Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Staying Positive

There's no easy way to say this, so I'll come right out with it. I am an introvert. Most days, I would rather sit in the confines of my house, sipping on coffee in the back yard while watching birds fly around the canyon than walk out my front door and speak to anyone. If it wasn't for a number of positive things in my life I would eventually be the anonymous old man in a forgotten apartment who would die, and eventually be found when the stench becomes unbearable to the neighbors. Fortunately, I have a family, friends, and a vocation that barely give me time to  sit, let lone sit in the back yard and drink coffee while watching birds.
Like every other teacher, I never feel caught up, and I sure never feel like enough was accomplished on any given day. That can sure put a limp in an otherwise springy step; therefore,  many years ago I learned a simple strategy. I just put on my game face about five minutes before I walk out of my office toward a classroom. I know it might sound silly to some and even fake to others, but when those days of unrelenting anxiety climb my back and dig their claws into my neck, I can become the most animated teacher around because its all a stage show. In fact, sometimes I don't even recognize myself, and that is when the class just flows.
Its almost like I take on a different persona that completely drains me in a short period of time, but it can be quite enthralling to fight the urge to run away with the action of staying and becoming the crazy English professor. I become a story teller, a motivational speaker, a dream crusher, a magician, intellectual, and even a student who sits in chairs in awe of the work in front of me. I stutter. I misspell words. I get things wrong. I become somehow more human when I am trying to escape my own natural tendencies. I revert back to being a kindergarten teacher with little eyes looking up at me. I become a dad holding his kids arms and swinging them around, twirling and twirling until we are all dizzy and laughing. I go back to an April morning in the mid 1990's when I worked for a subcontractor at the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard converting old US Navy ships that we had sold to Taiwan. We had been working 16 hours a day for almost a week and I was dead tired at 7:00 am when the fumes of the epoxy paint I was using got me a little high. Sheryl Crow came on the radio singing, "All I want to do is have some fun..." and I decided right then and there that I was going to quit and be free. I was high on paint fumes, but I was euphoric. I shuffled through the rest of that day, left that night, and got home to my apartment on 22nd and Broadway as the sun came up. It was beautiful. So when I really need it, I shuffle back to the galley on a half rotted-out ship in Long Beach and find my freedom.
While I don't sing, "All I wanna do is have some fun..." I do allow that sense of calm to cover up the absolute disaster that I feel inside. I go back and put on my boots, my Dickies, and my hard-hat. I grab my tool box. I open the paint can. I turn on the radio. I go back to a little piece of hell so that I can recognize this slice of heaven. I mask my insecurities with a song that no one hears. I pullout my keys and turn the lock. I flick on the lights and take a few strides across the room where I drop my bag and grab the podium to steady myself. The cold metal feels a little bit like home. It sways back and forth, rocking, but never falling. The voices of students murmur and grumble until they hush. Their hands grip pens and books. They scribble a little something on the page, maybe its a date or just some random doodle before they look up toward the podium where I am standing white-knuckled and teetering upon disaster. The final notes drift off somewhere and there is an awkward, momentary silence where its almost as if they know that I am wearing a mask. That I am a great pretender and they are the audience willingly suspending their disbelief.
From somewhere deep in the bowls of my humanity the monologue begins with a sound crawling out of bed and walking across the room, stretching and exhaling a great yawn.
The first word is spoken and class begins.    

Monday, February 2, 2015

New Semester, New Challenges or The Time I Tried to Compete with Cat Videos

Every semester, I try to do something a little new, but this semester I'm taking a bigger leap because I have been given the opportunity to teach two sections of English 115 as hybrid classes. Back in the early 2000s I took some online classes as part of my teaching credential coursework and I wasn't that impressed. In fact, it was down right annoying at times.Maybe there was a little bit of a Luddite in me, but for some reason the idea of education through a computer seemed so impersonal, and while I'm no super touchy-feely kind of teacher I do appreciate the human element of teaching and learning. Ironically, the elementary school I worked at used a lot of technology for the times and I was able to actually use Ed Tech to my advantage. Fast-forward a few more years and I am standing in front of classrooms full of digital natives who consistently marked me down for not using enough technology in class. Grrrr! I thought. What to they know?
Fortunately, those students know a lot about who they are and what engages them, so when they said that I needed to use more tech I started to give it a try, and it wasn't so bad. Actually, I'm finding that it is really cool, except that everything takes so much time, and that is something that I don't have enough of. The zero-sum game of the ticking clock (I still use analog terminology sometimes) is what hits me the most. After being at school all day, I also need to carve out time to be a husband and father, and the computer, or the iPad, or my phone is always within arms length. That means that work is omnipresent. That means that I run the risk of being the husband and father I swore that I would never be. I decided a long time ago that my family would take precedence over my work. No "Cat's in the Cradle" for me. At least that is what I told myself, but here I am typing away about work (in a very round-about way) because I honestly love what we do as teachers, and I have noticed that none of us can afford to be stagnant within our profession. So I turned on, tuned in, and Dropboxed.
I really wish that I could teach one less class and dedicate that time to really learning to be a super kick ass teacher through the computer, but it looks like a little slow transformation will be my path for a while. One of the first things I have learned going into this adventure is that the Internet is this vast digital space that I often refer to as The Rabbit Hole. That makes my students laugh for some reason. As much as I try to show them the academic use of the Internet, social media and cat videos stop my students dead in their tracks every time they tune in, which brings me to one of my biggest challenges: How to make an academic connection between the science and technology my 115 sections focus on and cat videos. I mean, kittens. How am I supposed to compete with kittens? They are fuzzy and cute. They do cute things. They are easy to Photoshop. They are easy to loop to make music videos. They dance for goodness sake. How can I ever get them to do a critical analysis of Ray Kurzweil's ideas about the possible coming of the Singularity and how the potential rise of sentient sillicon-based intelligence will ultimately change the world? I mean, the second coming of Christ has nothing on the rise of the machines, but all of those freakin' cat videos... All of those freakin' cat videos.  I sigh.
I sigh, and then turn to You Tube to play "Supernaut" by 10,000 Homo DJs. When it ends, it shows me versions by Black Sabbath and Ministry. I love it. It reminds me of my youth. Black Sabbath reminds about the first time I got drunk and high at my friend Isaac's house in the sixth grade. I learn more about music. I learn more about myself. I listen to five different versions of the song and hear, "Put acid in your veins," as my head bobs to the beautiful sounds of industrial music coming out of my phone. Supernaut! "I've seen the future and I left it all behind, Supernaut!" I feel the angst that led me to drugs, books, graffiti, and eventually to college. I feel the power of electrical pulses creating music that is fleeting and intangible in the sense that it touches us as emotion, and as soundwave, but as Moby once said on Star Talk Radio, "No one owns the notes. No one can put them in their pocket like marbles." My goodness, the intelligence of our thinkers. The music that we can access. The philosophers of cyberspace that create a digital transcendence that is becoming the cornerstone of our industrialized societies. I want to bring the sublime other-worldliness of ourselves to those students who used to sit in the back of class, stoned with some soundtrack flowing through their brains, while the teacher rambled on and on. I want to bring it to them so they can see that there is life in academia. There are great things to teach and learn if they just take the time, so I decide to meet them halfway on the Internet through hybrid classes.
And what do you know, there's another cat video. Too bad there's not one of kittens doing stage dives into their furry brethren while Ozzy Osbourne sings, "I want to reach out and touch the sky/ I want to touch the sun but I don't need to fly/ I'm going to climb up every mountain to the moon/ And find the dish that ran away with the spoon." I'm sure there's one here somewhere if I just look hard enough. I'm sure of it. I'll get back to work in just a minute. Right after this song. I promise.
Oh look, there's a cat playing with a bunny rabbit.  A white rabbit.  

Friday, December 12, 2014


I think I must be lucky because I don't really have any end of the semester horror stories. I feel like such a loner.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aha! Moment

My Aha! moment this week is that life simply isn't fair sometimes. We all know this in the abstract because we have experienced this unfairness, but over time those concrete experiences fade or are compartmentalized in the back of a cerebral shelf. Our students tell us their stories and we empathize the best we can while working to stay on top of our own lives. We walk into classrooms intending to help students gain a more complex understanding of themselves and the world around them through the curriculum we teach, and they accept those challenges the best they can. They leave stronger and more complex than when they walked in. We gain insight through teaching a novel that we love or through explaining how to craft a good argument. 
Then, a tiny voice wakes me up at 4:00. The groggy thoughts begin to move around. First, I have to pee. Then I hear my dogs breathe. My youngest cat turns in between my knees. I reach for some water and begin considering writing prompts for final exams. I sigh with a mix of exasperation and relief that Jason will need to make me some strong, yet delicious coffee in a few hours. All of this is how I avoid the fact that sometimes the world just isn't fair, and despite all of our work as academics, tragedy stops for no one. 
A few hours ago I found out that my daughter's nine year old friend has brain cancer. The little girl who was playing on the monkey bars last time I saw her cannot even walk now because of the brain surgery she had last week. 
Aha! Sometimes life just isn't fair. That helps put it all into perspective as we get set to finish the semester and assign grades. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

So it's the end of the semester again, and although I would seriously like for people to look at me with some sort of doe-eyed reverence for making it this far, I am in just as much shambles as my students. We're all worn down from months and months of work, and many of us simply took a breather after the spring semester and then jumped into preparing for fall because those weeks during summer are when we can actually focus on something new. Then the semester begins and we walk into our classrooms. Students look at us, we look back, and they begin pleading for add codes. Over the coming weeks, they try to strike a balance between remaining secretive or aloof and spilling their souls on the page. The black ink of their printers (or the laser jets in the computer lab [you can always tell when they print in the computer lab or library]) tip-toe from week one to mid-terms, where luck just might tap the teacher on the shoulder and a students states, in MLA format, "Hello, look at me. I am in your class and I am a real human being. My life is complicated, and if this were a perfect world, then I would have already spoken up, but this isn't a perfect world and I know this because I am in your class when all the other college kids in the movies and on television are at some cool party-time university. Anyway, I guess you're okay and I'll stay in your class." Of course, this isn't what really happens, but it sure can feel like it by the time week 16 rolls around.
Truth be told, some days I am at an absolute loss. I look at my plan book and see the tank is on empty, or else I find myself trying to cram one last piece of information about in-text citations or the importance of credible sources. We might even work on crafting thesis statements or discuss (again) how to introduce a source. Those days are a raft bobbing up and down upon choppy seas. One class is a roaring success and the next one falls dead like a bad joke, and there is almost no time to sit and reflect on it because everything else in a rush.
There are days where it feels like we no more walk out the door of one classroom and a barrage of new demands pop up. Students are asking for letters of recommendation. SLOs need to be assessed, updated, revised, and improved because data means justification, and that means something to someone. There needs to be a plan for next semester. I forgot to turn-in some piece of paper at some point. A student needs to tell me why he cannot finish the semester, but insists that he tried really hard, so I should pass him anyway. Another student quietly opens my door and begins frantically rambling about everything and nothing, and I cannot move from my chair until he is stable enough to speak to a psychologist so that he doesn't commit suicide. And as I leave him with a counselor, I hope that someone checks his backpack once it dawns on me that he might have a gun, and I am of to class again with my mind somewhere else.
And all of this before I can even look at the stacks of papers that need to be graded.
All of this before I can consider make doctor appointments for my children.
All of this before I can wonder how my wife's day is going.
All of this before I can even go to the restroom to pee.
All of this before I can begin to think of what comes next.
Fortunately, when I open my door just a little and listen to conversations floating through the hallway, I know that I am not alone because we all have that end of the semester burden. We all sit at our desks typing, talking, commenting, grading, and planning.
We all scheme.
We all sigh.
We all make it through to week 18.
We always do.
As for me, when I think that no one is looking I turn on some Christmas music and begin to think of my children. When my eight year old daughter began questioning Santa Claus, I decided to grow a beard and tell her that I am Santa. She wants to believe me. I want to believe it, myself. Maybe it's true. Maybe I am Santa Claus because I am the giver to those who deserve, but more importantly, I want to believe in magic and miracles as much as my son and daughter do.
As the semester draws down and the world gets chaotic, I start to sing some Christmas carol in my whirring mind. That puts a little bounce in my step.
I just gotta remember that Santa Claus is coming to town. Yes, Santa Claus is coming to town and Disneyland is beautiful this time of year, especially Small World. I think I need a trip up the 5.
Hopefully that can put a smile on my children's faces because their smiles rub off on me, and that is what honestly helps get me to the end of the semester.