Category Archives: teaching

Ripping Off Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams depart
Life is a worn-out athlete
With a failing heart

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams vanish
Life is an iron prison
Bleak walls and anguish

NaPoWriMo #8: Rewrite a famous poem

I like to have my students analyze “Dreams” by Langston Hughes and then write their own stanzas following his pattern. When we’re finished, everyone reads them aloud following the original. If it’s done right, if sounds like one long poem. The kids usually have fun with it, and some come up with some really cool metaphors. Much better than my weak attempt above, which I’m sharing in response to NaPoWriMo’s prompt to rewrite a famous poem.

Stopping by Tharsis on a Dusty Evening

When all my days have turned to rust,
The poison wind begins to gust,
And strange colors purely Martian
Fill up the sky with choking dust.

When the air begins to thicken
Like a scene from science fiction
I lose sight of Tharsis Montes,
And embrace this redding vision.

Down in Noctis Labyrinthus,
Cut off, alone, I find solace.
Within the planet’s ancient scar,
I marvel as the sky turns ferrous.

The lovely dust darkens the stars
Then blocks the Earth that once was ours.
And now there is nowhere but Mars.
And now there is nowhere but Mars.

Not long ago, I had my students write poems using Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a model. I decided to have a go at it too. I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

How to Diagram a Simple Sentence

Like all forms of torture, diagramming should only be used when it is absolutely critical that you obtain a speedy confession from the sentence at hand and after all other attempts to determine a sentence’s meaning have failed.

1. Isolate the sentence from its peers and prepare a hard, flat line on which to work. Stainless steel is best because it is easy to clean.

2. Place the sentence on the line and sever the subject from the verb with a quick downstroke of your blade. Surgical scalpels, X-Acto knives, and machetes are all suitable for this procedure. This can be extremely painful for the subject as it will now have nothing to do or be, but with the two isolated, your work may end here if the sentence is especially simple.

3. Should you need to chop off a direct object, you’ll make another cut, but not as deep as the one used to sever subject from verb. Be aware that some verbs require direct objects and so you may find this takes a little extra effort. Use a saw if you must. Predicate adjectives are handled in a similar manner, but you’ll need to make an angled incision. Remember to cut with the grain and consider a reciprocating saw for this.

4. Indirect objects must be handled separately, and you’ll need a second line with a tether to the severed verb. You can use a hammer to break the indirect object away from the verb and then then pull it away from the main sentence onto a separate line. The value of this is primarily psychological as it allows the rest of the sentence to see itself stretched across the page in a most horrific way.

5. Prepositional phrases will be broken off like indirect objects, but you’ll use the preposition itself to create the tether between the main line and the line on which you place the object of the preposition. Again, the effect here is mainly psychological, but your sentence should be singing by now.

6. Adjectives and adverbs, like fingers and toes, are not truly necessary to a sentence’s survival,  and they can be removed easily, a procedure that will sometimes help the sentence reveal its secrets. Use a bolt cutter to remove the modifiers one at a time and place them on angled lines slanting off from the words they once modified. Placing them on the angle will allow the lifeblood of the sentence to drain away with a minimum of effort of your part.

Once the sentence is taken apart, you should have your confession. Remember, it is not usually necessary to torture a sentence. If you find yourself doing this for fun, rather than of necessity, please seek help from a certified dark language arts teacher.

Because Math Said So

I heard that They say math is the language of nature and the way in which we explain everything, which is a pretty cool thing to think about. Math is probably the language of God despite the church’s old fondness for Latin. That’s part of why I like math, but it wasn’t always so. Math and I have not always been friends.

Math turned against me in second grade, which I otherwise loved. I think it was the regular timed tests. I could never get past subtraction even when the rest of the class had moved through multiplication and on to joyless division. It’s probably where my hatred of school began too. Eventually, I began to get things under control, but then those fiends threw letters into the mix so now I had to deal not just with numbers but sometimes x and even his diabolical buddy y. I always liked reading and writing, but now it seemed the whole treasonous alphabet was turning against me.

Sometimes I understood it, but it wasn’t until later that I took satisfaction in solving a problem or working a proof the way I did writing a good story. So there were ups and downs along the bumpy road to graduation: Algebra was a down, Geometry was an up—the first one in math since first grade, Algebra II was down, Trig was a giant up. This is where I started to actually enjoy it. I thought I was home free, but then came Calculus and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t need it to graduate. In college, I only needed to pass basic algebra, which I did, and then no more math forever, I thought. I celebrated by treating myself to a cheeseburger.

Flash forward twenty-some years, and my current teaching assignment involves helping students earn their GEDs. I had to relearn (learn, really, but the re- in front makes it sound better) all the algebra I swore I’d never need to know and that I’d never use in the “real world.” A funny thing happened, though, when I started FOIL-ing and throwing around slope-intercept and quadratic formulas. I liked it. I liked learning about it and getting a bit of a deeper glimpse at how the universe works.

To my surprise, I also found I like teaching a little math. We English teachers live in a world of ambiguity, debatable short answers and essay questions, endless discussion, and gray areas. (Or is it ‘grey’ and did I really need that comma before the ‘and’?) Part of the fun is helping students fumble their way to coherent arguments in support of their ideas and positions. But sometimes it’s nice to break up the day by teaching some math.

The road to the solution for any given problem is a journey and for those of us who find the greatest meaning in the journey (and, let’s be honest here, aren’t being graded on the problem), it can be an interesting journey to take. But I admit, a couple of times a day, it’s nice to be able to point to a number and say that this is the correct answer and there is no other choice. No debate. No argument. The answer is 42. Why? Because math said so, that’s why.

Back to School

In 2008, my colleagues picked me as teacher of the year for our campus. Upon being selected, my principal handed me a packet to complete. Seems you have to write a short essay about your path to teaching, teachers who inspired you, professional accomplishments and some biography so the board can pick the district teacher of the year. This is a slightly redacted version of what I wrote back in 2008. I found it while cleaning up my work computer and doing some start of the year organizing. Call it a summer rerun.

I became a teacher twice. In the process, I learned that sometimes you have to leave a thing to see how much you love it.

When I was in college too many people told me I would be a good teacher. Told me I should be a teacher. Yeah, right, I thought. That’s nuts. Teaching was in the family, but I was going to work on film sets and maybe even be a director. A funny thing happened on the way to the director’s chair, though.

I learned that film work in Austin is sporadic at best. Hard up for cash between gigs, I took to substitute teaching. It took a little while to admit it, but eventually I realized I liked being in the classroom more than on film sets. Though I was “just subbing,” the work felt meaningful. I was a little jealous of the teachers with whom I worked; what they were doing was important. It wasn’t long before subbing mattered more to me than working on TV shows and movies I wouldn’t even have watched had I not been involved with making them.

While subbing, I thought a lot about the teachers who impacted me most. In second grade, Mrs. G. shared her love for Hawaii with us. That summer we moved to the Philippines and had a three-day layover in Honolulu. I knew the whole island and probably could have gone into business conducting tours. There was Mr. R. of 9th grade Modern European History who shouted and raved, gloriously reliving the great battles and upheavals that molded Europe.  On day one of 12th Grade AP English, Mr. C. informed us that he only read and taught books with lots of sex or violence. We read Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Invisible Man. I became a reader. The one thing all these teachers shared was passion. They loved their subjects, and they wanted their students to love them as much as they did. They were having fun too.

After graduate school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could restart my freelance film career, or I could try going all in on the teaching thing. Maybe my college friends weren’t so crazy. I enrolled in an alternative certification program in ‘99. That first year teaching middle school was grueling, but I survived. I taught 7th grade English for a second year and then switched to high school where I taught 10th and 11th grade English while building a winning debate program.  Each year, though, I had less fun. It grew more aggravating. The grass looked greener in the business world and in 2005, I decided I had done my part and paid my debt to society. It was time to go corporate and cash in.

That lasted almost one semester. I missed teaching. I missed the kids. I missed talking about books and analyzing poems. I missed the way autumn looks from inside a classroom and feels when you walk out at the end of the day. I missed the way spring brings everyone alive. I missed the rhythm of the school year, and most importantly, I missed doing work that I believe matters and makes the world a better place.

Only slightly annoyed by the self-applied pressure of my social conscience, I applied to be the GED instructor at a juvenile correctional facility in January 2006. I wasn’t sure how it would go there, but I learned that I really like teaching these kids. Someone has to.

The contributions and accomplishments in education of which I am the most proud are the ordinary days here at my school teaching a 100% “at-risk” population. Whether it’s helping seventeen-year-old freshmen earn their GEDs so they can start fresh in their lives or just, as my former principal said, “welcoming kids back to the community of learners,” on a daily basis, I get to help kids find their way back to the thrill of learning, the truth of a well told story, the beauty of a poem, a sense of wonder at the world around them.

That first day back in the classroom, I knew I had come home. I had become a teacher for the second and last time.

What about a Wolf vs. a Platypus?

A few months ago, I had my students read “The Interlopers” by Saki. It’s a cool little story about two men whose families are feuding over a worthless piece of land. The kids liked it, and I decided to have them read a related nonfiction piece and since I had just finished reading the March issue of National Geographic with its fascinating story about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, I had them read that.

“The Interlopers” involves wolves and the National G story focused on the feud between humans and wolves over land, which made it a good piece for our state standard that focuses on the way similar themes are presented in different genres. The kids really liked it, and the discussion afterward was lively and interesting, and beyond the appropriate connections regarding theme and genre, conflict and resolution, they found a new way of seeing the pointlessness of feuds, and learned a lot about the importance of predators in an ecosystem.

But toward the end, it went were discussions of large predators typically go when a roomful of boys, even teenaged ones, is involved.

“What would happen if a wolf met a mountain lion?”

“That lion would eat that wolf.”

“No way, wolves travel in packs. That wolf ain’t alone.”

“Yeah, but one-on-one.”

“The Lion, probably.”

“What about a wolf versus a bear?”

“How about a wolf versus an alligator?”

“Wolf vs. hyena?

“Wolf vs. …?”

I let it go as we were toward the end of class and they were clearly enjoying themselves, which is an important part of education. Too often, it’s easy to forget to just have fun, but any teacher can tell you that if the kids are enjoying your class they’ll follow you almost anywhere.

I asked later if they enjoyed reading the article and they unanimously said yes and wanted more. A few asked for an article about big cats, and I suspect they’re already cooking up the “What about a tiger vs. …” questions for that discussion.

Running into Former Students

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two former students—at a bookstore, no less, which truly warmed the very cockles of my English teaching heart. Both were students I’d taught as seventh graders and then again as eleventh graders in regular public schools (this was prior to my getting into teaching in an alternative setting).

It’s always good to run into these former students from time to time to see that they’ve transitioned into adulthood and managed at least some of the attendant challenges, but it’s especially nice when one takes the time to tell you what an impact you had on them. They come and go through our classrooms so quickly year after year, and we never really know if we’ve actually helped them, taught them anything lasting. It’s almost a gamble and we teachers have to have faith that what we do will pay off somehow, someway we’ll likely never see.

One of the two I ran into made it a point to tell me just how important I was to her as an English teacher and debate coach. She told me she probably never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for me. That surprised me coming from a kid I remember as being smart, studious and motivated, but then I grew up in an environment where college was an expectation and it’s an easy trap for a teacher—or anyone, really—to assume that we all grow up with the same expectations. Still, whatever I did or said in class must have had some effect and for that I’m grateful because we don’t always know what lessons our kids are really learning in our classes. We hope they’re learning what we’re teaching, but they learn other things too: lessons they take from how we interact with them, speak to them, and treat them. How we approach our subjects too.

Education is an endless process of discovery and there is joy and humor in that—fun, even. Sometimes it’s tough getting there, but the rewards are so great, so fulfilling, that kids who see that in their teachers can’t help but be inspired to some degree. Whether that inspiration leads to college or just getting tomorrow’s essay in on time, it all leads in the same direction and our job is to push those kids a little farther down that path to wherever they want to go.

As educators, I think the most important part of the job is to pass along the love of learning to our students and then teach them the tools they’ll need to teach themselves the things they want and need to know. I’m always telling kids that my job isn’t to solve their problems for them but to help them figure out how to solve them on their own.

It was nice to hear those words from that former student, now an adult with her own family (yet still referring to me as Mr. Brush, as they always do), especially since she was among the very first students I ever taught. I remember that first class on that first day, thinking Good Lord, what if I teach them everything I know and it only takes 10 minutes… what do I do with the other 186 hours and 40 minutes for which I’ve got them this year? I still remember those seventh graders staring back at me—I doubt any teacher ever forgets the kids he teaches in that terrifying first year—and I never would have thought I’d learn as much from them as (I hope) they learned from me.

I guess I knew more than I thought and somehow that love of learning, that curiosity, that drives me must have rubbed off on a few of them. That’s always been and probably always will be the most important thing I teach. But then, you don’t really teach that do you? You have to live it.

Standardized High Stakes Panic

Sorry, kid. You’re on
your own today. Just
you vs. the State of Texas.
Give ‘em Hell, remember
the Alamo & your #2 pencil.
Should you not pass
(we won’t say fail) you may
retake this test, repeat
this grade or possibly
redo your whole life.
Don’t work too fast either:
these tests may cause nausea,
dizziness, double-vision,
vomiting, hallucinations,
panic attacks, bitterness,
resentment, depression,
and a profound distaste
for school, education and
even learning in general.
And Remember, don’t panic.