Shadow Paths

My brother and I were recently discussing Frank Herbert’s Dune. I read it first in middle school and was utterly enchanted by the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear—it wasn’t their strange religion; it was the fact the I had recently started to always feel The Fear and I didn’t know how to handle it. Many rereads over many years have left me aware of “flaws in the vision”. I could absorb, but not apply The Litany any more than I could apply my favorite Bible verses to help me control my increasing anxiety. I still love Dune—it is the best book in the series.


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death
that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass
over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye
to see its path.
Where the fear has gone
there will be nothing.
Only I will remain
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

I’m not sure if Octavia Butler was a natural move or not, but I remember Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind; I don’t really remember the last two books in that series, so I’m rereading them. In high school, I read Lilith’s Brood which made me look at aliens and relationships in new ways. I just loved the way she has clearly had such a different “American experience” from me; it suffused her characters. Her stories were so enchanting. I was fascinated by her characters and their choices because the most alien personalities were often the human ones which fit with how I sometimes felt in social and school situations.

Of course my hands and eyes and mind found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and what a story for every girl coming of age in the late 1908s/early 1990s. The novel was a standout, much like Dune in the Herbert canon; I didn’t fall into all (or many) of Atwood’s other books the same way (although I keep trying). I did fall right in love with the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. The world has always been a dark place for women and some of us are lucky we have the freedom and liberty we do have—but if all women, if all people, don’t have those same opportunities to succeed and fail…

I never got into the whole Earthsea thing. I like fantasy. I love magic. I just don’t get those Earthsea books, but I do love Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction and her essays. The way all of these women spin out a current theory just to see what might be is a gift. The Hainish Cycle is just a series of silken threads spun into the far future with fascinating results. I have loved every one of those books. Even the “boring” ones have something fascinating to say. The world building for each story is incredible and so is the way the larger universe is carefully connected.

I stumbled upon The Armless Maiden and Other Tales For Childhood Survivors in the fall of 1996 just a few months into my first year of teaching. It shifted my perspective on teaching, students, and stories in ways that I’m still learning to understand…The Armless Maiden and Other Tales For Childhood Survivors introduced me to Charles de Lint. I fell hard down the Newford rabbit hole and I’ve never regretted it. I absolutely loved the way he updated and used the folklore and myths of where he lived with “modern” life. I suppose that’s why I keep seeking out other authors who have their own modern takes on myth and folklore.

From de Lint I fell into Neil Gaiman. Oh, his stories are dark and bright and live in forest shadows. His stories often feel like liminal spaces. And his descriptions are sometimes too much, but rarely not enough. It’s so interesting to see what else inspires some writers via their blogs or social media feeds. His current photographs from The Isle of Skye are stunning.

NK Jemisin actually reeled me I with The Ones Who Stay And Fight. It is a great story on its own, but when paired with LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas—well, it’s a great set of discussions. Then I had to start reading her other stories. It must be obvious by now that I am a little fascinated by brilliant people who tell stories well. Especially, world builders.

Along the way I heard an NPR story about a man who taught at a university, who had an MFA (a degree I’ve been debating for a decade since I’d only be in it to become a better teacher). This man was writing a trilogy he’d mapped out with his daughter. I devoured Justin Cronin’s The Passage when it first came out. Vampires were scary and the trilogy was massive. The world Cronin built was as fascinating as the people who inhabited it.

Dot Hutchison writes about a identity in a way that reminds me of the way Hawthorne constantly weaved “being true doesn’t mean don’t change” throughout his stories; he was only really obvious in The Scarlet Letter. Hutchison , however, levels up the idea of truth by exploring identity through the lies we tell to survive. She also brings to life “the blood of the vow is thicker than the water if the womb” as she intertwines her character with each other in supportive, painful, and true ways. The found families in her books don’t (always) replace the families of childhood or blood, they expand and strengthen the safety net.

Seanan McGuire (under every name) not only embraces and explores monsters, but she has the ongoing motif(?) regarding softness that I’m just now really noticing. The amount of research she puts into her books to make the science work, to give the magic rules, to honor folklore blows my mind in the best way. She is a true thief of knowledge who wraps information up in layers of story and it put me in awe.

I’m about out of words, but I would be remiss in not mentioning an author who captured me in a descriptive net with her Binti novellas. Nnedi Okorafor is a gift. Her other stories are just as vivid and engaging. I’m working my way through them in my massive pile of books to be reading. So far, each one has been a little breathtaking and enchanting. I’m also grateful to have learned about Africanfuturism and that not everyone in this world accepts that their gods or spirits are myths.


I don’t know that more than a few people will read this and I don’t even include any of my favorite nonfiction writers or poets. These authors have given me stories I can reread and sometimes teach. They explore truth, trust, affection, friendship, and sacrifice. They allow pieces of themselves (small pieces) to be shared with their readers.

Thank you all for sharing.

Once upon a time…

I skipped my last posting day. No real reason other than the migraine I battled last week—a few days had me in tears. I get migraines a lot and most people don’t believe that they are actual migraines, but I’ve been getting them since I was twelve. They leveled up when I started teaching…teaching is simultaneously my favorite thing to do and a minefield I’m not always the best at wandering through. Every time I get burned out, I decide to stay in the profession because I really can’t think about what else I would do. In six years I’ll hit thirty years of teaching total, in eight I’ll have thirty years in at my current job—but in neither instance will I be ready to retire financially or emotionally.

For so many reason this year, most of them small, I have been toying with the idea of not putting in 40 years of classroom time (which is the first time I’ve had those thoughts in my 20+ years). I haven’t done well with all of this time away from my actual classroom. It has been good for forcing me to realize just how much my students mean to me—even the ones who shudder at my memory or loathe me daily. I can be grating on some nerves because I live happily in a world of metaphor, a higher level of chaos than most teachers, and I bring philosophy & history to the table as much as I can. My approach to literature has become one of alternative interpretations based on years of reading, discussing, rereading, teaching, and formatively assessing students’ understanding of various books. My understanding of books has changed over all these years.

Beowulf is a brilliant man who plays the personal myth, champion, and left hand games to a degree that wins his frienemy, Unferth, from jealous annoyance to solid ally.

Hester Prynne is a rockstar feminist who teaches her daughter strength and compassion. Roger Chillingworth has a true redemptive arc and is more a father to Pearl at the beginning of his life and through his death than her sperm donor ever was. Arthur Dimmesdale is the true villain of the book who spends years setting up his community so they will never believe his ultimate confession and he when does confess it’s without ever truly taking responsibility for his part in Hester’s struggles or taking responsibility for his biological daughter.

Brave New World and 1984 are brilliant yin and yang looks at control through pleasure and deprivation with a heavy emphasis on technology. Both writers are brilliant in seeing where technology is leading us even if the mechanics of their worlds aren’t really comparable to how our tech actually works. And, Ray Bradbury continues to be the voice in the wilderness even if the way technology has dumbed us down isn’t quite how he envisioned it.

Fairy tales still teach us the most important life lessons outside the faith or philosophy our parent lay down as our foundations. Fairy tale imagery has seeped into every corner of our popular culture, looking back and going forward. The journey into adulthood, meeting our special monsters, facing our shadows, embracing new ways of looking at the world & living in it…we owe a great debt to the grandfathers of The Fairy Tale—Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. We owe a great debt to the keepers of folklore—The Grimms, Schönwerth, d’Aulnoy, Lang, and countless others—for bridging the gap between the illiterate and the literate.

That ridiculous green light that Nick puts so much meaning into in his attempts to understand Gatsby is as imaginary as Jay, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan. They were all curating their lives in a way any Facebook or instagram aficionado should aspire to today. And, those parties are genius for Jay’s true work moving guns & alcohol from Canada to New York—everyone’s is focused on spectacle and no one is looking at the docks or empty party supply trucks.

I love teaching these stories and I’m ready for The House of Cadmus via Antigone rather than Oedipus next year. The final chapter in a legacy cursed by the gods via a poisoned wedding gift that start with the founding of Thebes. It’s taken me years to appreciate Ismene’s quiet, desperate strength in the face of Antigone’s determination to not relive the mistakes of her father no matter the cost.

Our current situation is a global reminder for those of us who live small, safe lives that there is always a cost, even if it’s not one we are personally faced with every day. My cost is nearly daily spikes of pain in my brain; others deal with the long term payments of surviving cancer or the ups & downs of marriage or crippling debts. Teaching is a great, daily reminder to me of how much goes on in the lives of my students and colleagues no matter the face they put on when at the high school. The balance is seeing former students who have grown up and become so much more than I could imagine for them. I don’t know most of their struggles when they are in my classes or long after when I run onto them. I just get to be proud of them for persevering and finding some sort of happiness and success.

My students are also a reminder of what I learned from my own parents, my childhood, my years as an adult. I’m not who I once was as a teacher and I hope to continue to become better. I’m not who I once was as a person—success, failure, hope, pain, friends, and family have helped with that. Both of my parents taught me how to deal with the pain of different types of migraines; my life didn’t used to allow me to deal with that pain in any other way than to suck it up and get through it the best I can. I know I’m blessed or lucky most of the time. My teacup tempests are small; my life is small which brings its own pain and grace.

At least I have stories. My maternal grandfather was the first storyteller to open my mind, but there have been so many more storytellers over the years. I hope I open some of the minds in my care to the beauty of stories, the strangeness of truth, and the skills to look beyond the words. Gramps laid that part of my foundation even though I didn’t have too many years under his tutelage. Papa, his long-term replacement, taught me how important personal anecdotes are to understanding individuals. I am so lucky to have had multi-generational teachers and the time to look back at what my grandfathers, grandmothers, and parents taught me about people and the world.

Once upon a time Gramps would open his tobacco pouch, tamp down the tobacco in his pipe, light a match, and settle in to tell his stories.

Once upon a time Grandma would open up her door, accept a hug, and show us her fierce determination to live her life on her own terms.

Once upon a time Grams showed us the value of risk by opening up her heart and landing two great loves in one lifetime.

Once upon a time my parents battled the ups and down of marriage, poverty, chronic illness, and faith to show their children loyalty, shades of generosity, and the fruits of determination.

Once upon a time I entered my first classroom and found out how different reality is. My next trick will be surfing the changes Covid-19 has brought to my students, my colleagues, and teaching high school…

Two Beowulfs

After assigning today’s senior paragraph, I received a Reverse Uno card (RS) and I played along agreeing to write the paragraph myself. Once I started the paragraph, I received a +4 Uno card meaning my paragraph had to be at least eleven sentences long. This is in no way a truly academic paragraph; this is at best an outline of my thoughts on why there are two Beowulfs written in the first fifteen minutes of class while my seniors were writing their own responses (yes, I put it on the projector so they could read what I was writing).

When I first heard the story of Beowulf from Mr. Gordon, it was in AP English in the fall of 1990 and I firmly believed that one Beowulf ruled them all (the Geats for fifty years after Hygelic and Heardred died). Over the last ten years, I’ve been teaching Beowulf to class after class of seniors and have come to the conclusion that there are two Beowulfs. Simply using the timeline given through the epic, it is impossible for one Beowulf to fight and kill Grendel, his mom, and the dragon. First, Beowulf would have been in his mid-twenties at the earliest when he heads to Denmark (he would also have left a wife and at least one child behind). Hygelic would have stayed king for ten to fifteen years after Beowulf returned from Denmark. Upon his death in battle, Heardred would have been king for at least five years before his death putting Beowulf’s age to about forty when he finally ascends to the throne of Geatland. Then, according to the text, Beowulf ruled for fifty years before the dragon gets growly and deadly. That puts Beowulf at ninety at the youngest when he heads out to fight the dragon. Granted, people in the early hundreds were smart enough to wash regularly, clean and care for wounds, which means if they survived battle and disease they could live to sixty or seventy, but they wouldn’t be able to fight at that point. Additionally, the text seems to be of two minds about how Beowulf was viewed by his own people—the badass monster hunter whose king worried about his safety while he was in Denmark was seen as weak by the Geats? I don’t think so. The killer of Dayraven and the killer of Grendel, the monster slayer, were obviously different people. Besides the difference in pivotal, fame-making moments, the two Beowulfs have very different approaches to actual monster killing—to wit, Beowulf Senior trusts his men to follow him and they trust him enough that without knowing Beowulf’s full plan they follow him; Beowulf Junior doesn’t trust his men at all, so he goes to fight the dragon alone. When Beowulf Senior has a sword fail while battling Grendel’s mother, he tosses it; when Beowulf Junior has a sword fail to slice the dragon, he keeps trying until he breaks the sword. Therefore, there are two Beowulfs.

It’ll do for today.

Beowulf

For most of the last ten years I’ve taught Beowulf. Back in 1990-1991 when Mr. Gordon was wowing us at TDHS with “The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived” I had a pretty traditional view on Beowulf and his tale. I thought it must be nice to be well-born, well-trained, and lucky. As I’ve been teaching it my thoughts on Beowulf have shifted. Blame fan fiction or fantasy stories or magical realism, but now that I know about the positions of Left Hand and Champion in addition to Right Hand, I have a very different take on Beowulf. Now that I’ve lived more and I’ve read more and I’ve had years of interesting discussions with seniors, I see how well Beowulf played the game.

Beowulf built a solid enough brand that his story was written down and has been taught generation after generation. Sure, it’s always a little awkward to read because it is translated verse and not all translators are equal. Earlier in my career I noticed a lot of the sexual overtones and undertones in the battles and interactions between characters. I mean, Beowulf jumps into Grendel’s Mother’s lake and tries to use his sword on her; Grendel’s mother then tries to knife Beowulf–thank Freud that I moved past that imagery in a year.

Strangely enough reading and teaching The Great Gatsby really moved me toward my current understanding of Beowulf. I will never love or like the character of Daisy Buchanan, but I have come to appreciate Jordan Baker. Jordan is a true socialite who plays her parts with specific goals in mind. I have no doubt she could be married if she had a mind to, but instead she’s raking in connections, money, and fame that will allow her to live a comfortable life when she decides to stop being a socialite. Jordan and Daisy are both playing specific parts for their peers and “friends”–the difference is that Daisy is a traditional sleeping beauty who reflects the most dominant male nearby whereas Jordan always has her own agenda.

I started (unsurprisingly) to make connections between Jordan Baker and the old-school PBs (Professional Beauties); I started to make connections between Jordan Baker and the Hilton sisters, Tinsley Mortimer, and the Jenner-Kardashian clans. Ever since fame became a commodity, people have played the part of “real people” to make money off of being famous for little to nothing. They can’t all be stupid, lucky, and good looking–there has to be more to them than what they allow the masses to see. As I taught more and more epic literature, I began to see some of the same patterns among the best known heroes of “ye ancient times.” I still think Agamemnon was an unforgivable, power hungry asshole and Achilles was a true idiot and brat, but Hector and Odysseus and Beowulf were something more.

Teaching The Book of Job from the Judeo-Christian Bible and taking a class that delved into the what Paul’s letters were really addressing in The New Testament reinforced the idea that we only see a small part of these heroes or c-level celebrities. Teaching high schoolers who each have rich internal lives and whose lives outside of school I know little to nothing about also helped reinforce my changing options about some of the old-school heroes of various epics.

Beowulf and Unferth both serve as their king’s Left Hand–they get the unknowable information, they do whatever they need to to protect king and kingdom, they play with other people’s ideas of who they are. Beowulf does this by being the acknowledged Champion of Hygelic which helps most people forget that Beowulf is smart enough to figure out from stories that Grendel can’t be killed by man-made weapons. Beowulf is charismatic enough to turn an enemy (Unferth) into a loyal ally. Beowulf sits at the kiddy table during the feast to celebrate him which is brilliant; those kids are being trained in the art of war and politics by their parents. Of course, they are going to try to outdo each other bragging to the Big Bad Hero Who Took Down Grendel.

Unferth goes from slandering Beowulf while in his cups (499-528) to soberly accepting that Beowulf is everything he claims to be (979-989) to proving his change of heart by exchanging Hrunting for Beowulf’s familial sword (1455-1472). That’ a big damn deal for a dude who killed his siblings so he wouldn’t have to share land or wealth after his father’s death. That’s a big deal for a guy who didn’t fight Grendel or Grendel’s Mother because his job protecting Hrothgar and Denmark was too important. Unferth lives in a society that takes pride in killing their enemies by any means, Finn versus Hengest (1070-1158), and thinks of Unferth as a righteous man (1164-1167). The Danes of Hrothgar’s era had a totally different moral compass from most of the peoples of their time, but Unferth can still see the value in how Beowulf plays the game of gathering information and acquiring allies. Being true to yourself doesn’t mean never changing–Unferth adapts as information becomes available and so does Beowulf.

I don’t much worry about Beowulf’s physical strength; I am impressed by his brain and that’s what I try to teach my students. I teach them to find textual support to agree or disagree with the traditional interpretations of Beowulf. I want them to see what’s going on between the lines. I want them to think about how many generations massaged the story before it was ever written down. I want my students to see the heavy-handed way the monk who first wrote it down made the story into propaganda. I want my students to question whether the Beowulf who fought The Dragon is the same Beowulf who fought Grendel and his mother–let’s be real, the connection seems pretty tacked during the final section.

It stretches even my ability to suspend belief for Beowulf to have refused Hygelec’s throne and to refuse to usurp Heardred’s throne only to take it after he’d hit forty, rule for fifty years, and then take on a dragon…I can’t be the only person who thinks there were at least two Beowulfs in Beowulf. I can’t wait to see how my understanding of the characters and the story will continue to change over the next ten years.

The Crucible

I have been teaching for twenty-two years which is awesome. I still feel like I’m faking being a good teacher even though I can see exactly how much I’ve grown from my early years. My rookie mistakes still make me cringe in embarrassment and hope that my former students actually learned something about thinking for themselves and communicating effectively. Those are still my goals for my students. I spent the last five or six years teaching mostly sophomores and seniors which has been blissful and painful and fun in turns. I got to indulge in my love of fairy tales with the sophomores and my love of science fiction utopia/dystopias with my seniors. Of course, I managed to slip in two of my favorite books: for sophomores The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon–and thank you Marla Charlton for introduction; for seniors I snatched The Scarlet Letter from the junior curriculum. I have not taught juniors in all that time unless they took an English elective.

I am teaching juniors again which means revisiting some of my favorite and least favorite literature. We start with The Crucible by Arthur Miller; the two women who taught American literature to juniors over the last six years did a remarkable job with having the students research The Red Scare and key figures from The Crucible before reading the play. They both clearly loved the work and that passion came through in their activities and discussions of the play.

I’ve gone about thing a little backwards. I decided to read the play first, then we will do a very short research on The Red Scare (four paragraphs with at least three sources in the bibliography) and a short profile on a randomly selected character as they existed in life rather than in literature. I don’t know if this is the best way to go about things; I don’t know if I should have followed the methods of the other teachers, but I’m going to find out. I think it will be interesting to have my students look into why women, young women, would fall under someone’s influence so deeply that they came to believe they had been attacked by people’s spirits or by agents of Satan. I think it will be interesting to tie those experiences together with how women–white and non-white–have been treated in American culture since it’s colonization.

I worry a little bit about whether or not I can do my ideas justice. I worry a little bit about what my students may find to be relevant and what they may wish to communicated, but I know the ups and downs of the journey will prove to be worthwhile. I also find myself reading The Crucible through different eyes this time around.

Eastern Oregon Gothic

  • In the middle of a dust storm on I-84 between Hermiston and Pendleton. Ignore the sand walkers you can only see from the corner of your eye. Slow and steady.
  • Coming down Cabbage Hill from LaGrande to Pendleton in fog so thick a wrong turn will take you a dimension over…ignore the lights that aren’t quite diffused enough to be from an actual car or truck. Slow and steady.
  • Walking around Wallowa Lake be careful of the Summer Court and the Winter Court, but always be more careful of Coyote. In the fall, never folllow the elk back to their home at the bottom of the lake. Never disrespect Chief Joseph or his people…
  • Don’t let the theater ghosts follow you home from school…all the schools with theaters have at least one. If you hear their footsteps, just keep walking slow and steady. Don’t look back.
  • Be careful of The Lavender House. Sure everyone goes out there time and again. It’s always the thirteenth trip that crosses wires in your car or in your head. It’s a two hour walk to find cell service after your car breaks down and it’s a rare day of rain, every time.
  • On the North Fork of the John Day river it’s easy to find Bigfoot’s Cabin. Never go in without need or take without need. Always leave a thank you gift, no matter how small. They don’t like rude people—rude people end up picking the wrong mushrooms in the fall.
  • Don’t listen to the wind in The Dalles. Those who do end up out past the cherry orchards or almost knee deep in the Columbia River without knowing quite how they got so far. Slow and steady.
  • When you go to Pendleton for the “world famous” Round Up, never jump the line at The Rainbow; never let the changelings hypnotize you; and skip the third step going down to Crabby’s for a dance. Never ever get lost from your group at The Pendleton Underground—strays don’t always make it out…
  • Ignore the bronze statues on moonless nights. Every small town has a few. You might get stuck on their pedestals while they get to stretch into your life. Slow and steady.

I originally posted this to my tumblr on 08/20/2018

Commonplace Book Project

GJW is a little confused about how to execute: One piece of information from any class that has helped you figure out what you want to say and how to say it.


It took me a long time to find my voice. It didn’t take me long to lose it again and again. Establishing what I wanted to say to the world and believing that my message would have value came and went like waves in December. More sand and rocks were torn out of the safety walls, leaving me with more holes. All of my notebooks between twenty-two and forty (finished and half-filled) are stacked in three small boxes that I rarely open—all the things I didn’t say still scream at me when I think about opening them up. During this time I also spent ten summers working with the Oregon Writing Project at Eastern as a participant, group leader, and co-director. I learned a lot about writing and myself as a writer during that time, but, again, I lacked confidence in my message and I didn’t really acknowledge the responses I got to one style of writing. I thought I was a poet for awhile. I wanted to write fiction. I still love writing poetry and teaching poetry, but I acknowledge that fiction may not (is not) my thing.

So, where did I find my voice?

One of the last retreats I went to with the OWP was a grant-writing weekend. I wrote about the impact the OWP had on me professionally and personally. I wouldn’t still be a teacher without those summers, without that program. My personal essay got the kind of amazing response I hadn’t been able to really acknowledge or believe in other situations. That’s when I decided to start a blog. Anyone who looks through the history of this sucker can see the fits and false-starts and attempts at redirecting myself. Recently, I decided to talk about what it’s actually like to be a public school teacher right now. I’ve wanted it to be a place where my students could find ideas, more information, examples of some assignments. I want people who are thinking about teaching or about bashing teachers to have a place where they can look and maybe get an idea about how much of ourselves teachers pour into what they do.


So, GJW, did this help at all?

Commonplace Book Project

It’s time for the “What I learned in maths?” prompt for BB and any other seniors who are confused.


My regular answer for “What am I going to use Algebra/Geometry/Calculus for?” is “Because high level math and poetry help create problem-solving pathways in your brain.” Apparently, a few of my seniors are a little tired of that response. So, let’s try a little different answer—I use math when I drive to guesstimate whether or not to slow down depending on traffic and weather. I use math when I guesstimate how much time it will take me to grade papers (first drafts and crappy drafts take 20-30 minutes a piece) or clean my house (a much dreaded task for which I occasionally hire my god-daughter to help). I use math as a fun distraction when I’m totally stressed out or feel the beginnings of a panic attack. As much as I love stories, there is something soothing about math.

There are all the obvious uses for math in life after high school: budgets, taxes, painting rooms, or buying a house.


This is less impressive than the rest. I’d like to blame the loudness of my class, but I get that this can be difficult prompt. I still want my students to do it (suck it up, buttercups!).

Commonplace Book Project

Another example paragraph for my seniors to take a look at. This prompt is “What did you get better at this year?” Most of these prompts are really about self-reflection, so my students can see how much they actually have learned in high school between bouts of trying to stay awake in boring classes, being overwhelmed because of course all the big projects from every class are assigned the same day, and other frustrations.


I have always been very aware that I have lots of room for improvement as a teacher. The nicest comment I heard from administrators during my first “trial by fire” five years was “at least you really know your content area.” As time has passed, two areas of weakness have stayed with me thanks to my desire to always give a second (third, fourteenth, twenty-seventh) chance: grading and classroom management. I try to get better in both of those areas every year and, sometimes, I even succeed. My tough classes now would have been my rockstar classes ten years ago, so I count that as improvement. My seventh period class was functional first semester this year and became significantly less functional when two “catalyst” students transferred in at the semester; now seventh period is the class where I regularly lose my temper (although it’s in a much kinder way than when I first started teaching), where I regularly want to throttle even the students I like, and where I am sometimes a little too honest about what I think–this is a bit of a problem.

So, what have I improved on this year?

I’ve gotten a little better about getting things graded (but not much faster and putting things into the computer). I’ve gotten better at streamlining my comments for improvement. In most of my classes, I’ve found my inner peace when dealing with the chaos and drama and self-sabatoge and grade-chasing. I’m definitely doing better at giving them examples (even though I don’t expect them to actually write quite as much as I do for the prompts).

More importantly to me, I have managed to keep close the knowledge that what I know about my students is limited to what they show me and this allows me to be more flexible in dealing with them. It also allows me to keep in mind that they are in the process of becoming the people they choose to be and I am just planting seeds.


Mostly, I am looking for quality of response. It would be great to see kids get creative, but it isn’t really going to hurt them if they stay basic and stick with paragraphs responses to the prompts and nothing else. The creativity will probably help some students who don’t necessarily have the quality of response I’d like.

This one was for MK.

The Commonplace Book Project

A few years ago I finally figured out how to incorporate a variation of one of my favorite types of journals into what I teach. I’ll admit that I had a couple of missteps before making it a final project instead of a year-long project. It’s the assignment I look most forward to grading from most of my seniors.

Now they want examples from me…


I loved science in high school so much I took it for four years. In biology classes I learned about life cycles, dissected animals, and read Origin of The Species since my fellow teen Christians didn’t want their psyches destroyed by the “theory of evolution”. Chemistry should have taken me to bigger and better places, but instead it took me to a “work my butt off for barely a C” which is probably the hardest I worked in any class my first three years of high school. Ultimately, what I learned about and from high school science fed my curiosity about how the natural world works and a conviction that if the universe has so many set rules it can’t have come from accident or chaos. [As the kids say, “Don’t @ me.”] I love science even though I’m an English teacher. Science is puzzles and fun and figuring out the order underneath the randomness. I love that scientists publish books to explain the things they love to people who may or may not be able at attend college. I love that kids today have new theories to learn about and participate in variations on the same labs I did. I guess what I really learned from all those science classes that I use constantly is the theory of micro-evolution: we all evolve and change as does our species; if we aren’t changing we are just dying slowly.


This one’s for you Jaiden Lemberger and your fellow seniors.