Friday, July 27, 2012

On Switching Schools

In a little more than a week, I go back to work. I report earlier than most of my colleagues because for the second time in two years, I will be new to a school division. Deciding to leave the school that took a chance on little ol' provisionally-licensed me was really hard.

Fellow Curry alums will remember the mantra know your students, know your students, know your students. When you are in the business of building relationships, it can feel hard, wrong, and maybe even damaging to your students to leave your school. The commute added up to an hour and a half each day, way-early mornings, and having even less of a life than many first-year teachers. So, when a position became open at the high school in the city where I already live, I applied. About a week after I put in my application, one of my favorite professors from grad school co-authored this study about teacher turnover negatively impacting whole schools. Awesome.

In the end, I had to decide what kind of teacher I want to be. I could be a martyr teacher who pulls myself out of a bed at 5:15 every morning and never sees my friends or take my dog for a walk. I think there are a lot of teachers like this -- especially young teachers. But I can't imagine that they last long.

I decided, instead, to be a teacher who is a real person. Living and working in the same community doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. I could have moved to the small town where I worked, but that seemed like giving up a lot for a job, too. I have an amazing network of friends where I live as well as constant access to entertainment aimed at young professionals.

As I continued to debate myself (and got the job offer), I realized two things: I cannot stem the tide of teacher turnover myself. More importantly, in any other career, accepting a job that is closer to home, pays more, and offers more benefits would be a no-brainer. So, while I couldn't "fix" teacher turnover, I could act like any other graduate-school educated professional and push against the idea of teachers as people who should sacrifice a living wage, reasonable working conditions, and a life outside the classroom. I really do believe that it will take seeing teaching as a job much like any other to increase teacher quality. I took the job.

My students at my old school were hilarious, smart, and challenging. I will miss seeing them grow and learn more. In the end, I had to take the job that made me a more whole, balanced, well-compensated person. I really do think the resulting peace of mind will make me a better teacher.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Summer Reading List: River of Earth by James Still

James Still is a legend in Appalachian literature. Silas House and friends run a journal of Appalachian literature named Still in the author's honor. Many Appalachian Studies scholars consider Still to be the first Appalachian author.

I didn't know any of these things until about a month ago. I was excited (and maybe a little surprised) to discover a piece of Appalachian literature I hadn't yet explored and put Still's River of Earth on hold at the UVA library.

Once I got a hold of the book, it took a couple of days to get into the story. River of Earth is told from the perspective of a young boy whose family bounces between mining towns when his dad can find work there and farming rented land -- where his mother is happiest. A rotating cast of relatives and friends prey on the father's deep belief in hospitality whenever the family is able to scrape together a living.

Still struggles with the country life/town life dichotomy that plagues so many Appalachians. He also explores the ways in which mining is not a sustainable industry for the region. When a mine closes unexpectedly, so do schools, stores, and company housing. And he wrote this criticism in 1940.

Although the main character's reflections are written in "standard" English, the dialogue is an extremely well-done southern Appalachian dialect. The novel's title comes from a sermon delivered by your run-of-the-mill hillbilly preacher:

“I was borned in a ridge-pocket,” he said.  “I never seed the sun-ball withouten heisting my chin.  My eyes were sot upon the hills from the beginning.  Till I come on the Word in this good Book, I used to think a mountain was the standingest object in the sight o’ God.  Hit says here they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling.  These hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity.  My brethren, they hain’t a valley so low but what hit’ll rise agin.  They hain’t a hill standing so proud but hit’ll sink to the low ground o’sorrow.  Oh, my children, where are we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying – the living and the dead riding the waters?  Where air it sweeping us?”

And in the midst of that dialect is a question that people have been asking since the beginning of questions. I think that Still makes a powerful statement about the ability of his characters to discuss God, environmental concerns, and economic plans in such a dialect. Hillbilly? Sure. Stupid? Hardly. 

For the classroom library, I'd recommend this book for any student interested in identity exploration. I can also think of a couple of boys who were interested in farming that I think would really enjoy reading about the family's struggle between that life and a life based on cash that can be earned in coal mines. Happy reading!  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Reading List: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I finished one of the books on my summer reading list! Mama gave me Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project in my Easter box to balance out all the chocolate. I'm so glad that I finally got around to reading it.

I also have to confess something to you all before we go any further: I like "stunt journalism" where someone spends a year doing something like trying to find herself, create an object lesson on what the Bible really says about being a woman, or see what it is like to be a low-wage earner. Prior to looking at reviews of The Happiness Project, I didn't know that some people consider books like these pedestrian. I just think they are an interesting way to confront an issue.

Rubin takes her inspiration from Benjamin Franklin's quest for moral perfection. She spends time researching what modern science thinks makes us happy and then divides up the year to focus on one particular facet of happiness each month. Some of her suggestions about taking up a project and eating real food inspired me to finally finish my 2010 campaign scrapbook and to finally kick gluten out of my life for good since a doctor told me in 2008 I should quit.

She does a great job of explaining how to find happiness, but it isn't until the middle of the book she explains why happiness matters. Maybe it's just my friends, but I actually know a fair number of people who don't value personal happiness. These folks think of it as, at best, an indulgence, and, at worst, a distraction from serving others. Rubin makes the really important point that research continues to suggest that happy people can make others happy. Unfortunately, she doesn't make it until about halfway through the book. I think the book would benefit from an upfront discussion about why happiness matters.

For all you teacher types working on your classroom libraries, I would recommend this book for higher-proficiency readers. While you all know that I'm not into any of that gender essentialism business, I do think that girls might be particularly drawn to the ways in which Rubin organizes and analyzes her happiness project. A book like this would have been just the ticket for me in high school when my obsession with ordering my life toward some defined purpose through lists and plans began, but I also wasn't reading enough non-fiction to prepare me for college.

Next up: River of Earth by James Still -- I have about a hundred pages to go.

Monday, July 16, 2012

An AT Update

Many of you know that my original plan for my first summer vacation was to hike about half of the Appalachian Trail. That plan took some serious tweaking after I broke my foot during a section hike in Maryland over spring break. After a lot of healing and help from my friends, I started walking normally again. I planned a two-week hike to finish Maryland, hike through West Virginia, and end up three-quarters of the way through the Shenandoah National Park.

The first two days went really well. My dad joined Atticus and me to finish up Maryland and make it to Harpers Ferry. It was about 105 degrees, there was a hailstorm, it became real. I was really going to do this. We collapsed at a pub in Harpers Ferry where Atticus was so tired he had his first successful restaurant visit! I took my dad back to his car in Maryland before heading home for a day and a half of adjusting.

Atticus and I hit the trail again two evenings later. We walked back to the spot where we'd left off and followed the AT over the Shenandoah River and found a nice spot to camp in the woods. It was my first night camping without another human. It was hard and awesome at the same time. We were up early to hike to the Blackburn Trail Center before starting the roller coaster that precedes Front Royal if you're southbound.

After we stopped for a mid-morning break, Atticus didn't want to wear his boots any more. He's had them for about six months and has never minded them. But he stopped about every ten yards to pull at one with his teeth. When I took it off to see if there was something inside, I saw a big wound that must have been irritated by the boot. He couldn't walk in just three of them, so they all had to come off.

Later in the day, we were scrambling over some rocks when Atticus tripped and scraped the front of one of his paws. I stopped the bleeding pretty quickly, but he was obviously agitated and kept licking at the place throughout the night. When I woke up in the morning, one of the sores had burst open and was oozing some gross stuff. My once-broken foot that had hurt a little since we'd stopped for the afternoon break was also in a lot of pain.

We had to go home.

I've wanted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail since I was six and my dad took me to Whitetop. I've watched my friends thru-hike, and I knew that wasn't in the cards for me. I have a job I love that I can't imagine leaving even for a few months if I knew I could come back to it. I made my peace years ago with the fact that I would finish the trail by section hiking. But it sure is slow going.

I know that I have the rest of my life to hike the trail and that it isn't going anywhere. I know that I don't have to do it contiguously. I know I'm 53.4 miles into a journey that is going to take a little longer than I had originally planned. I also know that I need to find a good, two-legged hiking buddy. Who's in?

Friday, July 13, 2012