It is still summer here, but this week marks a turning; the mornings have been cool, and at the end of a warm day I needed a sweater for an after-dinner walk. The pears on the backyard tree are suddenly pendulous, and the lettuces I never got around to using have bolted. Every day I told myself that I must pick the cherry tomatoes that are beginning to rot on the vine, but I didn’t get to them until Saturday. My interest in the garden is waning as much as the season.
It was our last week before Cane and I return to school, and our focus has turned inward. We spent much of the week on painting a back room, and all the doors in our hallway. (There are 7! A ridiculous number for an 1,100 sq. ft. house, but ours is the clown car of houses; it also has 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a full laundry room.) We also finished working on our renovation of the front of the house–or, at least, finished working on it for this year.
When I look at the house’s listing photos from 2018 and then those I’ve taken today, I am struck by the power of vision and revision.
It is the same house, and it is not.
Our changes were driven by function: I wanted more light in the house. The first year I thinned and cut back the camellias. I wanted more light, but I also liked the privacy screen they provided, so I didn’t cut too much. I planted some things around the camellias to fill in the space that felt too empty after making them smaller.
During our first pandemic spring, as the weather warmed, we found ourselves sitting on the front steps at the end of the day with a cold beverage. We talked about how it would be nice if the porch were large enough to hold some chairs, as sitting on the hard steps with only a post at our backs for support wasn’t very comfortable. We found that we liked sitting there and seeing all the people who walk by, and listening to the boys one door down shoot baskets in the street. Having a privacy screen began to feel less important than having a greater connection to the world. We cut the camellias way back, and I used a good chunk of my stimulus check to buy even more plants to fill in the spaces below them. We began talking about extending the porch, but I wanted the camellias to stay.
That spring and summer, we walked all over our city. Walking was one of the few things we could do for entertainment outside the house. We’d drive to different neighborhoods and walk their streets, talking about the houses we’d see, analyzing what made them appealing (or not). I started taking photos of houses with features I thought I’d like to have in mine.
These thoughts of revision and revision processes have been much on my mind this week, as I start preparing to return to classroom teaching for the first time in twelve (12!!!) years.
To put things in some perspective: My students were four years old the last time I was a classroom teacher. They’ve never really known a world without smartphones. I left the classroom the same year I started a Facebook account. There was no Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, or Tiktok around the last time I was an English teacher. Obama had just begun the first year of his first term and many were celebrating our wonderful post-racial world. (Hah!)
Waking up with a headache one morning this week and wanting to keep my eyes away from screens, I wandered to my bookcase and pulled out William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life. It had been years since I’d looked at it. Stafford grew up in the midwest but is legend in my part of the world, and I earned my M.A.T. at the school he made his academic home (Lewis and Clark College). His ideas about teaching, writing, and learning were seminal in my development as both a writer and teacher, and seeing the passages I’d marked decades ago felt a little like time traveling:
At first I taught as those around me did–correcting papers, pushing students to ‘succeed.’ But gradually my ways changed. A teacher just retiring at San Jose State had told me that teaching composition got harder and harder. She was writing more on a student’s paper that the student had written. She was heroic. But I thought mistakenly so.
My classes became more like ballet than like workshops. What did a piece of writing mean?–not what did it say, but what did it portend, or hint, or reveal, about that surely valid human impulse that brought it about? My job was not to correct but to understand and participate. A student’s paper was a test for me, and I began not to put any evaluation remarks at all on a paper. My remarks were meant to show my accompaniment, sometimes my readiness to learn more.(You Must Revise Your Life, ©1986, page 17-18 of the The University of Michigan Press’s 2006 edition)
When I began teaching, there was a paradigmatic war raging in English departments between traditionalists and those who believed in the kind of teaching Stafford espoused. I was wounded in more than one skirmish in my first years of teaching. From my (admittedly limited) vantage point, I’d say that the movement toward standards and accountability ushered in by 2001’s No Child Left Behind legislation gave the win to the traditionalists and killed Stafford’s kind of pedagogy.
When I read, “The student should not worry about standards. I won’t. And I will never try to make the student either complacent or panicked about external obligation. Never. That kind of measuring is not what art, what writing, is about,” I sighed (page 94). Equating writing with art ignores the writing that is done not to create art but to gain admittance through gates; that’s a kind of ignoring I once did but now can’t do. I’ve come to understand the privilege inherent in such a position, and the disservice I might do by not being explicit with students about what they need to be able to do to pass through barriers to schools, scholarships, and jobs. But I sighed also because in the schools I’ve known, writing has become a thing so broken down into its concrete, measurable parts that we’ve lost sight of the whole; we’ve turned process into something nearly void of space for discovery or wonder–something essential to all kinds of writing, even the gate-keeping kind. I might argue that the same has been true of how we view and work with students. There was a lot of talk of “the whole student” in my early years of teaching, but that’s not terminology I’ve heard for years. I suppose we are turning back to that now, with understanding borne of the pandemic and our recent emphasis on social and emotional learning, but our high school students have spent their entire eduction in a system driven by data, test scores, and the attainment of discrete skills and bites of knowledge. The reasons for this are myriad and complex and not really germane to my main point, which is that the students I will be meeting in a little more than a week are going to be different in important ways from those I once taught, as will the context in which I’ll be teaching.
And that’s OK. I am different, too. I need to revise my practice as I have been revising my life.
As I prepare to return to something I once thought I’d left forever, I’m thinking a lot about the project we’ve been engaged in of revising our house. I look at those earlier photos of our home and see what a closed, uninviting place it was. I think of my worries about being seen as I went about the business of living within its walls, and how I was afraid to lose the camellia’s screen. I think about how I was afraid to get rid of the camellia because it was a thing I had once wanted, even though it was keeping me from other things I now value more. I think about how I was initially uncomfortable with the openness I now treasure.
I have been wondering what, like the camellia, I may have to cut out of my ways of teaching–wrong and risky as it may feel to do so. I have been wondering how I can create a classroom with an open porch, with doors that are more window than wood. I have been thinking about how Stafford is not unlike a vintage home: Clearly of and for a different era, with both features that no longer work and those worthy of preservation.
As I think about all our students have been living through in recent years–our divided and divisive politics, our climate crisis, the pandemic–it seems to me that it’s time for the pendulum to begin its arc back to a way of teaching that is more holistic. More flexible, responsive, and humane. Near the end of the book, in an interview piece called “Facing Up to the Job,” Stafford talks about visiting high schools with limited and restrictive libraries and nothing on the walls but military recruitment posters. He says:
…I’m not trying to indict anyone, but I suddenly felt forlorn. I thought those who talk about accountability in schools think they’re talking about split infinitives or something–trivialities. I’m talking about lives, vision, hope, something plain like kindness and humility, and they’d throw their kids into a school that would teach them all about split infinitives and send them straight over to drop bombs on someone. Is that accountability?“Facing Up to the Job,” page 86.
As I watch my city struggle with soaring hospitalizations, houselessness, and crime, I’m thinking hard about what accountability really means, and I appreciate Stafford for helping me to think about it. Seems to me the world could do with a whole lot more vision, hope, kindness and humility right now.
(From an after-dinner walk at dusk last night. We’re eating out only at places with outdoor dining again. It was pretty wonderful to sit at a picnic table outside a dive bar and eat some really good fried chicken as the sun made its descent on the day, the season. Will miss this kind of evening when the weather turns.)