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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Andrew taught me about teaching writing back in the desert

I used to teach high school students about writing in the desert, or better yet? They taught me.

            We need to feel confident with the language we write and speak. We are all born into a world of language, and confidence is not some fixed or timed event that happens spontaneously, or indeed at the same time for everyone.  School is seldom that place where we learn to be confident about writing. In school all ninth graders must write bio poems, all tenth graders will write persuasive essays and write to pass their high-stakes tests. At 6 years old, we are all learning to be confident writers. Then something happens along the road that often shatters that learning to be confident. Somewhere, we move from learning to be confident writers to being competent writers. What message, are we sending students about writing in our public schools? What are our expectations for teaching writing? Follow the formula, conform, and you’ll be just like the rest. You can be at standard. What teenager wants to be standard?  It seems to me, we are looking for good writing in all the wrong places. The gift of the written word is like grace. We all know it is there, want it, need it, search for it, it is elusive, but like faith, it takes a leap of faith to find it. 

As a teacher of writing back in the day…some twenty years ago.  I struggled with these strange expectations.  I still struggle with finding the confident words to I am world.  I wonder, did Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Jose Marti, Federico Lorca Garcia, or Langston Hughes spend much time writing persuasive essays in their school days? What were they learning about writing? 
There is something about writing that links us to our need for story. We all have stories to live, to laugh, to cry, to dance and share with others.   Schools are seldom the place where people share their stories. If we want real writers, we should care less about writing persuasively, and more about writing our stories. How can we expect our students to fit their lives within our standardized testing walls of conformity?

Welcome to my trip down memory lane. I discovered, my old teaching journal cleaning up my basement this morning. Looking back to that time, when I lived and taught writing in the desert. I found today in yesteryear my 1997 teaching journal… That faithful year of miracles coming true... Andrew would become a writer, and I would be well on my way to becoming Dr. Turner.
 Below is my journal entry:  

Greetings fellow writers,
            My trip to San Diego with 23 adolescents was wonderful but tiring, I returned home with laryngitis. Still every moment was worth it as we stood near the ocean. Quiet Andrew (16 years old) a Tohono O’odham student from the reservation who never saw the ocean read a poem by Ofelia Zepeda (an O’odham poet) called “Ocean Power” for all of us.   

I call Andrew my little Miracle, because when he first came into my class he never said a word, never wrote a line, but always had the most beautiful smile. Andrew was not difficult, but he just never really participated.  Make no mistake though Andrew was close to making some wrong turns’. He was in my prayers everyday. I had to push and push him, and still he only gave an answer when he had to, with reluctance.  At one point, we thought perhaps Andrew should go to another teacher whose teaching style was more traditional, but when this suggestion was made to Andrew he requested not to be moved. Andrew began to speak up in class after the meeting with our director- but still he never wrote. Andrew passed most tests, and could write a neat tidy paragraph on almost anything, but I always expected more and he caused my heart to ache. I wanted him to write, to really write, and something inside me knew he could.

So, I ached with caring (as Mem Fox wrote in her book Radical Reflections for English teachers) to see any real writing from Andrew for three long years.  Andrew had no difficulty in math or science classes only English classes. Actually, Andrew is very bright, he is no special needs child in the general sense.   Andrew just hated to write. He would say, "I just don’t feel like writing." At the beginning of this year, sometime in January as we were getting ready to begin work on our poetry publication and prepare for our spring public readings something happened. Andrew handed me some pieces of paper at the end of class, and said “Jesse, do you want my poem”?  I was over the moon, all week long I cherished “Andrew’s poem”. I read it repeatedly.   This class I teach is an Upward Bound writing class, we meet every Saturday for two hours so I had plenty of time to think about what to do the next time class met. I was so excited and happy with his poem I thought this is not just a poem this is a great poem.  I typed it up, and made copies for everyone in class and had it enlarged to poster size!!
In class when I asked Andrew to read he said he would prefer if I read it for him.  As I read it I emptied three years of hope into his poem, I wanted him to hear his soul beating in my reading.  When I had finished reading there was a moment of silence then every one clapped - and the grin on Andrew’s face was better than cotton candy.   After class, he told me that he wanted to be part of the Poetry Reading, he wanted to practice with everyone during the week, and he wanted to know would I (once again) be taping this on video.  My smile at that moment expressed the most glorious moment I personally have ever had as a teacher.

Andrew practiced and read his poem in public for the first-time last semester. He was wonderful. Andrew has not stopped writing since. When Andrew read Ofelia’s poem "Ocean Power" at the ocean last week-he began "We O’odham people have important things to say about life, and we need to write them down on paper like Ofelia.  Ocean my name is Andrew.  I just might become a great O'odham writer some day like Ofelia Zepeda”.  Then he read-and I had to turn away just for a moment, to dry the sweetest tears any teacher has ever shed. Later Andrew said “Hey teach, I did OK didn’t I”?
Yes, he did OK-and he is the miracle child that I know will turn out fine, just as E. B. White knew Charlotte was special, because it is not often someone comes along and is both “a true friend and a good writer,” I knew that moment Andrew like Charlotte was both.     
 Looking back, I think Andrew did not win any race to write, but in real writing it is not how fast you get there that counts, but what the writer writes.

Here is Andrew's poem- Remember he is allowing you an insight into the world of a young Native American mind-not very different than other young Native Americans - respect his view. To really see the power of his poem - you need to see his chest expand and his head rise up - and the proud look on his face as he reads the last line, with a shy smile.

At the time Andrew Thomas was a 16-year-old Tohono O’odham teenager who attended Baboqurivari High School on the Tohono O’odham reservation outside Tucson Arizona.

 The Spectral Question

What is an Indian?
We are always answering this question for:
The whites
The Mexicans
The African Americans
Even ourselves
The question varies
But remains the same
Sometimes even poorly stated
Sometimes even answered for us
Usually adds up to one question
What is an Indian?
They say he is a person who doesn’t work
But gets a monthly check from the government
They say that the Indians are lazy
Still others say:
He is a man who got a raw deal from the government
Therefore, he deserves what he gets from the government.
Others say:
He is a drunkard
Who never mounts to anything.
So therefore, terminate the government checks
Let him make his own way in the white man’s society
Myself, I do not see an Indian in this light
My question is not who is the Indian
But why others cannot
 The Indian as a unified group
All different in their ways
But held together
By a common bond
I see us as one
Who fought courageously
against overwhelming odds.
And never giving in
despite every treaty broken
One after the other.
I see the Indian as an individual
Who when this America was in danger
to the front voluntarily
And gave their last final measure of devotion
In all your wars
We came forward to defend
this land
I see the Indian as a group of people
Who are proud
And rightfully so
Because they possess the secrets of life
No white man has ever discovered.
As a group even in, broken English
our children are told how important it is to get an education in
This modern world.
I see the Indians as people
Who crossed a cultural barrier into the dominate society
becoming the best in their chosen professions
I see Indians in the:
Military service
So, when I think
of the question
What is an Indian?
I think

By Andrew Thomas a true friend and good writer ©1997.

Some twenty years later, I live in New England. I no longer teach high school students. I teach teachers, and I still struggle with my lessons today. I still ache to open minds, and to keep my own mind open as well. God knows those beasts of conformity are always knocking at our teaching door.

I know that Andrew, went on to graduate secondary school that year. He was the first in his family to ever accomplish this task. He went on to Johnson and Wales College of Hotel and Culinary Arts. I visited him while he was there. He was lonely for the desert.  He left after his first year, and joined the United States Air Force. That was some twenty years ago. I lost track of him then.   

Now, I find myself trying to track him down. Tracking people down after twenty years is always scary for teachers. I am hoping things turned out well for him, but I don’t know. Last summer, I returned to the Tohono O'odham nation for the first time in two decades. I met some former students doing well, and heard some heartbreaking stories about others. Our teaching stories, both lift and break our teaching hearts. On most days, I live with no news is good news, but I owe Andrew a thousand thank you(s) for helping to make me a better teacher and better person. So friends, wish me luck, and pray for a good update.
Teachers, don’t you let them fool you? We teach in a time of wonder and possibility, not conformity. Keep those beasts of conformity outside your teaching door, and teach your students the possibility of the written word. My teaching deeds are really quite small. But, when that owl calls my name, lay this teacher down to sleep, and know my only question is... Did I do some good, and is Andrew safe and well?
Still, writing,
Still, learning,

Still, growing,
Still, in love with the desert sun,
Still, not quite confident,
Still, willing to take that leap of faith, 

Still, longing to be a better teacher, 
And yes, hope still lives in this teaching heart.
Jesse The Walking Wan Turner

If you want to listen to the song that inspired my walk over the Avon Mountain this morning it's one of my favorite covers of "Teach your children well"(Cosby, Stills, and Nash) by Play For Change

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

About this retirement thing

A colleague asked do you think about retirement... He said, I'm out of here as soon as possible. Perhaps there is something wrong with me, because my plan is to stay as long as possible. I have one retirement clock, when it tells me I am no longer relevant then I am out the door. 
In the meantime, as a senior faculty member I model that knowledge is important, but humanity is more important. We 
can teach from a stance of love, we can teach from a stance of hope, and we can teach from a position that there is no room for injustice in education. My students are not problems, they are the possibilities for newer and better tomorrows. I am not deficit driven. I am not superior to those I teach, we are connected together in a transformative circle of teaching and learning. It's a reciprocal relationship of a love of learning that is as old as that first fire pit, where people looked at the stars, and ask why. 
My plan is to mentor our new faculty, work with them to bring the humanity back into higher education, and heck before I'm gone there going to be free tuition, and student loan forgiveness. 
So my work is cut out, but my heart is strong. I am staying healthy, eating healthy, and walking my way to longevity. I'm in this for the long haul, and the long haul is good for me. I'm a ghetto kid, whose luck took me to places I never dreamed, and living that dream for as long as possible. 
A secret to keep your teaching spirit healthy.. is live healthy. A healthy mind, requires a healthy body, and keeping my spirit healthy is seeing the bigger picture in teaching and learning. I teach with a sense of moral duty, and to connect my mission to teaching and learning for the great good keeps me relevant and young.

Another truth, about keeping your teaching and learning fresh...One important aspect of learning and teaching, for me is fighting in and out of the classroom for our children, parents, teachers, and our public schools. I can't teach in insolation in our Literacy Center, pretending inequity, poverty, and racism are not connected to preparing future educators.
I can't let pessimism, doom and gloom over shadow hope. So, even though this world is imperfect, and I can't control the world, I can make our Literacy Center a place of love, hope, justice, and equity for every child that comes through our doors. Trust me, on this one thing, our teachers recognize hope, and know they to can achieve some sense of humanity, dignity, and hope within their own classrooms. You might say HOPE is my superpower.
So about retiring...not even thinking of laying this hammer down,
Jesse The Walking Mn Turner 
If you like to listen to the tune this walking man was listening to on his morning walk's Steve Earle's "Steve's Hammer"