Alexa, is Dennis Franz still alive?

I asked Alexa tonight if Dennis Franz is still alive. She didn’t say “yes,” or rattle off some birth stats that she “found on the web.” Her response was more direct: “Dennis Franz is still alive.” No justification, no reason, just a confirmation that I was on the right track.

Yes, Alexa has a stock answer for the question, “Is Dennis Franz still alive,” which makes me wonder how many other people are asking the same thing. Does she have one for Telly Savalas, Bob Dole, Tammy Faye Baker? Or is it just Dennis Franz?

Day 57 (I think) — Tuesday

I keep seeing my 8th grade self in the 127 students I taught this year. I’m the one over there that’s not rocking the boat. Without the nerve or need to ask for clarification, who simply knows what I have to do. I’m the suck up, unintentionally, of course, the kind who knows that that I need to get this stuff right the first time or face whatever mockery or belittlement would be dished out otherwise. Oh, or the disappointment my failure would bring too someone somewhere. I’m the one who doesn’t like the attention — definitely not negative attention and surely not positive attention that I lobby for myself. Honestly, I’m only worthwhile by being perfect.

This tendency to overdo, overperfect, and undercelebrate me never actually leaves, and anytime I see it in a student, I want to stop them, tell them to fail, tell them to try something that’s hard. Not math-problem hard. Those weren’t actually hard. I mean put-yourself-out-there-and-risk-fucking-up hard.

But I never do. Even now, I can’t be the change that I really ought to be, the one that makes a difference. By all accounts, I have everything it takes — except courage.

So I stay very tight lipped. I don’t tell anyone anything until I know th answer and have somehow found a way to control the message. That’s how I stay in charge. Always.

This, incidentally, makes me a master at handling stress. Like when my mentor emails to ask if I’ve applied for jobs, which I should have but haven’t. I hear myself telling her, “I’ve had a few more important things on my mind. You know, dying cat, dying sister, this class that I’m teaching that I know I’m fucking up, and the other one I was saddled with, too. O, yeah, and making ends meet on a lousy $19k intern pay. “ I hear myself saying this and know that it’s honest, gritty, transparent, vulnerable, exactly what I should say to be human.

But I don’t say it. In fact, I say nothing. I just ignore her message and keep all of this tamped down hard. Brick hard. Starbucks baristas got nothing on my tamping skills. Healthy. Keep those emotions hidden from view. Nothing ventured, nothing lost, right?

Turn it off, like a mother-fucking light switch.

Day 48 – Sunday

I start hiding the tahini bread from the children after I see my son take a slice that’s well over two inches thick from an 8×4 loaf pan. I would understand if it were a 12×4 loaf pan but this clearly isn’t. And it’s delicious. The tahini bread, which tastes like halva humped a pound cake, is mine. He can have the Cinnamon Toast Crunch (but not the Nutella — that’s also mine).

Looking back at previous posts, I realize my dates for posts are either entirely bullshit or time actually has ceased to move forward and I really did only advance 4 days during the past week. I honestly don’t know which is more true.

More treats to hide.

Day 44 – Monday

We’re low on beer. Dangerously low. All that remains is some shitty low alcohol stuff left over from before last November’s switch to 5% grocery store beer, and the insanely strong stuff that I reserve for weekends-only.

We have wine, but it triggers my allergies, which are already getting bad, and I don’t know why. I blame this one really bad cat — one of the five who lives in our house. She sleeps on my side of the bed all day and is likely intentionally making me sneeze. Anyway, I swear off wine from about April through June to keep my eyes from watering so much and so I can taste something, anything. It sucks. I have good wine that needs me to drink it.

We stocked up on beer, whiskey, and everything else on day 1, one of the last times we left the house for anything other than a run. Actually, I didn’t go. My husband was more than willing to sacrifice himself for booze. He’s a good man.

We had an obscene amount of beer when all of this started. The garage Kelvinator was full. It had beers stored on top of it. Now it’s sad.

Teachers shouldn’t run out of booze. Ever.

I drink about one beer a day. I can’t say how much my spouse drinks. Probably a whole lot more. I’m pretty jealous.

Sometimes the wine on the counter or the grappa — I am one-quarter Italian — calls me early in the morning, before a Zoom meeting. I tell it to shut up. Summer will be here soon enough, but, you know, I won’t heed it’s call then either.

The grappa bottle in question is dressed like Santa Claus. Usually he’s naked, but someone has put his full coat back on him. It’s cold in our house so I understand.

We keep saying we’re going to the liquor store for real beer, but I know we’re both chicken. Is hooch worth the Covid? Utah won’t sell to-go beer and grocery and liquor stores make you walk inside to buy it. Is it worth the risk? Probably. I’m guessing we’ll find out which wins — sanity or health — in the next few days. My money is on sanity.

Day 42 – Saturday

I find out that my sister has cancer. Great. I’m not really processing it.

I look it up after hanging up the phone. Calls are weird. I text whenever possible but there are obviously times for exceptions. I couldn’t find anything on the type of cancer she has. It doesn’t exist. This would be wonderful if she were a pathological liar or a hypochondriac, but she’s not.

I found another cancer with a similar name. She texted the name to me before she called. Did My guess is that in her haste or the doctor’s she wrote her cancer down wrong. Or maybe Apple changed it for her. Long story.

I hope I’m wrong. The cancer that I found with a very similar name is rare, hard to detect until it’s almost too late, and has a low 5-year survival rate.

It all feels very clinical to me now. That could go on for a long time. I didn’t really process my dad’s cancer maybe for a few years after he was gone. It was HIS cancer. This is HER cancer.

Why is cancer possessive?

When Kenny Rogers died

Somehow, Kenny Rogers’ death turns into two hours of me regaling my family about 1970s variety shows. The conversation, which is likely just me monologuing, moves from Kenny Rogers to Glen Campbell to John Denver, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, and finally Stiller and Meara, who are by far the most memorable of the bunch but, looking at the list, the odd men out.

There’s a point where I question whether my brain is strong enough to remember the names of Steve and Edie — I see flashes of them in my mind, Steve Lawrence’s buttoned-too-low shirt, the highlights in his perfectly 1970s-coiffed hair, how I was always sure he was best buds with Frank Sinatra, although I have no idea why. Edie was one of my mom’s favorite, I think, or maybe I’m confusing her with Robert Goulet. Their names seemed so similar when I was a kid.

I can’t actually come up with Steve Lawrence’s name. I push myself incredibly hard and somehow squeeze Edie Gourme’s name from my grey matter, but for some reason, I wrongly want to connect her to Sinatra. Maybe her co-star and Frank seemed equally slimy to my eight-year-old self?

I say this aloud — “I keep linking her to Frank Sinatra, but I know it isn’t Frank Sinatra and Edie Gourme,” and I don’t want to use the internet to find out her name, although I know for a fact that I could simply type in “1970s couple variety shows,” and Steve and Edie would be near the top of the list, likely after Sonny and Cher, but maybe no one else. When I remember Edie’s name, I breathe a sigh of relief and allow myself to search, which is when I find Steve Lawrence’s name and kick myself for not figuring that one out without the electronic crutch that people like me who live for nonsense trivia have become so dependent upon.

When I mention Stiller and Meara, however, my husband, who’s nine years younger than me, can finally play along. I mean, he knows Ben Stiller’s dad, Jerry. You know, Seinfeld. For a minute, however, he thinks that Ann Meara was Ray Romano’s mom in that show, but I reminded him, no, that wasn’t the case. “No,” I say. I go through the game shows they were on, something about apples and bananas, how she was taller than Jerry, and how they were hilarious. I say out loud, “Why weren’t they my parents? I’d FaceTime them with a glass of wine right now,” bringing back a discussion we’d had a few hours earlier about how pandemics make people drink in FaceTime and may actually b we bringing families closer together … but not mine ‘cuz my mom’s a stick in the mud.

Turning back to Ann Meara, I correct him again with, “The last time I saw her was in the movie Reality Bites, when she doesn’t give Winona Ryder’s character the job and Winona chases after her trying to impress her unsuccessfully with her knowledge of words and concepts that only … an … English … major … would give a shit about.”

And then I think I’m back to me. Because I’m pretty sure by this point, I’m spouting off only information that an English major who graduated in the late 1980s would know or care about.

Nice tech, if you can get it

I worked in tech for more than a decade. Needless to say, if I had the time to automate every aspect of my life, I would. Smart lights? Check. Refrigerators that order milk for me when I get low? Check. An entire house that changes its ambience when I say the magic word? Check. Honestly, I have plenty to do — if there’s a tool that can do some of it for me, I’m in.

And then there’s education. Honestly there’s so much tech in education, it could make someone’s head spin right off. In my own classroom, I use multiple tools to deliver, track, and accept assignments alone. Then there are the gamifying apps, collaboration apps, apps to make writers pretend to know how to draw. There are the apps to check your grammar and word count (ideal for students who never bothered to see that these are built into Google Docs), apps to keep you scheduled, apps to find out if you plagiarized. You name it, education has an app for that.

What there isn’t is consistency, which becomes a problem for students and teachers alike. See, I want to try all of these tools. On the occasion that I have a chance to use a tool,  I need it to work the whole time and the first time, so I give myself a one-strike policy: if I can’t make it work as planned ASAP, then I dump it. Ain’t no one got time for that.

So, back to my school — the autonomy is great. The lack of tech tools, however,  is sort of a nightmare. And we’re not alone. In most schools, there are no offcially endorsed tech tools — teachers can pick what works for them. Autonomy for all (is that a thing?)! But no one has time to see which tech they might want to use, offer guidance or suggestions to each other or their coworkers. So we’re back to square one. The students, BTW, are just as confused.

I’m writing all of this because tonight, Canvas, decided to stop talking to PowerSchool. I’ve received countless emails from students about their grades — emails from student who were hoping their updated would chance their grades because, well, holidays are coming and no one wants to feel the wrath of an angry parent who happened to see that slacker son and/or daughter didn’t do the work. I, however, can’t fix this right now. I always want to help my students but sometimes I can’t.

I’m thrilled that my students are finally taking responsibility for their grades. It’s part of why I still dedicate time to reminding students to check their grades daily and build it into a Powerpoint that I frequently want to stop creating but the students are so used to seeing that they can’t start class without it. These are elements I’ve been trying to get them to adopt and understand since day 1. I’m just bummed that they seemed to have picked a bum night for it.

Should teachers be jacks of all trades?

My English 8 students are working on a writing unit right now. Okay, I’m working on a writing unit and honestly my outlook is far more relaxed and better because it’s writing rather than reading.

I’m going into teaching for the writing — I’m a writer, I love writing, and I want other people to understand that writing is essential, easy, and nothing to be feared. Reading? Yeah, we all need to do it but there are people better than me out there to teach the students the ins and outs of reading and build excitement around it.

Which brings me to this: our first education reform should be to encourage specialization. I’m in a tiny school — one teacher per subject per grade (and then we need to teach something else, too, to fill in the gaps) — but I’d gladly teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writing if someone else handled the reading. We could collaborate and SHOULD collaborate on what writing/reading we’d each teach, but students and teachers would probably all be happier and more confident if we approached teaching this way. I’d likely need to grade more, but that’s okay. That’s how I learn what needs to be taught and how to teach it.

I’ve talked to other teachers, particularly science, who would agree. Most science teachers I know have a true love for some aspect of their curriculum, but not all of it. They had to pick up the rest of the info along the way. Letting a bio teacher specialize in genetics while another teacher specializes in anatomy (no, I don’t know exactly what’s in the core) would make everyone, including the student, more engaged because we’d all be sharing the thing that brought us to teaching. English teachers, too, have a preference. Most of the ones I went to school with dreaded the writing units. They were readers, lovers of literature. Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to stay that way?

Our current system encourages teachers to be jacks of all trades, but that often puts us in the category of master of none. If we fix the system, I’m pretty sure everyone would fare better.

 

Burnout and education

I’m too busy for burnout right now. That doesn’t mean I’m not there — it just means I don’t really have the time to process it yet.

I catch glimpses of a normal life — the one I used to have — and I know I’ll have it again … eventually. With every job I’ve ever held, it’s taken between 6-12 months for me to snap and take control because it’s my life, dammit.

Here’s the deal: the teaching industry itself does require a lot of dedication, work, and devotion, but the way it’s been set up is bordering on abusive. It seems like it harkens back to the early days of women entering the teaching industry, when schoolmarms were to be married to their jobs, not to an actual spouse. As the industry became female dominated, however, administration and regulation were still run by males. Somehow it became okay to continue to make the workers jump through absurd hoops in order to do their jobs, hoops that frequently had little relationship to the end goal — ensuring children were ready for the real world.

Regardless of sex or gender today, the teaching profession holds onto some of these archaic notions that teachers should hold a 24/7 devotion to their jobs. You’re always  on, regardless of your contract hours. In what other profession are you expected to give up your lunch in order to help someone? Where else are you expected to stay late because of someone else’s needs? Which other profession expects you to show up on the first day fully planned and ready to go, knowing full well that you couldn’t possibly create those plans in a few short professional development days, especially when most districts expect you to spend those days listening to an overpaid, inspirational speaker who has repackaged and rebranded some strategy that you’re already doing anyway?

I don’t just blame the administrators and regulators, however. I blame the teachers, too. Too many take the martyr role — “I have to give everything of myself” — which simply perpetuates the abuse. Too many also enter the profession never knowing how business operates. They teach; that’s what they know. They’re performing the most important job in our society. They should feel honored that we’re allowing them to hold this position. Yes, we’ll make you  get more education, show us a paper certificate, spend time on stuff that may or may not be valuable in your own classroom in order to earn $30 more on each paycheck. Yes, we’ll give you a partial pension so you can collect a portion of your $40k/year after you retire, but you’ll have put in 60+ countable hours each week during the school year — as well as plenty of time during your prescribed vacations — in order to get it, so you could really see it as deferred compensation. Yes, we’ll relentlessly poke and prod you during your day-to-day, ask you to manage a team of 150+, ensure you’re again jumping through frequently arbitrary hoops that simply may not make a bit of difference in how your students learn. Yes, you can have a sick day but you’ll need to ensure you’ve already done the work so that your class is occupied and learning. Yes, we’ll encourage you to try something new, but we’ll also place so many must-dos on you that rocking the boat simply can’t happen. While we’re at it, we’ll hold you accountable for students who opt not to engage. We’ll ask you to change your plans to ensure your team of students each receives a different education because we’re all different. We’ll expect you to be on your best behavior when you’re off the clock, although you’re never really off. We’ll check up on you every few years and threaten to take away your license if we find out you did something dumb. We may even put you on some sort of probation for a single screw up. And we’ll continue to expect you to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources.

Other industries are dedicated to finding time for employees to innovate and ensuring that the always-on mentality created by a connected society goes away. Private business, especially tech, VALUES workers’ time to think, relax, create. Education isn’t there yet, and based on what I’ve seen in terms of budgets and funding and the people we keep voting into our legislative branches, we’re nowhere close.

To me this says one thing: teachers need to push back more. Teachers and unions need to peel back the curtain and show legislators and the public exactly what it takes to teach a child — and multiply that by 100+. Spend a day in a classroom to find out what teachers are really up against. Until we do this, nothing will change. People simply don’t understand what our society is putting teachers through and how educators with the greatest plans ever are hobbled to the point of ineffectiveness.

I was warned by instructors at the college where I’m getting my teaching license to expect nights with little sleep — hell, even a whole year of sleep that most people would call a “nap” instead. Interns and student teachers sit through lessons in avoiding burnout. It’s no secret that this is a huge problem in the profession. But still, no one is doing anything about it.

The industry needs to change.

I see teachers who won’t make it past their first year. I see teacher who will stick it out and drop from the profession by year three.  I have friends who were amazingly dedicated teachers and who dropped out because working for a corporation was easier and paid more. I know they’re sad to have left the profession, but they’re happy to reclaim themselves.

It’s early days for me, I admit. Sometime between January and March, I will snap and take control of my life again — I know this because that’s just how I am. Still, I’ll be in a profession that may not see much value in me. Yes, I am working with unbelievably supportive administrators, the kind that I know teachers in two other districts in the area pine for (in fact, one of those other-district teachers has already indicated to me that he’d be willing to take a cut in pay simply because of the conditions at the school where I’m interning — yes, teacher crave that type of support). But the one thing those great admins can’t do is change the fact that education as a profession and education as a system MUST have an overhaul. Without this, we’ll continue to lose the best teachers and force the really great ones who do stay to never live up their profession. Pay more? Yes. But also look at the conditions because no increase in pay can fix the fact that you’re in a system where you’re being set up to never truly excel.

I’m making this my mission: to fix education for teachers and the students. And trust me, it will happen. Listen up, because I’ll be the squeakiest wheel you’ve ever heard … once I get through this year.

8th grade: I don’t know what I don’t know

I don’t know what I don’t know. I think that’s what freaked me out so much about teaching “theme” to my 8th-graders. I know what theme is, but I don’t really know how to teach it.

I read all of the advice online. It was … fine. But none of it was concrete, and I hate teaching when there’s nothing concrete to attach it to.

I already knew that theme was subjective. It’s dependent upon the experience, background knowledge, and perception of the reader. I also knew that most online sources recommended framing theme as the message the WRITER wants the reader to take away from the work. But as a writer, I can tell you that I never once considered theme while writing. It’s all very confusing.

I’d been advised by teachers to let students identify the themes on their own. I’d also been advised to give them a few themes that I found in the book and let them provide proof that these were themes. I was told to give them scaffolding, but also told to let them seek their own truth. No matter what I did, there was no real answer.

The best tip? “Theme is very difficult for students to understand. Expect to teach if repeatedly through the year.” Thanks to my principal for that.

That’s the funny thing about teaching English — the hard, fast rules are few. The soft, fuzzy guidelines are many. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to grammar, where we have specific RULES that are simply not intended to be broken, which is what made it so ironic that in the same week that I struggled to find a formula for my students to determine theme, I watched two of my fellow soon-to-be English teacher butcher some of the only rules the language actually has. The first involved word choice (“upmost” instead of “utmost” — seriously, how is that a thing?); the second didn’t know the proper placement of quotes relative to end punctuation.

Uptight? Yes. But here’s the deal: education IS uptight. That’s how we all land on universally accepted truths. Without these, we can’t possibly do our jobs as teachers. There absolutely must be universal rules that we accept and follow. For example, if you’re a U.S. history teacher, you should teach that the Civil War was steeped in racism and slavery,  not northern aggression. If you’re a science teacher, you must teach evolution and global warming, not some creation myth (unless you’re looking specifically at myths and how people used these to make sense of things they didn’t understand prior to having access to accepted truths). And, if you’re an English teacher, you should teach — and model — some of the only truths we know: word choice and grammar. And if you can’t remember them, just do a quick internet search to find them!

Society currently has a problem with trying to find the easiest way out. Let someone else give us the answers, and we’ll just repeat them. As teachers, that means our job is two-fold: first, we need to encourage students to think critically before they accept information as fact; second we need to ensure we’re providing accurate information up front. I can’t teach you not to smoke if I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I can’t teach you not to say things like “upmost” if I’m writing it all over my white board and on social media.

I’m all for encouraging students to find the truth on their, but only to a point. When a truth is universally accepted, like word choice and punctuation in American English, I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that truth should be handed to students. Study it, learn it, know it, and use it. There are plenty of other things to mess around with in English education, like theme. Conventions, on the other hand, simply aren’t open to debate.