Pretending To Be . . .

"We Are What We Pretend To Be . . ." Kurt Vonnegut

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I can feel it coming to a close. The passion. The drive. I keep telling myself it is because of the changes in the content I am teaching and structure of my day and the new responsibilities I have this year. I am clinging to that story because it means that maybe there is hope out there somewhere. Maybe my problems are external.  Maybe a change would do me good. Maybe.

On the other hand – if it is only these superficial roadblocks to happiness, and I can’t persevere, or have enough *grit* to muscle through, what does that say about my character? My professionalism? These are tough questions to grapple with on a Tuesday evening when I should be doing other things that are more immediately important for 8am tomorrow. But I’m not.

I’m left wondering if my lack of drive means something else? It gnaws at me – the guilt – and I want nothing more than to be on fire for my students (and myself – in reverse order, perhaps). I was spoiled early on in my career. I was lucky enough to have a passion for the content I was teaching, and that kept me intellectually sharp. I have always placed student well-being and personal connections above content – but there was something nice about loving what you teach. For almost twelve years I loved the content and the students. That balance was important. I had a deep understanding of what I was teaching and that allowed me to create better experiences for the students. Actually I am not sure that is true. I perceived it as true, but maybe my perceptions were tainted with personal bias.

I don’t love what I am teaching now. I don’t know it well. It is not inherently exciting to me.  I still love the humans in my classroom, but only having half the reason to go in everyday feels like failure. 50% out of 100%.

I suppose this is the part where I need to step up and do all of the quasi-motivational things I ask my students to do when they are struggling. However, I keep coming up short. I know what I need to do, or at least I think I know, but can’t will myself to do it. Maybe this is simply a thirteen year rut? Maybe I never learned how to pace myself and have been running on fumes for the last few years and now it is becoming clear the tank is empty? Maybe my class is becoming the class I never wanted it to be and I can sense that but I have not yet found a way to fix it because I can’t tell if it is important enough to fix and that scares the hell out of me. Strike that last maybe.

Humbled

Kids don’t forget incredible experiences. They don’t forget when you allow them to be incredible. They do forget the analogies you make in class, no matter how witty or insightful those quips might be. They do forget the metaphors you use, no matter how truthful and revealing they may be. They don’t forget incredible experiences. 

I have previously written about the eighth grade sketch comedy show I have created at my school (called the “it” show). I have a post in draft form called “Cardboard Wizardry” that has been sitting dormant for several years because I lack the vocabulary to properly explain what makes this show work and why it is so special to the students, and to me as well. Perhaps I can not explain that, but I know this: when you create something with kids that you never thought possible and when you cast aside doubt and capitalize on enthusiasm – it sticks.

Four years ago tonight the best “it” show graced the stage at my school. Actually, it graced the stage extension, since we aren’t deemed good enough for use of the real stage. Despite the handheld mics, PA system made up of equipment I own, and lights that do not pan or change color and have two options (on or off) – these students delivered the best show I have ever seen. One hundred percent DIY, and they were (are) proud of it. So proud, in fact, that just a few hours ago, on the very anniversary of their show, fourteen days before they graduate high school – they came back to watch it in my classroom. Forty-five young adults, just days away from what will be a watershed moment in their lives, gathered in my classroom to reminisce and laugh and remember what we made together four years ago. I have never been so humbled in my life. By admission, many of these kids have not been in the same room with one another since they left middle school. They traveled in different circles in middle school and those circles widened dramatically in high school. But here they were, tonight, back in my class like nothing had changed. It was the best accolade I could ever receive – knowing that we made something so good that it brought us together years later. 

I would be a fool to think that this kind of thing happens regularly or could be reproduced at any given moment in time. It takes more energy than I possess these days – my energy has been redirected to raising my daughters. Even if something like this could happen again, I don’t think I would want it to. Tonight belonged to these kids and our time. I am thankful I was able to create this with them. The cast and crew of the fifth it show broke the mould and the machine that makes it. 

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it5 cast and crew, four years later

 

10,000

If I didn’t happen to glance at the number of tweets I had earlier today, I would probably have spent my ten thousandth tweet with a smiley face @ reply, or a subpar picture of my dinner, or a poorly phrased question set adrift into the ether. Instead, I will use this tweet as a moment of reflection – and more precisely as an excuse to develop in long(er) form some things I have been thinking about recently that are peripherally tied to this less than momentous occasion.

I’ve spent a lot of time off the grid this summer, in fact, this has been the least active few months of my entire social media existence (except for that first year when I was one of those people who signed up for twitter, tweeted twice, and gave up). It has given me time to ponder the kind of impact my feeble attempts at being a connected educator have had on me both personally and professionally. I have been around long enough to see numerous variations of the question “does being connected make you a better educator?” A year and a half ago Two years ago I would have jumped on the YES bandwagon with a PLN Posse t-shirt, a funnel, and a gallon of kool-aid. Don’t ask, just drink – and don’t think about what you’re drinking if it tastes good. I mean, sure, at first I was excited to sit and collect resources and things to read later (as evidenced by my obscene amount of favorited tweets, which I have never actually gone back to look at), and my heart skipped a beat every time I got an @ reply – which was not often. Sure, as time moved forward I began to look at the things in my stream more critically. I quickly stopped referring to the people I am connected with as my PLN and I shied away from all things #chat. Although I appreciate all of the pioneers of #sschat, and I was there at the very start, I just don’t find myself participating at all anymore (I’ve never really felt the love for #edchat, truth be told). Ultimately, I have met some very cool people with whom I enjoy sharing stories and anecdotes with. I’m suppressing the urge to name drop here, as it goes against a pillar of my twitter beliefs – which is that #FF and anything that asks you to name the two people you most want to meet in your network, is simply a public popularity show. What good do these really do, honestly? I’m open to pushback on this point. If you can change my mind, you’ll get my first ever #FF recommendation.

Ranting aside, it boils down to this: am I a better teacher now because of my connectedness? I don’t think I am. I don’t think I am a worse teacher, either. I think I’m a stuck teacher. I’m frozen. I am inundated with ideas and anecdotes and such – some of which I want to employ, but I can never seem to bring myself to do it. I’ve certainly made some inconsequential changes here and there, but ultimately I’ve never really done the overhaul I need to. That isn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I admit that I wouldn’t even know I needed to change things if it weren’t for being connected with other educators – but simply being connected has not forced me to act. Maybe I’ll have done that by 20,000.

Thriller (or, The Best Gift)

I have written previously about a tradition I began at my school eight years ago, called the “it” show. You can read about it a little more here and here (The second link is from 2008). I have an unfinished post that has been collecting cobwebs and dust on my blog for two years now called Cardboard Wizardry – in which I really try to explain the importance of the show for me and for my students. I can never finish the post because I can never fully articulate my feelings in a manner consistent with how I truly feel. Perhaps it is a post that is meant to be left incomplete. Perhaps it is a story I am incapable of telling. I believe that we all have those stories somewhere.

What I am writing today is not one of those stories.

The fourth “it” show took place on June 6, 2008. It was in many ways one of the most special events I have had the privilege to be a part of. It was not the best show overall (that distinction belongs to the fifth “it” show) but it is the one closest to my heart because of the kids involved and because of another, more personal, reason. My brother died in April of that year, right in the middle of producing the show. One of my last memories of my brother is this:

We were at our Mother’s house, on the deck, in early April, a few weeks before he died. I was telling him about the show – he was always interested in anything that involved creating something from nothing and giving kids an outlet to perform. This show was going to be special, I said. We were mixing pretaped and edited film with live acting on stage and it was going to culminate with approximately thirty-five eight graders dressed up as gnomes doing a choreographed dance to Thriller. I remember what happened next clearer than anything else in my life. Phil took a long drag of his cigarette, gave me the one-raised-eyebrow look of ultimate skepticism, exhaled, and said, “Thriller? Eighth graders? Yeah, right.” He flicked his finished cigarette and walked away shaking his head. I left shortly after that, and  even though we probably saw each other one more time before he died, that memory is really my last. When I returned to school after his death the kids were unsure if we were going to finish the show. We were. I needed to for a few reasons. First, it kept my mind busy, but more importantly because I wanted so badly to prove my brother wrong. So we did push on, and the kids did the dance. Thirty-five eighth graders. Kids from every lunch table/social group. Kids who never danced before and haven’t danced since. They did it, and it was one of the highlights of my life. Not my professional career – but my life.

Last night I was the DJ at their Senior Prom. It wasn’t all thirty-five of them, but they did it. They danced. And my heart burst.

 

33 and 1/3 (for Phil)

I love music. I have always loved music. I have not always appreciated music, however. There is a difference. I have always loved the way music seemed to soak into by body in a mindless manner. I felt it, but I didn’t think about it. I also love words, and while I am not so great at putting words together on a page, I love to listen to the power of words. For me, words come before music. This is most likely why I grew up in love with hip hop. Words trumped the music. The words were absorbed into my brain and the music was absorbed into my ribcage.

I became a DJ. I collected vinyl. I was still just about the words and the beat. Then my younger brother became a musician. He became a fantastic musician, actually. He influenced me (and countless others) opened my ears, and guided me to being the man I am today in many respects. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Watching him perform live on stage, fingers flying up and down the fretboard (either bass or guitar), eyes locking with mine mid-solo, then the grin and subtle head nod -that right there was total happiness. Seeing him become so lost in the music, seeing him develop into a showman – that shy, overweight kid who hated crowds, the kid that would force me to sit upstairs with him at family gatherings to listen to music (or watch music on YouTube) because he hated the social awkwardness, seeing him transform into something else because of music – that was magical. Sitting in the rocking chairs on our Mother’s front porch, watching him write songs, made me a music lover in the truest sense.

photo by: Cecilia Delviscio

It is the epitome of serendipity that today, April 13th 2012, on the fourth anniversary of his death, I am exactly 33 and 1/3 years old. One revolution of a vinyl record. I will listen to music, at a high volume, all day long. I will start by listening to the last gift my brother, Philip, gave me. He managed to find, on ebay, a vinyl copy of a mythical tape my father played for us when we were young. We lost the tape to an unfortunately hungry tape deck – but the fact that Phil tracked it down and bought it for me several years ago is amazing. He unknowingly completed the circle, because now I play that record for my children, and they sing along. The revolution continues…

Last gift from Phil.

Failure to Launch

It seems that I only write things when I am troubled by as issue that will take slightly more than 140 characters to complain about. I should work on that, maybe. However, I have today’s dilemma to hash out in this space first. My problem today was a failure to launch. I’m not talking about the romantic comedy, either. Today I was attempting to launch a major independent project for my 8th graders. The project will be a significant part of their final trimester, and it is rooted in openness and choice. I did a similar project last year with amazing results and although the openness of the project is limited by the curriculum, it was a fairly motivating project for my class last year. I fully understand that what works one year does not automatically transfer to other classes, as kids are different and group dynamics plays a huge role, but I was shocked by the antipathy I was met with today. Let me be more specific: I began by showing this short film as a launch into a discussion about student’s driving their own learning, as opposed to passively sitting on the K12 conveyor belt. This was meant to be empowering and affirming and it appeared to be effective. They loved the idea of taking control, and the problems arose when I began to actually explain the project. Suddenly they did not care. When I asked what happened to their interest, one student said he lost interest the minute I started “actually talking about it.”  So my question here is how can one launch a project in which the launch is not teacher directed? Is that possible? I am honestly curious.

Goodbye Kristi

I just received an email that crushed me. A good friend, and the most important teacher I have ever had, Dr. Kristi Alvarez, passed away on January 26th. I managed to cobble this letter together despite the constant stream of tears. As always, there is so much more to say than I was able to actually produce.

Dear Dr. Alvarez,

You were it. End of story. My entire educational life was filled with inconsequential teachers. I hated most of them, and the ones I could stand really did nothing to better my life. They were tolerable at best. I had decided to become a teacher to spite the system that produced me. I was determined to be the antithesis of my relationships with my teachers. While that fire in my belly was enough to motivate me along my journey, I needed to actually experience the warmth of a positive teacher/student relationship in order to become the teacher I am today. Thank you for providing that much needed experience for me. I had not realized until this very moment what a crucial role you played in my development as an educator and as a human being. The instant I read about your passing, it clicked. Whatever I am as an educator, I owe to you. You were the first to really truly care, and the first to nurture my potential as opposed to question my commitment when I didn’t live up to my potential, as had been the norm from K – 12 (plus 2). The two years I spent under your tutelage (in methods class, as my academic advisor, and as my student teaching supervisor) managed to set right all of the wrongs (both real and perceived) I had previously experienced in classrooms. Thank you. The eight hundred or so students I have taught as an 8th grade social studies teacher thank you, and the hundreds more I have yet to teach also thank you. You were an amazing woman, Kristi Alvarez, and your spirit will live on in Room 213 at Pawcatuck Middle School.

365 minus a few

Here is my 2011. Feel free to scan the months. The project is not complete, nor is it artistically relevant. Many of these pictures were taken simply because I set a reminder on my phone, which went off twice a day. There seems to be too many pictures of coffee, bacon, and alcohol. What does that say about my life? It does not paint an accurate picture of what really transpired inside my head.

The past year was easily the most challenging year I have lived to date. It wasn’t a bad year, it was simply filled with much craziness. From grad school, to house construction, to the birth of my second daughter – there was non-stop action. Looking back over the year in pictures has revealed to me just how quickly time moves. Looking back has also, hopefully, put me in a better spot to move forward. I have gained a new perspective about time and family and self. In the coming year I will make no resolution other than this: think and act for the future. For far too long I have lived only for the present, and this past year marked the rapid change into full-on adulthood. Perhaps “rapid change” is not exactly correct. This change has been coming over the past several years: buying a house (25), getting married (27), burying my younger brother (29), having a child (30), selling a house (in this market) (31), going back to school, building a new house and having a second child (32). And now here I am, at an age I had always marveled at growing up (33), and I don’t know why – although I suspect that attending Catholic school from 2nd grade until 10th grade maybe has something to do with it. All I know is that, while my daily photos do not document the change that has occurred – it has happened none the less. I am ready for what the future holds…

Tough Questions

Grades close tomorrow for the first trimester. As I hustle to get things in, and as kids start doing their best buzzard impressions, circling my laptop asking for grades and, in some cases, begging for scraps of extra points – I noticed something odd. My class averages are higher than normal. Significantly higher. In fact, upon further investigation, my class averages have been steadily increasing for the past few years – which happens to correlate with my shift in philosophy, thanks in large part to the individuals I have surrounded myself with on twitter and my graduate program at Uconn. This realization has caused significant stress. I have to wonder, are the increases in class averages due to my new way of doing things? In other words, is the fact that I have moved entirely away from traditional tests and quizzes and towards (what I hope are) more authentic assessments and activities the cause of the increase? Are the kids doing better as a whole because they are more engaged? Or is it something else? Am I getting soft in my old age? Am I subconsciously inflating grades in order to justify my actions? These are some very difficult questions to wrestle with. Help?

ProductoPhobia (fear of actually making something)

On Friday July 15th I finished up with the last of the face to face meetings of my graduate program at Uconn. In the time since, I have been thinking a lot about the program I was a part of and about myself as a student. I have come to two realizations.

1) While proud of my accomplishments and growth over the duration of my program, I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been harder. At least, in the romanticized notion of “grad school” it should have been harder. Writing those words produces an odd sensation within me. I definitely worked harder than I thought myself capable of over this past year, and I hardly wish to take away from my accomplishments. However – as the capstone week drew to a close and I assembled my portfolio, I found myself wondering if my work was worthy of the degree I was pursuing. I recall a brief conversation I had with someone who scoffed at my “one year” program as diluting higher education. I was quite offended at the time, but his words stuck with me, and as I hit send on the email containing the link to my finished portfolio to my professor I found myself back in that conversation that occurred several months prior. Looking around the room at the rest of my cohort, I also knew that of the twenty of us, at least half only pursued this program to satisfy the Connecticut requirement needed to obtain a professional certificate. Were they passionate about educational technology, or simply finding the quickest route to satisfy their needs? Alas, who am I to judge? Does it matter what their intent was, as long as they came away with something that makes them a better teacher?

2) I like to learn, but I hate the discomfort of the artificial structures imposed on me during this process – yet that accountability forces me to actually do something. To produce. The problem with production is that it creates something that I can critique, which I will do to no end. If I get caught in a web of endless self-criticism I won’t produce anything of value, so it is easier to semi-produce things and label everything I do “beta.” It seems this fear of production runs along many lines in my life. For example, I hardly ever publish posts I have written and I never seem to be able to complete a recorded DJ mix. This doesn’t stop me from writing down thoughts, or playing around with my turntables for hours. It seems the minute I set out to do these actions with the intent of coming away with a finished product, I freeze up. Perhaps this is why I enjoy teaching so much. Each year is new and changes are made. Nothing I do in my classroom is set in stone. In fact, on-the-fly alterations to lessons are a necessity. Regardless of how I justify my phobia of production, I realize that this is something I must address if I wish to move forward professionally. So, with that being said – I am hitting “publish” on this post and including a small bonus 🙂