Adventures in Rome: Priceless

People don’t enter the teaching profession to make money. Obviously, we want a pay check, but with the level of education required in many states (Master’s degree) and the number of hours we contribute, we’d be making far more in the private sector putting our skills and passion to work. And let me just squelch right now the oft-claimed, “at least you get summers off.” True, kinda. If we aren’t going to training or working second jobs. But we also don’t get paid for the summer. Our paychecks are divided into twelve payments so that we receive summer paychecks, but we are only paid for the school year. Also, we don’t get paid overtime. I usually put in between 50-55 hours per week.

Anyway, it isn’t lucrative. So when I decided to celebrate my youngest’s university graduation this summer with a trip to Italy, it was a decision I didn’t take lightly. It was expensive. I came up with all kinds of reasons why I shouldn’t. Briefly. And then the most important reason blazed: if not now, when? Soon my baby will start a career that will possibly take her far away and keep her busy. Then marriage and babies and I’m not getting any younger, so yes, now.

I lived in Vicenza, Italy for about three years, 24 years ago. It’s where my son learned to walk, and where I carried my daughter until a few weeks before her birthday. So this trip was a sort of an emotional homecoming for me, too.
We spent 18 glorious days luxuriating in the Ligurian Sea, steeping in ancient art, feasting on local cuisine, and hiking urban streets and rural trails.

We started in Rome.

Trevi Fountain

Obviously, the layout of the city isn’t different from when I was there before. What has changed is the commercialization and focus on tourism. I remember walking right into all the sites without waiting in line – except the Vatican. But even that line has grown exponentially. It really just blew my mind. As a stay at home mom on a soldier’s salary long ago, I got to look at sites from the outside, but rarely could we afford to go in. So I decided that this time we were going to go in and see everything. I sprung for good tours that skipped the general admission lines. I cannot recommend this highly enough. It is absolutely worth it.

Vatican museum
St. Peter’s Basilica

The Bocca della Verita used to be very open and easy to access. Now it’s all closed in with scaffolding and an attendant, and the line was just wicked in the hot July sun. We stood there wilting for about an hour with temps in the mid-90s.

Bocca della Verita

When touring, I found the best way to stay sane is to be flexible. Set a few non-negotiable tours and visits (plan far ahead because many sites require reservations, even with general admission), but then relax and simply enjoy whatever circumstance arises.

The Coliseum
Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
Palatine Hill
Circus Maximus
The Tiber River
View from the Castel Sant’Angelo
The Pieta

Eat. Everything.

Eggplant pasta
Spaghetti carbonara (I think)
Fig and prosciutto lasagna
Caprese Sandwich
Pannacotta
Tartufo
Pistachio and chocolate Cannoli
Canneloni

Clearly, I could write several posts about the food alone. We agreed before we left that there would be no discussing diet or calories at any point in our trip, and that eating local cuisine was as much a part of travel as getting there. We fully indulged. The best new thing we discovered is the afternoon apertif. Most restaurants serve free little nibbles when you buy a drink around five or so. We fell in love with Aperol spritz, a lovely concoction of orange bitters, prosecco, and bubble water. My favorite memories will be finally sitting down after a full day of walking, climbing, standing, and sweating, (we averaged ten miles per day) and reveling in the sweet refreshment. Usually we got chips or olives and crackers.

Aperol spritz

I do not regret anything I spent money on for this trip. Sure, there are things I learned later that could have saved money, and prior planning and communication that should have occurred, and travel arrangements that had to be changed and dollars forfeited. But I got to experience moments of my daughter’s cultural awakening and understanding. We shared laughter, silliness, camaraderie, (stress and patience, too) as women, that we may never have otherwise known. Worth it? Absolutely priceless.

Prescriptive Necessity

In the Pacific Northwest we’ve been focusing on Common Core standards for several years now.  I automatically include references to the standards in my lesson plans, white board objectives, PLC notes, data protocol charts, WICOR evidence, and evaluation summaries. I cover as many as humanly possible. The district has chosen specific standards for us to focus on and we’re to imbed as many of the others as we can throughout the year. The list of standards in language arts (apparently it’s gauche and noninclusive to call it English anymore) is mammoth, and to properly pretest, teach, assess, reteach, reassess for each is ridiculously impossible in one school year.

Of course, this creates a palpable sense of time whizzing by as I spin and grasp to catch just a little more. (Feels like being fifty, by the way.)  Anyway, it also makes me really think about what’s important. What do I want my kids to leave my class knowing and thinking and believing and hoping about themselves, our country, their future. And how do I impart that in a balanced, nonindoctrinating, skill (& fact) -based, critically-thinking English class while covering the standards?

Today’s teacher indoctrination camps- er, training programs – like to celebrate Noam Chomsky as the hero of language acquisition and “social justice” warriors. He’s the guy who falsified research (No matter – he is a flaming anti-Israel, anti-America, Holocaust and genocide-denying Communist, so education elitists love him) who basically contends that memorization is useless in grammar and spelling because language is acquired naturally via hard-wired instincts. This has become clearly inaccurate, but change in education is slow when it upsets the elite.

So for years teachers have been instructed to avoid prescriptive grammar rules and rote memorization, and simply give students encouragement and time to self-discover grammatical truths in texts. Prescribed rules are oppressiveanti-woman, etc. If you ever have trouble sleeping, you might try reading the white hot iron missives driving the very real, very angry grammar wars.

All this to say that as much as I’d love to have time to nudge each child to self – realization, sometimes rote memorization is the best approach. I want my freshmen and sophomores to know and love words. They need to define and spell them, understand how they function in a sentence, and what their roots are. Kids need structure. Knowing that there are basic rules, albeit sometimes confusing and seemingly random, helps build confidence. Sure, they have a computer in their hands,  but if they don’t have basic linguistic knowledge, they won’t know when, why, or what to search. In my experience students who have few learned prescriptive rules rarely take chances with language. They use basic vocabulary and simple sentence structure.

To boost writing confidence, I frontload 10-15 vocabulary words weekly from the texts we read:

1. Taking Cornell notes: words on the left, definition on the right. I walk the class through predicting definitions using root words, labeling parts of speech, discussing the role each word plays in a sentence, declention, etc. Yes, this takes time, but I strongly believe that magic happens in the brain when a hand writes a word, and inquiry encourages critical thinking. I do not allow students to take pictures of any of our notes.

2. Writing a story using all the words (also functions as Cornell notes summary).  This is completely open to student interpretation. I grade on proper word usage, spelling, and as we progress with rules, grammar. My only restrictions are that the stories are classroom appropriate and demonstrate understanding (no long lists of spelling words just to include them). They can be half a page to (yes, actually) ten pages long. With Common Core emphasis on non fiction texts, exposition and argumentation, the joy of writing and reading is headed for extinction. This weekly fun story has become so popular in my classes, that when I decide to give them a break or we have to juggle time, inevitably there are students who continue to write them anyway, sometimes finding their own vocabulary words.

3. Weekly vocabulary quizzes. I say the word, students write it and write the definition. We assess the quizzes with partners and as a group for immediate feedback.

Nobody really likes to memorize anything because it takes effort. But maybe more effort is really what we need.

 Empty Nesting

I’ve been running with my dog for years. She is a doberman rottweiler mix, smallish but big in heart. As a puppy, her name was Athena for a while. But she was a clown and snapped playfully with her milk teeth really fast, like an alligator, and laughed when I feigned horror.  So she became Toga, far more likely to be dancing on tables and popping grapes than presiding eloquently over a temple feast. Her clownishness is magnetic

Around three years old, she began to lose patches of black fur. It was gradual and not immediately noticeable. Then the remaining fur started to turn white. Her vet was clearly excited and perplexed at this turn of events, having never seen it before. She sent a skin biopsy to the lab, researched, and eventually determined that Toga is overall healthy, but has a very rare form of alopecia and vitiligo. 

At seven, her belly began to change again. It went from naked mole rat smooth to sporting several long tufts of reddish brown. But she doesn’t realize she’s funny looking, and commands respect even as she tosses my socks in the air, grinning and hopping about the living room.  

When I’m physically in shape, so is Toga. Knowing that she needs to excercise helps get me out the door, especially in winter. We have jogged through a suburban neighborhood in Idaho, followed Wyoming wild horse trails, wandered past stately mansions in Buckhead Atlanta, along industrial roads in Nebraska, through Tennessee Civil War battlefields, and braved rattlesnakes in Southern California. 

This summer she turned eight and something isn’t quite right. She’s still funny and energetic – but not as much. She gets up from bed a little stiffly. Three times she has stopped in the middle of a run. The first time we were about four road miles into six when she dragged me over to a patch of shade and sprawled, belly down in the dirt. She refused to move. Mr. Running rescued us. The second time was at 2.5 miles. Mr. Running rescued us again. 

The third time I stuck to a dirt path not far from home, but inaccessible by car, hoping the softer surface would make a difference. 2.3 miles in Toga found the only shade and plopped down again. Mind you, it isn’t especially hot – 75 maybe. We ran in Atlanta mugginess all last summer. This time I couldn’t call for help. I picked up her 50 pounds and carried her for a while, but she became suitably offended and wriggled down, dragging me back into a jog. We made it home together. 

The vet said there’s a bit of inflammation in the soft tissue on Toga’s front leg, a rest will help. But it hasn’t. She could run tests and see if there is something more, but she seems reluctant that it would tell us much, and Toga appears healthy in every other way. I worry that she hurts.

So I’ve been running by myself. It feels wrong. Mr. Running says she howls while I’m gone. She’s never done that before. 

It’s not like I run fast or very far. I use a 4 minute run/1 minute walk training app. She used to get home still ready to run, while I collapsed in a sweaty heap. 

The average lifespan of a rottweiler is 9, dobie 10. Toga has accompanied me through three moves, one marriage, two job changes, and my kids leaving the nest. I wrestle with whether I should continue to let her run until she stops or keep her at home. Or just walk. She doesn’t understand walks. 

Part of me is missing, running alone. I feel vulnerable. I research protective breeds best for running, occasionally look at ads for puppies in the area. Even though both our dogs are fine and we definitely don’t need another, I feel like my baby is getting ready to move on. 

Summer Reading: James Joyce

Contrary to popular belief, ​English teachers haven’t read every work in the literary canon. Despite my best efforts, I only manage to make little dents in my ceiling-high pile of to-get-to books. Every year I add everything from classics to nonfiction to politics to fluff to this collection, thinking that I’ll catch up during the summer, and then every summer I find myself attending at least one education workshop or seminar that requires its own stack of reading, and the others are doomed to cobwebs. 

Last year I moved to Atlanta for the month of July to study Communism in America with Harvey Klehr at Emory University. We read Whittaker Chambers, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, etc. Fabulous and fascinating, highly recommend. 

This July found me studying the history of the Grand Coulee Dam, and training to teach AP English. 

Tackling the AP course this year, I have impetus to buckle down and read more classics. Today I am paying homage to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I just finished. My previous exposure to Joyce was a few snippets in college to illustrate linguistic experimentation. We didn’t read an entire work that I can remember. 

My gut reaction to Portrait: I really enjoyed the first four chapters. Joyce takes me on a nostalgic journey back to childhood, experiencing the innocent world bubble through a child’s sensibilities. His subtle changes in descriptive imagery and maturity grow as Stephen’s experiences and awareness increase. I love the countless allusions and historical references; the Penguin Classics edition, as pictured, provides an exhaustive notes section annotating these. I found myself flipping back and forth constantly to check my knowledge and understanding, particularly about Irish revolutionaries and Catholic tradition. 

Joyce loses me in the fifth chapter, though. Intellectually, I get it. The evolution of boy to man, immature to mature, servile to free.  The myth of Icarus and Daedalus, flying. But it feels self-indulgent to me in its philosophical rambling. Pedantic and didactic. And I don’t know if this is because it’s supposed to. 

Frankly, I don’t want to teach this book in my AP course. I just don’t like it enough to reread it, and I don’t know that I want to subject high school students to it. There are way too many other fun challenging novels waiting to be read.