Moonday Blood Red Moonday

When the Earth is that guy,

standing in the front row

looking dumbly about

noggin obscuring the view,

“Down in front!” seems

toolittle toolate,

for Earth’s itchy scalp

crawls with manifestdestiny


Still there’s enough room in space

to launch an ocean of plastic

send all the weapons too

every glowing green thing

fukushima space up!

a giant floating plastic nuke jumpy house

drifting just past uranus

how ironic when it hits and destroys pluto

Who’s a planet now, little man?


But the blood red moon was nothing but blackness

when we opened our kitchen door last night,

and padded on bare feet to the dying grass,

the Earth standing in the projector beam

and the moon, his biggest fan,

enveloped in the darkness of his ego

Planets who want too much

and the satellites who adore them

(one NASA scientist said the red hue

was all the earth’s sunsets

reflected on the moon

imagine all the lunatics making out to that)


And when the Earth finally sat down

and the bella luna rose full and strong

just think of the millions of tiny heads

tilted suddenly up from a million glowing screens

spines creaking in protest

look up, little lunatropes!

little moonflowers!

For four billion years she has buzzed around our heads

look up!

At the Beach

In the morning the sun is at our backs and we walk into the ocean. The water is clear and warm. We move in and it climbs our bodies and then we dive and are wet but one, creatures of the water. The sand beneath us is flat then slopes then drops into moon craters, then rises. We rise and fall, and still we walk towards the depths of the ocean. We are tiny and helpless, then tall and godlike.

The waves are rolling at us, small, and small, and medium, then suddenly large, forming and crashing too fast, and we are lost to the power and froth. We turn and tumble and find our feet upon the sand underneath, the sun rising at a 45, 50 degree slant, the water clear, and still we head towards the depths.

A small wave rolls by. It would push a child. Another. A medium. Now a large wave forms and I swim to it, turning, swept up in its pull and curve and rise. I face the sun and throw my arms forward and kick and swim ahead of it, racing to grab it, to convince it to grab me, to take me along. I am caught and falling into it. I stroke a few more times and then bring my arms down and tuck them under me like skis. I shoot out into the front of the wave, in the power and froth, and lift my chin and fly ahead with it and fly and fly, until the drag of my body catches like a parachute and I am jerked back to the sea and waves moves on, rolling towards the mud and sand, the morning towels and the wall beyond.

I Know My Heart Beats Fast

Last week I challenged my students to memorize the poem “Invictus.” (You know, “…I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”.) Four students nailed it. Three of them recited it for the whole class. Perhaps the strongest performance came from an otherwise quiet young woman from Eritrea.

Today I noticed her homework assignment. I had them write a list, “Ten Things I Know to Be True” (Thank you, Sarah Kay!). Her list begins…

  1. I know that I am shy
  2. I know that my heart beats so fast every time I stand on stage

Later she writes,

5. I know that I am lucky to be here

6. I know that life is beautiful

She concludes with

10. I know that I’ve been memorizing Invictus the whole day.

Preparing for an Interview

In a room by myself, I ask questions and then I answer them. I often start with, “I’m glad you asked me that, Bob.” I try not to say “Well…” and then get cross-eyed and then fall over onto my face. I make eye contact with the hat wrack. I smile.

I exude the kind of confidence which can only be exuded when there is nothing actually at stake. Eyes on the hat wrack. “I’m glad you asked me that, Bob.” Smile. I hold out my hands as if sculpted by Rodin and use metaphors or perhaps an efficient little anecdote that turns out to be a parable for our times.

In a room by myself, I say dumb things and then I say slightly smarter things. I write down the smarter things. When I ask myself the question again, later, at first I only remember the dumb things.

When I ask myself a question that I can’t immediately answer, I stand up and move to the other room. I circle the table, repeating the question and stabbing at answers. “That’s such an important question, Bob…” I finally arrive at a halfway decent angle of approach and return to the other room. I write down the slightly halfway decent angle of approach. Later, all I remember is, “That’s such an important question, Bob.”

When I get tired I sometimes add, “Wait, can I call you Bob?”

Turns out his name is Fred.

Two Drumsticks Clapping

First day of the semester in the pleasant hills. I start the semester right with ye olde carefully setting my alarm for pm and not am trick, but my daughter saves  me with a, “Papa, I thought we were getting up early?” She is up early because the new early morning plan involves dropping her at a friend’s house en route to my 8am class. Saved by friendship.

Through the tunnel and into the hills, I pull into the near-empty lot and fish out my new parking permit. This is Tuesday/Thursday so I use the maroon one. On Monday/Wednesday, at my other community college, I will use…what is it? Oh great, a different shade of maroon. I am marooned in Spring 2015. I stagger off to my office, sliding door, press the button on the heater. It works! Ah, lap of luxury.

A few minutes to 8, I trot to my room, entering it for the first time. In K-12 education, your room is your room. You set it up and wait for the class to come to you. In higher ed, you arrive with or after the students. Later in the day, you wait for a class to file out and an instructor to pack up, before you file in and unpack. You look around, take stock, and make do. I often set out my materials, write something on the board and then sit there looking dopey until class begins.

This morning I venture a strong, “Good morning!” and am almost flipped over Peanuts style by the rousing response. They haven’t learned to ignore me yet. Later, as we are about to begin a partner activity, I have them turn and introduce themselves. It is as if I have flipped a switch; the room erupts into friendly chatter. Building community with this class will be a breeze.

After class one, my students file out, some lingering to ask me questions. One student tells me her English is a little weak but that she has taken such an such ESL class and is a hard worker. I will need to assess her next class. Another student waits ’til all have gone to point out an assignment on the schedule, for next week, and say, “I’m not sure I know how to do a Critical Response. I’m straight out of high school…graduated last month.” I explain to her what it will be and reassure her that I will go over all that in class.

“No one knows what a Critical Response is,” I tell her. I don’t add, not even me.

She smiles, seems relieved, and heads out.

My next class is three doors down, which is a bit ridiculous. I pack up my stuff, head over, walk into a room half filled with students and venture another, “Good morning!” If the first class responded with a 10, these guys give me a 6 back.

As in the first class, I spend most of the 80 minutes introducing the class, firming up the roster and checking with the students on the waitlist. I keep a running count at the bottom of my roster: Students Missing 6. I cross it out each time one of them straggles in and write the new number. The later they were, the harder it was to park, and so the later they are. At one point I ask them all to share their parking tricks. One lanky guy in a warm hat gives away his secret spot near the 7-11.

I suggest we all buy him a slurpee.

When I am down to about 3 student no-shows and halfway through the class, I start to hit a rhythm…literally. I produce a set of speakers from my backpack and plug them into my laptop. I tell them, “Two weeks ago, I was putting the finishing touches on my end of year music mix and it suddenly dawned on me that creating a mix is much like writing an essay.” I begin to play songs for them and describe the process. The first song I put on, by Alt-J, belts out this line,

Hey Shady Baby, come on…

I talk about the prewriting phase where you’re just listening to music (reading) and throwing together all the songs of interest, even dumping in whole albums (freewrite). I talk about the rough draft phase where you’re glancing at the assignment and making the easy cuts and wrestling it into some sort of form. I tell them, if nothing else, to know that all the initial writing they do is just to find what the essay is really about, to identify the spark, the idea, the point and then start over with that.

I tell them it took me a while to find the song that would be the heart of my mix. I blast “How We Be” by Sinkane and watch some feet start tapping. I tell them this song began to suggest a direction for me. I talk about how my assignment may be to craft a mix with songs from 2014, but that I won’t know my theme until I sort through everything I’ve put in there and find what works, what connects, and what I want to say/play. I talk about audience and play the first lines of St. Vincent’s “Birth in Reverse”:

Oh what an ordinary day
Take out the garbage, masturbate
I’m still holding for the laugh

I tell them I play my mixes a lot for and with my kids and that, considering that audience, I was not comfortable with these lyrics for this audience. I tell them I might use this song in a different mix with a different audience. I swapped it for the song “Digital Witness” with the refrain:

People turn their TV on it, it looks just like a window

Around this time, the door pops open and a tall, incredibly young seeming guy lopes in. “Where can I set this?” he says, indicating a huge black, rectangular case he is carrying (keyboard?). I show him and ask him his name.

“Miles Davis.”

I check the roster and, sure enough, there it is: Miles Davis. All I can mutter in response is, “Whoa!” I show him the last empty desk and he sits down. In the back row, two friends who took my class last semester, exchange a look and giggle. I wonder irrationally, for a nanosecond, if they’ve planned the whole Miles Davis Episode.

At this point I forget to go on and mention the importance of one track leading perfectly to another track (transitions) or how I searched to find the perfect intro: “Jackie and Wilson” by Hozier, which comes in with the sound of two drumsticks ticking together: tick tick tick tick…

This is how my semester begins.


March 13 March for Public Education!

While I think we lost a real opportunity to bring back quality funding for California’s public schools when we let our “super majority” slip away, I remain convinced that the return of the arts and music and nurses and counselors and smaller classes and professionally paid teachers (and thus a professional workforce)  all hinges on our taking to the streets and demanding better for our kids. We’ve got to start, I think, with reforming Prop 13. I’ve been searching for the perfect date for a state-wide march on Sacramento to save public education, and now I’ve found it. Let’s march on Friday, March 13, and demand true reform: close the business loophole in Prop 13 that has been underfunding California’s public schools for 35 years.

March 13, 2015, March to Save Public Education!  Anyone in?


Pleasant Hill morning with the sliding door open just a bit because that is the culture here, or at least on my courtyard: open, visible, ready to for a student to stop by or a colleague to pop in. No matter how early I get here, 8:15 today, Kelvin is here first. There he is, across the ferns, door open more than mine, light on a little brighter, sipping his coffee and working. I”ll get there some day, but for now I hunker down and live unit to unit, week to week, class to class.

Now a young student appears, talking incessantly, leading another young student in a blindfold. He leads him between the ferns and Kelvin towards a garbage can. His smile flashes for a moment but then he adjusts the guy 45 degrees left, two steps, 15 degrees right, and they are gone.

This happens again, ten minutes later. Two new students. The blindfold. The instructions, weaving past the prehistoric ferns, dodging the arriving English instructors pulling their black bags on wheels, and vanishing.

And then it happens again.

Fraternity? Outward Bounds?

A really, really good English class? Ooh, no, an ESL class, working the language of directions. You’ll learn it or you’ll maim your partner.

Is the universe trying to tell me something? The universe is always trying to interject. Perhaps a suggestion that I am the blind leading the blind? No, there was only one blindfold in each pairing. The music in my earphones is swelling and the man sings, “Taken for a fool…”

Is it simply that I’m in charge, as a teacher, of guiding my students through the jungle? I don’t know about that, but I do know I just read a wonderful homework letter from my student, A-. She was writing a letter to a future English student, breaking down what she’s learned about reading and taking notes and metacognition.

She writes:

“I think that before I began to really interact with the text and analyze what I was reading, I was missing out on the full context of the writing. And I didn’t start to actually analyze what I was reading until about the third grade. It was just extremely difficult for me to think that there was a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning to many things that I read. And even in third grade, I still struggled with it.”

Maybe I’m the blindfolded one, being led by my students, by my career change, by my nose. Maybe the universe’s point is more to the tune of this.

If you’re not in danger of ending up head down in the garbage, feet kicking in the ferny breeze, perhaps you’re not really trying.


The Lake and the Mountain

I’m back in the, back in the, back in the USA, well into year two as an English Instructor at the community college. Two days a week I ride my bike through the mansions of Piedmont, winding down past the collective Oakland bakery, alongside our glorious morning lake to an urban college, gritty fabulous. Two days a week I listen to a podcast of music I’ve never heard and drive up through the tunnel, cut left over some hills, glancing over the valley at Mount Diablo, stretched out like a beautiful, comfortable dog, and arrive at a college with trees, a sliding door, a desk.

This morning it’s Pleasant Hill and back-to-back classes on “Developmental Reading.” My first classroom is narrow and tall, always cold, with long tables stretching out from the walls and moving around difficult. To make a circle would be to bring a power saw. After class ends, I have ten minutes to make it across campus to the library, upstairs, for a wide, comfortable room, also with long tables. To get to this classroom, my students,  mostly in their first semester here, stroll through the quiet library, weaving through quietly studying students. If I teach nothing, there is still the benefit of that: students modeling being students, the beauty of a quiet library, those things on the shelves in the stacks.

In my backpack today, four bags of Bananagrams. Last week it was Apples to Apples. This is my first time teaching a class that is just about reading, not so much the writing. If I’m going to teach students to be college readers, I’m not just going to teach them reading strategies. I’m also going to press them to geek out on words and word games. I’m going to get them hooked on Ted Talks or This American Life. I’m going to bring in The New Yorker and The Sun, but maybe also Tintin.

Speaking of what I’m going to do, look at the time! I’m going to do it soon. Time to go over  my plans, double check my homework (Read “Reading as a Reader” by Donald M. Murray) and head out that sliding door. Green ferns wait beyond.

The Year of the Monkey Bite

Finally the moment arrives. They have glanced at the black guitar case in the corner throughout the morning but only one student braved the question, “Teacher, will we sing?”

“Later,” I say. “Maybe.” I haven’t decided yet if I will chicken out. I flew 7,000 miles towards that guitar, but I am hesitant; I generally limit my musical audience to third graders and below. Even fourth graders start to see through me. From there on up there’s always a chance (at least in my mind) that  a student will leap to his or her feet and denounce me as a musical fraud. The charges would include, “You can only sing three notes!” and “You can only play three chords!” As well as, “Every song you sing is basically the same song!” Afterwards, as per standard mob attack, I am ripped limb from limb.

All day we have written about our names and answered the question, “Who are you?” every way imaginable (and written about those answers). I have tried to show them how to get past thinking. I tell them to be loose like an athlete. If you’re stiff, you’ll whiff on the fastball, shoot the brick, shank the penalty kick, and sky the backhand. I don’t use any of these words. I show them my rubber chicken dance and say you’ve got to be loose like this, ready to listen to your own ideas. I tell them if you are loose you can write about anything and find a good story in it.

“I can write about that bookshelf,” I tell them, “and find a story.” I write something like…

The bookshelf is made of wood. It holds books. I love to read books. My mom read to me great books when I was little. She was studying children’s literature. She read to me many nights before bed and those books filled my head with stories and good writing.

My mom was a teacher of children. She worked very hard and she came home tired every day. She sat in her car outside the house and stared through the window. She was exhausted and a little grouchy.

One day I went to see her teach in her classroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be my mom? She was smiling so brightly. She sang to the children and read to them and helped them with everything they needed. She seemed to have a light shining from inside…”

I stop and tell them, “Look at that. I found my story! My Two Moms. Do you remember what I started with? A bookshelf.” I don’t tell them that I cheated and wrote about the bookshelf the night before. I wrote the same story, but this was not a reproduction of the improvisation. Hey, it’s called preparation, people. In both cases, I was loose.

When I opened up the door early before class began, it was the first time I saw the classroom. I quickly began dragging tables and chairs around to create groups as well as an open area for creating a circle with our chairs. Then I spied the black guitar case. I went over to it, set it on a table, unzipped it and peeked inside. It was a nylon guitar. I had hoped for steel string, but no matter. I ran my fingers across it. It was in tune! I zipped it close and put it in a corner.

Now it was time. Their energy was dropping. While they finished up a writing assignment, I slipped over and got the black guitar case. I set it on the table (I hear murmurings) and unzipped it. As I began to lift it out, I saw a huge cockroach underneath it in the case. I pulled out the guitar and quickly zipped the case closed. I looked around. No one had noticed.

A cockroach unleashed on my classroom in Oakland, at least with third graders, would mean 15 minutes of screaming, running around: chaos. Even though these students were likely much more familiar with said bug, what with this climate, my reflex was still to get rid of the thing without them seeing it, and then get on with the playing. I slipped out to the hallway with the black guitar case. I opened it and shook the cockroach onto the floor. It scurried down the hallway. I leapt through air and made it one with the pancakes of old. I grabbed it with a kleenex I had in my pocket and brought it back with me, slipping it slyly into the trashcan.

I was back in business. I had the students come to the circle with their chairs and I sat with the guitar. I said, “I am not a singer.” I said, “I am not a guitar player.” I told them, “But I am a writer and I like to write songs. And I am a teacher and I know music is good for helping us learn.” They smiled and nodded.

I told them, “I wrote this song when I was living in Costa Rica, learning Spanish. I went to a restaurant with the other students and there was a pet monkey there tied by a leash to a post. A woman named Miriam said, “Look! A monkey! How cute!” She tried to pet it and it bit her finger. She shrieked (I shrieked) and fainted (I fainted).”

“The next day, she came to Spanish class eating a banana. Suddenly I got the idea that Miriam was turning into a monkey. That’s when I wrote this song.”

I begin to strum the song and in a kind of a rap, I sing, “Well I went down to a beach town / and I saw my friend fall down / I asked are you feeling all right / She said I got a monkey bite.” I teach them to clap, snap, cluck and stomp on the chorus. We sing it a couple times. When I finish, they cheer and clap and stomp on their own.

Later, after class, a student asks me, “Teacher, do you have this Monkey Bite on the web? I want to down it. It amazing!”

My work here is done.

As hoped: very big in China.

The Story of Your Name

At face value, this China adventures looks like two weeks on a private school compound, but really I have the perfect gig: I am here to teach personal writing to absolute strangers. That is to say, it is my job to constantly ask probing, personal questions (disguised as writing prompts) in an extremely foreign, fascinating, communist land.

For example, what is the story of your name?

One of the many wonderful things about working with other teachers from the Bay Area Writing Project is that we are all constantly, enthusiastically stealing each other’s ideas. A few years ago, I got this one from BAWP Teacher Consultant, Page Hersey. You simply ask a group of students, colleagues, whatever, “What is the story of your name?” and then encourage them to interpret that question any way they want and to use it as a writing prompt. Afterwards, everyone shares! I use this now to start every semester.

And so this was the first net I cast into the pond. Here are a few of the fish I pulled out.

Rui Pu writes:

“It took my grandpa about a month to finally decide my name before I was born. He had a book to guide him, and he did a lot of research to help me get a good name based on my birth date (especially in lunar calendar) and lots of other things, because he thought a good name could bring me a good luck.”

Zio Bo writes:

“My mother give choose this name when she got me. The last latter of my name is “Bo” and it is means knowledge. He what me have a lot of knowledge . And “Zi” means son. And she what a son. Than here I come!”

Jia Ying writes:

“I think my name is very easy to write and it is simple. In Primary school, my friends all call me Jia Jia Cartoon, it’s a name of a TV program, they all call me that just because one letter of my name is the same as the name of the TV program and because I like watching cartoon. In middle school my friends call me Xiao Lizi, I asked them why call me that, they said it’s funny and easy to remember. But I like it. Because that make me be more geniality with them. And it just make me like that I am different people when they call me different name.”

I am not even selecting these! Just going alphabetically by their English name: Alan, Alex, Amy, Anny.

One more, if you please.

Yi Xuan writes:

“When I went to school, my friends asked for my English name. And I told them my English name was Anny.

“The next day, I went to my classroom. When my friends saw me, they called me: “Anna!” I Said: “Hey, but Anna isn’t my name.” Then Delia said: “Isn’t it Amy or Emily?” I answered: “My name is Anny, A-N-N-Y.”

When I went home, I saw my mom was reading a book. She smiled at me. She told me that my English name let her felt warm and sweet.

Maybe my English name is simple. But I like it, because my mom gave this name to me. I can feel her love in this name.”

DID I not tell you have a good gig?!

Later, my TA, Xiao Mei (I have two TA’s and they are wonderful), will write me a letter. In it, she quotes my last paragraph from my sample essay: The Story of My Name.

“When I was in middle school I remember thinking, tomorrow when I wake up, I’m going to be someone different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like myself. I did. I was a happy kid, for the most part. I mean, I wished I talked a little more. I wished I was better at showing who I was inside. I think I just always had this driving urge to be a little greater than I was. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized, I can be someone different, someone more powerful, more creative, more amazing. You know how? Not by changing my name…By writing!”

And then Xiao Mei writes,

“Congratulations! You finally found out the way to be different! That really rouch me! Because I have been keeping telling myself to be brave enough to show who am I inside. I’m trying to make a little different everyday. Hope I can find the way to be somebody one day!”

In her postscript, she adds, “And my dream is to be a writer.”

Sigh. When this job is good, it’s really good.