Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shine

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.

Sincerely,

Andrew






Photo taken from : http://www.flickr.com/photos/derekskey/

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.

Sincerely,

Andrew

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.

Sincerely,

Andrew

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book EXPLOSION!

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: http://amzn.com/w/6JVMKOMS0EQ1 (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!



Cheers,



Mr. Stevens