life, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Dear Teacher: Thoughts on a New School Year

It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.

As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.

But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?

I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.

Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.

I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.

Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.

America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.

Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.

poetry, Uncategorized

An Address to New Teachers Everywhere

A group of summer school students work on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.
A group of summer school students working on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.

If my loyal readers will allow me, I would like today to take off my “poet’s cap” and put on my teacher’s mortarboard instead for just one post.

As summer draws to its end and a new school year eagerly waits right around the corner of the calendar, I feel the need to post something here for all you newly hired teachers and professors. I, too, was once that first-year teacher. Now I serve as a mentor to up-and-coming educators. In that capacity, I have composed a brief address to teachers new to my school. I feel that this address would benefit teachers in any school, but especially independent schools like my own. Here, for your encouragement, is that short speech:      

ADDRESS TO NEW VANGUARD TEACHERS
By John Davis Jr., educator and poet

Before you lies an incredible journey. You have the chance to truly and positively change lives if you take advantage of this moment in your career. At Vanguard, you can teach as you have always wanted to teach, and you can become the servant leader that American education so sorely needs today.

Here is the place where your grandest experiments and classroom daydreams can come to life, if you let them. Now is the time that all your compassion, all your patience, and all your skills will be needed daily. You will have to hug children that others have found unlovable, and you will have to give structure to students that have never known boundaries. You will need to prepare your best advice for broken hearts, best-friend betrayals, and even divorces and deaths. These students need your voice, and they need your shoulders.

They will seek you out to tell you of all their firsts. When they pass their driving exam, compliment their shiny new permit photo. When they lose a beloved family pet, put your arm around them and console them. When they fail at anything, encourage them. When they ask you the hard questions, be honest with them.  They’ll respect you more for the truth than for some typical grown-up cliché. And at the end of the day, real life is really what they need to hear about the most.

They will bring you food they have cooked in culinary arts. Eat it enthusiastically, even if it’s horrible. They will show you pictures of what they plan to wear to prom. Tell them that it’s incredible, even if it’s hideous. They will proudly exhibit their latest woodworking project for you. Tell them how artistic it is, no matter how loose-jointed and awkward it may look.  

Dress like you’re the boss, but be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and even occasionally bruised. But know above all that the labor, the grit, and the pain are all worth it. You will become to these students a parent, an older sibling, and eventually, a fond remembrance. Even when they go off to college, they’ll spend part of their break coming to see you again if you’ve done the job right.

And when they have long since graduated, found their way, and started adult lives of their own, rest assured that you will be a main character in the stories they tell their children. Your advice, your lessons, and your every idiosyncrasy will be recounted for another generation, not because you are a sage or a superhero, but because at one time in one child’s life, you cared.

Give them your 100 percent every day, even when you feel like you only have 10 percent left. Laugh with them, share with them; invent new games with them. The greatest stories of your teaching life are ahead of you, educator. Be prepared.

 

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.

Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?

Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.

As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.

Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.

Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.

poetry, Uncategorized

Experiential Education for Writers

In the middle of the twentieth century, critical theorist John Dewey put forth his then-radical idea that experiences equal education. Dewey, considered the father of the progressive movement, posited that interaction and continuity were the two key traits that made up an educational experience. Even today, while educators use different names for those same ideas (interaction=engagement, continuity=structure), Dewey’s legacy lives on. But it’s not just for those of us in the classroom. Dewey’s experiential education model is undergoing a renaissance of sorts at the post-secondary level, with more colleges and universities touting that they believe in it and use it to provide students with memorable learning.   Even for working writers and parents, the thoughts that Dewey developed have implications that can provide lasting benefits to us in our average, non-academic lives.

To begin, experiences form the foundation upon which all truly great literature is built. Even if those experiences are imagined or exaggerated, they nonetheless constitute the building blocks of fiction, poetry, and plays around the world. For those of us in the everyday world, the small experiences can generate great writing.

bikeThis summer, I’ve been riding bikes with my sons. We started small, with a few laps around our block here, and recently, we sojourned to their grandmother’s house about a mile away. The bike riding sessions have given rise to those metaphorical, time-transcending conversations that parents have always found meaningful: learning to ride a bicycle safely is a parallel to one’s larger life, after all. Lessons in persistence, balance, confidence, care, and initiative can all be heard when one is teaching others about basic cycling. Uphill grades can’t be conquered without perseverance, and the reward is always that downhill gust of face-breeze. Bicycles and their allegorical implications have been used by writers for years, and so, I haven’t bothered to write a poem about this experience yet. I feel that it’s been covered entirely too well by others before me. The poem that this experience generates will probably not be the old cliche about “letting go of the baby bird” or some similar tripe, but I sense that something from our time together will mold itself into poetry before the summer’s out. It just needs some time for creative gestation.

kayak 1Last summer, my oldest son and I spent almost every day kayaking. There are lakes all over our town, and we would set out on Lake Martha, carving a trail to the park across the lake from our launch point. The park made for some great play time, and afterward, we would paddle back. This experience also bore a number of universal lessons that later worked themselves into poetry — the landmarks around the lake were particularly symbolic of different stages in life: the park being childhood, the high weeds being adolescence, the tall offices being adulthood, and finally, the hospital just before home. As you might have guessed, the experiences of our kayaking journeys lent themselves toward poetry.

I relate these two examples to reinforce the larger point: Yes, experience equals education, but more than that, experience equals life equals literature. Only by living can we truly write in a way that will relate to others. Until next time — to write great, live great.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Writer-Teacher’s Birthday

typewriter-cakeIn looking back over my site here, I noticed that last year I also posted on my birthday. I thought that by doing so again this year, it might make a nice little tradition of sorts. I promise, however, not to wax eloquent about my resolutions or grand goals for the year ahead. That’s what New Year’s posts are for, after all.

What I do know is this: Having made it through well more than a third of a century now, I feel an increasing compulsion to strengthen my legacy. An awful lot of my writing heroes were far better known and more respected than I before they were my current age. But with that said, an equally great number of authors I look up to weren’t even map dots on the literary landscape until they were much older. I’m increasingly thankful for those men and women who “bloomed late.” Their stories are consolations and reassurances when I, like another poet, find myself “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

In my twenties, I still didn’t possess the maturity and experience necessary to produce respectable literary work. Plenty of great writers have produced meaningful literature in their twenties, but I hadn’t even begun figuring out life. Even if I had attempted a graduate-level program or “the great American novel,” I probably would have done the bare minimum to get by, and spent most of my time dwelling in pseudo-angst that I associated with “the writer type.”

In other words, I would have adopted the persona of a writer — some weird hybrid of Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, no doubt — and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad habits and dramatic life choices. I would have been concerned with acting out a tragic and memorable biography rather than the actual writing of excellent work. In some ways, I did exactly that: During my post-college years as a journalist, I sought out dangerous assignments, got shot at, had broken bottles hurled at my head, drove through a wall of fire, and gained my fair share of other brushes with mortality. I felt like I had something to prove. My lifestyle made for great coffeehouse stories, but I wasn’t making any real difference. Police scanner on my hip, the only thing I sought was juicy headlines and personal adventure. My time in journalism was devoted almost exclusively to my own selfish desires. Employers were merely means to the end of front-page byline glory.

There is a distinct benefit in having more life behind me: Having evolved into a husband, father, educator, and community member, I’m able to see my place in the universe with a little greater clarity. Selfish concerns over identity and others’ perceptions are subordinate to the demands of family, work, school, and faith. Living through most of my thirties has allowed me to gain richer exposure to the world, and to better understand what it means to earnestly make a lasting impact. Maybe my writing won’t be the major part of my legacy; it could be that the students I’ve engaged are a bigger part of my future memoirs than my experiences in the literary realm. And I’m okay with that. In fact, more than okay. I’d like one day to say that I’ve measured my life, not in coffee spoons like Eliot, but in student successes (excuse the cliche). And if my poetry and my other words happen to find a place in the public consciousness while I’m at it, then so much the better.

Sure, I’m going to keep pushing my writing. Absolutely, I’m going to continue to submit and publish (hopefully) with regularity. Whether my printed words or my classroom creativity will become my greater contribution, I don’t know. And for right now, that’s perfectly fine. The next chapter is still waiting to be written.

poetry, Uncategorized

Figuring Out Audience

AudienceThis past semester, I admittedly struggled quite a bit in my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program. I attempted an essay I cared little (if any) about, changed directions two or three times in regards to the essay topic, and constantly received negative feedback on poems that I thought exceeded standards. Now that this past semester’s experience is over with, I do have one positive take-away from the whole experience: I know exactly who my audience ISN’T.

That being said, I hadn’t given a great deal of specific thought to my audience prior to this point. I always kind of thought that I wrote for the masses; people who work 9-5 shifts in average jobs, and who pretty much represent the American status quo. This semester, however, I figured out the precise people for whom my work is truly intended. Here they are:

I write for high school English teachers around this country. This notion is a bit selfish, perhaps, as I too am included in that demographic. But whenever I write something, I find myself giving it the English Teacher Litmus Test: If this piece were being taught to a group of 11th or 12th graders, would the teacher be able to point out interesting and relevant material? Would there be literary devices that the teacher could elaborate upon, imagery that is striking enough to deserve comments, and maybe some ambiguity that the students could be left to figure out? If I can picture teachers I know really delving into the poem and engaging in Socratic inquiry about it with their students, then my job is complete. Hopefully, the poem can be taught similarly at the college or graduate level with equal dexterity, just with slightly different vocabulary and greater critical analysis.

Had I not been forced to write for someone that disliked my work and often disparaged it adamantly without concrete reasons, I would not have been able to pinpoint the other side of the issue — that is, my truest target audience. People who know and appreciate the classics, people who have advanced understandings of the great literary traditions, and people who admire work that values history and beauty will probably enjoy the poems I produce. Proficient English teachers, those who love the language and its literature, fill this bill well. As a new semester is about to begin in just a matter of weeks, I look forward to writing for someone else who may or may not be my biggest fan. Either way, I expect that the feedback I receive on my work will help make my work stronger. Derogatory comments will be validated by credible, experienced, and informed perspectives rather than personal tastes and whims. Expectations will be communicated with explicit clarity and specificity rather than vague notions and glittering generalities. And maybe, just maybe, this mentor will see my work through the lens of my real intended audience — that 21st Century educator who really GETS poetry, and who equally inspires students to love it, as well.