Category: Teaching


Teach Your Children Well: A Coverfolk Mix
In Celebration of The National Teach-In (February 17, 2017)

February 12th, 2017 — 4:32pm


nationalteachin


Sundays mean lesson planning, in the world of public school teaching. And so, although white-out conditions outside my cozy living room window suggest another snow day tomorrow, I’m looking ahead to Friday, where – in solidarity with those currently calling for a general strike – a few fellow schoolteachers and I are spearheading a National Teach-In in response to ongoing policy concerns which we see as harmful to truth, public education, common decency, and the dignity of our students and their families.

Because a well informed electorate cannot be taken advantage of by “alternate facts”. And because as educators, we believe it is our duty to develop that informed electorate within our own communities.

Historically, teach-ins are a form of civil disobedience, in which professors stand outside the canon, plying their status and knowledge on behalf of the counterculture. But in a very important way, regaining our footing by reclaiming our classrooms and hallways as strongholds of truth and justice is a restorative act, not a political one.

Teaching about the three branches of American government, and their checks and balances, are as innate to the History curriculum as the history of protest song, and its effects and effectiveness. Exploring popularity polls and gerrymandering are perfect pursuits for the Math teacher required by administration to make connections to the real world as they teach. Covering climate change, resource management through pipelines, and other issues currently on the ground in the Sciences is cemented into the pathways we must follow. Art and Music owe themselves to explore the way in which their forms are and have been utilized to speak truth to power, in our past and in our present.

Indeed, arguably, to NOT integrate the larger on-the-ground issues of our time and temperament into the classroom is to abdicate our responsibility to the highly-politicized infrastructure in which teaching and learning currently stand.

To join the Teach-In, then, becomes merely a matter of tweaking the pacing guide, and then delivering a lesson mindfully and joyfully, knowing that others across the nation are doing the same. And if it feels subversive, then perhaps that merely means that this is what teaching should feel like.


And so – since the Common Core Standards which guide my practice as an English teacher mandate that I prepare my students to “Analyze…[the] particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature” – I will spend this Friday with my students analyzing the promise of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and move from there to explore the particular standpoints and imagery of a series of poems by immigrants and second-generation Americans struggling with their identity, before they engage in clarifying and exposing their own cultural perspective and its expression through the creation of poems, essays, posters and more.

And so, today, here and now, we offer a set of topical songs which speak to the potential of the classroom to truly prepare students to engage politically and deliberately in a world drowning in alternate facts and social media echo chambers – both in celebrating its success, and in admonishing its failure.


There are plenty of songs with school-as-setting out there in the universe; we’ve covered them before. There’s a few songs, too, which reference learning, and the academy itself. But today’s parameters are narrow: songs which speak specifically to the act of teaching, either for its relevance to the real, in preparing our next generation for the social and civic world, or – more frequently – for its failure to connect students to that which matters most. And thanks to the crowdsource, we’ve come up with just enough for a fine mix of coverage.

So listen, and rejoice in the fact that even in the midst of a world driven by metrics and testing, there are still enough of us who remember that the essential purpose of education is prepare our students to take on the mantle of critical, deliberate, imaginative world leadership, and are determined to maintain our classrooms as spaces where mindfulness, critical thinking, and social justice aren’t just welcome, they’re part and parcel of our daily practice.

And if you are a teacher, or just know one, please share this post, or the National Teach-In Facebook page, with every teacher, student, and parent you know – both to help us spread the word about Friday, and to stand in solidarity with those who know that knowledge is power…but that only wisdom is liberty.


Teach Your Children Well: A Coverfolk Mix
…now available in handy zip format!



Artist-centric and ad-free since 2007, Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the makers, the mailers, and YOU. Tune in as the winter continues for new tributes, cover compilations, and coverfolk singles from 2017, plus resurrected features on Jeffrey Foucault, Randy Newman, and more!

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20 Questions: A Coverfolk Mixtape
in celebration of a life of wonder and amazement

February 13th, 2014 — 2:03pm





To be a public school teacher in the new millennium is to be under constant scrutiny, both as a self-critic and from outside. Though the true outcomes of great teaching are essentially unmeasurable, new state-mandated evaluations pick at the edges of sheer competency and compliance by attempting to measure that which can be collected or seen.

The result is a doubling-down of stress and time, with so many hours per day given over to documentation and meetings that our time planning for and delivering instruction becomes threatened. Gone, it seems, is the teachable moment; gone, too, is the depth that brings love and true understanding: if a lesson cannot stand on its own, look like it was supposed to on paper, and correspond directly to at least one question on the state-written test that follows, the black mark will haunt forevermore.

In response, teachers are leaving the profession in droves: hardly a week goes by without yet another teacher’s early retirement condemnation going viral. In my own school, almost a fifth of our faculty has disappeared for warmer, more friendly climates since the school year began. The rest of us live in constant fear, frayed at the edges and cut to the core: too overwhelmed to do anything well, and constantly concerned that we have missed something that might make or break our careers.

But I am young enough to think I am invincible, or at least, unwilling to go without a fight. And so, despite my insistence that excellence should be evident in any moment, I found myself overthinking this Wednesday’s planned observation. And because I am ever the iconoclast, at my best on the edge, I planned something fun, if risky: a lesson on how poets use questions to call attention to the limitations of understanding, starting with Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day, and concluding with an activity analyzing Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred.

For students who have failed, and are failing. Who come to school sometimes, entering two thirds of the way into class with a swagger and a yell that distracts and disrupts, or stay home because it is too cold, or they missed the bus again. Who have been sullen, and distracted. Who have watched a score of of their classmates drop out, or just stop coming, until we hardy few – the three or four or six who show up most days – find ourselves leaning over a common table, pulling out our hair, putting away the phones over and over again, dancing around the truth as the hourglass sand threatens to drown us all.

thinkerI talk a good game in the hallways about how the new evaluation tool we use in my district: about how the tool is sound, but an inconsistent and aggressively biased application of it is a major focal point of the terror and frustration we feel as teachers. But it is also true that the threat of observation can prompt a healthy, deliberate attention to detail and self-reflection, a sort of critical, vocational soul searching which, when it works, can push us to be our best. It is a social scientist’s Heisenberg principle, in which the act of being observed changes the subject, using pressure to turn coal into diamond.

Over the last week, as I began to pay more precise attention to my practice in the class, and as our population has finally become stable, there was a change in the air. Sure, the kids and I still fought to stay on task, an activity more like wrangling cats than truly teaching. But they started asking questions in ways that reveal minds turning over, about my relationship to poetry, and about the poems themselves. And the shift towards poems that share their language and cultural lineage – of Pablo Neruda, and Martin Espada – seemed to prompt the beginnings of ownership, as if knowing that poets spoke their languages, too, was a key to the magic that evaluation tools call “student-centered learning”.
And when it works, it really works.

Yesterday, the stars aligned.

Four students showed up on time, or close to it, and to begin with, became poets, finding distinction in writing and sharing our own little poems, before moving on to the small set of poems I had chosen for their question marks and little else, making for a treasure hunt for tone and literal meaning that was more engaging than usual.

Two more arrived, and their timing was perfect, for once – in transition between idea and poem exemplar, so that they could find themselves quickly. They read poems proudly, and found brave comfort in their ability to make metaphor come alive, vivid in their heads.

And then, the six of them found recognition in critical analysis of Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred. They remembered that Hughes was plainspoken, and frustrated with racial identity in 1930s Harlem, and looked for that meaning in the similes of the poem; they embraced the ambiguity of figurative language, and thought about dreams, and raisins dying black in the sun.

And the poem came alive for them, unlocking its secrets. And they said so, and smiled, and showed us, me and the administrators lurking in the background, that they could articulate – haltingly at first, and then with more confidence – how, and why, and where.

And the bell rang. And I thanked them, and collected their work.

And sat, stunned, while the administrators slipped out, and my next class came in, catcalling and chaotic, ready to learn.

And then, afterwards, the one who sometimes comes, and cannot focus, and uses his big unassuming grin to avoid learning, found me in the hallway during lunch, and proudly showed me the thick book of Countee Cullen poems he had found in the library, and asked if I could give him a note to get back in to find more.

And later, he brought his friend, the Latino boxer, the one who refused to put pen to paper from September to December, and sat with his arms crossed or on his phone, and spun in his chair, defiant, though he knew how to see the meaning behind the words better than anyone in the class. And he said Mister, the library doesn’t have that Neruda book you talked about last week, but they did have this other one, and it’s really cool, it’s got the spanish on one side and the english on the other, and I promised I would find him more.

Your kids really understand poetry, said my evaluator when I passed her in the hallway at the end of the day.

And in my heart, I became the teacher I always wanted to be.

Now it is Thursday, a snow day. I sit on the porch in the cold and think about poetry, and words; the way literature can bring us together, and the way it can kindle the heart. Because I could not stand it, I stopped teaching from fear, and started teaching from love. In response, my 6 little irregulars finally discovered what literature is for, and why it is so much a part of being alive. And though we will need to work to keep them in this place of love, I think – for one shining hour – it made them students, in the true sense of the word, pleased to question, and find answers, and pleased, too, with their ability to do so.



As always, steeping too long in work has left me in too deep to move on quickly. My head swims still with questions, because of how deeply we considered them in our poems and analyses, because we were able to come to the higher order ones together. And I find myself pondering the world, and my place in it, after a day where everything went right, in a place where for so long I have been neither free nor safe.

And so we turn to the question as theme. And why not? As a rhetorical device, the question is broad, both in expression and purpose: it can show us ambiguity, or reveal depth and detail; it can call attention to mystery or meaning; it can reverse, or reinforce, even as it closes the gap between author and text.

And as it is in poetry, so is it in song. The selections we present below in this weekend’s coverfolk mix run the gamut from the rhetorical to the genuinely curious, from plaintive to pensive, from reflective to redirective. But all empower the listener to seek answers that may not always be clear, or even present. All offer new insights and understanding, that we may be who we are, at our best, by knowing the world. All remind us that questions are nothing to fear, but something to embrace, a natural consequence of being alive, and engaged.

May wonders never cease.



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Making Peace With The Wild Things, Redux:
A Prayer For My Students

August 24th, 2013 — 3:01pm





After two weeks preparing to teach a 10th grade English class in the struggling urban school where I work, at the eleventh hour, I’ve been re-assigned to teach English to a cohort of students who failed 9th grade English last year.

The class is bigger than any I have taught at this school – too big, as it stands, for the tables, chairs, and computer stations – and these are not students who share. Class starts Monday. And though I am generally fearless, the task before us is daunting, indeed.

As I noted in February of 2012, in a feature which I have reposted below, the challenges we face in inner-city schools are myriad – a complex of environmental, situational, and institutional issues. But this particular group is an extreme among extremes. Many of these students do not speak English at home; parent contact information is universally absent or out of date. Most only come to class once or twice a week, and are aggressive, sullen, and highly disruptive when they do. And though it is hard to benchmark, given their chronic absences and refusal to work, their test scores suggest that their skills are years below grade level.

In short: these students see school not as meaningless, but as a constant and powerful aggressor. They share a perception of literature as both alien and enemy. And I know all this intimately, because the majority of the students in this class failed my 9th grade seminar last year, too, which stacks the deck against establishing a healthy classroom relationship among us.

It is not in me to plan for failure. I am a good teacher, damn it: creative, relentless, hopeful, and engaging. I know that there is work to be done here, and that miracles can be made. But getting it right will require a long high wire act, with no net.

In order to accommodate this unexpected opportunity, Cover Lay Down will be on hiatus for a week or two until I regain my footing in the classroom. I regret the necessity, but trust that regular readers, and the artistic community we work to support, will understand.

Thanks to all, in advance, for allowing me this chance to do right by my students.



Originally posted February, 2012

Student grades are due tomorrow, but we went to church anyway – we had to sing, and after two years of semi-regular practice as a Unitarian Universalist, I have come to a place in my life where I find peace and solace in shared practice which starts and ends with love and service, togetherness and open-ended truths, and a shared commitment to social justice.

Much of this is due to the particulars of our chosen worship setting. The UU church which we attend is in transition, with an interim minister who has my undying respect; wise, and gentle, with a knack for bringing new texts and ideas to the table, presenting them clearly and coherently, and then braiding them together to reveal the thing which we needed most of the world in that moment.

I experience her sermons as a kind of miracle of the mind, that binds my soul and body, and answers my unspoken need. Even when I am distracted by my own thoughts, her bright, intelligent prompting provides an avenue for me to come to myself with new eyes, and with a renewed determination to accept that which has been lurking in my heart and mind.

And in this case, a sermon on blessings and failures, and how we so often fail to allow ourselves to experience the joys and sadness they should bring us, has brought me back to my students.


innercity (1)The students I teach are ill-prepared for success. They are the product of a city that is stacked against them, a community that is in too much of a hurry to address the deep foundation issues which would support true progress, a system that is under too much pressure to make it look like things are working. They come to my ninth grade classroom with fifth grade reading skills, without the stamina to be learners for more than a few minutes per class day, with anger against me for enforcing the most basic rules, and an image of the classroom as a competitive space, where they win if they can overwhelm the lesson, or if they can sleep successfully, and thus avoid confronting their unpreparedness.

They also come, if indeed they come at all – one in five students is absent on a given day – with long histories of pitting themselves against the world, which make them almost unteachable for most of the semester, until and if we can delay the curriculum long enough to get into their hearts. Most of them are incapable of experiencing joy or sadness at all, let alone the empathy we assume is prerequisite for understanding a text. Instead, they experience only despair and bitterness, disappointment and pride – emotions they cannot acknowledge, to themselves or others, lest they appear weak, and lose the only game they know.

A few of them manage to survive and move forward, and a tiny, tiny percentage aim to thrive. But these are the minority: just 25% of students in the city where I teach even graduate from high school within four years, and it’s not hard to see why. Last week, a boy in one of my classes taunted a girl into attacking him; in the aftermath, his lack of ownership in instigating the fight was both frustrating and expected, but it was his comment that “It wasn’t a fight; she’s a girl” that reminded me just how unprepared these almost-men and almost-women are to accept even the basic conditions that we believe are necessary to help them move forward.

We do what we can for them, and sometimes more than we can afford, in an environment where each student gets just two minutes of my individual attention, if that, per day. In tiny slices of time we struggle to push our way in, to learn who they are as individuals, to identify the gaps between where they are and where the curriculum assumes they are, and construct a pathway for them that bridges their particular chasm.

But half a bridge is no better than none, and it may be worse, given that it contains so much false hope. In the end, it is our lot to hold them responsible for their actions, lest we become part of the machine that lies to them, and tells them that they are ready. It hurts to fail so many, but it would hurt more to pass them along without merit or ability, to undermine their next classes, to perpetuate the lie that a good heart, however buried and patinaed, is evidence of success.

And so many fail. Despite unanswered parent phone calls and teacher conferences full of hopelessness, long unattended after school sessions offered, a hundred new attempts at kind words and coaxing, over half of the 80 final grades I will enter into the database before the sun rises tomorrow are F’s. Of the remainder, another half are within the D range, marking their recipients as desperately unprepared academically but willing to struggle just enough to produce something that hints of promise, though probability says that not one of these 20-or-so students will pass sufficient classes this year to move on, leaving them stuck in the eternal-seeming limbo that is another ninth grade year.

Only four of my students from last term earned an A of any sort. Only six earned B’s. And of those, there are still one or two who only bothered and blossomed in my class, or perhaps one other – they liked me, but in a manner untranslatable to other teachers’ style.


How did we get from sermon to city? These things are related, somehow, though they are hard to untangle. But today, in church, as the minister read a section from Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, I was reminded that my students do not know what we taught them then, if indeed we taught them at all.

And although the time for sharing had passed, suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, I wanted to say a prayer for my students.

I wanted to light a candle for my beloved failures, curled up against the world so tightly that, like fists, all they can do is destroy.

I wanted to cry, and ask forgiveness; to say that I really did do everything there is to do, and let the feelings simply be, in the community I trust, even as I despair in the peace of my beloved wild things, who tear at me until the bell rings, and the clock runs out, and it is too late.

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I offer it here, instead.



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