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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Two Cinquains Before I Away – Won’t You Send Me More?

A nod to the Contessa here, whose request for a cinquain in the dandy’s parlour inspired me.

tricky form
exponentially it expands
feeling tight, it contracts

traveling tern
soft wings flapping
dervish ecstasy of flight

I am off soon on a summer migratory path, winging my way to Thailand (a path I’ve flown before) and to Laos (a new tangent on my route – terns have a tendency to go off their beaten paths - we love side trips you know). I have much to do before I depart on Friday and though I will no doubt swoop by other blogs just a bit (I don’t want to wear out my wings too much – that flight over the Pacific is a long one) I expect not to post for a while.

And so while I’m away, I invite you all to write your own cinquains and post them here for your amusement (and mine – of course). I will be so delighted to check in as I can in flight and read your words of charm and delight . (Oh hell…that was bad, now wasn’t it?)

For those unfamiliar with the form, here’s a template:

Line 1: title/topic/subject in 1 word or 2 syllables
Line 2: description in 2 words or 4 syllables
Line 3: action in 3 words or 6 syllables
Line 4: feeling in 4 words or 8 syllables
Line 5: synonym or some link back to the title in 1 word or 2 syllables.

Sawatdeekah my chickadees - Flap/Flap/Swoosh!

Friday, July 21, 2006

K9 Wins the Day - And the Mayden!

7/22 - That dueling dog has asked for mojitos –lookout now – this party is heating up!
Didchya know that mojito comes from the African word, mojo? Hahaha!

Mojito Magic

3 fresh mint sprigs
2 tsp sugar
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 ½ oz light rum
club soda or seltzer water
lemon slices

Preparation: In a tall, thinglass, crush part of the mint with a fork to coat the inside. Add the sugar and lime juice and stir thoroughly. Top with ice. Add rum and mix. Top off with chilled club soda or seltzer. Garnish with a lemon slice and mint. Serve.

I'm whipping up a batch of black beans, fried plantains and spicy BBQ ribs to go along with the drinks! And the stereo is blasting- dancing on the balcony anyone?

7/21 - the original post.
I did have pics for this post, but blogspot is being a you-know-what!

I canceled my Friday night plans because I was so behind in paper-grading (oh, the trials and tribulations of teachers), and I had every intention of finishing the task, but I am as distractable (cool word eh?) as my students, and so started in on the screen-sucking (even cooler word, doncha think?) - only to discover - hurrah - that our valiant hot dog has conquered all comers and won the Mayden's hand.

Yes - K9’s rip-rapping sonnets were not to be denied - he has indeed won the Mayden and in honor of the big dog, I offer mint juleps and shots of Jack all around. Enjoy! (And thank goodness - now I can partay instead of stickin' with those student papers - they are better left for the light of an early morn, when my brain is refreshed and my attitude is of a kinder nature!)

If you would like the Jack, I suggest shots, or a bit of Jack on the rocks (but no water!). I do not permit Jack mixed with soda in my roost –so if that’s what you’re after – be gone! (Why on earth you would want to squander the Jack that way is beyond my comprehension!)

Some of you may know that the mint julep, which traces its roots back to the Arabic julab (rose water), is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. For an entertaining account of the mint julep, I direct you to The Drinking Man’s Archives– quite an enjoyable read.

Following are three recipes for the julep – the first two are rather simple (well - they seemed to be about an hour ago, before I had one or was that two?), and the last is a somewhat tricky production.

One of the simpler recipes calls for crushing the mint – a rather debatable practice. According to sources which I no longer have the capacity to cite (after all, I did have to test the recipes you know - I couldn't just trust my neighbor's word for it), a true Southerner should “never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in a julep.” Indeed, doing so will mark you quite clearly as either an ignoramus or a Yank (can you say, "Mason Dixon line?").

And oh, least I forget, a round of cheers for the competitors - Cosmo and Percival -who both crafted lovely work, but in the final end, could not compare to the fundamentally fidelis dog.

But now on to the recipes!

A Simple, Southern Style Julep (leaves are muddled – not crushed!)

4 fresh mint sprigs
2 1/2 oz bourbon whiskey
1 tsp powdered sugar
2 tsp water

Preparation: Muddle mint leaves, powdered sugar, and water in a collins glass. Fill the glass with shaved or crushed ice and add bourbon. Top with more ice and garnish with a mint sprig. Serve with a straw.

Clearly A Yankee Julep (crushed mint)

2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons water
6 to 8 mint leaves
1/2 cup finely crushed ice
2 ounces Bourbon

Preparation: Chill a silver tumbler or julep mug. Add to chilled mug the sugar, water, and mint leaves. Using a spoon, crush mint gently.

Add a scant 1/2 cup of finely crushed ice; pour Bourbon over the ice. Do not stir, but let stand a few minutes until the mug is frosty.

A Rather Complicated Yet Perfect Mint Julep According to Bill Samuels (never heard of the man, but apparently, he’s into juleps).

4 cups bourbon
2 bunches fresh spearmint
1 cup distilled water
1 cup granulated sugar
Powdered sugar

Preparation: To prepare the mint extract, remove about 40 small mint leaves. Wash and place in a small bowl. Cover with 3 ounces bourbon. Allow the leaves to soak for 15 minutes. Then gather the leaves in paper toweling. Thoroughly wring the mint over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times.

To prepare simple syrup, mix 1 cup of granualted sugar and 1 cup of distilled water in a small saucepan. Heat to dissolve sugar. Stir constantly so the sugar does not burn. Set aside to cool.

To prepare mint julep mixture, pour 3 1/2 cups of bourbon into a large glass bowl or glass pitcher. Add 1 cup of the simple syrup to the bourbon. Now begin adding the mint extract 1 tablespoon at a time to the julep mixture.

Each batch of mint extract is different, so you must taste and smell after each tablespoon is added. You are looking for a soft mint aroma and taste—generally about 3 tablespoons.

When you think it's right, pour the whole mixture back into the empty liter bottle and refrigerate it for at least 24 hours to "marry" the flavors.

To serve the julep, fill each glass (preferably a silver mint julep cup) 1/2 full with shaved ice. Insert a spring of mint and then pack in more ice to about 1-inch over the top of the cup. Then, insert a straw that has been cut to 1-inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep.

When frost forms on the cup, pour the refrigerated julep mixture over the ice and add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to the top of the ice. Serve immediately. Makes 10 servings.

(Hells bells - it's time to partay at Bill's place!)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Metaphor Game

Bear with me folks - another teacher post. But go with it ... read it through to the end...

First, I ask students to “suspend their disbelief.” Typically, I share my purpose with students near the beginning of a lesson, but not with this game. I want them off base, and I want to see as well how willing they are to grant me authority and just go with the flow, accept what happens, follow where I lead.

I write on the board: “a red ceramic bowl of plump, juicy blueberries.” First students focus on grammar (they are so damned obsessed with grammar): "That sucks - it's not even a sentence." "That's a run-on!" "No it's not asswipe - it's a fragment."

"It's a phrase," I say, "if you want to get technical. But who cares about the grammar - what's this phrase doing?"

Sooner or later a student offers up the million-dollar word "describing" (though no duck will drop from the ceiling - pity) and we talk about description, adjectives, concrete, specific details, etc.

I then write “a pair of shoes” on the board

and invite students to help flesh out the description. We eventually end up with

“ a pair of old, brown shoes that stink like shit and are so mangey the owner throws them away.”

Students then write a description on a piece of paper, fold it up, and pass it to someone else.

We brainstorm a list of abstract concepts or issues, concerns. Students call out such things as “love,” “hate,” “sex,” “homelessness,” “God,” etc.

I select one of the terms and write on the board “homelessness is...”

Now we turn our attention back to the folded pieces of paper. Students write an abstract concept, or issue, concern, on the outside of that folded paper, followed by the word is. They pass the paper along to someone else. They are a bit puzzled – don’t see where this is going. They scratch their heads. But they play along. I ask a student to read the outside of her paper and then the inside. She reads:

Love is a chewed-up piece of bubble gum that fell to the ground and got covered with dirt.

The class laughs and erupts in debate. “Love isn’t like that at all!” “Oh yeah it is – ever been dumped?”

And then we take turns reading our metaphors aloud. We have a good time with this game. Some metaphors make us sigh; some make us laugh. Others are puzzling and make us wrinkle our faces. And everyone wants to read aloud. And everyone has an opinion. And eventually, some student says another million-dollar word "hey - these are, whudya call 'em? You know, meta, meta - "

"Metaphors - dick wipe!" (I ignore their language - not worth the time to make a fuss and it'll distract from the real work at hand.)

We analyze the metaphors, discuss how they work or don’t work. For homework, students play with metaphor in their journals and come up with a metaphor for the topic (their choice) of their next paper. Some students are prolific and write one metaphor after another. Others sprinkle metaphors about their journal entries – and some naturally use simile.

And one student wrote a metaphor for his paper topic that haunts me:

Turf wars is a face soaked with raw blood and uncut hatred for everyone to stare and see. I chose this metaphor because turf wars make nothing but raw hate for one another. Hate leads to death, and then death leads to ongoing wars, which will lead into more deaths, then more hate, thus an ongoing cycle. I chose the blood because it was another word for deaths. I chose the word raw because the hate they still have for one another is still alive and fresh. I chose the face because everyone can see the war between one another. And I put “stare and see” because that’s all that people can do.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Poetic Ring of Fire: Our Dog Steps into the Ring with Dueling Bards!

The poetic battle of the century is shaping up over at the Mayden’s vessel, and our very own prince of the junkyard, king of the steamin’ hot browns, drooling-dueling dawg, K9, is schoolin’ up on his couplets and his rip-rappping sonnets in preparation to enter the ring and smite his enemies with his own hybrid of pungently sweet and savory hot verse.

I have no doubt our beloved rot will win the day – for he is a noble (if not stinkin’) beast, and familiar with the discourse conventions of a variety of genres. Romantic wannabe poets and cosmo-swiggers will blanche and pale, and quiver and quake - make no mistake! The dawg is, after all, a master wordsmith – and can fling both flowers and browns adeptly, adroitly and with all needed aplomb and flow – he is da man, da dawg, da beastly best!

The fated time is sunset on Monday. The opponents will post their verse on their own blogs and the Mayden will settle the matter and declare a victor. We trust such a sweet soul will see clearly to the heart of the matter.

Rumor has it gambling is involved. And I have vowed to serve mint juleps and shots of jack in honor of our southern dawg!


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Now I Get It!

Ah, high school students….Rowdy, rambunctious, bouncing-off-the-walls, unfocused, scattered. Serious, scared, threatened. Afraid to be seen as not knowing, they are flippant, arrogant, defensive, hiding their incompetencies with bravado, yet still wanting the adults in their world to see that they are not yet with it – they need help. This dichotomy – this set of conflicting needs – to be seen as strong, competent, independent on the one hand yet knowing on a deep, sometimes intuitive level that they have far to go and still need/want guidance, assistance, instruction on the other makes this crew an unsettled, restless, exciting one.

I have new-gained respect and admiration for high school teachers. I am teaching only 2 hours a day, four days a week, for 6 weeks with only 15 students in a class (total of 30). Of course, I spend a good 3-4 hours in the campus Learning Center – making myself available to students and reading and responding to their work. I wonder how the heck a high school teacher can deal with these kids, with this kind of energy 4-6 periods a day, 5 days a week, week after week throughout a semester.

I confess that though I love these students and this experience, I am exhausted by it. I leave at the end of my day thoroughly worn out – mentally and emotionally. Yet at the same time, I am oddly rejuvenated by these students as well. On all counts – this teaching experience is filled with strange juxtapositions.


I don’t like that word, “incompetencies.” These students are not incompetent – they are just not competent – yet. They are evolving, developing and working towards mastery – not of the subject material per se, but of themselves. Their major task is to develop an understanding of who they are, and to gain control and mastery of themselves.

Four weeks into the six-week session, and now I get it: at this level, instruction in writing and writing practice should be in service to the task of developing self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Oh These Students!

My summer high school students are affecting me in ways my regular-semester, college students have not. I cannot get them out of my head. It’s late – I have to teach in the morning, but I am up thinking about them.

Today was mid-session assessment – progress reports. During the two hours our class meets, I met with each student and reviewed their work and grades, provided correction, direction, sympathy and butt-kicking.

These are the students who stick with me the most this evening:

Newton– a sweetheart of a kid who is at risk for failing my class – whose family life is a shambles right now. His mom is in the hospital and he has missed far too many school days to sit with his mom in the hospital; his step dad and he are so at odds that Newton has left home and is living with three relatives on a rotating basis. He plans on completing the summer session and then joining the job corp – a program I am unaware of, but which apparently provides housing, work, and some schooling for underage kids who are adrift.

Daniel – a panic-stricken, unfocused young man who has a court date on Friday which will determine his fate – continued probation or incarceration at the local juvenile detention facility. Daniel claims he has been so freaked out about this court date, he hasn’t been able to concentrate and do any work. I suspect that is not entirely the case – I suspect that he has so neglected his education in the past, he has barely acquired any skills and cannot even do my simple assignments and the court date provides him with a convenient excuse. The kid is definitely worried, but I think some of his worry comes from knowing that he really hasn’t quite done all he was suppose to do to present himself well at court. I’m worried that that he is so trapped now in failure he will do anything to stay in that failure – because it’s what he knows – it’s what he’s used to. I fear he may be unreachable. Nonetheless, we’ve set him up with tutoring on Fridays – hoping some one-on-one assistance will help him turn this around.

Tangier – a steady, calm, reliable student with a keen intelligence. He is missing his family terribly. His folks divorced a few years ago and somehow, he is the only one of 6 kids who is with his mother while the rest live across the bay with their dad and stepmom. During his parents’ divorce, Tangier lost focus and drifted in high school, but now he is refocused and on track, making plans after high school to attend a community college and enroll in the honors transfer program – students who successfully complete that program are guaranteed admission into the University of California system. But Tangier is still hurting over the loss of his family – he doesn’t see his father as he once did, nor his siblings. He misses them terribly. Tangier sought me out this afternoon, ostensibly to go over a paper, but really to talk about his future and his family. I mostly listened, offering a bit of advice here, asking a question or two there. Tangier just needed to talk.

Katrina – a shy, quiet young woman whose journal entries speak of her insecurities and fear of failing. She is convinced she cannot handle the coursework, yet she has turned every assignment in on time and currently has a B in the course. She does not seek me out, nor in any way call attention to herself, but I make a point of finding her, everyday in the Learning Center to make some comment on the work she’s turned in, or ask how her other courses are going. Katrina always has that deer-caught-in-the-headlight look about her. I want so badly to help her change that look – she is not caught at all, not trapped, not about to be run over – she is strong and successful but can’t see it yet. Though I wonder what in her life has helped create that startled, fearful look, part of me is afraid to know.

Elsabeth – a bright, vivacious student – she writes earnestly in her journal about my course, giving me valuable feedback (some of it quite critical – but always respectful). She is intent, works hard, but her writing is nonetheless appalling. English is not her first language and that’s part of the difficulty. I have not been able to help her as much as I would like – she needs more than I or the program can really provide. But I don’t really worry about her – because she is tenacious and already knows how to advocate for herself. She has worked with Katrina on some poetry – they both submitted the same piece in their journal entries. I have asked to copy it and share it with the class. Both girls’ eyes widened – Elsa’s with excitement and pride; Katrina’s with fear and trepidation. But both girls agreed to let me share their collaborative poem with the class.

Now, I have posted this blog and hope I can put these students out of my mind and go to sleep. I will, after all , see them tomorrow.

Note: To protect students' privacy, I use psuedonyms and have changed some of the details around - hence, these descritpions, though not completely accurate to the facts, are nonetheless true.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Teacher Tales

This summer, I am teaching in a special program for at-risk high school students at a local community college. These students are failing high school. They have GPAs ranging from .50 to 2.0 (most of ‘em hovering at or below 1.0) and are missing units. They hate high school. They have spent the majority of their schooling years disaffected and turned off. Some of them have never even learned how to learn. Yet they are all smart.

Fifty students applied for this program which requires them to attend school Monday-Friday, 9-2, and take courses in English, Math, Career, Study Skills, and Video Production (that’s the carrot). We have room for only 30 students, so they must convince us they are serious – that they want to turn their academic lives around. Even then, it’s not easy. We and they cannot undo in 6 weeks time a lifetime of poor learning habits. And most of them believe they cannot succeed – their history tells them so.

These students don’t know how to behave in the classroom – any classroom, and they are puzzled by the “college approach.” I run my class similar to a graduate-level seminar – we sit in not rows, but circles or horseshoes, so we can all see each other. I ask students to call me by my first name, and I don’t require them to raise their hands to speak. They are allowed to leave the classroom without asking permission. They are baffled by this approach in many ways, but also revel in it (some leave too often, some interrupt each other when speaking). We discuss classroom etiquette and protocol. They dig that too.

These students get under my skin. They are smart, scared, defensive, immature. They come up from behind and give me hugs, or cover my eyes, waiting for me to guess who they are. They make snide remarks one moment, then gestures of appreciation the next. They are astounded when I don’t answer their questions, but instead ask them, “Well, what do you think?” They offer their opinions with great conviction, then back down and ask me if their opinions are right. They howl with frustration when I tell them it’s not a matter of whether I think they are right or wrong, it’s a question of whether they can support their opinion with reason. “But we want to know if we’re right!”

I want to hug them (which I do) and whack them upside their heads (which I don’t) all at the same time. I tell them so too, in so many words:

“Hey, Mario, does your mother ever whup you upside your head?” I ask.

“How did you know?” he exclaims. I only smile. He blushes, then laughs.

One student in particular has been troubling me lately. He is short and stocky. Wears his hair slicked back with gel and a net over the top to make it lay flat. At 17 he works close to 30 hours a week - nights in a warehouse - and he contributes most of his pay check to his family. He bears this responsibility with pride. And with worry. He knows his work interferes with his studies. He knows he is far behind. But there are younger brothers and sisters coming up behind him. His family needs his pay check, needs him to work. He needs it too – it elevates him, makes him somebody. He helps support his family and this is no small thing.

He is but a youngster himself in many ways. Afraid to ask for help. Afraid to appear weak. He is not doing well in my class, yet he as never, not once, said he didn’t understand something or asked for help.

I ask him why; he shrugs. “Just can’t – it’s weak.” I ask him if not having help is working for him and he stares at me, as though that is irrelevant. Of course it’s not working for him, but in his world, there is nothing else he can do.

He is trying to get some of his homework done in the Learning Center and is working at a computer near my desk. I notice how slowly he is typing out his essay. He pecks and pecks. He has written only a few sentences in just about 10 minutes. I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t know what to write, or has nothing to say. He’s talked through this essay with me in class. He has plenty to say. Watching him, I realize why I haven’t received any of the typed assignments from him – he can’t type. And his peck and hunt style so slows him down, he can’t write.

He may not be college-bound; the odds right now are against it. He merely wants to get out of high school with his diploma. He knows he can make more money with a high school diploma than without. I wonder why he hasn’t taken keyboarding at high school. His high school teachers require essays to be typed and in my regular college classes, I won’t accept untyped assignments. But this is not regular college. A lot of people, including this young man, are working hard to just get this kid through high school. Is it possible that he will fail simply because he can’t type?

“Wow,” I comment. “You type pretty slow.”

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a pain in the ass.”

“I can see that.”

He nods.

“So I’m figuring, this is why I haven’t received any work from you. It’s pretty tough to type.”


“I’ve got all the handwritten homework from you.”

“Yeah, that was quicker to do. See, this takes forever.” He throws up his hands in the air. It’s not a gesture of despair, or a plea for help – it’s more a gesture of “see how this is.” He sets his hands back down again and begins to hunt and peck.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask. “Why didn’t you ask for help?

He gives me a look. I know it well. My son gives me that look sometimes. It’s the look that says: we’ve covered this ground before. How can I ask you for help, when I’m suppose to be a man – and able to do this on my own?

Ah, the struggle of adolescence. That desire to be independent – to prove you can handle whatever comes along – even though you can’t, even though no one expects you to. Takes a long time to figure out it’s ok to ask for help.

“Think you could write that essay by hand?” I ask.

“Yeah. That’d be a lot easier.”

“So why don’t you?”

“Cause it’s suppose to be typed.” I'm astounded by this answer. His willingness to follow instructions and his inability to ask for help have led him astray – trapped him into a place from which there is no successful way out - all because he is trying to do what he's been told to do, what's been asked of him.

I pause. “Screw that.” I say. His eyes open wide. His teacher just said, “screw that.”

“Write it out by hand. Put it in my mailbox by tomorrow morning. Can you do that?”

“Hell yeah, I can do that.”

“Then do it.”

I turn back to my own work. He pulls out paper and pencil and starts writing. He writes for about 15 minutes, then lean backs in his chair, reads his work, then starts to write again. I pack up to leave and he’s still writing. I walk out of the Learning Center and look back over my shoulder. He’s still writing. I know in the morning, that essay will be waiting for me in my mailbox.

This felt like a good teaching day. I hope it was a good learning day too.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bird’s Top Eleven Things To Love About America (randomly ordered)

1. Rock and roll!

2. An Internet relatively unfettered by censorship - let's keep it that way!

3. DeNali National Park.

4. Liberals and Liberalism!

5. Multiculturalism – in its better sense – i.e., despite failings and flaws and excesses, we work pretty damn hard at bringing a multitude of different cultural backgrounds together – and allow each other to respect and honor our roots – it’s part of being American.

6. San Francisco.

7. California’s beleaguered public higher-education system – needs protecting but in its heyday, we produced more college grads than any other state in the nation and at an affordable cost – we need to bring it back!

8. Baseball.

9. The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States of America.

10. Westerns.

11. The Bill of Rights - which gives me the right to burn my flag in protest or wave it wide and high - as I see fit! Now ain't that America? Truly the land of the free!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Two Poems

I’ve been dipping into a lovely anthology, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins (the 2001 Poet Laureate of the US), and I offer you these two poems, which I've come to adore:

Introduction to Poetry
Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Selecting A Reader
Ted Kooser

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
“For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned.” And she will.