Water Bottle Appreciation Post

So I’ve been meaning to tell you about my new water bottle (and my new job) for a while now.


Late last school year, a yearbook adviser friend announced she was leaving the country. And even though I was happy at my previous school, I applied for her job, at a bigger, more prestigious high school only three miles from my house. I’d be doing the exact same stuff, only closer to home and for more money. All it would take is changing my entire professional life.

I got the job. I said some tearful goodbyes to my friends and students last spring and braced myself all summer for a new school.

To prepare, I bought a new water bottle: the Contigo 24oz. Ashland. She’s a beaut. The spout opens and closes with only one hand. I was no longer tyrannized by water bottles that required both hands to use. Nor would my students ridicule me for using the same Smart Water bottle over and over, until I eventually left it in the media center or mail room or bathroom or wherever. Nope. I’m now a responsible adult, with a new job and a non-disposable water bottle that tells the world just what a grown up I am.

So I’ve had this water bottle for as long as I’ve had this new job. It’s been challenging. Despite 8 years of teaching under my belt, this felt like my very first year. It mirrored my first year in a lot of ways. The 9th graders before me were just as disruptive, uninterested, and troubled as my first year. I seemed as woefully unprepared for their shenanigans as I was in my first year. Students would angrily storm out of class. I would go home wondering if I had what it took to teach.

And all the while, I’ve had to keep track of this damn water bottle. “You can’t lose this thing, Harding. It was eight dollars!” So everywhere I went, I’d have my trusty Contigo 24oz. Ashland with me:

In the media center, while other teachers used my classroom during my planning;

in the yearbook room, where I’ve never felt less confident in something that I thought I was good at;

in parent conferences, where I’d get scolded for being unfair to the student who never did any classwork but did twerk on his desk a few times;

in countless meetings, so many meetings. I went to more meetings last semester–about curriculum, data, climate, and acronyms! acronyms! acronyms!–than I went to in the last three years at my old school. It’s ok, really. Just different.

or the faculty break room, where I’d go to just collect myself during lunch, and regret leaving the school that I missed, or wonder if I wanted to come back the next day to teach kids 31 at a time, who seemed to hate me and English, in that order.

Throughout all this, I had my water bottle. I never lost the thing. And I lose everything. It’s why I’ll never buy nice sunglasses, or pens, or anything that people put down for just a second. I was taking a real gamble, dropping $8 on a water bottle, honestly.

But the water bottle is still here. And I’m still here. It’s a new semester. My schedule changed a little. My class sizes are better. I’ve got a semester under my belt to prove I can survive a new setting, some upheaval. I upheaved. I have heaved up so much. Me and my Contigo. You should really get one. The whole one-handed spout is a real game changer.

Time is still marching on

I keep thinking I’ll wake up one day and be an adult.

I’m 32. This isn’t the kind of thing a 32 year-old, a teacher going into his 7th year being responsible for shaping our nation’s youth into competent people, should be thinking.

And I’m getting older. A few former students came by Open House last night to introduce their newborn sons. A quick look around at my fellow faculty members reveals that I’m more in the middle of the pack than the fresh-faced kid. No one confuses me for a student anymore. And rather than teaching kids the same age as my siblings, I’m now at a point where I could have a child of my own in high school now, had any girls been interested in making poor decisions with me at 16.

But I still think that I’ll be a responsible adult some day.

Like I’ll have lesson plans complete and submitted on time. I’ll have an accurate log of my collaboration hours at the ready. I’ll use my planning time for something besides walking up and down the halls, wondering what I could be doing. I’ll go the gym on Tuesdays and pack a lunch before I go to bed and drive a reliable car.

It’s hard to face reality, that I already am who I’m going to be. I’ve been, more or less, the same person since high school, only I’m creeping, slowly but assuredly, towards the cold breath of death.

A new school year is always a great opportunity to set some goals, to make improvements upon the previous year. And I’m at a great place to do that. I have a manageable schedule (only three preps instead four!), common planning with fellow American Lit teachers, and very little on the horizon outside of school. I’m in position to establish some routines and good habits that could go a long way. I’m ready to grow up, I guess.

I always try to focus on one thing every year, like Benjamin Franklin perfecting himself, vice by vice. It’s a failed experiment by the end, but being a little more like Ben Franklin is probably better than continuing to be like your stupid self, right? Have you made any scientific or diplomatic breakthroughs lately? No? Then shut up.

But this year, I want to focus on myself. The curriculum, my lessons, my students: they’ll all be fine while I take some time to improve the teacher. That’s me. They sort of need a grown up in front of them, right?

So this is just me breaking down a few areas of desired improvement, trying to see what realistic steps I can take in the right direction.

Item 1: Feeling good.
I had a physical today. I weigh 186 pounds, far more than I did 5-10 years ago. And it’s not because I’ve gained 30 pounds of hair on my head, let me tell you. So I need to take better care of my body. I’d rather not have a heart attack kill me in my 40s, you know? A few ideas:
-No soda at school.
-Pack a decent lunch every day. Which I’m usually good about if I can pack a lunch. I’m much more inclined to pack an apple and carrots than a bag of Doritos. It’s getting up early enough to pack it that’s the problem. Which brings me to…
-Wake up and get to bed earlier. Make time for a small breakfast, some morning writing.
-Get some exercise, fatty. I play hockey, but that’s only once a week, if we’re lucky. Gotta go for a walk, swim some laps at the gym, do sit-ups during Jeopardy!, something. I like it when my pants fit.

Item 2: Getting Organized
-Maintain a to-do list. One for work, one for home. And knock stuff off of them.
-Do things when I get them. I tend to volunteer myself for all sorts of stuff, so long as it’s “later.” Then later comes around, and I never did it. I gotta get over the do-it-later mindset and tackle stuff as soon as it comes in.
-Stop dreaming and do things. I have so many cool ideas in the back of my head, some creative, some professional, etc. Those have to get on the to-do list, too. Gotta execute.

Item 3: Leading
So many times, I think that, if I left my job, someone stupider than me would be doing it, and the nation would suffer. But now that I’m here, I don’t find myself really being worth all that much. I helped start a writing center at school, but it needs so much more energy. Beta Club needs revitalizing, too, and I just don’t really know how to pull off the things I want to pull off. I definitely don’t want to be an administrator, ever, but I would like to be seen as someone worth sharing ideas with, someone who contributes to making the school a better place.

These are the kinds of things I should probably have figured out already. Maybe I’ll know what I’m doing by the time I retire.

No Time for the Motivation

“We treat non-school, non-sleeping or non-eating time, unbudgeted free time, with suspicion and no little fear. For while it may offer opportunity to learn and do new things, we worry that the time we once spent reading, kicking a ball, or mindlessly coddling a puck might be used destructively, in front of TV, or ‘getting in trouble’ in endless ways. So we organize free time, scheduling it into lessons–ballet, piano, French–into organizations, teams, and clubs, fragmenting it into impossible-to-be-boring segments, creating in ourselves a mental metabolism geared to moving on, making free time distinctly free.”

–Ken Dryden, The Game


I’m reading Ken Dryden’s book about his team as the Montreal Canadiens goalie, a time in which he won six Stanley Cups (impressive). His words here got me thinking about my own students’ free time, or lack thereof. Dryden’s words are 30 years old, but the argument that our youth’s time is over-structured rings more true today.


My school is on a seven-period schedule. No study hall. No recess. Seven ideally busy 50-minute chunks of learnin’. I try to fill up that time, too, for nothing’s more mischievous than 35 pairs of idle teenage hands. But when’s the time to pursue one’s own interests? In college, I used the spare hours to read back issues of Film Comment or consume the library’s impressive collection of Woody Allen films. If we want our schools to emulate a college academic environment (and I’m not saying that’s a stated goal of anyone’s, but maybe it should be), then why not build in a little time for cultivating some passions? Why not send the message to students, through their schedules, that they should set aside time to really dive into the things which excite them? Why not let them know how important it is to have time in your day to get good at something?


Dryden goes on: “…more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers.”


The same goes with students’ after-school time. I don’t want them smoking pot and getting each other pregnant, but there are plenty of students I teach whose dance, band, theatre, swim, whatever obligations leave them far too little time to themselves, to think, to explore, to wonder, to experiment–not with huffing gas–but with a soccer ball, a delay pedal, a book maybe.


Dryden laments the loss of “street soccer,” wherein players became great because of their countless hours exploring, becoming one with a soccer ball, discovering new things they could do with one. These days (the 70s, too, apparently), we coach all the fun out of the game, building a team on analytics and fundamentals. I see the same thing happening in my own school, my own class, and wonder what (if anything) I need to do about it.

What Robocop Shows Us About Education Reform

A beleaguered government institution. Corporations eager to swoop in with half-baked solutions. A public embracing a hard-nosed, brutal approach to public service. Once-great workers fighting to retain their autonomy.

I could be talking about current trends in public education, or I could be talking about 1987’s Robocop. Paul Verhoeven’s classic action movie gets a shiny new re-boot this weekend, and I hope the newer blacker suit comes with some of the satire that made the first movie just a bit deeper than the penis-shoot-em-up it appears to be at first glance. But let’s look back for a moment to appreciate all the sad sad connections we can make between the Detriotpian movie (a dystopian set in Detroit, duh) and my (sometimes) frustrating job.

1. ROBOTS ARE BETTER THAN HUMANS, ONLY WHEN THEY’RE NOT I’m surprised some enterprising smarty pants hasn’t already named his new online learning resource ED-209, after the super slick but super not-ready-for-launch stop motion badass here. The sad truth is: the ED-209’s of the education world are already out there. I love the idea of online or computer-based classes, when they’re rigorous, engaging, and fluid. I’m sure we’re approaching that reality, but until then, I have to sit by and watch perfectly capable students get a full credit for a year’s worth of English study without having to read a novel, write a paper, or have a discussion with a human being about their ideas. It’s maddening.

2. GETTING TOUGH DOESN’T SOLVE THE PROBLEM I won’t argue that Robocop handles the bad guys with satisfying brutality, but one-dimensional villains like this guy are just as fanciful as Robocop himself. We don’t get to see the poverty-stricken broken home he grows up in, nor do we see the substance abuse, lack of education, or economic oppression that leaves a man resorting to robbery. And Robocop just knocks him out and goes about his robo-day. No plan for rehabilitation. No attempt from Omnicorp to solve systemic issues–just leave it to Robocop.

In school, we handle our worst kids the same way. At the high school level, it’s pretty much too late for authentic rehabilitation for some. They’ve given up on a system that never believed in them or addressed their core issues. We can pretend that discipline and Response to Intervention paperwork is meaningful, but at the end of the day, the thug is still lying unconscious in a broken ice cooler, you know?


Robocop becomes the ultimate law enforcement machine. He doesn’t need sleep (except they totally show him recharging or whatever). He only needs some weird paste to eat. And a freaking gun comes out of his leg. What a great cop that doesn’t do obnoxious things like demand adequate conditions, threaten to strike, or die! Sure would be great if we had some teachers like that. Maybe if we had a common set of standards to work with, or some high-stakes testing to dominate our culture? Maybe if we created a host of computer-based resources that took all the human error out of their lessons?

But we’re still stuck with human beings teaching our classrooms, and those teachers (like Robocop) have personalities, souls. Give them as many prime directives as you want; they’ll still desire the things that made them passionate about the job in the first place: building relationships, making a difference, shaping a better future for our society.

Naturally, we should make every effort to improve our nation’s teachers. I’d buy that for a dollar. I want higher standards for myself and my students. What I won’t buy for a dollar is a career with all the soul sucked out of it. Because I’ll still have one, yearning to twirl its gun or whatever.

The Future’s Gonna Be Wicked Hahd

Hey, it snowed a whole bunch!  I didn’t have to spend the night at the school with hundreds of stranded students, and my 13 mile commute home only took three hours.  I have a handful of colleagues who weren’t so fortunate, but they all handled themselves like the adorable professionals they are.  Go hug some teachers today or something; they probably deserve it.

But all the snow days left me with plenty of movie time, and God bless video on demand.  In the past, people had to raid their Blockbuster Video well before a snow storm.  I myself worked at such a Blockbuster during such snow storms; it wasn’t fun.  The reality we live in now, of Captain Phillips being just a few clicks away, is tremendous.  Welcome to the future.

And that’s what I want to talk about: the future.  Captain Phillips is based on a true story, but I couldn’t help but see some deeper implications about the global workforce and where it’s headed.  Captain Phillips–the movie and the character–bring up how the world is changing, getting smaller and more competitive.  It’s the first conversation in the movie, as Tom Hanks drives to the airport.  He mentions how his son doesn’t take school seriously, how that will limit his options in the coming world, where he’ll be competing with his peers on a global scale.

It’s a fear I have for my own students; I even shared my concerns with my juniors last Tuesday, as I desperately tried to get them to read some Walt Whitman instead of whatever else they felt like doing, having already found out that they were being released early on account of the snow outside (also a bit of distraction in Georgia).  “You don’t just have to work harder than your classmates,” I warned.  “You have to work harder than the rest of the world.” (Yeah! Bringing some real Dad Truth on them!)

For Captain Phillips, those fears of a changing world are realized when ruthless Somali pirates, driven by pure desperation, attack his cargo ship (I guess that’s what that thing is called).  The pirates cheer when they discover the ship is from America; it represents fantastic fortune and an easy life for them.  Phillips meets face to face with Muse, the leader of the pirates.  When Muse declares, “I’m the captain now,” it’s just as much of a warning for the American workforce as it is for poor Captain Phillips.  Desperate, hungry people want our prosperity, and they’ll work far harder and do anything at all to get a piece of what we enjoy.

And Captain Phillips is clever and experienced.  He’s backed by a loyal staff and, later, the entire U.S. Navy.  The movie’s still tense, though.  You still worry for they guy, and it’s because these pirates are just that determined.  By the end of the movie, they’re injured, starving, exhausted; they’re facing the Navy, and yet they still press on, because they have nothing else.  I hated Muse for being so mean to America’s beloved Tom Hanks, but I couldn’t help but think “Hey, he’d make a pretty good captain, too.”

And Somali pirates only represent a small “threat” to America’s youth.  I can’t help but wonder how many Asian elementary students read English better than my sophomores.  How many students internationally can run circles around my precious kids in computer coding, basic engineering, or–I don’t know–math?  It’s troublesome, and I wonder if I’m doing enough to prepare them.


[Ugh, how shameful is the “I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m totally gonna start again” post?  I got WordPress’s year-in-review email a few weeks back, which is always slick and informative–just not so impressive when I hadn’t posted anything last year.  Seriously, nothing.  So here I am.]

I’ve been thinking about passions lately.  Not the soap opera.  Real passions, and which ones are worthwhile, which ones might be (objectively?) less worthwhile.

Our yearbook this year (which might be the best book our school’s ever had, if we actually finish it) is profiling every single senior. Naturally, theses small paragraphs usually focus on the students’ passions, which mostly fall neatly into a few categories: sports, art, music, and religion.  A few kids talked about their future career plans, too, but it all made me wonder just how ardently these passions were being pursued. If a kid says art is her life, that it defines her, what does that look like? 8 hours a week of drawing? 20 hours? Is it even fair to ask your average 17 year-old what he’s passionate about?

And what’s my role as a teacher to help students find and pursue their talents? A few of them mentioned how my journalism courses helped shape who they are, giving them a sense of belonging or a career to go after.  But what about the kids who love riding horses?  Am I doing them a disservice by ignoring that passion in the classroom?  Should my projects allow for raps, dances, hunting, Bible study, cosmetology, creating anime characters?  OR am I expected to just lay some basic reading/writing groundwork for their futures? Certainly, my students need better-than-basic literacy skills, no matter what they do in the future.  Can I be expected to provide much more?

And another thing.  And this is where I’m happy to get some feedback, because I’m mostly playing devil’s advocate, but maybe it’s also how I really feel, but…

aren’t some passions kind of stupid?

Last night, I watched Bronies, the documentary on grown men with a fervor for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The doc is heavy on the tolerance, just daring the viewer to disapprove of these guys who just want to socialize with like-minded people, who strive to live their lives in accordance to the virtues promoted on the show.

I had mixed feelings. I loved the creativity in the community–they create their own music, lazer shows, art. I have a hard time hating on anyone who creates anything for the sheer joy of it.

But My Little Pony is for children. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that most of these guys are kidding themselves, fixing on something that they’re too old to enjoy. It’s OK to visit Disney World at 40; it’s made for that. It’s OK for a grown man to buy himself a Lego set (guilty).  It’s quite another thing to embrace a Peter Pan-ish lifestyle of clinging on to a kids show–not just to enjoy it in the margins of an otherwise adult life–but to take it on as your greatest passion.  I never once thought these Bronies seemed overly-feminine or homosexual (the accusation they seem to hear most), but I did want to scream “Grow up, already!”

The movie certainly makes a strong case for these guys being completely nice well-adjusted human beings.  They bring on some social scientists to defend them and–more convincing–highlight a group of active military Bronies. But that makes me even more worried.  Showing me that our nation’s military or even our well-educated 20-somethings are in this state of arrested development, where they’ve decided it’s totally fine to obsess over a children’s show instead of deal with some real adult challenges: that’s not just weird; it’s scary.

So back to my students (a few of whom love My Little Pony, which I completely accept, as they’re young and, therefore, excused).  Are some of their passions ultimately a bad idea, not worth pursuing?  At what point should we as a society expect people to “grow up”?

Does growing up mean abandoning your passions? I don’t think so, but there’s a sad ounce of truth to that, isn’t there? Growing up, I very much wanted to be a cartoonist. At some point, I gave that up, and now I teach English and blog once a year.  Was that a naturally diminishing interest, a sad abandonment of my dreams, or a mature transition into adulthood?  What’s the difference, and how do I help my students along that tricky path?

Why I Unprotected My Twitter Account

I’ve had my Twitter account locked ever since I signed up for the service ~3200 tweets ago.  Anyone who wanted to follow me had to get my approval first.  It seemed like common sense.  I didn’t want my students (or their parents) to have access to my thoughts, as one of those thoughts may come back to harm my professional life somehow.

The other day, though, I took a leap and changed the privacy settings on my Twitter account.  Now, anybody can access it, read my stuff, retweet what I write, etc.  Students, my principal, grandpa, anybody.

Some teachers might freak out over this, but I’ve got a few reasons.  Hear me out.

1. I’ll have to be more careful.  Being Facebook friends with my mom and coworkers means I watch what I post.  I wouldn’t dare quote my friend’s vulgar joke when Aunt Becky’s reading, and I don’t want my department chair to think about the poop I just took.  Casting a wider social net(work) requires tact, and I’ll be far less inclined to badmouth a student or make fun of a paper which might have been his best effort, if I know that statement is open for anyone on the internet.  I want that.  We all should.

Further, on a protected Twitter account, the people that I want to read my tweets might not be able.  I could read a conversation on education trends, for example, but I couldn’t reply to someone unless they followed me.  Same with trending topics.  If I have something significant to say about #TeachingShakespeare or #reading or #SpaceJam, I want my thoughts to be accessible to anyone interested.

2. Even further, with many of my students on Twitter, it’s an easier communication tool, much more than e-mail or even Facebook.  Not that I particularly want all of my students to follow me (I really really don’t want that), but it’s logical to permit a student to ask me about their homework via Twitter, then retweet my response to everyone else.  That’s golden.

3. I like to know my students.  It helps to win them over if I can remember at least something about who they are: whether they love Virginia Tech football or horror movies, whether they work at Taco Bell or wrestle every day.  I don’t think it’ll hurt for them to know me, either: my dumb jokes, my interest in hockey, etc.

I’m not about to put my Twitter account on the reading syllabus, but I don’t think I should hide it anymore, either.