Monday, August 15, 2011

Is teaching always teaching?

As a high school English teacher, teaching anything else seems like it should be the same. A student cannot possibly understand algebra without first understanding (and memorizing) their multiplication tables. The same can be said about progressively more difficult vocabulary and material. (Starting a student with Sartre or Tolstoy as opposed to Silverstein or Roald Dahl is suicidal.) But teaching something other than a subject area (i.e. guitar) is actually different than I thought it would be.

A family member wanted to learn guitar so I was enlisted as the guitar teacher once per week. My first thought for the initial lesson was the overview of the guitar (frets, strings, size, etc.), followed by the outlining of notes, scales and chords. The foundations of music and most songs. Then I thought about this translation into English. Would I begin by teaching a student about verbs, nouns, etc.? What about phonemes, syllables and derivations? No. When small children begin learning language they learn by imitation, then establish their own rules based on what they hear and repeat and the reception they receive. However, a guitar player can't replicate what he sees in front of him or what he hears without first knowing the positions chords create, how to create them and actually "what" a guitar is.

Do we as humans "know" what words are, how language is created, etc. without necessarily knowing the rules to it? If so, does that mean there is something instinctual left within us--an animal with no more instincts? Or am I to recognize that the visceral desire to communicate, to speak and to be heard is something that comes from the way we learn to form our sounds into something understandable? Is teaching then slightly different when it comes to a skill as opposed to a subject (one can't learn how to build a deck without first knowing what a 2x4 is, etc.)? If so, are there then different methods to teaching and can teaching English then be somehow modified as to teach it as a skill rather than a subject? Can I teach my students "how" to read literature as opposed to how to answer questions about it? Can I teach them "how" literature is made as opposed to how it's read? What about how to appreciate it as opposed to how to "get it over with"?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Passenger

What a righteous idea! 40 classic Hollywood movies snipped and recut to synthesize with one of the greatest early punk songs, Iggy Pop and The Stooges The Passenger. Kind of reminds me of when movies used to be really good (though I wasn't alive for most of these...) and kind of reminds me of when music used to be good (ended pretty much when I was 12.)

Evil in the Garden

Recently I've begun to notice that my squash plants appear to be, well, less-than-full. They've seemed to wilt, despite the zealous rainfall and feed I've given them, and they've been producing far fewer fruits than I'd anticipated. Well, after doing a brief bit of research I've discovered that a few of my squash plants have succumb to the squash vine borer. A relative of the squash bug, they're often found together, which I had no idea about. They're easily controlled with mild pesticides, but those same pesticides kill off a lot of green beans and cucumbers, exactly what I planted beside the squash plants...

Essentially the squash bugs look like crosses between little spiders and stink-bugs. Their sole purpose is to nibble, slowly, on the larger squash leaves until they wilt and die. Then they move on to the next squash leaf. They have no intention of killing the plant, rather they like it for its nutrients so they play a game of keeping it alive while still using it for food. Quite a "nice" parasitic relationship if I've ever heard one. However, the borer, which often accompanies the squash bug because it just follows their scent and let's them do all the work (read: lazy), burrows into the base of the plant and eats it from the inside out until the plant stem becomes hollowed and the plant dies.

The borer looks like a little lot like a grub and a little like a caterpillar. They actually will cocoon over the winter and start the process again next year unless an insecticide is used and a good rototilling is provided, to disturb their winter slumber. Dead give-aways of its presence include a sawdust-like substance at the base of the plant, a discoloration (often brown or tan) at the stem down to the roots and wilted leaves. Damn things. I guess I know what I'll be doing next year--planting them all separately and spraying them once in a while to prevent this from happening again.

Picture included for your pleasure disgust.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Guilty Pleasure

One of my less-secretive guilty pleasures is watching a few of the many paranormal shows on television. I really enjoy Ghost Adventures more than the rest, though it's pretty embellished and clearly unnaturally dramatized for television. I find the brief moments of seeming paranormal activity to be very intriguing and though I doubt I'd ever become a paranormal investigator, I do have to admit these shows pique my interests in something that, surprisingly, is very relevant to teaching.

When I say this, I don't mean that I preach about the quest for ghosts in the classroom, but certain stories, especially Shakespeare, are riddled with mentions of ghosts: Hamlet, Macbeth, Harry Potter and of course, The Crucible. While it doesn't specifically mention ghosts, the girls do swear they've seen "spirits" and other manifestations of evil or demonic entities. And while I can't help notice the interest in the paranormal is surging, I wonder when there will be definitive "proof" discovered.

One can argue every orb is a dust particle or a bug or some type of life refraction or reflection. One can argue that "shadow figures," noises, disembodied voices, etc. are all photographic blemishes or echoes from something nearby. And one can certainly argue that no one will ever know what exists on "the other side" because no one on earth can teach us how to die (thanks, Franz Wright). But certainly we can dream. We can pretend and we can strive to discover, prove and compile. I wonder, though, in our current technological age, why no one has found this incontrovertible proof if, in fact, there is an afterlife.

Regardless, I'd love to do an investigative session just once. I'd love to set off with a group of friends, armed with paranormal researching equipment, a haunted, spooky or notoriously mysteriously location, and hunt for any signs that there's something else after we inhale our last breath here on earth.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Procrastination is an evil monster. It lurks in the middle of the night (and occasionally all day), and wreaks havoc upon plans and futures.

If I procrastinate on procrastinating, would that make me efficient? Or would it make me even lazier? When philosophy extends unto procrastination, one knows it's time for bed.

Did Confucius say that?

Ars Blogging and Poetica

As any follower of my blog has recognized, I'm again going through spurts of flood and drought, today obviously being the flood. Writing is something magical to me, and creative writing is the zenith of this experience. It's such a euphoric experience, leaving the writer with a feeling of transcendence. Lately though, writer's block has been getting the better of me. It's such a terrible feeling to view your work as trash, reading each succeeding line with more disgust. It's an even worse feeling to open up some of your previous work and also metaphorically vomit. The best remedy I've discovered is to take a break, step away and let the ideas resurface after an extended period of time.

In the interim, I've been brooding on what to write next, what to insert into this blog, and doing a lot of work on the deck, in the yard and catching back up on my reading. I have a lot on my plate when it comes to writing, and a lot of self-imposed goals and achievements to live up to/attain, and it's frustrating to know that writer's block, procrastination and other endeavors interfere with these successes.

It's every writer's dream to write something indelible and "great," something praise-worthy and even, dare I write it, award-winning. And conversely, every writer's nightmare to be trapped in writer's block, to write into and within oblivion, or to write something not self-satisfying and critically satisfying or acclaimed. It's always gratifying to hear or read that your work was impacting, praised or cherished by someone, or at the very least appreciated, but the first step to this feeling is to satisfy yourself with actually writing, something I've had a lot of difficulty with these past few weeks. Perhaps it's the post-residency hangover; maybe I'm so inundated with ideas and new knowledge that I don't know how to proceed in an organized and efficient manner. Maybe there's too much going on to focus on my writing, or maybe, like in my previous post, I'm too preoccupied with reality to sit down and write poetry, something that won't earn money or change the world. It's something that arguably is distracting from the real world, unless I write about the real world, of course. But my life is only so interesting in comparison to what's occurring outside my window and far away, viewed from my television.

To write or not to write, that is not the question, but the struggle.

The London Riots

Will all of the turmoil surrounding the stock markets, the US credit rating downgrade, the financial calamities in Europe and the speculation over what will or will not happen, it's no wonder that the rioting and uprisings have spread from emerging and unstable nations like Yemen and Egypt, where unemployment is rampant among the more democratic youth, to places like Greece and now London.

London has been, for all intensive purposes, the most widely recognized European city for most people in the world. Paris would probably follow at a close second, but London's population and commuter-base makes it a much larger city per population and economy than Paris. So to see a city like this, which is such a focal point and mecca for so many across Europe and the world, to crumble so quickly is surely a sign of the times.

What makes these riots so fierce isn't the rebellion from police shooting a suspect who was a <30 father of four, but the pent up frustration and angst from the economic downward spiral. The tension has been percolating for quite some time, stemming from the lack of economic adaptation in the years preceding the economic collapse of 2008. Why have so many young people taken to the streets? Is it because rioting is a young people's "sport"? Is it because the victim was a young person? Or is it because the governments of so many large cities and countries are too concerned with politics to listen to the youth? Are America and London inextricably tied to the same fate and is London the canary in the coal mine for America?

I for one am in favor of peaceful demonstrations. Period. I think they should happen anywhere as often as possible. I'm not in support of looting, rioting, and interruption of daily activities, let me make that perfectly apparent. But if I were traveling into work and passed a group of protestors raising awareness of our government's lack of cohesion and agreement, or about the skyrocketing unemployment rates, about the rampant greed and avarice of those too preoccupied with themselves to notice the middle class, then I would gladly tip my cap to them.

But is that all they want? A tip of the cap? A few dollars or a few more followers? No. Any demonstrations purpose is to enact change. These rioters feel the only plausible way to enact change is to inflict destruction. It's undeniable, cannot be hidden or sugarcoated. It's destruction. It's man at his most visceral. So where should the line be drawn? Do buildings need to be engulfed for change to be enacted, or is it something that's ignored once the rioting calms? Do TV networks need to be hijacked and messages broadcast across pirated radiowaves for the need for change to be felt by the public? Do demonstrations need to become the norm? Do people need to march en masse?

There's more than politics at work here. The present generation cannot tolerate being held down. In America there is insouciance and apathy, while in Europe there is a revolution coming to a head. Can America really pretend like the same won't happen here? Our news glosses over any kind of demonstrations and pretends like Europe is an exception. We're the exception and it's only a matter of time before we cannot be excluded from this any more. I'm not advocating for destruction. I'm advocating for ignorance to evaporate. I'm championing a call for fantasy to be extinguished. There shouldn't be an economic gap so great that an entire generation of college graduates can become known as "the lost generation" due to a lack of jobs. There shouldn't be a portion of society that can profit from others becoming unemployed. And I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Our television provides an escape from reality and as my wife so astutely observed, "the news is too depressing, the world is crazy." Exactly. It's crazed because the illusion is fading and how long can we hold onto an ethereal bubble before it bursts? What will be the reverberation when it does? Will it be change? Will it be compromise? Will it be calamity?

Stay tuned. The revolution will be televised.

A Real-Life Sardine.

I'm pretty sure that if I lived in a space this cramped I would go absolutely insane. Kudos to this guy, though, he actually came up with some very clever and economical ways to use the extremely limited space that he had. If he was paying like $200/month for this place, I'd be much more impressed. However, I cannot justify spending $800/month for 78sf and considering that to be a deal because you're only "minutes" from the activities you like most. Nor could I justify being a grown adult and sharing a bathroom down the hallway with four other people...roommates are one thing, but that bathroom was outside in the hall and down the hall for the other people living there.

I especially enjoyed the comments, one of which stated that they pay half of what this guy pays for a 2 bedroom which happens to be an extra 10 minute walk or 3 minute train ride away. I'd definitely opt for space and comfort. Maybe it's that this guy felt he had something to prove being an architect? Y'know, ironically an architect lives in the smallest square footage possible yet designs expansive and sprawling structures and homes? I bet that's the ticket.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer Blues

Around this time of summer, many of us teachers feel a bit of summertime blues. It's not that I'm begging to go back to working my long hours, or I'm not grateful for this reprieve to read and plan for the upcoming year so I actually have time to have a life once the school bell rings, but I feel a bit of emptiness right now without a seeming purpose each morning. Am I waking up to teach my students about great literature, or showing to them how to relate the classroom to their futures? Nope. And the lack of this is a kind of withdrawal.

I'm not trying to compare teaching to drug usage, of course, but the withdrawal from both I think speaks to the kind of dependence we teachers have on our profession. We didn't enter into it to clock a 9-5 and "put in our time," and anyone who gets into the profession for that should be extracted. True teachers enter into this profession to make a difference and try to preserve (or hopefully resurrect) an enjoyment (or love) of learning and, for me, literature.

Without this constant struggle and the persistent energy put into it, I feel like my adrenaline is waning to the point of near-depression, i.e. summer blues. Which inevitably brings me to a solution to the summer blues: year-round teaching, which also means year-round schooling.

I like to say I'm an advocate for year-round schooling, but I don't know enough about it to 100% support it--how would it change the curriculum for teachers and for students? How would transitions, jobs, ceremonies (graduations, games), etc. all work out? What about length of individual school day in relation to longer school year? Regardless, I think it's necessary and our country is moving closer to acceptance of the idea of year-round schooling: few kids still help out on the family farms during the summer; we're losing ground on other countries every year in terms of memory, test scores and achievement; and there is far too much downtime for our students.

Would it be easier for both students and teachers to receive a couple weeks off steadily throughout an entire year or is it better to lop off the end of the school year with a 2 1/2 month vacation? Is it better mentally to give less opportunity for students to forget what they've learned? Is it better for an educator to stay in this mode of persistence and, over time, would it make the struggle easier?