Category Archives: Education

The Symposium!

While I realize one might think I have forgotten about this little blog because I post so rarely, I have not. I have had a particularly busy semester since I was teaching the Senior Symposium class at my school. It is a class where a group of seniors reads exclusively one contemporary author for a semester, and then the author visits campus for two days in January. Well, the author Bharati Mukherjee came to campus Thursday and Friday (as in yesterday). I don’t have much time to post about it now, because I am in the thick of doing my grades and comments for the end of the semester, which also ended yesterday.

It was a whirlwind two days — and Friday especially was a wonderful day. She was such a gracious author and guest, treating the students’ work, questions, and thoughts with the highest respect. She gave us great insights, and she patiently answered our questions. I really enjoyed her many personal anecdotes. She brought her husband, Clark Blaise. He was also a wonderful guest, full of stories and conversation. He also happens to be a baseball fan, so Sujal told them both the famous story of the time I brought my grading to a Red Sox game — AND — left the game early even though I could have had the chance to walk on the field. (woo-hoo)

Pat Rosoff, an art teacher at my school, made this beautiful quilt to commemorate Mukherjee’s visit! Sujal and I will have to find the perfect spot for it.

And now, I must get back to work.

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I Been Busy

Okay, so I haven’t written in like fifty years. This is mainly because I have been having the busiest semester of my life. Many of you know I am teaching a class on Bharati Mukherjee. It is taking up most of my time. This has also been the semester of many holidays and family visits. Diwali was a few weeks ago, and we went to visit my in-laws. And most recently, I was in Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. It was a birthday gift to my mother-in-law — and it was a lot of fun! On top of that, we just bought two rooms of furniture and we are selling some of our “old” furniture.

To top that off, I have helped run several events at school, including a parent book club — for which parents read The Middleman and Other Stories and a coffee house (open mic type thingy) sponsored by our school’s Amnesty International, which I advise. Sleep has been at a premium, and I have been facing a long string of colds. Though busy and stressful, everything has been good. I’m having a lot of fun, and teaching this class has made me a student again.

College Admissions Timeliness

I wrote this post a few years ago, but I was just talk to a friend about it. Since ’tis the season to write letters of recommendation, I think it’s interesting to revisit. I, of course, also feel that ETS has a classist monopoly. Oh, sweet college admissions process — so arbitrary you are.

Losing Time

While that title may sound like a “bad” thing, losing time can be sublime. Yesterday, I continued my great quest for articles by and about Bharati Mukherjee (For those who don’t know: I’m teaching a class on Mukherjee this year to a group of savvy seniors, and Mukherjee will visit the school in January. I am very excited about this — as it has been a rewarding experience thus far; it’s like being a student again — reading texts with fresh perspective and little outside influence. And the students have such voracious responses. This is a teacher’s dream!) by going up to Northampton to the Smith College library. After my work was done and I visited several friends, I drove back to West Hartford (sniff, sniff) and listened to This American Life. This specific episode dealt with amateurs. In the final segment of the show, David Rakoff told of his experiences making crafts in his spare time. I may forget the wording, but he said something along the lines of that he forgets his life while he is working on crafts — he loses all sense of time. This was precisely the feeling I had at Smith yesterday, and many times previously.

Going the the Neilson Library, Smith’s main library, has always felt very at home for me. I spent many hours in that library during my years as a grad student and then as a teacher. During school breaks when I was in grad school — I seemed to get absorbed in one subject or another. The summer I got into Dorothy parker, I spent hours and hours in that library with old New Yorkers in my hands. I was so impressed that the college had every issue of The New Yorker since its inception. I read all of these old, original articles and tidbits by Parker. I also got into Shirley Jackson, and I looked up some of the letters to the editor after her story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker. Sometimes I get lost like this on Wikipedia — but actually being in a library, holding books and magazines, using the microfiche — it just does not get any better. I think the Smith library also has (for the size of the library) a decent size collection of literary texts — lots of literary criticism. I love that feeling of losing myself in the library.

When I was an undergrad at Bennington, I spent so many hours looking up random info and references in our library. I recall Friday nights hanging out with some post-baccalaureate students in the library: geek fun!

One of Rakoff’s points in his TAL piece was that when you do something for money, when it becomes a job (with deadlines, I presume), it takes that magic away. I can see how this is true most of the time. But for someone like Sujal, he still gets lost in coding. I get lost in reading and lesson planning, though I can’t say I necessarily get lost in grading. I guess we all fall somewhere on that scale.

Excitement!

I realize this makes me a complete dork, but I am okay with that. I spent most of my day driving around to area colleges and universities tracking down articles by and about Mukherjee. Some are quite difficult to find. Because our school library was closed during the summer due to the construction on our cafeteria, the librarian had limited access to our resources (and I didn’t want to bother her over the summer), we met yesterday to search for the remaining articles I was unable to find. Some are in some insanely obscure journals. Today was the day to track those elusive rascals down.

I began at the University of Hartford, where I drove all over their campus looking for the library. Even though it’s a university, I was lucky it isn’t a huge university. When I finally parked in some visitor lot, I asked a long-haired, smoking student to kick me in the direction of the library, and he was happy to.

UHA looks a lot like a state school, in the way that UMass, Amherst looks like somebody barfed up all these cement buildings everywhere — well, UHA is slightly more elegant in that somebody barfed up brink buildings everywhere — though with similar architecture to UMass.

When I got to the library, I was amused to see the reference librarian office had a sign on it saying “Please Disturb,” which made me chuckle until I walked in, and they obviously did NOT want to be disturbed. The librarian finally looked up from her computer and said, “I can’t help you now. I’m preparing for a class.” Then an officious assistant helped me. When I was kicked once again in the right direction, and I went up to the stacks, I got that rush of excitement I get when I’m in library stacks. Getting lost in stacks is like temporarily losing touch with the problems of the world.

When I went to St. Joseph’s College, which had a great reference librarian, it was a smaller library, but the little rooms with the stacks were equally inviting. I commented on this to the librarian, and she said, “Yes, stacks do tend to have a romantic appeal.” This reminded me of Mark Strand’s poem “Eating Poetry”, which she had not read.

Being on campuses today made me miss college and that whole academic world. I loved being a student. I love huge libraries.

Changing a Grade from Failing to Passing

I was just reading a NYTimes article on a teacher who quit because the failing grade he gave a student was overturned by the principal. I am a bit irked by this article for a variety of reasons.

First, I am irked by the fact that an administrator would overturn a grade. It is not only insulting to a teacher, but it undermines the teacher as well and questions the teacher’s professionalism.

Secondly, I am irked by the fact that I am now a judge of the situation, when I know perfectly well that the circumstances have not been 100% laid out before me. What I mean by this is that there are certainly facets that we do not know about. There may have been some significant issues between teacher and student prompting the student to not do so well. Since she failed last year, this is probably not the case.

Thirdly, I have definitely passed marginal kids (truly marginal, not someone getting a 45 — but I also never gave lower than a 45, as an F is an F, and you don’t want to doom a kid forever). Sometimes the question is — what is my goal here? With tougher graduation standards, I frankly think that it is criminal to deny some kids a diploma because they are bad at one subject. If a kid has mainly D’s on a report card, yet they still have a diploma, they won’t get into college without getting some community college experience to bolster their grades, yet they’ll be able to get a job that merely requires a high school diploma. Thus, it enables them to have access to the “pursuit of happiness (property)”. A clear example is that in order to join the Army, it is much more difficult to join if one does not have a diploma. One can have a GED, but it is tougher to get it then. Check out the Army’s website and download the enlistment standards if you can. I taught a number of kids who were not super geniuses but wanted nothing more than to serve in the army. I think it would be wrong to deny them that opportunity. Don’t get me wrong. I do not support funneling our least privileged into the army, but for those who have set it as a dream goal and have little else in terms of opportunity, I think it would be wrong of me to stand in their way. This does not mean they’d get carte blanche, but I would make sure to work with the individual so that s/he could reach his/her goal.

Anyway, I see the teacher’s side, but I can also see another side — and that is that we do not have all of the info we’d need to make a sound judgment.

Accomplishment

I began this summer with lots of home improvement high hopes.  I tend to be “domestically challenged,” and I use that term in a broad sense.  I’m not the best cook, I’m not the best cleaner or organizer (for myself), and I’m not even close to the best at home improvement projects.  Alas, I wanted to feel like I accomplished something this summer.   I had this vague plan that I would systematically attack each room in the house, cleaning, painting, decorating.  Somehow “systematic” and I just do not bond well.  I have yet to paint inside the house, though I have high hopes that this is still to come.  Sujal, having started his new job, does not have much time to help me with the summer home improvement activities.  

Some of my smaller accomplishments — I bought curtains for our dining room and hung them on existing curtain rods (although even as I write this, I have ideas about how I can improve their “look,” as the curtain rods are a bit tacky).  My mother-in-law gave us curtains for our bedroom for our shower, over a year ago.  I decided to put them up.  In the midst of trying, I recalled that I had tried this once before, but the rods we had in our bedroom were too big for the opening of the curtains, so I needed to buy curtain rods.  

This led to a stressful trip to Ikea, where I fretted over the right rods and the right curtains for other windows in the house.  I only bought the rods.When I came home to install them, Sujal told me I’d need to use the drill, and that scared me a little, so Sujal said he’d do it.  Knowing he’d have little time, I tackled the project myself, only to find partway through that I really needed Sujal to show me how to use the drill.  He ended up doing the drilling, because I was having a hard time.  I ironed the curtains and scarves to go over the curtains — about 2 hours of ironing (and anyone who knows me knows I do not iron).  When I put them up, they looked pretty good — though I didn’t feel 100% accomplishment because Sujal helped me with the drilling.

Backtracking a bit, At the beginning of the summer I decided to refinish the back deck.  It seemed like a do-able job, like something I could do while Sujal was at work, and I’d feel like I really accomplished something.   I honestly though I could knock it off in about two or three afternoons.  I looked up online how to go about refinishing it, and I got myself set up to scrub the deck.  I did not take “before” pictures, but there was a lot of green on the deck to say the least.  As I begain handscrubbing the railings and all the individual slats under the railings, I realized I could not finish scrubbing in one day.

It became a daily ritual for me to get up early, go out and scrub for about 2-3 hours (it’s exhausting grinding a brush into a deck), maybe scrub for abother 2-3 hours in the evening, and repeat the process the next day.  Two weeks into it, I was only about halfway done.  That’s when a friend of Sujal’s lent us his pressure washer.  Sujal helped me with some of the pressure washing — about six to seven hours in itself.  Then I sanded the deck, and finally, I’ve been waiting for a few dry days to stain it.  Frankly, I was getting ready to throw in the towel — “To heck with the deck!” I muttered in my sleep. Then my friend Lara came to hang out with me for an afternoon, and she offered to help me.  When I began this project, I really thought the deck would untimately look amazing — brand new even.  I thought I’d stain it with with a rich transparent cedar tone, and it would be beautiful.  Alas, the previous owners put a grey deck stain on it before.  Even though everyone assured me that it could not be grey deck stain, that it was mere weathering of the wood, after completely scrubbing and pressure washing it, it was obviously grey deck stain.  So as Lara and I got ready to stain with my fancy stain, we did a test spot, and of course you could still see some of the grey spots.  Ugh.

Luckily, Lara rolls well prepared.  She just happened to have 1/2 a can of opaque brown deck stain in her car, so we used that.  Again, it was great to have help — in fact, I am eternally ecsatic and grateful for her help, but again, I was not accomplishing this on my own.  Once again, I thought I could knock off staining the deck in an afternoon.  We finished the 1/2 can yesterday, and I had to go get more today.  I am presently taking a break from the hot sun, and I’d say I’m almost 1/2 done with the staining.

As I was staining, I began thinking about my feeling like I haven’t accomplished much with this deck.  I began thinking about how in my regular life (teaching), it does not feel like accomplishing much on the day to day basis.  Of course getting through a class is an accomplishment, but not much of one.  Because I do not see accomplishment readily in my day to day work, I was looking for this satisfactuon of being able to see it in refinishing the deck.  It seemed tangible.  Then I started to think about how teaching a kid to write and to write better is actually a pretty amazing accomplishment, even if it does not feel like it on the day to day basis.

I thought of this student I tutored this year, and I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much with this student.  And then the parents told the advisor the the kid’s grades were improving.  The English teacher told me the writing was improving, particularly the kid’s organization.

I remembered teaching in Ware, when a science colleague told me she could always tell the kids I taught because their writing was so tight and organized.  She said she’d been really impressed.

And then on rare occasions, I’ll get a letter or an email from a student telling me that they really learned to write better because of my class.  It may sound like I am trying to toot my own horn, but I’m not.  I’m just trying to work through this idea of accomplishment.  I started to think that if I’d taken a summer job refinishing decks that I probably would not feel like I accomplished something after each of the decks I’d have finished, because it’s a job.  Teaching is not a “job,” per se, but it isn’t as tangible.  So this summer I felt like I needed to see some tangible accomplishments. I started thinking more about how there are times people remember a teacher who really taught them something — or even more specifically, teachers who taught me something.  I’ve only written one letter (perhaps two) to a teacher who was very inspiring.  I wish I’d have written more, especially while they were still teaching and therefore relatively easy to find.  A letter is tangible evidence of accomplishment.  So reader, let me suggest that you write a letter to a teacher (or two) who inspired you, someone who really taught you something, especially something you value.  Not that teachers are in it for the constant praise (if they are, they are in the wrong profession — just listen to Mitt Romney for two minutes), but they are human.  We all seek some affirmations from time to time.

I’ve also received nice notes or comments from parents.  They are also wonderful to receive, although it is different than words coming from the student him or herself.  Anyway, this was just my thought process as I was staining the deck today.  I’m about to go out and stain some more — and frankly, yes, I am feeling a sense of accomplishment.  I can’t wait until we christen the deck with a BBQ!

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The Bhagavad-Gita

I started reading The Bhagavad-Gita, a cheap copy I picked up at Borders, because I am about to begin preparing a new class for the fall. I’m teaching a class on the works of Bharati Mukerjee and I thought it might help to have a bit more cultural background knowledge. It may actually be fruitless for my purposes, but I have been interested in reading it for awhile.I’ve never been a huge fan of epic poems in general, but they do give one a better understanding of culture. I finished watching the movie Gandhi last night. I’d seen it in 9th or 10th grade, and I didn’t remember it at all. I watched it with some doubt, not sure of its accuracy, and so I looked up a lot of aspects of Gandhi’s life as I watched, and it’s pretty accurate.I was also amazed by how persevering Gandhi’s wife Kasturba Gandhi was. It’s sad that she does not get more recognition, as she was also an effective (wifely) leader with Gandhi.I seem to remember being taught at one point or other that Henry David Thoreau came up with this idea of civil disobedience, and then when I was reading the intro to the Gita, I read that Thoreau brought a copy of the Gita to Walden Pond. Gandhi’s autobiography is going on my reading list — what an inspiring human being. I often get into this early summer/post-teaching funk — but it doesn’t take long to get out of it when I see how challenging so many people have it. And I realize — Damn! I’m lucky. I’m going to Yoga class and eating well.As I prepare for this class on Mukherjee, I have a feeling I am going to be looking up a lot of references (and sadly missing a few), but I am very excited by the prospect of it. So even if my reading of the Gita isn’t particularly helpful (Because I suppose this is like reading The Odyssey before reading the body of work by a white westerner), it is at least getting me ready to undertake the work I am about to do.

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Voting — Democracy in Action in West Hartford

Yesterday the citizens of West Hartford voted on accepting the proposed budget, and they voted a resounding, “No.”

I have not yet read any reaction to last night’s election, but I wanted to share my immediate thoughts.  They may change as I later reflect (I’m a commit-ophobe), but right now I am pretty pleased with the fact that I live in a place that has referendums decent voter turnout in the middle of June.  I guess when you come down to it, almost 30% isn’t great voter turnout, but considering what turnouts are often like, it’s not too bad. I cannot say I am pleased with the outcome of the vote, as I believe the West Hartford Taxpayers Association has been less than up front — though more importantly — they have vilified teachers and unions, as well as anyone who opposes them.  I am happy, however, that the town of West Hartford had the opportunity to raise a voice. While I may not always be completely caught up on what is happening in my town, (my country, or my world, for that matter) I believe it is important to read up and know what you are voting for or against.  I’d like to think that many people who voted no were wooed by the idea of lower taxes — a skewing of the actual WHTA’s issue with the budget.  I’d like to think that — not because I want us to all be blind voters, but because I do not want to believe that people can think so harshly of teachers, unions, and education.   Of course I don’t want to believe that people vote without a good understanding of an issue, but for some reason it seems worse to believe that citizens think teachers are greedy and self-serving.

The West hartford Blog has provided an invaluable place to discuss the issue, though I wish there had been a public debate forum.

All in all, while I may not agree with the outcome, I am glad that we had the election.  I’m getting satisfaction out of being linked in to local politics — having a firm understanding of what is going on in my town.  West Hartford does have a lot of great services, and I hope that those services don’t get cut. 

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Genealogy

Today I received Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s newest book, Finding Oprah’s Roots. While I’ve never been a huge Oprah fan, I have enormous respect for her, because I think she’s a great role model. The fact that she has her extremely successful book club got many people reading again. She’s enormously generous and intelligent. I’m sure you can find her praises much more passionately laid out in many other places, so let it suffice to say that she’s clearly influential, and mainly in a positive way.

That she has let herself be the centerpiece for this work of research is inspiring. I’ve never given a lot of thought to tracking down my genealogy — for a number of reasons, I’m sure — I’ve historically been young and therefore a little less sentimental in the family roots sort of way (though each year, I feel it creeping up on me more and more — as my Polish roots become more and more important to me), and I know a decent amount of my genealogy already, in that I’ve heard lots of stories from grandparents and parents. It’s pretty clear that all of my relative emigrated from Poland, most likely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This white immigrant privilege is not something I though about much, either, until I began Gates’ book. While I was aware in the abstract that African Americans who are descendants of slaves do not know their ancestry in terms of what country (part of Africa) their ancestors were brought from nor would they necessarily know who their slave ancestors were because of lack of records, I never thought of it in contrast to my own experience. I was just teaching Toni Morrison’s Sula, and there’s a passage where the narrator describes not knowing who one is, not having a language, a history, etc. The narrator speaks of this in reference to a character who is shell-shocked, but there is an obvious connection to African American history. But to think that here is yet again another form of institutionalized (even is historical) racism. If I wanted to research my genealogy, I would doubtless have an easier time than, say, Oprah. Granted, she has a lot more money at her disposal. Gates says as much, so I’m not sharing anything new, just the fact that I hadn’t yet realized it. I agree that it is important for people to know where they came from. I’m not too far into the book yet, but in flipping through, it looks very interesting.

A coincidental intersection — Sujal was just exploring this website, Geni, and he signed up for it and began getting our relatives to fill it out. As I’ve said, I really hadn’t been into genealogy much, but I’m finding it a bit more interesting suddenly. I don’t think I’ll develop a great passion for it, but at least I’ll have a better understanding.