Thursday, January 19, 2012

Zen and the Art of Teaching

American Idol returned tonight, and while they highlight some good singers, the audition shows are all about the delusional. I'm not throwing stones. Sometimes, I think delusional might be a nice place to live. Think about it. To be blissfully unaware, clueless, secure in the profound belief that you are awesome would be liberating.

Don’t get me wrong. Some days I actually am awesome, but I know when I’m not. Today, a bit of delusion would have been useful, but I just couldn't muster any. So in lieu of delusion, I’m going to indulge in a little public therapy.

Over the years, I’ve invited a lot of visitors into my classroom: principals, other teachers, college kids, guests from foreign countries. I've had them all. As a general rule, visitors, announced or otherwise, don’t shake me. I learned I was hosting today’s visitors, teachers in my district in a leadership program, during class change, five minutes before they walked into my classroom. I knew most of them. One was a former student. Another was a close friend.

No worries. Right?

My colleagues would be observing an honors class with no real behavior issues. My lesson plan was a little loose, but when we’re discussing a reading assignment, it often is. I have five or six points I want to be sure to hit, but mostly, I let the discussion go where it goes. When kids work through their own questions about the text, pinging ideas off of each other, extending the text into their own experiences and drawing conclusions about culture and life and everything in the world that matters…that’s when the magic happens.

Except when it doesn’t.

The bell rang. I simultaneously tried to find seats for my guests and get my kids started on their journals, a bell ringer activity that keeps them busy while I’m dealing with housekeeping issues and gets them thinking about the discussion for the day. I usually go over it before they start writing, but teachers kept filing into the room. The original group of four guests turned into six, then seven, then ten. Okaaaay. Third hour was now standing room only.

The kids couldn’t get settled because several of my guests were elementary and middle school teachers they knew and loved. Lots of excited waving and even some hugging ensued. In hindsight, always 20-20, I should have just stopped, acknowledged the unusual situation, and let the excitement play out before I moved on. Instead, I tried to play it cool. Why? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe because my class wouldn’t settle, and I was beginning to feel like a rat in a science experiment.

Just as I finally started talking, two boys who sit right in front of me began to gag and spit. Brown sludge coated their tongue and brown drool ran down their chins.

“ACK! UGH! Oh my GOD! You said this was chocolate!”

A girl two rows over replied, “It is. Dark chocolate.”

“YOU GAVE US DARK CHOCOLATE?!? I need a drink! Ms. Owens! I’m gonna die!”

The class erupted. Tweedledee and Tweedledum basked in the glow of the spotlight even as they spat chocolate into their hands and knocked over a chair trying to get to the door and the water fountain beyond.

I rolled my eyes and called for quiet, but my deep reservoir of zen had sprung a leak. I reminded myself that my guests were actual teachers who deal with craziness on a regular basis. Onward and upward. I threw out my first question and got a tepid response. This was the same question that had generated 30 minutes of rich discussion in my first hour class. Different class, different kids. I mixed it up and tried again. Instead of waiting for a volunteer, I called on specific students. Lukewarm. One word. No response. Flat out wrong. My reservoir was draining fast.

Like a bad American Idol contestant, when things went wrong, I just started singing louder and more off key. Instead of letting the kids make the connections, I started making them myself. Instead of facilitating discussion, I lectured.


Tweedledee was still wiping dark chocolate off his tongue with his sleeve, but he had his book open and seemed to be reading furiously.

Ah ha. The light dawned.

When I’m flummoxed, I’m slow on the uptake. A third of the class was either studiously avoiding eye contact with me or reading as fast as their little eyes could scan the page. I’m mean when I’m embarrassed and pissed off, so I targeted those kids with laser precision, forcing them to say it out loud in front of the company. “I don’t know. I didn’t do the reading.” And no, I’m not particularly proud of that either.

I had a conversation later with my friend. She assured me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but she’s my friend, and I don’t think she would say anything to make me feel worse than I did. Turns out, the group was supposed to be making notes about rigor in the classroom. My friend told me I asked rigorous questions.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that.

My guests left after 20 inglorious minutes, and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with the class. Tomorrow is a new day, and I’ll bet my next paycheck that the kids who didn’t read last night will be prepared tomorrow. They’re not bad kids. They’re just kids. And a wrench in the works (or dark chocolate streaming from a boy’s mouth) is not usually enough to turn me into a babbling Cruella DeVille, but I’m not delusional enough to make that claim today.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Margaritas, Snow, and Black Sludge

I've had an interesting week. It began with a margarita tour of San Antonio, included one day with freshman drunk on the prospect of the year's first snow day, and ended underneath my bathroom sink clearing that which shall not be named from my pipes.

Why a margarita tour? Why San Antonio? Bruce had to go to San Antonio for the AFCA convention, but since I'm not a football coach, I went for the margaritas. I was not disappointed.

Sunday: Patron Mango Mint Margarita at the Iron Cactus paired with lobster tacos and tortilla soup.

The Iron Cactus boasts the largest selection of tequila in San Antonio. The menu listed more than 80. My margarita had two different kinds of Patron, along with fresh-squeezed agave, mango, and a mint leaf. To say that this margarita was good would be like saying Michelangelo was a decent sculptor, Mount Everest is fairly tall, Eric Clapton doesn’t suck. I would order this margarita as part of my last meal. If I was stupidly rich, I would fill a swimming pool with this margarita and dive into it like Scrooge McDuck. Not being stupidly rich is the only thing that kept me from drinking them until I slid out of my chair and into the river. At $10 a pop, moderation was a given.

Monday: Prickly Pear Margarita at Boudro’s Texas Bistro paired with blackened prime rib.

This was the only frozen margarita I sampled. I’m a rocks girl as a general rule, but sometimes decadence trumps the rules. The real star of this meal, though, was the steak, spicy and crunchy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. I ate everything on my plate. If I hadn’t been in a fancy restaurant with the entire Vanderbilt coaching staff at the next table, I would have picked up my plate and licked it clean. Being full of prime rib and prickly pear margarita made me all warm and fuzzy, and I actually dozed off at the BCS Championship party we went to afterwards. In my defense, it wasn’t a very exciting game.

Tuesday: Traditional margarita rocks at the Lone Star Café paired with a thinly sliced brisket sandwich slathered in barbecue sauce. No picture on this one, but it was good, reasonably priced, and within walking distance of our hotel. I ordered the second (and third) guilt-free.

Lest you think all I did in San Antonio was eat and drink margaritas, here is some photographic evidence to the contrary.

We explored the Riverwalk…

Visited the Alamo….

Stayed at the historic and beautiful Menger Hotel (OMG, their breakfast buffet!)…

Hung out at the Menger Bar where Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders…

And even did some actual AFCA convention things like pose with the Heismann…

…and study current marketing trends. This is how they sell shoulder pads.

Wednesday was a travel day. We returned home to find that the boys had not trashed the house in Risky Business fashion (if you don’t count the pile of dishes in the sink and laundry on their respective floors). The dog wasn‘t languishing. The cat had food in his bowl. The neighbors hadn’t left nasty notes in the mailbox.

Being able to trust your kids -- priceless.

Thursday: I realized I need to leave for three straight days more often, so I can hear this when I return. “Ms. Owens! You’re back! We missed you!” The kids were genuinely happy to see me which was nice and completely manic because of the snow predicted for that afternoon which wasn't as nice. I have no windows in my classroom, and they invented every excuse in the book to walk down the hall and see if it was snowing. Talk of snow seemed to bleed into everything.

Consider this: At the end of chapter 17 in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem is pleased with Atticus’ questioning of Bob Ewell, but Scout thinks Jem is counting his chickens.

“What does Scout mean by Jem counting his chickens?”


“The whole idiom is ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’ Think it through. What does that mean?


“Okay, it’s like this. Snow is predicted, but it’s not here yet. You decide not to do your math homework because you just know we’re getting a snow day. See? That’s counting your chickens before they hatch. You might get a snow day, but you might end up in Ms. Bleuel’s class tomorrow with no math homework. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“Ms. Owens, I don’t know anything about chickens, but I’m definitely not doing my math homework tonight CAUSE WE‘RE GETTING A SNOW DAY TOMORROW!”

Friday: We get a snow day. The snow day coincides nicely with the exact moment my frustration with the slow-draining sinks in my bathroom reaches critical mass. Armed only with rubber gloves, I remove the curvy pipe underneath and clear a foul mass of methane-infused, hair-clotted, slimy, black sludge from each. Eldest son came looking for a roll of toilet paper and ran screaming from the room. Youngest son squatted down next to me, fascinated, and asked me where it came from.

Happy thought for the day: All the lotions, potions, unguents, and sprays I use become black, hair-clotted sludge in my drain.

So there you have it. The week that started with a Patron Mango Mint Margarita ended with black sludge, apparently run-off from my face. I’m pretty sure there’s a profound metaphor in there somewhere, or maybe it was just a really weird week.