Category Archives: teaching

Practical Magic

Wizards do magical spells. It kinda goes without saying. But to do magical spells, you have to know how the magic works… and why.

Me, imprisoned in my own crystal ball by my naughty familiar.

The secret is in knowing what the word “magic” actually means. It is not supernatural power, nor the creation of something out of nothing. It is entirely the act of uncovering and understanding the underlying truth, the actual science that most people don’t yet comprehend that underpins the thing you are trying to accomplish. Jonas Salk was a wizard. His polio vaccine was a successful magical potion. But magic can be evil too. Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer were wizards. And the atom bomb was an act of necromantic evil.

Me, in my early green wizard phase.

So, being a wizard, I have learned lessons over a lifetime that uncovered for me the secrets of practical interpersonal magic. Being a teacher has taught me far more than I taught to others.

So let me share with you some of my hard-won practical magic.

In a room full of rowdy children, most of whom are not minding any of the teacher’s directions, you can get their attention easily by shouting, “What the poop is going on here?” with the biggest evil grin on your face that you can manage. They will immediately quiet down like magic and look at you. Some will be wondering if their teacher is having a fatal stroke. Some will be wondering what punishments their behavior has earned as indicated by your evil grin (and here it should be noted, their little imaginations will cook up something much worse and much scarier than anything you could’ve thought of to unwisely threaten them with. A few will begin recording you with their cell phone cameras in hopes of future behavior they can post online and get you fired with. And the rest will laugh at the word “poop” and forget why they were acting out. At that point, with their full attention, you can ask them to sit down and look at page 32, and, not knowing what else to do, they will probably do it.

Here are some other rules of practical magic that apply to the wizarding arts of being a public school teacher;

  1. Violence is never the answer. Change their actions and reactions by making them laugh, making them cry, or making them think about something else entirely. The last thing you would ever want to do is hit them, even if they hit you first.
  2. Anything they can be forced to repeat eight times in eight different ways is something that will be fixed in their memory for more than just the duration of a class period. It moves things into their long-term memory, and that is itself a very magical thing.
  3. Students laugh when you surprise them or present them with the absurd. Tell them they should imagine themselves as pigeons who have to act out Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. What costumes will they wear, and why? What stage directions are necessary to add to the play that are unique to pigeons, and how will they word them? How does pigeon Mercutio go about his death soliloquy when stabbed by pigeon Tibault? Will he have to say, “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a very grave pigeon?” By the end of the lesson they will have learned more about this play they are supposed to learn about as ninth graders than they ever would have otherwise.

Being able to do any of those things is actually a manifestation of magical power, and only producible by a wizard. The simple fact is, every good teacher is a wizard.

Me, as a wizard in my blue period. The period at the end of this essay.

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Filed under autobiography, magic, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching, William Shakespeare, wizards

Spinning Wheels of Thought

Picture borrowed from; https://www.townsends.us/products/colonial-spinning-wheel-sp378-p-874

I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.

Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.

My own original illustration.

The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.

Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).

My mother’s spinning wheel, used to make threads for use in porcelain doll-making, and as a prop for displaying dolls.

As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.

And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.

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Filed under humor, insight, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching, Uncategorized, writing, writing teacher

Pencil, Pencil, Pen, Pen, Pen…

Yes, students actually eat pencils in class.

My daughter forgot her pencil case in school over the weekend. Now, for normal students, this is no really big deal. But for the Princess, like it is for me as an amateur artist, the pencil case, with her colored pencils and pens in it, is one of the most necessary things for life.

Of course, we did not have an opportunity to go back to school for her pencils and pens. So, panicky, she texted her teacher whereupon the pencil case in question was found and put aside for her until early this morning. She then stole my pens and pencils for the weekend, depriving me and causing me to be the one with the anxiety disorder and heart palpitations.

Of course, pens and pencils were always a critical issue when I was a teacher for 31 years, plus two years as a substitute teacher. Unlike the Princess, students in an English classroom NEVER have a pen or a pencil to write with. I swear, I have seen them gnaw pencils to pieces like a hungry beaver or termite. And they chew on pens to the point that there is a sudden squishy noise in their mouth and they become members of the Black Teeth Club. (Or Blue Teeth Club for the more choosy sort of student.)

A piece of an actual classroom rules poster.

Having students in your class who actually have pencils and pens to learn with is a career-long battle. I tried providing pens for a quarter. I would by cheap bags of pens, ten for two dollars, and sell them to panicky writers and test takers with a quarter (and secretly free to some who really don’t have a quarter). I only used the pen money to buy more cheap pens. But that ran afoul of principals and school rules. A teacher can’t sell things in class without the district accountant giving approval and keeping sales tax records. Yes, the pencil pushers force teachers to give pens, pencils, and paper away for free. I finally settled -on a be-penning process of picking up leftover un-popped pens, half-eaten pencils, and the rare untouched writing instrument apparently lost the very instant the student sat down in his or her desk. These I would issue to moaning pencil-free students until the supply ran out (which it rarely ever did) at no cost to myself.

I also tried telling them repeatedly that they had to have a writing instrument, or they needed to beg, borrow, or steal one. And if they couldn’t do that, I’d tell them, “Well, you could always prick your finger and write in blood.” That was a joke I totally stopped using the instant a student did exactly what I said. A literalist, that one. And it turns out you can’t read an essay that a student writes in actual blood.

But, anyway… My daughter is safely in school now and no longer panicking because she has her precious pencil case back in her possession. And she probably will not ever make that same mistake again. (And she will probably not return my pens and pencils either.)

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Filed under humor, kids, Paffooney, pen and ink, self pity, teaching, Uncategorized

Here is My Heart

Yesterday I posted another maudlin doomsday post. I probably gave you the opinion that all I do with my time is mope around and think about death. And maybe write a little creepy black Gothic poetry. But that’s not me. I am a lover of the humor in stories by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Kurt Vonnegut. I am a former teacher that managed to teach the entire zoological range of possible middle school and high school students in Texas and did it without being convinced to hate them rather than love them. Yes, my heart is full of mirth and love and memories of weird kids and troubled kids and kids that could melt the meanest of hearts.

My passion is writing fictional stories about the kids I have taught, including my own three, and setting it in a fictionalized version of my little town, the place in Iowa where I grew up. And I put them in plots of impossible fantasy and science fiction in a way that can only be explained as surrealism.

Nobody reads my books. So far, at any rate.

But that isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that, despite my illness and deteriorating quality of life, my books now actually exist. I put off being a full-time writer for 33 years as I finished my teaching career. A writer has to have something to write about. So, teaching came first.

Writing novels was always the ultimate goal, however. I am a story-teller. The story itself is in the very center of my heart.

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Filed under autobiography, cartoony Paffooney, humor, Iowa, kids, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney, surrealism, teaching, telling lies, writing

I Hope You Dance…

When you walk to the front of the classroom and take up the big pencil in front of a group of young teens and twelve-year-olds, there is a strong pressure to learn how to sing and dance. That, of course, is a metaphor. I was always too arthritic and clunky in my movements to literally dance. But I looked out over a sea of bored and malevolence-filled eyes, slack and sometimes drooling mouths attached to hormone-fueled and creatively evil minds. And I was being paid to put ideas in their heads. Specifically boring and difficult ideas that none of them really wanted in their own personal heads. So I felt the need to learn to dance, to teach in ways that were engaging like good dance tunes, and entertaining in ways that made them want to take action, to metaphorically get up and dance along with me.

I wanted them to enjoy learning the way I did.

But the music of the teacher is not always compatible with the dance style of the individual learner. The secret behind that is, there is absolutely no way to prompt them to dance along with you until you learn about the music already playing in their stupid little heads. (And you can’t, of course ever use the word “stupid” out loud, no matter how funny or true the word is,) You have to get to know a kid before you can teach them anything.

The discordant melodies and bizarre tunes you encounter when you talk to them is like dancing in a minefield blindfolded. Some don’t have enough to eat at home and have to survive off of the nutrition-less food they get in the school cafeteria’s free-and-reduced lunch program. Some of them have never heard a single positive thing from the adults at home, enduring only endless criticism, insults, and sometimes fists. Some of them fall in love you. Some due to hormones. Some due to the fact that you treat them like a real human being. Some because they just stupidly assume that everyone dances to the same tunes they hear in their own personal head.

Some of them automatically hate you because they know that if you hear their own secret music in their own self-loathing heads, you will never accept it. They hate you because you are a teacher and teachers always hate them. Some of them, deep down, are as loathsome as they think they are.

But, if you find the right music, you can get any of them, even all of them, to dance. It might be hard to find. It might be a nearly impossible task to learn to play that music once you find it. But it can be done.

And if you get them to dance to your music, to dance along with you, I can’t think of anything more rewarding, anything more life-fulfilling. Have you ever tried it for yourself? If you are not a teacher, how about with your own children or the children related to you? Everybody should learn to dance this dance I am talking about in metaphors. At least once in your life. It is addictive. You will want to dance more. So the next time the music starts and you get the chance… I hope you’ll dance!

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Filed under commentary, education, kids, metaphor, Paffooney, teaching

If I’m Being Honest…

piratical

If I’m being honest, I am a liar.  And that is not really a paradox, because I don’t always lie.  In fact, I often lie in order to reveal a deeper truth.  (I know, I know… rationalizations are simply another kind of lie.)  I lie because I used to be a school teacher.  You know that teachers have to be liars because you can’t say to a parent, “Your kid is ugly and stupid, and I have documented proof.”  You especially can’t say that if it really is provable.  Instead, you have to tell the lie that any kid can learn and do and be anything they want if only they are willing to work hard enough.  And you have to tell that lie often enough that the kid, the parent, and even you, the teacher, believe it to the point that it becomes true.

And now that I am retired and not telling the school teacher’s lie any longer, I have become a novelist, and I have now made it my business to make up fiction stories and compile lies into book form.  And though the people or characters are based loosely on real people I have known, they are really only a narrative trick to make the reader think about and possibly accept as truth the themes my writing puts forward.

(Boy!  I sure am an ugly old hairy nut-job, ain’t I? = a lie in question form.)

But if I’m being honest today, there are a few things I need to say truthfully, straight out without irony or falsehood or exaggeration.  Let me offer these truths.

  • In this political environment where partisan politics divide us to the point of attempted assassinations with bombs, I do not hate the other side of the argument.  I don’t hate Republicans and conservatives.  Some of my old friends in Iowa and some of my good friends in Texas are conservative enough to have voted for Trump.  I do not reject them as my friends because of their politics.  They are good people and worthy in too many ways to list.  And though they may be sympathetic to someone who threatens me because I have looney liberal ideas, I don’t expect any of them to send me bombs in the mail.  That kind of division is the opposite of what we need.
  • I know what statistics say about kids and learning potential.  I have worked hard during my lifetime to create educational achievement in places where it is nearly impossible.  I believe in the value of every student, and some of the worst behavioral problems and some of the most difficult learning disabilities helped me really get to know some of my all-time favorite kids.
  • I will continue to tell lies for the sake of education and art and all the things that matter to me.  Lies can be used for good as much as the truth can be used for injury and evil.  But my lies will always be soap-bubble hoo-haws, easily popped and seen through for what they really are meant to accomplish, never big black cannonball lies meant to rip people apart and destroy the fortresses they live in.
  • If I’m being honest, even though I am a liar, you can believe in me.

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Filed under autobiography, commentary, education, goofy thoughts, humor, lying, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching, telling lies

Miss Terry G.

terry

Miss Terry Consuelo Guerra

As a school teacher, you will simply have to accept that, no matter what you do or say, some students are going to love you, and some students are going to totally hate you.  You can’t control that.  The only thing you can control is how you feel about them.

She came into my classroom that first day in August, and I knew from the very first glance that she was one of a kind.  She was very angular of feature, standing, walking, and sitting in a very stiff and upright posture.  She did not bend easily, in body or soul.

She insisted on having a front seat so she could learn, and I had to move one of the other girls who really didn’t care where she sat so that Miss Terry could have a front seat.  She was a note-taker who constantly noted practically everything.  I think she even noted down some of my jokes in the precise order that they were told.  Disorder had no place in her world, and she did not tolerate disorder even from a teacher.

And Miss Terry Consuelo Guerra (not exactly her real name) never smiled and never laughed.  So you can guess what my primary objective was whenever I had her intense little face in front of me.  She hated it whenever I made her smirk or lose control of a slight giggle.  And the few times I ever got a real, unguarded smile out of her, she was absolutely beautiful.

The little raven girl would often snipe at me when she answered in class.  She often told me that my discipline was too lax, that the lessons weren’t ordered in a way that was efficient, and that I really wasn’t as funny as I thought.  And I didn’t let that get to me.  I know from faculty lounge conversations that she often got on the nerves of almost all of her other teachers.  But I unconditionally loved her.  And I know I got to her more than merely once or twice.  If we were keeping score, I was winning.  But we were not keeping score, and I let her think she was completely in control of her own education.

Her senior year in high school, she and another girl whom I loved and was also graduating came back to visit my seventh-grade classroom.

“You know, Mr. Beyer, looking back on junior high, of all the teachers I had, your class is really the only one I remember.  I liked your class.”

Naomi, the girl who came with her, was also a little shocked by Terry’s pronouncement.  But she quickly added, “You were the best teacher we ever had.”

“Well, I don’t know…  Yes, I guess you are right,” the raven girl said.

“Thank you, that means a lot coming from you,” I said.  “By the way, who are you again?”

Her eyes got wider.  “You don’t remember me?”

I laughed.  “I tried hard to forget you.  But it didn’t work.  You are Homero’s little sister.  You were one of the best students I ever had, Terry.”

The smile I got from that lame joke was the best one.

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