Distance Learning, Day Two

On Day Two of working from home we got dressed. Not that we didn’t get dressed on Day One, but on Day One we definitely didn’t dress like we dress when we dress for work.

But today we did. It felt pretty good.

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Here’s an English teacher teaching Science:

And here’s an English teacher teaching Math:

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So homeschooling is going pretty well. Now, on Day 3, I just need to figure out how to teach Poetry and Shakespeare online to teenagers. Plus decide what to wear.

Distance Learning, Day One

Yesterday—March 23, 2020—was my, and my wife Liz’s, first official day of working from home. We are both teachers, and Friday before last, shortly after arriving home and while helping our kids climb a tree in the front yard, we each learned via Robo-call that our school, like most others in California, would be closed for the next three weeks, the first of those three being Spring Break, which ended this past Sunday.

So our days of social isolation/at-home sheltering consist of a balancing of our own two children’s educational needs, their schools, of course, being closed as well, with the needs of our 150ish apiece students who are suddenly stuck at home.

Thankfully, Liz got a jumpstart on homeschooling our Pre-K’er and 1st-grader early into our Spring Break, filling a jeep with school supplies from the Dollar Store and repurposing our dining room as a Kindergarten classroom, where we spent 8:30 to 10:30am of each Spring Break day reading, writing, adding, subtracting, coloring, gluing, circle-timing, and singing and dancing.

For Liz, Spring Break was no break at all. Besides planning the modified instruction of our students, she also teaches night classes at a local community college—not on Spring Break last week and where, as of last week, all classes, including Liz’s, are now online classes.

So, in the course of a week, Liz has had to transition from classroom high school + junior college teacher to preschool/first-grade homeschool teacher + online instructor, the latter, as of yesterday, when Spring Break at our “day jobs” ended and “work from home” began, extending into her high school teaching.

Plus she’s co-writing a book (with me, manuscript due a little over 3 months from now). And plus she has a parent who falls into each and every COVID-19 “at risk” category and starts chemo next week.

I’d say she’s handling it well. But then she’s a remarkable person.

Back to yesterday: Liz and I both teach in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. We teach Year 1 (Liz) and Year 2 (me) of Higher Level English Literature (juniors [Liz] and seniors [me]), a two-year course that culminates with a couple of quite rigorous, quite high stakes standardized exams, taken in May of each year.

And on day one of this period of distance learning, having no idea how long said period will last but with the intention of remotely preparing my students for the abovementioned exams, IB, in the wee hours of the morning, announced the cancellation of all exams.

Some of my seniors have been in the IB program since the sixth grade. At minimum, they’ve been in it for the past four years. It’s a grueling program, and, at some point along the line, they’ve each and every one wanted to quit. But we told them that, in the end, it would be worth it. That nothing worthwhile is easy.

This class, though, got to the end, but the end is canceled.

All of that might seem less troubling if, say, you are imaging these students as privileged, private school students, as many IB students worldwide are.

But these students are not that. These students, if we’re labeling, have these labels: socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority, first-generation college-going. They worked really hard for this, with a lot stacked against them.

They’re going to be okay. They’re all still going to college. They’ve all still beaten the odds, but the news, yesterday, that their exams were canceled, amidst the larger context of a global pandemic, must have been…deflating.

It was deflating for me, anyway. For most of the day, I was distracted by responding to the sea of what-are-we-going-to-do-now emails (I counted 105, just over one each from one-third of my total number of students), but around the afternoon, those emails volleyed, I began to sink down an existential drain: we had been preparing for those exams for so long, and I had prepared students for those same exams for so many years, at this time of year, but with those exams cancelled, what on Earth was I going to/expected to teach, remotely or not? What was the point? From which I somehow jumped to And who am I? What is the point of me?

All of which opened to my eyes to my own guilt in perpetuating something I hate about education: putting the assessment of the content before the content. Teaching to the test. As if our teaching is only justified by a subsequent quantitative result.

My plan had been to teach students to read a poem critically—to interact with it and question it and break it apart and put it back together. And then write about it. Why was I going to teach all of that? Because they would need to do that on a standardized test.

So as I circled the drain, I wondered why, with no such standardized test, I would teach them any of that.

Until I remembered that I’m an English teacher. Teaching a higher level capital-L Literature course. And, so, teaching all of that is my job.

And we (English teachers, plural now) teach it because of the transferable skills: thinking critically, reading critically, writing clearly and persuasively.

And we also teach it because it’s poetry. It’s art, and we learn about life (and all its nooks and crannies) by experiencing art, which holds a mirror up to life (and all its nooks and crannies).

Anyway, I felt better. On to Day Two.

Using 4 Minutes of Toy Story 2 to Teach Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

My three-year-old watches a lot of Toy Story. Daily, you could accurately say, sometimes to the chagrin of the six-year-old, the thirty-five-year-old, and the forty-year-old he lives with. But a couple of weeks ago, during that week’s fifth-or-so screening of Toy Story 2, I came upon a teaching idea.

My 10th-grade students were reading Oedipus the King and had just received a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics during which we defined the terms anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), those definitions, according to Aristotle, being as follows:

ANAGNORISIS = RECOGNITION = “change from ignorance to knowledge”

PERIPETEIA = REVERSAL = “a change of the actions to their opposite”

Here’s what Aristotle had to say about these:

“A recognition is finest when it happens at the same time as the reversal, as does the one in Oedipus.”

Cue Toy Story 2. I showed my students a short clip that starts at around an hour and four minutes in and ends a bit past an hour and eight minutes.

In the clip, Woody’s friends have come to rescue him from Al’s apartment and bring him back to Andy, but Woody doesn’t want to go. Instead, he wants to go to a museum in Japan with his new friends, the Round Up Gang.

Woody’s friends try to persuade him to come with him, but they fail and then leave. After they’re gone, Woody sees an old videotape of a little boy playing with his Woody doll. As Woody watches, his eyes widen and his mouth opens. Suddenly, he calls after his friends; he wants to go with them after all, and he has very nearly convinced the Round Up Gang to come with him when Stinky Pete the Prospector blocks them from doing so. End of clip.

I asked the students to tell their neighbors what they had just witnessed, and because we had just reviewed the aforementioned terms as well as Aristotle’s opinion as to their “finest” application, the students were able to report that Woody had a recognition (anagnorisis) that he couldn’t abandon Andy, and this recognition caused and therefore occurred simultaneously with a reversal (peripeteia) in the action.

So: Toy Story 2 ended up being a great setup for the students’ reading of Episode Four of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences the simultaneous recognition and reversal that Aristotle had deemed “finest.”

Funtown: A Have/Have Not Story

It’s been pretty warm lately, so yesterday we decided to take the boys to the park. We loaded up some snacks and some soccer balls and made our way to Micke Grove Park, where we played and played all morning and had a great time. It really is a nice park.

The park also has a zoo. And next to the zoo is Funtown. Funtown is a mini amusement park. A park within the park.

I remember going to Funtown when I was a kid. I remember it being fun. And being excited to go there. My kids were excited, too. And they had fun. But, as an adult, Funtown was…interesting.

Funtown resembles sort of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Like, if, say, seventy percent of the population died in a plague, and afterwards there were still amusement parks, the amusement parks would be like this.

Or, if you’re familiar with George Saunders stories, Funtown is like an amusement park in a George Saunders story.

Micke Grove Park, and everything in it, including Funtown, is operated by the county’s Parks and Rec Department, and, when compared to, say, an amusement park that is not funded by a county but rather by a megacorporation, like, say, Disneyland, Funtown is a vivid demonstration of the haves and have-nots.

We were the first to arrive. Funtown had two employees. Later we would learn that there were three employees, but one was running late. One of the employees was a nice lady who sold us tickets. The other employee was a youngster, as was the employee who would arrive late. The youngsters were nice, too.

As we were buying tickets, Liz and I saw on a sign that Funtown had mini-golf. We’d been talking about taking the boys to play mini-golf, but the nice lady informed us that the mini-golf course was currently closed. They were having a problem with some geese.

“Geese?”

“Yeah, a bunch of geese took it over. So it’s not safe. But we think we can get it open again this weekend.”

Here’s a picture of the mini-golf course. You can’t see any geese, but you can imagine them, hiding out, ready to strike.20180330_113719

There are about nine rides at Funtown. They’re fairly typical rides: tilt-a-whirl, roller coaster, carousel, etc. But the challenge, for a Funtown employee, given that there are nine rides (plus a ticket booth, and a concession stand) but only three employees (and one is late) is that if some family is hanging around a ride looking like they want to ride it, then one employee has to drop whatever they were doing and go operate that ride.

Our first ride was the fish. It’s fish that go around an octopus, which the kids thought was great.

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But about the time we finished with the fish, two more families arrived, which made it much more complicated for the two employees. Luckily the second youngster showed up, late, but then a fourth family showed up, too, and someone needed to sell them tickets.

So we and one of the other families decided to sort of stick together, ride-wise, to make it easier.

Next was cars. Cars that go around and around. First Tom tried to pick this purple car, but, as indicated by the caution tape and the sign, it was unavailable.

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The sign says: “This car is down (sad face). Don’t ride me.” A pedantic English teacher might point out that the point of view of this sign is inconsistent.

The tilt-a-whirl, nearby, was in a similar situation: at least one tilty-car had an Out of Order sign taped to it (but no caution tape).

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Then we went for the train ride. It’s a little train that runs all around the perimeter of the park. We sat in the first car, right behind the engine. The instrument panel reminded me of the 1958 Cessna Luscombe my grandfather used to take me flying in when I was little.

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Once the passengers were all loaded, before departing, the youngster reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a hammer. Then he crawled under the engine and banged on something a few times. Then he got up and looked at me and said, “I have to do that to start it.”

After a few tries, it started right up, and we were off.

Here’re three pictures. One picture is of the youngster banging with the hammer, another is of Liz watching the youngster bang on the engine that will next transport her entire family around the park, and the third picture is of the youngster driving the train.

And here are pictures of Tom and Sam, delighted with the train ride:

The train ride included a view of the bathroom, which you get to by going out the back gate, past the dumpster, and this fenced off area where they collect all of the broken Funtown stuff:

The train also passed the roller coaster, the theme of which is Giraffe, or perhaps Safari, and these two guys, who were working on The Scrambler, seemingly trying to figure out what was wrong with it (we didn’t ride The Scrambler):

We would encounter these two guys again later, at this airplane thing that Sam rode:

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During the ride, Liz overheard the guys talking. It turns out one guy was a (the?) manager, and the other guy was an inspector. The manager guy told the inspector guy that they could only afford to re-paint one or two rides a year. The planes were due for some paint.

As soon as Sam got off, the guys swooped in. They had been watching closely, and something apparently didn’t look right:

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Here’s the thing: when you go to Disneyland, the employees are all very nice and helpful. They seem, genuinely, to want you to have a good time.

But the employees at Funtown, all three of them, were also very nice and helpful. And they also seemed, genuinely, to have wanted our boys to have a good time (which they did; they talked about it all afternoon).

The difference is, the nice and helpful Disneyland employees have a lot more to work with. They know they have a good product, backed by a corporate machine (as opposed to a parks and rec department). The nice and helpful Disneyland employees don’t have to crawl under the train and bang it with a hammer. They don’t have to hand-crank the roller coaster to get it going. And they generally don’t have to battle geese for territory.

Our Two-year-old May Be Winning

Liz and I have been teachers for, collectively, over twenty years. A strength we have each developed over those years is classroom management.

 

The key to effective classroom management, we have found, is establishing crystal clear expectations (for pretty much everything) and being relentlessly consistent about those expectations, including, perhaps most importantly, the doling out of consequences for failures to meet those expectations.

 

And since becoming parents five years and forty days ago, we have periodically smugly noted to one another that those well-honed skills have made us better parents.

 

But then came Sam.

 

After thousands of students and one relatively well-behaved five-year-old, it would appear that Sam (our second) is winning.

 

Take, for example, yesterday, which ended, once they both finally passed out, with lots of red wine.

 

Sam is two. Several weeks ago, he discovered independence, and, as a result, Sam hasn’t worn his shoes on the correct feet since. When you try to help Sam, he sort of screeches: “My tuhn!” Sam says “My tuhn!” a lot. All day long, for example. But no one else ever gets a turn, ever. It’s always his tuhn.

 

Yesterday, when it was time for Sam to get dressed, I pulled out a pair of shorts, triggering a head-thrown-back fit of agony.

 

Sam’s fits of agony, in their extremity, are what to a normal fully-grown human would seem appropriate if we had tied his hands behind his back and forced him to watch as one-by-one we guillotined his favorite toys.

 

In reality, though, these fits are prompted by more pedestrian matters: that was the last cracker, or that pencil is blue.

 

Or, I chose the wrong pants.

 

I pull from the drawer another pair of pants. Wrong pants. Agony. Head-throwing. Another pair, and another, and another. All wrong. The child collapses. This is now a Greek tragedy.

 

I call for Mommy. Then I hide and listen as Liz reenacts the same scene. Pair after pair after pair of pants, all wrong.

 

Liz demanded my return, her tone implying threat of divorce. We finally offered Sam the dirty clothes he had just taken off, which he accepted.

 

We tried to help him dress, but it was his turn (information that was shrieked at us). The pants went on fine, but the shirt ended up inside-out with only one arm in its correct slot, the other arm joining the head out the head hole, so that, for the remainder of the day, Sam resembled a cross between a Go-Go Girl and a member of the Roman Senate.

 

Sam’s independence and his reactions to it being thwarted are complicated by the fact that some things, at two years old, despite it being his turn, he is just not capable of doing.

 

Take, for instance, Batman. In this house there are at least half-a-dozen anthropomorphic toys of various sizes representing the fictional character of Batman. On any given day, any of those Batmen may be the “right” Batman. The challenge, then, is finding the right Batman on the right day. [Note: it’s not always Batman. The above is also true for Superman, or Sherriff Woody. Or Harry Potter. We have two Harry Potters. At one point yesterday, I caught myself desperately pleading with my two-year-old that That is Harry Potter. That is Harry Potter!]

 

Buy yesterday, finding the right Batman wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was that the right Batman was the tiny little Lego Batman.

 

The tiny little Lego Batman has a tiny little cape. The tiny little cape is hard to put on. Even for a fully-grown daddy (or mommy) it’s a test of dexterity and focus.

 

So the four o’clock hour consisted basically of doing our best to keep Sam from injuring himself as he flailed about, unable to put on the cape but unwilling to accept help.

 

It’s not that behavior like this didn’t happen with Tom (our five-year-old). But back when Tom was on all fours banging his head against the floor, there wasn’t also a five-year-old standing there emphatically demanding that we look at the play-dough rock he made or how to spell his friend’s name.

 

Yesterday, naptime (a precious period on any Saturday) was cut short when the finally-sleeping Sam was stirred by his older brother repeatedly storming through his door to gallop down the hall and loudly announce that he’s been playing very quietly in his room. And to pee.

 

Later in the day, while Tom finished a movie he had started watching the day before, Sam and I generated pages worth of dialogue consisting of the same two lines repeated (and repeated and repeated):

 

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

S: I no lie iss moo-ie!

D: Well you don’t have to watch it. You can just play.

 

And so on.

 

But the true highlight came shortly before dinner. We were playing out front. Sam was playing in the bed of the truck. For reasons unknown, Sam began trying to lick my truck. More accurately, when I say Sam began trying to lick my truck, I mean that he first successfully licked the truck—a rather substantial helping of the dust-covered rear window—and then tried repeatedly to lick other parts of the truck, with me repeatedly stopping him.

 

Tom walked up. He asked for a napkin. There was something on his hands. We had just carved pumpkins. I couldn’t get Tom a napkin; I was busy blocking Sam from licking the running board. My pants were covered in pumpkin, from said carving. Mid-lick-block, I instructed Tom to just wipe his hands on my jeans.

 

Several minutes passed. I asked the boys who had stepped in cat poop. They were both barefoot. I pulled out the hose, then checked feet. Nothing.

 

It was another several minutes before I noticed that the pumpkin on my jeans was not at all pumpkin.

 

Come to find out, it had been Tom who had stepped in cat poop, but he had cleaned it up himself, with his hands, having then, according to his father’s instructions, wiped those hands on his father’s pants.

 

Liz drew the bath. I opened the wine, to breathe.

boys pumpkins

[Note: there are no numbers of fits or amounts of cat poop that are not worth enduring for these two (sometimes) smiling faces.]

WHICH WAY IS DISTANCE: HOW TO TAKE A CAR RIDE WITH YOUR KIDS

  1. Take the smaller car. The one that you, your wife, your four-year-old, and your two-year-old barely fit into. The one wherein whether in the passenger’s seat or the driver’s and no matter how you position your body your knees are constantly scraping plastic while in the toddler-occupied row behind you the occupants are just-as-constantly kicking the back of your seat, though in their defense despite the knee-scraping forward position of the front seats there is really nowhere else for their feet to go.

 

  1. Take the smaller car because the larger car (the truck) just smells too awful, the result of the return leg of Thursday’s trip to Costco during which the two-year-old dumped his Costco smoothie onto the floor and then screamed and screamed until one of his parents handed him their Costco smoothie, which he then dumped onto the floor.

 

The dumped smoothies having had all day Friday in the parking lot at work to cook, the truck, as stated, just smells too awful.

 

  1. Before departing, take a picture of your children, in their car seats, peacefully reading, or perhaps holding hands and smiling. Post the picture on Facebook.

 

Because you posted this picture on Facebook—no matter what follows—it is now reality. It is what happened.

 

  1. As you depart, know fully-well how this will all end: the last five-minute stretch—that long red light—you and your wife, clean out of books or toys or crackers or smoothies to pass back—attempts to pass objects back now being met with the prompt swatting away of respective object—staring straight ahead slack-jawed and defeated as two-year-old screams and screams and sobs and screams while four-year-old screams and screams for two-year-old to stop.

 

  1. The trip to (zoo/park/library/museum) won’t be bad. Passing books or toys or crackers at this point will be working. At this point, children will be well-rested, well-fed, well-watered.

 

  1. Trip back may be different.

 

  1. One child or the other (or both) will repeatedly (possibly because small, uncoordinated hands or possibly because effing with you—or both) drop book or toy or cracker. From either the passenger’s or the driver’s seat, knees scraping, you will creatively contort your body in order to retrieve the item.

 

If in the driver’s seat—now driving from the position that drivers drive from in movies in which the car being driven is being shot at—you will become rather skilled—because your life and the lives of your family are at stake—at holding your steering wheel hand perfectly steady while with the other hand sweeps the rear floor in search of Batman.

 

If in the passenger’s seat, at some point you will have completely turned around in your seat to retrieve (whatever) from the floor that you will decide to eliminate the preliminary steps in that turning by sitting in your seat sideways—knees now scraping glass, lower back scraping center-console plastic.

 

Your spouse will ask if that is comfortable. You will respond that it isn’t.

 

  1. Sometimes, when two-year-old has the thing that prevents two-year-old from screaming, four-year-old will reach across and steal the thing and then, over two-year-old’s screams, paraphrase The Rolling Stones: “You can’t always have what you want, Sam. Sometimes you just get what you need.” Which, apparently, is nothing.

 

  1. You will start to sing along with the Moana soundtrack (which isn’t your thing at all, but then you have no idea anymore what your thing is because for four years you’ve listened to nothing but Disney soundtracks), but your four-year-old will ask you to please stop singing so he can hear the music.

 

  1. Every time you make a turn, your two-year-old will point the other way and shriek “That way! That way!” at you. You’ll wonder if you can get him voice work at Google Maps.

 

  1. There will be periodic moments of silence, during which you and your spouse will very quietly laugh nervously.

 

  1. Out of nowhere, your two-year-old will demand—by screaming and screaming—that you hold his hand. Hands meeting across the divide will not do. Your hand must be in his lap, holding his. If in passenger’s seat, this will require afore-described contortive turning. If in driver’s seat, this will be physically impossible, you and two-year-old buckled into opposite corners of cabin.

 

In either case, while solving this puzzle, your brain is simultaneously reeling in an attempt to answer your four-year-old’s increasing-in-volume-and-emphasis-with-each-repetition question, “Which way is distance?”

 

“DAADDDYYY!! WHICH WAY IS DISTANCE?!!”

 

  1. You will arrive home, open up the doors, kids and parents and crackers and toys falling out into the driveway, and you will forget all of it.