Week 1 Down (Or Week 1 All Over Again)

 

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I can’t believe it, but week one of institute is in the books. At first each day felt super slow, but then midway through the week we started hurtling toward the finish. We’ve had workshops on lesson planning, diversity, “vision-building,” rule-setting, classroom management and more, but starting tomorrow we will have to take that week of learning and put it into practice. It’s odd, just as we have gotten used to the pace of the days here, everything is about to change. It’s almost like we are starting over again. We’ll teach from 8-1 or so, and then we will have workshops after that, and come back to the dorm and lesson plan after that. Everyone here is always talking about stressful all-nighters; I haven’t experienced that at all, but maybe Monday is when things start to get challenging to that degree. 

That hardest thing for me right now is lesson-planning. Every single one of our lessons has to have a script for what the teacher is going to say, and a column parallel to that with the anticipated student response. I have never done anything like that for lesson-planning, and it is taking a lot of getting used to on top of not being sure about exactly how to teach math. I guess that’s the upside, though; forcing me to write a script makes me think harder about how I am going to present every single problem and operation, rather than leaving it up to chance in the classroom. 

We met our faculty advisor, Ms. Neil, on Friday. She has been a teacher for eleven years. She emphasized one thing, and it’s the same thing our workshop instructors have been emphasizing: consistency. Specifically, consistency when it comes to classroom management. That might be one of our biggest challenges since working in a group of four means each teacher will have to be on exactly the same page about the ways we discipline and reward. If one of us is doing something different, it could undermine all of us. I’m interested to see how co-teaching is going to go. 

I asked Ms. Neil what her first year teaching was like. “Hell,” she replied. Is that scary to hear? Sure. But I can also see that Ms. Neil is a great teacher. Our summer school principal came around while we were talking to her and said she’s amazing at questioning, differentiation, classroom management. Even though “hell” is a scary word, it’s comforting to know that Ms. Neil was there, and now she’s here. I’m not expecting to be great right away, but I have to tell myself I can get to great. In fact, they are big on mantras here at institute. Maybe I’ll make that my personal mantra: Get to great. 

Day 3

So, we are through day three, although each day feels way longer. So far we have been attending workshop after workshop, so the day doesn’t move very quickly although we do get a ton of information. Somehow a day of sitting in workshops can feel exhausting, but I’m trying to take as much from them as I can. The biggest changes from day one are that now I have a better understanding of who exactly I’ll be working with this summer. I’ve met the teachers from my region, my advisor, my advisement group, the team that runs the school I’ll be teaching at, and the team I’ll be teaching with. I co-teach with three other teachers, and that will be one of the most interesting aspects of this process since I have never had to do much collaborative work. Even in college, I always convinced my professors to let me out of group work. It’s interesting to start to see what kinds of work styles my co-teachers have and what they seem to prioritize here. Although working in a group makes things like lesson planning go a little slower, it will help prepare me for co-teaching in fall.

It’s interesting, right now everything is moving at a glacial pace because we basically sit in one place all day listening to lectures, but when we start teaching on Monday I think everything will ramp up really quickly. We will be teaching and having meetings and attending workshops and lesson planning each day, so things will go from really slow to super-fast. Even though I’m extremely nervous to teach math, and am already having trouble with the curriculum, I am excited to meet our kids and start teaching. I am here to become a better educator, and once we start I’ll get feedback from my kids, my co-teachers, my advisor, the district teacher who will watch our group, and more. It seems like a lot, but that’s the only way to improve. Also, over the past three days it has been so easy to focus on myself and my troubles and anxieties here, and I expect that once we start teaching it will be really stressful, but my focus will shift away from me and onto my kids.

The best part of yesterday was definitely a visit we got from Ms. Darren, a veteran teacher who is running the summer school program. She’s not at all affiliated with TFA, and she’s been working in Chicago schools her whole career. She gave us great, extremely useful advice, which was awesome after hours of theory, but more than that, she just had this warmth and toughness when she spoke to us that screamed “teacher.” You could see exactly how she operates in the classroom, and as she stood and spoke her genuine love for the career was so inspiring. Everyone who works at TFA is extremely encouraging and peppy and young. They are constantly smiling and reminding us about “this movement.” They are motivating, but Ms. Darren brought a different, more genuine sort of energy. She’s the kind of teacher I aspire to be.

Day 1 Down

Well, day one of institute is down, and it was much harder than I expected it to be. Today should have been simple: check in on campus, move into the dorm, meet fellow corps members, get a good night’s rest. Although we do have an early wakeup call tomorrow, today there was no lesson planning or grading to slave over. It should have been an exciting first day.

So why did I end up crying through most of it?

I enjoyed my morning in Chicago. I walked around the downtown area and though I missed New York, I was relaxed and excited. The fear set in when I got to institute and saw that I had been assigned third-grade math for summer school. Math? It was the last thing I expected. I am horrible at math, and I hadn’t even considered the possibility of teaching it this summer. Challenging as the assignment may be, though, I know I will need to be able to teach math in fall, so why not start now? It shouldn’t have been a huge deal, but my insecurities worsened as I entered my hall, which buzzed with upbeat chatter. I introduced myself to my hallmates, who had already become fast friends in the room next door, but found myself wanting to retreat into my room (a single). Everywhere I went people seemed to already be clustered in groups. How had everyone already become friends?

I spent most of the day in my room trying to get a grip. It’s not like me to become that emotional and shy. My friends and family keep telling me what I know, rationally: that it’s natural to be freaked out in a new environment at first, that I’ll get more comfortable, that I will get busy and things will move quickly, that I will make friends eventually. But no matter how true all of that probably is, right now I feel like the kid who eats in the bathroom at lunchtime. I feel lonely, and pathetic for feeling lonely.

I have confidence in my ability to be a great teacher, and I can’t let this experience break that confidence. All of these nerves and fears and anxieties are completely new to me, but I am just going to take it one day at a time. I had a very challenging, alienating first day. Hopefully tomorrow will be better. No matter what happens, I have to commit.

My Kind of Town (Chicago)

I have just arrived in Chicago for my first day of teacher boot camp, as Diva calls it. Since I can’t check in at my dorm until 1:00, I’ve headed to the downtown area to pick up some essentials from Walgreens, Macy’s and the like. My first impression is of space. I am in the central touristy, shopping area, near Millennium Park, and the streets are nearly empty. Maybe that’s because it’s a Sunday morning and most of the stores are closed; whatever the reason, it’s certainly a lot different than New York. On the bright side, the weather is pretty and the lack of people makes it easy for me to haul my luggage around! Walking around midtown Manhattan with a huge backpack and a roller bag would be hell.

Soon I will check in on campus and move into my dorm room. I have heard so much about this boot camp, from “it was awesome!” to “it was torture!”, so I really have no idea what to expect. I have developed something very unlikely: a mantra. (If Diva is reading this, she is laughing. She knows mantras are not very Molly.) One thing I think I failed at as an after-school educator this year was establishing a guiding culture in my classes. Most of the time my students and I just got started on projects without much preliminary discussion about what values would guide us. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and in future years I hope to invest my students in what I’m currently calling the “Four Core Cs.” The mantra goes something like this:

Each day I will be…
1. Curious
2. Caring
3. Courageous
4. Committed

This summer, I envision the C’s manifesting as such: I will bring curiosity to every interaction at teacher camp, meaning that I will try to learn from and about my fellow TFAers, the staff at my school, and most importantly my students. I will be curious about Chicago and the community in which I’ll be teaching summer school.

I will care for my co-TFAers by offering support and encouragement. I will do the same for my students, and I will care for myself by getting rest and managing my time responsibly.

I will be courageous by challenging myself to use new strategies in the classroom, extending myself socially, and pushing myself to learn all the time.

I will commit myself to this experience fully, meaning that I will not let my skepticism take hold and temper my motivation.

I hope that writing all this down will serve as a reminder when I need it. Right now I don’t feel stressed. Mostly a travel-tired fog has settled over me, but I can’t wait to see what sorts of people I will meet later today and to find out where I’ll be teaching summer school.

Morning at Ping Pong

Sergio is always the first to arrive. He wears a low-cut yellow tank, the v-neck down to the sternum, exposing tanned skin that has taken him through eighty-three winters. Wiry white chest hairs escape from the skimpy tank top. He has been on the table since ten, having walked from his apartment on 39th Street and Sixth Avenue. “Twenty years I been living there,” Sergio says, laughing wryly like this fact is incredible. “I seen the ping pong tables when they first come.”

“Did you come to the park before the ping pong?” I ask. I know the answer will be no, but I want to see if he is the kind of New Yorker who fetishizes or derides old midtown.

“No, no,” he says. “It was no good before. Drug dealers there,” he points at the 41st Street porch, where tourists watch an accordionist. “And there”–the back of the library, lined with restaurant patrons dining al fresco.

He plays for an hour more or so, with Rev, who has a lazy eye and a benevolent smile. Rev tells Sergio he needs a wife. Sergio laughs but his eyes are hard. “I like to be alone,” Sergio says.

“But man was made to be loved by woman,” Rev says. “There is a woman out there for every man.”

“What about the men who love men?” I ask. “And the women who love women?”

Rev shakes his head, still smiling like he knows some calming truth we don’t. “Self-serving,” he says. “It bears no fruit.”

“I am going to SPiN,” Sergio says suddenly. SPiN is the indoor ping pong club. Not free of charge, like the park, but free of proselytizing. Sergio pulls a string backpack on over his stooped shoulders and heads toward Sixth Avenue, his yellow tank top soon indistinguishable from the taxis whirring by.

Childhood

Childhood was Brandon Jones in the backyard at dusk, waiting to catch fireflies. We never saw each other outside of school, and really I only knew him as some girl or another’s crush. People said he lived in West Brattleboro in a small apartment with uncles and cousins instead of parents. He must have walked by and looked up at our big house–with its inviting picture window lit through gauzy curtains, hinting at something wonderful within—and ached to be part of it.

It was our weekly movie night and we were piled onto the couches and chairs on the top floor, getting ready to watch something family friendly, or moderately so, because Mom was a little lax with the movie choices. “Brandon is down there,” someone said. “Brandon Jones.” I doubt if I was even surprised, because kids seemed to show up on our back porch without warning quite often. There was the time Cody and Ryan Houston played basketball in our driveway, not knowing that a new family had moved into the empty house kitty-corner to theirs. They left when Dad went outside to find out who they were; this was before September 11, and I’m sure two pre-teen Vermonters had never heard an Arabic accent before. They might not have even known what Arab was. There was the time Sean Ferguson, (who, like Brandon, lived way across town in an area we only drove past when going to the local diner for Belgian waffles), called the home phone and said, without introduction, “I’m in a comfortable chair on a back porch with a golden dog.” That, of course, was our prized Adirondack chair, and our smiling golden retriever Annie, and our back porch. My girlfriends and I spilled down two flights of stairs, a wave of giggles, and there Sean was, all dimples and sparkling go-light green eyes. There was the time Tosh from next door came through the gap in the fence like a stray cat, looking lost and beat up. On his side of the fence there were junky cars littering the yard and young women with kids, and there was always a stepdad or something yelling at him. We didn’t like Tosh much, but we let him stay on our side until the swell on his cheek lessened or the bloody nose dried up.

It wasn’t so surprising to see Brandon, then, because backyards seemed permeable. We climbed fences and roamed into alleys and buildings and corners of town that didn’t belong to us, but only because nothing seemed to belong to anyone. That’s how Bridget and I found Strawberry Fields, a stretch of wild grass a few twists and turns from the house. We lounged on the grass until it became too itchy, and Bridget wove flowers into our hair. When we skipped back to my yard, where mom was grilling for friends (this was before everyone was vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian), all of the adults smiled at us like we were a pleasant sepia-toned memory they had just unearthed.

Down the road from Strawberry Fields was another discovery, the Hobo Trail, which seemed to have been built for our convenience. Me and the Houston boys lived atop the steep Estey Hill, and two of our gang, Katie and Ava, lived at the bottom. They scaled the hill in freezing New England winters, jeans wet to the knee with snow and air needling exposed skin, and in humid New England summers, the air viscous and fragrant and coated over everything, thick as marmalade. One day during what could have been a hide-and-seek game or just a walk in search of town secrets, one of the Houstons tripped and crashed through the thorny bushes that obscured the trail’s entrance. “Hey, come in here!” he shouted. We followed, and found that the trail led straight down to a white one-room church at the bottom of Estey Hill, just near Katie and Ava’s. The Hobo Trail became our preferred route, but no matter the direction we always met each other halfway and hiked the path as swiftly as Orpheus, since nobody would hear you scream from there—the trail was canopied by trees and cut above a converted factory complex. Even our concept of danger, though, was juvenile, driven by imagination rather than reality. An insane asylum bordered the town, and we imagined a patient might get loose and snatch us from the Hobo Trail. It never happened, of course, but it would have been a good story to pass down to younger siblings except for the fact that all of us were the babies of our households.

Who knows how much time Brandon and I spent catching fireflies? The grass, shaggy and overgrown, nipped at our skinny ankles as we roamed the yard. We were silent, as if our voices would disturb the chorus of chirps and flutters that filled each New England night. Catch and release. Catch and release. We tangled our fingers together and scooped the fireflies into our palms, holding the creatures only until they offered a performative twinkle. Immediately, we’d let go. If one held on too long, the magic was lost.

Why Mad Men Represents the Best of TV

Don and Sally

Don and Sally in an early season (L) and in last Sunday’s episode (R).

 

On last Sunday’s Mad Men, Sally catches Don in a lie—she visits SCDPCDPCHCHJ (I can’t remember the agency name anymore) and finds that he’s not there, but doesn’t confront him about it when he later claims he was at the office. Once Don finds out Sally knew the truth, he asks why she withheld as well. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than to ignore it,” Sally says, no doubt recalling the events of last season, when she walked in on Don mid-hookup with a woman who was not his wife. Don sneers at Sally’s response, accusing her of lying in wait, then trapping him in a fib, “just like your mother.”

Mad Men rarely patronizes its viewers, so the show doesn’t spell out that Don is referencing the events of season three. In episode 3×11, Betty confronts Don about his identity theft after opening the Pandora’s box in his desk, chock-full of family photos and references to Dick Whitman’s life. As soon as Don spits that insult at Sally—just like your mother—we flash back to Betty standing righteously in Don’s office; to his mistress, the long forgotten schoolteacher, hunched in Don’s car parked outside. Don’s entire journey—really, his descent—is present as we flash from the moments after Betty’s confrontation in season three to the Don Draper of season seven. In the former season it was odd to watch Don, always suave and composed, shaking so forcefully in the face of Betty’s discovery that he couldn’t light his cigarette. Now Don is often that unmoored; he traipses around his house in pajamas, marking the levels of his quickly depleting liquor bottle. “I can explain,” Don sputtered to Betty in season three, the box of photos between them. “I know you can,” Betty replied. “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” It was true then; it’s not so true now.

At the moment that Don knew his wife had found him out, he must have thought it was the lowest point in his life. Looking back, he knows it was not, as do we. The depths of his misery have only deepened, and today he is essentially an unemployed alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. In a four-word phrase—just like your mother—Mad Men reminds us of Don’s relationship with Sally, his relationship with Betty, his relationship with the truth, his relationship with himself. We become conscious of the years and years we have spent with this character. Television is unique in this way; a movie, a book, a painting, are contained experiences, stretching over hours or days. Television stretches over years. This is changing through shows like True Detective or the new Fargo, one-and-dones that in future seasons will perhaps be united by an aesthetic sensibility, if not by character. But the best television takes advantage of our extended relationships with its characters and uses that intimacy to move us. “Just like your mother” reminds us how broken Don is, and how fraught he and Sally’s relationship is. Which is why the episode’s ending scene is such a gut punch. Don drops Sally off. They have had dinner, have mended at least a post on the fence. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she tosses off through the car window. “I love you.” Don is stunned, and touched, as are we. It’s so hopeful, the capacity for love after all that. And therein, the power of television: that we are able to experience all that. 

The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.

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Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”

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A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image

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Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

Introducing the Winter Soldier: The creation of a truly terrifying Marvel villain

Great analysis of why the Winter Soldier was way scarier than any recent comic-book movie villain I can think of.

Cinesnark

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-poster-bucky A couple weeks ago film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a plea for fellow critics to include discussions of form in their film reviews, to at least mention how the language of film is helping or hindering the movie being reviewed. It was an eloquent point well made, and also apropos of what I want to talk about in re: Captain America: The Winter Soldier . I’ve already reviewed the movie (available here and spoiler free), so what I want to get into now that we can talk about stuff without people yelling SPOILERS (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now) is how all of the elements of filmmaking worked together to bring to life the Winter Soldier, the most memorable, bone-crunchingly scary villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

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Behind the Gate

“Have you really been
behind the gate?”

Yes, I say, full with the pleasure of
a secret.

They wait

They wait

to hear.
Some eyes are round with wonder;
some squint, unsure if they should believe.
Their imaginings include
celebrities murderers runaways princesses
magic.

It is a big gate
in a small town made huge
with imagination.

How to explain
that what’s really there,
behind the gate,
is greater than even the realities in their heads.

“There is a magic forest,”
I start to say.
But get stuck.
They won’t believe
that there are creatures in the woods.
A yellow brick road, of daffodils.
A room that has no walls,
just colors,
oranges
yellows.

It is a Mad Hatter place for
the grownups become children, laughing wildly,
and the children become grownups,
or what we believe grownups to be,
sharing our grand ideas of the world as everyone listens.

Not listens,
believes.

Anything can be real there.
In the kitchen, Joy explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of fairies or ghosts.
Jay is quieter, but explains,
with his food and drink and peaceful smile,
that we mustn’t be afraid
of happiness.
Jack presides over it all–
the ponies and parties and pretty people–
and explains that we mustn’t be afraid
of the truth:
That even though we are children, always told
to quietdownsettledownsitdowncalmdown,
we must live up to the fact that we’re
exceptional
beautiful
even brilliant.

Only as an adult do I learn
that few people
want that for others.

How paradoxical
that children think with such clarity
but are told they know nothing,
while adults think in metaphors
just to make sense of something.

The easy metaphor
for what’s behind the gate
is Gatsby,
with his mysteries
and his majestic parties.
But what’s behind the gate is much truer
and rarer
than that:
Love.