Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Big Dark

I just finished reading this to my son, Wyatt, age 8. We really enjoyed the book, which is set in a little town in New Hampshire after a geomagnetic event leaves everyone on earth without electrical power of any kind. For me, the most intriguing element of the book is the conflict between Reginald Kingman and Webster Bragg.

Bragg, who lives on a fortified compound, attempts to establish a new country ironically called Liberty, of which he is the supreme leader. Bragg attempts to found Liberty through intimidation (he and all of his many sons carry AR-15s), white supremacy (there are a few passages in which Bragg relates his feelings on white superiority), and the theory that only the strong should survive. He also has hoarded most of the town's supplies and has a large cache of gold coins.

Reginald Kingman is the school janitor and volunteer policeman who opposes Bragg's would-be rule. Kingman attempts to help everyone, including the elderly, and is criticized for not handling people like Bragg with direct action (we learn Kingman was the best pistol shot in the state, so the prospects for violent conflict are always lurking). He also lies to the townspeople about owning a working crystal powered radio.

The story follows Charlie Cobb, who is courageous and good, on a journey to do what's right. Through reading Charlie's story (which, maybe could have been more steeped in Kingman and Bragg's conflict) Wyatt and I discussed our current political landscape, the question of government's role in our lives, race, violence, and the nature of good and evil.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Thoreau in High School: The Tiny House Movement

So in order to engage high school students with Thoreau, one of the challenges is to create a palpable connection between his ideas and the modern world. I start by focusing on the chapter in Walden from Economy in which he outlines the plans to build his cabin and tie it to the Tiny House Movement.  More specifically, I focus on his idea that college students should build their own dorms: "I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually."  In this section, Thoreau makes some great points about the value of vocational training.  Since I work in a vocational school, my students can relate their educational philosophies to his perhaps more easily than students in a traditional high school setting (more on this later).  Usually, after reading and discussing this section with my students, they are engaged by the following video, in which Austin Hay seems to be living Thoreau's ideas in the modern world.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Thoreau in High School: Prereading

Ever since I visited Walden pond in 2009 with my wife and son, I've tried to do a good job bringing Thoreau's mind to high schoolers (better, I hope than my American Lit teacher did for me: I graduated thinking Thoreau was the Unibomber), so this year we've spent a semester writing Nature Journals that require students to take a picture of something in nature and then reflecting on it in one of three ways. This is a pre-writing exercise, and the first time I've approached it this way. I provided students with the following examples:
Basic - Journalistic “In Goose Pond, which lay in my way, a colony of muskrats dwelt, and raised their cabins high above the ice, though none could be seen abroad when I crossed it” (Thoreau 255). In another section of Walden, Thoreau talks about being on a frozen lake and dropping his axe into a hole in the ice, cutting a long branch, fixing a noose and hauling it up and out again. These entries are general reporting about something you saw or did.
Challenging - Poetic “A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next to the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooden hills and cliffs around it are its overhanging brows” (Thoreau 176). These entries report, however they go one step further by using devices like personification, metaphor, unique sensory language, etc. 

Advanced - Philosophical “…I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I staid there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life” (Thoreau 38). These entries can be journalistic and /or poetic while also reflecting on human nature.

My students' work has been incredible. They have proven to be very gifted photographers (they almost all have smartphone cameras), and very insightful writers. I ordered each student a paperback copy of Walden, which we are now reading in class. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fresh Prince of West Thebes

Inspired by several sources, primarily conversations with colleagues about "putting yourself out there," and a desire to overcome my camera-shyness.

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
TMNT and Me
On a whim I decided to drive to my son’s school. It was his last day as a kindergartner at Marshallville Elementary School, and it was Marshallville Elementary School’s last day as a school. They were all set to tear it down that summer. I was home early from teaching and in a rush to make it there before the school closed its doors for good. On the way I noticed a turtle seemingly frozen in the middle of the highway, baking on the hot, black tarmac. I decided to pick him up and take him into school. He was a painted box turtle, and because of his red markings the kids would name him Raphael.
When I was a kid, one of the ways I would try to get the other kids to like me in school 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 I didn’t just want to be a teenager, 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 nunchucks 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 bandannas 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 nunchucks, 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 list consists of retro ninja turtle gear.  
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. In my most sentimental moments, the relationship the turtles have with Splinter reminds me of my own adopted parents, their unconditional love, and the fact that they taught me the best they knew how to survive in an imperfect world.  Now as a father, 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 lurk ahead. Some believe that cartoons and comics are at best a waste of time, or at worst, 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 made sure to emphasize 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.
The kindergartners, once they had dubbed him Raphael, were very taken with the turtle as it reared up and attempted, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the white plastic bucket we used for a temporary home, and despite the thoughtful touches (a smooth grey rock, a bit of grass and a twig) he seemed to really dislike his new digs.  Wyatt and Jonas wanted to keep him as a pet.  “He belongs in the wild,” I explained.  “He’d be unhappy as our pet.”  The boys were skeptical, so we fought them into the van to drive to the nearest public lake.  We tipped the bucket on its side and, sure enough, Raph moved with all of his touted agility and speed, like a shot really, out of the mouth of the bucket and into the water.  If you’d have blinked, you’d have missed it.  “Maybe he’ll find a family,” my wife said.  And it was all we could hope.          

Sunday, November 30, 2014


crosspol is a journal of transitions for high school and college writing teachers edited by Andrew 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!