Monday, June 30, 2008

A week in Madison

There's a post I meant to write every day last week, but I never got around to it. It was going to go something like this:

Just got out of my seven-hour lecture on teaching AP English. And when I say lecture, I mean it. I'm at a workshop being run by two UW professors and three experienced high school AP teachers, and all week, they've been talking at us. Standing there and talking. Actually, in the case of one of the profs, sitting in front of us and talking. No sharing of ideas by the participants, no collaborative work, no time to practice new teaching strategies.

It's funny how teachers preach something called "best practices," but when they stand up in front of a group of teachers they do what should never be done to students: lecture lecture lecture, blah blah blah, listen to me pontificate.

You would think it's been a miserable experience, but to be honest, it hasn't.

First of all, in a collection of 40 teachers, there are always at least a couple of really dynamic, brilliant people that have a lot to share during lunch and after class.

Second, forced to sit there, I've taken to perusing the materials, and I must admit to getting very psyched up to teach AP.

Most important, though, is that Madison has the perfect spot to have a beer after class: the terrace behind the Union. It's a collection of colorful metal tables and chairs set up in shade and sun, overlooking the lake where boaters float lazily by. There are loads of students hanging out, but maybe because it's summer, the focus seems to be on grad students, plus professors, tutors, locals with children, and a collection of brain-fried AP teachers. The Union serves great beer--New Glaris, Bell's--and it's cheap. Every day there are scheduled activities: movie nights and live music afternoons. If there is a better place to grab a drink, on a college campus or otherwise, I'd love to hear about it.

Whenever I attend a professional development activity, no matter how bored or frustrated I become, I always try to stay positive and look for that one moment, that one piece of advice that might change my teaching. I don't know if that moment came during the workshop this time, but it certainly did afterwards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A new home for my kitty?

I craigslisted the following ad about my cat: Typically crazy Siamese cat needs a home. If you want a cat to scare off all of your friends, Chisai might be the one for you!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Detour, part 2

When I returned from Japan nine years ago, I had no concrete plans. But being someone who likes to write five-year plans and then promptly forget them, here's what I thought would happen:
  • I would either settle down
  • or stay for a few years and then move on, becoming a lifelong expatriate.
The first point got a push from my dad, who helped me buy a condo near Senn High School, where I had been hired to teach. A couple of years passed, and I was offered the opportunity to teach in the school's International Baccalaureate program. After that, no matter what happened during the rest of the day, I had one period a day with bright, eager, usually motivated students. These kinds of students are a drug to teachers: They listen, ask, challenge, compete, learn.

Eventually, I became a slightly better teacher, and I was able to get "regular" students to respond. Life wasn't bad.

But still, in the middle of every school year I started wishing for something more. I'd look at the world map in my classroom and wonder about the possibilities. The world is big. Life is short.

Meanwhile, my friends were getting married, having children, settling down. I felt torn: I wanted that too, but I also wanted the independence and freedom to bounce around the planet one or two years at a time. This wishy-washiness doomed every relationship I was ever in. Years passed.

So ... flash-forward to this school year. Sometime in December, I decided that this was it. I HAD to move on. I told my principal I wasn't coming back, asked for a letter of recommendation. I told everyone that I was moving to California, either to the sunshine of San Diego or my friends in the Bay Area. One hundred percent guaranteed. I started examining housing and job opportunities.

I soon discovered that this might not be the best year to move to California: Arnold had ordered school districts to cut 10 percent of their budgets, and teachers around the state were losing jobs, searching elsewhere to work. No worries, I thought: I can do something else. A friend of mine is big time in the blogging world, so maybe I could somehow work with him or maybe he could set me up. Other friends are resourceful and generous, so I'd make it.

Then ... something happened on this blog. Because of this blog. Readers started posting really positive comments about me. Readers got together to donate money to one of my students, and they said they wanted to help in part because of the kind of teacher I am. And I realized: I'm not yet a great teacher, but I'm slowly getting there. And I don't want to do anything but teach, to work with teens, to help in whatever way I can.

So ... what could a person in my shoes do? I thought about my dream to bounce around the planet. I thought about a couple of my friends that had gone off to teach at international schools. And so I checked recruitment services that help place teachers at schools around the world.

I discovered it was too late to attend an international school recruitment fair. But one source listed schools that were still hiring. I checked out those schools' website and was intrigued by one. "Well, it's a long shot," I thought, "but if this place hires me, I'm going."

I filled out the application form, sent my resume and letters of recommendation, and hoped. The school replied, sorry, the position has been filled. I responded, thank you, maybe I'd consider working in the residence hall and wait for an English position next year. (This is a boarding school, so they need people to help take care of students outside of school hours.) They interviewed me. And a few days later said that the English position is available after all, what were my intentions?

I'm writing this quickly, with few details, but mostly as a reminder for myself, so I don't know if any of this makes sense to anyone reading. But the bottom line is this: I have been hired to teach high school English at a boarding school in the mountains of India. I leave next month.

Half my new students will be Indian. The other half from all over the world. Yes, they speak English. In fact, the school has an American curriculum, and many of the students end up coming to the U.S. for university; others go on to study in the U.K., Australia, or all over Asia.

Yes, I'll miss Senn and my students, but I'm excited to move on and start a new chapter of my life. And yes, I'll continue blogging, and will post a link on this page when it's ready. Thank you all for reading; I have a few more loose ends to tie up, which I'll do in the coming days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Detour, part 1

Heard a Jens Lekman song recently that starts with these lyrics:
If I had to choose a moment in time
to take with me into eternity
I would choose this,
this moment with you in my arms.
I don't know if the concept of taking a moment into eternity has religious or cultural significance, but it reminds me of an excellent Japanese movie I saw a while back called After Life. The movie is very simple, and slow-moving, but profound: After people die, they go to a sort of in-between place where they must choose one memory from their lives that will be recorded for them to take with them to heaven, or wherever the afterlife is.

After seeing the movie, then buying the DVD and seeing it again, the concept became a most favored conversation topic for a while: What if you had to choose just one experience from life, and that's the only thing you'd remember for all of eternity? Which experience would you choose?

Hey, actually, maybe you can skip down to the comments, write your memory out, which will then be preserved for the eternal life of the internet. Then, come back to this spot and keep reading.

OK ... done writing (or thinking about) your one eternal memory?

Here's mine:

Almost exactly eleven years ago, back in 1997, I stepped off a plane at the Osaka, Japan, airport. I was alone, with a couple of suitcases of clothes and CDs, waiting to be picked up and taken to my new home. I had recently been hired to teach conversational English in a town called Numazu. I had also recently broken up with a longterm girlfriend, quit a kick-ass job at a small newspaper in Vermont, said sayonara to friends and family, and boarded the plane with little knowledge of what was to come.

Here's how stupid I was (stupid? naive? clueless? whatever word fits best): With me I had no contact information should anything go wrong. I simply relied on my new employer's word that someone would be at the airport to pick me up. Well, you guessed it, no one was there.

After I passed through customs and into the airport, I was bombarded with newness: This place was clean and modern, so much like the country I had just left, but I was hearing announcements in a language I didn't understand, I was looking at signs with squiggly writing, I was seeing lots and lots of Japanese people. This was my first time out of the country, and I wasn't prepared for any of it.

I didn't see anyone looking for me. No sign with my name on it. No one calling my name. As my fellow passengers cleared out, I was left alone. It was evening, maybe 8 p.m., but it was amazing how quickly the place quieted down. No ... one ... left.

"I guess they're late," I thought, and plopped down on my bags. Fifteen minutes later, and still no one. I started feeling tinges of concern. No, wait, those feelings had started on the flight, this was escalating into panic. Yeah, I know, it was only fifteen minutes of waiting, but in that time, so many thoughts crossed my mind: What was I doing here? What was my problem? Why had I decided to drop everything to do this thing? Was I just running away from something or someone? What if no one comes to get me? What am I going to do? I wonder when the next flight back to Chicago is?

I eventually worked up the courage to approach the information desk.

"Um," I said, realizing I hadn't learned a single word of Japanese before coming over. Oh, I had planned to, but just had never gotten around to it. (At the time, I did know that one "Mr. Roboto" song, but had no idea that domo arigato means "thank you very much," even though that's stated very clearly in the song.)

"Can I help you?" the very cute woman at the information desk asked. She spoke English, yes!

"Someone is supposed to meet me," I said, "and they're not here. Did anyone ... call or anything?"

"What is the party's name, please?"

I had no idea. "I don't know," I said.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't think I can help you. Maybe you wait a little longer?"

Like I had a choice.

The next fifteen minutes, the fifteen minutes until someone actually did show up, that's the memory I'd like to take with me to eternity.

In that time, I felt so, I don't know, helpless, confused, scared, hopeless, but at the same time, alive. I know that most people say they feel most alive when they have a near-death experience, or when they scale some incredible mountain, or they watch their first child born. Those things haven't happened to me yet, but this one quarter of an hour at some random airport, I was completely alone. And I had no idea what would happen next. And I had no prospects. No way of surviving, even though I had cash in my pocket. In a lot of ways, I felt I was at a major crossroads in life. If no one came, how would I act? If I couldn't rely on anyone, would I be able to rely on myself?

I have never really felt those things again. The eleven years that have passed since that day have flown by, without a single moment I'd like to take with me to eternity. (Oh, hell, that's wrong in a lot of ways--there have been many, many amazing moments, experiences, days, and even weeks. But nothing that almost caused a complete circuit failure in the thing I call my brain.)

So, yeah. I want to recapture that feeling ...

Friday, June 06, 2008

Lookin' for love

... in all the wrong places.

A billboard in my neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The bad, the good, the great

It's ACT score time. I was really pushing my juniors to get an 18, and some are actually excited about their scores. Just got this email from one of my kids. All of a sudden I'm feeling better about the entire school year (and I guess about life).
Mr. P,

well i have some good news, some bad news, and some GREAT news.

im sure you want the bad news first so here it goes...


bummer right...luckily there is also some good news...


so close to the 18!!!!...ok now the great news...


all this i did with your were the only teacher in any of my classes that actually gave a damn about kids and their future. Thank you so much for supporting my classmates and me. Thank you for teaching us all the strategies that helped SO MUCH on the test.

IM GOING TO NEED YOU TO PLEASE GIVE ME TUTORING CLASSES AFTER SCHOOL TO TAKE THE ACT AGAIN NEXT YEAR...i know its my senior year and i wasnt supposed to worry about the test but now that i saw such progress i got motivated and i'm determined to get a higher score...