Category Archives: education

What I am learning

1.

TENABLE. IMMUTABLE. INDEXICAL. PHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How often I want to visit social media. And the call to be a “voice,” or something.

I see your phenomenological. I raise you EPIPHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How to decide what is worth your time, energy, and money.

How to use the phrase “ephemeral archive” as much as possible.

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. There is nothing left.

How fraught these spaces—and really all spaces—are with our personal and professional expectations and desires. And the underlying social, cultural, historical, raced, classed, gendered expectations for behavior.

And the ensuing silence.

 

2.

Direct from the horse’s mouth, or bastardizations of what poetry professors have said–

-Make collages.

-Some people write with music, but I need to write with words around me. I find words.

-Then using a number system, I went through and killed poems.

-I would ask my dates, “Are you happy with your job?”

-Cut this word out.

-Image cul-de-sac.

-This voice feels authentic.

(This last one bothers me.)

 

3.

By showing up, I inherently pressure the Institution.

Better get used to it.

 

4.

I realize my life is rather “boring,” that most of the time I am looking for ways to spend time somewhere writing or with people talking about writing or listening to people read or perform writing. That when I look around Boulder, there is not much I feel drawn to do. (Mostly, one has the choice of school, the mountains, shopping. Boulder in three words.)

I think the secret now is to embrace this. How much more time can I reserve for writing– without becoming a complete recluse?

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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Update: Write. Right? Right!

Hola mi gente. It’s been a minute, and I have news and reflections to share. First off, I’m going to graduate school! *Insert celebration here.* Not much to say about it except that it’s been a long time coming. As I turn 30 this year, there is nothing greater I could have done for myself except this radical act of self-acceptance.

Second piece of news– I wrote almost everyday in April for National Poetry Month. It was amazing how much came out of me. I didn’t like all of it, but much of it I did like. It even became overwhelming at some points to edit and transfer my writing onto the computer because there was so much to do. The good news is that I am writing, and it’s not stopping. The bad news is that I will probably always be playing catch-up with journals that need to be typed, poems that need to be edited, and collections of writing that want finalizing.

Third– I am committing myself to finishing a poetry collection in July before I leave the Bay Area for school. It will give me something to focus on this summer– as if preparing for an interstate move wasn’t enough to fill my time. It will also mean closing out a period of writing between my chapbook in 2012 and now. Just like graduate school, it is time, and I have more than enough material to shape.

So about this… I have at least two books worth of poems, at least. I also know that some poems are not worth publishing– whatever that means. How does one make peace with this? Decide that some part of you is worth more than another. What do you think? There is the organized and anxious part of me that wants to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I have consciously decided every word and not “lose” anything. Impossible. I suppose selecting poems is an exercise in humility, an acceptance that some things are not shaped in a way that is ready to share with the world. Or it’s an act of marketing, selecting the things one knows will sell or connect with readers? Or this agony is a part of art-making, the process in which one crafts a unit and deems it beautiful?

Either way, I am happy to have gleaned clarity and acceptance that I have been writing about two central subjects. I write about home, family, and being Vietnamese. I write about love and sex– think Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman. (I guess that’s five subject, oh well.) All of this, I imbue with ethnicity, race, gender, politics– obviously, memory, the body, place. 

It makes me envision what else I want to write. There are so many stories about Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans connecting to a sense of two homelands and– of course– the Viet Nam War. I see this even more clearly now with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books. I see the value in the topic, and I have read and will continue reading these writings. But where are the stories about second or even third generation Vietnamese Americans? What if the duality of two cultures no longer exists or at least isn’t felt consciously? I want to change our place in relation to immigration, not because the connection isn’t there, but because some of us are heavily “American.” And this means our language, our culture, the people are diverse. Where is the hip-hop in our stories, the activists marching with Bayan, the girls dating Mexicans? (Quick side note, I’ve been thinking too about Asian American “protest literature.” I don’t know what that looks like or if it already exists. Some may not consider it art, but it’ll be important to envision, both for writing it and escaping it.)

Okay, wrapping up. I am grateful to be where I am. I am excited. I am nervous too. At the end of the day, I am writing, and I am thinking about writing, all the time. I mark that as a win. It makes sense that entering an MFA program has allowed myself to claim my writer/creative identity even further (even if I held my breath last night when a friend introduced me as a writer). I am entering graduate school with a sense of what I write, what I want to write/read, and a deepened connection to writing. Awesome, right?

 

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For the Women

There has been so much going on at work lately. So much, that I can only say, “I cannot even tell you. It’s confidential.”

I can tell you, however, it’s been tough. In all this, I reflect on the people I have leaned on. So this entry is all about the women. The ones who have made this slice of hell not only bearable, but a place for me to walk through the fire with my head held high, principles clutched tight.

I think of my friend who made the time to talk on the phone. Who asked questions to prepare me for the ones I would be asked. Who clearly said, you are doing the right thing.

Another friend who said the students will thank you, eventually they will understand what a big thing it is for someone to stand up. And I smile to think of her tough-as-nails attitude, when she said, if you need lawyers, give me a holler.

Yesterday, I went out with another friend, and we reflected on our positions as Asian-American women. She began to reflect on her experiences as a middle school student in a private school and her experiences with teachers and parents there. It brought us closer to think about how migration, language, and other forms of social capital have shaped us. And when my friend saw the chamomile flowers a student picked, she reminded me, one day that student will look back and remember you.

(Also, we both got to dress up, and there is nothing better than feeling good one’s own skin. Oh, to be in a body.)

I even think back to the professor whose class involved blogging, which led to my current WordPress account. I thank her for pushing the boundaries and offering classes that no one else could think of nor facilitate the way she did. I remember our shy tongues when we saw how she graced the classroom. I imagine the fires she’s walked through to arrive at her magnificence. I think about my 6th grade math teacher and her tough love. But always, we knew it was love. I picked flowers for her on my way to school and cradled corn snakes in her class. I think about how important it is to know that you are cared for because others work for you.

Oh yes. There are great men in my life too. Thank you to my colleague who has been a solid rock at work. Whose politics and morals extend into every fiber of his actions and words. To my friend this morning, who I drove to the airport, finally taking a long-awaited and much-deserved trip into the future of his dreams and fight for food justice. This friend’s gentleness reminds me to be there for myself, and when I am ready, the work will be there. As he handed the keys to the car to me, he handed me my own trust that I can always get myself back home.

Thank you and peace.

Peace.

 

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Things heard at an Oakland public school*

I appreciate working with young people. They are literally our future and I tremble full of fear for where we are going as a society. I am definitely a disgruntled employee who is following her heart to different work, yet I think you would agree with me still about how frustrating some of these moments are. Sometimes I imagine leaving with a lot of maturity and grace, but moments like these make me want to pack my bags, drop some F-bombs, and drive off to a mental health institution. Like another teacher said, “OUSD is PTSD.”

 

 

Staff: The big copier is out. Note that the copy count was over a million copies!

 

Faculty: I wasn’t getting reimbursed for the art supplies I was buying.

Other faculty: Yea, I buy my own paper.

 

Principal: Mark is our full-time tech volunteer. [Our school now has 600 laptops and no tech staff.]

 

Faculty: …So, how many fights were there today?

 

Student: Yea, where is Mr. H (principal)? I never see him.

 

Me: I don’t have the online supplies request form.

Staff: Honestly, somedays, I have so much to do I forget to look at it and send people their supplies.

 

Me: Why are there 6 copy machines in this room and none of them work?

 

Faculty: They told us to practice the SBAC [online] test. Then they said, “But we’ll give you the laptop carts in January. No, make that April.”

 

Teaching Coach: Yea, see you’re slowly becoming a curriculum writer.

Me: …

 

Principal: Some people are just ready to work 70-80 hour weeks.

 

Principal: This is why I like young teachers.

 

Principal: I really don’t want to be dismissive but I hear you want me to change things. I want to be more solution-oriented.

 

Principal: I had to make a decision about the [curriculum], so I made the call from the top… [two minutes later:] I’m not the boss. I want this to be a collective.

 

Principal: I’m so sorry I missed the restorative justice circle. It was my fault I double-booked myself.

 

Assistant principal, after teachers chose an Asian American student to receive an award: Can we choose someone with a little more color?

 

Me: I think I’m going to buy books on racial formation, Asian American history, gender, and sitting with difficult emotions and place it in these male principals’ mailboxes.

 

 

*Obviously names have been changed for privacy.

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Teaching: An emotional task analysis

5:30-6:00AM Turn off your cell phone alarm repeatedly, get up only when NPR starts to play on your clock-radio. Brush your teeth, get dressed, pack your lunch, and walk your dog all in the next hour.

7:10AM Leave the house…

7:15AM You get to school.  The sky is grey and it is misting, but you are happy.  From your car, you lug a pink crate composed of 2 reams of paper, your lunch and a mug of tea while carrying your book bag.  Try not to spill on yourself as you wonder if this counts as your workout for the week.  It does.

Realize you are the first teacher at school.  The empty hallways greet you in their morning calm.  You love this.  This makes the morning grogginess worth it.  The custodian crosses your mind- How do they feel about their work hours?

In your classroom, you make printouts then head to the copy room.  Make small talk, do mental math to make varying sets of copies, all while running the day’s lessons through your mind: when to pass out the handouts, is it better to have groups of fours or twos.  Sometimes pedagogy is made up of classroom management strategies.

8:00AM Prep your boards with dates, homework, intros to the lessons.  You have exactly 15 minutes.  Take your scheduled pee break (yes, this is reality for teachers).

8:15AM Medieval History. Welcome students in.  They are just as groggy as you were an hour ago.  So endearing in their hoodies, or newly straightened hair, or—sometimes—new clothes, inching into the room and blinking their eyes open.  You are reminded that no matter what, they are someone’s babies.  You love them too.

Half of them are late.  You teach and coach.  Your first period is a breeze today.

9:17AM Medieval History. Give the context to the lesson, remind Dee to stay quiet and respectful (for what feels like the tenth time before she is sent out), scan the room for students chewing gum, make eye contact while speaking, and check if Dan has his foot behind you to secretly trip you as you give directions.

Finish up your lecture while keeping an eye on Dee who is still waiting outside for you to check in with her and talking to students wandering the hall.  You are frustrated but sad because you know her actions stem from parenting at home, which stems from who-knows-what kind of history from her mother.

Sign off on students’ work, answer questions, motivate students to do their work.  Stand by John who reads below grade level and is unmotivated.  He wrote at the beginning of school, “I motivate myself.”  And obviously it’s not working.

You are frustrated but getting loud or aggressive does not work with your students, who are well-trained at mirroring it back or diffusing it with disruptive jokes.  You remember the two silent students who are grade levels behind that you did not get to check in with today.  But time is up.  You are wiped out.  Your body feels it.  Make last announcements and dismiss the class.

10:14AM  Medieval History.  Welcome students in.  You sit down, trying to see how students will react to your silence and “disappearance.”  You are checking how well they have internalized your entrance procedures.

You teach the lesson for the third time.  Teach and coach.  Get interrupted multiple times by a phone call, an administrator, and a counselor looking for different students.  Keep Al on track although he’s intent on staring out the door at the locker search for marijuana that the administration has embarked on.  Mary and Tim are still talking to each other and not getting much done even after multiple reminders.  You take a deep breath.

Almost there…

Lisa makes a peace sign and kisses the air while the class stares.  You make a face, mimic her and the class gets to joke as you dismiss them.  “Oh and do your homework!”

11:11AM “Free period” or “prep.”  Get your student helpers set up with grading work.  You realize your breakfast was just two sips of tea so you eat as you grade papers.

Tidy up your room and converse with your assistant principal about the students you saw earlier who may have stashed marijuana in their lockers this morning.  Your co-workers joke in your room and one delivers a soy latte.  SCORE.

12:04PM Lunch.  Students come in for help, a quiet space to work, or they are there to joke with you.  “My special children,” you call them.  Realize you did not fully prep your 8th grade lesson and take care of that.  Meanwhile, questions keep flying your way—the colored pencils?  The sentence-starter sheet?  Where do you live?  Hey, I’m going to bully you.  They all need and want attention.  You try.

12:44PM Book Club is for silent reading, luckily your 8th graders make this possible (usually after a ruckus entry full of horseplay and gossip.)  Two or three of them will stand by the door with you to heckle you with joke and questions like “You’re so beautiful.”  “Did your tattoos hurt?”  “Do you know Mey from AYPAL?  Are you friends?”  “Do you have a boyfriend?”  They are ridiculously friendly and you wonder about boundaries.  Yet you’ve successfully never given out your age nor dating status because “it shouldn’t affect how you treat me,” you say.

Review your 8th grade lessons while making sure your students are reading and if possible try to “read” your book.  Answer the phone, write passes for students getting extra coaching, and check the hallway for students skipping, being sent out of class, or just being disruptive.  Keep your eye on the time!

1:04PM U.S. History. Fumble through your lesson because you feel it’s a little lacking, but you’re not sure what is missing.  A student calls out, “I’m bored.”  Get distracted because this disheartens you.  Pick back up mid-sentence.  They are calling out too much today.  Frustration.  Frustration.

Supervise students’ partner reading and answer their questions.  Get more frustrated as you see students are not grasping the reading as much as you hoped.  Admit to a student you are irritated as you check if all the pairs are “re-teaching” each other what they just read.

End class with admitting you are irritated because you take your work personally and this is the second time you’re teaching this moment of history.  And this wasn’t as good as you had hoped.  You tell students you needed them to teach and support each other.  Grasping for words, you notice the Assata Shakur quote in the back of your room, “We must love and support each other.”  You read this to them and remind them that the class is about this too.  You dismiss them to their next class with that sentiment.  At least you feel proud about this part of the lesson.

2:01PM U.S. History. Welcome in your last group, who have been through 6 periods.  Today, most of them have run 8 or more laps at P.E., they have screamed and yelled during lunch, and have read and wrote and created.  They drag their feet as they enter and you can relate.

Start the same lesson again, simultaneously thinking of changes you can make this time around.  Lead your students through an example and get excited when talking about the Fugitive Slave Law and its similarity to immigration policy today.  Hope they understand the point you made about Arizona and Alabama.

The lesson goes a little better.  You get to explain to students hard at work that John Brown was a white man who was an abolitionist!  And that senators beat each other up in Congress, in relation to tensions over slavery!  Crazy country!

Students are excited and you notice one of your Vietnamese students translating the readings into Vietnamese for her partner who has been in the country for less than a year.  Your heart is warmed.

Class dismissed.

3:00PM You should be able to leave the building now, but students wander in: “I lost my project.”  “What are you supposed to do with the writing section?”  “Can you proof-read this?”  “Can you show me my grades?”

Later, exhausted, you sit for a minute next to a student waiting for her phone in the office.  Joke with her and then wish her a good afternoon.  “Be a good… woman!” she tells you.  Chuckle as you walk away realizing that she said that because you told her class about how “girl” and “boy” was used to disrespect men and women of color.

You never allow yourself to stay past 4pm.  Besides, your room is rowdy because the after-school program uses it for their tutoring.

4:00PM You’ve escaped!  Use the next few hours to walk your dog, cook/heat dinner, shower.  If you have the energy, talk to a friend on the phone or look at your email.  If you are lucky or foolish enough, decide to have dinner with a friend on a weeknight.

7:00PM You really want to do something mindless like look at girly fashion blogs or puppies…  But you have planning to do.

Ok, who am I kidding?  You waste an hour staring at facebook and tumblr.

8-10:00PM Try to limit yourself to 2 hours of planning.  Stare at the pile of grading you brought home and wonder why you even try.

11:00PM Ignore the pile of books you haven’t touched in weeks.  No judgment.  Get ready for bed now because it took you longer than you wanted to prep for the next day.  Journal for yourself and nod off.  Imagine people- people you like, people you love, those you miss, those who were here last and those you wish could be here.  Maybe if you weren’t so busy… so tired…

Get up and realize you can edit a poem or email something related to your grassroots group.

Go to bed too late.

Repeat at 5:30AM.

* * * * *

Note- It even overwhelms me to look at what I wrote, and this account does not even include very much about the more directly intellectual part of our work (like the planning and grading).  A teacher’s day is long and full of mental and emotional multi-tasking.  It is physically exhausting as I never sit down while teaching.

However, I want to make clear that I do not write this in some attempt to publicize the glamour of a teacher’s supposed martyrdom, nor to pity myself, and not even to complain.  I am only comfortable writing and publicizing this now because I’m ready to teach for a few more years.  Maybe this means two years, maybe it means ten.  I write this because when you wonder why I am cloistered during my weekends or unavailable, you get it.  I want you to know why, when you ask me about teaching, I have no straight answer.  It is because my job and how I feel about it is as complex as the typical day I just outlined.  I write this because if and when this country/community truly discusses what education means, we cannot forget about valuing the personnel doing the work.

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On Teaching: My truth as of now

A friend asked me a relatively innocuous question: “I want to know your philosophy around teaching.”  The answer I gave was barely an answer and after reflection I realized I felt defensive responding to him.  I told him, I don’t think teaching is my passion.  I told him, I feel restricted.  I told him about the compromises I make in my curriculum.  If I am truly honest about teaching, I always feel like I have two choices- neglect myself or neglect my students.  Either choice is political.  Balance is a thin line and martyrdom often seems rewarded.

When we read or write about teaching—myself included—we tend to romanticize it or demonize it.  But here’s my truth, as of now: I work long hours, my pay is minimal especially divided by said hours, young people are challenging, families are challenging, administrators are challenging, co-workers are challenging, poor communities of color and our many years of compounded structural and internalized oppression is challenging.  All this said, this is hard work and I am tired.

But the students make it worth it, right?  Yes and no.  I care about my students.  I wish I could spend hours tutoring most of them to get onto grade level, but that’s not going to happen.  I feel like I fail them most days.  How would you feel to fail the people you love daily?

Well, what about your (attempt at a) radical curriculum?  Don’t you feel great developing young peoples’ political analysis?  I am growing to love this part of my work since I am at a school that has explicitly told me- do what you think best serves our students.  The principal and I—in some broad strokes—are in agreement with what that looks like.  In the next few years, my curriculum development is my priority.  To be honest though, this takes time.  Now in my second full-time year, I find my lessons getting closer to what I would like them to be.  Maybe I am not courageous enough or patient enough, but I am usually frustrated by the standards I should teach.  History is not a heavily tested subject like Math or English, but how am I doing my students service if my curriculum breaks too far away from what the state says I should teach?  What will students need to know later versus what they deserve to know?  Maybe I am not being brave enough and need to believe more fervently the skills I teach will outweigh any banking of information.  Maybe I am not patient enough to trust I will find that middle ground.

Yes, I could approach these issues from some other angles.  Another friend responded to my thoughts saying that the questions I had to answer were fucked up questions in the first place.  The current debates in schooling are limiting.  Recently, I’ve been gaining perspective from short, informal essays by an educator who argues that our job is to “move students into who they must be”- freedom fighters, anti-oppressive folks.  But these perspectives—albeit helpful—do not resolve the questions with which I have been presented.  They make me more anxious and frustrated as I feel more confused about how this is done in the face of the limits of my human energy and abilities.

So just go organize with other teachers!  Ok, let me raise the issue of my current limited abilities.  How do I balance my workload (which must be done for my students) and more long-term work with teachers?  That is a whole other category of exploited full-time work!

I wish I could end this on an upbeat note, but the truth is that as a teacher, I feel like an oppressed worker.  I feel it daily.  Over time my friends and family feel it too.  My own personal and political growth in certain realms are stunted.

So here’s where I am at, without romanticization: I am tired, I continue to work, and most days I question my participation in the schooling system.  Am I an educator, an oppressor, the oppressed?  What opportunities does this latter position hold?  How does the conflation of these positions in the work of a teacher lead to more limits in my/our possibilities for radical change?

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