Saturday, January 3, 2015

A singular focus -or- What it feels like to go back to teaching

The magical red bucket.

It all started with a red bucket. The very one pictured above.

That's the bucket I took with me to an interview for a teaching job in June last year. I was told to be prepared to present a lesson that I had developed, taught and assessed. I wracked my brain for the most memorable lesson I had used as an English teacher. I even gathered up photos of my old classroom with students reading and interacting and even some samples of old student work. I walked in to that interview confident with that red bucket tucked under my arm!

I got the job.  The boys and I took off for Alaska within weeks of the good news to join Aquaman who was already fishing.

I began reading what my future students had been assigned for the summer. Here's proof - me with the book on board a seiner with Aquaman.

Damn boring, if you want to know the truth.

That was pretty much the last time I came up for air.

In July, I went to a teaching conference. In August, I began planning lessons. I walked into a classroom that looked like this:

And turned it into this:

Yes, the door involves Hello Kitty. 

And a Hello Kitty calendar. I may have a problem.

The lesson I had in that red bucket at my interview is what started off the year.

Since then, I've been buried in literature and professional development and benchmarks. Learning an entirely new pedagogy. Memorizing 150 student names and getting to know them. Grading 150 student essays. Then 150 more student essays. Then hundreds more poems. Uploading and emailing and calling parents. Twelve hour days were standard. If I got in and out under 10 hours, I felt giddy.

At times, delightful reading.
At other times, mind numbing.

There has been no time for my own writing. I've been writing curriculum. I've been writing poetry and essays to use as exemplar models for my students. No personal essays. No blogging.

It is all consuming.

Did I mention the reading? Besides curriculum guides and lesson plans and articles about teaching literature, I also read (or re-read) whatever novels I had to teach. Here's what was on deck this fall:

7th grade:
1) The Giver by Lois Lowry
2) The Maze Runner by James Dashner
3) The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
4) The Pearl by John Steinbeck

8th grade:
1) Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
2) The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
3) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
4) When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
5) Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

For the student book club that I sponsor:
1) Doll Bones by Holly Black
2) Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
3) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
4) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
5) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Additional Research and Reading:
1) In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning by Nancie Atwell
2) The Essential Criticism of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men edited by Michael J. Meyer
3) Classics in the Classroom by Carol Jago
4) With Rigor For All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students by Carol Jago
5) Papers Papers Papers: An English Teacher's Survival Guide by Carol Jago
6) Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons by Nancie Atwell
7) Lessons that Change Writers by Nancie Atwell

I'm sure there's more reading that I've forgotten I did.

Did I mention the bulletin boards? That's my favorite part!

Students add quotes from books - a sort of recommendation wall. 
Such a great quote.
August/September. You can't go wrong with Whitman.

October-scary stuff!
November-books teachers are thankful for.
One of my all time favorite books.

Here's why.

December. What'd you expect? I mean really.

I also celebrated a birthday in there, went on a field trip with 100 8th graders, chaperoned a dance, and gave in to student requests to be the faculty sponsor for a student-led book club.

She who wears the crown must be obeyed. Right?
This was the bus ride there.
Notice there isn't one on the way back. 

Did you know you text requests to the DJ now? Fancy!

I have made myself take a break these last two weeks. That means that I only read two books that were related to school and only emailed a handful of times to confirm my new teaching schedule for the spring that will involve a new syllabus, eleven more novels that I must pick for 30+ additional students I will have, and to welcome a new teacher that I will collaborate with.

You know the most surprising part of all?

I am loving being back in the classroom. I missed it. I was gone from it for three years.

Kids can be real bad. Real, read bad. But they can also be real sweet. Real, real sweet. They give you things. Things they think you'll like. So if they see one Hello Kitty item on your desk, get ready. For things like this:

First gift from a student this year. And it was from a boy!
Boys secretly love Hello Kitty.

Did you know there was Hello Kitty canvas art?

Hello Kitty as an Elf. No better combination.

And they'll make you things. Like this:

Just because. 

Our Of Mice and Men book cover - student rendition.

Favorite student quote from The Outsiders.

And they'll do annoying things like take a selfie of you and themselves with your phone while you're busy with another student.

And you'll marvel at how they can be so frustrating and so smart and so clueless and so wonderful all at the same time.

I think they might actually be learning something with me. So I'll just keep swimming - trying to keep my head above water. Maybe I'll eventually be able to do more than tread water. Maybe I'll learn a few new strokes and be able to look around at the shore by the time June rolls around again.

But until then? You won't be hearing much from me. Which was really the whole point to this post - to let you know why I'm M.I.A. on this here blog. It's for something I care a lot about. And it's all part of a big plan Aquaman and I hatched many years ago so that I would have the summers off with the boys and we could all go to Alaska and join him while he fished for the summer. It might actually be happening, that plan. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Wait. Yes there is. Nevermind.

You know that great Motown hit Ain't No Mountain High Enough? It's a lie, friends. A big, fat lie. Because there is a mountain high enough to keep me from gettin' to you, babe. It's in Alaska.

Aquaman is off on another great adventure as one of a three man crew aboard a commercial fishing vessel in Prince William Sound. The captain is awesome, the crew is fantastic and Aquaman is loving every minute of it. He's been there since June and The Wrecking Crew and I decided to take the opportunity to visit in July. So we headed back to Cordova where we lived right after we got married - we had our first jobs, bought our first home and had all of our babies in this tiny fishing village of 2300 people.

The Wrecking Crew and I arrived ready to pack in as much activity as we possibly could in three weeks. There were old friends to see, new friends to make, salmon to eat, berries to pick and trails to hike.

Although The Redhead was actually born here (the twins were born in Anchorage) and all three lived the first 3-4 years of their lives here, they didn't remember much. I felt like a tour guide of amnesiacs, trying to prompt memories and recollections by taking them to places that had been so much a part of their daily lives. It didn't work. It was like they were seeing it all for the first time. Which is kind of wonderful in its own way.

Because the weather in this coastal community can be so extreme (and by extreme I mean 160 inches of precipitation a year), you learn to get outside when the sun is shining. After two days of rain and wind, the sun came out. I felt compelled to make it count. I woke the boys up before noon (Imagine!) and got them fed. It was just The Redhead and Thing 2 because Thing 1 was out on the boat with Aquaman, learning what seining for pink salmon is all about.

That's Thing 1 smiling and Aquaman smiling even bigger
while they are photobombed by another crew member.

"We're climbing Mt. Eyak today!" I announced.

"Can we pick berries?" The Redhead asked. "Is it far?" Thing 2 chimed in.

"You'll see!" I answered. "You're gonna climb a mountain!"

I couldn't contain my excitement. I'd done this hike half a dozen times during the 8 years we lived there. It offered the best views of Orca Inlet and Prince William Sound as well as Eyak Lake and the Copper River Delta. I knew the boys would be impressed. Off we went.

My euphoria was short-lived. The Redhead quickly separated from us - choosing his own path - and then Thing 2 went a different route from mine. I had wrongly assumed they would just follow me. Getting separated is a no-no on Alaska trails. Groups make noise; noise warns off bears. A lone hiker doesn't make noise (unless consciously doing so) and can end up right on top of a very surprised bear. Surprised bear = bad. When our trails again converged at the top of the ski lift, I explained all of this and told them not to leave my sight again.

The beginning. Less than thrilled.
"Whaddya mean we can't leave your sight?" 

The base of the ski hill is 400 feet in elevation and the ski lift ends at 1200 feet with a vertical drop of 800 feet. This is all most people ever see. The single chair ski lift is the oldest operating chairlift in North America (which was no comfort to me when I was on it a handful of times). Mt. Eyak Ski Area is bustling with people when there's fresh powder in the winter and well trafficked in the summer because of its proximity to the center of town.

The trail beyond gets steadily narrower - hard to follow in some places - and the views get more and more spectacular.

Spectacular. But don't those little chairs look scary?

I'm not kidding when I say narrow.
That's the trail - hardly bigger than the width of my feet. 

The Redhead is named after the island pictured behind him. It was pretty cool for him to see this again as a teenager. He was 4 years old the last time we were here.

S'up. That's my island. 


And higher. 

Still higher. 

We had to stop and rest way more frequently than I remember having to rest before.

That water bottle is just about empty. 

Another rest? Really?

The view left them speechless at times. Thankfully.

And do you know what I noticed as we hiked higher and higher? The Redhead and Thing 2 were smiling bigger and bigger.

The rarely seen smile from a teenage boy.

A genuine smile!

At this point, we were out of water. We had one bottle each and it was gone by the time we were halfway there. But we kept on going.

Those little white specks are birds. We're higher than the birds!

When you reach the ridge, you can see over to the other side. That's Eyak Lake.

Awesome, ain't it?

And then you know you're close. The peak looks big and small at the same time. 

It's 2,480 feet. That's a mountain. I know it's not Mt. McKinley (North America's tallest mountain is 20,237 feet - also in Alaska), but it may as well have been for us. 

The peak of Mount Eyak. 

It gets very steep at the end. You can feel the weather when you're up that high. It gets windier. And colder. There were eagles flying around us. And right about that time The Redhead declared, "Yep. I'm good. I don't need to go any higher."

I was surprised. "What do you mean?"

"It's too cliff-y," he said.

He was right. It was much like the side of a cliff now that we were approaching the end. I tried to keep him excited.

"Come on! You've come too far to not go to the top! We'll just take one more rest and then finish. At the end, there are ropes bolted in that you use to climb to the peak! You can do it!"

While we rested one last time, we watched as a hiker came from below us at a brisk pace. Way brisker than ours. Then I realized I knew her. The boys couldn't believe it. "Really Mom? On top of a mountain? You even know someone on top of a mountain?"

My old friend sat and rested with us a while before continuing on to the peak. She was fast - leaving us far behind in minutes. At this point, I realized how foolish I'd been to just take off on a difficult hike that I hadn't done in over 10 years. I accepted how out of shape I was but I still wanted to reach the top. So I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Until I got to the first rope.

Doesn't that bolt seem rusty?

Rather than be reassured that I had something to hold on to, I began focusing on the fact that it was so steep that I needed something to hold on to. I watched my friend reach the summit. Thing 2 was right behind her, hand over hand on the first and then the second rope. I didn't give myself time to think. I just kept going. The Redhead was right behind me.

That is a very worried look on his face.

And then I saw the second rope and the steep rocks beneath it.

Oh dear God what have I gotten myself into?

Some part of me began pleading with the other parts of me to TURN BACK. My friend was already on her way back down. Thing 2 was waiting at the top of the second rope. The Redhead suddenly announced, "I'm done. I'll wait for y'all right here." And I knew he meant it.

I looked around to my left and thought another route without the rope looked easier. This demonstrates how stressed I was - obviously not thinking clearly. After conferring with my friend, I went for it. As I picked my way gingerly along the lesser-used path, rocks slid beneath my feet and kept right on sliding into what seemed an abyss - where I pictured my body going next. And that's when my knees started shaking and my heart started pounding and I looked up at my friend - this friend from a decade before who was just as fit as she had ever been - and I said, "I think I'm done. I can't do it. Fuck."

And do you know what she said? "Well, then, you should stop. Because this is where most people fall."


And she's a nurse at the local hospital, so she would know.

And do you know what she said next? "Do you mind if I take Thing 2 to the top while you make your way back down?"

If I hadn't been busy hanging on to the side of a mountain, I would have hugged her. Instead I just said, "That would be great. Thanks."

At that moment, I wanted to cry and not turn around and figure out how I was going to get back down the lesser-used path with the rock slide and back down the first rope and coach The Redhead back down as well. But I couldn't fall apart because it was just me and Aquaman wasn't there to talk calmly to me and The Redhead was already scared and Thing 2 was well taken care of and going up to the summit like a billy goat. So I held it together and somehow we made it back down to the relative safety of the ridge. My dear friend returned with Thing 2 and then motored down the mountain just as quickly as she had come up.

The Redhead may never trust me again.

The hike down was no picnic. We were exhausted and it was steep. My knees and thighs protested each step. We had all rubbed blisters on our feet. We had no water. I knew that I had to make noise to ward off bears but I was in no mood for singing or talking. So I chanted. "Mud. Rocks. Steep. Bullshit." Over and over. Then I began to sing, "Somebody bring me a wheelchair or a Coast Guard helicopter rescue and a Diet Dr. Pepper!" Then I laughed maniacally.

These rocks are pokey. And it's steep. Bullshit.

We had to rest on the way down, too. 

Just to be clear: I never said I wanted to hike a mountain, Mom.

We might have been delirious at this point.

I was so irritated and angry and just wanted it to be over. I couldn't believe that I had panicked when I was so close to finishing. I had taken those very same steps many times before - even led other people up the path - but this time I had absolutely freaked out. No doubt about it. The hike up had taken us 4 hours. It took us another 2 hours to make it back down to the parking lot. During those 2 hours, I promised myself that I would never hike a mountain again.

Right after I took ibuprofen and crawled into bed that night, the friend that had so graciously taken Thing 2 to the top called and asked me if we'd seen the bear on the way down. She had come upon one that couldn't be bothered to stop eating berries, despite a human's presence. I guess my horrible chanting and singing had worked.

The next day, I slept until noon just like the boys. When Thing 2 showed me the pictures he had taken at the top, that's when I knew that it had been worth it. My failure had not lessened his experience - in fact, it made it even more special because he'd been the only one in our little party to reach the summit.

The obligatory selfie. Thing 2 and his Fearless Guide.

Looking towards Eyak Lake and the Copper River Delta.

On Top of the World!

And that is a pretty cool thing. But I'm still never climbing another mountain.