Teaching

The Impermanence of Memory

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (via goodreads)

 

Back before the Fall

Back before the Fall

On a recent trip to the doctor my mom and sister were driving home and were stopped at a red light. Plastered on the bumper of the car in front of them was a bumper sticker declaring, Joy Comes From Within.

What do you think about that, Mom? Joy comes from within.”

I can almost hear the annoyed sigh my mom must have made. “Joy come from within, huh? Well, let me know when it comes out.”

This has become an inside joke amongst us as we battle for meaning in the face of my mom’s Alzheimer’s. We will remind ourselves that joy comes from within as we laugh in the face of the depression we feel. These are the memories I will hold on to. I don’t want to remember the tears, the confusion, the sad pleas for help. I want to remember the joy that comes from within.

I have accepted the fact that my mother is dying slowly, not unlike my father. Her path will be different, but the destination will be the same. In my father’s case his body went before the brain, while my mother’s descent will proceed in the opposite order, her mental state deteriorating until the body fails. I often wonder as I watch the Deer Hill Dinner Theatre which is preferable, to lose control of one’s mind or one’s body. When I struggled through those years watching my father battle his own body after his accident, many of his favorite things in life taken from him as a C-4 quadriplegic, I could imagine no greater tragedy than being confined to a wheelchair. But having seen my mother’s sad dive into dementia, I realize that there are so many important parts of life that stay unappreciated. How many people give thanks for the ability to walk, the ability to feed themselves, the ability to remember yesterday? How many people truly understand the significance such simple actions?

Seeing the people you love suffer is not easy, but the shock is somehow eased through the process of acceptance. In the case of Alzheimer’s, what is perhaps saddest is that my mother herself will never be able to reach this final plateau of the grief hierarchy, that she will never be able to embrace her condition and comprehend the trajectory. Not only is she unaware that she has a disease which will eventually destroy the part of her brain that controls the autonomic function of her internal organs, but she has no idea that she is even sick. Another cruel trick of fate. She still calls the disease old-timers, and considers her memory only slightly hindered. Sometimes she has a moment of lucidity and realizes that something is wrong with her, but cannot understand the implication of the reasons before the moment fades away. My father was well aware of the fate that eventually awaited him, and I’d like to think he was able to accept it and move on. I often wonder if that gave him closure.

Closure is another ambiguous term that gets thrown about when people discuss grief and loss. Is it coincidence that the fifth and final step of the standard lesson format most teachers learn in their training programs is called closure? Closure provides summary and context. Closure deepens understanding through scaffolding and connections with preexisting knowledge. Closure creates a bridge between what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Closure is supposed to be the part where the other portions of the lesson introduced earlier come into focus, leading to deeper meaning and understanding. Closure is when everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package that students can take with them. It is considered the most important part of the lesson, and is also the hardest part to get right. Unfortunately not all lessons can be so easily wrapped up with a bow. Some lessons are open ended and ambiguous. Some lessons remain ongoing and aren’t ready to be closed. I felt that if I transcribed all these memories and saw them on paper, that meaningful closure would come to me. I am still searching for it. I know it must be here somewhere.

From all this I am reminded above all that I have lots to be thankful for, but in the tumult of daily life it is easy lose sight of this fact. It usually takes tragedy to remind us of these things we should be thankful for, which ironically is a tragedy in itself. Must we really have something taken away from us before we can appreciate it? Is it that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or can we never truly see that which is right in front of us? Are we destined to lament and covet what is missing rather than exalt and celebrate the amazing abilities and relationships we still possess?

These memories of my father and mother are the memories that have shaped me, and I hold on to these memories tight, afraid to let them go. Some even argue that our memories make us, that without our memories we would not be the same person. I’m not ready to tackle this debate, in truth. But in order to prevent forgetting I will continue to write them all down, everything that makes sense and especially everything that doesn’t. I will read it over and over and try to reach an understanding of what it means. Hopefully the act of writing it all down will prevent me from forgetting. Somewhere in this act I will find closure.

Understanding now that the persistence of memory is never guaranteed, I don’t want to lose these memories, no matter how painful, because if we don’t have our memories, what is left?


 

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Memoir Madness

I had been working on this piece to publish this Wednesday, but decided to publish a little early for the Weekly Writing Challenge.

What do you think? Any feedback, advice, or constructive criticism is always welcome.

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Expect the Unexpected

Carl Sagan“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan (via Goodreads)


In sixth grade science students are still learning the basics of the scientific process, which in our curriculum involves six steps: problem, hypothesis, materials, procedure, data, conclusion. We really try to hammer home all these parts in sixth grade, so that in seventh and eighth they can begin designing their own experiments with control and experimental sets and carefully measured data.

When we start any lab we alway start with the problem, which is a question that the students hope be able to answer by the end of the lab. Then comes the hypothesis, which is the prediction (educated guess) to the question they’ve asked. We ask them to write down what they think is going to happen and why.

Later on during the conclusion portion students are usually asked to reflect back on their hypothesis and decide if they were right or not. Often times they feel that if they have gotten the hypothesis wrong then they have somehow failed the experiment, but this is totally backward. It is through the observation of the unexpected that scientific knowledge is advanced. If the experiment goes exactly according to plan and the hypothesis is totally correct, then we have learned nothing. It is only by observing what we don’t expect that we learn anything at all.

Of course the sad part is most people only see what they want to see, which is what they expect to see. When you expect the unexpected you may actually learn something new, so search for the unexpected, not only in the science lab, but in all aspects of life. Expect the unexpected.

Science experiments can be truly amazing! (by George Thomas on Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Flowers in the School Garden

In case you didn’t know, I teach middle school. I also started and continue to run a school garden at my school. We have a summer watering schedule,  and students and parents have volunteered to come and water the unirrigated portions of the garden over the summer months. But I still like to stop by every couple weeks and check on how things are going, to make sure the equipment is still there, and make sure nothing is broken or destroyed. Unfortunately, vandalism is a big problem when you leave an area of a school open to the public. Sometimes it seems that teenager’s favorite way to enjoy something is to destroy it. This summer though, so far so good.

In my own garden that I see everyday, the growth and changes are subtle and hard to appreciate. But not seeing the school garden for weeks at a time, the growth and changes are much more dramatic. These are some photos from my last visit.

Now if we could just keep all the other garden pests out.

Future Architects of America

I guess I need to be more specific when I tell my students “Just stack the bricks over there.”

This photo pretty much sums up everything that is great and frustrating about teaching middle schoolers. They need help following directions, keeping their hands off each other and out of each other’s backpacks, and seemingly just about every other social skill associated with civilized societies. But they can also surprise you with some unexpected moments. The four boys in this photo all acted so cool and unaffected most of the time, like doing anything that required even a dollop of effort wasn’t worth the calories required. But when they were stacking these bricks they were so proud, and they seemed like preschoolers playing with building blocks. Unfortunately their structure did not pass the strict seismic building code in California and had to be scrapped and relocated to the place where they were supposed to stack them in the first place. It was one of those moments that made me laugh while I was pulling my hair out.

Welcome to my life as a middle school teacher.

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Split Second Story

The Golden Ratio

Euphorbia

Euphorbia

There are lots of cool things about nature geometry, but one of my favorite patterns is the spiral. The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence have been used to try to describe this natural pattern that most people consider very pleasing to the eye. The Golden ratio is represented by the symbol Phi (φ), which is roughly equal to 1.618033988… Phi is considered an irrational number because it cannot be expressed as a simple fraction, and its precise calculation requires an infinite number of decimal places and has no repeating pattern of numbers. Irrational numbers are not unusual in nature math. Phi’s better known cousin Pi (π = 3.14159…) is also irrational, and is used to calculate the various intricacies of arches and perfect circles. The natural logarithm is another irrational number used to explain many natural phenomena —
e = 2.71828182845904523536028747135266249775724709369995… I don’t know enough about mathematics to try to explain how these numbers are calculated. I just know that I’ve always found them confusing whenever I tried to wrap my brain around them in math class. 

These irrational numbers are responsible for explaining the shapes and patterns taken by the natural world around us. I find it completely appropriate that those things we find most pleasing to the eye seem to defy a neat mathematical explanation. If all the patterns found in nature can only be explained through the use of irrational numbers, it leaves me wondering. Is it the world around us that is naturally irrational, or Homo sapiens quest to define every little phenomenon with a neat mathematical equation?

Some things may beyond the realm of the rational brain. Some things are just irrational. Some things we should just take a step back from and appreciate without trying to explain.

Spirals are twists of nature. Photos of plants twisting.

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Twist

Give Me Leaves or Give Me Death

plant orgy in progress

When most people think of spring and plants they immediately think of flowers. How disgusting.  Did you know that a flower is the sexual organ of a plant? Most 7th graders don’t know this, and you should see the look on their faces when they find out. Priceless. I tell them that every time they sniff a flower the plant is using them to perform its sexual biddings. I tell them there are unmentionable things happening between the plants and their little “friends” the birds and bees. I make sure to use air quotes when I say “friends.” Really it’s a depraved nature orgy. And people like to cut the flowers off and display these colorful and pungent reproductive sculptures in their homes. How sick are we?

Personally when I think of spring I think of young, green leaves filling in on the trees and other plants. The leaves are the true workhorse of the plant, creating sugar money in their little chloroplast factories. Sure, they get some help from the stem and the roots as they help collect resources and deliver them, but really the true magic happens in the leaves. They are turning sunlight into food, storing the sun’s energy in their bodies until those calories can trickle down the food chain to all us hungry heterotrophs downstream. Keep your filthy flowers. Give me leaves, and I will know the world will be fed for at least one more trip around the sun.

Compiled for the DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

and, DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Student, Teacher


* disclaimer #1 – this is meant to be humorous and sarcastic. I do not tell my students that sex is disgusting and depraved. I tell them it is wonderful and life affirming and they should all go home after school and engage in it immediately.

One step at a time…

Screen shot 2014-05-03 at 10.42.28 AMI sometimes like to draw a box on the whiteboard in my classroom and write Everything written in this box is false, just to give the kiddos something to think about. Some of them get it and say I see what you did there, while others wear that blank, confused expression so common in middle school. Honestly some might never get it. But such Catch-22s and logical fallacies can exercise kids brains and train them in critical thinking.

Screen shot 2014-05-03 at 10.58.05 AMAnother thing I like to share is the Socratic paradox–the only thing I know is that I know nothing. Most kids are silenced by the logical loopty-loops their brains immediately undergo. I think it’s hilarious that when they understand what it means they are even more confused than when they don’t understand.

But recently when I said this a student flung a logical fallacy back in my face by responding, knowing that you know nothing is knowing something. It amazed me how quickly he was able to get to the point. When he said it the kid sitting next to him nodded his head piped in Yea. I felt speechless and a little humiliated. At least that’s a start, I told him finally. One step at a time.

So let’s all just remember to take things one step at a time, and not forget what we know. Or in the words of Mark Twain:

Mark Twain “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” ― Mark Twain (via Goodreads)


Read more teacherly posts HERE

DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Student, Teacher