Sunday, November 16, 2014


Teaching provides many opportunities to collect artifacts.  Here's one I've been meaning to share.  I consider it an art form of popular culture.  Sadly, it's now probably extinct because of the way textbooks are distributed.  But...there was a time, when a teacher was responsible for collecting and distributing books.  Lots of record-keeping here.  Some may still do this, but my experience recently says all students go to the textbook room and check out their own books with computerized ID cards.
Anyhow, one of the rituals back in the day was to determine the condition of the book, record it on the little form stamped inside the front cover, and then add date and teacher's name.
Students, being the clever beings that they are, would often embellish the choice of descriptors.  For years one of the most common forms of written classroom folklore was found inside books that had been checked out.
In deconstructing my classroom of 25 years, one of the last things I did was to go through some old copies of books that I believed might soon be discarded.  I tore out a few of these book condition charts and put them in a folder.  Here's one:

 You can see that in 1971 a student named John Khure was not content with the choice of descriptors and took it upon himself to write a short essay in the space provided for one word.  John wrote: "Examining this book closely, I find very little wrong with it.  But that on no grounds means it is therefore free of blemish."  No good, fair, or unsatisfactory for this guy, he wanted to make a statement and therefore did so.  Reading down the list of subsequent readers of this one book shows that it's condition went from "New" to "Dead."  It appears that for a few years, the book came in at "Fair" and even "Used."  Before it was declared dead in 1989, it languished at "Very Poor" for a decade.
I've always loved the spirit of these little bulletin boards found inside most schoolbooks for many years.  Can't help but think that it might be lost forever.  This one, like the small collection I managed to harvest become like Zen Koans for contemplating the arbitrary spontaneity of young people. Especially when it comes to completing a simple task. In this era of standardized curriculum, here's a flaming torch that shines on individuality.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elliptical Voyage

If every piece of writing has a thousand faces, then a poem must have a few hundred, at least.  So many incarnations possible.
Here's one:

Elliptical voyage  

Inside my head 
Lends Creedence to the rainfall 

With eyes closed
I'm running
Back in time 
Back to brown leather and red flannel 
Back hair and blues music 
Moving past Neil Young,
Dylan's acoustic set, 
Harmonicas soothe the
Glare of neon idols
Is this nowhere? 
Does anybody know where
The darkest night 
Has a few bright stars...

Let me
Follow you down.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


A friend of mine just won the "Teacher of the Year" award for the state of Oregon.  Most deserving he is too.  I first met Michael about six years ago when a student teacher I was supervising was placed in his classroom.  We bonded instantly.  He now gets to meet the President, the Secretary of Education and banks a $5,000 check as well.  Sometimes they get it right.
Got me thinking, however about the time when I won a similar, local award.  Not quite as prestigious, but certainly very gratifying for someone like me that doesn't handle accolades well.  Nevertheless to be singled out as one of my district's candidates for what was called the annual "Teaching Excellence" award was very humbling.  I'd been nominated by a colleague (and former winner of the award) so it was even more gratifying.  I received a wooden plaque with engraved lettering in gold, and a check for $500.
I wish there hadn't been a competition for the award.  I'm not sure how many candidates were nominated, but I recall going for an interview late one afternoon and being told that I was the next to last interview of a long day.  They then asked me if I was nervous.  My saving grace has always been that these things don't make me nervous at all.   I either don't take them all that seriously or enjoy the attention.
At the award ceremony I had to make a speech.  There were about 5 other winners who also made acceptance speeches so it was a long evening.  I was feeling at one with the profession that night, but even though I acknowledged all teachers everywhere, I knew deep inside that there were severe differences.  In my speech I talked a bit about my students because they are instrumental in any recognition a teacher might get.  I told a story about the wall in the back of my classroom that was collaged with hundreds of pictures of people.  Sort of a pop culture who's who that often came in handy during class discussions.  At the mention of a name like Amelia Erhard, or a writer like Salinger, Steinbeck, Flannery O'connor, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison...there was a picture.  Lots of athletes, pop culture and music icons too.  Occasionally a student would add his or her own portrait to the wall.  How's that for self-esteem?

One day, one of my favorite pictures from the wall went missing.  It was a lovely picture of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.  Certainly part of my childhood, this picture disappeared right about the time when Eddie Murphy started doing his version of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live.  Now I know that anything in a classroom is fair game.  Once you put it out there, you have to be ready to say good-bye any time.  But I really loved that picture and I told my classes that I was bummed out because it was gone.  It was a beautiful portrait of Buckwheat; in no way stereotypical.  About a week later the picture was discovered in the Boy's Locker Room, destroyed.  Nobody knew why or how.  But what happened after that is why I referred to it in my little speech.  I started receiving pictures of Buckwheat anonymously.  Lots of them.  In my mailbox at school, under the classroom door they slipped.  Once another Buckwheat was added to the wall.  They were all nice pictures, but not the one I lost, the one I loved.  But my students were trying to take care of me and that's what mattered.  I mentioned that in the speech, but I'm not sure how it went over with the crowd that night.  No matter.
My plaque sits on a bookshelf today.  It's mostly what remains of my 33 years in the classroom.  What physically remains.  My district gave me a certificate of thanks, but I'm not sure where that went.  The $500 I spent on a new clutch for my car at the time.  Today I found the picture of Buckwheat I loved so much online.  I feel better.