kind of reading is reserved for the children of administrators. Have I no heart?!

According to the man himself: things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing. Mmmm...I don't know Bill, I sure as heck am enjoying the winning part.

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me....

Thursday, February 14, 2008

MCAS...putting the ass in assessment

This was going to be a recap of the wonderful MCAS Reform Day at the State House yesterday. Between two and three hundred youth, teachers, parents, and activists showed up to ask for a more rational system of evaluation in our public schools. The kids were amazing. They created posters, postcards, plans of action, and delineated clearly the issues they felt MCAS unnecessarily brought to their schools. One group even created a book filled with young people's voices from all over the Boston area, outlining their academic struggles and what they thought their schools could do better. I for one am energized and relieved that our standardization factories haven't squished out every bit of the hopeful, creative juice that makes our kids so great.

Then, I read the Scot Lehigh's Op-Ed in the Globe:

Here, "reform" and "reforming" are artful and elusive terms. What they really mean is, weaken or water down. If the group, which counts the teachers unions as "significant contributors," according to director Marilyn Segal, has its way, high school students would no longer have to pass the MCAS to graduate....

What MCAS reform means, actually, is the opposite of watering it down. It means strengthening assessment to include all learning styles. It means creating a range of graduation requirements, rather than just one. Broadening the scope of an assessment is not weakening it; it is allowing that not every child demonstrates his learning in the same way. Reform also means taking the frenzy out of the test. High stakes environments are simply not conducive to learning. High stakes environments are great for performance, but we seem to want kids to perform well without creating a situation in which they can LEARN.

Mr. Lehigh also claims that the MCAS is not related to the dropout crisis:

Further, when the Department of Education surveyed superintendents several years ago about why students were leaving school, the MCAS exams weren't one of the major reasons cited.

Okay, deep breaths. There are two problems with this.

One: They asked the Superintendents?! They wanted to know why STUDENTS were dropping out so they asked...the Superintendents? That's like saying, "Hey, I want to know why 65% of women are unhappy in their marriage. Let's survey the...um...fathers-in-law. They'll know."

Two: If they HAD bothered to ask students why they left school, the majority of kids probably wouldn't have said the MCAS either. What they would have said was that they were bored or their teachers didn't care. Again, this goes back to what a test-obsessed system does to the culture of a school. If teachers are straightjacketed into a drill and kill curriculum and working under the constant threat of state takeover if those test scores don't go up, their demeanor might be less than caring. They might feel like quitting every single day. And if the curriculum is constant preparation for a test, well the boredom thing makes a lot of sense. So perhaps they didn't cite MCAS as the reason, but this is just a case of patients complaining about symptoms without naming the disease.

And then this guy:

"Someone should tell some of these people that the debate is over," says Senator Robert Antonioni, Senate chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on education.

Thank you, captain eloquent. And I apologize. Were we questioning the wisdom of determining everything a student has learned in his entire academic career by one measure? Did we dare to suggest that there might be a better way? You do not have the power to declare this debate over, Senator.

And, then our fair Governor Patrick had this to say to Mr. Lehigh at the Globe:

"I came to the MCAS by talking to parents of poor kids who told me that before the MCAS, their kids were just promoted on without even being able to read . . . I start, because I personally stink at standardized tests, highly skeptical of standardized tests, but I got there by talking to these parents, I mean, all over the place, talking to these parents. So it would take a lot - it would take a whole lot - for me to reconsider that position."

First of all, kids are still being promoted without being able to read. This one gets me particularly upset because I work in a school for kids who have been forced out of the Boston Public School system. In our school, at present, we have two teenagers with second grade reading levels and one girl who cannot read at all. All three of these students left high school in the tenth grade. Hmmm. It looks like the MCAS didn't prevent these kids from being promoted without reading ability, but it just waited until tenth grade to force them out.

Second of all, the governor doesn't really want to make the call on MCAS. His readiness project is conveniently set up to decide all of that stuff for him. So our job now is to convince the various committees of the readiness project that MCAS reform is a priority, is necessary, and is the best thing to do for our kids. For more information on how to do that, please visit Citizens for Public Schools, and revel in their awesomen

My Kinda Valentine

Sick. And twisted. Like a pretzel with dysentery. Oh, how my heart swells with emotion!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What to Do When A Student Threatens Your Life

Ahhhhh youth. A time of blossoms and blooms. Sunrises and sparkling, shining, shimmering beacons of possibility. A time of exploration and continual redefinition. An energetic charge into the unknown and unknowable. Youth full of pleasance...youth like the summer morn...youth like summer brave. Blah blah blah.

I love my students. I do. They present about 1,000 joys and 1,000 challenges per second. But once and a while, I find the latter clouding over the former in a dark, foreboding, rain-heavy cumulonimbus of doom. Other times they say things like, "Miss Kelly, why don't you run for president? You'd be good at it." THOSE things make it totally worth it, even after encountering one or more of the following:

The 10:30 a.m. Verbal Abuse Break

Now, I have been a stepchild. And a stepsister. Therefore, I have been called lots of horrible things. There is something especially difficult, however, about being interrupted in the middle of a sentence by an adolescent who believes you must know, right that second, that you are hideous. I give you you the following example, from my time in Cambridge Public Schools (my lawyers want you to know that the names are fake and I in no way actually encourage anyone to behave in the manner I behave, although it is really fun...)

Gabriel: I'm not reading this book. It's stupid.

Kelly, Apotheosis of Patience: What is stupid about it?

Gabriel: Everything.

Kelly, AP: Any chance you'll be more specific? I can't help you find a new book if I don't know what's so stupid about this one...

Gabriel: (throws book at wall)

Kelly, AP: Okay. The book may or may not be stupid, but it certainly didn't do anything bad to you. Maybe we should-

Gabriel: I don't learn from ugly people!

Kelly, AP: Well, you are damned lucky I teach ugly people.

...This might be the worst thing I have ever said as a teacher. Except for the thing I said about the Pope that one time. That is so not going on the internet. Anyway, I'm sure if you're a teacher you can feel your classroom management skills improving already. I find that it helps to sink right down to whatever level the student is on, and just argue until the noise draws an administrator.

The Absolutely Unbelievably Ignorant Statement

As I have mentioned, my school has decided to combine History and Science. I'm no scientist, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor am I even remotely qualified to teach it. But I do have a strong sense of admiration for it, mostly due to its consistent opposition to stupid religious wackos. What I lack, and this applies to most things in my life, is tact. I can only identify bullshit; I don't have the science background to effectively fling a rebuttal against moronic statements that arise in science discussions. Or, at least, I feel unsure of myself in a way I wouldn't if the statement came up in a discussion about history or literature. So if someone said something idiotic, say, on the T, I would say, "That's fucking bullshit," and be confident that I was right, comfortable in the feeling that I had zero obligation to elaborate.

Alas, now I have to try presenting gentle, calmly stated, thought provoking questions that might get people to dig more deeply into the beliefs they've held all their lives.

Examples of statements that have challenged my "just scream bullshit" reflex--

"What?! Fuck that. I didn't come from no god damned ape."

"If god wanted gorillas to talk; they would talk."

"We are not animals, we're people. We can't eat people; we can eat animals."

"If dudes were supposed to whatever with dudes and girls were - I mean - we wouldn't be shaped the way we are. You know? It doesn't make sense."

"Babies are a miracle. I know people that been trying to have a baby and can't. And then other people just can have them. If god wanted people to get rid of babies, he would just not let them get pregnant."

"If we all don't have babies, people will die off."

And, my personal favorite:

"All this "earth" shit, I mean, that stuff, recycling, is for white people to worry about."

That last one sparked one of the best and most difficult conversations I've ever had, actually. What I've come to realize is that even though it's a different subject, all the same arguments and conversations come up again and again. Addressing someone who really believes that god made the world a certain way and there's no reason to think about it any more than that and addressing someone who asserts that the Holocaust could not have possibly happened require pretty much the same tactics, in my opinion. I'm just freaked out by the idea that I have to teach Science. When you're moving around in a subject that is totally foreign to you, it's amazing how much more difficult facilitating conversation becomes. This has me really thinking about the whole "which is more important: studying pedagogy or studying content area" debate...but this isn't that kind of blog. So...uh, back to frivolous sarcasm!

The Request to Aid and Abet

Last year, we were on a trip to the State House for a lobby day. We all had written letters to our representatives. The kids were informed, pissed, primed for civic engagement. Gathering at the entrance, making the requisite jokes because the gate is dedicated to General Hooker, we prepared to enter. One kids pulls me aside.

"I can't go."

"What? Why? Whatdya mean you can't go?"

"I forgot something."

"You forgot something you need, right now, to go in the State House?"

"No, I forgot to NOT take something."


"You forgot to not take something that..."

"That won't make it past the metal detector."

You ever play that game Scruples? (Because what's a party without hypothetical moral predicaments?!) Anyway, I have. And I think it's good for teachers to occasionally glimpse into the out-of-school lives of their students. So I did that. Nothing generates a teachable moment like jogging around Beacon Hill, trying to look inconspicuous, while you hide a weapon.

Everybody's Favorite: The Death Threat

This is the one where a student is gripping the edge of a desk, white knuckled, screaming, "Don't make me fucking kill you I'll kill you don't make me fucking kill you." Here's how you handle it, if you're super awesome at difficult situations like me:

1. Look awkwardly at the other students and gesture, with your head (Garth Algar style) to run from the room.

2. Raise your eyebrows really high and fail to take the situation entirely seriously.

3. Ask the threat-maker if he would kindly stop threatening your life.

4. Say something snide like, "You know, I don't have a television, so if you go totally ape shit I won't even get to watch it on the news so really it's not even worth it."

5. Sit down, right across from him, and ask him what he's really mad about.

6. Try to not think about whether or not he's got a gun.

7. Stop blabbering, and just sit there til he talks to you.

Looking back on every day of teaching that has left me wanting whiskey or a cliff from which to leap, it's never really the kids who screwed up. It's me getting frustrated with my inability to explain something in the best possible way, or my lack of proper planning, or my momentary lapse in understanding that whenever somebody behaves badly in the classroom, it's most likely because he is struggling. No matter how I feel by six o'clock, though, I'd take hiding weapons in Beacon Hill over some lame brained office job any day.