Musings, Nits, and Praises

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

The In-Service Scorecard

+4 for catching up with colleagues you haven't seen in two months
+3 for each meal provided
- 1 if a breakfast lacks fruit, a source of protein, or anything remotely healthy
+2 for each time coffee is provided
- 3 each time that coffee is Folgers or Maxwell House
- 5 for any ice breaker
+500 if an ice breaker involves someone karate-chopping an actual block of ice
- 5 for any sort of cheesy, morale-boosting activity
-15 if you had a hand in creating such an activity
-5 for a team-building activity that has nothing to do with preparing for the school year
-500 if the team-building activity involves juggling butcher knives blindfolded
+5 for each day you have two or more hours to work in your classroom
-10 for each day you have less than two hours to work in your classroom
+2 for every free thing you receive
-5 if one of those free things is a tote bag or over-sized t-shirt
+5 for any meeting lasting less than an hour
-10 for any meeting lasting more than an hour
-10 for every time a colleague asks a question during a meeting that's been answered multiple times
-  5 for any vacuous motto or education buzzword
- 50 for any PD session on differentiated instruction that consists of someone talking for two hours using a bland PowerPoint
-100 for PD videos starring people with next to no teaching experience
+200 if you find out you wound up with two planning periods
-300 if you find out you've been assigned to teach a new class
+10 for a motivational speaker who does more than comically tell you things you already know
-10 for a motivational speaker who offers little more than feel-good fluff or seems to think possessing the vitality of someone on speed is imperative to being a good teacher
+1,000 if registration day includes an open bar
-20 for every student who emails you to explain why they haven't done the summer assignment
+5 for every scheduled break
+50 if you're allowed to go home early
-50 for any impromptu meetings
+10,000if an impromptu meeting is to unveil a new teachers' lounge with a pool, jacuzzi, sauna, lounge chairs, a pool table, old-school arcade games, a ping-pong table, a calypso band, and free cocktails
-10 for dull, professional development sessions
+1,000 if a professional development session involves how to become a professional musician
+15 if you make it the whole week without falling asleep during a meeting

The In-Service Survival Guide

Whether it's tomorrow (as it is for me) or a couple of weeks from now, the end is coming for teachers across the country--the end of summer vacation. Now, bidding adieu to traveling, sleeping in, reading, lounging, taking care of home projects and the like is sad, but we understand we get paid (however minimally) to teach. And, happily, a lot of us like to teach.

The problem is, though, that when the annoying staccato of the alarm clock wakes us at dawn, sounding the end of summer vacation, we won't be going back to school to meet our new students and dive into another year. Nope. First there's the week-long pedagogical potpourri of ice breakers, high-energy guest speakers (some of whom now spend more time talking about their love of teaching than actually teaching), cheesy morale-boosting sessions, meetings, meetings about what was discussed at previous meetings, and meetings about future meetings known as in-service.

Of course, a few of those meetings are necessary. A department meeting is helpful to establish goals for the year. An overview of changes made to the student and faculty handbooks is useful, although assuming everyone on the faculty is literate, it should take twenty minutes tops, not two hours. If in-service sessions consisted of these two things, and even, say, a meeting on state standards, meetings would be wrapped up before lunch the first day, and teachers would have the rest of the week to work in their classrooms to prepare for the year.

Simple, right? Of course it is. That's why it will never happen.

First, some people are addicted to meetings. Memos and emails just don't cut it. They need to announce things. Everything. I hope for the sake of those people's families that addiction is contained at work: "Honey, kids, come in the kitchen. You were asleep this morning when I got up, so I need to show you which bowl and spoon I used to eat cereal and where I sat at the table."

The other big reason in-service will never be streamlined is that some people think returning for work has to be a production. That's where the ice breakers, team-building exercises, and motivational speakers come into play. There are teachers who claim to actually like that stuff. I've concluded they're either delusional, or they were paid by the people in charge of those activities to convince teachers like me how fun they are.

For teachers who are healthy-minded and aren't paid actors, I've compiled an In-Service Survival Guide.

1. Stay caffeinated. This goes without saying, really, since most teachers quaff approximately 3,600 gallons of caffeinated beverages during a school year. But caffeine is even more important during in-service. Without it, hours of mind-numbing meetings coupled with the fact your body hasn't adjusted to getting up early will likely end up with you fighting off slumber--or falling asleep for a few minutes at time--annoyed that you could be sleeping comfortably in your bed or on your couch. So grab a cup of coffee on the way to work from someplace with good coffee. Don't settle for the Folgers in the teachers' workroom. Chances are you'll wind up having to drink that crap plenty during the year. As the day wears on, be sure to drink a soda or two.

2. Make lesson plans. Exciting? No. But productive. Why be sitting in a mind-numbing meeting, irritated you're not in your room planning, when you can be planning?

3. Bring a game. You can't stick with just lesson planning. Mix in some games--crosswords, Sudoku, cell phone aps.

You can also make up your own games. See my In-Service score card, for instance.

4. Read a book. I like silence when I'm reading, so this one doesn't work well for me. But some people can pull it off.

5. Maximize your pee. An added benefit of consuming caffeinated beverages is that you'll have to pee. But don't just head off to the bathroom at the first urge to go. Read over the day's itinerary and determine what will be the worst session. Even if it's painful, wait until you're a few minutes into that session, then walk out to use the restroom. The two-three minutes it takes to walk to the restroom, relieve yourself, and walk back to the meeting is often all the respite needed to survive until an actual scheduled break.

6a. Take a phone call. If your spouse, another family member, or a friend calls, it could be an emergency, right? Better answer the call just to be sure.

6b. Arrange a phone call. If you receive an agenda to start the day, look it over and spot the most painful session. Text a friend and ask him/her to call you during that time.

7. Invent a new education acronym. Not only will this provide you with a distraction, it could be the springboard to an early retirement and making millions hocking your product. Spend the first day coming up with the acronym and then write a short book replete with graphic organizers the rest of the week. There's really no need to develop a novel concept. Just pick an old edu-fad and rename it.

8. Imagine you're Bill Gates. Think of a field you have no experience in but would like to heavily influence. List changes you'd make to that field if you had billions of dollars worth of influence and a legion of "yes men."

9. Pretend you're somewhere else. Say you'd rather be at the beach. Bring in a basin full of sand to place your feet in, a lounge chair, some sun block to rub on, and head phones to listen to the sounds of the ocean on a phone app. Then just close your eyes. *Note - This works best if the speaker has an obstructed view of you.

10. Injure yourself. I've never tried this one, but if I get desperate enough someday, I might. I'm not talking about anything that would necessitate a trip to the ER, just something that would require you to leave the room--a papercut that draws blood, a fall out of your chair, spilling a hot drink on yourself, etc.

First Thoughts on Inception

I'm late to the Inception dissection party, having finally gotten around to seeing the film just this afternoon. My initial thoughts are below. Chances are you noticed some of the same things and likely more. What's your take?

Like Memento, I think I'd probably need to see it several more times to begin having a real grasp--or as much a grasp as Nolan intends the viewer to have--on it.

Although the top appears to be losing momentum at the end--and it certainly sounds like it's beginning to wobble--the ending, I think, is an inception on the viewer, the idea that what appears to be Cobb returning home to his real kids may really just be another dream. But he doesn't seem to care one way or the other because he never stays around to watch to see it if stops; his kids turn to him, and he runs outside to embrace them.

Reading people's takes on whether the end is a dream or reality, I haven't come across any of the pro-dream theorists noticing some parallels to Memento. In Memento, before Leonard kills Teddy., Teddy explains that Leonard had already killed his wife's attacker. Being that Teddy. isn't the most trustworthy guy, it's hard to accept what he says until it's revealed that Leonard intentionally duped himself into killing Teddy (the most recent of multiple John G.'s) so he could continue on this quest he's created to give his life meaning. When Dom and Ariadne find Mal in the world he and Mal had constructed, she tells him what he believes is reality--the globetrotting, the working for powerbrokers, etc.--isn't. Her explanation may be nothing more than his guilt and subconscious pulling at him, or it could be--if he's still in a dream at the end--that she isn't dead in reality, that she enters his dreams trying to pull him out. She does stab him, after all. Or she could still be a projection of his subconscious but one that's connected to the part of his mind that knows he's dreaming.

Towards the end of Memento, especially during Teddy's revelation to Leonard, Leonard's memories begin shifting between what actually occurred and what his mind has construed: he sees himself in the mental institution instead of Sammy Jankis, he sees himself playfully pinching his wife, but then sees himself giving her an insulin shot. In every flashback to Dom and Mal's dream world, the two of them are young. But when Mal says, "You promised we'd grow old together," Dom says they did, and then there's a cut to a brief scene of them walking hand-in-hand in their dream world, but they're old. This wouldn't seem that odd except in flashback to them killing themselves on the train tracks in order to wake up, they're young and at that point they've lived in the dream world for 50 years. (Someone on imdb said there's a shot of their hands looking old before the train hits them. Did anyone see that?)

As for the "back to reality" interpretation, the fact that Dom wears his wedding ring in dream sequences and doesn't in what's supposed to be reality suggests there is a reality he returns to throughout the film. Also, as many reviewers have noted, it's not coincidental Ellen Page's character is named Ariadne, an allusion to the woman who leads Theseus out of the minotaur's maze. If reality is where Dom winds up at the end of the film, then Ariadne has been the one who has helped him navigate through his deep-seated guilt surrounding Mal. Some reviewers have noted that two sets of children played Dom's kids, which would seem to indicate his return home is a real one since the kids would've aged some since he's left. Also, if the whole movie were a dream--or he's in a dream at the end--at some point he's going to wake up, and not much time would've passed in reality. For it to be otherwise, a whole storyline would have to exist outside the movie--he's in a coma, he's in the Matrix, etc.

I lean towards the reality interpretation, (I think someone could make a strong case for him being in a dream from the basement scene on) but I don't think it's as big an issue for Nolan as it is for the viewer. Leonard, in his few minute segments of full awareness, knowingly perpetuates his quest, embracing what gives him purpose. With Saito's proposal, Dom finally has a means to get back home to his kids. Ultimately, he does that in reality or in a dream level, and his walking away from the top seems to indicate he doesn't care which one it is.

A couple of miscellaneous things I'm hoping you know the answers to:

The conversation between old Saito and Dom is different the second time. Is the second conversation supposed to be the tail end of the one they start at the beginning of the film or has Dom actually been there before?

Did you make out what any of the documents Dom pulls from Saito's safe say? I suspect the only significance is what's blacked out since in the next dream level up Dom says Saito was holding something back from him.

Did you notice if his passport stamp says anything out of the ordinary?

Oh, one last thing. I think it's interesting how even fundamental editing and storytelling techniques add to the film's ambiguity. For example, in an ordinary film, when a character says he's going to, say, catch a flight from Chicago to L.A., and boards the plane in one scene and in the next is somewhere in L.A., the viewer finds nothing strange about not showing the actual flight. But take the end of Inception, for example. In one scene Dom's father-in-law is greeting him at the airport; in the next they're at Dom's house and the kids are playing outside. At least twice in the movie, Dom explains to another character that in dreams you find yourself in the middle of a situation but don't recall how you got there.

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day Four

This week I've been reminded that English teachers are a fraternity of sorts. We don't have any secret handshakes I'm aware of, no mystery-cloaked induction rituals, but we're bonded by similar interests and experiences, ones that to outsiders, like, say, those in the math fraternity, often appear peculiar (as if anyone in that fraternity has any room to talk).
But we don't all share the same level of enthusiasm for our group. Some of us like it well enough to maintain our membership but hold out hope a cooler fraternity will someday ask us to join. Others of us area active members who read up on the literature, attend the meetings, and embrace our few creeds but whose interests extend beyond those things. Then there are those of us who are zealots. We wear our fraternity apparel each day and sleep in it every night. We don't just know the know the lingo, we coin new lingo and write books about it. We don't just admire those teachers in inspirational teacher movies, we are the teachers those movies are about.
Which sort of English teacher are you? Well, I've developed the self-assessment below to help you find out. It's all very scientific, of course.
When the school year ends, you
1 - don't waste a single thought on teaching until you stroll through your classroom doors in August.
2 - relax, travel some, and mull over your plans for the coming year a week or two before it starts, saving the lesson planning for in-service.
3 - aren't aware the school year ever ended. Does it really? You've got conferences to attend, pedagogical books to read, and units to write.
If you won the lottery, you
1 - would call your principal at 11:00 at night when you found out and scream ecstatically, "I quit! I quit! You can take your differentiated instruction and shove it!"
2 - would quit, but you'd come in the next day to say goodbye to everyone, maybe donate a small amount of your winnings to your school, then travel to some of the places you've spent years reading about but have never been to.
3 - would keep teaching with no thought of ever quitting. You think you'd get bored if you quit. With part of your winnings, you purchase class sets of each of the novels on the Modern Library's Top 100 list, send your prized students to writing camps, and attend at least two Harry Wong seminars a year.
Your students
1 - are all lazy, stupid punks--with the exception of one or two.
2 - can be lazy, stupid punks at times--a few just are--but you like them and they like you. You enjoy teaching them--even mentoring some--and you gain satisfaction when something you've taught them sticks.
3 - all have the potential to wind up in a Norton Anthology someday; you just have to nurture them and help them discover their inner writer.
If you could do something besides teach, you would
1 - find whatever career paid the most.
2 - pursue a career in the arts or something related to travel.
3 - This is a stupid question. I'd never even consider doing anything else.
When someone makes a grammatical error in writing or conversation, you
1 - don't even notice. Who cares about grammar?
2 - occasionally correct the person if it's someone who know well. If it's a casual acquaintance or a stranger, you let it slide. If it's one of your administrators, you get a few laughs about it later with your department colleagues.
3 - correct the person immediately. Each grammatical error is a crack in the dam that holds back the flood of stupidity and illiteracy that threatens to destroy our country.
When you have time to read books not related to your curriculum, you
1 - don't read anything. You just spend your days on Netflix catching up on movies you've missed.
2 - might read a serious book occasionally, but you prefer something lighter or something from the best seller list/beach-reading fluff.
3 - choose a novel with some literary heft. There are classics and critically-acclaimed novels you haven't read. Why would you want to read much of anything else?
6-7: You're an inactive member. If you've been inactive for a while, it's probably best to join another fraternity.
12-13: You're an active member. You're not consumed by the fraternity's activities, but they are important to you. Barring a windfall or a change of heart, you plan on being an active member until you retire.
14+: You're a zealot. Some fraternity members find your passion inspiring while others just think you're deranged. You don't care what anyone thinks, though. You were put on this planet to teach English! Our fraternity needs a few people like you, but you can't expect everyone else to share your level of dedication.

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day Three

The one consolation this week whenever I returned to my half of the Spartan quad, with its jaundiced light, its bed high enough to avoid flood waters, its shower head that spritzes wildly from its seam over the shower curtain, and its toilet that refuses to stop running, was that at least I had it all to myself. Not anymore.
When I came back this afternoon after a run, I was just about to peel off my clothes and hop in the shower when I heard a knock at the door. At first, because of the way sound carries in the building, I wasn't sure it was my door. There was another knock. I could tell then it was definitely my door, so I decided to go answer it. I thought maybe the guy staying in a room on the other side of the quad had forgotten his key. Sweating all over the floor like a snail leaving its path of slime, I was just about to reach for the door when it opened, and in stepped the dull-eyed duo from Sunday's check-in table.
"Hi, we're _____ and _____ from the Residence Life office."
Oh, trust me, I hadn't forgotten you.
"Someone who'd been assigned the wrong room is moving into Room C. We're here to check it first."
What? How is there even such a thing as a wrong room? I'd understand if there were a reservation mix up--"I asked for a cell on the second floor overlooking the courtyard. The one who gave me overlooks the laundry mat." But nobody here reserved a room! And this is the third day of the conference, so the man didn't just check in today. That means he's been in the wrong room since at least Monday. Why not just let him stay there? Obviously he had no way of knowing he'd been in the wrong room. It's not like he woke up this morning feeling uneasy and thought, "Man, something's weird. I don't know why, but it feels like I'm in the wrong room." I'm guessing the dull-eyed duo or the Chief of Sprinkler Safety noticed they'd given him the wrong room and thought they'd better fix their mistake, inconveniencing the guy by making him move and ruining my beloved solitude.
I know there's a good chance I won't see or hear the guy at all tonight. But the morning is another story. I'm not a morning person. My mother-in-law even got me a t-shirt for Christmas one year that reads, "Good Morning Is an Oxymoron." I can get up early--I have to most days--I'm just not happy to. I can't stand anyone's perkiness before at least 8:30, and I can muster little more than grunts, nods, and half-waves anytime earlier than 7:00. (I make exceptions for my wife and daughter.) Because I prefer as little human contact as possible until I've had breakfast, drunk a cup of coffee, and regained full consciousness, I've been forcing myself out of bed at 6:30 this week. Now with a quadmate, I'm going to have to get up even earlier. Otherwise I may have to wait to shower and run out of time to eat breakfast. Or, worse yet, I may have to share the sink with him, each waiting our turn to spit and rinse. I'll take 100 tote bags over that any day.

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day Two

Cramped with Lumbar-torturing desks and three pianos and cold enough to conjure thoughts of "To Build a Fire," our yellowed cinder block meeting room isn't what educational theorists would dub a welcoming learning environment. Adding fatigue and an increasingly long-winded instructor to the mix, I had myself a long day. Long, but not unproductive (I got some solid ideas for teaching synthesis essays) and not without its humor.

In my 12th grade English class, my teacher would occasionally play us recordings of poets reading some of their most famous works. Some, like W. B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas, were mesmerizing. But others were so odd or deadpan they all but sapped the life from their poems. E. E. Cummings sounded like a swaying drunk at times. T.S. Eliot had all the life of a British automated customer service prompt, and Elizabeth Bishop could've passed for a bored waitress reciting the day's specials. I still find it sort of strange how such brilliant poets couldn't do justice to their own work. But then again, it's not like gifted playwrights are necessarily good actors.

Um, Jason, what about the conference? Well, I've always believed an English teacher needs to have the ability to bring a work to life when you read it aloud. I don't mean being over-the-top, just conveying the tone and nuances of the text. (If you lack inflection or any sense of natural rhythm, don't blame the students when they've got their heads on their desks, drooling all over the work of your favorite writer.) During today's session we read several excerpts from noted essays, as well as student writing, aloud. Let's just say I'm not convinced everyone in there shared my conviction.

Most who read were excellent, but a few only made our time in the would-be meat locker seem that much longer. The worst, a lady who read through end marks and stumbled over several words per line, reminded me of the time I inadvertently assigned one of my worst readers the part of Mercutio--I'm not sure he's finished the Queen Mab soliloquy yet. When somebody is all-out butchering a passage, though, there's always the prospect of unintentional humor.

She didn't disappoint.

In the essay she was reading, the student cited an author who described his handwriting as "exotic, anonymous scrawl." Before she came to this phrase, she'd found her footing for a sentence or two. But no sooner did it seem she had finally stopped careening through the text than she said, "erotic, anonymous scrawl." You know, it can't be often a writer goes from self-publishing on bathroom stalls to being included on AP tests.

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day One

After a night of fitful sleep filled with dreams of a wedding, a talent show, and attempted car bombings, I woke up around 6:30 feeling halfway rested, with a sore lower back and remarkably clear sinus passages. I guess I owe the latter to the mountain air (see yesterday's description of my bed).

The one thing staying on-site has over staying at a hotel is breakfast. You're not going to get gourmet fare either place, but a college cafeteria in the early morning offers the peace and quiet you just can't get when you're cramped into a continental breakfast space with thirty-seven other people, jostling your way past harried parents and hyperactive children to pour yourself the few flakes of cereal that will fit into crappy styrofoam bowl, douse it with lukewarm milk, grab a mushy apple and an oily muffin, pour a glass of the aforementioned milk or a cup of tasteless coffee, and then perform a balancing feat the likes of which plate spinners would marvel at as you weave to find an open table, stopping for a moment to consider making yourself a waffle until you notice a plump, bushy-haired woman in spaghetti straps who is no match for the technological sophistication of a waffle iron is holding up the line, at last plopping down at a table sticky from syrup to eat your disappointing breakfast.

I had no such experience this morning. I strolled into the cafeteria, poured myself a bowl of Total (crappy styrofoam bowl but cold milk), grabbed a plate with two of the morning's hot breakfast offerings--eggs that looked like couch stuffing but tasted decent and some steak fingers--and a fresh apple, poured a glass of ice water, and then had about fifty tables to choose from for a seat. Delightful. And, did I mention I ate steak fingers? They've been a cafeteria staple since at least 1983 when I was in kindergarten, but I suspect cafeterias were serving up those tasty, breaded, amorphous chunks of mystery meat long before I was even conceived.

So with food in my belly and memories of Lincolnshire Elementary in my head, I decided to kill the forty-five minutes before the opening session exploring the Student Union building. It's quite a nice building, really. The front is almost entirely windows, so plenty of natural light shines in. Each floor (there are three) has several seating areas with deep, cushioned chairs, and the third floor has a veranda overlooking the central part of campus. There's a campus book store, of course, and a career counseling center (depending on how the week goes, maybe I'll drop in) among other offices, but what really caught my attention was a sign indicating the Sun Belt Lounge was located on the second floor.

Intrigued, I headed to find it. The Sun Belt Lounge. The name conjured up thoughts of an oasis of relaxation, the sort of place I've always wanted as a teachers' lounge. Yes, I could see it--lounge chairs encircling a small pool, a jacuzzi, a retractable sun roof, waiters dressed in white carrying trays of mixed drinks to people sunbathing by the pool, and a calypso band playing off to the side. Ready to call out my drink order, I turned into the Sun Belt Lounge. But there was no pool. No jacuzzi. No mixed drinks. Not even a recording of a calypso band. Just a Starbucks stand closed for the summer, more of the chairs found elsewhere in the building, and a slew of computers on tables along the walls.

The school really needs to change the name of the "lounge." I'd go with Sunlit But Empty Email-Checking Haven That's Only Anything Remotely Like a Cafe from September-May. I guess that would be too long to fit on one of their signs.

Finally it was time for the opening session. As you'd expect, it was far from exciting. The fellow in charge made a few remarks and a woman who works for some institute/organization/association that goes by some acronym I can't remember rambled about a study someone conducted that found students who take AP classes in high school have higher GPA's in college than students who don't. Wow! Who could've guessed? Of course, now whoever led the study can add "demonstrates the ability to state the obvious through superfluous research" to his or her resume.

Boring? Yes. But I appreciated the opening session for what it didn’t have. I’ve attended about a dozen conferences in my ten years of teaching, and each one before this has included two things I abhor: tote bags and ice breakers.

Now, I realize my ineptness with power tools, my dislike of driving big vehicles, my inability to grow a beard, and my affinity for high-priced hair gel all preclude me from ever being labeled “rugged,” but I’m a heterosexual man, and no heterosexual man wants a tote bag, free or not. Especially one with the hokey name of the conference on it like “Ropin’ Up Dreams.” Whenever I’ve been really unlucky, I’ve received a t-shirt big enough to completely clothe the mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape along with the tote bag. Just give me a free pen or two and leave it at that. Please.

As for ice breakers, some people might argue I don’t like them because I’m an introvert. But that’s not it at all. I just prefer getting to know someone I’ve just met by simply engaging in a conversation. I can’t believe there’s ever been a friendship in all of history that began when two people learned they were born in the same month, had the same last digit of their SSN#s, or raced each other while balancing ping-pong balls on spoons they held in their mouths.

But I digress.

Once we broke off into the subject-specific groups we’ll be in the rest of the week, our instructor did have us introduce ourselves by telling our name, where we teach, and what we teach. It was during these introductions that I got an idea for a research study of my own that would measure whether teachers in small Arkansas schools have higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. I’d say ¾ of the people in my class (we have 30) have at least three or four preps, often in two or more subject areas. One lady has six preps! I hope her school stocks the teachers’ lounge with Prozac and Valium.

If I ever conduct a conference (yes, I know that will never happen), I’ll have the instructors pass out their myriad of lesson plans and teacher resources, and then give teachers the rest of the day to peruse the material. Then teachers will come to a session the next day where they can ask the instructor any questions they have after reading the material.

Obviously the folks at the College Board don’t think like I do. Our session today (Tuesday-Thursday will be the same) ran from 8:30-4:30, with two 15-minute breaks and an hour break for lunch. I don’t care if you’re in a class that’s co-taught by every teacher who’s ever had a movie made about them, that much sitting and listening in one place gets tiring quickly.

So I’d be hard-pressed to describe today’s session as interesting or entertaining (parts of it were), but our instructor, who has taught AP for years and served as a test grader many times as well, did provide us with a wealth of good material, including a three-ring binder as thick as a phone book with most of her activities and handouts for a school year and a free book. We’ll be receiving three more books later in the week. The only real downside to all that, though, as any teacher who’s been to a conference knows, is that so much information can be overwhelming, especially once you try to determine what of it you can manage to incorporate into your classes. It’s like to trying to catch a tidal wave in a teacup.

Seven hours of sitting and downing a caffeinated beverage or left me with quite a bit of pent up energy, so I changed into a t-shirt and gym shorts after the session and headed to the fitness center. In just over an hour I managed to squeeze in two exercises per upper-body muscle group (3 sets each), 150 crunches, and a hard, 12-minute run on the track. I think I could’ve given someone on speed a run for his money.

While I was working out, surrounded by a bunch of college kids, it struck me that it’s been ten years since I graduated from college—ten years since I was in some of their shoes, deciding where I’d live, how I’d live, what I’d do for a living, what aspirations I’d pursue, who I wanted to be. That wasn’t the first time I’d pondered those questions, though; that’s just when I realized, “Crap, I have to figure this out-now!” Those questions emerged years before in my early teens and took on a more definite shape my last few years of high school. But I wasn’t the only one asking them of myself. My parents asked them. Spiritual mentors asked them. Teachers asked them.

Occasionally my teachers asked me straight out, but more often it was indirectly, through engaging me in thoughtful discussions, through encouraging me to utilize my talents, through knocking me down a peg or two when my head swelled to where my 158 lb frame could hardly support it or offering an open door and a listening ear when typical high school emotional turmoil weighed heavily on me.

Not to sound sappy, but the opportunity to ask those questions of my students is a big reason why I teach. That and the free tote bags.

Dispatches from a Teachers' Conference: Day Zero

The AP conference I'm attending at Arkansas State University doesn't even begin until tomorrow morning, but I've already learned something vitally important: If your district gives you the choice between staying at a hotel and getting reimbursed or staying on-site at a college, whatever you do, choose the hotel.

That was the lesson Kim and I learned the hard way this evening as we wandered helplessly across ASU's campus, guided only by vague directions, looking for where to check-in. Following the instructions we received in an email, we wound up in a nearly deserted parking lot next to a building that's under construction. No problem, we thought. We'd just walk until we found the check-in. So we walked. And walked. And walked. All the while we never saw a single soul. The campus had all the makings of a ghost town. All it needed was a few tumbleweeds rolling in front of the student center. No, scratch that. The buildings looked too new to be a ghost town.

It was more like the Stephen King story "The Langoliers," where a plane passes into some other dimension and lands at a deserted airport. Of course, we were short an Australian hitman, a blind girl, a crazy guy who stabs another passenger, and the strange, static noise in the distance of the langoliers coming to devour us.

I am convinced Jonesboro is in another dimension, though.

Eventually we spotted three campus security guys cruising around in a golf cart. Once we explained our predicament to them, one guy called the head of security who told me, "All you have to do is go over the hill to your right about three hundred yards and then you'll go to the Commons Building at the North Quads to check in. There are lots of signs up."

Okay. Simple enough. So we headed back to the car and drove in the direction he'd told us to go. We saw apartments that we supposed could have been the elusive North Quads, but we didn't know for sure because there were no signs. After we turned down a road not even listed in the directions, we found the entrance to the complex, and what do you know, there was a sign (the only sign anywhere on campus mentioning the conference)! Not the sort of sign you'd expect to see, mind you, one large enough to see from a distance, brightly lettered, welcoming teachers to the AP conference. Nope. Apparently they didn't enlist an undergrad in graphic design to tackle this sign--a white sign about 14'' x 20" sitting two inches off the ground that read "Check-in for Summer Conference," with an arrow pointing straight ahead. Thanks, that was really helpful.

Well, at least we'd found the North Quads. Now it was just a matter of finding the Commons Building . . . the Commons Building . . . the Com . . . oh, come on, where in the @@#I%%U!@#%U*%!!!!! is it!

The only building we saw besides the dormitories was the laundry mat. Dejected, I spotted a sign at the far end of the parking lot that read "Commons Building." At last!

Sweaty, tired, hungry, we lumbered up to the door where a college-age guy greeted us.

"Are you guys looking for the teacher conference check-in?"


"That's in the Commons Building. This is the Red Wolf Inn. Don't feel bad. You guys are like the fourth group in the past hour that's come here."

"You know, this building has a sign right in front of it that says . . . Oh, never mind. Could you tell us where the Commons Building is then?"

"It's that building right down there."

Yep. The laundry mat.

There, in the back of the laundry mat, sat two bemused-looking college girls at beige formica table, with a hand-made sign behind them that said "Welcome, Teachers to the AP Conference." I felt a bit like I was at a voting site in a third-world country, but without a few stray goats eating dryer sheets in the corner.

"Do you have any information packets?"

"No, sorry."

"Do you have a map of the campus?"

"No, but I think there might be a book in the other room that lists things to do in Jonesboro. Oh, before you go, Matt has to go over some things with you."

Matt, who had been manning the registration table for a bio-tech conference, stepped up and greeted us with a look serious enough that I didn't know whether he was going to give us a few helpful tips about the Quads or entrust us with classified government papers someone may try to kill us for while we're sleeping.

"Okay, just a few things I need to go over with you. Make sure you don't lose your keys. They're $135 to replace. The smoke detectors are very sensitive. Don't spray hair spray or light a match under them. Don't throw anything at the smoke detector or sprinkler."

Really? 'Cause I'd been pretty psyched about throwing my shoes at the sprinkler while I smoked a cigar and styled my hair.

"And don't hang any clothes from the sprinkler either."

So, I should use the clothes rod in the closet for that, right?

"And, give a hoot, don't pollute."

Okay, he didn't say that. He did hand us a trash bag and tell us to come back for more if we needed them, though.

So after that tutorial, we were off to our rooms. Well, we would've been, if we'd known where they were. Oh, our key envelopes had room numbers, it's just that no one at the laundro-check-in-o-mat told us which of the two dozen or so buildings we were in, and none of the buildings were numbered. So, it was back to the laudro-check-in-o-mat to find out which building. Thankfully, it was the building right behind it.

My colleague and I were/are staying on the second and third floors respectively, and, naturally, the building doesn't have an elevator. A short work out later, I arrived at my room. I'm not sure what exactly I expected my room in the quad to be like, but let's just say I found the roughly 8' x 8', linoleum-tiled space with a yellow overhead light, a small desk, and a bed set four feet off the ground a wee bit disappointing. It appears you can adjust the bed height. The problem is the conference's "what to bring" list didn't include a tool kit.

As I write this, I'm lounging atop Mt. Mattress, listening to the man in the adjacent quad who's snoring so loudly I can feel a faint vibration when I put my hand to the wall.

And, just to think, the conference hasn't even started.

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