Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let's Be Happy

Dear Friends,

I’m surprised to head into the seventh week of school already. Though, truthfully, another part of me is chagrined that it’s not week 27. This seesaw between wanting to rush and being present is one I know I’ll content with the rest of my life. As will we all.

 The decision to be happy now is one we are always faced with. Fear often rises up, or the sense that it’s settling to find contentment  in a given moment.  I wonder how much of this need to always be producing, consuming and improving comes from our economic system and the unending bombardment of advertisements that promise happiness. Yet, in tension with that consumer ideal, we are so reluctant to change. It is writing, and the sharing of writing, that brings me peace in the seeking of balance between all the forces at play.

The examination of our complexity is inexhaustible. 

I started writing with one simple goal: to share Dan Gilbert’s TED talk with you. Gilbert addresses this idea in a much more detailed and satisfactory manner. Synthetic happiness is something that we could all use more of.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Missing Security Man

Let’s call him Mr. Noel, he runs the discipline at my school. Being head of discipline consists of running around telling students to tuck their shirts in, pull their pants up, get the correct belt on, walk in a straight line, finish eating lunch in the twenty minute window and walk on the right side of the hallway. All of these duties offer little excitement. The one I did not mention was his intermittent appearance at bag check. 

Mr. Noel is a large man, an ex-prison guard and would be a solid match for any NFL linebacker. He wears tiny glasses.   There are many creases in his forehead which direct the viewer’s eyes down to the small and intense dark eyes buried in his head.  

Recently the administration decided that snack food would become outlawed. 

“This school ain’t your nasty house. You can’t just leave your trash laying around, uh-uh.” To quote one of the authority figures responsible for the implementation of this new policy. 

No one argued. 

The outlaw is enforced mostly when students enter the school during bag searches. Backpacks are checked in the large gym that holds a stage, a full size basketball court and ten rows of bleachers rising into the air like the steps of some Aztec pyramid. The student trudge into the gym at 7am through the dormant concession area coated in bus exhaust. Their hair is plastered to their head, flat ironed, braided, extended or sometimes “just hangin’”.  Snacks are their currency and the prospect of having to smuggle them in only increases value. 

Amidst the stream of the well dressed and sleepy eyed entered a student large with child. She passed through the line with little inspection and muttered her good mornings. 

Mr. Noel stopped her and opened her bag.  Three large bags of chips came out. They fell to the table with a fat smack and were quickly ushered into the trash can. 

All other traffic through the bag check area halted. Students turned to watch Mr. Noel. Even the bleacher gossip halted as he retrieved the final item from the bag: a single travel sized tube of Oreos.
“You don’t need these cookies,” Mr. Noel said. He locked eyes with the pregnant student who was only making sounds like uh, oh, and wha – these sounds were cut off as Mr. Noel begun to crush her cookies in his Texas sized hand. He crumbled them as if he were crumbling her dreams or cheese for his favorite pasta dish, his eyes never leaving hers.  Laughter seized the other students as the joy spread across Mr. Noel’s face.  The other bag checkers did their best to bite their tongues, but his saying “You don’t need these cookies,” echoed in their heads, along with the ferocity of his eye contact and created a gale of schadenfreude  induced laughter. 

The force of his crushing caused the pack to pop open. At that point he discarded the cookies on the table. Thwap. 

“You can go,” he said. 

The pregnant student scurried out to catch breakfast across the breezeway. Mr. Noel resumed his bag checking duties and remained present on campus Friday. This week he has not been seen. While there’s probably a fair reason for his absence I can’t help but imagining that these events are connected. 

It turns out however that he was absent for Jury Duty, which sounded like the most wonderful paid vacation to all the teachers who had the gall to ask about his absence. 

When I related this story to an impromptu TFA lunch in at my landlord’s house my landlord’s daughter said, “How could she be pregnant if she’s not married?”

Friday, May 25, 2012

End Part One

The Year is over! And now a video message:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Can I Borrow Your Stomach for a Year?

This week’s Radiolab (a fantastic NPR show if you have not heard it) addressed our guts. Here’s a quick summary of the first Act: in the 19th century a scientist, Dr. William Beaumont, saves the life of a gut shot individual, Alexis Saint Martin. Martin retains a hole in his stomach that allowed aforementioned scientist access to his insides by dropping and removing food at will, as well as naked eye observations of the surface workings. He does these experiments for the remainder of Martin's life. Previous to this point it was thought that the “bowels” were only connected to emotions. Beaumont is the pioneer who essentially realizes the stomach is “a big muscle full of juices.”

Beaumont pressed into unknown territory and created a map. When we press into an unknown territory over the course of a few decades – or even centuries – we take a detailed topography of the geography. These discoveries change our colloquialisms, even the way we perceive ourselves, and construct our identity. For our generation the unknown landscape is the brain.

It’s odd that our bodies which we are each at the maximum level of intimacy with can be such a mystery to us – even our realization that it is a mystery is a function of it. Our bodies can surprise us and betray us all while remaining enigmatic. In our information age the degree of mystery is constantly decreasing and, at the same time, becoming more complex. We have constant access to short articles, radio programs and television programs (even entire stations) dedicated to our personal biology.

Will these discoveries impact our identity as we strive to achieve mental, physical, and spiritual health, or will it plunge us into a level of neurosis that will destroy our civilization?

History may tell us – when he returns our calls -that nothing extreme will occur and the changes will be negligible and slowly accruing. Perhaps, in greater knowledge of self, we will usher in a new era of self-regulation. Where we would use hand held digital medical monitoring devices, detailed applications to track diet and exercise and sleep, all to strive for optimal health. Our new found knowledge could press us into a new era of personal responsibility where we can only blame ourselves or the super wealthy.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Flimsy Cards Afraid of Houses

And I forgot why I overloaded Scenario’s 1997 Honda Civic gills and drove her to the Delta.

John Ashbery begins many of his poems in the middle of a thought, usually via a conjunction. Abruptness is the truest form of beginning. There is no cradle to crave narrative – not even our own – that unfolds perfectly. At times it is that these false expectations that prevents me from updating all the wonderful people back home. Damn it I am good at making my absences seem so poetic!
And we started catching up.

…I forgot why…

I forgot in the stream of days where I pushed school from my mind once I arrived home. The items to share and say piled high:

Creative Writing

My creative club took off in a spray of sparks and in shouted lines in the center of my humid classroom after I caught a six minute nap at my desk. This week my students will begin work shopping their poems and will prepare to submit. AND….my creative writing class is a go for next year. I got it back on the books!

Time to Teach a NOVEL – j/k

I figured out that questions are an essential to my classroom. I flew high on this after teaching a Sherman Alexi e piece “Superman and Me” just in time to teach a novel. This realization butted right into the block schedule. Block meant all my students would were exchanged for the sophomores. I learned I do love my job. Within all the gripes and mutters into my coffee cup I forgot how my juniors kept me going. Test prep did offer its own lessons. New students gave me some steel in my spine that was much needed. Test prep objectives are more concrete so my goals for each day became clearer.

And I remembered how TFA convinced me to leave all and every.

Tonight we met to discuss the ELA pilot, which is the framework TFA adopted in Nashville and the Delta for English teachers. These visiting staff members were a reminder how hard everyone in TFA works toward a single goal. Surrounded by so much enthusiasm and passion and people who knew what I attempted each and every day…that reenergized me. I am a part of something and it’s so much bigger than I am.

In forgetting my direction and reason for traveling all seemed for naught. I also had two cups of coffee at dinner, so the first draft of this post came out as an existential metatextual poem full of conjunctions and phrases like “We’re a deck of a flimsy cards afraid of houses.”

Caffeine, now with delusions!

Final note of this hodgepodge:

Student: Can I call you Steve?
Mr. Stevens: *questioning look*
Student: So it seems like we're on familiar terms


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mr. Stevens Dances

Hey all,

I danced today. Yes, that humiliating act that Usher far outdoes me in.

The Elzy basketball team is the number one pick in our division, which means that they could be going all the way! We had a pep rally today in honor of our first game in the bracket. During the pep rally I was selected to dance for the Juniors against four other teachers. Yes, the act that I find embarrassing to do in front of drunk people in dimly lit rooms on special occasions was performed in front of 645 high school students in a brightly lit gym. The expanse of polished wood floor left me in a no mans land with nowhere to hide. The bleachers surged with screaming children and I did my best to white boy shuffle to victory

Dance moves attempted:

Moon Walk
Two Step
Handicapped Wobble
Hustle and Flow hand wave thing
Standing and looking surprised that music was playing
Spinning on one foot
The Running Man

I came in second place according to the audience cheer-omter.

Most of my students laughed and patted me on the back (this was largely in part due to some moves I borrowed from "Hustle and Flow"). One however said, "Mr.Stevens you can't dance," which is a true statement.

But! After committing the dance humiliation ritual for the 454 time in front of some pretty talented dancers, tumblers, musicians, cheerleaders and star basketball team I feel pretty okay.

As one student (who is in my awesome creative writing club!) pointed out, "We were all just having fun."

Wisdom. This is the same student who prefers to read the thesaurus during silent reading time, and when he is forced away from that he pulls out something like The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and will begin to pontificate on the wisdom he's gained on his past experiences.

Overall it was a good day.

Other updates:

The class library is booming. Debbie Haines chose some amazing books that kids are battling each other for. If there's on thing that I love more than seeing two teens fight (as do you America [see Hunger Games]) it's seeing them fight for reading.

Lastly, I have a creative writing club that meets once a week now. We began with persona poems and now the club members accost me in the hallway to recite lines from their new raps and poems. One student who is in two of my classes and my club is also writing a short story. I told him he had a knack for dialogue. He immediately he ran up and down the hallway shouting to his friends, "Did you hear that cuz? Mr. Stevens said I'm good at dialogue! I'm good at dialogue."

These are moments worth living for.


Mr. Stevens

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Weeks not Days

Dear Friends,

Quick update:

I’ve started to think in weeks instead of days. Why this might seem like an obvious transition to some in actuality it marks the transition to the daily scramble to long term planning. Granted there is still work to be done the night before, but I’ve begun to understand much more concretely where I’m going.

As the year has gone on my room has gained some important additions: a homework board, a new independent reading response form and tons of books! I’m actually back logged at the moment and need to get another bookshelf for the classroom. Keep your eyes peeled here for a Donors Choose project – one of two I plan to launch. The other project will be a class set of a text TBD.

I thank you all for your support and what you’ve given my classroom and my students.
Just a quick inventory:
-Over 300 books
-File organizers
-100s of pens, highlighters and paperclips
-Kind and encouraging notes (x20)

Through this process I’ve realized that so many people have an amazing capacity to give. On grueling days (such as today) I take comfort in that.