Tag Archives: teaching

there’s a thread you follow

It pet peeves me when people start blogs and then abandon them. I’ve kept checking friends’ blogs years after their last post, hoping the bug to journal publicly would bite them again. Now here I am, into eight months of not posting. There are many irrelevant reasons why, and I do write elsewhere, on a site that was fashionable in the early 2000s but whose community disappeared after Facebook and after my friends and I got careers or kids. I still interact with maybe a half-dozen people over there, but WordPress is like tagging air with invisible spray paint. The lack of feedback is demotivating.

I just read The Faraway Nearby, a new book by Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite authors. It’s a memoir, but like a lot of her work, it’s as much about what she has read as it is about what she has done; it’s a memoir of stories themselves. She writes, “Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.” Writing as solitary hobby never worked for me–every paper journal I tried to keep I shredded. Blogging was a revelation to me that I could run into the woods of my mind and find not mute flora and fauna but people who met me on the other side of my thoughts.

Speaking of solitude and forests, last week I was at a meditation retreat where the vow of Noble Silence extended to reading and writing. Not talking for a week is easy, but not writing is hard. On one hand, I get it–the whole point of retreat is to sink into direct experience, to watch your story without the identification with it that traps you in the suffering of desire and lack. At the same time, though, Buddhism couldn’t exist without stories–whether it’s the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the teachers’ anecdotes during their nightly talks, the narrative structure of the talks themselves, the story of my life and how I came to practice…

In a Vsauce video I can’t stop thinking about, Michael Stevens quotes Fernando Pessoa, who wrote, “Direct experience is an evasion, a hiding place for those without any imagination. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.” ?! Pessoa is the anti-Buddha! My writing practice has made me realize I have the power to create my own story instead of being lived by one, but I’m also all too aware of the less empowering narratives in my mind that keep me anchored in the past.

Solnit says, “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice….We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own…tell stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” One of the many oversimplifications we mislead children with is that humans only need three things to survive: air, water, shelter. We leave sex and stories off the list. Without the latter, there could be no learning and no memory (perhaps this is why no one remembers being a baby), but all those needs can kill us in large or contaminated amounts.

Babies must be perfectly mindful beings in that they perceive with direct sensory experience, unfiltered through story. I can’t help but think our “issues” (insecurities, neuroses) begin concomitantly with language acquisition. Stories like “I am ___ ,” “Life is ___ ,” “___ always happens” form as soon as we learn the words for them. I saw a graphic once that looked something like, “Yru’oe slitl albe to raed tihs.” It was from a study showing that as long as the first and last letters of words are the same, people can read them no matter what order in which the middle letters appear. I think this illustrates the danger of stories: what’s in-between our history and our future story (which is only ever desire or fear) becomes a jumble of letters we read according to some preconceived way regardless of what the content actually is. You see what you believe is there. This is delusion, the inability to be in the present moment and see it clearly for what it is. 

Last year, I went to an event for mentors of new teachers. The speaker wrote a book on coaching and identified self-reflection and emotional resiliency as two strengths that help beginning teachers the most. When I was student teaching, we had to write weekly reflections for a methods class. At the time, I thought it was the only thing I was good at and that it was the least important thing to be good at. I felt like I was getting away with something when I wrote my Master’s thesis about vocational calling and teacher identity, using my blog as data. I understand now that reflection was the most important thing all along.

Self-reflection doesn’t come easy to everyone. This year, I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for the first time while teaching it to my students. I had no idea that 15-year-old Frank, before she died, went back and revised her journal entries, just in case they got published (she had heard on the radio that people were looking to collect personal accounts of World War II). I asked my students to keep journals while we read Frank’s and interacted with them by commenting on theirs. It always surprises me that this isn’t an easy assignment for all kids. Given the chance to be alone with one’s own mind, not everyone knows how to interact with it. Or this: the first journal I read on the first day of the assignment was about suicide, as if my speech about being a mandatory reporter had been an invitation to a cry for help. I once had a dream I was in my classroom, jumping up and down and shouting at my students, “Writing can save your life!” It was comical, but I believe it’s true.

At the mentoring event, the speaker read a poem called “The Way It Is” by William Stafford:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Solnit uses the metaphor of thread, especially red thread, to show how narration creates and how stories connect us, but her most original and beautiful metaphor is this: “I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thoughts and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us.”

I’m not writing to hear myself talk here (well, maybe a little). I’m throwing you a red thread from the other side of the forest. I want us to live inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. It’s as intimate as that.

the night thoreau spent on the internet

The other day, I saw a YouTube commercial that told me my armpits might be the wrong color (!?!). I watched the commercial twice because I couldn’t believe I’d understood it right. Surely it must have been talking about pit stains on clothing. But no, armpit discoloration (!?!) is apparently a Thing I should react to by buying a particular brand of deodorant.

I stopped watching TV after high school. For a long time, the few good things on it didn’t seem worth bearing the commercials for. It’s funny how things change and a decade later, I’m watching high art commercial free on TV and getting so tired of trying to dodge inane commercials on the Internet that I sometimes wonder if the Internet is even worth it anymore.

Technology and materialism are on my mind because I’m teaching Transcendentalism in my junior/senior English classes. Transcendentalism is my favorite unit to teach. I forget sometimes that a lot of adults don’t know what it is, but thanks to greeting cards and bumper stickers, most people know Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century neck-bearded dude who lived alone for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond and stopped paying taxes to protest the Mexican-American war. This was during the Industrial Revolution. Transcendentalists cautioned that new technology–like, you know, trains–was distancing people from nature and each other, that modern conveniences were actually making life more complicated and less connected. It’s crazy how prescient these writings are.

It turns out Thoreau was also a mindfulness pioneer. He writes that he went to Walden Pond “to live deliberately,” and so much of the writing he did there is about noticing and being present. During the Transcendentalism unit, I do mindfulness activities with my students, including eating and walking meditation (the latter is really just going to the beach) to expand their ideas about what it means to be deliberate in daily life. I also ask them to experiment with living deliberately by giving up three “conveniences” for a week and adding one thing to their daily routine that Thoreau would approve of. I’ve had kids give up video games, social media, listening to prerecorded music, makeup, mirrors, microwaves, sugar, driving…one year, a girl camped out in her backyard for a week. On the first day of the experiment, I showed these videos in class to contextualize Thoreau in the present day:

After, one of my students showed me Zen Pencils (an awesome web comic to which you can submit quotes for Gavin Aung Than to turn into comics), specifically “129. Marc Maron: The Social Media Generation” (check it out!). The comic struck a chord with me because I do the living deliberately experiment with my students, and this year, I decided to give up “pointless” Internet browsing and to write something every day. The latter makes the former hard because it means I’m on the Internet when I’m trying to avoid it. But what has been harder is determining what is “pointless” browsing and what isn’t. I told myself I could check email or otherwise use the Internet to actively communicate with people or conduct business. What I was trying to stop doing was cooking dinner with Gmail open, constantly glancing over at my laptop to see if I have a new email or chat. I do this a lot even though it makes me less present for whatever I’m doing and bums me out when I don’t see any new emails or chats.

To complicate matters, in my ongoing attempt to have a rich Internet life without Facebook, I started a song of the day blog on Tumblr. I don’t fully get Tumblr yet and it annoys me to no end that I can’t comment on people’s posts. I understand from a New York Times article that the idea is to promote meaningful, civilized discourse on the Internet, which is cool, but I suspect most people default to liking or reblogging without commentary, which isn’t discourse at all. And yet, I keep refreshing my dashboard to see if anyone has done just that. Is it pointless? If it’s not pointless once, when does it become pointless? More than once a day? More than once an hour? I don’t know. All I know is, in terms of the Internet, I feel unsatisfied. In terms of my experiment, nothing feels different because I don’t think I’m really doing the experiment.

When my class discussed the “Digitals” and “I Forgot My Phone” videos, one of my students commented that technology is just evolution. None of it’s bad; it’s how you use it. This is true. We can use technology deliberately and mindfully or we can become, as Thoreau would say, tools of our tools. But how do we know the difference? I’ve felt for a couple of years now like the Internet is dangling in a crevasse, with knowledge and intimate connection on one side and commerce and social exploitation on the other. Ten years ago, the Internet wasn’t primarily a place for shopping. It was a way for people from all over the world to connect with each other, not over what we bought but over what we thought. We created content out of our own lived experience and imagination. Of course this still happens, but I fear it’s being drowned out by blaring YouTube commercials, reactive status updates, and addictive but empty feedback.

Sometimes, I dream of pirate Internet. Alternative URLs would start with “qqq” instead of “www” and they would direct those of us in the know to an underground Internet, a place where we were in control. It would be like the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49, another prescient text I’ve taught in my senior English classes.

radical education

There’s an article in The New York Times today about an issue on which I take a strong stance: gifted and talented education (GATE). In education lingo, this is called “tracking,” which means sorting kids into different groups, classes, or cohorts based on their perceived ability level. It happens in almost all schools to varying degrees. In my elementary school district, those of us whose parents signed us up (key phrase there) took some type of logic test at the end of second grade. I remember looking at pictures of a piece of paper folded a bunch of times with holes punched through the layers and having to choose from A, B, C, or D what the pattern of holes would look like after the paper was unfolded. I remember feeling like it was impossible, but I did well and thus the course of my education and life were determined when I was seven years old. For the rest of elementary school, a handful of us got pulled out of class every Wednesday and put on a bus to another school where we did enrichment activities. In junior high, mostly the same group of kids took GATE classes separate from the rest and honors and AP classes in high school. Eventually, most of us went to selective colleges and now have jobs in academia or the white-collar workforce. Everything from our careers to our social circles are largely due to a test our parents signed us up for before we had even memorized a times table. I benefitted from this system, but as an adult educator, I will go so far as to say the system is morally reprehensible.

As much as I might want to believe that I am somehow innately smarter than the majority of society, I know the truth is along these lines: I have a privileged education because I am white, speak Standard English, grew up in a rich town with well-funded public schools, and have parents who made huge sacrifices so that I could be the first person in my entire family to graduate from college. In high school, I sensed something was amiss when I noticed my classes only had white kids in them when the school was half Latino. I TA’d for my AP English teacher senior year during a class he taught called “Basic English Skills.” Instead of reading books, the students were writing cover letters for job applications. This was their English class. The NYT article interviews a parent of triplets, each in a different track (gifted, general, and special ed) at their elementary school. The parent at first suggest that the classes are pretty much the same, but then backpedals: “Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party.”

The article focuses on one aspect of tracking, which is that it helps to perpetuate the de facto racial and socioeconomic segregation that is pretty much the norm in public schools. The article gives a lot of predictable statistics about gifted kindergarten in New York City public schools (i.e., its racial demographics are the inverse of the district’s) and describes the lack of access that students in the poorest neighborhoods have to these enrichment programs. Gifted kindergarten! Gifted kindergarten is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing but privileged kindergarten covered up by language that tells five-year-old children that some people are better than other people.

It is really hard to explain to non-educators (and, horrifyingly, to some educators) what is wrong with tracking. Well, maybe it’s not that hard to explain, but it’s hard to accept that most people have never questioned the ethics of it. When I meet strangers at parties and tell them I’m a teacher, a frequent comment I hear is how it must be nice to be a teacher if you get to teach the “smart” kids. I want to slap people when they say stuff like that, but I can’t because they are totally and pathetically oblivious to how racist, classist, and just plain fucked up the comment is. As an observation, it is, of course, correct–it is nice to teach kids who have been labeled “smart” by the education system. What is disturbing is how people use that label as if were not a label at all but a genuine demarcation between humans without critically examining how and by whom the designation is made and how it shapes people’s identities for their lifetime.

So, on the one hand, I was pleased to see the article because it raises an issue people don’t think about critically enough, but on the other hand, it disappointed me because it doesn’t get even close to the root prejudice here. That tracking segregates schools by race is a problem. But the bigger problem is that we live in a society that teaches us from a very young age that if we can learn to do things better faster, then we are better people who have more value and status. The root of all discrimination is the belief that some humans are better than others, and as long as we believe that, as long as we communicate it to our children implicitly, then there will always be an underclass. And I’m supposed to tell my students, as a matter of political correctness, not to say the word “retarded” for something they think is stupid, as if their society doesn’t judge all of them by a set standard of ability, as if it doesn’t then class them off accordingly.


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