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.