Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Category: Teaching (page 2 of 5)

Looking for Flaws, Hoping to Find Some

A student once asked for
something interesting to read.
Something good.
Something you can feel, she said.
Something honest.
Something real.

I asked what that would be like.

There would be misspelled words,
she said, a few bad sentences.
Not sufficient to interfere
with the story, mind you,
but an honest flaw or error
here or there so you’d know
it wasn’t perfect,
wasn’t meant to be.

Just enough to get a glimpse
of the true imperfect person
behind the artifice.

Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt from Read Write Poem (#21: Perfectly Flawed) provided by Kristen McHenry asks us to consider the idea of perfection. It’s an interesting prompt that reminded me of a conversation I had with a student in one of my sophomore English classes a few years back. Further thoughts about perfection in literature were sparked by an interesting post, poetry by concession, at slow reads, which is very much worth checking out and probably influenced this poem.

Sentences and Corrections

The guy from the attorney general’s office
blamed the nouns, sources of all trouble—
people, places, things.

Combined with certain verbs—
assault, distribute, trespass and possess—
these nouns form gangs of complex sentences,
fragments of lives half-lived and run-ons
rambling through the detritus of car crash lives.

The simplest, though, tell of kids locked up,
looking out at the free, positions of attention
in the parking lot, half-listening
to mockingbirds refining their own syntax
as they mimic the ringing fire alarm
while we wait to go back inside
where we’ll try, again, writing

sentences that don’t mimic the past,
sentences that aren’t destinies.

Trickle Down Hope

“Your choice today. Continue
with your GED lessons or
watch the inauguration.”

That GED can mean a new
start, early release, a second
chance, freedom, hope.

All eight turned their backs
on history, to earn a ticket
back out to The Free.

But a few snuck glances back
at the TV. Those looks lingered,
turned to stares and held.

When they said, “Please rise,”
four kids rose and stood at
attention. I joined them.

One young man said, “I can’t believe it.
I can’t believe it. I’ll tell my kids
I was locked up, but I still saw

Obama become president.
I can’t believe it.” After the ceremony,
they went back to their work,

compelled by new determination
to get all the answers right.

This is for Read Write Poem’s weekly prompt to write something about Obama’s Inauguration or about new beginnings.

Curiosity Blew Up the Town

When I was teaching at a junior high, I once had a kid ask, “What does e=mc2 mean?” Clearly, whatever point of sentence construction I was elaborating on wasn’t sinking in with this kid.

“Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared,” I said as I underlined a predicate.

He squinted his eyes a bit, probably wondering whether or not he could trust an English teacher on this, but then nodded and jotted something down in his notebook. He looked up again. “Okay, what’s the speed of light?”

I stopped and looked at him. “186,000 miles per second.”

He nodded and scribbled the equation in his spiral, his number two pencil working madly. “Whoooaa,” he said, looking up.


“That’s a lot of energy. Even if the mass is just 1.”

I nodded. “Yes, it is.”

He stared at his notebook, trying to make sense of the enormity of those numbers. “I mean, you could probably blow up a whole city with that kind of energy, right?”

I think the next few sentences we analyzed were about nuclear bombs.

Where I’m From

I found this great little writing exercise on Danigirl’s blog. It seems to originate as a professional development project based on George Ella Lyon’s work. I thought it made for a cool post, but the next day one of my fellow teachers suddenly started talking about the heretofore unknown (to me) poet Lyon at an in-service meeting. Well, thought I, that’s some synchronicity for me.

Anyway, It seemed like a cool project to do with my kids, and being the good teacher that I am (and also the kind of person who enjoys these kinds of writing exercises) I figured I should test drive it first…

Where I’m From, an exercise in identity…

I am from maps, from National Geographic and surplus bombing charts of Vietnam used as tarps below our tents.

I am from green soccer fields, orange slices sucked through teeth at halftime and 2..4..6..8…who do we appreciate.

I am from the lonely buoy bell clanging in the bay on open-window summer nights. I am from old forests with forgotten headstones hidden in the undergrowth.

I am from the Smithsonian, concrete bunkers overgrown by jungle, that old monastery on the hill. From birdless gray Octobers and the golden light of northern summer, a fox curled up on the lawn.

I am from the scrub oak, juniper and palms, summer tomato plants and morning glory growing thick on a wire fence. I am from bluebonnets and prickly pear embedded in my palm.

I am from tacos and tamales on Christmas Eve. From Trivial Pursuit and gentleness, from Brushes, Griffins, Tomlinsons and Trouts. From the parrot we birdsat, who never learned to talk, but in our house, learned to laugh.

I am from meals with talk instead of TV, from books and magazines and a telescope pointed at Saturn’s rings.

From books are our friends and may the force be with you.

I am from the King James Bible, New England churches surrounded by three hundred year old graves. From Doubting Thomas and endless questions.

I’m from the cold Narragansett, “King” Arthur’s Illinois basketball court, both sides of the Revolution, and the Valley of the Sun, from home-baked cookies kept in the freezer, tortillas in the ‘fridge.

From Grace who said nothing of her past, from Dorothy who told everything, from Jim whose cursing made me laugh (my parents cringed) and Cecil whose tales I never got to hear.

I am from cluttered closet time capsules, vinyl photo albums, instamatic shots and slide shows of the sea, from treasure boxes and neat ordered files of school projects, drawings, homemade cards.

I am from the Colonial coast, the edge of jungle, the ring of fire, the ruins of Rome, the settled Comanche hills I now call home.

* * *

As a side project, I followed the links from Danigirl back along the trail of meme to see where it began, all the while enjoying the various takes along the way. It goes: Daysgoby to Spanglish to Lolabola to a staff development website.

Here’s the page that explains how to put it together. Give it a whirl.

Teacher Man

I just finished listening to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, his memoir recounting 30 years as a New York City public school teacher. I’ve really enjoyed the few audiobooks I’ve read in the past, but this one is especially good, considering McCourt reads it himself. There’s something satisfying about hearing a writer read his own words, and McCourt’s Irish accent, his tired and bemused voice, combine to create the sense of sitting in a pub listening to the tales spun by a wise old drinking buddy.

He shares his agonizing days as a novice teacher who didn’t know what he was doing and hoping his kids – and principals – wouldn’t figure him out, and brings the reader on the long road to experienced and (mostly) confident teacher who has found his niche.

Over time he seems to get comfortable with the fact that those lessons invented on the fly often seem to reach students far more effectively than the ones we plan weeks – ok, days – no, hours – ahead. He begins to understand that storytelling is a worthwhile thing for teachers – especially those who teach writing – to do.

He thinks school should be fun, that students should enjoy it, and that makes him something of a quiet and slightly insecure radical. He feels almost guilty about this, and that tension between wanting to do things the tried-and-true by-the-book way vs. doing things in a way that is honest and meaningful to his students generates the angst that he humorously battles throughout the book.

Listening to McCourt, I found myself smiling as I drove to and from school, remembering my earliest days in the classroom, for I had been in his boat once. When I started teaching, I felt underprepared and unqualified. So I faked it. I told stories and tried to make it fun for the kids.

Now that I’ve been doing this for 9 years, I’ve realized that I can be the strict grammarian by-the-book traditional English teacher, but no one enjoys that. Not me, not the kids. School should be fun. For kids, for teachers. Oh, Kids should learn, no doubt; they should be equipped to think and have the skills they need to survive on their own, but it shouldn’t feel like jail. Of course, I teach in what is essentially a jail, so it’s especially important that my kids feel free, at least when they’re in my room. As McCourt says, there is a line between fear and freedom. Education should push us toward the freedom side of the line.

Anyone interested in teaching or who is a teacher would get a kick out of Teacher Man. Not only is it full of interesting – and often wickedly funny – stories about life in the classroom, it is also one of the most honest portrayals of teaching I’ve ever read. Or, rather, I suppose, heard.

Telling Stories

I’ve heard it repeated quite a bit that we typically remember about 5% of what we hear, which if true really brings home the futility of lecturing to kids.

Then I think back to my first year of teaching. Seventh grade English.

It was after Thanksgiving, because it was after the point in the year when they tell first year teachers that it’s okay to smile. One of my kids was griping about the weight of his textbooks. The giant lit book, the mighty math tome, the science stack, the gargantuan grammar stone. With hunched shoulders and a lifetime of back pain ahead of him, he groaned, “They should outlaw big heavy books.”

I shook my head and told him that big heavy books can be pretty useful. I took his lit book and hefted it as if testing the balance of a sword, feeling its weight in my hand. The class stared at me skeptically and I smiled as I stared at the book. “Let me tell you a story,” I said…

When I was about your age we lived in Italy in a big old house with marble stairs. One night I heard commotion downstairs and crept to the top of the staircase to see what was up. I could hear my parents yelling and a bunch of banging around. Then my mom, hollered up the stairs, ‘We’re being robbed!’

I had no idea what to do, but it wasn’t long before my parents laughed and things settled down. Here’s what happened.

My dad had gone down to get a snack and he saw a man in the house. The man had my mom’s purse or maybe the computer or something and he stared at my dad and my dad stared back at him. Then, my dad reached for the nearest object he could find… a cookbook… and he chunked it at the robber.

At this point I threw the lit book at the wall as hard as I could. It hit with a crack that woke up all the kids who weren’t paying attention.

Then he grabbed another and another and he and my mom threw cookbooks and dictionaries at him until he ran out of the house.

The kids loved the story. Maybe it’s something about the appeal to middle school kids of objects that shouldn’t be thrown flying through the air, but it made them laugh, and the books, now that their potential as weapons had been realized, didn’t seem quite so heavy.

Years later, I taught at a high school in the same district. I had many of those same kids in my 11th grade English class. The first day of school, after reviewing the syllabus and talking about expectations, I asked if there were any questions.

A hand went up.

“Yes,” I asked.

The girl grinned. “Mr. B, will you tell us the story about how your parents chased the robber out of your house by throwing books at him.”

The kids who had been in that class perked up and nodded assent. One boy asked, “And will you throw a book?”

Fortunately, I was to find out that that wasn’t all they learned back in 7th grade, but I realized then that when we tell stories, the people we’re talking to will remember a whole lot more than 5% of what we say.

Well, I’ll Be Hanged. Or is it Hung?

This week we’ve been reading Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the tale of an imaginative spy’s hanging. At one point in the discussion, a student asked an interesting question: “Why do they say, ‘they hanged a man’ instead of ‘they hung a man?'”Rather than just make something up, I decided to go off the lesson plan (winging it is really where the best teaching happens anyway) and help them figure it out. Besides, I wanted to know.

We went online to look for an etymological dictionary and found this. Looking up “hanged” produces this result:

a fusion of O.E. hon “suspend” (transitive, class VII strong verb; past tense heng, pp. hangen), and O.E. hangian (weak, intransitive, past tense hangode) “be suspended;” also probably influenced by O.N. hengja “suspend,” and hanga “be suspended.” All from P.Gmc. *khang-, from PIE *keng– “to waver, be in suspense” (cf. Goth. hahan, Hittite gang– “to hang,” Skt. sankate “wavers,” L. cunctari “to delay;” see also second element in Stonehenge). Hung emerged as pp. 16c. in northern England dial., and hanged endured only in legal language (which tends to be conservative) and metaphors extended from it (I’ll be hanged).

Fascinating for me and also for my kids, many of whom never thought about the fact that each word we use actually has a history and a story about why it is spelled and pronounced the way it is.

Being smart researchers, we decided to check a second source,, which had this:

Hang has two forms for the past tense and past participle, hanged and hung. The historically older form hanged is now used exclusively in the sense of causing or putting to death: He was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. In the sense of legal execution, hung is also quite common and is standard in all types of speech and writing except in legal documents. When legal execution is not meant, hung has become the more frequent form: The prisoner hung himself in his cell.

So, we decided, the correct answer to the original question, as it is for so many is: Lawyers.

The kids enjoyed the exercise, though after having improvised my lesson for the day, I was left to wonder if I had winged it or wung it.

Books from the Summer Bucket:Theories of Relativity

Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard is another of the young adult books I took home from my classroom for the summer.

I have a lot of students pick up books, read a few pages, sometimes a few chapters, get bored and try another book. None of them get bored with this one. It’s about a kid named Dylan who lives on the street in a big northern city. The author is Canadian so I suspect it’s a Canadian city, although I kept imagining Cleveland. Never been there, so I don’t know why, but there it is.

Wherever it is, life is tough. Dylan is a smart kid – he likes to read about Einstein – and he doesn’t want to be on the street. Everyone from pimps to pushers wants to recruit him, and they offer him some deals, but Dylan wants to maintain his independence and his freedom, things tantamount to suicide in his world. Some adults want to help him, but his pride interferes. He’s a kid with no hope and no chance.

The characters are lively and believable and the situations that Dylan finds himself in are downright disconcerting. Theories of Relativity falls into a category of books that I call “problem books” in that they attempt to educate young readers about very real problems for which there are no easy solutions. Perhaps reading this might give some kids hope and others compassion. Or, perhaps, a few hours of being entertained by a solid modern story. I guess it’s win-win.

Books from the Summer Bucket: Number the Stars

I have a whole set of Lois Lowry’s young adult novel Number the Stars in my classroom, which is why it’s one of the books I brought home for my summer reading.

The story takes place in Denmark in 1943. Word gets out that the Nazis will be relocating all of Denmark’s Jews, and ten-year-old Annemarie Johnsen and her family take in Annemarie’s best friend and neighbor, Ellen, who is a Jew.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark the Danes helped nearly all of Denmark’s Jews escape to Sweden and Number the Stars is a fictional version of that larger story centered around one child on whom many people’s lives come to depend.

The best thing about the book is the way Lowry evokes place. I have never been to Denmark, but Lowry’s descriptions of the small fishing village across the water from Sweden became as vivid as my own memories.

I also get hung up on weird details such as the apparently true ruse the fishermen used to fool the Nazi dogs so they wouldn’t smell the human cargo. A powder made of dried blood and cocaine would be sprinkled on something the dogs would smell. The blood would attract the dogs, and the cocaine would temporarily destroy their sense of smell. I’m not sure what it says about me that that detail is what sticks out from a moving and well-written book about human courage, but there it is.

Since I already have a class set, I’ll probably use this one next year with my younger students. My high schoolers will stick with Elie Wiesel’s Night.

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