Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),
Kevin

Music from the Pandemic: Faucet Drop (Quarantine Together)

My friend, Bob, the drummer in all of our rock and roll bands over the past 20-plus years, called me up the other day to chat and, as he is apt to do, Bob handed me a phrase of words that he thought I could turn into a song: Dripping Faucet.

When I went quiet, he explained that these quarantine days have forced, or allowed, couples to get to know one other, to spend time together, to be active and quiet, to hear the dripping faucets. He thought the metaphor could work, but I was doubtful. Even trying to rhyme with “faucet” is pretty tricky.

Still, later, I kept circling back on the idea, as much because if I can give a friend a gift of a song — and Bob loves to inspire songs — I will do it, but also, it was less the phrase than his explanation of the phrase that rumbled around in my head. That evening, I wrote the lyrics and the next day, I worked on the music.

I changed the original phrase, first to “here we sit / we let the faucet drip” in the song and then when I misspelled “faucet drip” on my paper to “faucet drop” I thought: I like that mistake and kept it as the title of the song.

This is another song in my collection of music tracks I have been making during this strange time of being home. My aim is gather them all up on Bandcamp at some point.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Bone (The Complete Collection)

Thirteen hundred pages of fantastic adventure. That’s what I dove into when I picked up my son’s massive book of Bone, by Jeff Smith. I’ve read parts of Bone over the years, but never in sequence (so I never really saw the larger story unfolding) and always out of context. Smith’s story is a classic, of course, and reading it from start to finish over 1300 pages gives you a sense of scope.

If you don’t know Bone, it tells the story of three cousins from Boneville — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone – who begin the story on the run, driven from Boneville for some political scam (Phoney is always on a con or scam of some sort) when they stumble over the mountains, get separated and discover adventure that includes dragons, rat creatures, magic, a lost Queen and discovered princess, strange locusts, treasure found and lost, epic battles and more.

Told with humor and seriousness, Smith’s Bone book harnesses the power of graphic storytelling in so many ways, it’s hard to know what to focus on. There are allusions to classic stories and classic cartoons, to humous gags that are hinted at early and then re-emerge later, and somehow, Smith juggled it all over the course of more than a decade of writing and illustrating, and publishing in installments.

Given our time of staying inside during the pandemic, the discovery of my son’s Bone collection was a welcome site, and the hours spent with the cousins and their friends (and enemies) was a literary diversion that kept me deep in the story. Bone is worth a visit for readers of all ages. (Note: this huge book is costly – $40 at B/N. I think we picked up years ago at a book sale for cheap — what a deal!)

Peace (beyond Boneville),
Kevin

 

Pandemic Poem from the Classroom: Broken Pencils

Tiny pencil

I went in to my classroom yesterday, at the allotted time, and began the difficult process of packing up all of my students’ belongings into clear plastic bags. Everything from every desk. Everything from every locker. Odds and ends. The left-behind stuff of every kid, placed into a see-through bag. Stickers with student names on the outside. At some later date, their families will drive through the back lot, and these bags will be delivered to their back seat, and they will drive off.

It was very depressing work, really, almost like an invasion of their privacies — handling not just school work – graded papers and papers never handed in — but also, the odds and ends of them, the things from friends they kept close and the things they kept for reasons only they might understand. All of it, packed into a bag. It felt like a morgue, really, and I am reminded of scenes from military movies, where what material objects remain are gathered, honored, returned. The locker hallway for fifth and sixth grade were lined from one door to the other with plastic bags.

One image that stayed with me later in the day, hours after I had finished the task, was the pencils. So many pencils, of all sorts and in all conditions. Who knew they had so many pencils? I bet I packed hundreds of them, and many fell to the floor as I worked, some ripping the bag and falling out. All I could think about is, what might still get written? What did we not get written this year?

My poem this morning is all about that.

It’s the broken pencils
that give me pause,
as I label and empty
these steel desk drawers

into clear thin plastic bags
that refuse to contain you;
your belongings ripping at the
fabric of my work –

You’re spilling out:
unsharpened, snapped-tipped,
eraser-bitten, rainbow-ed
and graphite possibilities of
lines, circles, dots, smudges
stories, poems, notes, plays

These broken cardboard boxes
releasing wild Ticonderogas
to the floor, scattering and silent,
as if lions sit in wait

You are everywhere
in this classroom,
and nowhere,
all at once

Peace (packing it up but not in),
Kevin

Panels from the Pandemic: Strange Times (for Teachers)

Strange Times

I’m making, and have been making, webcomics about this time of Distance Learning and the Pandemic, and now and then, I will share out some of those panels from my collection. Most of these were already published on Twitter.

This first comic — Strange Times — is about how the shift to home/teaching has affected the regularity of our hours as educators, and thinking on when our students are engaged and awake, as opposed to when we, teachers, are awake and engaged. Everything is still spilling together.

Peace (in the moments),
Kevin

WMWP: Thinking on Twitter

Last night, I took part in a National Writing Project video conferencing that was themed on how local writing projects — like our Western Massachusetts Writing Project — can broaden its presence in online spaces. My fellow co-director for outreach, Samantha Briggs, and I were invited to talk about WMWP’s Twitter account, which I realized has been around for ten years. The chart above was something I pulled together as I was thinking about the pros and cons of Twitter for an organization.

I had noted in the break-out table discussion that I wasn’t all that certain how successful the Twitter account actually is in reaching our local teachers on a scale that makes an impact. It seems like it has been more successful in making connections to other writing projects, and national organizations. That’s not bad, but I wonder if the focus might need to shift, if we are to be more centered on how to engage our WMWP teachers in the work of teaching, writing and learning.

Peace (in hashtags and tweets),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Still Living In An Email World

In some ways, I am built just right for this shift to Distance Learning. I write that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since I miss my students so much and know this (points to computer) will never replace that (points in general direction of school).

But technology is something I have long explored and utilized, and feel quite comfortable with, for myself and with my students, so the shift in the respect of how we do things online isn’t so bad.

Except for the emails.

Even with full use of Google Classroom, which contains discussions pretty nicely enough, the sheer load of emails coming in, from administrators, from colleagues on my team, from parents and family members, from students (from technology companies, somehow temporary avoiding the spam filter to pitch me the next best thing for my students) … it’s all overwhelming at times. I am just as bad on my end of the email chain, sending out regular emails to students as a complement to our video chats, to remind of this and to urge them to do that.

If I am looking at my school email bin and taking a deep breath of near despair before diving in to follow the threads, I wonder how my students are doing with their school email (which is something new for them, activated once we left school for Distance Learning, although they have had other Google Apps for Ed platforms for use all year).

I know for a fact that email is NOT their first choice of communication and for many of my sixth graders, this may be the first time they either have any kind of email of their own or have needed to rely on it for information and connection. Some barely glance at their email. Others are finding it another way to connect with classmates.

I have a colleague who has resisted Google Classroom for assignments during this time and instead, assigns content and asks students to write responses in Google Docs (sometimes more than one each week) they create in their accounts, and share it with him. Just thinking of the avalanche of email notifications they must be getting from our 75 students each week makes me groan under the weight of it all.

We’re still living in an email world. Take that, Tik Tok.

Peace (the bin is nearly full),
Kevin

Music from the Pandemic: Every Day The Same But Different Every Day

I was walking on my usual hikes (with the dog) throughout the day when both the title of this instrumental beat/loop track — Every Day The Same But Different Every Day — and the beginnings of the melody lines began to converge in my head. When I got home, I went right to work on it, trying to capture the ideas brewing of both the tedium of days in social isolation and the noticing of the small things that are different each day — the new buds blooming on the bush, a fading flower, a trinket left on a wood stump, a fallen tree branch, the frog pond higher or lower, and more.

There’s a lot of purposeful repetition in the piece, but also, if you listen, there’s small things happening underneath as things move along — percussion and keyboard lines and other elements that intrude upon the forward motion.

In the piece, the most entertaining moment (I think) is where I placed the single triangle, the light tapping of pause in between the main elements — a point where the listener leans in and takes a breath, before the music propels forward.

Peace (sounding it out),
Kevin