Watching and worrying

“Hey,” I say, all faux-casual-like, leaning against the doorframe that leads into the tv room. Two lanky fourteen-year-old boys look up from the couch where they loll contentedly. Across the room, the twelve-year-old glances away from his computer to see what’s happening. “So, um,” I realize that my casual act is not fooling anyone, but I press on, “have you heard of Andrew Tate?”

I can practically hear their eyes roll. And though I would not have said it was possible, they relax further back into the couch, bodies stretching. They are already done with this conversation I have just started. My oldest glances up languidly, “Yeah. Why?”

“Well, um…” I don’t know what to say. Maybe I thought they weren’t watching Andrew Tate? Or that somehow they wouldn’t know who he was. I hesitate. I want to say, please tell me you are not watching videos made by a misogynistic racist jerk, but that seems like overkill.

My fourteen year old gives me a withering look and says, “Mom, if you use the internet, you know who Andrew Tate is.” I do not tell him that I did not, in fact, know who Andrew Tate was until relatively recently.

“Do you watch him?” I ask. By now the 14 year old friend is joining the conversation. He smirks while my son sighs.

“MOM! It’s like, you can’t not watch him. If you watch videos his videos are there. He doesn’t even post them himself. He gets other guys to post them. They’re just there.”

The friend concurs, “Yeah, they’re kind of everywhere. You can’t avoid them.”

I take this in. So, yes, they watch Andrew Tate. Now what? “So, um, what do you think of him?”

The boys have had enough of my beating around the bush. They tell me that he’s obviously a racist and a jerk. They can’t quite come up with the word misogynist, but they know that what he says about women is not good. They watch his videos anyway and insist that they are not actually influenced. “We know what he’s doing,” they assure me.

I am not comforted, at least not right away. I don’t like this, my boys out in the wilds of the internet listening to jerks who say hateful things to preteen and early teenage boys.

I try to broach the topic again later, but my kids shut me down. “MOM! Just… stop worrying about this.” I tell them that what we consume affects what we think. They are stoic. I suggest that their brains are wasting energy on not believing this. They disagree. Finally, I let it drop.

The next day at dinner, my older son tells us that Andrew Tate has been banned from several social media platforms. We talk about whether or not other platforms should ban him. Mr. 14 says no. “If he hasn’t violated their terms, they should leave him up there. If they don’t want him there, they should change the rules.” My husband tries to push his thinking, to encourage him to consider when something should be banned. Mr. 14 is nonplussed. “You can ban what you want, but it’s not like it goes away.”

Dang. We continue the conversation, but he doesn’t budge.

For a week, they tease me with information about Andrew Tate. They tell me about his money and his cars. I respond by sharing the idea of the Bechdel test, by pointing out places where we encounter systemic inequities in our daily lives – should the prime minister of Finland be censured for partying? (Mr. 14’s take: “Probably most people who run countries shouldn’t really party.”) Should a female news anchor be fired when she lets her hair go gray? (He says, “I don’t think TV is a good choice of careers if you think they don’t care when you get old. They do.”) For a week, I worry that I should do *something*, although short of banning the internet, I’m not sure exactly what.

Several days into this, one of the boys yells, “Hey Mom, come quick! It’s another Andrew Tate video.” He bursts into hysterical laughter. And I start to get it. To them, Andrew Tate is a joke – he’s a show, and a stupid one at that. My kids are internet skeptics, completely unphased by the idiotic behaviour that shows up on their screens. They don’t believe that Tate has all those cars or even all those fans. They see him for what he is – a flash in the pan who behaves badly to get attention. They watch him when he shows up in their feeds, but largely to mock him with their friends.

So maybe what I was worried about is not quite the right thing. I can’t prevent my children from seeing things on the internet; there aren’t enough parental controls to stop the world from coming in. My boys aren’t any less at risk than other kids, but their generation has a different relationship with the internet than mine does. We’re going to have to negotiate this together, and in the meantime, I think the kids are alright.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life

Presenting

I have been futzing with the same slide show for hours. Hours and hours and hours. I’ve added some icons, resized them, resized them again. I changed fill colours and checked fonts. Oh, and I re-jigged one slide from three columns to four. That took at least 30 minutes and somehow seemed very very important.

I could be doing other things, of course. I could be helping with dinner or practicing on Duolingo. I could be heading to Knit Night or reading a book. I could be relaxing or chatting with my sister. But the slide show keeps calling me.

Tomorrow I will be doing my first-ever presentation at a conference. I am a little nervous. I have been reassuring myself that a teacher being nervous about a presentation is, honestly, silly. After all, I present all the time in the classroom, right? (Ok, well, not so much lately since I’ve tried to make my classroom much more student-driven, but I definitely presented for years.) And I’ve co-hosted an online book club for colleagues – complete with slide shows! – with no problem. And I’ve spoken on podcasts! How different can this be? (Different. It can be different.)

And it’s not like I’m doing this alone. My friend, mentor & colleague, Melanie White, is presenting the session with me. She is, frankly, inspirational: a powerhouse of thinking fueled by an almost unimaginable volume of reading and listening. In fact, I’m pretty sure that *she* is the reason people will attend. After all, *I* would attend her session in a heartbeat. (And yes, Melanie, I see you reading this and shaking your head. Let me have my nervous moment over here.)

Even as I write this, I am starting to laugh at myself a little. Sure, I am nervous – but writing about it down makes me realize that perhaps this is not as big a deal as I think. After all, Sarah Zerwin (of the book Point-less) was the keynote speaker today, and she presented for 2.5 hours. Now *that* would be nerve-wracking. She nailed it: my brain was spinning with ideas and questions right up to the last moments. And she told us that it was her first time presenting for that length of time – and that she over prepped. Sigh… such a teacher move.

Which brings me back to that slide show for tomorrow. I’m pretty sure that I need to just double-check a few more of the slides. And maybe tweak the script a little. I swear I won’t add any more columns, but one more icon might make all the difference…

(Wish us luck! Here’s hoping we share things others find useful.)

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space for teacher-writers.

Uprooting

After three weeks away and an 18-hour drive home, the kids and I pulled into the driveway. I unlocked the doors and opened the back hatch, handing bundles to the boys as they made their way inside. There, in the waning light, I saw several dandelion plants nearly as tall as the 11 year old dragging a suitcase up the front steps. Long green blades of grass – not grass I had planted – poked up between the paving stones and around the azaleas, visibly proud of how quickly and well it had grown. And even the enthusiastic grass had nothing on the tomatoes: they had grown exuberantly, abundantly, outrageously, and then, exhausted, had laid their heavy branches down on the sidewalk, creating a thick verdant obstacle course for passersby. The plants were out of control.

I paused, arms laden with the miscellaneous car detritus that appears at the end of a long road trip, and shook my head slowly – as if I could somehow reconcile this sight with Andre’s text from last night: “I did some trimming of the garden so you wouldn’t be totally horrified, but you will still want to get out there to rip stuff up.”

I was, in fact, totally horrified.

As I stood, rooted to the spot, our neighbor Mike came over to welcome us home. I sputtered something about giant dandelions and he laughed, “Yeah, Andre didn’t get a lot of gardening done while he was home*.” Mike had watered the plants while we were away, and he’d kept at it even once Andre came home because Andre had to work. Now, together, we stared at the wild tangle that occupied the space previously known as the front yard.

“Girl,” said Mike, “get in there and get some sleep. We can deal with this tomorrow. I’ll help with the tomatoes.”

Saturday arrived, hot and humid. I rummaged through the shed and found stakes, twine, a small garden fork and a large yard waste bag. The morning was for pulling things. Out came the dandelions (really sow thistle), carefully culled so that their fluff didn’t spread seeds everywhere. Up came the grass – and more grass and more grass and many little bulbs. What was this stuff? I wiped the sweat from my forehead and checked my phone: nutgrass? nutsedge? Who cares? I ripped it out ruthlessly. 

I paused for a long walk and a short lunch. The afternoon heat was more than I could handle, even with water, but after dinner Mike showed up, as promised. We staked one tomato plant after another, slowly clearing the sidewalk as we discovered dozens of green orbs hidden in the leaves. For a while he tied and I weeded. Then he weeded a little, too. Then I weeded some more. By the time the sun was setting, we had overfilled the yard waste bag and were both happily dripping with sweat. I wiped a dirty hand across my face, stood up and stretched, high and long. 

“It looks good,” I declared. 
“That it does,” he agreed.
“I’ve got more to do tomorrow.”
“Yes, you do. It’s a good job done for today, though.”

We surveyed the yard – tomatoes upright, paving stones visible, azaleas able to breathe – and said goodnight. I went inside and washed off the dirt, then fell asleep knowing that all that uprooting really meant coming home.

*To be clear, the house was immaculate and he’d left cold beer in the fridge and lovely treats for us to discover, so I’m not complaining. Not everyone is a gardener.

At the cafe

I only planned one museum visit for this trip because I knew that Eric would not likely be a big fan. Still, I love the Musee d’Orsay, and I haven’t been to Paris in 15 years – 15! – so I couldn’t resist. We had tickets for the earliest admission time and, after an extremely quick walk through the temporary Gaudi exhibit, we headed directly for the Impressionists to take advantage of our morning energy and the relatively smaller morning crowds.

Eric didn’t last long, Monet be damned. In fact, he quickly determined that he preferred the benches to anything else. (Granted, the benches are art in their own right – “Water Block” by Tokujin Yoshioka – but I’m pretty sure that’s not what attracted Eric.) He looked at the paintings for a room or two, then raced ahead to the end of the exhibit. There, he waited a few minutes, then returned to complain politely, then went ahead again. This cycle repeated several times. Each time, I showed him one piece or offered one idea; he listened & then left.

Portrait of an 11 year old at the Musee d’Orsay

On his third return trip, Eric told me that a) he needed something to drink and b) there was a cafe at the end of the exhibit and c) it opened at 11. I agreed that we could go, suggested that my mom catch up to us after she looked at some more art, and wandered towards what I assumed would be an overpriced bottle of water and a Fanta at a museum kiosk thing.

A casual glance upended my expectations: sunlight spilled into a large, open room through the giant clock that dominated the far wall – a reminder that the museum was originally a train station. The yellow walls seemed luminous and everywhere bell-shaped pendant lights covered in golden squares glowed. As Eric dragged me into line – of course there was a line – I worried briefly about what I had just agreed to.

The photo from TripAdvisor is better than what I took

Minutes later the cafe opened, and we were shown to a table. Since we were among the first to order, we snagged some of the croissants and pain au chocolat to accompany our drinks. Our server poured our drinks with a flourish, teasing Eric, and we felt well looked-after. As I finished my tea (Eric’s Orangina was gone in a flash), an older man at the next table asked my mother, in French, if Eric was her grandson. I translated, she said yes, and the man told her that he was beautiful – he repeated it carefully in English, to make sure she understood. He struck up a conversation – much to his young nephew’s chagrin – and, although he was from Brazil, insisted on speaking French to Eric. Eventually, we called for our bill, and as we left, the gentleman told Eric that he must see Manet’s The Fifer before he left.

Was it the croissant? the cafe? the man who took the time to notice Eric and talk to him? I don’t know, but we managed to enjoy another hour of the museum – statues, models, and paintings, including, yes, The Fifer – before it was time to move on. My guess is that Eric will remember the setting and the conversation for at least as long as he remembers the artwork. I suspect I might, too.

The setting, the kid & the croissant
Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space for teachers to write and share.

Family Reunion

What I want to say is that it is a terrible idea to start a 17-hour drive the day after the school year ends. And that this is the reason we somehow forgot my suitcase. And that I had packed all the toothpaste, among other things. And that I had to replace everything which is part of the reason I was fussy until about four hours ago.

What I want to say is that 18 people in one house is, more or less, 12 too many, even if one of them is my adorable 13 month old niece who, for reasons none of us can quite fathom, is basically happy all of the time.

What I want to say is that South Carolina is hot, even at the beach, and that most of us are ridiculously sunburned even though we’ve only been here three days. And we were too far away to really appreciate yesterday’s fireworks, and what were we celebrating, really, since each day the beach appears to be full of straight white couples and Roe has been overturned and there were 21 mass shootings in the US between July 1st and 4th and as we drove down here we passed within spitting distance of at least two of them.

But then I meet my sister’s partner, a woman who makes her very happy and who, as it turns out, makes a delicious daiquiri. And my Cuban sister-in-law is tucked away in the shade, reading and cooing at the baby. And my brothers are on the beach, kicking a soccer ball with my son while my partner plays in the ocean with my nephews. And I marvel that my family has dealt with addiction and divorce and depression and suicide attempts and miscarriage and abortion and money troubles and the list goes on and on. Some of us own guns; some of us abhor guns. Some of us are vegan; some of us are enthusiastic meat-eaters. Some of us have MDs; some of us never finished college.

By all rights, we should not get along at all, and sometimes we don’t, but for the week of the family reunion, day after day we laugh and love and find the things we have in common. The grill sets off the fire alarm – again – and the kids try to fill the pool with water balloons and then, after dinner, we have a birthday cake to celebrate birthdays we’ve missed. Tonight, we are all in the main room with the baseball game on mute while Jamie and Donna serenade us with old time bluegrass music and about half the family sings the chorus.

This family reunion – so many of us joined in such unexpected ways – doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s not nothing. Some nights, once I’ve recovered from the long drive and the end of the school year and all its attendant fatigue, I think it might be (almost) everything.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers, whose weekly Slice of Life keeps me writing and thinking.

Almost the end

Knit Night starts in 6 minutes and I do not have a project on the go. I always have something half-finished or nearly-dreamed, but tonight, despite oodles of patterns and skeins of yarn, I am at loose ends.

I could cry “end of the school year!” and “I’m so busy!” and skip Knit Night to mark student work, but I’ve marked everything they’ve turned in. I should be pleased about this, but I know the deluge awaits: missing assignments will magically appear by Friday and my weekend will be full.

Tonight is Tuesday, and I have not yet written a “Slice of Life,” though I meant to write last night and again this morning. I have a million half-started ideas and drafts stashed away in journals and various corners of the internet, but tonight none of them seem willing to fledge themselves into fully formed posts.

I’m even between books, and though I have half a dozen on my nightstand, none of them feel quite right. I suppose I’ll have to start *something* tonight, I can’t sleep if I don’t read, but I don’t know what it will be.

Clearly, I am almost-the-end-of-the-school-year tired. I am the tired that comes the week before the week before. Next week is the flurry – grad breakfasts and rehearsals and commencement and last days. Next week we will buzz with energy and fill the school with excitement. My evenings will be full of the well-earned exhaustion of a job (nearly) done.

Tonight I’m the tired that arrives two weeks before school ends – full of regret and longing. How much more I wish we had done! Oh, how much more we could do together! But we have finished the projects – well, nearly – and no new ones are on the horizon. Instead, what lies ahead is goodbye. We will celebrate the journey and look to the future and it will be good.

But now I’m 6 minutes late for Knit Night, and I don’t have a project on the go, but I know they’ll be happy to have me anyway. And I’ll probably come up with a new project. I always do.

The elusive tree-rabbit

We were on lunch break during day five? six? of curriculum work at the central office, and a few of us had driven to Frank’s for sandwiches and butter tarts. I chatted outside with a friend while the others waited inside for their sandwiches to be ready.

Even on break we were talking pedagogy and learning and teaching when suddenly I paused and said, “Sorry, wait a second,” and she said, “What?” and turned to look where I was looking.

“I think that’s a rabbit in a tree.” I blinked my eyes several times and squinted, as if that would somehow make things more clear.

My companion freely admitted that she could only see a black smudge in the tree because she was not wearing her glasses, but even so, it looked like a rabbit. I stared. She stared. She said, “Oh, the poor rabbit! I wonder how it got up there?”

“It can’t be a rabbit,” I shook my head again. “I mean… it can’t be. Rabbits do not live in trees.” This statement seemed unarguable.

A breeze came and the rabbit’s ear twitched. Its little head moved side to side. The poor rabbit!

In the parking lot, some garbage collectors continued their work. Closer to us, a guy in an orange construction vest leaned against the wall and took a drag on his cigarette. No one but us seemed to see the rabbit.

Surreptitiously, I moved closer to the tree. I stared. And stared.



“It’s a nest!” I crowed. “With a feather sticking up!” The breeze picked up again. The feather/ear swayed. I giggled.

Just then, another teacher arrived with her sandwich. “What are you looking at?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly. “It’s just a rabbit. In a tree.”

The elusive tree-rabbit – a very rare sighting.

Many thanks to the tireless team at Two Writing Teachers who host this Slice of Life weekly on Tuesdays.

Breaking up is hard to do

I have broken up with Hamlet on more than one occasion. The first time was in the Spring. It’s so lovely out, I thought, and this play is so tragic. Let’s read something more cheerful. We did. But the breakup didn’t take – Hamlet and I tried again a semester later. It didn’t last. It’s winter, I thought, and everyone dies in this play. Let’s read something more current. So I left him again. This time I was sure we were over. We stayed apart for a couple of years.

Times changed. In the English office, we teachers discussed whether or not we should teach Shakespeare every year of high school. I maintained that, while I love Shakespeare, he is over-represented in our curriculum. Some of us argued that great literature continues to expand and wondered about the place of a long-dead English guy in our students’ world. Others insisted that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literature. We didn’t reach a conclusion – how could we? – but Hamlet and I stayed broken up. Each semester I asked students if they thought we should get back together; every time the nos far outweighed the yesses.

Then, during the pandemic online learning, a few students picked Hamlet for their choice unit, so I got to spend some time with him again. I was… intrigued both by the on-line options and by the students’ reactions to the play. They loved it – and Hamlet was on my mind again. Last semester we were in a weird pandemic limbo so I didn’t even think about Hamlet, but this semester… well, we had enough time for one more unit before the end of the year and I offered options. Hamlet was one of them – but I also offered a focus on social media, a “banned book” book club, a non-fiction children’s book study. They chose Hamlet.

I was wary – our class includes students from all over the world, some of whom are still learning English. (Honestly, in many ways we are *all* still learning English – but that’s another post.) They have plans to study computer science, engineering, medicine, economics, political science and more. I don’t think any of them plan to study Literature. And look, I know why I find Hamlet attractive, but I was unsure that he was the right fit for them. Still, it’s what they chose.

So, cautiously, I introduced them. We got our bearings and set some goals for our time together – boundaries, if you will: no, we will not read every word; yes, we will actually say the words on the page; yes, we can use No Fear Shakespeare and the internet; no, we will not stay in our seats. Then, tentatively, I invited Hamlet back into the classroom.

Look, I said, the play starts with a question – but the wrong person is asking it. Soon, students were patrolling the ramparts and trying to decide if they believed in ghosts. By Tuesday, someone gave a low whistle when Claudius taunted Hamlet, “’tis unmanly grief”. That’s HARSH, Miss. Another student replied, Well, he is behaving like a jerk. A student who has a spare during our period has started attending the class, just to read along. Today, Hamlet compared his dead father to a sun god and thought about killing himself because it was, frankly, all too much. He’s so *dramatic* sighed one student. I mean, it is kind of a terrible situation, but still. A lively discussion broke out about Hamlet’s response to all this – which made it that much worse when Horatio showed up and said, um, so, about your dad… “methinks I saw him yesternight.” One student shook her head gravely and said, Oh, this is NOT going to go well.

Tomorrow we will meet Ophelia. And I probably shouldn’t tell her, but I think I just got back together with Hamlet. Again.

Many thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly space for blogging.

Ribbit

Over lunch, when I mention that I have opted Mr. 13 out of the new online learning requirement for high school, my mother in law asks casually if I think online learning is the way of the future. I do not.

Listen, I know that e-learning works for some people. And I know that it can be done very well. And I know that there are times and places when it is the right option. I’m not anti e-learning. (Well, ok, I’m a little bit anti e-learning, but I can live with it. I’ve done all of my credentialing/ post-graduate school classes online, and there are definitely advantages.) I am, however, against an e-learning requirement in high school – especially when I believe it is a nakedly political attempt to increase class sizes and destabilize public education rather than increase student learning or wellbeing. And I absolutely do not believe that e-learning can or should replace in person learning.

In the kitchen, I start to explain the reasons that mandatory e-learning doesn’t make sense to me. I reach for evidence; my brain goes into fact mode. Even now, as I write, I have paused to find articles to link to, statistics to back up my beliefs. I have searched the internet for other voices to back up my own (there are plenty). But I decide not to include them. For the past two weeks in Grade 12, we’ve been working with analysis and reviews, reading mentor texts and noticing how writers choose and use evidence, so I realize that I am defaulting to logos even though I firmly believe that the most convincing arguments must first appeal to pathos.

Let me tell you a story.

Last week, on the way to school, I was listening to poet Ada Limón’s podcast “The Slowdown“. Each day, she shares a little bit of her thinking and reads one poem. The show is usually about five minutes long, and I love it. In fact, I love it so much that I was listening to back episodes as I drove in, and I stumbled across an April episode where Limón read Alex Lemon’s poem “Credo”. Its energy blew me away, and I knew immediately that I would use it in class.

So there I was, less than an hour later, reading this poem to some sleepy 12th graders. We noticed its exuberance (ok, that was my word), then grabbed our notebooks (ok, because I made them), and wrote “I can be…” at the top of the page (the repeated line in the poem). I set a timer for three minutes and we let ourselves go, completing the line in any way we wanted to. I wrote on the board so they could see me working. An observer in our class also wrote – if you’re in the room, you’re in the class. When the chime sounded, we paused to take a breath. I could feel the changed energy in the room.

“Let’s each share a line,” I said. We’ve done this before – we do this regularly – so even though reading our writing out loud can be tough, most of the students were up for it. Sometimes people only share a word; sometimes they share far more. That day, most people had picked up on the freedom in Lemon’s poem – some were still writing! – and the sharing began quickly. We heard from most of the class, including our visitor, but of course, there are always those who are reluctant; in those moments I try to encourage, maybe even push a little, but not to over-pressure. This day, the extra push allowed M to share a line that they prefaced with, “this is a little weird.” Their line began, “I can be a frog…” Afterwards, they added, “I mean, poems aren’t really about frogs” and they blushed a little.

My response was immediate, “Of course poems can be about frogs! I can think of one right now,” and I launched into Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I had only gotten out the first two words when another student chimed in and recited the rest with me. This student is neurodiverse and participates in class in their own rhythm; in saying the poem with me, they astonished their classmates.

Then class moved on. And that would have been it. Except that the next day I opened class with 32 translations of Basho’s Frog haiku. By the time we got to, oh, the 15th or so, people were smiling. We spoke very briefly about how translations can help us see a poem in a new way – and how well they do or don’t communicate the original. Then class moved on. But our original classroom frog poet was absent that day, so the next day I arrived with Hilaire Belloc’s “The Frog.” We giggled about calling a frog “Slimy skin” even as we learned the word “epithet”. Unfortunately, the student poet who kicked this off was at a track meet. “Don’t worry,” I assured the students, “I have plenty of frog poems. I’ll just keep going until they’re back in class.” Their best friend laughed and students around the room shook their heads at what is, essentially, the teacher version of a dad joke. Then class moved on.

(Fear not, there are a LOT of frog poems. I can keep this up for a while.)

I have finished telling my mother in law this whole story – from the podcast to the writing to the ongoing frog poems. She is not a fan of e-learning (in fact, she’s a firm believer in energy and creativity and more), so she has been an easy sell. And even though I have decided not to link to any of the statistics or evidence out there – and there’s a lot – I know that the online classroom can’t replicate this, the gentle push to share a bit of yourself, the wonderful astonishment of a quiet student suddenly reciting a poem they know by heart, the moment of mild discomfort that leads to a world we didn’t know existed, the serendipity that allows one moment to become a string of moments that creates a community of learners, a community of people who experience the beauty and humour and affirmation that leads to learning that lasts a lifetime.

So, no, I don’t think that online learning is the way of the future. Unless we can find a way to include a lot of frog poems.