Friday, August 30, 2013

A little Fugazi for your Friday: “You can’t be what you were…”

I have loved Fugazi's song "Bad Mouth" from the time I first heard it as a rebellious adolescent. My understanding of it has changed and evolved, but it has remained a favorite. On my long run this week, I remembered how much I love this song when it came on my shuffling iPod. I don’t think Ian MacKaye had teaching and teachers in mind when he wrote it, but “Bad Mouth” got me thinking about teacher identity, growth, and learning—at least in the rambling, non-linear way that both running and music help me to think. And, yes, I do recognize that my interpretation here is colored, at 8 miles into my run, with my own head full of teaching and learning, but still... 

My pace fell into patterned in rhythm with the first few lines: “You can’t be what you were/so you better start being just what you are…” (MacKaye, 1989). I pondered the wisdom of these words, thinking about how learning changes us, and as we progress through life stages and role, we can’t go back. I thought about my own journey from English major to pre-service teacher to classroom teacher to doctoral student to teacher educator—I remember being all the places I have been, but it is essential that I embrace who and what I am now in order to do my best work.

As I continued to listen, heart pounding and legs moving, I remembered a time in a professional development session I was giving, in which a veteran teacher told me “I have been teaching this way for thirty years, and I’m not going to change now. You can’t change me. “ In my experience, this kind of negativity is common among discouraged teachers who experience the continual flood of new techniques and technologies that manifest in state or district mandated trends, which then go quickly by the wayside. The insecurity seeded by unsupported continual change often makes for negative talk, which leads to negative thinking, which leads to a sense of “stuckness,” which is clearly what the veteran teacher in my PD session was feeling. As MacKaye expresses, “You can't be what you were/No movement, no movement, no movement/In a bad mouth/It betrays a bad mind” (1989).

This negative thinking—“no movement”—can affect our growth as teachers, as writers, and as learners.  We can’t be what we were—we must move—life must move us, yet finding flow in flux is often terrifyingly difficult. 21st century students are comfortable with continual technological change and a constant flood of information—and, as teachers, we must be too. This means, sometimes, being positive even when we feel afraid, going forward even when we feel like standing still. We have to “be what we are” as we change and grow: learning changes us.

A goal, then, for myself as a teacher and for the pre-service teachers who are learning with me is this: to move from a place of being stuck and (unproductively) still to a place of hope, positivity, and embracing movement, where practice and philosophy align, so that I am “living the life/that [I’m] talking about…” (MacKaye, 1989).

MacKaye, I. (1989). Bad Mouth [Recorded by Fugazi]. On 13 Songs [CD]. Washington, DC: Dischord. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Summer Reading, Future Reading

Next week is the start of classes here at Virginia Tech. I’m sitting by the open screen door with a cup of hot tea and wearing a long sleeved shirt because the easy breeze blowing through our yard has the first cool hints of the turning season. The crickets are chirping in the underbrush, and apples were fresh at the farmer’s market this morning. It almost feels like Fall, and I am ready to begin my new work, but also I am not.

Soon, I will meet my English education students for the first time.  We will be reading and writing and learning together. I will be asking them to blog, too, and their first post due is the topic “Summer Reading, Future Reading.” Because I read and write with my students, their blog topics for class will be mine here, as well. And reflecting on the reading I have done this summer seems a good transition into my new role in this new place.

This is the first summer in several years that I have been given the time for pleasure reading. Having just finished four years of graduate school, I have spent the better part of my summers reading books related to work and study. The summer I was writing my comprehensive exams, I read 60 books—all related in some way to my evolving dissertation proposal. Last summer I was beginning the research work of my study, so again, my reading was related to that, when I had time to read.

But this summer, with my dissertation defended and submitted at the beginning of May, I was allowed the freedom to read in ways I have not in years. First, I read books that were related to what I had been reading—habits die hard, I guess. I found myself engrossed in David Abram’s phenomenological work Becoming Animal, which was beautiful. I devoured Being Caribou, a non-fiction account of a couple who follow the annual caribou migration from Canada to Alaska. It was fascinating. Then, I read a book on mindfulness given to me by a former student. I was working on some publications and conference proposals, so, I would read a book, take a short break, and work on something else until I found another book.

But then, something happened. I discovered that one of the public libraries at which I hold an account allows patrons to “borrow” e-books, and the bottom dropped out. After that day, I carried my iPad everywhere, ate with it on the table during meals. I knew Brian might have been terrified if he had woken to find me reading at 4:00AM, face illuminated as if by a campfire horror story flashlight trick, but I did it anyway. I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I read a Jonathan Safran Foer novel. And then—on a recommendation—I downloaded the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire series, otherwise known as A Game of Thrones. I was lost.

Have you ever wanted so badly to finish a book—not to get to the end—but, instead, to get your life back? So stands my romance with George R. R. Martin and his smutty, schlocky fantasy series. For weeks, obsessed, I did little else besides lose myself in the drama of battles, romance, incest, wildings, others, lions, direwolves, dragons. I doing so, I became again the little girl I was, curled under the sheets with a flashlight, engrossed in Madeline L’Engle or Ursula LeGuin, reading all night, reading all day, even while my mother yelled at me to go outside and play. I read all four of the first Ice and Fire books without a break between, discovered there was a fifth, and then I read it too.

I had forgotten what it was like to be able to totally leave myself behind, so deeply engaged in a text that the world fades away. As a child, I loved that feeling, but now it is a little unsettling. After five books worth, I found myself missing me, even as much as I (ashamedly) loved the story and saw pieces of myself reflected in the characters.

Now, with a few days left before the start of the semester, I have real reading to do—pedagogy, YAL, and more related to my research. And, perhaps more importantly, I have myself and my world toward which to turn. Frankly, I feel I need a break from summer reading. The sixth Ice and Fire book is not out yet, and that is a good thing. I am not even going to look for it until next summer. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Home, not Home

One day in July I arrived on Tech’s campus for a meeting and to submit some paperwork. I opened my car door, looked across the street, and immediately recognized a former student, John, who asked, astonished, “What are YOU doing here?” We held a brief reunion, discussed my new job, his new degree and future plans, and wished each other well. A familiar face tempered my anxiety, and I felt almost at home. The first weekend in August, I moved into our small house, and, since then, I have been exploring, seeking a feeling for people and place.

Farmer's Market Findings
This past weekend was my first one here in Blacksburg. I am alone until the end of the month and trying to find a sense of home in this new place and space—as a person and as a teacher, too. On Saturday morning, I visited the bi-weekly farmer’s market, which, astonishingly, is bigger than the one where I lived in Berkeley Springs.  All the vegetables, fruits, baked goods, meat, eggs, and other products there are produced within a 50 mile radius of Blacksburg, so the market truly offers a sense of what is local, what it means to be here. I walked around, talked to vendors and organizers, sampled some apples, and purchased much of my food for the week.

I almost felt at home. The locals here speak an Appalachian twang similar to but also different from the dialect I know—like the difference between the Ginger Gold and the Johnathan apples I sampled at the market this morning. Both are sweet, both familiar, but different in texture, tone, and tartness. The conversations I had echoed of home, and of the market I remember. I bought a bunch of rainbow chard, and the vendor gave me a second one for free; “Grab two,” she said, sweeping her braid behind her shoulder, “we have a lot this week.” I thought of Rachel, my former student, who works on her family farm and always saved apples aside for me in the Fall; Honeycrisp, my favorite, always sold quickly at the farmer’s market in the Springs.

On Sunday, I found trails to run at Pandapas Pond. These trails are more populated than those I ran in and around Morgan County, but they’re muddy and forested and full of twists, rocks, and roots. My legs strained against the sharp turns and steep climbs, and, in a way, moving through the woods in Jefferson National Forest felt like home. I looped around the pond, watched by grumbling geese, then worked my way up the hills and back down, an hour sweating in the trails. I remembered the bear who frequently I saw at Cacapon State Park when I ran trails there, the way I would glimpse his fat rear crashing away through the brush as I rounded a bend. I recalled the ladyslipper orchids that cover one stretch of trails there in the spring. I hope to find the same sense of wonder here that made me feel so at home in Morgan County. And these experiences are signs, it seems, that I will.

Yet still, I feel slightly out of place—I am exploring place and program, trying to understand what it means to be here now and what my role will be professionally. In shaping my new life here, I am also shaping my teacherly self, settling into a sense of home that I hope will spiral out to my classroom practice. Brooke (2003) writes that “rich” learning is “tied to and flow[s] from local culture, “ since “Local communities, regions, and histories are the places where we shape our individual lives...” (p. 4). In seeking my own sense of place (physical, personal, and professional) connected to this new space, I am working to conceptualize myself as a learner and teacher at home (not yet home), here, in Blacksburg. This ripples out from me and toward learning implications for my students, who come from here, and also for the students whom they will teach. I hope my classroom will come to feel like home, welcoming my students who also welcome me, reading and writing together, creating a sense of place, shaped by the lived space and community in which we learn.  And so, I head out again today—to explore, to play, to work, and to learn, in search of home.

Brooke, R. (2003). Introduction: Place-conscious education, rural schools, and the Nebraska writing project's rural voice, country schools team. In R. Brooke (Ed.), Rural voices: Place-conscious education and the teaching of writing (pp. 1-20). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Arise, Writer: Beginning Again

It has been five years (five!) since I last posted here. In that time, I have undergone turbulence and transformation, heartbreak and healing. It’s been a long five years, and also too short.

This morning, in the midst of unpacking from my most recent move, I found myself digging though the relics of my past. It’s been five years since I had an office or classroom space, so this move to Blacksburg, Virginia has uncovered a mother lode of dusty boxes and plastic bins that have been in storage in my parents’ garage since I left my classroom at the end of the 2008-2009 school year to attend graduate school. Among the artifacts of my public school teacher past are tons of books, archived student works, miscellaneous gifts and tchotchkes, photographs, toys, tools, and other things. 

One box, in particular, held items significant to my sense of teacherly self (and to this blog, as well): all the paraphernalia that come along with being perceived as a talented teacher. There is the clock in the shape of West Virginia that was given to me when I spoke at a Mineral County Schools banquet. It needs a new battery but is now hanging above the kitchen sink regardless. Plaques and certificates line the sides of the box—Morgan County New Teacher Award, Morgan County Teacher of the Year, National Board Certified teacher, Japan Fulbright Memorial Teacher. In the bottom of the box is a pair of bent coat-hanger antlers affixed to a wooden base inscribed “Amazing Ms. Moose,” a token from an AP English class years ago. And nested amid wadded and yellowed paper wrapping is an obelisk given to me on the day I was named Teacher of the Year for the state of West Virginia. Looking through these things, I remember that I was a good teacher. I left a job that I loved so that I could grow, but I cried uncontrollably on the day that I packed up my classroom. The summer between leaving Berkeley Springs High School and beginning at The University of Maryland was a tenuous transition, a time of uncertainty—starting from scratch.

My life has been full of startings these last five years. Since I last posted, I have moved five times, losing and gaining loves and friendships along the way. Don’t think I haven’t been writing, though: I return to this blog as a PhD. So between this post and my last post I have written a gazillion papers, as well as a dissertation, all 350+ pages of it, scratched out, revised, and defended, finally. As my dad says, it’s “kind of like a book,” and it’s also like a piece of me that I can’t get back; it’s finished, and I miss it. The day it was complete and submitted in finality, I cried uncontrollably. There is a kind of sadness that sets in when we finish something meaningful, a post-partum ache. Again, I’ve left something I loved in order to grow.

So now I am once more starting from scratch. I have accepted a job at Virginia Tech in teaching and learning. I am the program leader for English education, a visiting assistant professor. It is a time of transition, of mourning the end of my doctoral work and moving on to professorial aspirations. I’m both excited and also frightened by the uncertainty of a new job, a new place. Now, as I transition out of my dissertating, which I loved, I feel the same kind of tenuous uncertainty I felt when I left Morgan County and West Virginia. Like I missed my high school students and colleagues, I miss my dissertation and my peers, professors, and friends at the University of Maryland. I’m eager to begin again, to keep growing, but I am afraid, too. What if I fail? What if I am no longer the good teacher who earned an obelisk or a moose shaped sculpture? What if the hard work of the last four years have been for nothing? Where will these first steps take me? I have no choice but to move forward, so forward I go. 

Life is an ever-expanding spiral of knowing and not knowing, of rising and falling, climbing to descend and begin again. This is the most profound lesson of my life each time it happens, and it doesn’t make the learning any easier—the lesson is raw every time. Perhaps writing can help dissuade that sense of loss. So here I am, starting again, a novice, a teacher and writer becoming, trying to rise. I am starting again, too, in this blog—five years since my last post. In doing so, I invite you to take the first steps with me.