Owning Our Failures

I just kicked off a unit titled Striving for Success that begins with students responding to quotes about success and failure; one of the following was an option for them:

The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.

— Barack Obama

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 25:  President Barack Obama (R) poses for photographs with Kobe Bryant (L) and members of the National Basketball Association 2009 champions Los Angeles Lakers in the East Room of the White House January 25, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Lakers bested the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Finals in 2009.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – JANUARY 25: President Barack Obama (R) poses for photographs with Kobe Bryant (L) and members of the 2009 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the East Room of the White House January 25, 2010 (photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

No matter how many inspirational quotes you read about how necessary failure is in order to achieve success, , though, that doesn’t change the fact that failure sucks.

Period.

Nobody gets up in the morning and says, I cannot wait to fail today!

Yet, that neither gets to the point of either of those quotes nor provides the proper context of failure. People desire immediate gratification. I see it in my students who do not want to edit their work, thinking that the production of one very rough draft means the work is done. Taking constructive criticism and making improvements based on it hurts. We do not receive the immediate praise we think we deserve on a piece we put effort into; then, we’re expected to somehow find the motivation to do better?

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After Break Flow

Getting back into the flow after break – I know, I’m a teacher, I get a lot of time off, I’m not complaining about it, don’t hate me – we’re in the year 2020. Just writing that seems odd. This is the time I always associated with the future. But we’re here.

Odd indeed.

My students do not seem to be fazed by it as much as I am. Probably because they were born in 2006 or later…gasp! They’re in the midst of examining bias, discrimination, and racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.

As Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility – a text that EVERY human should read – said in the February 16, 2019 Guardian piece about her book:

‘We have to stop thinking about racism simply as someone who says the N-word,’ she says. ‘This book is centred in the white western colonial context, and in that context white people hold institutional power.’ This means understanding that racism is a system rather than just a slur; it is prejudice plus power. And in Britain and the US at least, it is designed to benefit and privilege whiteness by every economic and social measure. Everyone has racial bias but, as DiAngelo is determined to establish, ‘when you back a group’s collective bias with lingering authority and institutional control, it is transformed’.

They’re doing a PHENOMENAL job of accessing the text and making connections to outside sources and their own lives. What’s more, they’re having authentic conversations about race that most adults have been hiding from for decades. For a generation more entitled than mine, this is a step in the right direction.

Learning to talk about challenging subject matter and listen to varying viewpoints and actually HEAR them and communicate productively even if you do not agree is critical in giving a voice to all and beginning to deconstruct past and prejudicial power structures. I write this as people become more entrenched in their beliefs on both sides of the aisle and are increasingly less willing to consider the perspectives of others. Who would have thought that in the year 2020 political affiliation would supersede the ties that bind us as humans?

Pivoting away from the current state of our country, on a positive note I’m beginning to get back into writing. For the first time in a long time, I have an April deadline set on old work; namely, ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’. Then, I will return to Westchester to see my old friend Foday Samateh – author of the Good Country trilogy. While I have not done a good job of keeping in touch since I left, he has. Because he’s just that good.

After that, it’s either full steam ahead on ‘The Heroin Times’ or developing a fictional text tentatively titled ‘The School.’ We shall see. That and obviously developing new and engaging lessons for my students. Poetry, Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Night are all coming after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Writing goals, professional goals, life goals – they’re what keep us moving, keep us motivated, give us our purpose for getting up beyond just the paycheck we get from our nine-to-five or six-to-seven – however you want to look at it.

Regardless, we endure with the promise of a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that will be bountiful whenever it comes.

Christmas Time Reflections

Christmas was so many things growing up:

  • The time you counted down the days for the minute you got back from summer vacation
  • The time you didn’t understand why your family had to make all the fish on Christmas Eve
  • The time you couldn’t wait to fall asleep to wake up to Christmas morning and all the presents you were hopefully lucky to have under your tree
  • The time you rushed to finish up the semester to get home to see your friends
  • The time when everyone would be together and no matter how long it had been since you’ve seen each other, it still felt like yesterday.

Those days are long in the past now with people having passed on, moved away, kicked out, and new family, new traditions, new locations – a seemingly new life even – having taken their place (never replaced, though). And that’s okay because we are ever-changing, ever a work-in-progress. As Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan write in Watch Us Rise – a MUST-READ if you haven’t read it already (and yes, I’m taking this quote out of context, but it’s still applicable):

Knowing that change is natural and change is healthy, I give you three past holiday-inspired blogs all built around the theme of change.

May your holidays be restful and plentiful and may they be with the people whom you want to spend time – because this life is too short to waste it with the people who don’t matter:

Last Christmas in Manhattan

And So This is Christmas And With It The Lessons Learned Throughout the Years

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

That Holiday Hustle

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas via Biography

Thanksgiving and Christmas might as well be combined into one holiday. That’s at least how it feels sometimes. It’s like the moment you’re done breaking bread and wishbones, you’re sitting down again for the seven fish.

As I’ve gotten older, there seems to be less and less time in between the holidays – in a figurative sense, of course. This year, I barely had time to complain about the Christmas music coming on the radio too soon or that movie marathon rushing and ushering the holidays. This year, the timing of each seemed appropriate.

We even set up our Christmas tree in early December, a far cry from our usual a couple days before Christmas because we forgot or got too busy or just were so defeated by the season that we really didn’t care.

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Until I See You Again

SAFOOMA Golf Tournament, 2011 – Photo credit to Joseph Pijanowski

When I look at this picture, it’s so far away – nearly nine years ago. Everyone in it still has some paunch – only a couple years removed from college – more hair too, no grays. Just starting out in the adult world, we’re all so bright-eyed, so exuberant, so full of life.

As distant as the picture from 2011 seems, it’s yet so close at the same time. Like the beginning of The Sand Lot where you see a picture you haven’t seen in a long, long time, and you reminisce fondly, reminisce about friends then, friends now, and all the memories.

The memories you didn’t realize you were making at the time until you had forgotten you had made them rush to you, taking you back to that time in the past when life was as simple as 30-racks of Bud Light, a round of golf, a bus driver who has to pull the bus over multiple times for wildly offensive language, questions of who’s sleeping in the golf cart or who’s getting kicked out of the bar or who wet the bed – not questions of when the funeral will be held, what’s the soonest flight you can catch, and where will you stay. These are the new memories that meld with the old, these that now flow through you like the wind blowing through Hingham town as you’re waiting outside a church – not a funeral home, an entire church – to wake your old friend.

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The Stories He Told

My family lost someone very special to us the day before Thanksgiving this year.

It was unexpected even though 82 years is a hell of a life to live out entirely on your own terms. Still, the acute pain of sudden loss stings differently than the dull pain of a more prolonged sickness; selfishly, the latter gives you more time to prepare.

Shocked despite death being nothing new, I always considered him ageless – whether it be for his lighthearted character or his ever-lurking smile or his eyes that always held some sort of secret or surprise. No matter how old I became, I always saw the same spindly, yet larger-than-life figure in some 80s shorts and a never buttoned shirt, aviator-style glasses and cigarette hanging from his mouth – working the lawn, cleaning out the gutters, rumbling around in his truck, waving as you went by.

He wasn’t perfect – none of us ever are – but he cared deeply and made those around him happy even if they didn’t acknowledge it. And how many can truly make that claim?

Exactly.

In celebration of someone I never thought would be gone, I wrote this poem that can never do justice to a true renaissance man. A member of our family, whether you realized it or not, you gave all of us so much. Now, I give you my sorrowful appreciation and thanks:

The Stories He Told

He would regale us with stories of the farm.

Of his father training hunting dogs.

Or of him getting up early to milk the cows.

He would regale us with tales of football glory,

In high school, in college,

Semi-professional,

On the field.

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YA, All Day, Every Day

While I still haven’t published a YA book, I certainly can read them. If ever in need of something new to read for your own kids or students, be sure to check out “What’s Andrew Reading?” Tab.

While not all of the texts are YA – there’s some adult fiction and nonfiction on there too – you’ll notice a diverse mix of protagonists truly representative of our society today. You’ll also notice the issues they’re struggling with – gender, sexuality, race, origin – are far more contemporary than your standard us v. them The Outsiders plot line.

That is not to say there’s anything wrong with The Outsiders, which every child should have read by the time they’re going into eighth grade – still can’t beat that Dallas Winston. Instead, just know that there is so much more out there now.

Here’s another tip: Promote reading!!!!!

As parents, guardians and teachers, kids will actually take to reading if we actually practice what we preach. This simple act will positively and profoundly affect the next generation. As hard as it might be to believe, kids are impressionable and look to adults for guidance – whether we realize it or not.

Go figure.

Here’s some books I have been reading recently:

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Teaching Pride

My students laughed one day when I told them that giving them a spelling test on three letter words that most of them would get a 100 on would not help them in any way become better students.

I was only partially kidding.

My point was that it was in their best interests to be pushed academically to do their best work – to reach or exceed grade-level standards – as opposed to inflate their grades by assessing them on below-grade-level tasks. Some of them groaned because it would’ve been easier and I get that reaction because they’re kids and they want to take the easy way, cutting all the corners to do the least amount of work.

Rest assured, kids, there are plenty of adults out there like this too.

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The Kids – A Poem

I wrote this piece earlier in the year as a position poem sample for my students. The assignment called for students to pick an issue that mattered to them and draft a free-verse piece that shed light on the issue. The parameters of the assignment were broad-by-design. I wanted students to give life to an issue, challenge a powerful system, call for change, examine their feelings – really just take a position on ANYTHING that mattered to them.

To quote Daniel Hill, author of White Awake, and removing his religious beliefs and his theistic lens, Hill posits that “young people who navigate this world on a daily basis” serve as the “greatest subject matter experts on race, justice, and identity” (179). And I couldn’t agree more that our youth have so much to teach adults if we are willing to listen – I’ll be expanding on this topic in a coming blog, so check back for that.

In the poem below, I’m trying to challenge the misconception that many kids nowadays are all the same – lazy and apathetic – when, really, they just need a chance to grow up.

Sometimes, I feel like the Catcher in Rye

The one who can’t save all the kids,

All the kids who fall over the cliff.


Sometimes, I feel like a gnat,

Buzzing in and out of their ears,

Neither seen nor ever really heard.


Sometimes, I used to tell myself 

The kids don’t want to be saved,

And maybe they don’t want the help.

But it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that

Than to get up and give them your best

Until they too uncover their own very best. 

And they will, trust me, they will,

For an education is a gift always appreciating

An education is a future infinitely. 


An education is a skeleton key

That unlocks as many doors

And one is willing to turn.


So, give them time, our hope, our dreams,  

The next generation are they

And everything in between.


For they will come to conclude 

What you have never not known:

That they’re worth fighting for

That they’re worth fighting for

That you are worth fighting for – 


Believe it or not, 

It’s true.

My White Privilege Conversation

I stood in front of my students at the beginning of the school year. We were about to start our first unit built around Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The unit was going to require many mature and sensitive discussions about race, both in the text and in our own lives.

To paraphrase, “I’m white,” I said unabashedly, raising my hand. Some of the looks I got ranged from This guy is nuts to WTF?!?! Some were just blank.

Still, I continued, “I cannot claim to have been the object of racial scorn or prejudice. I cannot claim to know what it feels like to be considered different or a minority or to be judged based on my skin color or culture or religion. But I will always listen and try to understand, try to be empathetic, as we work together to challenge systems that have been unfair to people of color for far too long.”

Would I have started out a discussion like this my first year teaching in Bridgeport, CT, or even when I was a more established teacher at a private, international school in Westchester, NY? The answer is no.

Why?

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