Tag Archives: Work

Number 500

closed-signOnce or twice, after arriving at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I’ve discovered it closed for good. On the door is a pithy thank you note to loyal patrons. First I think, “Oh no!” and then, “Are they calling me out? Wasn’t I loyal?”

They don’t have me in mind. Restaurants close all the time in Chicago. It’s rough getting started, rough maintaining quality, rough remaining relevant, and rough for owners who must sometimes resent the crazy, constant labor of their working lives. Even popular places can’t always make a go of it when the rent rises or someplace new opens nearby. More loyal patronage, I’ve decided, wouldn’t help. It’s the situation. Better to remember the wonderful meals you had there with friends and move on.

Today’s post is my last on Signals to Attend at least until the end of the year, and maybe forever. For some time, I’ve been thinking about closing. And though I haven’t decided entirely, I feel finished.

A blog isn’t like a restaurant. Few people make a profit, so money doesn’t matter. Nor do I rely on visitors as restaurants must. Okay… it sometimes bothers me when an essay or story I’ve slaved over gathers few readers, but then I tell myself I don’t do it for numbers. People are busy, and it’s nothing against me.

Which brings me to bloggers’ similarities with restaurant owners, at least the ones who never hit the big time. We don’t expect fame, maybe, but we hope to provide a place where pleasure might be found. We don’t imagine we’re the only choice or the most revered or the glitziest, buzziest choice, but we hope to satisfy those who happen in, loyal or not. And much of what we do is behind the scenes… necessarily so. The cycles of resupply and preparation that carry us from one offering to the next aren’t visible. We think, plan, and rethink until we’re ready, and, if  we aim for our best work, we don’t begrudge the labor.

As announced in the title, this post is number 500. I couldn’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent composing and revising for this blog. Dear Reader, it may not seem much, but for six years, my life has revolved around being here. Whatever else I was doing—reading, preparing for class, grading papers, coaching, writing grade reports, traveling, dealing with personal and family crises and celebrations, seeing to the rest of my creative life on my other blogs and in my other life as a visual artist—I appeared here at the requisite times. I wanted to post something new, and I’ve missed few deadlines I set for myself. Sometimes this blog felt like a part time job in a life too busy to accommodate one.

More so lately, not just because of the challenge of finding something new to say or because I’m still seeking different voices and styles but also because questions about my purpose nag me. Distinguishing between desire and obligation can be difficult, especially as visitors shrink and the thrill of twice being “Freshly Pressed” or cresting some follower milestone fade. I’m proud of my consistency—even if it’s crap, there’s a lot of it!—but when I mention my blog to friends and colleagues these days, they ask, “Are you still doing that?”

A restaurant owner might say doing anything for a long time—even when you try your damnedest to maintain quality—makes you reliable, which is not at all the same as exciting.

I’m not leaving the blogosphere entirely. I have a poetry blog I post to when I feel like it, a haiku-a-day site I’m devoted to, and the weekly cocktail blog I share with my brother. This site will stay open, if only as an archive.

So consider this my note on the door:

Thank you to all my loyal and not-so-loyal followers, my periodic and random visitors, my disgruntled objectors, my sympathetic ears, and my tsk-tskers. Your intelligent reading, your “Likes,” and especially your thoughtful comments inspired me and challenged me and helped me grow. You have been the center of my attention, and, though you may no longer find new material here, you haven’t left my thoughts.

 

 

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Filed under Apologies, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Time, Work, Worry, Writing

A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.

 

 

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Knowing Where I Am

080823-N-9818V-375Dean Reese’s tight smile conveyed success—yes, I could drop Macroeconomic Theory though drop-add had long passed. No, it wouldn’t appear on my transcript. Yet his smile spoke. “All of us have weaknesses,” he said, “it makes us humble.” The scolding followed.

He said he wouldn’t rescue me again because I was meant to learn from experience. You expect trouble. You try harder. You compensate. And if none of that works, you accept failure and move on, wiser about what’s reasonable to demand from yourself. You can’t always escape from the trouble you find.

I thought I knew that.

The year before, I’d enrolled in calculus, and despite endless hours doing and redoing practice problems and a deep determination to prove I could learn anything, I failed the first two tests. Any math class would have satisfied my requirement, but I wanted to learn calculus and believed no subject could be beyond me if I tried harder than anyone else ever had before.

My calculus teacher, a stuttering graduate student from Scotland, knew his subject well and worked hard to help me, but my eyes danced over every page of numbers and variables. They would no more land there than my feet would settle on hotplates. I resigned myself to blotting my academic record and decided to study hard enough to eke out a “Gentleman’s C.”

You discover who you are by failing, I told myself. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or blushing with deep embarrassment and error and realizing, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters ultimately.

In calculus, finally free from anxiety and my overblown drive, I caught up with the algebra everyone else already knew, relaxed, and started doing well. Then amazingly well. Maybe my professor gave me a gift, but I received a B at the end of the term. It felt like escape—a triumphant one—and I learned nothing.

So I landed in Macroeconomic theory the next year, doomed to trip into the same situation again, again, and again.

Dean Reese’s message never sticks for long, which some would say is good, but not really.

When I was running and racing a lot, I’d stand in the crowd at the starting line reviewing my training, reassuring myself I’d done all I needed to prepare. “The money is in the bank,” I’d say. Yet, looking around, the runners in my area looked equally fit, and some—I could tell just by assessing their physiques and demeanor—would run much faster that day. They were what I’d like to be and more blessed with lung capacity plus slow and fast twitch fiber I’d never possess no matter how I trained. It was liberating to admire them, and I’m not sure why, but seeing how much more limited I was comforted me as much as patting myself on the back for working hard.

The challenge of balancing ambition and acceptance seems endless. I want so much and want to know how much I can reasonably want. It’s good to strive. We’ve told so from birth. But wouldn’t it be nice to know where striving ends and living with your actual self begins?

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Finnish Envy

a_wteachers_hammond_0225Reading about reforms in US education, you’re bound to run into the term “Finnish Envy.” Until recently, Finland led the world in nearly all the categories of the PISA test designed to measure educational success, and—by any measure and despite any drop—their 30 year program to reform schooling has been remarkably successful.

In contrast, Americans, who dislike being second at anything, rank seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in mathematics among the thirty-four participating countries, a drop from 2009, when the US placed fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

Particularly galling about these results is that Finland does everything the US does not. They reject tracking and elite, charter-style schooling and put their euros into failing schools instead of successful ones. Rather than financially rewarding successful schools as we do in the US, the Finnish system grows alarmed when one school attracts more students than another and seeks to make every school desirable.

What’s more—and perhaps more significant—they create a culture of reverence for teachers. Finland believes not everyone has the talent to be a teacher, so few people get to be teachers in Finland, only the best. On a relative scale, teachers in Finland are paid—on average—less than US teachers, but they’re expected to engage in continual professional development. With no merit pay, they seek long careers in hopes of experiencing the steady and dramatic raises their system promises. In short, teachers are elite, just as lawyers and doctors are in other nations and, as such, receive accolades denied American teachers who—let’s face it—often garner more contempt than admiration. From the average American’s perspective, who couldn’t teach? We know better what good teaching is because we all went to school, and, besides, those who can, do… those who cannot… well, you know the rest.

The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education, but a larger percentage of American funding goes into “administrative costs.”

For Americans, the most baffling aspect of Finnish education is that teacher unions are particularly influential. With 96% of in the union, teachers have much more to say about what schools should do, whereas documentaries like Waiting for Superman villainize unions as the chief cause for American education’s failures. In Finland, administrations regard teachers’ advice as knowing and central, and many of the reforms suggested by teachers—less homework and more play during the day, more cooperative learning and less competition and assessment—contribute significantly to students’ progress. Those who administer and those who teach cooperate through a common purpose without becoming defensive or adversarial.

And the Finnish are uninterested in testing. They give one test, when a student graduates, just to see what’s happened. Americans’ mania for testing seeks constant feedback, constant evidence of progress, but Finnish teachers and administrators regard scores as data to consider, one numerical version of accomplishment.

To Americans, Finnish education seems too relaxed. No one really starts schooling until seven, and high school students take vocational classes and sometimes eschew calculus in favor or cooking, bookkeeping in favor of AP Microeconomics or reading over literature. Of course, you can take those classes if you desire but only if you desire. Desire is paramount, not extrinsic necessity or guessing about future demands on students or craven computation of what stamp will credential graduates.

Critics of Finnish Envy say Finland’s solutions are unsuited to American culture, where the premium is on ambition, getting ahead, not settling into vocational training but seeking excellence over the bottom line. Americans like to believe there’s more room at the top in American education for those who have the desire and drive and aggression to take advantage. Yet, among developing nations, Finland ranks in the top three for the greatest intra-generational boost in income between birth and adult life , despite their extraordinary number of immigrants and refugees.

The US leads the world in perception of individual progress but, in fact, ranks last in actual social mobility.

Still, for a system so lauded for success, Finland seems nonplussed. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. They only desire learning and put the political and ephemeral and ostentatious aside in favor of one end, giving everyone access to an equal education.

Inspiring envy isn’t their aim but effectiveness. Trying smarter beats trying harder.

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