Monday, October 12, 2015

A grading selfie, from The Most Interesting High School English Professor In The World

I don't always grade composition essays with The Disney Channel blaring in the background, but when I do, it makes me touch my forehead like this...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


The end of school has me thinking about how education should strive to teach humility as well as self-confidence.  I think these seemingly contrary qualities grow inside the individual, but it's hard for me to determine what role a school plays in their development.  I was discussing the word "humiliate" with some classes the other day, and the connotation our culture places on it.  No one wants to be humiliated... that would be so... humiliating!  A montage of slapstick scenarios are conjured in our minds, like getting de-pants-ed, etc.  I said that humiliation happens for me when I open the OED.  I feel small and humbled by the size and history of the language, and that it's (for me) a good feeling.  It's through seeking a form of humility, possibly humiliation, that I continue to open just about any book.  Must one have an intrinsic appreciation for humility as well as the confidence that the page will offer something to grow "self" in order to become a serious reader?      

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

TMNT and Me

"Donny" by Wyatt, age 6

One of the ways I would try to get kids to like me in fifth grade was to draw them ninja turtles. It didn’t work all that well. Rather than simply moving twenty miles south that summer, it seems as if I had also entered a time warp that matured children at astonishing speeds, and rather than bending those poorly articulated turtle figures, my new classmates preferred listening to bands like Great White, and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair? Not to mention the fact that those early stories did little to round out her character, and besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White too.

The turtles were my solace during that transitional year. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I wanted to be a teenage mutant ninja turtle. They all hand jived, man, and said things like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their identical surfer-dude voices. In those iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed, to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.

The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles seemed to be my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur, keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a graphic design company in Sacramento, California. Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nun-chucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly drawing turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did. I found myself in a new grade with no friends.

My teacher seemed to understand this all somehow and began wearing a brightly colored ninja turtle wristwatch. Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty. I thought it was a smart idea to carve my name into my desk. She made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and rub it out in front of the whole class. Yet, she did her part to try to make me feel a little less like a sewer dweller that year by wearing a Michelangelo watch, a gesture which simple as it was, stands as one of the nicest things any teacher has ever done for me. And when the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design. I chose ninja turtles, of course.

I drew a large turtle themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which said, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles want to be your friend.” It should have said, “I want to be your friend,” since that was the desperate message I was trying to convey.

It turns out the mural would help win me my first real friend in a new school, but not before we nearly fought one another at the coat closet where we stowed our lunches and other personables. I had accidentally knocked a boy’s glasses off as I was reaching for my lunch. He responded by whipping his own lunch around over his head like a flail and challenging me to a duel. I suppose a ninja turtle would have accepted and then kicked some serious butt. I chose to apologize. Paul was the kid that could speed read faster than the teacher, spoke Elvish and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. We became friends after I bought him some pencils and a sketchpad for his birthday and told him I’d help him learn to draw ninja turtles. In exchange he taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons. We bonded through our socially doomed passions and became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my friendships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur with whom you share a bond. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment. It is only those that express a willingness to understand that wonderment, or to share their own variety, that I am ever able to truly call friend.

Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in Kindergarten with whom he played ninja turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I asked. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered what it was like to chase and capture ghosts in a plastic glow-in-the-dark ring at recess backed up only by other true believers. “We saw them in the sewer at recess. They’re real, aren’t they dad?” I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder and imagination and awe. “Of course they are.”

Raphael should have been my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty alongside the shame of being an outsider, playing bloody knuckles and arm wrestling at lunch to fit in, but Leonardo and Donatello were the turtles I looked up to. Leo was the one trying to make things better by coming up with a plan, or obsessively training to be the best. Deep down I wanted to be a leader, like Leo. And Donny was the smartest. Together they represented my ideal.

Most of my turtle lore came from the cartoon, the toy line, and the original movie. As a kid I got around to reading the original graphic novels, had checked them out from the library in fact, but got caught up in petty grievances like, “but their bandanas are all red!” and “why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the origin story, dodgy as it was, and came to hunger for the full page explosions of action. The turtles were grittier, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy, crosshatching. Lately I have revisited the original storyline, have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon series with my sons, and have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line which contains a totally re-imagined turtle universe in which Hamato Yoshi and his four sons become reincarnated as Splinter and the turtles after they are executed by Oroko Saki in feudal Japan. Rad, I know.

I spend a lot of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids, but let’s be clear, most of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor Ryan died in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nun-chucks, and every time I buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Despite this, most of my Ebay watch consists of retro ninja turtle gear. So it goes...

Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” and how loyal they are to one another. Confession: I even kind of tear up at Raph’s painfully overly-sentimental rant at the end of the Michael Bay movie. It is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another, no matter what dangers may threaten them. Some say cartoons and comics are trash that rots your brain. Today Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a ninja turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He emphasized the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


crosspol is a journal of transitions for high school and college writing teachers edited byAndrew Hollinger and Colin Charlton who are both rad as all heck.  Anyway, you should check out the inaugural issue, v1i1, featuring yours truly.  I am flattered to be a part of the discussion, and excited for Andrew and Colin.  Looks great guys!


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Other Daddy" becomes "Other Mommy"

Being an avid Thor fan... it's funny.  I was never much of a Thor fan until my youngest son became fascinated with him.  It happened one day when I sat down to watch the first film, and my son became enthralled.  Since that day, Jonas refers to Thor as "other daddy."  I told my wife I wouldn't judge her.  Thor is the very portrait of pseudo-masculinity: muscled, powerful, bearded... he's apt to kill a dragon, binge drink mead for days and make time with the entire village's population of ladies. He exemplifies all of the superficial traits of manhood... at least in the most recent Thor: God of Thunder series by Marvel comics.  I very much enjoyed the comic, especially the story arc featuring Gorr The God Butcher.  The Roxxon arc was decent as well.  I am very fond of the stand alone issue in which Thor battles a hoarde of trolls with and then celebrates victory with a dragon, who he later has to put down... once a dragon gets drunk he develops a reckless taste for the stuff, I guess.  But since the God of Thunder series has terminated and Thor has been re-imagined as a woman, my mind has done this... So, Marvel is owned by Disney... Thor is a prince of Asgard... OMG!  Thor is a Disney Princess!  Thor!  The man who grafted the necrosword to his soul as a bearded, eye-patched, one armed all-father and defeated Galactus Devourer of Worlds!  A woman!  What is the most awe inspiring thing a woman can do?  Create life.  Dudes are incapable of this amazing feat, and yet culturally we tend to associate pregnancy with a state of vulnerability and weakness: not befitting the God of Thunder...ultimately deemed so to emphasize the power and destructive capability to make things go boom.  And yet the hammer is also a tool to build.  In the movie Thor regains his power only when he learns to put others before himself... a gesture we often, culturally, associate with weakness and vulnerability.  Has that changed?  Will it change?  Will we ever associate pregnancy with strength?  Will there ever be a bad ass male hero with the power to create?

But the more I think on it... Disney is guilty of emphasizing superficial feminine features in its princess characters... so, I'm assuming they will do the same with Thor?  Was the destructor Thor really that much of a Real Man?  Will the female Thor really be that much of a Real Woman?  I think of my youngest son... Jonas, who loves Thor... what will the character's legacy be to my son?  To smash, drink and womanize?  Pseudo-masculinity can be fun, but as long as it's tongue in cheek.  I may prefer the film message in this case: to learn how to put others first.  Isn't that what a real man does? How is the female version of Thor going to behave?  Smash, drink and sleep with tons of men?  For some reason I don't think that image is going to hold up for Marvel, or Disney.  My guess is that she will in some way need to learn her role through a man, just like the vast majority of Disney princesses. Will she sparkle?  Will Disney use her to continue to market princess products? What is the proper behavior for a female God of Thunder?  How will the plot-twist in the Thor universe "other mommy" reinforce or challenge established gender stereotypes?

Jonas with "Other Daddy"

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Romeo's Kind of a Hipster

I'm sure you've heard this song by now, so there's probably no need to post the video, but I've gained an appreciation for this pop single by imagining it from the point of view of Romeo.  I don't know why but I can't get it out of my head.  One of my 4 Noble Truths is "Refuse to Take No for an Answer at Least Once in Life" (no clue why the randy caps).  Love seems like a good reason.  Classic themes.  If I ever teach R&J I'm going to work in the song somehow...

Update... The songs "No Evil" "Let Your Hair Down" "Stupid Me" and "How Do You Want To Be Remembered?" are all great tracks for "The Crucible."   I'd love to spell out the connection, but then if I had to do that the tip wouldn't be worth a darn, now would it?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mission Questions

The soul speaks a subversive language. 

It looks for exceptions rather than rules… mistrusts the handles of “wise men” and "fool."

The journey toward literacy is a pursuit of the formless through a form.  Some days it’s like trying to make a mirror speak lies.  To what is math a language?  Do hearts pump logarithms?   How many stars am I capable of understanding?  Are any of them on a flag?  Who was the President of the Divided Tables at Lunchtime on September 17, 2014?  What is the atomic weight of love?   How deep is the lake of the mind?    

How do we inspire ourselves to seek the unanswerable question?  How do we chart its value?  Can we quantify gains in the dynamo of the imagination?   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Love Letter to the True Believers

Education is one of the few industries that subjects its young professionals to an unpaid internship.  This may be annoying to college students who find themselves saddled with the accrued bulk of their undergraduate debt while the financial miasma of adult life (marriage, mortgage, etc.) looms high on the horizon, but it is a practice that should not change.  Let me repeat: we should NOT pay our student teachers.  Why, you say?  Many of our young teaching professionals are as credentialed and hardworking (maybe more-so) as our young engineers.  So, why does one group get well-compensated, and one does not?  Shouldn't we offer a big paycheck to attract the best and brightest to our profession?  No, we should not.  Here's why.

The true believers (yes, that is a Stan Lee shout-out) that enter the field of education do so out of an almost painful idealism to dedicate their lives to a cause that matters.  Sorry cynics and naysayers, that's the way it is, and education, despite everything, is still a profession in which it is possible to change the world for the better.  Do we really want to jeopardize the future of our profession by attracting young professionals motivated by a large salary?  Here, let me answer that for you.  No, we don't.

The young professionals that enter the field of education do not do it for the money.  The common perception is that teachers rake in the cash, and some politicians have made careers of painting us as having too many hands in the collective cookie jar... but let me explain why this perception is wrong. Recent gubernatorial budget cuts in public education have placed undue scrutiny on the salaries of public educators.  If you're an educator reading this and you don’t think people know what you make, Google yourself.  I’ll bet your salary is one of the first hits.  In a profession in which we are required to be nearly as educated as doctors and subject to one of the most difficult audience in the world, the American teenager, we are woefully behind the salary trends for professionals according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coming in under the average salaries of not only Engineers, Architects, those in Social Science and Business, but also people in Humanities and Liberal Arts, Law, Communications and Journalism.  The only group we beat are those in the Arts.  Take it from someone who knows how financially ruinous a degree in the arts is (I worked my tail off to obtain a Masters of Fine Arts degree and cannot really think of a profession save teaching that could financially support my family) we only edge them out by a $1,000/year on average.  So, while it is true that public educators make good money... it really ain't that good, honey.    

So, in a profession whose median salary is less than someone's in the food service industry (no disrespect to any of you food service brothers or sisters who may be reading this), why set a student teacher up with unrealistic expectations of wealth?  I think it's good training that they work harder than they ever thought they could at something, become totally and completely emotionally invested, and make zero dollars.  That is good training for the field of education.  

A few years ago here in Ohio legislators tried to limit our right to collectively bargain and to strike.  We repealed this legislation through a voter referendum known as Issue 2.  This legislation was initiated by politicians who are unfriendly to public education.  It appears their sympathizers want to undo years of educational progress.  Collective Bargaining is constructivism at work.  For those of you who don't happen to be education majors let me define what I mean here by constructivism... plain and simple I mean that we construct a context for meaning.  For the same reasons the classroom teacher has evolved from a pedantic gatekeeper of trivial knowledge to a facilitator creatively encouraging independent thinking, so have the rules of our employment changed for the better.  In short, we have a say.

As teachers we are invested heart, soul, and wallet.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Two High School Wrestlers

This video tells the story of two high school wrestlers from Northeast Ohio (locals in my neck of the woods) named Dartanyon Crocket and Leroy Sutton.  Their story was told by ESPN in August of 2009.   I use this video whenever I get a chance in my English classes.  Their story is one that reaffirms the spirit.  I have probably seen this video twenty times, and I am still moved every time I see it.  It works most effectively in my classroom when we are reading Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.  I ask students to relate Leroy and Dartanyon's story to Mitch and Morrie's.  This year one student told me that due to the fact that Dartanyon is legally blind he is like Mitch because Mitch is at a point in his life where he has lost the "vision" of what he dreamed his life should be.  This same student told me that Leroy was like Morrie because he acts as Dartanyon's eyes the same way Morrie helps Mitch see what is important in life.

I guess what astounds me is that this video, which tells one of the most inspirational stories I have ever witnessed, has a mere 22,000 hits on YouTube, while the videos that continue to go viral and score hundreds of millions of hits are completely pointless... and if you think I'm just mouthing something Holden Caulfield would say, you might be right, however, one source claims the most viewed YouTube video of 2012 was Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" with over 372 million views in 10 months.  Need I say more?

Monday, April 29, 2013

CYOA Novel Unit

Acronyms are vogue in education so I thought I'd use one here.  CYOA stands for Choose Your Own Adventure.  This is the novel unit I've designed for my College Composition II students.  It's pretty rad & my students have been knocking it out of the park! Allow me to elaborate.

The next unit will be divided thematically into two parts.  You are required to research and choose one of the novels on the list.  You must have a copy of the novel and begin reading by April 15, 2013.  

Write ONE paragraph for each book detailing:

1) Whether or not you plan to satisfy your heart or your head, or both... and make a prediction HOW this book could help you.  BE sure to describe one "thing" about this book you think you will like, and one "thing" you might not like.

2) What method of response do you think this book will lend itself to.  Why do you think this?
Due April 12 with your final decision.

Journey of the Individual
The following selections are thematically related to one another in that they ask the question “how should a life be lived?”  Each novel asks the question and answers it in its own unique way.

Siddhartha                                               Hermann Hesse
Grendel                                                   John Gardner
The Catcher in the Rye                            JD Salinger
The Inferno                                              Dante Alighieri

Dystopia / Satire
The following selections are thematically related to one another because they all acknowledge the concept that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of a larger society.”  
1984                                                        George Orwell
A Clockwork Orange                              A. Burgess
Feed                                                        MT Anderson
Ready Player One                                   Ernest Cline

You must turn in this form and your research by April 12, 2013.
Your selection:
Your strategy to obtain a copy of this selection:
Your rationale for choosing this selection:
By signing below you are agreeing to take responsibility for your own learning and agree to obtain a copy of this book by Monday, April 15, 2013.  You also agree that failure to participate in this novel unit may jeopardize your chances at obtaining college credit for College Composition II.

Your Signature _________________________________________________

Date ______________

You will be asked to complete a long-term research-based writing project with your selection.  You will be asked to choose any of the following options as a method of writing about your book.

Reader Response:  Attempt to connect what happened in your book with something from your life.  Stories work best.  How can I use this book as an opportunity to reflect on my own life and make some generalization about the past?  Must use primary source quotes.

Historical Inquiry:  How has events of your author’s time period impacted or influenced the writing of the book itself?  Think of how the McCarthyism period influenced Miller’s writing of The Crucible.  Or ask yourself how can research of historical names, places, events, etc enhance my appreciation for the text?  Either way, write about what you’ve found and how it relates to the book you read.  Must use primary and secondary source quotes.

Biographical Inquiry: Sometimes we wonder what gives an author the authority to write about their subject matter.  How did what they live influence what they wrote?  Look into it. This is not simply a biography of your author.  This option attempts to draw comparisons between the text and the author’s life. Must use primary and secondary source quotes.  
Arguing a Position: This paper attempts to prove an interpretation of the book that falls outside of historical or biographical inquiry.  It may be that you want to argue something the writer is trying to say by attempting to prove a certain theme exists in your book.  Maybe you want to argue a certain character is the same astrological sign as you.  This option is very open ended therefore you should feel strongly about your position in order to write it.  Must use primary and secondary source quotes.

 Final paper due:  May 13, 2013.