School Year’s Resolutions 2016, Part 1 (Or, Combating the Sunday Scaries)

School Year’s Resolutions 2016, Part 1 (Or, Combating the Sunday Scaries)

Ah, August: the Sunday of Summer. Which means the official commencement of the Sunday Scaries (you know those moments of sheer panic that occur throughout the day on Sunday wherein you suddenly and very deeply realize exactly what you still haven’t done to fully prepare for the work-week ahead).

The dawn of the Sunday Scaries feels like being stalked by a small predator: you are safe for the moment, but you eventually have to make a decision about how to get free completely. Trying to outrun the beast means simply prolonging the uncertainty/fear. Or you can turn on that beast, which really isn’t that big at all, and you can rear back and roar and make yourself large and attempt to scare it off forever.

Every year since I began teaching, when the Sunday Scaries commenced in August, I swore I would turn and frighten that beast away. But then Fantasy Football season would start and a last-minute trip to the beach would be a good idea and, well, last year was actually fine, I can outpace the beast for a little bit. Until Thanksgiving, at least. At worst, I can get right in the New Year. But then, inevitably, the chase lasts all year. And then summer comes and I crash in a heap at the end of June, one eye open for the lurking beast.

Well, this is me standing big and tall. Approximately five weeks out from Day One, and here I am: roar.

I’m starting my School Year’s Resolutions today. Yes, it is Tuesday Wednesday. And, true, I did not actually get to campus to start setting up today this week as I had planned. That’s okay. Because simply completing this post is one of the things I’m holding myself accountable for this year. And that’s a small victory to get things going.

So, here is my School Year’s Resolution for the 2016-2017 school year. It’d be cool if you stopped by once in a while to help hold me accountable. It’d be cooler still if you made your own resolutions, too, and we helped each other out. At any rate, here it is, in no particular order and without much revision (new/old rules).

  • Re-think my assessment strategies in the classroom. My first year of teaching, I didn’t give traditional grades. We had rubrics, sure, but a lot of what my students did was generated by their interest and was assessed via my copious feedback. Time and experience and an expanding student body dictated some changes to my methods, but last year I found myself giving too many quizzes and tests. I’m considerably less thorough in my feedback on projects and essays than I would like to be. Last year, my classroom showed signs of being that dreaded kind of place where kids showed up and waited to be quizzed and then they basically checked out until the Q-word popped up again. That sucks. And I’m upset that I let it get that way. This year, I plan on implementing more student-centered projects and building on existing units to provide more authentic challenges and to move away from study-guided readings. In a perfect world, I’d get rid of grades altogether, but I’m going to take some time (a month at least) before I say for sure that I’m making that move.
  • Become a Google Certified Trainer. I’m a little ashamed that I’m not even a Google Certified Educator. Our school converted to Google officially at the start of last year, and I’ve been using Google Classroom and their suite of services for at least that long. It’s such a simple set-up and yet I have this suspicion that I’m not using the product to my complete advantage. And, as someone who is fairly tech-savvy, if I’m not taking full advantage, I’m sure some other folks in the district may not be either. I’d love to leverage my own curiosities into opportunities for other teachers in the district and beyond.
  • Be more open in my reflective practices. This one might seem a little obvious given the nature of this composition. However, what I mean is this: I tend to blame myself for student disinterest or for a class-wide subpar performance. Part of getting past that means sharing what is happening in my classroom more frequently (beyond the dinner-table ramblings my poor wife has to suffer) and inviting other adults into my classroom to help me see my practices from a different point of view.
  • Push for Scholarly Personal Narrative and other alternative writing assignments. In addition to my classes feeling as if they have somewhat staled, they also feel more status quo. As I’ve pushed for academic excellence, I fear I’ve cropped the heart out of many of my students’ essays. During this past spring, I stumbled upon Scholarly Personal Narrative, a topic that I was introduced to in a slightly different manner by my hero and co-worker Brian Mooney when we co-taught an American Lit course and utilized a variety of digital and analog literacy platforms. However, since then, something has been missing. This year, I’d like to generate more authentic expression and criticism by encouraging students to write from “I” and then get into the mechanisms for sophisticated academic writing. Recently, I’ve reversed and minimized that process. In turn, I fear I’ve lowered the ceiling for personality and raised the floor of mechanical composition and analysis.
  • Find ways to better incorporate close-reading and writing skills into a Maker Environment. The academy in which I teach has changed again and again, always seeking the cutting edge of the design industry. This has led us to becoming a maker space, which has been amazing. Our students have gone from creating hand-made artifacts that served as models and digital renderings that were mostly theoretical to being able to 3-D print objects or use a CNC machine to bring their ideas to life. My place as Literature instructor has been to supply a humanities heart to this otherwise industrial place. And while I relish that role, and believe it to be paramount, I also believe that there is more I can do to reach beyond the pages of novels and poems. In my research for how I might get this done, I’ve found teachers like Nick Provenzano, who has leveraged his English class to include impressive and timely technology. (Nick is, unbeknownst to him, another of my heroes). How can I use literature to both advance a common understanding of the human condition while also providing my engineering and design students with the kind of critical and technical prowess they will need to succeed in their other classes? I’ll let you know next June.
  • Start a podcast. As a storyteller, podcasting is, and has been, an exciting medium to me. I’ve recently fallen in love with true stories, becoming a fanboy of The Moth and StoryCorps, both of which I plan to use in my classroom in coming months, very likely as supporting components of the Maker mind-set. But I also have this recent itch to tell the story of teachers. Which brings me to…
  • Define what it means to be a Human Being Teacher and use this blog as a platform for personal and professional development for both myself and anyone who is interested in the ideas and ideals that find their way onto this site and devoting myself to any ancillary projects that come from this process. As I move through the year and continue to develop this project, I hope to not only figure out how to produce a podcast, but also to create a space that values learning about and sharing what it means to be a human being and how to remain one in and out of the classroom.

This post is titled Part 1 because I expect to return to this list once the school year starts. History has taught me that the fear-engines turn on in August, but the jet fuel really starts to burn once the kids show up and things really get moving in September and action displaces some of the fear/anticipation. I expect to have many more ideas not only in mid- to late-September but throughout the year as well. In fact, I expect this list to grow over the years, and I’m looking forward to see what I can accomplish and what falls away in the next ten months and beyond. I sincerely hope you’ll follow along.

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Telling the Talk: Reflecting on TEDx

So, you’re asked to give a TEDx talk and you think: wow, me? Yes, I’ll do it. Humbled and excited you wonder vaguely what you’ll talk about. But, whatever, there’s time. How long could it take to prepare a fifteen-minute speech? Odds are, if you’ve been asked to do a talk, you’ve done some public speaking. How different could this be? Okay, there’s a camera. Big deal. It’ll be posted online, with a potentially global audience? So what? All stuff to worry about later. I just need to get through today.
And then, seemingly, it’s the next day (it was three months later) and the organizers are asking for an outline and most of what you have is incoherent rambling in the direction of a rant that, now that you’re looking critically, sounds like something a guy in a bathrobe on a busy street corner might shout at strangers.
Whatever, it’s just an outline, right? Send something mildly coherent, hit the snooze bar. It’s all good. Nobody watches the TEDx videos anyway. It’s not like you’re being flown to Vancouver for the big one.
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The original outline. Yikes.
But it’s too late to be that chill. Seeing your notes border on illegible, feeling the heat of the big day now two months out: you get the first pang of nervousness. You start to dig in and make more time to write.
That’s the first problem. You can’t write a TED talk. You have to coax it into existence.
Lesson 1: TED writing is not speech writing.
I’d written for public speaking before. I delivered a school-wide address to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’ve written and performed two original wedding ceremonies; written and coached numerous graduation speeches; and done plenty of small acts of public speaking with prepared notes.
In this kind of writing–where you can read off the page–ideas are organized for impact. Anyone who has taken a class in rhetoric knows there are structures you can employ to make simple ideas more powerful. This was my automatic mode when I started drafting. That’s why my first “final” draft was almost 9,000 words. It said everything I wanted, in precisely the way I wanted it to be read.
Which meant it was far too intricate to memorize and too alliterative to deliver effectively.
Which meant I had to un-write the damn thing.
TED is this unique situation where you get to talk about something that deeply matters to you, which sounds informal. But it is an organized presentation of ideas. No matter how fluent you are, you still can’t go up there and just talk. It’s like this: if you were asked to tell a room full of strangers about your job, you’d probably get across the basics. But if you were asked to walk that room through the nuances and dramas of your daily work, detailed to the point that the audience understood as closely as possible what it was like to be you but persuasive enough so this person felt your position in this world was vital, well, then that’d be your TED talk. It’s hard to be detailed, persuasive, and memorable about a topic whose familiarity you take for granted. Writers, especially non-fiction writers, know this.
It took a lot of intricate paring to get the talk to retain agency without feeling like a memorized list of bullets. And this is to say nothing of the attrition of the moment. The talk ultimately came to about 12 minutes in both rehearsals and live performance time, but during the performance, from sheer adrenalized forgetfulness, I skipped several smaller sections.
So, if you’re a writer preparing for a TED talk, don’t write it out. Sweet talk it. Or snake charm it. Just don’t be alliterative.
That’s part one: the writing.
Part two nearly broke me. I like writing and I usually like sharing what I’ve written (basic writer’s urge). But once I realized how this was not really writing, I was way out of my comfort zone.
Those easily written-off fears about cameras and a wide digital audience? Yeah, they gain momentum as you get closer to the day.
For all the public speaking I’ve done, I had never memorized and articulated something so long and detailed. I almost always got to read from a page or a slideshow.
So I started researching tips for TED talks. Turns out, there’s something of a niche industry for this. Apparently enough people give TED talks (or at least aspire to give TED-like talks in various settings) that there are books and blog posts (like this one) aplenty.
Seeing so many resources out there, I felt like I was okay. This doesn’t mean I dived right into those resources. It means seeing the plethora of information comforted me and in a fit of over-confidence, I posted to social media that I was doing a TEDx talk.
So much support! So much more pressure! You fool!
On Facebook, a good friend recommended Carmine Gallo’s book Talk Like Ted. This particular friend is a very handsome and old friend who meant well, but that book almost made me quit. In Talk Like TED, Gallo does a case study of several incredibly popular TED talks to analyze their underlying structures. It’s good, practical stuff. If you’re a CEO or a frequent public speaker, definitely read this book.
But it made me feel like I was way, way out of my element. When I read that Amanda Palmer (AMANDA F*CKING PALMER) took four months to write her talk, and that she’d practiced it on a variety of live stages before going to Vancouver, I closed the book. I had two weeks. This was not helping.
The same friend who unwittingly brought me to the brink via Gallo also saved me. He randomly texted me a link to Tim Urban’s blog post “Doing a TED Talk: The Full Story.” Now, this was my speed.
Urban was thorough and honest and really broke things down. If you’re asked to do a TED talk or any kind of formal public speaking, read this man’s post. Urban got me seriously dialed in, and for the remaining two weeks if I wasn’t fully confident, I at least had a plan.
The plan was to try and memorize the speech. Memorize it, as Urban says, as well as you know the Happy Birthday song.
I’m not going to split hairs here, but that song is a lot shorter than 11 minutes. And it’s not exactly loaded with humanity-inspiring ideas or, in my case, things your mom might be surprised to learn about you. And it was pretty easy to memorize.
But I was determined to get the material down cold. The organizers had asked me to do this talk, and I had excitedly agreed to it. This was an incredible opportunity and my students and friends were happy for me and eager to hear what I had to say. I couldn’t let anyone down.
So, the Sunday before the talk, I took the shortest version of that long speech and chopped it into sections. On Monday I put the sections into Google Slides and printed them out like note cards. I laid them out in chunks on tables in my classroom and paced down the line, reciting and referring as needed.
Every night until the talk, I sat on the couch and read and re-read those note cards. When I had the cadences and accents right, I recorded it on my phone. I listened to that recording before bed and then on the ways to and from work. At night, I’d edit here and there, too, altering a word or a phrase but mostly just reading, reciting, reading, reciting. I asked a co-worker who has a theater background for tips, and she suggested reciting from memory until you screwed up. Then, repeat the messed-up line three times and start all the way over until you get past that line. Like a cumulative memory bank.
(Do you hear the Rocky theme song?)
By the day of rehearsal, two days out, I was eager to get on stage and see how it felt.
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Rehearsal stage. The TED folks left out an “H,” which was perfect. 
Rehearsal felt good. I was happy with the talk’s content and length. But, with less than 48-hours before show time, I’d still needed my notes to get through. And that spooked me.
Why couldn’t I get it down? How had this not sunk in yet?
For the next 48-hours, I listened to and re-read and spoke the material continuously. During any free time I had, I was listening to the talk.
The night before, I undulated between confidence and despair. One reading would be perfect, the next would be spotty. Because I struggled to get it down cold, and because it was the last minute, I tried scrapping the script and free-styling from what I knew. Again, one rehearsal would be great, the next disastrous.
It was only out of sheer exhaustion that I slept at all the night before.
I have never been afraid of public speaking. This is not to say I don’t get dry-mouthed or knock-kneed in front of large crowds. I’ve known, and been stifled by, anxiety throughout my life. But I’d never felt that hideous surge before any public speaking. Like magic, no matter what was on the line or who was in the audience, just before the event, a kind of calm would overtake me. Although my leg muscles would grip, I could keep an even voice and a quiet mind; I could always just focus on the words on the page, on what was right in front of me.
Too bad for that on stage were only bright lights and vague faces. There was no page to anchor me.
And I was scheduled to speak last. I was (and am) so honored to have been asked to close the day’s presentations. But I wish I had read the 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage from the TED blog first, because I sat in that green room (which was so cool) and listened to the other speakers. While I waited, I rehearsed and I tried to be very, very still. Apparently, I should have done jumping jacks or something.
I did all the amping-up I was capable of, and still, when they called my name, some courage fell away.
I know, I know: Come on, guy, I’m reading this because I might give a talk one day, too. I know, I’m being a downer.
But you might like this next part (part three?)
Truthfully, I was so excited to do this talk that I started to think beyond the event. In the planning of the talk I had so many ideas that even the 9,000-words I pared down were just the tip of the iceberg. As I went through the rehearsing and the memorizing, I was still curious about what I could do with all those ideas. They were (are) all related to the basic premise of my final talk. When would I get to them? What could I do with them? It felt like there was so much more to say than this 11-minute monologue would allow.
I also felt like this could generate an audience for these ideas, and that notion slowly began to pressurize my preparation for the talk. I don’t think I’m the only person who has considered this. Tim Urban says you don’t turn down a TED talk, and there’s a reason for that.
Giving a TED talk is a chance to share some of your truth on a stage that comparatively few folks get to grace. I’m ambitious, and this time my ambition distracted me. It created an energy that I fed in the wrong direction; it was energy I could have put towards refining my talk, invigorating and streamlining my preparation, and ultimately helping to tell a more distinctive and cohesive story.
But if that’s the worst thing that came from all of this (excepting that little slip-up in the beginning of the talk), then I am still a very lucky and grateful man.
This whole process has been transformative. Working on this project taught me a lot about my own writing–namely, that I should read everything to my wife 6,000 times before I consider it finished. Because of this talk, I’ve tapped into a well-spring of ideas that have inspired me to keep writing and thinking and talking and reading about what it means to be a human and a storyteller and a teacher. I’m pumped and grateful and I sincerely hope I get to try it all again very soon.
If you’re reading this as prospective TEDx speaker, here are my final simple suggestions for a good talk:
  1. Start writing now. The talk isn’t for six months? Start today. You barely have enough time.
  2. Rehearse every draft. Take every iteration of the talk seriously. This will help you stay with the process and weed out–or cultivate–side trips as needed.
  3. Take a day off. During the weeks before the talk, take some time to reflect on what you’re about to do. Enjoy the process of putting this thing together.
  4. Ask for an audience of anyone. The more people you can read this to the better. If you feel like it’ll be weird or something to have a one- or two-person audience, then you’re going to hate having one hundred people staring at you.
  5. Read these things (even the Gallo book, which is insightful despite triggering my neuroses):
    1. TED Coach Gives 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage
    2. Tim Urban’s “Doing a TED Talk: the Full Story”
    3. Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo (NOTE: This book scared the hell out of me. He gives solid advice, but if you are not a CEO or are giving a TEDx talk–as opposed to a TED talk which has less consequence–this book might just shake you up. I had to put it down. Message me if you want my copy. It still scares me.)

 

If you’re interested, here’s the full talk.

 

A Place That’s Nice and Peaceful

A Place That’s Nice and Peaceful

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose.

– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

It took about eight years, but it finally happened. Someone wrote fuck you on  a desk in my classroom. I noticed it first back in January, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It sounds crazy, but this is really the first time someone vandalized my classroom. Kids had drawn on my tables before. Eager but respectful young graffiti artists tagged using erasers, leaving a subtle, matted mark on the black Formica tabletops. Bored students wrote their names or drew shapes in pencil. Nobody had ever written fuck you.

I know teachers who have had students scream fuck you at them and then been threatened with unspeakable violence, teachers who’ve had their classroom’s desks hurled out windows in a rage. And yet here I am, quivering over a scratch.

It was pretty heartbreaking. I thought it was my fault. If a student is writing fuck you on the table, then that must reflect a short-coming of my own. The students must not be engaged at the level they once were. I must have officially aged out of relevance and beyond reverence. I had better hang it up and go into real estate. I once thought my classroom was a nice and peaceful place and now, well, fuck me, right?

Still, I had to ask if this slur was even directed towards me. The tables in my room are arranged in a square to encourage discussion. I sit among my students almost every class, usually in the same place. But the room is frequently rearranged for various activities, so the tables rotate randomly. Yet the fuck you always finds me. In the morning when my heart wasn’t in the lesson, or in the afternoon when the copier broke down: fuck you. It felt cosmically directed at me at the very least.

I thought about it way too much.

It’s not an ordinary fuck you. There’s a lot to like about this piece. First, it’s carved. Not pencil, not eraser, this fuck you is here to stay. The artist clearly meant for this to be seen, by me, by God, by anyone. If you’re going to write fuck you on something, you might as well dig the letters so deep nobody can erase them.

There’s a paradox though: this carving artist did not actually write fuck you. They wrote “f*ck u.” So the artist can’t be someone who sought a permanent swear. This is self-censored, hesitant vandalism aka legit art. This piece has a heart and is playful. Check the eye for detail: the “u” is not in the word fuck but instead placed below the substituted asterisk. So they have technically written fuck, and technically written fuck you, but without having actually written either. It’s almost as if this were an exercise in typography and not the soul-crushing exclamation that I took it to be.

Still, for the month of February, without fail, I would sit down full of hot teacher sauce prepared to fire up a kick-ass discussion only to look down and see it: f*ck u.

One morning I noticed the fuck you was scratched up. I understood this as a declamation by another student, a hero who decided enough was enough, and scratched out the vulgarity as if to say to the original vagrant: no, sir, fuck you! I started to wonder if maybe I had allies in the classroom after all.

***

It has taken me until this morning, when I once again unwittingly sat at the fuck you seat, to begin to see some actual good in this.

I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye with one of my classes in December. You might recall this is the novel where Holden Caulfield laments the state of the world, his decisions and their repercussions, and his lack of control. One of the climactic scenes is when Holden visits his sister Phoebe’s school and he sees the words Fuck you written in the hallway. He’s shattered by it; it is in some ways the splash following his novel-long fall.

And so, as we move towards the end of the school year, every time I sit down and read Fuck You, I’m going to tell myself this:

This is allusive, literary graffiti. It turns out, I have exceedingly brilliant students, meta-critics who know how to play art against expectation to make a profound statement. This is inspired work, thoughtful and impressive. From now on, every time I see this work, I will think, heroically, yes, fuck you,  too.