2014: a personal Year in Review

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YCHS students at work on our new garden.
Seasons Greetings, Wikiness reader! Forgive my poor posting frequency in 2014. As you will read below, my lack of posting was not caused by idleness. My varied endeavors precluded more frequency. But rest assured, long-time readers:  my fuel has been spent in ways consistent with my persistent interests:  learning in harmony with nature, culture, and school reform. 

Tech coaching
In an attempt to formalize my work alongside my peers helping them realize more of the promise of Google Apps for Education, I sought a position as a “tech coach” in 2014. For reasons I don’t fully understand, my offer was declined, and the immediate downside is that the district will not benefit as fully as it might have from my considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for finding more engaging and efficient methods of instruction through web-based applications. And on a personal level, working as a helpful “just in time” guide on the side to my peers from across the curriculum would have freed my schedule from teaching five classes and three preps to just three and two, respectively. To enliven my classroom instruction and give myself a break from grading papers, I had looked forward to new challenges and puzzles every day and learning what excellent work is being done in my building. But alas, the educational experts in charge chose not to employ me in this way in 2014.

Classroom engagement
The good side of not getting job is that I have more time to devote to my department peers and students–my most important audiences, one might argue. If I had become a GAFE coach, the two or three period release that this job would have given me (Yea!) would mean that 60-90 students would not benefit from my unique blend of “old school” rigor and innovative methodologies (BOO!). The daily, humbling process of being the best teacher I can–and meeting my students’ needs in the best possible way–would have been weakened and my reflective flow diverted, if only for 2/5 time. And the collaborative relationships I am in with my teammates, who also have to deal with 150+ students every day, with over 35 student contact hours each week, would have suffered. Instead, we did some exciting innovation with the English 11 curriculum, bringing in the documentary film Happy into our inquiry into success and the American Dream of “pursu[ing] happiness, and branching out (in anticipation of 2015’s new podcasting station) to student-created podcasts of the first part of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In Chicago Literature, my students pursued individual researches into the history and influence of America’s second city, characterizing it through photos, poetry, historical fiction, and creative non-fiction in authentic, personally meaningful ways. And in English 10, my sophomores not only practiced the literacy skills of summary, extemporaneous speaking, and “sandwiching” evidence, they were involved in working with teammates in “lit circles” that forced them to work their own ways through problems in interpreting complex texts before coming to their instructor. In all of my classes, I used the new Google Classroom, which I would now rate at 4 out of 5 stars as a platform like Edmodo, which I have now pretty much abandoned (the great benefit of Google’s Classroom? Its integration of Drive). The end result was more student engagement, which was my school’s stated goal for 2014-15. 

Union work
As a member of my teachers’ union, 2014 was a hellacious year. Not only are we in Illinois looking forward to ed “reform” law implementation in 2015-16 that will open teachers to unfair evaluations that will probably harm student learning, we also are getting ready for the billionaire who bought his governorship to begin his reign. He styles himself on governors in Indiana and Wisconsin who have eviscerated teachers’ unions and instituted measures that weaken teacher input and maximize the privatization and corporatization of public education.  The billionaire made no secret of his intentions regarding Illinois schools, and so in advance of the November 2014 elections I went out of my comfort zone on several occasions (weekends) to try to persuade my fellow Illinoisans not to vote for him, and instead vote for the tepid democrat opposing the billionaire. The people on my list were people whose addresses revealed them to shelter union members, but in the end the polls revealed that most of these people statewide stayed home, or went with the plutocrat. One of the most surreal events was attending an election night “party” at the local union hall and being the only teacher present as the polls turned early against the democrat (albeit with some Chicago elections shenanigans present). The whole election was one of those awful instances when one must compromise one’s standards, endorsing acceptance of a lesser evil to prevent a greater one. Also in 2014 I attended my first national convention, and found the debate over CommonCore on the floor fascinating. I tweeted through it (@abendelow) if you’d like to review my perceptions, but I was glad to be able to participate in this democratic process and found myself inspired by some of the speakers. 

The willing partners we found have helped this venture

Part of the garden’s limited, but bountiful 2014 harvest

take root and begin to branch out in 2014. I am so grateful for the people–students, teachers, administrators, and community members–who are motivated by the idea of growing a learning space around growing. Without them, we could not have realized the growing beds we have. And things have been growing beyond my expectations in this part of life’s garden. We began our growth in July, and by September were bringing in bountiful, though limited harvests, along with over $3000 in funding from benefactors. In 2015, we hope to break new ground in an older space, repurposing it for new growth. Our plans for 2015 include integrating the garden directly into the science and art curriculum, partnering with the Illinois Arts Council to  build student-designed sculptural installations, and beginning phase one of an ambitious new growing space construction.

Absent Friends

This year has seen the passing of some great people, and in my life, a mentor, Mr. Richard Kamka died at age 76. He had battled for several years with a variety of cancers, but stayed positive and good company until the end. I got to know him after he’d retired from the English department I was joining in 1993. He was the “super sub,” the one whose knowledge, enthusiasm, and communication skills made him the one you hoped your kids would have in your absence. While I sponsored the school newspaper, a student wrote a glowing feature on him, and then I started hearing things about what made him so special. A year or two later we were introduced, and I began to learn first-hand from his great knowledge (especially of film, modern poetry, jazz, architecture, and American literature). Kamka had an irreverent attitude toward authority, a playful willingness to improvise, and a love of the Crescent City, New Orleans, where we travelled every summer for five years. It’s impossible to adequately measure his impact on me, but this last week I accompanied Dave in the video above to pay a musical tribute to Kamka, and although it’s truncated, you’ll get an idea from Dave’s poetry the kind of man he was. 

I am a better man because of him, and 2015 will be a year that, because of Kamka’s absence, will be a little less interesting, funny, and exciting. 

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