Wednesday, April 6, 2016

In Memorium: Draft of a Poem for a Beloved Professor

When I was in college, I had this global literature professor from Ethiopia whose sole mission in life, if you went by his classroom behavior only, was to try and stir up as much trouble as possible. He would often enter class, calm and stately, traversing the space between door an lectern with even, measured steps. "Hello," he would intone with beautifully-accented English, and then unleash a torrent of debate in the room with a single phrase. The University of Mary Washington, where I went as an undergrad, is still more female than male, but the split during my time was about 60/40. In an English major, that split was even more dramatic. The most memorable of my professor's one-line controversy grenades went like this: "Hello. I believe that female circumcision [here he would pause for dramatic effect, grinning an impossibly wide and mischievous smile] is a good thing." He would never really feel that way, but the discussion we had after the initial explosion taught myself, and my classmates, so much about a practice we were completely unfamiliar with, about the human motivations, insecurities, and rituals that push people to that extreme. The gift of curiosity that arose from his class was nothing short of life-giving to a student who loved finding out everything about everything. He was also the professor that taught me the most about critical thinking; the conversations we had between the lines of my papers forever challenged me to be the best version of myself that I can. This draft poem is to my professor for the gifts he gave me.

"A Death Remembered"
Untimely deaths always bring
Me back to that awkward day.
In your house
Alone, but not truly alone.
Your students' papers, stacked
Nearby, called to you.
They asked for an insight,
A touch of your genius,
But you could no longer
Make them whole.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It is Impossible to Say Just What I Mean

Free verse today (read as completely unstructured today). This, like all of the predecessors, is a draft.


The electric buzz of students in the afternoon
Pulses with the innocence of a taser.
"That bitch don't know" cuts thorough the vitality of the
Moment, a sharp reflection of the careless brutality
To which we all are heir.
I step into the hall, outwardly all placid calm while
Inwardly I am ready to fight in case others must fly.
Tension between groups waits for the flick of the switch,
Betrayal of all against the common good will.
White tolerates Black.
Gay tolerates Straight.
He, she, they tolerates the gender normative.
No one tolerates
Stories of people unlike themselves, tales of
Macroaggressive slave-owners and
Microaggressive "phonies." How dare we make children read
Stories featuring near minstrel-caricatures or anything featuring
Featuring any slur that may have been a single hideous,
Though integral, thread sewn into the fabric of our past.
All the while, that misunderstood near-minstrel continues his
War of words to win the heart and mind of another little boy:
A boy who needs to be "sivilized," crouching at the knee of a man
Whose blackness made him less than human while his words
Immortalize him as a gentle and passionate father.
Because  "He know how to value" his children,
Distant though they may be.
The buzz continues through the door; insults fly in a misguided
Mass, crashing into and souring any in their path.
The English teacher sits, novel and heart open to the page where
The hero makes the sacrifice,
The sweet sorrow ends, and
All of this phosphorescent humanity is laid bare.
If only the surly paper tigers of my hallway would turn from the
Artifical light of likes, pokes, and digital friendships to the
Cathartic flare of what we could be.

Meanwhile, the weighty and colossal rows of solemn
Stone house run inexorably to the horizon.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Makings of a Sonnet

The poem today is a draft. I just couldn't get it refined, teach, and grade; however, I wanted to record my draft here as art of my process. I would like to say I will definitely come back to it, but, as Robert Frost pointed out, as way leads on to way I am fairly uncertain if I will be inspired to come back. So, for day 4, here is my draft sonnet.

One of the common themes in stories revolves around choices of love and lust, romantic or otherwise. This sonnet, draped as it is (for it certainly is not cleanly fitted) over a Petrarchan sonnet's frame, seeks to capture the voice of this conflicted character trying to choose between love and lust.

Draft Sonnet

When children, a sudden fear can come from
Slight, secret sounds drifting down the empty
Hallways of our minds, through the racing blood
Pounding at our temples, coming to rest like
Ice within our hearts. You, like this fear, have
Caught me off guard, driving my certain mind
Towards dissonant thoughts and heart-rending ache.
How do I balance the want with the need?

When driven to consider how much pain
Each choice brings to the ones I care most for,
I can only choose to shoulder the strain
Of bittersweet longing within my core.
For which heart to break, my soul cannot claim,
Relationships severed may not restore.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Show Me the Money: A Guest Post on Funding Schools in "Post-Racial" America

by Dan Bruno and Katherine Rose

This is Dan welcoming you all to view the guest post below by Katherine Rose. Ms. Katherine Rose writes for and adores creating articles and graphics on different aspects of scholarships, financial aid, and career related things. The article, also by Ms. Rose, that the guest post is about can be found here.

The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that it was not in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for schools to be funded by local taxation. This of course leads schools in more affluent locations to gain more funding, whereas those in locations where there are less businesses get less funding. As of 2013, most schools have a majority of minority students, making public schools appear segregated. Nationally, two thirds of students of color are in schools where more than 50% are from low income households. Also, more than half of low income students are from the South.

Since 1968 when the Civil Rights Act was signed, there seem to have been a 24.3% increased segregation in the Latino students from their White student counterparts. In 2015, the separation appears to be more class based, and in 2014 SC Supreme Court pointed out the disparities between high and low funded schools calling the low funded minority majority schools “educational ghettos”. According to the latest data, 46% of states are still using local taxes for school funding. Essentially, class based resegregation has led to the problem of unequal funding.

With less money, there comes more problems and a creation of a school-to-prison pipeline. According to data collected from Civil Rights Data Collection in 2014, black students are three times more likely to face suspension versus their white student counterparts. Even in schools which are not minority dominant, black or latino students are more likely to face harsher punishments than their fellow white students, with additional accusations of insubordination or having a poor attitude. Also, lesser qualified teachers are often able to find work in high-poverty districts and are more likely to turn students over to law enforcement for punishment rather than be able to deal with it themselves. Due to violent crimes taking place in schools, having police on campus is now common, many have School Resource Officers on payroll. These all lead to schools being ran similarly to prisons in order to keep students safe. However it it also said to increase the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s even been noticed that the disciplinary sheets, race by race, for schools resemble the statistics for prison demographics.

It’s obvious that a reform in funding is needed to make schools more equal for students of any race. Currently about 25% of states have ongoing litigation in order to reform how schools are funded in order to address some of these issues. While statistically overall our nation has come a long way with how much we spend on students and improved graduation rates, we still have a long way to go to assure fair and equal education for all American students.

National Poetry Month Challenge, Day 3

by Dan Bruno


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I am a big fan of the mentor text as a teaching tool. This poem is one I have taught so often, but still have no clear sense of what I am supposed to get from it. How opaque could it really be? I mean what does it contain: red wheel barrow (check), rain water (check), white chickens (check). I know that the imagist poets were all about precise pared down language, but the language here is so precise as to almost excise meaning. For a great summary of the movement that is accessible to teacher and student alike, check out the Academy of American Poets Brief Guide to Imagism.

So, in tribute to William Carlos Williams, I am going to try this out today using his poem as a model.

"The Red Ink Pen" (with apologies to William Carlos Williams)

so much depends

a red ink

glazed with palm

beside the marked

Saturday, April 2, 2016

National Poetry Month Challenge, Day 2

"The Dive"

by Dan Bruno

The moment when the water parts
Disorients the body and the mind.
The rush of displacement, the sudden
Substitution of crystalline summer sun

With deep, glowing blue. It is the way
My world changed, violent and disruptive,
The day I learned the name of the
Monster that attached itself to my life.

The sterility of the laboratory,
Claustrophobic and chlorinated.
The stiffness of each strand of hair,
Smeared with the silicone gel that

Attached each electrode. The cold,
Creeping fear of possibility seizing
My diaphragm, forcing shallow,
Apprehensive gasps of air.

The diagnosis leaps from the physician's
Lips and lands with an enormous splash
In my ears, disturbing the surface of my
Mind with an enormous wave of doubt.

The mitigating terms themselves, transparent
And contemptuous, splash about my mind:
Chronic, not fatal; manageable, not curable;
Permanent, intractable night in my mind.

The medication list is a bouquet of
Chemical wonders, latinate formulae
Rattled off with galling ease:
Modafinil, Methylphenidate, Escitalopram,

Oxybate. Life reduced and subdivided
To incomprehensible pills and potions
Of varying volumes and viscosities.
Clarity defined by the cubic centimeter.

Years later, as I drift to the bottom,
I wonder how much of me is left.
Am I man or medicine? Where am I
In the nootropic soup of my perception?

If mind no longer matters,
If matter conquers mind,
If the thoughts I have are given by
Chemical induction, which of these is mine?

My life has become the silent sea
That exists at the bottom of the dive:
Quiet, blue-tinged, enveloping, the
Incoherent distance blurred out of view.

Rest. At the bottom. No need to rise.
Stay beneath the rhythm of life and
Let it slide away. Vitality is the curse
Of one chronically shut out of a healthy mind.

But then, my feet scrape the rough stucco.
I kick out against the weight of water and worry.
A rush rises in my ears. Who knew that
Ten feet could be so deep?

Each flutter of legs draws me up to that
Crystalline kingdom of warmth just beyond
The distortion of the surface. A place of
Exhilarating laughter and adventure

Where human voices wake us to breath;
Where, maybe one day, my mind,
After its long stay under water,
Will emerge to resurrection.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Celebrating The Rhythm: A National Poetry Month Challenge

by Dan Bruno

It is that time again. Time for the literaphilic world to get their moment in the "----- Month" sun. You guessed it, it is NATIONAL POETRY MONTH. Not that I am too excited, but I decided to throw down a challenge to myself this year. For everyday of this month, I am going to write some verse. Most likely it will be terrible, but that is not the point. I am doing this, as always, for my students.

Maybe you know what I mean when I say my students are often mystified by poetry as though it were some alien language scrawled in ancient hieroglyphs on the walls of a pyramid at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. What kills me is that poetry should be the most accessible language because of its focus on physical and emotional experience. Students should be able to wrap themselves in the lines of a poem and feel the comfort that comes from understanding human warmth and connection. A poem should be a hug, not a beating.

So, every day this month, I will write some verse. I will publish it here, but also share it with my students, letting them see me struggle with the language and form I clearly love too much. (The scientist in me also loves this project because it feels like a lab experiment. I sorely miss dissecting specimens, making new substances, and blowing up fairly expensive glassware.)

So, to kick it off, here is what I wrote for today:

When considering the lives I hold in my hand,
Daily meting out parcels of essential knowledge,
Rationed to the size of an individually calibrated educational appetite,
I begin to wonder if the intellectually hostile environment
That greets our eager and impressionable students every day
Hasn't taught them that familiarity with the
Pain of hunger is far better than the longing
For something out of reach, something long ago
Forgotten; because someone, considering another
Room of lives, allowed the shade of ignorance
To choke the roots of their curious joy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Courage to Hope: My New Educational Philosophy

by Dan Bruno

I was recently asked about my educational philosophy. It has been a number of years since my first Social Foundations professor asked me to write one up, asked me to define what it was that made me teach. While the core premise has not changed much, a lot of what I do with that focus has.

If you were to read the document, which I will spare you from doing for now, you would see the usual ed school rhetoric about Deweyism, Horace Mann, and community. You would see a young teacher passionate about teaching as a craft that builds strong bonds between community members. You would see a call for less griping and more rising to the multiplicity of occasions we confront daily. So, what could possibly be wrong with this message?

The problem is not the message, but the context of those messages. I find myself baffled that in an era of such hyperfocus on literacies of all kinds we have an election cycle consisting, so far, of a woman who may or may not have committed treason via an e-mail server (if you ever want to have a surreal moment, type the previous thirteen words in an erstwhile manner), an old guy who thinks, despite the evidence of the 20th century, that somehow the US is the country to get Socialism right, a walking, talking obscenity whose amoral lifestyle has served to at least draw a line between actual Christians and those who identify as "Evangelicals" in polls, a Canadian Texan (also a surreal statement), and probably the only lawmaker who is relevant in politics and knows what a surplus looks like (say what you will about John Kasich, but at least he had the guts to say, on television no less, that the Republican Congress that left when Bill Clinton left was shocked that anyone could blow through trillions of dollars in surplus funds). Literate people should not be fooled by this menagerie of candidates; and yet, if I check the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, the heady sounds of Beavis and Butthead chortling in unison ring out of posts depicting Anderson Cooper saying that Trump responds like a 5-year-old. Heh Heh, He started it, Beavis, Heh Heh.

I recently read a New York Times editorial about our anti-intellectual culture, and that is where I think my educational philosophy from all of those years ago is wrong. I think the idea that English teachers are to be literacy leaders and advocates is doomed as long as we are bound by the four walls of our public school institutions. Our voices have become as Alice Walker depicts Harpo's whistle in The Color Purple: a sound trapped in the bottom of a jar, submerged in the bottom of a creek. If we are to be relevant to the communities we serve, we must make literacy a bigger part of the way we interact with the community.

Lately, a lot of the policy discussion in education is about who will take what test and how that will assess the literacy and readiness of students to be critical consumers of information. This state is opting for this, that state is opting out of that, and so on. Meanwhile, the most obvious formative assessment of all continues to rage on in front of our eyes: if this truly is the tone of our national conversation, then the era of high stakes testing has failed in monumental and culturally devastating ways.

One of my roles at the school where I teach is to advisor a handful of students with their senior research project. The other day, as I was working with one young person, I suggested that a strong argument considers the counterarguments and then refutes them. The student disagreed. After all, Donald Trump doesn't let other candidates or the media tell him what to think or say. (sigh)

I believe deeply in the mission of our nation and the role educational institutions have to play in that mission; however, as a teacher who has been teaching for over a decade, I feel responsible for the solar eclipse of ignorance that is blotting out the radiant light of free thought. Responses like those given by Presidential candidates and the aforementioned student stem from the type of all-or-nothing, multiple-choice thinking that standardization creates. And before anyone tries to point out the state exams that have free response questions on them, I say that an essay question designed with a right answer in mind does not mitigate this all-or-nothing approach.

In his final Annual Report, Horace Mann summarized his vision of the American Common, or Public, School in this way:

Like the sun, it shines, not only upon the good, but upon the evil, that they may become good; and, like the rain, its blessings descend, not only upon the just, but upon the unjust, that their injustice may depart from them and be known no more.
How much more moving and honest is this ideal than the tripe spouted by our Presidential candidates. In a move of bewildering rhetorical bluster, Hilary Clinton claimed that she "wouldn't keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job...If a school's not doing a good job, then that may not be good for the kids." Besides the urge in my heart to pull out a red pen, circle the end of this statement, and demand that she revise to provide more context and an actual point,  this utterance mirrors the same blame and shame methodology most politicians use when referring to one of the single most remarkable achievements of the United States as a nation. If you were wondering what the non-politician Presidential candidate thinks on the issue, feast your eyes on this abomination:
Comprehensive education dissolves the lines between knowing too much and knowing too little on a variety of subjects--subjects that are necessary for success. Recently, I interviewed a young man who was very well versed in his field of expertise and almost uneducated in every other subject. It was like he had tunnel vision, and although I admired his knowledge of his field, I had to realize that, considering the scope of my enterprises, he might not be a great fit because of his limited interests.
Now, putting aside the irony that this comes from a book titled Think Like a Champion, I am almost stunned to silence by the notion that a "capitalist" (I use the term loosely since I often feel it is misrepresented by both opponents and proponents) would be so vehemently opposed to specialization. Moreover, any literate person should be able to do some wikipedia-level research (what I call wiki-search) to read about the "success" of the scope of Donald Trump's "enterprises." As I recently wrote on a document about what I want my 12th grade students to know and be able to do: Students should understand what self-esteem is and how it is generated by accomplishments. Everyone has accomplished something; given the limitation of death and the frailty of our biology, I would venture to say that no one has ever accomplished everything he or she set out to do. We are better people when we learn to recognize the limitations of our lives and use them to accomplish those things about which we dream. Besides, I want the surgeon who really focused on perfecting that procedure that will save my life, not one who also enjoys selling high-quality steaks and attending universities that provide no degree programs (or, for that matter, who believes that underperforming hospitals should just close their doors instead of redoubling their efforts to save as many patients as they can).

I recently took my sons to see the new film Zootopia. I was impressed; mostly I was impressed because Disney took on an actual film noir style plot and managed to keep it interesting for this adult in the audience, but I was also impressed at the way the writers balanced the wonder and magic of Disney with the idea that our realities are all very concrete. The main character is depicted achieving her dreams in the face of adversity through grit, hard work, and resilience. No magic wands, beans, or other accoutrements for our hero.

Which leads me to this call to arms: do what you can in your communities to lead the discussion and appreciation of literate lives from out behind the cloistered walls of the school building. My own idea is not fully formed, but my proposal exists, such as it is, in this form presently: a book club for the parents of my students that meets once every other month in the evening. I will use this forum as a way to not only share book talks with the people in the community I serve, but also to introduce these parents to some of the great books that could become part of the curriculum.

I am not naive. I understand that I may get low turnout and significant levels of community apathy or even scorn at this idea. But, honestly, how is that any different than anything else I do as a teacher on a daily basis. I understand the limitations, but a guy can dream, can't he?

So, how has my philosophy changed? Simple. Teachers are still community leaders. They still serve students, not parents. They still provide the skills to lead a literate life. But my mission includes a brand new imperative: I will teach to provide hope to my students that their dreams matter, that those dreams can only be made more real by the literacy skills they pick up in my classroom, and that they can use the heft of that hope to smash the opaque, jaded view ahead and shape the limitations of the present into a new vision for the future.

Author's Note: It strikes me as I write this that I am using the word "Presidential" to describe behaviors that are less than civil.