I don’t believe in Superman

Most of the teachers in our school are trying something new this week.  Some of our teachers are new to our school, so everything seems new.  Some of our teachers were members of our senior class two months ago, which is alternately exciting and terrifying.  (ESL instructors with basic English fluency are really, really hard to come by.)  Many of us are dealing with brand new curriculum, books that only just arrived or that may not arrive until a few weeks after class starts.

We’ve only been back for four days, but it seems like a lot of people are at some stage of this script:

Act I: “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Act II: “It’s going to work.  I think.”

Act III: “It’s going to work!”

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“I knew he meant us!” cried Demi, clapping his hands. “You are the man, and we are the little gardens; aren’t we, Uncle Fritz?”

-Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

I left the Dominican Republic for three weeks this summer.  Before I left, I tried to set my affairs in order.  I prepared the church musicians, cleaned my room for anyone who needed my bed, and handed my garden over to Aneudy, who works the cassava and plantains and fruit trees in the same field.

“There are a lot of tomatoes,” I said.  “You’ll probably have to pick them every other day.”

When I got back, a basket full of bright red fruit attested to Aneudy’s faithfulness.  “Aneudy was out picking tomatoes every day,” my host mom informed me, adding, “and he kept asking, ‘When is Rebecca coming back?'”

Assured of the health of my little plot, I waited another day before I went to check on it.

There were tomatoes.  There was pruning to be done. And there was also an 8-foot dead plantain tree lying across the entire row of tomato plants.

* * * * *

After nine months of cultivation, I sent my students out into summer vacation in June.  I’m getting them back in a little more than two weeks.  I’m nervous about what I’m going to find.

A large proportion of my students went to homes with physical comforts.  Few of them will be worried about hunger.  I’m not likely to lose any to violence, deportation, or serious diseases.  They will be physically safe.

But I also know some of them will be, more or less, left in the care of the internet or their gaming consoles.  Some of them will be left in the charge of nannies and won’t see much of their parents.  Some of them are going back full-time to families where there are significant tensions between relatives, unstable relationships, no clear authority, and no real emotional security.

Many of them are going back to environments where there are few books besides a Bible and no opportunities to use English.  They may not have enough paper to “waste” on mere expressive writing or drawing that isn’t for an assignment- it simply isn’t a spending priority.  They probably do not have parents who read voluntarily in any language, and probably not to them.

My little garden of readers and writers is going to need some TLC when I get it back.

* * * * *

God seems to like the garden metaphor.  He put Adam and Eve in the middle of one and told them to tend it.  Turns out, rebellious humanity doesn’t make good gardeners.

Jesus, seeing a crowd of Samaritans coming through the fields to see him, tells his disciples, “Look, the fields are white for the harvest.”

Jesus tells us that God is a gardener who prunes the Vine’s branches.  Paul shows us how we Gentiles have been grafted into God’s people, and how the Spirit makes the branches bear fruit.

The command that keeps coming up, over and over, in this season of my life is the prayer Jesus told us to pray: Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers.

I’m delighted to see my little church, not so little now, gaining momentum in sending out workers.  While I was back in Illinois, I got to meet brothers and sisters with their eyes set on secular Europe, Latin America, and Asia- and the little villages and neighborhoods closer to home.  So I keep praying: Send more gardeners.  Send more people who will love and tend your plot faithfully.  Bring in the harvest Jesus died to purchase.

Change of seasons; season of changes

I go back to work in two more days.  That is to say, I go back to working in the school building during prescribed hours.  I don’t think I’ve stopped working for more than a few waking hours at a stretch during the entire summer (not even on days I resolved to Take A Break).  I can’t seem to help it; my brain goes there.  Teaching is what I love to think about.

I’m excited to go back.  I’m itching to go back.  I considered calling the building to see if the groundskeeper would let me in a few days early, but that seemed excessive, so I’m still working from home: reading, planning, creating documents, designing posters…

I know not every teacher feels like this.  I know I may not always feel like this.  This will be my second year of classroom teaching, which makes it the first time I get to come back from summer vacation since I was a student myself.  The novelty might wear off.  The annual chance to start fresh might start to blend with all the other years.

But right now, I’m pumped.  Psyched.  Enthusiastic beyond all reason.  Here’s why.

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Because of #ILA15: Takeaways and Bringbacks

I acquired a lot of new information at the ILA convention.  I acquired approximately five metric tons of books at ILA, too.  My heart was fed and my enthusiasm rekindled.

And if I were content with that, ILA would not be complete.  It’s great to get inputs; I’m a fan of Twitter chats, nerd camps, good books, coffee klatches, and research.  We need those.  We need to take in information from other people.

But rather than recap my ILA takeaways, I want to give some of my ILA bring-backs.  I want to talk about some changes I’ll make in my practice because of what I experienced at ILA. Continue reading

#ILA15 Day 1

It’s my first year at ILA.  It’s… a lot to take in.  There are people, noises, events everywhere, all the time.

So I ran out for coffee, because I hadn’t had my second dose, and was so overwhelmed I forgot to put in cream and sugar.  I had to go back into Starbucks. And on my way out, I walked into Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne.

I was a total dork because they are my among my teaching heroes and their work is totally transforming my school.  But Teri gave me an excellent piece of advice, seconded by Donalyn: Don’t go to the things you think you should go to. Go to the things you want to go to. This is your conference.

I took their advice and changed my next session.  Instead of the vocabulary strategy session I had scheduled, I went to one about poetry.

They were right. That was so much better.  Georgia Heard and Penny Kittle showed how they use craft in the service of the heart.

Georgia did a quick write with us, based on a poem titled “You Can’t Have It All”, but whose stanzas listed what the poet could have. We wrote for a minute, maybe two.  With my Dominican garden on my mind, I scribbled:

You can have tomatoes from a field
in a country not your own
and one fat sunflower to tether them to.

Then Georgia gave a few people the opportunity to share.  I half-raised my hand. Then I didn’t raise my hand. Then I raised my hand.  And an actual poet handed me a mic.

About five minutes later I had a slow, controlled panic attack.  I had just read something in front of a bunch of people who knew a whole lot more than me, were way more qualified than me, much better educated than me.

But in that moment, the other, more reasonable half of my mind said, “But did you hear what happened when you finished?”

Because the room whispered, “Ah.”

Well, there’s the power of an authentic audience.  Self-doubt was really close to swallowing me right there.  It was the reaction of the audience, those people who, for five seconds, were connected with my words, that buoyed me up.  They listened. They felt with me my split feelings for my two countries.  And in one sigh, they let me know I was heard.

Beginning with the assumption

When I got to the Dominican Republic, students, teachers, and administrators were all quick to tell me the way school worked.  They told me, “Dominicans don’t read.”  “Students won’t do anything unless it’s for a grade.”  “Teachers need to be told exactly what to do.”  Sometimes, someone would come right out and say it: “They are lazy.”

I don’t like to use the L-word lightly.  I agree with Peter Green that “lazy” is usually a symptom of deeper problems, and it’s more effective to figure out what that problem is.  Without discounting the experience of people who lived and worked in my new community, I decided, I didn’t want to start from that assumption.  If Dominicans as a whole were lazy, I at least wanted to earn the right to hold that opinion based on my own experience and best efforts.  I didn’t believe it was possible for an entire country to be, at its core, entirely unmotivated to get off its duff for anything without bribes or threats.

One year later, I still don’t believe it.

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