Friday, October 29, 2010

Week 7: Sympathy For The Middle School Teacher?

A typical first conversation between myself (K) and a new acquaintance (N).

N – So What do you do?
K – I’m a music teacher.
N – Cool, what grades do you teach?
K – 3rd grade . . .
N – [bright smile]
K – 5th grade . . .
N – [smile has melted into concern]
K – 6th grade . . .
N – [concerns has become sympathy]
K – 7th grade . . .
N – [sympathy has transformed into terror]
K – and 8th grade.
N – [look of utter disbelief and confusion] . . . oh well . . . that sounds . . . um . . . so you chose to teach these grade?!?

People are excited, almost envious when they hear that I work with third gradets but as the grades creep into middle school people start to become concerned about the choices I made in my life. So it might sound weird to a lot of you that one of the highlights of my week was my sixth grade music class.

They were great. I presented “This Land Is Your Land” by Woodie Guthrie. I outlined how to explicate the lyrics going from the literal to the figurative meaning combining emotions and historical context to gain a personal understanding of the song. I broke them up into groups to analyze an assigned verse and then presented what they found to the class.

My sixth graders worked really hard. They delved deep into the text and came up with some awesome interpretations of the lyrics I had never thought about. It was a great experience exploring music as a group and I walked away from the class excited for the next lesson.

(You may be thinking I’m crazy for doing such a “elementary school” song with sixth graders but the reality of Guthrie’s most famous work is that it is a protest song. The final verses that are rarely performed describe the effects of the dust bowl and question “if” this land was made for you and me).

Now I understand why people think I’m crazy for having chosen to work with middle school students. Most of us think back at our own middle school experiences and do not think too favorably about them, and I’m part of that group. It was an awkward stage in my life when other kids seemed really mean, I didn’t really fit in anywhere and I felt clueless on what I was suppose to do to be “cool.”

Why do we remember middle school as such an awful time? I don’t know maybe it has to do with the way we perceived the world at that stage or it has to do with how other parts of our lives were so much better by comparison. I’m sure there’s someone who has done research on this subject and can give an answer why for so many of us middle school is remembered as the worst time in out lives.

Regardless, projecting our own feelings on students who are that age clouds us from the reality of being a middle school students. These children are developing the ability think outside of themselves and analyze the world around them in deeper and more significant ways. They are exploring the social norms and figuring out how they fit within their own subcultures and how that reflects the wider culture as a whole. Moreover, while they have the potential to create havoc and spread negativity throughout a school they also have the potential to look beyond the surface and celebrate what is awesome about the people around them.

I started the year with all of my middle schools students with this challenge:

"Look, people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I teach middle school students and they think I’m insane when I tell them that I love it. People out there think that kids your age are mean, inconsiderate and unable to create meaningful and significant work. I tell them, they are wrong. Prove me right, and prove them wrong."

So far, they have.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Angel Standing By by Jewel

I still remember watching this live when I was in high school:

The studio version doesn't even compare to the intimacy and pure expression Jewel displays. Yes, she was a phenomenon of the 1990s but like her angelic voice, this song transcends it's time in my memory as one of the most beautiful performances I've ever seen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Take It Easy by The Eagles

The older I get the more chill I am about problems that arise in life. It’s not that I don’t take my life or my job seriously. If just that I’ve found that rarely are problems that I face truly dire or worth me freaking out about. Things happen, we do the best we can to deal with them and then we move on with our lives. How do you maintain this kind of attitude: A healthy dose of perspective. I’m not in Pakistan, homeless because of flood waters and I’m not in North Korea starving while my “great leader” has food flown in from all around the world.

The Eagles first single “Take It Easy” and possibly their most famous song is about getting that perspective, enjoying life and realizing what’s important in life. With later masterpieces like “Hotel California” and “Wasted Time,’ The Eagles contemplate darker edges of the American experience but with “Take It Easy” it’s pure sunlight.

The Eagles created a combination of a country and rock defining the Southwest rock sound for the 1970s. Coming out of the haze of 1960s psychedelic rock and high conceptual music of the bands like the Beatles, artists like the Eagles turned their focus inward to examine the American experience. Their first single “Take It Easy” was the perfect overture for their career with layers of guitar, insightful but straightforward lyrics and a sound could only be defined as American.

The first verse present the problem of having seven women in ones life, “four that want to own me, two that want to stone me, and one says she’s a friend of mine.” The response in the chorus is to just “take it easy” relax. Don’t over think the issue, figure out what you want to do (“take a stand”).

The second verse about seeing a beautiful girl in a Ford on the surface is simply a pick up line.

Come on, baby, don't say maybe
I got to know if your sweet love is
Going to save me
We may lose and we may win though
We will never be here again
So open up, I'm climbin' in,
so take it easy...

On a deeper level it’s talking about being within the moment, making the best of it and letting yourself enjoy life.

The last verse presents another problem with a woman and what becomes clear at this point of the song is that the main theme, “take it easy” is not so much in the words but in the music itself. Through the guitar solos and the “oohs” towards the end, we are drawn into a band rocking out, having a great time with a sense of relaxation as the band lays back into a groove.

What The Eagles are really telling us is how good life can be and when you listen to this song you can’t help but feel how amazing it is to be alive. The smile you get from listening to this song is the most persuasive argument for the song’s conclusion “we got it easy, we ought to take it easy.”

The next time you get worked up about something, listen to "Take It Easy," breathe and thank God that you don't have four women out there who want to stone you.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Week 6: Being A Party Of Yes

My friends who are teachers sometimes joke about what it would be like to go back to the days of teaching when corporal punishment reigned supreme as the primary way of disciplining students. It's only a generation ago that this stuff was still going on. My father-in-law who went to a Catholic school recollects being rapped on the knuckles with rulers by the nuns.

Blues Brothers - Penguin
Uploaded by MattyP20071. - Watch more comedy videos and sitcoms.

 . . . kind of what I imagine . . .

After Dr. Spock taught a generation how to express love to their children and educational thought progressed to a child-centered approach educators like me are left with . . . um . . . stickers?

Honestly, I could  never strike a child. I can’t even yell at children. Don’t get wrong, I’ve been frustrated at my students, but that’s usually expressed through a low, held-back, almost whisper-like tone. Instead of threatening students with physical pain or yelling at them what we I do is talk.

I tell students who are speaking out without raising their hands that I have who are younger then them have no problem with that concept. I show that I am offended when students are being rude to each other.  And I’ve asked students who are disruptive if their selfish actions are worth wasting the time of 23 other people in the class.

However, everything I say that is negative has the underlining positive belief that they can do better. The reason I point out that younger students can do what they are doing is because I they can. I don’t let students be rude to each other because they know how to be polite and being selfish is not acceptable because I regularly observe my students being selfless.

However if all you do is call people out, things don’t progress.  You’ve got be a “party of yes.” If you are in front of a group of students and you thank one student for being ready for the lesson with his or her book and pencil out, I guarantee almost every other student who is not ready will dive into their desk as fast as they can to get a piece of praise too. This is as true for 1st graders as it is for high school seniors.

Most places in our culture don’t work as hard as schools do to take a positive approach to behavior and motivating people. Many sports coaches yell and use expletives, some people work in fear of losing their jobs because of negative bosses and many parents regularly yell at their children. So why do schools work so hard to be different?  Because our children and in turn our school are an expression of our idealism.

Schools do not reflect who we are but rather who we want to be.  Even though there are things in our society that are not as positive as schools the fact that we believe that schools should be the way they are shows our hope that society should be different.   

Fear, pain, negativity: these are all things that challenge the light in our souls from the outside. And when we are the ones producing these feelings in other people it starts at the center of us and grows like a cancer.

You cannot genuinely teach what you do not practice.  Students can see through lies and phoniness.   While we are educating our students, we are challenging ourselves as people to be better people.  This provides the greatest thing that we can learn in life, how to live life through love, with love and sharing love.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Return Of Conan

I can't wait.

When all the stuff happened with Conan and Leno I wrote this open letter to Conan.  The way he left NBS was inspiring saying on his last show:

"All I ask is one thing, this is, I'm asking this particularly of young people that watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record it's my least favorite quality, it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what the thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind amazing things will happen . . . it's just true."

Conan thanks for coming back to us.  We need your humor, silliness, and optimism now more than ever.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Buffy's Poo

Twice a day, Buffy sniffs around the sidewalk and heads towards bush. She goes up close to the branches, underneath if it’s possible, does quick spin and squats in her poo posture. She looks up, concentrating and then after about 20 seconds, staying in that same posture she waddles a couple steps, coming out of the bush sometimes into the middle of the sidewalk and stops to try again. Sometime she drops poo after a couple steps sometimes not and repeats this process until she is done. Buffy’s record for a "poo walking" is halfway down a city block. We’re talking like 20 feet of poo waddling leaving a trail of little drops of poo for me to pick up along the way.

I love how she makes so much effort to find a secluded place to poo but then ends up in the middle of the sidewalk.

One of things that happens when you get a dog is that you start talking about poo. Especially in the first year of having Buffy we would often discuss not only the timing of her poo but the consistently and color of her poo. We’re concerned owners and frankly poo is one is a clear sign of a dog’s health. And you don’t really notice the extent at which you talk about poo until you and your spouse causally bring up the latest poo update about the dog at a nice dinner out with friends who are not dog owners.

I always pick up Buffy’s poo. Twice I didn’t because I ran out of bags but I later came back to those same spots later in the day and picked it up.  I’ve noticed more now that I have a dog  the amount of people who do not pick up after their dog.

If not you’re willing to pick up your dog’s poo and dispose of it twice a day, every single day for 12 years, do not get a dog. You really need to think about this. Size does make a difference. A dog that weighs 120 pounds poos as much as a human that weights the same amount. Luckily Buffy weighs about 12 pounds and poos about a hot dog’s worth which really isn’t that much of a pain to pick up.

I have no tolerance for dog owners who do not pick up their dogs poo. No one forced you to get a dog. Picking up poo is part of the deal. And I know this sounds harsh, but part of me thinks that if you are caught not picking up your dogs poo your dog should be confiscated.

I'm not seriously suggested we implement that rule but I REALLY I hate stepping in dog poo. It is disgusting. The worst part is that you often do not notice that you stepped in it when you do.  It’s ten minutes later when you are in your car that the smell creeps up to you as you realize that you do not have anything in your car that you can use to wipe it off, save a leaf or a parking meter tag.
It’s not a dog’s fault that his or her owner is  inconsiderate, selfish and thoughtless. There really aren’t bad dogs so much as bad owners. We domesticated dogs and  only way they can co-exist with us help them and take responsibility for them. I don’t really like picking up poo either, but hey I do it.  You can love your dog without loving everything about them, and I love my Buffy-bear even though I do not love her poo.

Hey at least she provides me some entertainment as she poo-waddles down the street.

(btw I used the word "poo" 23 times in this post, wait that's 24 right there!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Week 5: Playing Whack-A-Mole

You can be an expert on a subject, have a wealth of teaching techniques and still be an awful teacher if you can’t get a class of students to stop talking to each other, pay attention and sit in their seats.  One of the hardest things for teachers to master at any level is “classroom management,” the educational term for the ability to get a class to engage in the material.  And if you are wondering why this is so hard, then you've never been in front of a classroom full of children. 

The year started out well. I explained my expectations to all my classes. We rehearsed my countdown hand sign that let them know when to be quiet. I corrected some students who were misbehaving immediately and things went great a couple classes. Then as if all my students planned it this way, they seemed to all forget EVERYTHING we discussed in that first week.

. . . sigh . . .

This caught me off guard in the beginning of the week. I didn’t want to stop my lesson to reinforce things that we had already gone over, but that only resulted in lack of productivity as students continued to act as if I was a brand new teacher. So I changed it up and I started classes later in the week with a review of expectations and those classes went a lot better.

In order to maintain expectations, reinforcement really is key. Sometimes it feel like I’m playing “whack-a-mole” as one teacher put it. You can’t ever let your expectations slide so sometimes it seems like you’re spending the entire lesson walking out the room reminding students on how to behave.

This includes utilizing phrases like: take off your hood, put your shoes back on, face forward, stop talking, put away those silly bandz, sit-up straight, now’s not the time to read, that’s not your desk, chairs are made for sitting, stay in your space, hands to yourself, we aren’t at a hair salon, stop tying your shoes to the desk, no one will be friends with you if you keep picking your nose (I’ve said ALL of these thing in the past week).

Are children “bad” when they forget expectations or “test” them? No, of course not. They either honestly forgot about or simply weren’t sure if the expectations I held at the beginning were going to continue. Rarely are children intentionally rude. Is this “testing” a bad thing? As exhausting and annoying as it can be, trying to find limits is a sign of students’ cognitive development. Limits create a sense of stability and predictability that we all desperately need to get through the chaos of life.

Getting students to pay attention is not about power.  I make sure every one of my students to pay attention because every one of them is important. A student may seem like she is happy when they are allowed to misbehave but what the message you are sending when you let an expectation go is: "I don't care."

Classroom management is not about figuring out ways that you can get students to stop talking. It’s about creating a space in which students feel valued.  Only in a classroom filled care and respect can teachers and students join together in the journey of education.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

John Lennon's Laugh

John Lennon would have turned 70 years old last weekend if he hadn't been assassinated in 1980.  There's no logic or sense in why someone who devoted his life to spreading peace, love and hope would been taken away from us in such a violent way.

Elton is right, the blues never fade away.

"And I miss John Lennon's laugh"

Monday, October 11, 2010

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers by Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand

I love Neil Diamond. That guy is the man. How can you hate on the guy who wrote “Sweet Caroline,” possibly the greatest sing along song in pop music history? I love his duet with Barbara Streisand “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” But man, I hate Barbara Streisand.

Okay, maybe hate is too strong a word. Part of my dislike comes from the insane way that people who are fans of Streisand worship her. In addition, her ridiculous diva attitude doesn’t make her the most likable performer but I can admit, at her peak she could really sing and her duet with Neil Diamond is one of the most beautiful and unforgettable songs you’ll ever hear.

Neil Diamond wrote "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with several collaborators in 1977 and in the next year Streisand covered the song. Gary Guthrie, a disc jockey, took these two versions and edited them together as a going away present for his wife that he had just divorced. This version gained such interest that Diamond and Streisand recorded a studio version of the duet. It was this version that became a number one hit and led to one of the greatest Grammy performances of all time.

I mean what color is Barbara wearing? What is the deal with that pantsuit? Oh lord check out the size Neil’s lapels and man that bow tie is small. Laf, Neil is SO wearing old man paints that go above his belly button and . . . um. . . . oh my God, they are walking towards each other. Neil, why don’t “used to be’s” count any more?!? . . . then Barbara touches his hair and wow . . .

The presentation is SO 1980 and the production of the strings is not hip or modern but there is something beautiful about the performance and this song.

This is one of those few breakup songs that is completely devoid of anger.  Anger is not really an emotion itself. Rather it’s an expression of an emotion. Often when you are sad that is expressed through anger and the beauty of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” is that we get to true emotion at the heart of the situation, sadness.

“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” paints the picture of a beautiful relationship by showing us what isn’t anymore. If you transformed all the negatives into positives you would have one of the most romantic and beautiful love songs, instead we have a heartbreaking realization of what has been lost.

Diamond doesn’t try to out sing Streisand, instead he does what he’s best at, a more conversational style with a deep baritone letting Streisand soar above him and juice the passion and pain out of every single note. It’s a big contrast of styles but it works so well together.

The line, “you think I could learn to tell you goodbye” always gets to me because that truly is one of the hardest things to do in life because when you say the words and the person leaves, they are still with you. Feeling someone in your heart and not feeling their physical presence is one the most depressing things in life.

However while this song is sad, there is smile deep within.  It's like by going through journey these two people are reminded how beautiful love can be and even though they lost this love, there's hope in the future.  This is best explained by Butters Scotch:

“I love life . . I’m sad but at the same time I’m really happy that something can make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive. It makes me feel human. The only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good. So I guess what I’m feeling is like a beautiful sadness.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Week 4: Never A Faliure

How was my Thursday last week? Well, it was really good and then it got really bad.

Earlier my principal told she would come by some time to observe me teaching. The longer I teach the less nervous I get about being observed. I remind myself that when administrators come in to watch me teacher they are rooting for me. They want to see me succeed. They aren’t trying to catch me do something wrong, they are trying to catch me doing things right. Having other people observe is a great way to get feedback and improve on what you do.

As I began one of my classes Thursday morning, the principal walked in a took a seat in the back. The class went very smoothly. The lesson progressed at a good pace. There were no major classroom management issues and my students and I had fun.

Later, I went to the principal’s office and we chatted about the lesson. She was complimentary and pointed out some specific things that I should keep doing. She also had some fantastic suggestions for me. Walking out of that I office I felt like a teach an elephant how to fly.

Then I taught a class that did not go so well.

It wasn’t a disaster. It’s not like anything horrendous happened, but it felt like a train wreck. The lesson wasn't designed well and I didn't react to the students in a way that helped them stay focused.  For some reasons they couldn't stop giggling.

Nothing I tried seemed to work.

I felt awful after that class. After school I went and talked to the homeroom teacher. As I talked to this veteran teachers I noticed something: We were both dealing with the same issues. I initially thought, "seriously, you've been teaching longer than I've been alive and you still don't have all of this figured out?" But it was just that fact, that I wasn't alone in my feeling helped me remember why I chose this profession.

Teaching is not about knowing all the answers. The art of teaching is a practice, it's something that is never perfected. While this may intimidate some people, it excites me.  The act of teaching is never a failure, it's always an opportunity to grow.  That's hard to remember when things aren't going well, but it's important to keep in mind.  While frustration is a sign of care it is only productive when focused in on the future not the past.

I get to see that class again next week and I have some time to figure some things out to try to make it a better experience for us all.  As frustrating as that class was, I can't wait to see them again.  You may think I'm crazy for looking forward to spending my day with a class of third graders.  You may be right but as Billy Joel sang, I just might be the lunatic my students need.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Tempest by Julie Taymor/William Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare on film on my favorite film adaptation is Titus.

This version of Titus Andronicus is gutsy, daring, violent and beautiful.  It is Shakespeare like you never imagined.  If you watch this film, you may not like it but you will be in awe of the artistic vision in this film.  Julie Taymor directed Titus who first made a splash directing the Broadway version of The Lion King.  

After directing the Frida Kahlo biography and Across The Universe, a musical using the music of the Beatles, Taymor is's back to Shakespeare with the bard's final play, The Tempest!

 . . . Shakespeare geek out commencing . . . Prospero changing into a woman totally works . . . Russell Brand as Trinculo is perfect . . . can't wait . . . December 10th!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers

There are many misunderstood lyrics in rock music. While some musicians are very deliberate at making sure that their lyrics are understood, rock singers often do not focus on annunciation as part of their craft resulting in misunderstood lyrics or simply words aren’t understood at all.
Most of the time, this doesn’t really bother me. I’m used to looking up Springsteen and Rolling Stones lyrics to make sense of the meaning in their songs. However there is one example, one instance in which a misunderstood lyric had a profound effect on my identity: “Secret Agent Man.”

When I was in elementary school my dad would often pick me up from school and he would always be listening to Oldies stations (which is one reason I love pop music the way I do). Now I don’t know if he was serious or joking when he told me that this particular song about a spy was named “Secret Asian Man.”

Now in my elementary school brain somehow it made sense. Could you really blame me? Look, there is no hint of an ending “t” syllable when Rivers sings the chorus, AT ALL. Asian people can do spy-like James Bond stuff too. So why not? This is a song about an Asian James Bond character who was “secret” as well as a “man,” hence “Secret Asian Man.”

This connected with one of the other culturally experiences I shared with my dad, watching James Bond movies. I loved watching these films with my father and whenever marathons were on the television, we were all over it. Now, James Bond was of course, never Asian, but a lot of bad guys were like that guy who through hat at people.

Connecting my childhood fantasies of being a James Bond-like spy with a song that told of an Asian James Bond cemented in my head that I, a little Asian boy, could in fact be a “Secret Asian Man.”

Unfortunately like many childhood illusions, I came to the realization that Johnny Rivers was not actually talking about an Asian spy but instead was cashing in one the 1960s spy craze by recording a song about a generic spy character.

Realizing that there was no song about an Asian spy shattered my dreams.

Johnny Rivers, you made me think that I could do something with my life, that I could be a “Secret Asian Man.” You convinced me that racial barriers could be crossed and that stereotypes could not limit my dreams. Then reality crushed the hopes of a little boy who realized that you actually didn’t believe that an Asian man could be on the Riviera one day and hide out in Bombay the next day. All you believed was that by catching on to a craze you could cash out. 

Well I hope you’re happy and that your “Secret Agent Man” money comforts you when think of all of the little Asian boys that you misled with your incoherent Southern Drawl.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Week 3: What You Really Need To Know About A Student

Almost all of the schools in the Chicago suburbs use the same online job application system. The nice part about this is that it can import information from one application to another so you don’t have to enter in your name and address for every school you apply to.  The annoying part is that there is this list of essay questions that schools can chose that for you to answer and some of them are kind of. . . weak.

Like this one:
How much do you want to know about your students in order to be most helpful to them?

AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. How is this questions not a no-brainer? Lord knows that teaching is hard enough and it’s even harder when you have no idea what to expect from your students. So when I heard that I was going to be part of transition meetings I was ecstatic.

The idea of a transition meeting is that teachers pass on information about students they had the previous year to the teachers the students currently have.  Now I’ve never been to one of these meetings so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I imagined that with an unprofessional group of teachers, this kind of meeting could become an opportunity for teachers to complain about students and make inappropriate jokes about them. 

Now I would be lying to say that there wasn’t some laughter as teachers talked about students. Some of the stories about students were entertaining. We’re are human. However, within all the discussion there was a level of gravity to the purpose and importance to the meetings.

Teachers were discussed their past students in the hope that the students' new teachers could continue their work and help the students grow.  But it wasn’t just “in the hope.”  This wasn’t a discussion wishing that things could be better for the student.  Words were spoken with a level of confidence that the new teachers could take this student farther then ever before.

There is a danger in all of this.  Shouldn’t ever student get a fair chance to make a clean impression with a teacher without that teacher inadvertently making judgments from talks with other teachers?

We all have the tendency to make judgments about people. It’s something we do without thinking about and it’s not fair to students to let those judgments cloud the way we treat them.  However we would not be doing the best we could for them if we didn't prepare by collaborating with other teachers.

We must acknowledge our baser tendencies and work against them. Even if we can’t help ourselves and we get a negative impression of our students we can still serve our students if we receive the most important thing that was passed on in the meetings: faith.