Sunday, December 18, 2011

Seeing and Not Seeing

Dear friends,

We’re coming up on Christmas, which for teachers means a breathing point. Christmas break is a chance to reassess, eat well and see those we love. I haven’t written for some time because I lacked the perspective necessary to communicate with you all. There is a vicious rut called the “bitch fest” that teachers can fall into. It is traveling on the road of complaint. When stuck there the world becomes myopic and dark and we lose balance. I lost balance for a few weeks. My ambitious undertaking of teaching a four act play had overwhelmed me and I had become immobilized within it. In the process however I gained a great deal of practical teaching skills.

Halfway through this first year I can now see the work I have begun to do. One year ago I graduated from college and had no idea where I wanted to go. The realization and lack of direction was followed by an unforgettable night before commencement. From a house fire to the coming together of family and the further bonding of friends it was the final blow of exhaustion in a long year. In realizing that I can see that I have accumulated a lot of experiences since that unbelievable night. Now I see the long 17 hour drive I took to Mississippi some four months later as a watershed moment. In so doing the students that I have come to love and the string of failures that have resulted in knowledge come into focus. I look forward to the distance that will afford me further awareness and insights into this time.

At this juncture I truly feel on an adventure. The events fueling that realization are the local eccentrics that have endeared themselves to me and the time to be still I was afforded through the blessing of a respiratory infection. Two weeks ago I was in bed for five days, and much like graduation, my brain had some time to heal from the all the damage I inflected on it.

In my stillness I remembered where I came from and in that process saw some successes in my classroom. Three boys (known as Da Boyz) tumble, draw, rap and have a command of language that makes them my A students. We understand each other through a love of underground hip-hop and mutual appreciation of odd cartoons. These relationships sustain me. In seeing someone and acknowledging your vision of them you love them and you can both grow from the experience. At its core that’s what teaching is. I still have much to learn about organization and planning, but those are skills that can be learned and I know they will come.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mt. Elzy

Dear Friends,

Thanksgiving break is coming. The words themselves represent an alleluia to a first year teacher. Combine that with my coming home to Michigan to all my favorite people…you get the idea. At this moment that is the pillar of fire that is guiding me through the night. As for teaching:

Kurt Vonnegut once said of writing that for him it felt like he had no limbs and were trying to compose with a crayon in his mouth. I agree with that statement, and find it also applies to teaching. At times I’m looking at a text, or a lesson, and feel like I know nothing. I look and look and have to realize again and again that the way that I learn is not the way that I can teach this material. The difficulty in teaching someone younger, versus a peer or an elder, is that the assumed background knowledge is absent. Leveraging the existing background knowledge of students is the job of a teacher, but finding creative ways to do this while still creating new knowledge is one of the most profound challenges I’ve encountered.

In writing, in conversation and in life I have difficulty in deciding what is actually necessary. This in part because I found tangential and referential knowledge so engaging (see all those years I spent with T.S. Eliot). I guess one strategy I could employ would be to make numerous obtuse allusions and continue to teach characterization with them as a kind of seasoning…ha…ha.

Finding the right words and right amount of inquiry is where the work is. One cannot simply stand in front of students and ask them to read something and expect them to contribute ideas (though we literature people sometimes feel that the text calls up so many questions this is exactly what should happen).

Tomorrow I will stumble to the canvas again with my crayon…that is after I finish grading the mountain of papers on my kitchen table.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Go Hard

Dear friends,

I’m a week into The Crucible. I have to say I really feel like an English teacher now. Each day we start with the Go Vocab (word of the day) and then head onto a topical Do Now (Should you forgive people who have wronged you?) and then we launch into our DRAMATIC READING. A dramatic reading might be a student trudging through 17th century English (as perceived by Arthur Miller) in a monotone voice, or it might be someone standing on top of their desk shouting, “I’ll give you a pointy reckoning”( That’s right readers Abigail Williams goes hard).

In the course of teaching The CrucibleI’ve met challenges like, “Hey, where is all of this headed?” Or “Why is that student screaming at the top of their longs in the hallway and narrating their own actions?” or “Oh my, the Do Now and Vocab have taken twenty-four minutes instead of nine!” Managing time is a challenge.

The greatest hurdle for this week, and the next, is to figure out the proper pacing for the play. How fast should we move through the Acts? Etc. Right now we a trudging, which (if I were to be candid) is somewhat comforting because at least I know what I can teach each day…so maybe I’m clinging a bit.

There are days that teaching feels like high fiving the universe and others when you feel like the universe drugged you and left you by the side of the road without your shoes. The roller coaster of your first year leads most people to say that you “survive it,” which I won’t disagree with.

Let’s end with a high five moments: three of my students who are talented calligraphers made me some awesome signs for my Shout Out Board and The Crucible Plot and Analysis bulletin board (Yes Readers, Mr. Stevens goes hard).

Pictures to come,


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Cure for Sleepless Nights

Dear friends,

In high school I adopted a strange sleep schedule that would often leave me unable to sleep when I really needed to. I would be up on a school night until three or four in the morning. The time would be spent reading, writing and running over different scenarios in my head. At a certain point the carnival behind your eyes gets going a little too fast and you start thinking that maybe you don’t even need sleep. Eventually you crash and when the alarm blares you to wakefulness you hate that four am self – so it goes.

Last night I returned to that for the first time in four or five years staring at the ceiling, which after a few hours of tossing and turning slowly turns to talking to the ceiling.

“Why can’t I sleep?”

“Are you even listening?”

“What price bananas?”

“Why are there so many relationships that are really just secret eye contact that has no communicative substance and are supposed to be exciting because of that?”

“I really don’t want to call the parents of my sixth period students so I keep losing the paper with their numbers.”

“I forgot to buy floss.”

After a time this too lost its novelty so I opened my computer. On the internet time loses its meaning. Company and entertainment are at your fingertips, and 2:19 am is just three number separated by a colon.

But then Monday started to press its bald and angry head into my consciousness. Monday is a bald male that does not floss, and has emotional issues. Monday has emotional issues of the kind that manifest in a cry in the middle of dinner on date number two. They force you to pretend to take a phone call so you can get out of there and promise yourself never to date someone from the office again. After that date you pity him whenever you see him by the water cooler, but not when he’s standing by his car in the parking lot staring at you. That’s what Monday is like.

Fateful Monday with all its glitter and glamor – I’ve begun to realize that the anxiety I feel from when the alarm goes off Sunday morning to when I go to bed that night is not productive. Profound I know, I have a four year degree so we can give the credit to Eastern. When the first bell sounds on Monday the day presses on regardless of how much I prepared or how little.

At some point I turned away from the ceiling said, "Everything is going to be ok,” and flipped off the light.


Thursday, October 13, 2011


Dear Friends,

Sometimes you come home from the shop after spending $500 to keep your car running and your computer doesn't work. Sometimes you're trying to leave for a friend's wedding and there's an electrical fire in your house and you don't have power for a week. Sometimes a student looks at you first period and says, "I hate you and I hate your first period," and the person next to them says, "Yeah, me too." Sometimes all these things happen in the same month.

My last post was vague, intellectual and serious; three things white men have gravitated toward in place for emotion for centuries. In my growing up the last year I have not only become wiser, but more introspective. For example I know now that there are a number of careers I will never have: professional athlete, thespian, astronaut, physicist or President. Though that still leaves many options open, I feel that if each decade of your life had a title your 20s might be Disappointment Curbed By Alcohol or The Rest of Your Life.

All of this is to say sometimes you get down a little bit. There are successes though. I have all my desks. The school gave me a laptop a few weeks back - hence my ability to write this. My third period loves to read. One student wrote me two pages about Jay Z's Decoded and told me about his upbringing. I wrote him a letter back detailing events in my own life that mirrored his. This student is a "full-time job" for many teachers. After reading my letter he sat and worked hard the rest of the class period.

Today in the same third period I busted out some poems about Hip Hop and its creation of a way of life. One student who often sleeps worked to the bone. When the office called to say that his mother was there to take out him out of school early he wrote for one more minute and then looked at me as if leaving school were the greatest tragedy of his life. Moments like these overshadow the other more difficult periods of the day that are all too easy to linger on.

Tomorrow marks Homecoming, and more importantly, the end of Homecoming week at AEHS. I'm starting The Crucible next week and I pray that we can start picking up some momentum.

I'll write again soon,

Mr. Stevens

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Remember


I have not written in close to a month. In part this is due to letters that I’ve been writing to each of my students – in larger degree there has been my confrontation with growing up, which has proven difficult to put into words. The geography of grown up world is full of stereotypes, and as we know, I am not the first to make the transition.

In encountering the epidemic of absent fathers among my students I have come to face more with my own familiarity with subject. When teaching it becomes more important to see that aside from teaching content you are also teaching people skills. The conflict that arises again and again is the immediacy of emotion and its effect on reputation, and the ideas that literature often holds us to. As a quick aside I am not calling for some kind of moral idealism or the creation of so called “moral life”, but rather the simple pursuit of options instead of instant gratification found in feuds and drugs.

The thematic structures of the texts I’ve been teaching are, by necessity, reduced to a sentence or word. These are used to push students into higher thinking e.g. to think of the text as in conversation with the reader and the world, instead of just a plot. In several of my texts this past nine weeks the message was to “speak out against injustice.” I have realized since leaving college the difficulty of making texts both applicable and relevant to everyday life – especially to reluctant readers (what a unique problem!). The dilemma in teaching them is to continually realize what a challenging path that much of literature calls us to walk, or at the very least calls us to see.


There is a scene in Fellini’s “Amarcord” where the main character’s uncle is on a day trip visit from his time in an insane asylum. The uncle climbs into a tree and continuously shouts, “I want a woman!” He refuses to come down, the characters try throwing rocks at him and he still clings to the branches. Eventually a nun and an orderly arrive on the scene. They reprimand him and take him back to the asylum. We are all faced with the temptation of the mad uncle: to remove ourselves and say, “No more today. Give me what I want now or I’m just not coming down.” The power of that moment in the film is not in its resolution, but in the people who gather of that base of that weathered trunk and try and coax him (us) down – and how quickly those individuals will resort to throwing stones. When the uncle leaves the main character says, “We are all mad at times.” The climbing into trees and refusing to participate and give to the world what it wants is not a an action unique to madmen, teenagers or students, but the urge we must all deal with from time to time.


Integrity. A Jesuit word if there ever was one. Integrity, and its accompanying virtuous indicating brethren, do not capture the reality of experience, how isolating it can be to live with them. We are constantly faced with choices: to report to work prepared, to speak honestly etc. What is more is that we also able to break away from those values and make decisions that betray our purpose. When these choices occur there is no great chasm that opens up to swallow us or great illness that strikes us down – we can in fact live in hypocrisy and all the while delude and rationalize our actions to coincide with the belief structure we live under. These realities have illuminated themselves since I’ve left college. The Mississippi Delta forces one to climb into the tree and refuse to come down, or to keep one’s feet on the ground with constant temptation of those high branches. I cannot imagine living in that tree. Its promise is empty and I thankful for the figurative grass under my shoes.

In the next nine weeks we’ll be doing a comprehensive multi-genre unit on “The Crucible.” A drama that focuses on the Salem Witch Trials, but in reality is conversation about McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s experience being black listed. In re-reading it I am struck by the character of John Proctor. Despite his flaws he appeals to reason and tires to be honest, fair and blunt in his dealings. The world my students and I have inherited is one where we will be tested not unlike John. What I take comfort in – even as I hear the world implode further each morning on NPR- is that we are not the first to encounter such problems. Each person we remember great or small has faced challenges in making the narrative of their lives. Many of those challenges have softened with time. In our retrospectives what is right becomes clear with the story we create for that individual. When one looks closer at the wilderness of options each character in history faced all the dilemmas that lurk in each choice become apparent. Struggle is not new or a novelty, but at times we hope as much.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Give me an "M"! Give me an "R"!

Dear Friends,

Today when I came home to my apartment I attempted to use my classroom key to open my front door. I feel that instinct communicates much about my current state. I am my classroom at this point. I think about little else and as a result I took kids that I would mutter under my breath about to other teachers and made them excited participants in my classroom. Well…all except one who is seventeen and has tantrums where he pretends to be asleep and then bursts into what can only be referred to as an episode. I am told he never does this in Biology (another victory for science). He is the exception though. One of these students ready to burst forth from his cocoon into a literary superstar found himself in the context paragraph for our vocab. It described a student with a lot of “vitality on the court”. At one point at looked at me and said, “Is this about me?” I nodded. While I read it out loud he raised his hands in celebration to the class after he had written his challenge sentence – a fine moment.

I unveiled a college friend’s book donation (Claire and her mother both donated books – amazing people!_ that featured a biography of Lebron James. When I presented the book to the seven students jumped out of their seats and declared that they would be the first to read it. An argument broke out, “No I said it first!” ; “Mr. Stevens there’s no other book I want to read!” ; “Ah man it has pictures in the middle – pictures!” ; “Mr. Stevens you need to get a Kobe book.” ; “Man look at this!”. All the students crowded around the one and peered at each page with enthusiasm I did not know they possessed. If you have an extra copies of this book please send them along.

When I left school on Tuesday after a rather long day I slowly walked out into the parking lot lost in my own thoughts. I heard a “Mr.Stevens!” and found the entire cheerleading squad with their coach in the shade of a building. They formed up into a triangle and said in unison “Bye Mr. Stevens!” - written here you miss the melody, the echo of unified clapping, the smiles and the laughter from me and the gaggle of girls
I have made a transition – a crossing of a kind, a figurative Rubicon if you prefer – I can’t say when it happened, but all at once I feel different. I feel at ease in the hallways and in the classroom. I stopped letting every little thing let my blood boil. I’ve realized that my school has so much to offer. By no means am I done learning – I’m still “a duck on the water” as Gene Hackman said in that classic of our time “The Replacements” featuring Keanu Reeves.

I want to finish by shouting out three people: Debbie H- who is sending her second large donation of books. She is a woman I have never met. In hearing about me and my students she acted and galvanized her friends to meet my class needs. I admire her determination and willingness to give. Joni D- She has so much passion for TFA. She retired only a few weeks ago and is already searching for ways to not only help me, but also help teachers near her in Chicago. Lastly, my sister who came and visited me during Labor Day weekend and listened to all I had to say, had fun with me and made me feel loved. Aww. Come on everyone Awww. Wait - I'm going to cheat and do six. My mother, Dr. Christine N. and Dr. Doug B. They both sent huge donations! Christine got her parents and friends all the way up in Canada to send me an international package for my classroom. Vampires of Ottawa is going to blow someone's mind! You people are all amazing. I could go on for paragraphs about countless others, but I will end here for now.



Sunday, August 28, 2011


Dear Friends,

I have so often found myself reading or watching or listening to a story that I had begun to anticipate certain overtures in my own life. What no novel, teleplay or director can bring are the day to day moments that sparkle with infinity and drudgery. Time erases many of these for us – and most of us prefer it – but it is in those moments that our experiences gain their authenticity and excitement, so when something does happen it is a sparkler – bright and coughing up flame in the dark. There are many such moments here in Mississippi, but many have been lost on my tired eyes. This weekend that enthusiasm and awareness was restored thanks to my landlords. That sentence has probably never been uttered in sincerity – maybe in some bygone age.

There are people who restore your sanity. When in Ypsilanti almost everyone I knew was such a person, and the greatest gap for me in moving to Mississippi was the loss of that group. When searching for a place to live I cold called countless landlords and setup meanings, using my best on the phone customer service skills. Only one person gave me a positive impression, T---and E---. When T--- picked up the phone and figured out who I was he said, “Let me just first say thank you for coming here to teach our kids.” He explained that someone else was likely to take the house, but I insisted to look at it anyway on the off chance that things fell through. When I visited T--- and E--- they had me over for dinner and introduced me to their daughters. The daughters stood hands on hips. They grinned - all freckles and sandy brown hair - and said, “Are you going to leave like the last guy because we miss him.” The previous tenant had been a Corps Member – he still lives in town, but teaches farther away.

I knew I wanted to live above this couple’s garage, but the other renter was pretty sure they wanted it. As you may have guest they backed out at the last minute, and I write to you from that above garage apartment. Last night they had me over for dinner and we watched a movie together and ate ice cream after our delicious meal.
Their home feels like a home. Although there are many TFA gatherings, the houses resemble the residence we all lived in college – low on atmosphere and decoration, high on cheap furniture and eclectic cups. To be in a home, complete with knick knacks and area rugs and without a teaching supply in sight, restored my soul and resolve. My little break with T---- and E--- reminded me of why I’m teaching. On occasion I’ll look at the students and think: what am I getting them into? Paying back my loans, not sleeping, going bleary eyed in front of computer – I forget that this is not the norm.

The first year of teaching is a crucible and all the bad habits I acquired in college are melting away. Most of those habits were parasites that in return gave a certain sense of luxury and self-satisfaction. At this current stage in my life both luxury and satisfaction are earned with labor and dedication. All of that to say: Monday here we go.
Aside: The library is now at 140 books, 70 of which are checked out and being read by students. Thank you all so much for your contributions! This is so amazing, and underneath the obligatory teenage apathy I can assure you that there is joy taking place. One student who is reading the Graveyard Book started off not reading it. I asked him questions and he would give vague answers, and at some point he realized that he would actually have to start reading it, if only to make my obsessive, obnoxious and persistent conversation starters end. He came to class a few days later and said, “Hey Mr. Stevens this book is actually really good!” From there he told me all kinds of details – without me asking- and sat down and read it before class started. Students will surprise you. The rule of first impressions does not apply in the classroom – there is almost a rule of opposite expectations – with notable exceptions. The library is a success and continues to grow, which is wonderful.

The biggest request from students at this moment is for biographies. They crave them and ask me each day when I will get them. If you have any sports biographies lying around your house send them to me please!

To return to my meditation at the beginning before we depart: I have really begun my own story here in Mississippi and that is very exciting. The night is engulfed with all manner of sparklers now, and I will attempt to record them here. You can add your own as well through a book, a word of encouragement, a comedy recommendation (those keep me going) or just a quick hello – all is appreciated.



Photo taken from :

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Desk Saga

Dear Friends,

Let me tell you about today:

There are days in teaching when you are tired enough, and the kids press you enough, that the only desires you can muster are to pull the covers over your head and pray for an electrical storm or new national holiday. Today was such a day. The principal came to my sixth period and yelled at my students for thirty minutes about what it means to behave, which – though appreciated on some levels – brought that particular period further behind. After that I had an engaged group of students ready to go and in the midst of a lesson a horde of students lead by the janitor informed me that they would be taking all my desks for the rest of the day, and for all day tomorrow. They left me with six desks, which leaves 21 desks needed. There was a vague promise of chairs tomorrow; I hope to find them the room in the morning. If not, it means mebegging the librarian to let me hold class in the media center, which is a whole different problem because I would be unable to use my projector in that location.

A second year TFA teacher down the hall said, “Don’t stress.” While this mindset is probably the one needed, adopting it is proving challenging.

On the upside, last Friday when my schedule was devastated by the pep-rally I did get a chance to have some much needed individual time with students. One, a talker and instigator, confessed his want for the class to be quiet and his desire to read Julius Caesar. He said the latter by averting his eyes and whispering it, as if reading this book were somehow a sign of great shame and weakness. Being able to validate that want, and to soon be able to see it to fruition, is what makes the job worth the effort.

I also went to my students’ first football game. It took place in Tallahatchie. Behind the field stood steel silos that looked like the village the tin man grew up in. Bugs swarmed the Friday night lights and some one hundred people traveled to our team’s away game. We won in overtime after we lost a point for excessive celebration. The band played well, and I watched as the band leader performed field surgery on a French horn to bring it back to life. He employed zip ties, electrical tape and will power to get it working again. The dedication of these children and our staff continues to amaze me.

This is the hardest task I’ve ever undertaken. I know I can do it, and thankfully have no obligations this weekend (quite the statement to make on Monday). The rest is much needed. After the chair fiasco tomorrow is overcome, I will no doubt feel triumphant; the remaining weekdays merely pawns to be taken after toppling bishops, rooks and knights.



PS Updates on the library and independent reading forthcoming!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

End of Week One

Dear Friends,

I write to you at the end of week one. What a week it has been. There was the four hour long home room session, the ejection of a student from class and the desk shortage (still going, but I begged some chairs from the kind librarian). These challenges were counter balanced by the enthusiasm for the classroom library that exists because of your contributions.

The hurdles of the school district are great. On a strict facility level one is never sure what each day will bring. Midday on Tuesday my colleague across the hall had to go teach in another section of the building because there were too many leaks in his ceiling and floor (it’s been raining heavily this August). He created a new lesson on the fly and still managed to accomplish what he needed – well done Mr. Morris. That same morning a lighting storm ravaged the tress in both of our neighborhoods knocking at the power at 4:45am, which made the time before school its own adventure. I drove out of the gravel alleyway that morning to find a great oak fallen across the road. The electrical wires taken down by it were splayed around it like so discarded shoe laces.

On a student level: many are angry, apathetic and slow to trust (three qualities that are not unique to Mississippi teens). What compounds those typical teenage emotions are the achievement gap, a cycle of poverty and the lowered expectations of many of the people around them. When I sat next to my one ninth grade student as he struggled to read a book on a level for fifth graders, I felt compassion and sorrow. There is no understanding this problem, no great why to hang all the questions that arise when teaching only the repeated acknowledgement of what it is I’m here for: students.


My work humbles me. The enormity of my task is at times overwhelming. I can only teach the students in the room, which is to say that the other issues must be tabled during instructional time. The temptation is to run from problem to problem in attempt to address, console or combat the causes and symptoms therein. What is needed is an effective, organized and driven teacher – that is what I am striving to become. The road is rocky, the yoke hard and the burden heavy, but there are light moments too. I went to a basketball practice after school (our coach played for the Pistons in ’93! He had a ten year NBA career and played overseas). I had the opportunity to see the students perform without the constraints of assignments, notebooks and deadlines – the immediacy of the game dictated their focus to them. The sneakers screeched on the polished gym floor and they moved in elaborate patterns, falling back into diamond shapes, anticipating rebounds, and dunking. They lived for the ball and it glorified them. While my students glided around the court coach told me about their lives, their struggles and backgrounds. He pointed at one student, “He has two kids and another on the way.” That boy was a junior in one my classes. I went out and shook their hands before I left, they took a drink of water at the same spot where, in the morning, the students come in for the day and I check back-packs for cellphones and weapons in the morning. I drove home planned, went for a run and managed to get to bed by 11:30. My alarm rang quickly after that.


One of the week’s more energizing moments was contacting parents. They all were excited to be contacted by me and pledged their support to me as their child’s teacher. Despite my novice level at certain teacher tasks I can still take pride in my people skills. It felt good to go home knowing that I had accomplished something positive, though intangible. My years in the EMU admission’s phone center prepared me well for that aspect of the job.


I am grateful for all support I’ve gotten from strangers (now friends), my peers, colleagues, family, advisers, old teachers, professors, friends, EMU faculty and citizens of Ypsilanti. You all make it so much easier to wake up and do the work I’ve come to do. This week I’ll take some pictures of my classroom (and its awesome library!) and post them here. I look forward to writing again with more anecdotes as they come.



Thursday, August 4, 2011


In case you hadn't heard, I'm starting up a class library. Below you can see the first contributions that were made by some very wonderful people.:

Here's what this is all about:

Dear Friends,

I write to you with a request. I am building a classroom library for my 115 students in English class this year. Will you please donate books? The purpose of this library is to ignite my students’ desire to read, so that—eventually—they will become life-long readers! Right now, our classroom library is weak like clock radio speakers. First, there are more dictionaries than books. Second, many of the books are boring, old or decrepit (there are some that are boring, old and decrepit). For students who already dislike reading—in large part because they struggle with it—our library does not do much to help invest them in a culture of reading.

This is why I need your help. My students will be excited by the idea of receiving books from all over the country (many have not left Mississippi, and have no conception beyond the world of rural Mississippi). If you donated even ONE book, that would make a huge difference to my students!

The process to donate books is simple: go onto one of the following link, choose books to add to your cart and order them. For the shipping address put:

Andrew Stevens

307 ½ Weightman St.

Greenwood, MS 38930

Here’s a link to my amazon wish list, which I will continue to add to: (feel free to order books I missed or that you think my students would love!) I suggest buying books that are used because they are way less expensive. ALSO YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BUY NEW BOOKS, but can send ones that are taking up your valuable shelf space and buy a new book for yourself to replace it Yea!

Please feel free to pass this message to anyone you think would be interested.

Thanks so much for your time and for any support that you can offer to my students!


Mr. Stevens

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Transition to Greenwood: Catching Up.

In my last days in Ypsilanti many gave their opinions on Mississippi. Most reacted with groans, raised eyes brows or condescending shoulder pats. A few were more positive, but one particular individual – who had spent time in Mississippi – reacted quite vehemently. He declared it, “The Land that God Forgot.” He ranted for several more minutes and left shortly after. Spending time here I can see some of what he said. If I were to be compassionate I could see his emotions as frustration with the poverty here, the lack of upward mobility and the failure to do anything about it. I don’t really think that was the case, I think he was just a pretentious jerk.

The last seven weeks here have proven that indeed these people are forgotten by most of the country, but the people here rival anyone I know that is worth remembering. The Delta’s popular perception doesn’t differ too vastly from that of Flint and Detroit. I’m not sure if this indicates me as a purveyor of the underdog (What American doesn’t at least pretend to be?). But, none the less the realization needed to be shared.


I wrote the above at the end of institute (the training program I was in for most of June and July) and I write to you now from my one bedroom above garage apartment in Greenwood, Mississippi. School for me starts a week for tomorrow, just in time to commence the hottest month in Mississippi. When I accepted this position in TFA many people said, “It will be challenging work” “It will be hard work” etc. Anyone can accept a general challenge. It’s similar to when someone says to you about a person you haven’t met named Xanu, “She’s really interesting but hard to be around.” Most compassionate people will think Hey, she can’t be that bad. And then the reality of those general statements comes to fruition in gritty detail. Like she always interrupts you, or hogs the copy machine that you need to prepare every day, or at the onset of violence takes an apathetic approach, or has a forked tongue. All that said do not be alarmed. I am at peace; I know why I am here and have no thoughts of leaving. There just comes a moment when I encountered all the little details that will make up the school day and it’s shocking. All I can do is forgive it and know that I am here for the kids plain and simple.


In other news my house was struck by lightning my second night here. I left the house for twenty minutes last night, and in that time frame lightning struck. The storm flooded the street and I learned about another necessary piece of Mississippi equipment: knee high rubber boots. My land lords are sweet people. They had a big welcome barbeque for all the Greenwood Corps Members and embody southern hospitality.

My above garage apartment is sound, but unfortunately the land lord’s house next door is having issues. Here they run the plumbing and the electrical together, which means that the water main has about seven holes in it – which means it’s going somewhere other than sinks, toilets and showers. The water still works in my apartment, and they’ve patched the biggest holes – but they may still need to replace all the electrical and plumbing that would mean a hotel stay sometime soon for Mr. Stevens. I’ll get another good story to story anyway.

If you’d like to know what Greenwood looks like you can go see the movie “The Help” it was shot in Greenwood because it largely looks like it fits in the 1950s. There are virtually no modern structures in the downtown, but rest assured on the West side drag we have a Wal-Mart, Big Lots and other indications of mass consumption I’ve deemed a necessity to my existence.


Monday, July 11, 2011


Dear Friends,

My update will be brief this week. As I search for housing, wrap up summer school and figure out what possessions are essential to my life I have written a great many of things in long hand. In their present state those thoughts are only coherent to me.

On Thursday my students will take the writing and reading tests that will determine if they recover their credits for their junior year. These four weeks of summer school have been a roller coaster. What’s more is that I’ve reached the point of actually having a rapport with my students just in time for the program to end – but I find that life is full of such occurrences. Timing is fickle, but usually right.

Also, by Thursday I’ll be pretty close to locking in a place to live (at least that’s the plan).

School starts August 4th.

As we say in summer school: the time is short and the need is great.

Talk to y’all soon,


Monday, July 4, 2011

The Mississippi National Guard

Dear Friends,

The sun arced up at 6am and barraged Cleveland, Mississippi with heat. At 8:30 when I set off on my run sweat poured immediately, as if I were wearing a big sunglasses and passing through customs. Cleveland’s cobbled sidewalks, coffee shop Mississippi grounds and a jamboree of kittens marked my progress. Stymied grass pulverized by the sun lined the way. Each car that past received a wave and my shoes slapped the pavement, a background instrument to the Radiolab Podcast. On my return a short and squat woman on a red cruiser bike, with a red hat to match, waved me down. My ear buds plopped down to my shirt in a patch of sweat. She smiled, and the muscle work pushed her cheek bones up. A row of tiny dark freckles bunched together and then relaxed as she said, “Are you in the National Guard?”
“No, I’m in Teach for America,” I said.
“Oh, ok good luck,” she said.

She rode away, perhaps to question other citizens on her big red bike.

Welcome to the Delta.

In the military context I imagine TFA with a big American flag behind it, and a multicultural children’s choir singing a song written by Francis Scott Key.


Yesterday I went a looked at houses in Greenwood, Mississippi. A Corps Member who is no longer teaching led us through some houses. He wore a camouflage hat, a wrinkled beige polo and cargo shorts. He reminded me of an outdoorsy football player I knew in my childhood. He explained that he was taking a break from teaching to apply to MFA programs for fiction and would be working at JC Penney come winter to get through the year. We followed him in his BMW to the various houses and apartments. Along the way he pointed out where not to live. The houses were of a various quality, much were starter homes from the 70s. Lot’s of gray siding, stained carpet and intermixed with hardwood floors. The feeling generated was akin to that you’d feel if a realtor was taking you to look at houses and said, “Just use your imagination!” Thankfully our leaders did not issue this command.

Here in the Delta finding a house has no script, it’s all improvised. This Corps member was kind enough to lead us through the process, send us spreadsheets with numbers and locations and give us advice.

After seeing each house the reality and gravitas of my decision to come to the Delta began to settle in. There’s no regret behind those words just the filling in of details. My work is cut out for me. Our Corps Realtor in the camouflage hat spoke of the violence in his school, the challenges with his administration—I’m not in Ypsilanti anymore.

This is all pretty fragmented, but let me add this: Yesterday I went to Lake Village, Arkansas. I met up with some TFA alum and second years - most importantly Caroline (the person who made the five week care package and has been truly helpful through this whole teacher boot camp). We had a barbecue and sat for a time in the 95 degree water of the largest oxbow lake in North America! The relaxation time was great once I forgot about snakes and what could be near my feet at any moment.




"Decisions determine destiny." – Federick Speakman

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Home in Mississippi

Dear Friends,

There’s been a vast improvement in my life since I last wrote. I am no longer sick, and I will be teaching English. The latter occurred because it turned out TFA slotted a Social Studies Education major to teach English in my same district. The timing of placement and superintendent preferences created the mishap, but due to a talking to the right people it’s been resolved. Needless to say, I’m relieved.

For the past week I’ve been teaching summer school at Gentry High School. I have eleven students who will be juniors in the fall. In the short span of five days I’ve already come to know them a great deal. One student told me, “Mr. Stevens I wish you were staying here in the fall. If you were my teacher I’d come to school everyday.” The novelty of being the new young teacher has its perks. Another student I have, recorded on his goal sheet, that he wants to enter the music industry. He expresses little emotion and is quiet. When I placed information about free music editing software on a post-it and gave it to him, he held it with a huge grin like it was a check for a million dollars. These small moments make the long days of planning worth it.
My days start at 4:45am. I shower (the door to the bathroom revolving as my roommate suite mate and I get ready for the day), run through my checklist to make sure that everything I need is packed up and head off to breakfast by 5:30. Since two Mondays ago they’ve really smoothed the system out, but for awhile getting breakfast was the day’s greatest challenge. Some 800 Corps Members (CMs) surge outside the cafeteria. They flick off mosquitoes and move from foot to foot as if a hop-scotch game were starting at any moment. We all stink of bugs spray and nostalgically think back to the bliss of having one’s eyes closed. Once inside a breakfast of eggs, biscuits, potatoes and fruit were assembled. The mass of people splitting off with plates, coffee cops, backpacks, and sacks full of supplies precariously balanced in hand. We all bus our dishes and rush around the corner to fill up our Delta State lunch boxes. Some take more than the recommended number of items from each table. They snatch quickly and glance around careful not to make eye contact with other CMs, out of shame or anxiety about the implications of conspiracy one could not say. From there we flood out to the lot full of school buses. A staff member stands in front of a huge stereo with an iPod plugged into it. Music blasts us as were handed a news brief, and the sun begins to sneak into the world making the sky glow gun metal gray. Piled on the buses we head out one by one to our school sites. Crammed into the gray seats tattooed by student graffiti (usually a students name followed by profanity).Some sleep, some type frantically on their laptops and others listen to music and watch the fields roll by. The forty five minute bus ride is nothing. Distance no longer has the impact it did up north because there’s so little traffic. The scenery outside the windows is gorgeous and expansive. You can see ten miles (as the crow flies) in each direction, and that is quite relaxing. The fields are primarily populated with corn, cotton and soy beans. The green so bright it’s startling.

We roll into Gentry at 7:00am if not earlier and all march to our classrooms after signing in. Everyone – and I really mean everyone – is excited to be there. The enthusiasm of some forty type A high achieving people is contagious. At 7:30 we start school duty, running the cafeteria for breakfast, ushering students off their bus and holding them until the 7:55 bell. At 12:15 students break for lunch and we resume our responsibilities until 1pm, when we escort the last student through the smoldering parking lot and onto their bus. The school is almost entirely run by TFA staff, and the logistics behind it give me a headache, but we have an amazing school organizer. After that we’re in development sessions until 4:30, we take the bus home eat dinner and lesson plan, submit data and have meetings back on campus or additional sessions until 9:30. 4:45am comes pretty fast after that.
Gentry High School is a humbling place. There are no overhead projectors. The school looks like it got in a bad fight twenty years ago and never sought medical assistance, but it has charm and the people working there add to it. In the cafeteria there are numerous posters warning against pregnancy. One (photo to come soon) features an African-American girl from 1983 dressed in a plaid shirt with her hair done up. The top says it only takes once. She’s pictured weight shifted on one foot, hands on hips, eight times. Her expression shifts slightly in each one. Emblazoned above each pose is the word “NO” seven times. On the eighth it changes to “YES” and she’s pregnant.

Upon entering the school you encounter the trophy case and graduating class photos and Mississippi humidity. Thankfully the classrooms are well air conditioned. Our classroom (room 18) works great though. We have a huge white board and no broken windows. We have a college scholars and Shout-out board to encourage our students. In five short days the room feels like our room.
There’s more to tell. I’ll write soon. Mississippi is growing on me, and TFA is really giving me the growth I sought when I started the drive down here on June 6th. I hope life is going well for you all where ever this letter finds you. Your support and kinds words have been much appreciated.

Much love,


Sunday, June 19, 2011

First Day of Summer School

Dear Ypsilanti,

Tomorrow is the first day of school. There’s much to be done between then and now.I’ve got an upper repertory infection yet again, which means all I want to do is sleep. In Mississippi you can’t get products with Sudafed without a prescription, so that makes medicating more complicated. This information became apparent at the Wal-Mart.
Me: Do you have Advil Cold and Sinus?
Wal-Mart: You have to have a prescription
Me: Isn’t it an over the counter medicine?
Wal-Mart: Mississippi passed a law that says.. (past a laawwww sayze)…

Though that encounter itself is not too traumatic, it was the last inline on a string of events –combined with being exhausted all the time – that left me a little frustrated. It seems that I’m slotted to teach Social Studies in the fall instead of English, and there’s no one to really appeal on that. I may still try. The days are going from 4:30am to 10pm, and writing sentences is proving challenging. Every thought is interrupted with the bold letters B-E-D.

All in all Institute (the training period I’m in right now) is proving to be everything and more I was warned about.

A second year Corps member I went to high school with anticipated this. She gave me a package made up of five smaller boxes, one for each week of Institute. Each one contains an opening letter, a motivational note (to be opened on Wednesdays), some supplies for that week and sometimes animal crackers. Yeah, she’s pretty great.
I spent yesterday asleep, and I will spend today making sure all my ducks are in a row for tomorrow. This means a really long to do list.

I’ll be teaching High School Combo with Biology. That means two 135 minute blocks (One Bio One ELA). I trade off days with another English Language Arts (ELA) Corps member and our students are in the same room from 8am until 12:10pm. The highs school is in rough shape. No technology and a new Principal starting Monday. We’re thinking the service project we might do for them will be a cleaning day. The school for the summer is entirely TFA Corps Members. That’s both inspiring and insane at the same time. The bottom line: start your engines because here we go.

Live from the Mississippi Delta,


Image taken from:


There’s much more to discuss and I hope to write again soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Meeting the Mayor

Dear Ypsilanti,

Allow me some Self Indulgent emotional navel gazing:
Growth sieges the body. It is an unsympathetic pursuer of a new you and much will have to fall away for it to ripen. One manifestation, for me, is that in seeing the opportunities in the Delta I feel like I’m betraying those I have left at home. Intellectually I can understand the false logic of this statement, but emotionally it is a letting go of one place for another. The relationships, memories and experiences tied to a place become cemented in the past. They are no longer evoked in the interaction with a space, but only in long distance communication and mental recall. Transitioning from the stimulating environment of Ypsilanti to the new and invisible (though temporarily so) of the Delta is challenging. Challenging is an inadequate word if one ever existed, but it will do -enough emotional navel gazing.

I can say that my mood has severely improved since I wrote that first paragraph. I had dinner at the Mayor of Cleveland, Mississippi’s house.

(The Mayor is the one in red)

He and some local celebrities created a meal of fried catfish, chicken, squash casserole, cheesy grits, banana pudding, black eyed peas, black eyed peas with rice and collard greens -plus, all the free fine scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, wine and beer one could want. They do know how to throw a party down here. The community members were extremely welcoming and appreciative. They emphasized how wonderful they thought it was that we all came to the Delta.

When pouring my second scotch someone said, “Oh, Andrew’s Episcopalian.” The man looked over and said, “Well, I can see that he’s the only one who made it straight for the scotch.” The man looked surprisingly like Ted Kennedy. He informed me about the entire goings on of the church and the Delta. He introduced me to his friend who said, “We don’t have coffee hour after church, we have happy hour – the priest doesn’t call it that.” She laughed and touched me arm in the Mayor mansion’s backyard. A 6’5” river tug boat tycoon ran the bar and kept replenishing my glass.

After that I sat with a man who told me this, “We’re one of the few cities that have mosquito control. You see those trucks driving around shooting that smoke in the air? That’s not marijuana, so don’t drive behind it. Every once and awhile you’ll see a plane fly over too. Keeps those skeeters at bay.”
“What’s in the spray?”
“Mosquito killer.”
(He did solve a mystery. Those trucks drive around late at night hitting all the side streets jetting brown smoke into the air. The device in the truck bed looks like something from a Steam Punk novel.)

Somewhere in that evening I realized that I could love this place. The Delta is complicated though.

Mississippi State Flag:

Two Mississippi newspapers documented the evening. When that article posts I’ll let y’all know.
Once back at the Dorm I heard about the other cohorts’ community dinners (we’re divided into fifteen cohorts, and each group was invited to separate house). My roommate had dinner with a Senator and concert pianist. Others ate with the Chamber of Commerce and something called Ottomans, which we’ve inferred is neither the ancient empire nor the furniture you put your feet on. If I had to guess it’s something close to the Elks club.

Post dinner the resident party people rounded up the troops and tromped their way over to Hey Joe’s and the Warehouse. As in our first year of college hook up culture thrives. Give high achieving people access to alcohol and semi private rooms and they lay your ear to the ground for gossip. The peacocks fan their feathers and caw on the sidewalks. I took it easy this time.
Today (Saturday) is the day of the fish fry in Greenville, plus B.B. King is playing close by as well. I got the chance to sleep in today while everyone else went to take their Praxis test (the teacher certification test) – I guess student teaching did have some more concrete perks after all.


Andrew (Staying Iron Tough)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Need for Speed IV: Tractor Showdown

Dear Ypsilanti,

I’m about sleep for the second night in the state of Mississippi. There are 317 new people here with me, plus second year Corps members, and staff. We are Legion. Last night I went with three guys to watch the NBA Finals. One was from Miami, the other Dallas and the other Sacramento. We had a good time and the Dallas Miami connection made the game more engaging. When do you get that level of emotional involvement?

Hey Joe's is a little Indie bar near a Delta State University. The servers were friendly and accommodating to the Corps members that swarmed that bar. Old Rolling Stone Magazines were cut up and stuck under plastic at each table. The table cloths, combined with the record store at the front, gave the whole place a comforting aura. While we drank a rusted suit of armor hung suspended from the ceiling and oversaw our attempt to get acclaimed with Cleveland, Mississippi.
It’s crazy to meet people who have never been to Michigan, let alone Ypsilanti. I feel small. The network I established is way up there and now I’m way down here in a dorm room with suitemates and a roommate from Idaho. I’m typing this while sprawled out on my dorm mattress and all its glory. In many ways this feels like step back. Five weeks of dorm food and dorm life, but there is air conditioning. I look past these five weeks and see the challenges of first year teaching, but also my own place. There’s a vision of hanging up all the pictures I had framed before I left and filling my bookshelves…all those nest building activities.
I’m extremely grateful to be here. Each moment I spend with Teach for America I realize what an amazing opportunity I’ve stumbled into. Everyone around me has accomplished so much, and the diversity is incredible.

When I first drove into the Delta I merged off the main freeway onto the small side road that took me all the way to Delta State. I drove past an hour of cotton and wheat fields. I’ve never sweat so much in my life. On the way I passed a police car. The sirens flashed and wailed, all in the effort to intimidate the tractor driver in his cab fifteen feet above the ground. At the moment, drenched in salt water under the oppressive dominance of the sun, the difference of the Delta began to show itself.
Tomorrow I have the hiring fair, which will allegedly secure me a placement (which is the term TFA uses for teaching position). From 9am to 1pm I’ll be at Delta State’s Coliseum meeting with many of the Delta’s Administrators (No doubt I am a gladiator). On Saturday we’re being welcomed to Greenville for the annual Catfish Fry. TFA’s paying for all our beer and fish (all we can and eat and drink). I know I’ll have some good stories to regard that.


I’ll have more to report soon that’s exciting and intellectual. For now you’re getting my diary style letters.

Oh one last thing. Delta State's Mascott is the Fighting Okra

Need I say more?



PS leave a comment.It can be a hip-hop track or a picture of you giving me the thumbs up, whatever you'd like.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dear Ypsilanti

Dear Ypsilanti,

My adventure has begun. I’m Oak Ridge Tennessee for the night and tomorrow, in the wee hours of the morn, I will start out toward Cleveland Mississippi. Once I’m there I hit the ground running. The 9th is a mass interview day during which I will hopefully secure a placement at a school. It’d be nice to have one less thing to worry about.

Midway through the drive yesterday I stopped to get two large iced coffees and a Five Hour Energy. I called a friend a told him about the drive and how hilarious it felt to be holding so much legal speed in my hands. When I hung up I realized that all the people I could normally walk to see would soon be a thousand miles away…literally. With all the goodbyes I’ve had the past month it never felt like I was actually leaving. The brain cannot process that fact that the person standing right in front of you will soon be that far. Even being in Oak Ridge it doesn’t feel like I’m that far, until you look at a map, and even then what does that prove? When you drive for that long you enter a kind of trance, especially if there’s good music on. Hurtling down through Ohio and into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains you know you’re going far, but at the same time you can’t believe it.

Place is always a complicated matter. And it is further complicated by the speed at which we can travel.

Forgive the sloppiness of this post, but I simply wanted to get the correspondence started before things really got hectic. I’m going to end with the letter that I sent to Teach for America that started this whole adventure (forgive the comma errors, but commas and I have always had a complicated relationship):

To Whom It May Concern:

Working with young adults is the most important work there is. They reward, energize, challenge, and question in a way that few adults do. But, youth, even without the constraints of poverty and inequitable access to educational resources, is an intensely developmental phase. It is a time of over stimulation, when life choices are arguably more abundant than any other time. Students need a giving and compassionate adult to help them through that time. Often that adult is a teacher.
A handful of teachers and school staff had enough compassion to encourage me to pursue post-secondary education instead of military service. As a result, I am a first generation college student; without those few teachers I would not be the person I am today.

I believe teaching is worthwhile work because people are changed by it. Lives are transformed. I have not only experienced this first hand, but, embrace it as my calling. To teach means to invest great energy into assisting others in making these gainful intellectual and social transformations.

I went through my K-12 education in survival mode brought on by fatigue, dwindling resources and distraction. When I student taught I saw this same struggle in the at-risk students I worked with. When in this mind set students are not as fully cognizant of the transformations they are undergoing. The school day is glimpsed through a fog where whatever is happening on the board, in a textbook, or the lab does not connect. As a student teacher I was able to make that connection with students, and strive to do the same as a corps member. With connection, school becomes relevant, a place for growth, a place to be heard and a place of empowerment.

Once a connection has been made I strive to make literature and writing useful and a part of students’ lives. Writing has been a constant in my life. I believe everyone can, and should, write because it is in reflection that students can create their own narrative. They can break from who they are told they are and become who they want to be.

My success in TFA would be gauged in the rapport I develop with students and their families and students abilities to express and articulate their thoughts and understanding in writing. Teaching students to write, argue, to have a say prepares them not only to participate (e.g., vote intelligently) but also to effect change. Once my students gain the spark of curiosity that sets them on a path to being a life long learners, then they are no longer are dependent on me and can change their world.


Andrew P. Stevens

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Summer smells like comic books

April is national poetry month. I've been writing a poem each day, along with a whole lot of other people. Persuaded by their example, and more directly by a friend, I've decided to share some. Also, there are a few other posts in the works. I'm waiting for a feedback because their a little more complex than previous ones. Thanks for your patience and readership.

The poem:

Summers smells like comic books

And you walk out that first warm night,
Outdoor cafes and bars stew with conversation,
tumid voices rise in a great hymn
forks, knives and mugs accompany
there’s enough alcohol spilt to make it all melodic.

you walk down the street, belly full beer suds on your back pallet,
without a jacket. Each car that goes by
blasts the happiest song it knows,
whether it’s pop music, or just engine sounds.
You know the warm whether has come.

At home in your humid room
bugs beat themselves against the screen. A few sneak in.
The June bug buzzes on the wall, its wings obelisks grinding
grinding, and an ant’s drunken exploration in bed’s twilight
make you wish for winter for the insect genocide,
but you open a comic instead.
An indestructible man has all the sex you wanted,
drinks more than you ever could,
lives in the noir den of inequity you can only dream of.
The open window lets summer mingle with turned pages

the next morning the smell is still there, and not just a dream

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! Or: The Need for Freedom, Inquriy and Motivation In the American Education System.

The 1994 Children’s show The Magic School Bus had this slogan issued by Ms. Frizzle: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! I recently came across two pieces (presented below) that took Ms. Frizzle’s words and expanded on them. Together they present information that is essential to future classroom teachers, business owners and professionals: we can trust in beginners and freedom

First, a TED video:

Second, this OP-ED piece from the Times.

The essential information to get from the TED video is this: What have helped people creatively solve difficult problems with no set solution are not monetary incentives, but freedom and the ability to use their time as they see fit (see Candle Experiment). In the corporate world this is reflected in Google’s 20% time, which is when their systems engineers have 20% of their work time to dedicate to work projects they are excited about. What this means is that there is still a structure in place for work to be done. However, individuals get time to work on projects that they are intrinsically motivated to do. What results is some inspired and creative work (Gmail, Google Reader etc.)

In case you don’t want to read it the OP-ED here are the highlights: A legendary opera figure Goldovsky is teaching a novice student. The student found an error in sheet music that no expert had seen. Hallinan writes

“This paradox intrigued Goldovsky. So over the years he gave the piece to a number of musicians who were skilled sight readers of music — which is to say they had the ability to play from a printed score for the first time without practicing. He told them there was a misprint somewhere in the score, and asked them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked and in any way that they liked. But not one musician ever found the error. Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, the mistake was in did most of them spot it.

Goldovsky’s experiment yielded a key insight into human error: not only had the experts misread the music — they had misread it in the same way. In a subsequent study, Goldovsky’s nephew, Thomas Wolf, discovered that good sight readers report that they do not read music note by note; instead, they rely on their recognition of familiar patterns and on their ability to organize the music into those patterns and dependable cues.

In short, they don’t read; they infer. Moreover, this trait is not unique to musicians: pattern recognition is a hallmark of expertise in any number of fields; it is what allows experts to do quickly what amateurs do slowly.”

The key difference between the experts and novices are the read vs. infer tension, and that beginners are not in a hurry. What this indicates is that beginners are more aware and they are actually seeing, as opposed to recognizing patterns.

Awareness and visions are valuable assets to any company (Zen Buddhism has an area of their teaching dedicated to a constant beginner mindset). In the context of the classroom it is important to present students with a structured classroom pattern, but that alone does not tap students' full potential.

Where the TED video and the OP-ED piece overlap is at Vision. If you have the time (20%) and the encouragement to see (Valued as a beginner), to assess and move forward difficult problems can be solved. For students this means successes and experiences that they can look back on and feel confident about. They can become stronger learners and more readily encounter the feeling of cognitive disequilibrium (the feeling when you don’t know something) with more confidence.

20% time has been implemented as 100% time in some schools (See Summer Hill). They are taking the scientific reality of intrinsic motivation and applying to education. Now to make this about face in public education is unrealistic and incompatible to the diversity of learning styles, but affording students’ choice within a structure and acknowledging the value of being a beginner is a step in the right direction.

This is a big idea and I wanted to share its beginnings. There are complications like struggling readers, behavior issues, and students’ motivation to do tasks other then design Gmail. Plus there’s short class periods and the lived curriculum that each teacher experiences. All that said I can see this approach as valuable in all subjects areas. I also think that wealthier schools (see works on the Hidden Curriculum) have been using this approaching for some time. I’ll keep developing a vision for it and sharing it with you all.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Writing Update: Flawed Characters

I’ve been working on a longer fiction piece. I’m really trying to accept, and let, my characters be flawed. When it comes time to create a world the temptation is to make people perfect, to let them see the disaster ahead and allow them to divert it. Not only is that not exciting, but there’s nothing to really gain from reading a story of the nature. And even the perfect people on record in history didn’t avoid their untimely ends.

Working on a longer fiction piece is a humbling experience, and I’ve been reading like a madman to garner examples of people who do it well, but also make it enjoyable. I just finished Chuck Hogan’s Devils in Exile. His book Prince of Thieves was recently made into the movie "The Town" by Ben Afleck. I enjoyed the film. I found the characters captivating, and who doesn’t enjoy a good heist narrative. Hogan’s book is flawed, but it’s a page turner and it has guts to display itself honestly warts and all. What drives the narrative is the main character Neil Maven. We’re drawn to him; we care about him, though we really couldn’t say why. He just feels true.

It’s evident that Hogan had a fun time writing it. He’s working on a project with Guillermo Del Toro. It’s a vampire trilogy with their spin on the genre. There’s something to for just writing what you enjoy.

I was talking to my friend Michael S. I lamented that I felt I should be writing something closer to Wes Anderson scripts, or Noah Bombach movie. He told me he thought about that as well. The need to write something of literary stature, but he said with as mile, “I really just want to write something like ‘Kill Bill’.” Not that ‘Kill Bill’ is the exemplary of all literature, but the underlying point is to have a piece of writing that you’re happy with. A piece that has that comic book cool factor that makes you feel like your back in your pajamas in front of the television on a Saturday morning.

I’m on to Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik and I love it. The books I’m searching for, and am reading, are by authors that just pursued their vision. They let their works be as weird as the wanted, and didn’t stop to consider if their ideas were stupid or worthwhile: they just created. I’m attempting to follow that model.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Being Shot in the Head and Other Virtual Experiences

In high school I received an Xbox. With it, one wonderful Christmas, I also received an Xbox Live subscription and headset. Xbox Live allows you to play with others around the world live and speak to them with telephone quality. For an isolated individual who spent a lot of time inside already, this was a godsend. I made good friends with people I have never met from England, the Colombia River Valley, Texas and countless other places. My playing with them became organized, and we played the same games as a team against other groups. We had a website, we setup matches and even practiced. Levels were mapped and understood for their strategic points, little details and potential. Yes, I am publicly admitting my nerd-hood, and I regret none of those times. Those people and our interactions are another story. What fascinates me at this moment is that I interacted with these individuals in a virtual world that feels like actual physical geography in my memory.

Let’s take Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. I probably logged four to eight hundred hours in that game, if not more. I played it everyday for at least a year and half. The levels seem real. I can specifically recall one map better that the rest: a rainy bombed out city with a cafĂ© on the far left, a ruined square in the middle and one road that wraps all the way around. I can hear the rain, see the rubble and know what places to avoid. I have memories associated with specific locations within it. At the bottom corner where the Gold team starts “Uncle Pete”, a middle aged black man from LA, and I sat and talked about Jazz and current music for ten minutes why we waited for a sniper to move positions. Once, with my headset muted, I had one of my first beers with my brother-in-law over the phone on New Year’s Eve while in the ruins at city center (Man was I cool). I shoveled pop corn in my face, and dumped half the beer out. It was a Heineken. Gross. The memories, experiences and connection to places that exist on now a dusty disk in my sister’s attic are numerous, and I’m not going to list them all here (thank God). My central idea in brining this up is the way these memories don’t mix with all the others.

If those maps were actual geographic locations I could take someone there and forge new memories, but it is unlikely that I will ever revisit them. And even if I did, I would encounter a dead place, an empty place devoid of the people that made it interesting. If I return to Italy, my old apartment or my high school parking lot I cannot regain those moments or step back to that time, but they have changed i.e. “You cannot step into the same river twice” because the river has a changed, as have you. What cements the difference with the virtual world is that it is pixel for pixel the same. Nothing in it has changed except for the people that were present at the specific instance I remember. Those maps do not exist in the same way all the houses I’ve lived in do. My houses are real places. They have people in them right now. The virtual worlds I’m describing are dead places. If anyone is still playing in an eight-year-old video game map, it is in a much different fashion. Those virtual places have been abandoned and exist, if it all, in a stasis that is like a purgatory of a kind.

The way these virtual places remain real and unreal at the same times reminds me of this Derrida quote where he discusses a parergon, “a piece of work that is supplementary to or a byproduct of a larger work

“A parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done, the fact, the work, but it does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board. It is first of all the on (the) bo(a)rd(er).”

In this context the ergon is my life lived in actual space, and these games, that were designed to be diversions, are the parergon. They exist and “cooperate” with my other memories but are markedly different. I am struck by how these memories stick. Occasionally I’ll find myself thinking, oh Day Docks is where Rockstar got stuck in the office and made his way out with his pistol and we won the match. What a strange thought that if having occurred in real geography would indicate quite a different person.

The function and existence of these virtual worlds in memory makes me curious to see how future generation more intense immersion in these worlds will be impacted, and what – if any- are the affects on the perception of place. More to come.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Detroit Poet Interlude

This poem is by Philip Levine from The Simple Truth


Instead walk alone in the evening
heading out of town toward the fields
asleep under a darkening sky;
the dust risen from your steps transforms
itself into a golden rain fallen
earthward as a gift from no known god.
The plane trees along the canal bank,
the few valley poplars, hold their breath
as you cross the wooden bridge that leads
nowhere you haven’t been, for this walk
repeats itself once or more a day.
That is why in the distance you see
beyond the first ridge of low hills
where nothing ever grows, men and women
astride mules, on horseback, some even
on foot, all the lost family you
never prayed to see, praying to see you,
chanting and singing to bring the moon
down into the last of the sunlight.
Behind you the windows of the town
blink on and off, the houses close down;
ahead the voices fade like music
over deep water, and then are gone;
even the sudden, tumbling finches
have fled into smoke, and the one road
whitened in moonlight leads everywhere.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Existence and the Grocery Store

Our ability to go through most of the day as a stranger has increased. The cities we live in have changed. At first we had the suburbs, by which I mean true suburbs which were incorporated as part of a city. True suburban incorporation, in the case of Detroit, is more the case of Birmingham, Royal Oak and Bloomfield Township. As you move further west the nature of cities changes and the Technoburb emerges. I see the Technoburb as a place that is not anchored by resource, commerce or vacation spot, but is a hub of commuters, at home employees and collections of houses. It is curious to me because as we move more into a virtual marketplace where individuals can work from home cities change. They become unmoored and are no longer attached to a given structure. Often this means the elimination of a downtown, and the result is the public space that becomes commercial, and the market place is privately owned.

We are not allowed to linger or congregate in these spaces.

The change of city is isolating because we are expected to move in and out of the space after achieving our purchasing objective. Loitering is prohibited, and armed men or polite mangers, will escort you away. As a result we speak to almost no one unfamiliar aside from coworkers (maybe).

In previous eras there was a forum (see Rome) or at least a market where you might exchange ideas or hot gossip. Now we have the water cooler and maybe the pretentious coffee shop. The advent of television and the virtual world seemed the largest opportunity for connection and idea exchange, but as a country, we seem to have never felt more isolated from each other.

Before I leave this introduction for an anecdote, and my point, let me say that I am not calling for some previous era where everything was perfect. It never existed. I am simply interested here in taking a peek at our public interaction, about the privacy and quiet we entitled to while waiting in line.

In my grocery line yesterday, a man came through and started talking to me about the virtues of the market place. He explained it as an opportunity to exchange ideas. He said that we should not go to the store simply to get goods but, as in ages past, use the market as an opportunity to interact with our fellow citizens. His insight was sparked by his conversation with my previous customer about mathematics, economics and Wall Street. He, a businessman, and she, a snow plow driver, had a spirited discussion of America’s problems. I refuse to write this off as “time filler”. This may have been the one conversation these two individuals will have with each other in their life. In taking a moment to interact with someone we leave our routine and become more aware in a given moment. Frequently we avoid this awareness, and go through our days refusing to talk to anyone new.

I have many opportunities to notice it at my own store, but also at any public place I go to. We avoid chance encounters, conversation in public, people who seem to be “Talkers”, and yet are charmed by elderly men who seem to be able to break the ice and tell us a poignant anecdote. Basically we’re in a big hurry All The Time. There is ferocity in our independence, which at its limit results isolation and depression, which seems to be an epidemic these days.

In public we expect silence and space, and independence from others. We have this same desire as Americans in our communities, houses, living rooms and friendships. Many of us simply want to be left alone. As a result our already myopic experience of existence becomes narrower. In pained interaction in the supermarket, the library or the drug store we have a chance to break this routine if only when waiting in line. I can tell you from interacting with so much of the public that there are a lot of interesting people out there. There are a lot of psychopaths and degenerates too, but it all makes for a good story at some point. I am not insisting that we go out an attempt to solve the answers of the universe at the supermarket, but perhaps when waiting in line see what the person next to you is really thinking about. Step beyond “How are you?” (An awful question if there ever was one), and see where else you can go.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning and the Process of Becoming

I’m back after a hiatus. I wrote many posts, but didn’t feel they were worth posting, which should explain the More You Know/PSA tone of this post.

T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday begins

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn

These lines possess that same attitude that is the core of the Sisyphus’s story. Sisyphus pushes the same rock up and down a hill for eternity. We can imagine that each time the boulder reaches the top of the hill he hopes that it will rest there for a time. Instead it rolls down the other side, and for a brief moment Sisyphus is relieved, happy to have reprieve for his work. If we combine that story with the lines from Eliot, and imagine Sisyphus turning again at the bottom of the hill to push the boulder to its crest once again, we can see that Sisyphus both hopes again that this will be the last time, and that he is exhausted with the pushing. The exhaustion and doubt are the most intense at the bottom of the hill. Fresh from a moments rest he begins again, and cycles through the same emotions.

I bring up this story and lines of poetry because we face this same struggle each day. We wake each morning and have the option to turn. We wake each morning with the freedom to adopt the willingness to experience our life, or to run from it. With a decision to be willing comes great risk. These moments are not epic, these decisions do not contain the intensity of battlefield courage, but are reflected in our decision to take a pottery class, to spend a day at the record store, to draw or write for an hour even if we consider our products shit. They are the risks of enjoyment, to venture into new hobbies, ideas and communities of people despite the chain smoking elderly woman in our hearts who tells us everything is dirt and sounds like a fascist version of Diane Rehm.

Last Friday I went record shopping for the first time. A friend was nice enough to give me a record player as a graduation gift. Upon receiving it I was immediately filled with excitement. I envisioned my record buying day to rival that of any other event in my life, I would discover the music that spoke to my core, and reach new plains of musical ecstasy. These expectations were not so grandiose before the trip, but the hyperbole functions well to indicate my emotional state. When I arrived at Record Time I stepped in with the friend who had bought me the record player, and immediately was consumed with doubt and fragmentation. Who is this artist? What is good? What price bananas? My friend set out picking through the stacks for the artists familiar and unknowns, and I began the slow and arduous journey of trying to figure out where to begin and where to spend my time.

As the day pressed on, and more stores were visited, I become slightly more confident in what I was doing. I had gotten the boulder off the bottom of the hill, and my friend had let me struggle. If he helped me with the boulder something would have been lost – a different topic for another post. The important thing is that two days later I finally got the chance to listen to some of those records. I picked up about fifteen 45s of old Soul music, and some Detroit electronic music. As I sat and sipped coffee I realized what I wanted to look for next time I went out. I reaped my harvest, my labor of listening to some 70 45s paid off. All the dead ends were now fun in retrospect.

Dorthy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” In the struggle of pushing the boulder, in deciding to turn, in feeling anxious, fragmented and doubtful there is no instant gratification, but if we persevere there is reward, but it doesn’t mean we have to be Pollyanna about it. There is a moment of pure humility in this realization, that each of us sets out to attempt to find “a little present”, a slice of enjoyment. For some this could be a cup of black coffee and a slice a pie, a Drexciya record, or that chair for the living room that fits just right, after six months of searching on caigsist. Cheesy moment over, high fives to the kids, be cool stay in school.