This Year, Students Introduce the Teacher

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Sometimes when I’m out running, especially along the stretch of bike trail that is closely flanked by forest on one side and a thirty-foot high wall on the other, I’ll pass a woman and wonder if my presence causes her any concern. Do I appear threatening? Does she grip a little more tightly a concealed container of mace or review the self-defense tips she learned from her sensei?

I like to think that I don’t inspire fear, that my smile (forced as it is when I’m running) is one of encouragement and not lascivious deviance. But here’s the thing: it’s not up to me. Ultimately, she is going to think what she is going to think and all I can do is keep running (and definitely not wink or compliment the gracefulness of her stride).

This past year I realized something: students see me the same way and I have little control over it. In a new building this year, students will know nothing about me except that I’m a teacher (and even that simple fact is open to diverse interpretation).

In the past, I’ve fed classes quick autobiographical sketches filled with tidbits of information that were meant to humanize me and demonstrate my professionalism. These introductions included facts like these (with the implied message in parentheses):

  • I am married and have three kids (Someone loves me).
  • I’ve taught now for X years (I have experience and you should respect that).
  • I have published blah, blah, blah (Bow, suckers, in the face of genius).
  • My name is pronounced sker, as in, “Don’t be sker” (Don’t worry, I can also be cool and speak just like you!).
  • I’m scared of swans, whales, and emus (I’m so crazy—you’ll just love me when you get to know more things about me like that).

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    Some of my artifacts: a piece of my art from high school that my mother saved, a rocket football trophy, and a paperweight for 10 years of service in my district.

This year I will say nothing about myself. I will let my life speak for me and allow the students to share their own perceptions. I have compiled a set of artifacts and primary documents from my past, which includes:

  • My birth certificate, marriage certificate, and the certificate from my college dorm where I was voted Most Laid Back.
  • A magazine with an article I wrote, but also a stack of rejections, including one that complimented my use of “poop jokes.”
  • My own IEP from when I needed speech therapy, the result of a cleft palate (a letter from the Cleft Palate Clinic is included)

Much like any primary source document analysis, students need to study each piece to see what they can learn (will anyone notice that the minister who performed my wedding shares the last name of my wife? and will they correctly infer that it is her father? or that my wife was born in the Philippines?) So instead of me talking about myself with nobody listening, students are actively involved. The benefits as I see them:

  1. Instead of students silently judging me, I get to hear what they think (do they seem impressed by my publications or put off?) and I can respond accordingly.
  2. Not only do I learn about what they think of me, I get a glimpse into how they think. How keen are their powers of observation? How well can they infer and how willing are they to speculate? Do they synthesize what they learn from different information?
  3. And lastly, who knows, maybe I’ll even learn something about myself. 

    before_and_after

    Then and now. Strangely, I don’t miss the hair.

Postscript to the Lone Wolf Speech

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imageI’ve never had much community. But how does someone write about newfound community without becoming platitudinous? I’ve done pretty well on my own: golf was my sport, no team really needed; a quasi-only child, I entertained myself fairly well; professionally there was really no mentor, no PLC, no lounge to gather with other teachers even informally. I write; no one really needed there.

So here’s the neatest, simplest way of phrasing my realization: I haven’t needed community, but also, community hasn’t needed me.  Community doesn’t need someone to dwell on the fringe, quietly listening, absorbing and analyzing, someone who holds silent conversations with himself and idealized mental images of others in the group.

I sometimes think some unseen, nefarious force is dissuading me from integration: things so often seem to go wrong with community:

  • teachers wishing I’d stay out of their damn business when I’m just trying to help
  • someone I introduce myself to at church who, it turns out, I went to high school with
  • real estate deals that almost fall through because I was just making small talk

It truly can just be easier to stay on the fringe.

Part of it is that just when I start getting comfortable, things change, and I have to start all over again with the tedious process of proving I’m not just an ass. [Note to self: you can come off as an ass; remember that.]

ProjectSo I was skeptical at junior high graduation listening to Michael W. Smith singing “Friends Are Friends Forever.” I will make no statement, no prediction, about the future of this community. I hope it lasts, with the sincerest part of myself. But I’m also realistic.

There was one constant these past few weeks: the river has been flowing. But in the mornings, when the sun is reflecting off the water, the river’s true nature becomes more clear. Under the bridge the water flows, but there are places where the river actually turns back on itself: on the lee side of the bridge’s pillars the water is seemingly still, as if someone could just linger there in stopped time. I’ve wondered if the force of the water coming back would hold me there, pressing me against the pillar, or if some undertow would pull me under. But I like to think not. I like to think it is a place of rest, that the churning water finds a place to stop, if only for a moment.

That, in a sense, is where we’ve been the past four weeks: separated from the inexorable flow of life’s river, a metaphor as timeless as tired as the reality of it can be.

And now as we rejoin the flow, we become part of that river again, that river which we know is not monolithic, but varied and rocky and sadly, full of some really nasty shit.

However, we were able to linger here awhile, spending more time together than with our own families. I hope we will remember what we knew for this relatively short time. The saying goes, “If I knew then what I know now.” It should be, “If I know now what I knew then.” So remember: vulnerability is scary and good. Remember: try not to be an ass. Remember: community has its good side, that community can be supportive and encouraging and humbling and can mock the shit out of you in the most wonderful and loving way. Remember: I am a writer. Remember: write.

“Who Is Your Person?”: Answering a Grey’s Anatomy Reference with a Hangover Response

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You guys might not know this, but I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when I started the summer institute, I knew these people were my own. And my wolf pack… it grew by sixteen. So there… there were seventeen of us in the wolf pack… I was alone first in the pack, and then I joined the summer institute. And three weeks ago, when the institute started, I thought, “Wait a second, could it be?” And now I know for sure, I just added sixteen more to my wolf pack. Seventeen of us wolves, running around the desert together, in Grand Rapids, looking for inspiration and insight. So this morning, I make a toast!

From Cloned Thoughts to Passionate Voices

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How to engage young writers, to penetrate these developing minds. The thoughts in the boxes are my own (though not necessarily original). They came back to me as I read Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8, from which I took all the quotes.

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The Deepest Intuition of Truth

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“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in the silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”

― Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

New Punctuation

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Bailey Lake Michigan Writing Project 2013

I know many of you thought of needs for additional punctuation marks. I heard some of you say that emoticons have take the place of punctuation to show how we are feeling when we write something.

Here are some ideas I found on the Internet:

8 New Punctuation Marks - Image 108 New Punctuation Marks - Image 108 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need - Image 10

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Turning Corners

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Walking the downtown streets of a hometown I grew up on the outskirts of. The city became cool as my children grew young, so the Children’s Museum we knew. The excitement and nightlife, though, was something that began as we sang a Dutch lullaby to close that part of each day. Still, I know the town, am familiar with its parts. But I looked up at that moment: companions at my side—younger city-dwellers those two—on a walk together that would have us stopping at various locations to write and be inspired, or be inspired and write. And have beer.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in this very spot,” I said, more realization than admission.

The building straight ahead reminded me of Boston, where I’d been twice, but only briefly, with my family. Very Bostonian, I think I thought, proud of myself for being so well-traveled and architecturally astute: yes, I do believe it was from the Bostonian period. Unfounded smugness aside, it was odd being in such an expectedly unfamiliar place, a sudden alien in the hometown I grew up on the outskirts of.

Then we reached the end of the street.

A few weekends before there’d been a downtown festival with food and art and music. Streets closed to cars filled with people walking or waiting in line for food or listening to one band or another. I’d gone on Friday afternoon with my family, and there across the street from where I was then standing—my two writing companions at my side—I had been captured on local television, cramming Greek pork into my mouth.

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All I had done is turn a corner and voila! I went from being somewhere entirely new to a place I’d been often—and recently.

Of course, not really. Really I’m just pretty stupid—and unaccustomed to having a beer at lunch. But also: perspective can be a tricky little wench, convincing us with alluring stare. See, she says—such supple lips—it’s just as I’m showing you and no, there’s no reason for you to question or think otherwise.

She turns out the lights and silences all the voices calling out “We’re here, we are here!” And that darkness becomes our world, our past present future. Oh, then, if only we would turn the corner and search the wall with hopeful fingertips for that switch that would change everything.

All I had done is turn a corner and voila! I went from being somewhere entirely new to a place I’d been often—and recently.

Note to self: remember, turn the corner.

Note to my children, my students, and you, patient reader: turn the corner.

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