This Morning

This morning I am thinking about school. More specifically, I am thinking about the school I would create if I was the kind of person who wanted to set myself on fire by becoming an administrator and dealing with all of the very worst of American bureaucracy: the public education system.

(N.B: can confirm that melancholy leads to creativity; I was blue again this morning, mainly because I am deeply tired because I did not sleep well, and I was cranky and logy until I thought of this idea, and then I was happily off on the tracks of the idea. I got distracted frequently, because neither exhaustion nor creativity are necessarily good for focus; but it was great fun to think about this and to try to problem-solve. So much fun, in fact, that I think this will end up being more than one blog.)

All right, let’s start with the basic structure, and the most fundamental changes I would make to the current education system (while still trying to work within it, which is why this is not something I would ever pursue.). Personally I’d want it to be high school, because I like teenagers more than littluns, and middle schoolers are demons in human skin; but it makes much more sense for it to be K-12, so we’ll go with that, and I’ll just pretend I’d have a partner who would handle the lower grades, and an exorcist for the middle grades. We would follow the traditional schedule with summers and weekends off, and the school day would be 8-3.

But here’s the big difference: there are no grades. (Anyone who knows me saw that  coming from the first sentence of this post.) And I don’t just mean abstract letter rewards for paperwork filled out, I mean there aren’t grade levels: no first grade, second grade, tenth grade, fourth grade, eighth grade. That’s why it should be K-12, because my students should not be divided by their birthdays. It’s just about the stupidest possible way to group people, and it NEVER HAPPENS ANYWHERE EVER outside of education and then, like, bowling leagues. Students at my school will advance through subjects as they master the subjects: regardless of what age they are. When I was in the sixth grade, I was reading at something higher, let’s say the tenth grade level because I don’t actually remember my own lexile scores: that means I should have been in a tenth grade reading class. Or even better, in a class with anyone else who read at a tenth grade level regardless of their ages.

So that’s how it works. The basic idea is this: the classes will be run by unit, not by grade level. You can attach the units to standards, if that makes your ears wiggle, but I think of it like a novel unit, a sonnet unit, an argumentative essay unit, and then those can be repeated at different difficulty levels, Easy, Medium, Hard, Brainmelting, etc. Short pieces, a few weeks to a few months, though that would also depend on subject, like if a math unit on fractions takes a year, then so be it: year long unit. Students sign up for units they need and ones they are ready for, according to what the teachers are offering at any given time.

I realize this would be a logistical nightmare. I imagine it as a series of two-week units, so that every two weeks, students re-register for classes. I think on some level it would straighten itself out because most students would want to continue with a single subject, especially if they liked the teacher, so my units, for instance, could go through my usual “tenth grade English” class in sequence, and students at about that skill level could just keep signing up for my class every two weeks or so, and that would cover the school year. On the other hand, if students are the type who get bored with subjects quickly, they could bounce around more; take more English one month, and then more math the next month, and then nothing but art the month after that. This way, while it would be difficult to arrange the master schedule as it would be changing all the time (And I would need at least one full-time registrar just to track where everyone is at any given time, and presumably more depending on how many students and teachers are at the school and how much technology can fill this need. Though I also have a plan for getting help to the people running the basic functions of the school, which I’ll get into later.), it would eliminate entirely the bored pain-in-the-ass students who disrupt classes constantly just because they’re tired of English and would rather be in science. Fine: go take a science class this month. Come back to English when you’re tired of science.

It would also allow students to re-take single units they didn’t master without having to re-take an entire year of a subject. Depending on how well you could stagger math units, it would solve the problem of students getting lost halfway through Algebra and then never recovering: because they don’t understand everything that comes after that point in their Algebra class, and then in most schools, they either take a second trip through the same class, or move on to a new class they’re not ready for, or take both the repeat class and the new class, and have a horrible time in both. None of those are good solutions, and all of them lead to students hating math and believing they are bad at math, through no fault or actual lack of their own. If a kid can’t get a math concept, they should stick with that math concept until they get it right, and only then move on to the next part.

The ideal with math, then, since math is so sequential (Though I question that; I would guess that at least some of the sequential nature of math instruction is because we’ve always done it that way. I’d guess that some algebraic concepts could be taught much earlier than others, and would be helpful in mastering other mathematical areas.), would be for a math teacher to focus on, say, the first half of what is now geometry, divided into month-long units — say five of them, though we’ll get into the class schedule later — so Geometry Month 1, Geometry Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, and Month 5. If that teacher taught five classes, they could teach all five months, one period a day each, all year long, and students could advance through the months or repeat the months as needed by shifting what period they took math each month. (If the teacher got bored with that, the math department could rotate the months through several teachers. Point is, all five months of the first half of Geometry are constantly available.)

Each unit would be basically pass/fail, with whatever final assessment product the teacher wanted to use. After the unit and the assessment, the teacher would approve the student to move on to the next unit, or say the student had to repeat the unit. I imagine that each student would collect stamps or stickers, essentially, each stamp saying that they had completed and mastered a single unit; graduation would come after the students collected all of their stickers.

 

I’ve got much more to say about this school, but I think I’m going to break this imagined school system up into several posts, so it doesn’t get too ponderous. What do you think so far? Is this clear, what I’m proposing here? If not, please comment and ask questions, and I’ll try to clarify. There will be more to come.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about sadness.

I woke up feeling blue. Not too sad, really; it’s Saturday, which is lovely, and though I had a long and difficult week, there were some excellent moments with friends, with writing, with my wife and our pets. But I was down; melancholy. I slogged around the house for a half an hour while the coffee cooked, and then I took my dogs for a long, slow walk. (Though they wanted to go for a long, fast walk, with many sudden stops for sniffies. I wouldn’t let ’em. Misery loves company. [Actually, I let  them have their sniffies. We just didn’t walk that fast. They didn’t seem to mind too much.])

While I was walking, I was thinking. Why do we get sad? I’m an atheist, so anything to do with metaphysics or God’s will or sin isn’t a good enough answer for me. I know the Buddhist answer is that suffering is a consequence of desire; I get that for anger, or grief, and certainly envy or jealousy; but melancholy? I don’t think I was desiring anything this morning other than not being sad — and being sad because I wish I wasn’t sad seems like much too cruel a cosmic Catch-22 to be reasonable. I suppose there could be an argument that the particular melancholy this morning was the result of an unfocused desire, that I wish my life was different in some ways and so when I woke up into the same life, as a steadily aging public school teacher who still hasn’t achieved success as a writer, it made me sad. Maybe so, but I wasn’t really thinking about any of those things; I was just — blue.

What about modern science and pyschology? As far as I know (And that bummed me out, too, because I realized that even though I don’t know what role sadness plays in our psyche or our evolution, somebody out there does; so this whole chain  of thought isn’t because I’m deep, it’s because I’m ignorant. I feel like that is pretty much always true: that any question I have, someone out there knows the answer, and if I just took the time to look, I’d learn the truth. Sometimes that makes me hopeful, and sometimes it makes me hopeless.) the model of emotions is that they are nothing but chemical reactions, hormones released in the brain and limbic system in response to stimuli. I think as well that the idea is that all aspects of human existence evolved as the result of some kind of survival pressure, because in some way it gives us an advantage. Anger makes us strong and aggressive; love helps us pair-bond for mutual cooperation and procreation; fear is a warning of danger. Even when those emotions are not targeted in an evolutionarily advantageous way, like when we get angry at video games, or fall in love with our cars, or when we’re afraid of moths (Don’t look at me like that: they are Satan’s butterflies.)

Image result for moth

Know what that is? That’s a moth DRINKING TEARS FROM A BIRD’S EYE. Fucking tell me they’re harmless. Bullshit.

But what evolutionary advantage does sadness give us? How does being blue help me to find food or evade predators on the savannah?

It’s possible that sadness is a misdirected emotional cue. Like modern food and eating habits make us fat because our bodies are geared towards craving sugar, salt, and fat, as all three of those have definite survival advantages if you’re living out on the savannah: sugar gives you quick energy to run away from lions, fat contains vitamins and gives long term energy storage, salt helps us BECAUSE ELECTROLYTES ARE WHAT A BODY CRAVES. It’s just that food today can be manufactured with so much fat, salt, and sugar, where foragers or hunter-gatherers on the savannah had a much harder time collecting them, that our reward system, geared  to give strong rewards for tiny amounts gained after strenuous work, overrewards us for just sitting around and horking down Cheez-Its. It’s a misdirected survival mechanism, because we didn’t evolve with 2019 in mind.

But sadness, I would argue, doesn’t always have a trigger. (As I’m writing this, though, I’m getting more and more tired, and curling up with a blanket and going back to sleep sounds absolutely wonderful, so suddenly I’m wondering if melancholy is simply a signal to slow down and have a snooze. Maybe so. I’m still going to finish my point.) Even when it does, when you see someone hurt, or hear about suffering and despair in the world, how does it help me to deal with that if I feel depressed because of it? What possible adaptive value could being in a funk present?

So there I am, walking my dogs, dragging my feet and hanging my head, and thinking about the value of sadness, and what it could possibly be good for. What could sadness do for us. What power does sadness have. Power. And then I thought: imagine if someone gained power from being sad. Like Samson and his hair, but with angst. Imagine if the Hulk  got stronger when he was sad, instead of when he was angry. Imagine if someone had to make themselves sad in order to be strong, and the sadder they got, the stronger they were. Imagine if someone was a sorceror, say, and instead of sacrificing a virgin to Baal, they had to break their favorite childhood toy, or watch a hurt animal try to walk.

Hmmm. Just imagine.

And just like that, I came up with an idea for a book  I’d like to try to write. I still need to flesh it out, work on the characters and build the world, and come up with a plot and all; but I really love the concept. Which  I came up with because I was feeling down.

So that, I think, is the value of sadness. It does help us to slow down and take it easy, too, because when we’re sad I think we don’t want to do anything but curl up and sleep, and particularly in our overworked overstressed world, that is very important and very, very good for us. But mainly, I think that sadness, by the simple fact that we generally don’t like it, makes us want to do something to change the way we feel. This is the same argument I make with my students about learning: they need to feel uncomfortable, they need to feel like they’re missing something, in order for them to learn; if they are perfectly content, then their brains don’t seek out a solution to the problem, because there’s no problem. So the brain just closes its eyes and takes a nap, so to speak, if the person is too comfortable. It’s when we are uncomfortable that the brain seeks out a new equilibrium, by observing and processing what is around ; that is how we learn best.

Maybe sadness does the same. Maybe sadness is an inspiration, a impetus, to get off our butts and do something to take the sadness away.

Or else it’s my brain and body telling me I really need to nap. I’m going to go lie down, now. And maybe think about my new idea.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about procrastinating.

Not for myself — though I’m not entirely against procrastinating — but because my students were assigned an essay about challenges they’ve faced, problems they’ve solved, and several of them wrote about their struggle with procrastination. My seniors are far worse about it: they take pride in their refusal to get anything done in any kind of timely manner. “Senioritis!” they cry.

Bullshit, I say.

Sure, seniors suddenly get several notches lazier in the second semester. They’ve gotten into college, they know they won’t fail their classes — they’re not that lazy — and so they will definitely graduate and go on to the next stage of their lives. That being the case, it’s hard to see the need to complete vocabulary assignments just like the ones they’ve been doing for years, now, and which, in a few months, they’ll never have to do again. (Not that they like thinking about graduating in a few months and being done with high school forever. It’s a tempting prospect, but also terrifying, because that, they know, is when they get sent out into the Real World, which they have been taught to fear throughout their time in high school.) And sure, I get that. But “senioritis” implies first that it is something out of their control, an inevitability, a condition that afflicts people in their situation; and second that they haven’t been pulling the same crap for years now.

There are exceptions, of course. A few students get all their work done on time regardless of the relative value of the work; in fact, they take pride in completing both the large difficult assignments and the measly, mindless ones, because that way they show that their work ethic knows no bounds, that no grade is too big, and no grade is too small. There are students who were slackers, but who pick it up in their senior year, though even they tend to fall back into old habits as graduation day approaches. There are, of course, seniors who really do get lazy only at this final stage of their high school career, who go from diligent to dilettante once February rolls around.

But for the most part, it’s not senioritis, it’s studentitis. And it’s not that: it’s just procrastination. But here’s the thing: procrastination doesn’t have to be bad. It usually isn’t. It can be, of course, but for the most part, it’s simply — prioritizing. A student has an assignment due on Friday, and that student knows they can get it done in two hours; there’s no particular reason to do it Wednesday night instead of Thursday night. They may get a surprise assignment on Thursday and have to do two things Thursday night, but usually not, and if they do, they simply give up some sleep, which they don’t mind at all. (Students are divided into two groups: those who do nothing but sleep — the sloths — and those who only sleep a few hours a night — the squirrels. Sloths mind giving up sleep, but they make up for it by sleeping 18 hours the next day; squirrels are already awake until two or three in the morning every night.) The assignment that isn’t due tomorrow is a low priority, so it doesn’t get done until it is a high priority; it’s not lazy, not irrational, it’s nothing more than what we all do all the time. This last Sunday I had time for one chore, and I had to pick between cleaning out the birdcage or vacuuming the floors; I cleaned the birdcage because the floors weren’t that dirty. Because unlike the bird, we don’t crap on the floor. Priorities.

It’s more troubling when the work is daunting, and they have time to do it, but they put it off anyway because they’d rather not do it. Not managing their time, perhaps short-sightedly but reasonably; this procrastination just keeps going, past when they have a reasonable chance of doing the work, sometimes past the due date entirely. This is the kind of procrastination my students wrote about in their essays, as a problem to be overcome, a challenge they have to face. Because now the procrastination causes stress, and makes them miss out on things they don’t want to miss out on, things they care about more than sleep. This procrastination is especially troubling because often, the activity they choose over completing their work is — nothing. Watching Netflix or YouTube. Laying on their bed and staring at the wall. Saying to themselves, “Wow, I really should do that thing I have to do.” And then not doing it. Over and over.

But even this, I would argue, is prioritizing: something in that lack of activity, that laying on the bed, that video watching, is more important than getting their work done at that moment when they make that choice. I think the two best possibilities for their reasons are, one, that they are so completely stressed and anxious that they are desperate for anything that can help them calm down — more common among today’s youth than you would like to think, but if you knew how many of my students are in therapy and on mood-altering drugs to handle their anxiety, you would know this is not an unlikely reason for procrastination — and two, the work is so unimportant that they refuse to do it, because doing it feels almost demeaning, almost insulting.

This is how I felt about high school when I was in it. It was beneath me. It was a waste of my time. I thought the teachers, who weren’t any smarter than me, were giving me homework just to push me around, and by God, I wasn’t going to let them get away with that. I would show them: I wouldn’t do the work! I’d take that F! That’s right, teacher, I’ve called your bluff: what are you going to do now? Huh?

Nothing. That’s what I thought.

Exactly what I do when my students don’t do the work. Because I don’t actually assign work to push my students around. And if they don’t want to do the work I assign, that’s their choice. Hell, if they don’t do it, that’s one less paper for me to grade. Win-win.

In either of those cases, crippling anxiety or petulant rebellion, procrastination is not laziness. It’s prioritizing. They may not be doing a good job of making those decisions, but they are making decisions, not just blowing things off for no reason. Because of that, I think that a student who procrastinates should be allowed to make that choice, and then face the consequences of that choice, of their own free will, which is why I don’t hound them, asking if they finished their work yet. They’ll finish it eventually, or they won’t; either way is their choice.

Just so long as they don’t call it senioritis.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about words.

I’ve got lots of word-nerd books. A dictionary of 2000 Obscure and Challenging Words; a History of the English Language; a Pirate Primer on how to talk like a pirate. And I have this book:

Image result for the book of random oddities

My copy of this has a different trivial fact on the cover: and the one above just BLEW MY MIND!

This book is excellent, because while it has some interesting trivia, it’s mostly word play and word games, quotations and riddles and interesting factoids about — language.

And while reading, I found out some things.

A “dignotion” is a tattoo, birthmark, or other distinguishing mark.

“Bucculent” means wide-mouthed.

“Illecebrous” means pretty or attractive.

“Bathycolpian” means having large bosoms and deep cleavage.

“Imberb” means beardless.

“Leptodactylic” means having long, slender toes.

“Lentiginous” means freckled.

“Kalopsia” is the overestimation of beauty.

“Circumbendibus” is a roundabout process or method, especially a circumlocution: and so is “circumbilivagination.”

 

The collective nouns for these animals are:

A sloth of bears, a singular of boars, a business of ferrets, a peep of chickens, a deceit of lapwings, a tittering of magpies, a mumble of moles, a cast of hawks, a siege of herons, a kindle of kittens, a crash of rhinoceroses, a mutation of thrushes, and an unkindness of ravens.

An unkindness of ravens! And I’ve only been hearing about that “murder of crows” thing, for years!

 

Allodoxophobia is the fear of other people’s opinions, catagelophobia is the fear of being ridiculed, didaskaleinophobia is the fear of going to school, scolionophobia is the fear of school, sophophobia is the fear of learning, gnosiophobia is the fear of knowledge, and kakorrhaphiophobia is the fear of failure. So Allodoxocatagelodidaskaleinoscolionosophognosiokakorrhaphiophobia is the fear of being a high school student.

 

To cabobble is to confuse, blutterbunged means confused or surprised or taken aback, inaniloquent means saying silly things, to jargogle is to mix up or garble something, a phlyarologist is one who constantly speaks nonsense, and to winx is to speak foolishly.

 

Blatherskite?  Foolish person.

Dandisprat? Insignificant person.

Dowfart? Stupid, dull person.

Hoddypeak? Blockhead.

Jackeen? Worthless person who thinks himself important. (This gives me a new nickname for someone at work.)

Ninnyhammer? Simpleton.

Quakebuttock? Coward.

Shabbaroon? Mean-spirited person.

Slubberdegullion? Contemptible person, a wretch.

Wallydraigle? Feeble, slovenly person.

 

And I’m only halfway through the book.

this morning

Image result for leaning back in my arms

 

In honor of yesterday’s post, which was more stream of consciousness than is usual for me, and therefore also less coherent, I give you by way of explanation my very favorite poet: ee cummings.

 

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady I swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

And look what I found.

 

(Seriously, go look. It’s beautiful.)

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about perspective.

My wife, who is currently teaching high school art, teaches perspective to her students. There’s a technique to it, and a basic concept that some of the students struggle to master. But if they do master it, there’s more waiting for them. We all know about one-point perspective, and two-point perspective (Don’t we?), but did you know there is also three-point perspective? And four-point? Did you know it goes up to TWELVE-POINT PERSPECTIVE???

If you, like my wife, are a highly trained visual artist, then you might actually know that. In which case your view — your perspective — of this post is different from mine,  and different from most; you might have seen my all-caps and multiple question marks as naive, either irritating or cute depending on how you see me and probably what mood you are in.

If you ARE my wife (and she’ll read this at some point, I hope. I mean, maybe she’s sick of my writing; Lord knows she has to read enough of it. So maybe she’ll skip this one.), then your view of this post will be different again, because not only do you know all of this already, but you are reading about yourself, being used as my example. Again. (And you had to read my little anxiety-comment about being tired of my writing, again, and you probably sighed or rolled your eyes at the apparent need to reassure me, again, that you like what  I write. I mean, 25 years we’ve been together; come on, are we still worrying about this?)

Perspective changes everything.

I was going to lead this off with the old cliche about keeping things in perspective. There are eight weeks left of my school year (I know, fellow teachers, I get out super early, around the third week of May, and it’s sweet — but then we start again around August 1. Inservice is in July. Don’t be too jealous. Though at this end of the school year, with the summer ahead starting before Memorial Day, it looks pretty sweet — so go ahead and be jealous. Just come back at the end of July and read about how miserable I am to be going back to school already, while you probably have a month left of summer; then you can have your revenge on me.), and that makes me both excited to finish and get to my summer, and also terribly stressed that I only have eight weeks left to teach everything I haven’t taught my students this year  — which, of course, is far more than eight weeks’ worth of material. Today is also the first day back to school after Spring Break, which feels terrible right in the moment; but my Break was absolutely lovely and perfect; and of course, there will be many more breaks to enjoy. As sad as going back to work after vacation is, it also means I get to have that last day of work before vacation, and those are wonderful.

So I wanted to make the point that most frustrations are minor. Sure, it’s Monday and I have to go to work; but it’s almost April, and I will have summer soon. Sure, I’m tired; but I’m alive, and generally healthy. Sure, I’m frustrated  with my job and with my lack of a professional writing career; but I’m not a ditch digger nor a slave, not a sex worker nor a sewer worker. You have to keep things in perspective, I thought, and decided that I should write that, as a little encouragement to my fellow workers who are off to their Monday.

But then I thought a bit more about perspective, and I realized: there is no “right” perspective. “Keeping things in perspective” implies that there are big important things, and there are small trivial things, and there is a clear delineation between them, and knowing which are which is the key to happiness, or at least contentment. But I don’t buy that: because importance is relative to the individual. Because the size of issues is time bound, meaning that climate change is a global catastrophe waiting to destroy us all, but it is not affecting me this morning, right now, and my having to go to work is. Having to go to work is infinitely smaller; but it’s also infinitely closer than the climate change catastrophe. (I know it’s not infinite, and I don’t mean to belittle climate change; that catastrophe is closer than we think, and scarier. But I’m trying to make a point here.) That means, essentially, that the two problems are about the same size in my life and in their influence on my mood right now. In fact, the Monday thing is a little bit larger because I’m also tired, which makes Monday worse, and doesn’t have any effect on worrying about climate change. Someone else in the very same situation would have a different view of the relative importance of these things, and who’s  to say that their perspective is wrong? Or right?

So I think the best idea is not to try to keep things in perspective: it is to realize that you can, almost always, change your perspective. (“Almost always” because sometimes things are inescapable, immediate and intense and critical, and then you must deal with them and survive them and get through them.) But when you can gain some distance from a problem, from a feeling, from yourself, then you can shift things around as you wish. You can focus more on a specific aspect, bring it nearer, clearer, larger, and push other things back in relation to that aspect. That power is what’s important — at least right now.

Don’t keep things in perspective. Change your perspective. Make a big deal out of little things, and enjoy your little victories as if they were world championships. Make those large looming abstract worries into tiny, distant problems, and block them out with something right here, right now: do some laundry, and be proud of what you have done. Eat a bagel, and glory in the perfect breakfast. It can be a big deal if you want it to be. In other words, sometimes you can sweat the small stuff and ignore the big things; that is your choice, your privilege, your power. Your perspective.

At least, that’s how I see it.

 

(P.S: I am confident that my metaphor has completely ruined the correlation with the artistic technique of perspective; I’m really talking more about foreground and background and such. I am sorry if that broken parallel was a bigger issue for you than it was for me, but it wasn’t a big problem for me. I’m just happy I got this post written. If you’re my wife and you’re annoyed with me, you can have the pleasure of throwing something at me. If you hit me with it, you win!)