Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Yesterday was language development day.  After a successful attempt at getting the Snapper dressed without a fuss–victory is mine!–taking a stroller ride to KMart for laundry detergent, and some wonderful freeplay, we played with a stack of letter cards together.  They’re the kind with the letter and some sort of representative object.  We just went through them saying the object and the letter it begins with.  I didn’t think it would make much of an impression (he’s only 2 1/2, after all), but at the bus stop as we were hunkered down watching the miniature world of the sidewalk I asked him, “what letter does ‘ant’ begin with?” (‘ant’ was on the ‘a’ card specifically) and he answered “A, Alligators all Around!” quoting a song we love.  It was thrilling.  Of course it could just be a coincidence and he certainly doesn’t know all of his letters, but it was cool.

After lunch/reading/nap we hopped on the bus to the library, where he had a tantrum over sharing at the train table (seriously, if you are going to have your 14-year-old babysit, please forbid them from texting) and got to see his favorite babysitter.  Then we met Attic Man and friends for pizza downtown.  One of the Snapper’s most favoritist of Attic Man’s friends was there, and he was ecstatic to have the friend carry him partway to the bus stop to go home.

I wanted to say a couple of things about this preschool-at-home approach.  First, it’s mostly for me.  I need structure to, as Kohana phrased it, always be moving toward the “next thing” so I don’t get stuck.  Second, I really believe there are as many ways to parent as there are kids, and that lots of people do it with very little structure and their kids thrive.  Mine wasn’t (well, as much as he could be), and I wasn’t, so I did what was needed.  Third, I am not in the least deluded enough to think that this will necessarily give the Snapper any kind of academic edge.  He already lives in a language-rich environment with adults that pay attention to him and include him.  Honestly the teaching is just a lot of fun for both of us.  The moment it becomes work we will change it up.  I imagine the unschooling people have a similar philosophy with their older kids, and I can really get behind that.  Learning should be fun.

One of the nice things we’ve arranged these days is for Attic Man to do the entire bedtime routine so that I can go to our Community Garden plot in the evenings.  It’s been so nice to get my hands in the dirt.  I’ve planted peas, broccoli, romaine lettuce, okra tomatoes, peppers, rosemary, cilantro, green beans, and cosmos for the ends of the rows.  And I’m planting more today!  I may run out of garden before I can use up all my seed packets.

And the Snapper this morning?  Playing happily in his room.  He hasn’t called for me yet so I’m enjoying the time to myself.  He has never done that before.

So life is good.


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Good enough

I’m working on a letter of application for a job for next year and I’m in the middle of a section where I talk about all the cool stuff I did when I taught adjudicated teenaged boys at one of those crappy outdoor-adventure, really boot-campy-type places.  I am surprising myself with how much passion I remember having, how much fun I am starting to realize that I had, and how good at it I was.  The teaching end of things was tailor made for me: completely, totally, wide open.  I could do whatever the hell I wanted as long as the boys were occupied and completing the work their schools sent for them.  So I did lots of cool innovative things that you’d never have the time or consent for in a traditional public school.

At the same time, though, I was utterly miserable.  The camp where I taught turned out to be an awful place.  On the mild end of things, it was more of a way to warehouse kids nobody knew what to do with (and there were plenty of kids that didn’t commit any other crime but being too difficult for foster care) and the programs they had for them (like PT every morning) didn’t do anything to help or rehabilitate them.  I saw plenty of kids who actually got worse and more hardened during their time there.  At its worst, it was an incredibly sexist, misogynistic environment in which the only women who got respect were the ones who took on as aggressive an attitude as possible (and I’ll note that those women were NOT aggressive towards the kids, only the male staff).  My authority was never backed by a man the way the men backed for each other.  I had to stand on my own merits, which worked and was hard won, but the boys were getting confirmed what they were already learning in their own homes: women were shit and the world is based on power plays between men.  I saw kids get physically restrained for looking at a male staff the wrong way.  It was not a good place.  Over my time there I gained a bunch of weight and my face became weary and sad.  Attic Man and I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, either, and not much time, as the commute was an hour each way.  It was a hard time.

And yet here I was doing these great things with my teaching.  It dawned on me today as I started writing about what I had done that no matter what I can say about the present moment, I am almost always doing something valuable and important.  I am not pleased about my progress on the dissertation but it’s not because I’ve been sitting on a futon eating Chinese takeout and smoking doobies.  It’s because I’ve been raising a fabulous son.  Here is a boy that has grown, in  large part due to my almost constant nursing, into a healthy toddler.  He is a clean, fed, babbling, happy, walking, running boy.  I label everything we see, I take him to the park everyday to see the trees and pick up sticks and eat them, I rotate his toys, I wash his clothes, I draw his bath water, I take him to meet other kids, I nurse him when he’s hungry or sad or hurt, I tell him jokes, I laugh at his, I make him go to bed or take a nap even when he doesn’t want to.  I’m doing a good job at parenting this child and I need to remember that even as the dust bunnies play on the kitchen floor and the cursor on my dissertation blinks and blinks and blinks.

P.S. I did write something today…

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1.  Thanks for the reassurance—it was comforting, don’t get me wrong—but I do think there’s a discriminatory element to my Brown Babies dilemma that goes beyond my specific emotional connection to not-Boomer.  It was a problem before we were very deeply at all in the adoption process.  I also want to say that I don’t think I’m some kind of horrible racist, but that every cultural tendency exists as a spectrum of attitudes of varying severity.  Just where to draw the line between what is appropriate and not is where it gets hairy.  Last spring I talked a lot with my students about how the Cult of the Child (a nineteenth-century phenomenon that we still have with us: an obsession with children that sometimes goes so far to sexualize them [see “Little Miss Sunshine.”  No, really, do!  It’s a fabulous flick]) is present both in pedophilia, which is definitely not OK, and in Anne Geddes photographs, most of which offend very few of us.  We discussed how hard it is to examine yourself and see how you can be outraged at child beauty pageants but still hold Cult of the Child attitudes yourself.  So while I’m obviously not in the same camp as skeevy guys who rent videos featuring hot “urban” women, my thinking that brown babies are prettier or more desirable (non-sexually, duh) is part of a white tendency to exoticize people of color, and I have to figure out what to do with that.  Whether it’s just a matter of liking difference, which may also be a personality trait (I’ve always made friends with people very unlike myself, regardless of race) or something more sinister is what I have to figure out.  I doubt I’ll ever understand it completely, but I owe it to my family to try.

2. Babymoon was a great success.  We swam, hot-tubbed (at a safe temperature, of course), movied (you must, must, must see the new Bond—incredible), read magazines whilst sipping coffee and nibbling desserts at Mega Book Store, finished shopping for the baby, filled out the beginning of the Snapper’s baby book, went out to lunch, had a marvelous walk/romp in the dog park, had dinner delivered to our room, watched SNL from the tub, cuddled, and generally had a good old relaxing time.

3.  It’s funny how the words “still pregnant” change throughout a pregnancy.  At first they’re words of relief: “I’m still pregnant, thank God!”  At some point, though, they become heavy with fatigue: “yep…STILL pregnant, unfortunately…”  My body is worn out, tired, fed up.  Please send good labor vibes in this direction.

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Between the two of us, Attic Man and I have gone through 250 sheets of printer paper this weekend.  I say "so far" because the day is not over yet!  And we are still working!  Happy, happy Memorial Day.

Still, it feels good to be prepared for the Prospectus meeting on Wednesday (I keep calling it a "meeting" and the committee keeps calling it a "defense") and I shan't think about anything Prospectus-related until approximately five and a half minutes before the meeting begins.  And then after the meeting! I will get to start on the dissertation.  I love that new and fresh reading phase before the real nasty work begins.  You know, the lovely exploratory phase.  I feel like I'm due after the past year.  It's tantalizing amassing a bibliography–intimidating, too–and I just can't wait to get started.

Alas, I cannot simply rest until the meeting.  Summer teaching packs a real punch: two three-hour classes a week with five-page paper assignments to grade every week between Tuesday's and Thursday's classes (don't blame me; the University's designation of a "W," or writing-intensive class, requires that students write at least 25 pages over the course of the semester.  Only have six weeks?  Too bad.).  I'm finding that the length of the class demands considerably more planning on my part.  I've taught a three-hour class before, but it was only once a week and I had a super-talkative class.  This class has less experience with literature and is less skilled (no less capable) at reading poetry and therefore needs more structure.  So yesterday I wrote ten in-depth questions for a poem they will read in pairs (I'm big on groupwork for this summer course to break up the monotony, and also because poetry-reading lends itself to paired work) and today I'm finishing up my lecture-reading of a poem.  The class is already weary of whole-class readings of poems, and we haven't been reading our texts long enough for them to have a toolbox full of poetry terms and reading strategies, so I'm going to give them an example of a good reading.  I'm trying to make it the same length as their papers.  I tell myself it's so that they will have a better idea of what a five-page reading looks like, but I think I'm also trying to get some cred with them.  I'm trying to say, I think, "look!  I am working right along with you," which is something I've always tried to do with classes but haven't up till this one.  Somehow I'm more committed and more organized, for which I'm very proud, even though I'm unsure of what has brought it one.  Oh, heck.  Might as well blame it on the wonders of the second tri.

Tonight I'm also going to try to plan Thursday's class so I don't have to worry about it on Wednesday (and I will be grading 16 papers then, anyway, before and after my meeting).  I have my first Prenatal Yoga class on Wednesday night and I don't want anything hanging over my head (except for my feet, of course!).

I am missing the nice day and that makes me sad, as we have little sun in Pittsburgh as a rule.  Attic Man is out on the deck with the dogs and his laptop so he isn't missing anything.  I go out there anytime I have reading to do, despite the fact that our deck chair is charged so magnificently that I shock the dogs everytime I bend over to tenderly stroke one of their ears.  This weekend, though I have been mostly trapped inside.  Stinks.

Hope your holiday is wonderful— 

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This morning I woke up hopping mad. Admittedly it was in part because we are experimenting with letting the dogs sleep in the bedroom with us and Lenny has decided that 6 a.m. is a magical hour. As far as I am concerned there's nothing magical about anything that happens before 8.

Mostly, though, I've apparently been stewing about this and this and this and this all night.  Also, about what Angela continues to have to go through in order to tell a truth nobody wants to hear.

Two are about adoption, one is about sex preference, one is right-wing bigotry, and one link is to a woman speaking the truth about welfare. But what they (in all but one, the criticized, NOT the blogger) all have in common is the fallacy of the status quo. The fallacy runs like this: I am white, heterosexual, middle-class, married or about to be, and a Christian. My way of life is right. I chose my way of life. I got here by being righteous. If you are outside this paradigm, you are outside of the will of God and must be punished/changed/ostracized/marginalized. If you are pregnant out of wedlock, on welfare, gay, live in a third world country or, well, dress funny, you deserve my rebuke/pity/help/rejection/infantilization.

Here's the problem. Being white, middle-class, heterosexual, married or about to be, Christian, etc. are all accidents of birth. OK, so maybe you were born in the ghetto and have pulled yourself up or whatnot. Yes, maybe you worked hard, but you also had opportunities that were matters of chance or accident or grace that most of your peers didn't. You were born liking girls or boys or both. Your parents and community have encouraged marriage and have provided opportunities for you to meet compatible partners. From the cradle you have learned about Jesus. Or don't say it's an accident; but my God! don't pretend like you have any inkling about the vast, infinite, unknowable wisdom of God. You were not chosen to be heterosexual because God loved you more. You just are.

The infuriating sense of entitlement I see on a daily basis in my peers, my students, and people I read and read about is the result of confusing accomplishment with circumstances of birth. Entitlement is about thinking you deserve something (a baby, health insurance) based on something that has little to do, at the end of the day, with your actions or personal moral fortitude. The assertion of entitlement usually comes when your privilege is threatened. Opposition to gay marriage and gay adoption has nothing whatsoever to do with the weakening of marriage (puleeeeese) or harming children. It is about upsetting the carefully orchestrated hierarchy of race, class, religion, and sexual preference that puts some of us (me) in the privileged class and some of us on the outside of law and dinner parties.

Jim Goad is in many ways a whackjob but one thing he says is right-on: everybody's got a n*gger. In our fucked-up culture, everyone has someone to look down upon in order to remain smug in whatever privilege one has had the grace or luck to possess. Maybe it's birthmothers, or the locals in your college town, or welfare recipients. And you know what? I've got one too. It's the dolt. I absolutely despise stupid people. What I forget is that beside the fact that there are about a thousand different kinds of intelligences, I had so much trouble reading when I moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania that I needed tutoring to catch up, or that I was in the 'dumb' math group in fourth grade and probably still should be, or that when I was a cashier for a short three weeks my drawer didn't come out right one single day. I was lucky enough to have a remedial reading specialist! as a mother, a personality that somehow repulsed my peers but delighted teachers, and the background and education that allowed me to get a better-paying job than that cashier's position at Rossi's. My intelligence–which is a very particular kind of book-smarts, very carefully nurtured by a particular environment–has nothing to do with my righteousness. It entitles me to nothing. And I am not better. I have to work hard on this, all the time. Almost as hard as I do on not hating rich people. I don't do a very good job but I do know that the first step is owning up to your privilege and all the arrogance that goes with it.

When you can admit that who you are is largely an accident of birth and circumstances so complex you will never be able to untangle them, you realize that you are always a mere breath away from being "outdoors" (read The Bluest Eye). Think you are too good for welfare? Think again. The death of a spouse, a fire, an illness, an accident…you are always one or two steps away.* Don't forget that. And if you do go on welfare, it isn't a failure. It just is. You are not suddenly morally inferior. You're fucked, but you're not sub-human. So while you're not on welfare, don't regard someone who is as sub-human. And if you think you don't, listen to yourself talk about welfare recipents. Examine what you really think.

She says it better.
There. Now I can take a shower and grade.


*Molly, this isn't about our conversation this weekend. Attic Man pointed out that you might think it is so I wanted to let you know that I know you get it. 🙂

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When Teaching Is TEACHING

Monday's lecture went very, very well. It wasn't so much that I was comfortable, and that my ease in front of 75 students showed so well that it made it into my professor's letter (yay!) or that I was more prepared than I've ever been for class, or that I fielded student responses effectively (including one that identified Morrison's point as the need for the black community to stop complaining about external racism and take responsibility for its own problems…arg), or that I threw in some good ad lib stuff to keep it fresh when their eyes started glazing over–all that is a matter of style and frankly of having taught for four years at the college level. It's observation, practice, feedback. I'm proud of it, immensely, but gaining approval from colleagues is not why I teach.

I teach because students who can effectively analyze a novel or poem are not only able to enjoy and be enriched by literature but stand to learn some incredible things from it as well; they are in a prime position to have their thinking transformed by it. The process of close reading opens a student's mind to alternative ways of interpreting and challenging cultural practices. On Monday, I was able–I think–to offer them a way of reading The Bluest Eye that would confront a common mental framework regarding the way racism functions in our culture; I asked them to consider, as I believe Morrison does, a way of thinking about racism that goes beyond blame and demands, to the discomfort of every good reader, collective responsibility for and implication in what happens to Pecola. And they got it. I had a list of summing-up type statements with which I would end the lecture, but before I could get to them the students were coming up with eerily similar statements of their own. The close reading worked; they were realizing, on their own, with a bit of guidance, another way of looking at race. And because most of my students are white, it was most exciting, most gratifying.

I'm not a great teacher; at most I'm a good teacher trying to be great. All I do, really, is to read according to my training and come to class with that reading, prepared as if I were another student. For this class I had to be a bit more structured because it was a lecture. I did find that I was too directive at points. My professor suggested alternating the "fishing" type questions with more open-ended ones. As soon as she said it I could see that the rough and slow parts of the class could be explained by the lack of variety in the way I elicited responses. As I mentioned in my last post, it was this tension between structure and openness that I was worried about, and with good reason. No sweat, though; it was a good learning experience and I will be able to tweak my teaching accordingly.

Gotta go–date tonight with a handsome attic-dweller.

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This morning I had the most amazing breakfast: two-egg omelet with goat cheese, fresh basil, and baby spinach.  YUM.  Last night Attic Man man a Roulade of Chicken thing  (rolled up chicken with goat cheese and veggies inside; he made it in peppers for me) so there were some yummy leftover ingredients. I was more than happy to dispose of them.   We also walked the dogs, and I read half a Harper's article, in which the author appears to have actually read Foucault instead of just throwing his name around for attention (a rare treat), so it has been a splendid morning already.

I'm hoping this afternoon will follow suit.  Today I'm giving my lecture on The Bluest Eye.  On paper, it's a damn good lecture.  Here's an exerpt from a close reading of the prologue that is a brief snapshot of what I'm doing with the text: 

it’s not about one monster who does something awful to a child, but about a culture that creates monsters; the discourse of blame misses the point entirely—if we could put it all on Cholly we’d be able to dismiss the problem of the novel completely—but Morrison doesn’t want us to think that it’s a simple as there being ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people, but that there can be an evil we all participate in.  The whole culture, black and white, is implicated in her story.

I'm happy with what I have to say about TBE but I'm quite nervous about the lecture format.  Actually, it's the mixed format that I'm concerned about.  Straight lecture is nearly all performance; the way my professor has been teaching the course there is a lot of room for class discussion, which I like, and I'd like to continue it in this class.  The problem is that my own teaching technique is really just doing a careful reading of the text, making a list of what my concerns are, and beginning the class with, "so where do you want to start?"  Then it sort of goes where it goes.  This back-and-forth stuff is harder, as is the timing.  So I'm nervous.

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