Project Legion Update #1: Smoking Meat

Last month, I undertook a multi-pronged project to master some basic skills I had been looking to learn, and set a physical base from which to expand a few of my other goals. As a schoolteacher with a few weeks of break time in front of me, I thought it would be a good way to get started on some stuff before my two greatest projects: fatherhood and the process of continuing to improve as a teacher, got fully underway next month. My intention was to write about this process, reflecting on how much progress I made and how sustainable it was.

I have five main goals as a part of this project:

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

On the whole, I am making progress, although I’ve experienced some slow-down and inertia on a few of my items. I’d like to focus today on goal #1.

Not long after I wrote my piece, one of my principal difficulties in meeting my goal here was the acquisition of a real smoker. With a baby on the way and my awesome wife already on board with funding several of my other interests this year (such as my garage gym!), I couldn’t simply go out and buy a good smoker. I resolved to learn the basics on a shitty one, and lo and behold: one appeared for free! My neighbor was about to put his (a basic cheap offset smoker) at the curb, in favor of a new Weber grill.

When he offered it to me, I enthusiastically agreed. After I wheeled the thing into my backyard, however, a few challenges became apparent, above and beyond the cheapness and poor heat retention of the smoker itself. It was covered in rust and filled with old grease and ash, and needed some modification to how it pulled smoke and told temperature. I made a visit to Home Depot after consulting Aaron Franklin’s excellent BBQ book for the material to modify the smoker and I felt reasonably confident that elbow grease would take care of the grease, ash and rust.

I was mostly correct, but a large problem soon presented itself: when I cleaned out the ash and old grease, I found that the part of the cook chamber bottom nearest to the firebox had rusted out to the length and width of about 14 by 2 inches. Ugh. This is bad. Franklin warns not to let ash sit in your cooker, nor to rinse it out with water when you decide to clean it, because it rapidly accelerates the rusting process. My neighbor had done both and left the smoker uncovered, so even though it was not “old” in years, plenty of damage had already been done.

This was an easy point to lament my lack of a lot of basic hand skills. If I knew the first thing about metals and metalworking, I’ll bet I could have had this problem solved in a heartbeat. The internet was not terribly helpful either. There was a lot of advice, most of it irrelevant to my specific problem, or offering a solution that required skills I don’t have. I resolved to ask folks at Home Depot for help. Hold the laughter, folks. Let’s just say I made three more separate trips to Home Depot, got two well-meaning contradictory suggestions, both of which only proved the ignorance of the suggestors, and am now holding a useless piece of galvanized sheet metal (when exposed to heat, galvanized metal produces poisonous fumes).

What I need now is essentially a piece of non-galvanized sheet metal that will bend to the contours of my cook chamber. The chief problem here is one of airflow– I don’t want a hole in my cook chamber because that will pull cooler air into it and ruin the meat temperature and smoking environment. So basically I just need to cover the hole with something that won’t melt when exposed to high heat. I have a metal-working store (hopefully helpfully) suggested to me by one gal at Home Depot that I will explore on Monday.

CHANCES OF MAKING DEADLINE ON GOAL #1: At this point, not sure. I’m at least a week or two behind where I wanted to be, and this one is deceptive. It’s one of the most far-off goal times, so if I’m not careful, it can be all-too-easy to get complacent and not hit the ‘waypoints’ I need to hit to achieve it.


I was watching a really great fight last night, but the way it ended made me reflect a little on fighting and on struggle in general: relentlessness is underrated. You should never lose because you are out of gas.

There are so many things in any struggle that are outside of your control: sometimes you don’t have the talent or the skill to overcome your opponent, and that can be forgiven. Maybe you got sick or got hit in the right place at an unlucky moment (it’s why they call it a puncher’s chance, after all).

But to lose because you were tired? Or because your will broke? To me, that would be much more devastating. Endurance (and the will to endure) does not require skill, talent, or luck. It is absolutely within our control in how we prepare for (and deal with) struggle. Winston Churchill once wrote admiringly of the medieval Scots in their wars with the English; their equipment and training were inferior, they were inherently undisciplined, but the remained very formidable because of their tirelessness and utter refusal to surrender.”Once set in place, they had to be killed.”

I started wrestling late in high school, and was a shitty wrestler down to my last day. I still look back with pride, however, on my experience. I knew I wasn’t any good, but while I tried to refine my techniques, I resolved that at the very least, nobody was going to be stronger or better-conditioned than I was. Those were simply matters of putting in the time and driving myself further over the line, workout by grueling workout. We had holes in my ramshackle team, so I routinely had to wrestle guys 20-40 pounds heavier than I was. I got beat in every imaginable way, often painfully.

No one ever outlasted me, though. Nobody intimidated me. And you know what? That led to more than a few victories. I can remember one match in particular: at a natural 175 pounds, my logical weight class was 171, or even 160 if I were to have done the crazy weight-cutting. I had to fill the gap at 215 for us to have a shot at overall victory. This dude had clearly had to cut to make the 215 weight, and he tossed me around for almost two periods. In the “down” position, I kept standing up, bursting off the ground, but I couldn’t break free, and gradually, he’d rip me right back down onto the floor. Early in the third, however, I burst up again, and this time I got out. As I faced him, looking already to grab his head, something dawned on me: he was gasping for breath, he could barely keep his arms up, and when I looked into his eyes, I could see palpable disbelief.

“How does this guy keep standing up?” “How is he not tired?” “How does he not understand that he’s beat?”

When the buzzer rang, I had him out-pointed. I didn’t pin him, I didn’t “major” him, and dang, it was ugly, but I had taken care of the things under my control, and I got my arm raised.

Only recently have I realized how much I should have applied that to many more things in my life in the years afterward. Training oneself for unlimited relentlessness may not make you the best at whatever you do, and it’s sure as hell not guaranteed to bring home the win in a struggle, but as the English and so many opponents in time (including last night’s loser) found out, it makes you indisputably formidable. If, once set in place, you need to be killed, victory may yet be earned, despite inferior talent, skill, experience, etc. If not victory, then at least respect, from your opponents and (most importantly) from the person you see in the mirror.

Project: Legion

Charter school teaching has been more rewarding than I could ever have asked from a job. The trade-offs, however, are significant: to truly prepare and execute with success requires an enormous amount of hours, and more importantly, a lot of head space for reflection and planning. As a guy who loves to do lots of things and wants to learn even more, this can make it difficult to truly embrace new skills and new hobbies.

At first, I thought this was purely an issue of time, but as I thought about it more, I realized the head space problem is the far more important one. As somebody who watches almost zero television and plays almost zero video games, I have free chunks of time even with an expanded work schedule, lots of fun with my wife, and blocks set aside to read and physically train. It’s not much: an hour here and there, but I still frequently find myself pointlessly scrolling through Facebook  and thinking “damn, this is a waste of time.”

I’ve talked about learning to bake, learning to smoke meat, going back to art, writing more, training for a really badass sporting event, and on and on. I want to squeeze everything I can out of this one life I’ve been given, after all. A bunch of dough for bread could be gotten together in a few minutes. A true bbq cook could be done simultaneously with lots of other things. Writing can be done in a few minutes. Why don’t I just do these things?

When I really thought about this, I realized the answer: I don’t just “do” these things for the same reason I don’t just walk into my classroom every day and wing it in front of my kids. The joy, reason, and power in a pursuit is not in just doing it, but in doing it well.

I don’t want to churn out a shitty, dense loaf of brick bread every month or so, or to make a tough, chewy brisket that my friends have to endure at a cookout, or to puke up the occasional self-centered, ‘look at me’ blog post. I want an outcome that was truly worth the doing, and to contribute in a very real way to my own development or to somebody else’s enjoyment. If that’s going to happen, then just like in my classroom instruction, I need a plan.

Ah: headspace.

Good teaching requires constant reflection over the year and planning for what comes next, not to mention managing rooms full of other people’s kids all day. Very often, when that’s done and I’ve hit the weights and showered, I don’t want to form a totally different plan for some other skill or hobby. What I want is a beer, conversation, and some time with a book. These are worthy pursuits, for sure, but if I already had the plan and the basic skills mastered, I could indulge in two of these things while simultaneously enjoying that other skill or hobby!

It is partly for that reason that I had my glorious six weeks off for this summer especially circled on the calendar. Summer break has always been a marvelous blessing for my teaching life. My beautiful lady and I have used it for road trips, adventures, family visits, and more. Sooner or later, however, large chunks of time are given over to what the old philosophers would have called “idle dissipation.” We vowed this summer to cut short on the traveling and driving, which can be a special drain in and of themselves, and to enjoy our break from our lovely house. As the school year came to a close, I became more and more excited: for the first time in quite awhile, I’d have a shitload of headspace to plan, and the time to get started on basics.

After about ten days of pure rest and relaxation, I’m ready!

Like I try to do with my students (and in the great tradition of what Teach for America tried to instill in me), I backwards-plan: that is, I decide what kind of concrete, measurable outcome I want, and long-term plan accordingly from that. What needs to happen on a month-month, week-to-week, and even day-to-day basis to eventually reach that outcome? I incorporate elements of how I’ve been planning my strength training routines as well, as per the great strength athlete, coach, and writer, Jim Wendler: slow and steady wins the race. Make small, attainable goals that progress on a daily or weekly basis towards the final outcome, and experience the ‘victory’ of meeting those smaller goals and you gather momentum and develop a true routine, rather than just random spurts of activity.

My “project,” as I like to call it, is really several different, smaller projects, so I  have named the whole pursuit “Project: Legion.” Legion refers to the old Roman Army, and their many-pronged approach to excellence and to problem-solving. My handle is “Centurion,” after all. There’s also a literary reference in there for anybody who wants to catch it: I ain’t going to wax too poetically on my own metaphors. Project: Legion has five aspects, and I’ve begun with the concrete, measurable outcome for all five, for which I can set attainable, step-by-step goals ala Big Jim.

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

I could have added another goal: to write more, but since my intention is to write about my journey with this project, with a final reflection over Christmas Break, I hope that will naturally overcome the primary obstacle I’ve always had in writing: to have something worthwhile to say. My hope is to continuously update on the slow process and hopefully, amidst all of the making going on, to discover and illuminate how I’ve made a but of myself as well.

Thanks for reading!

The Price of Higher Education

College debt is at the forefront of so many conversations in our time, particularly recently, with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his (often misrepresented) idea that a university education should be “free” (i.e., taxpayer funded). As a squarely middle class American who has been carrying a small mountain of college debt for the last 14 years running, I believe I’ve got some perspective on this issue. My view is also colored by my experience as a teacher of high-poverty immigrant children, for whom the word “college” represents the dream of a better life, and not a de facto social club in which you spend fifty percent of your time fall-down drunk.

My alma mater (Cornell University) and my choice of degree (history) made my college investment a very risky one to many people. As a white male lacking financial support from my family, an undistinguished transfer applicant from a state school, and someone who did not live below the poverty line, my scholarship and grant opportunities were limited. In the end, despite working summers and living a frugal life, I had to borrow over ninety thousand dollars to complete my degree. I had no plans to use that history degree as a springboard to a “money” advanced education like law or business school. It was liberal arts grad school or bust. I was hearing the classic “What are you going to do with it?” question about my degree before I even undertook any classes, and those questions didn’t stop for the remainder of my time as a student.

If I had truly understood what the next fifteen years would be like (and who does at the age of 18?), I might have made a different decision. As I struggled to define and find my way (grad school went bust after I finished my MA), I lived often in material poverty, sometimes severely. When you are working two jobs to total thirty five thousand dollars (pre-taxes) in one year, and thirteen thousand of those (post-tax) dollars are earmarked for college loan repayment, the future can look pretty bleak.

Headstrong naivete carried me forward, and I’m very thankful that it did. My time at Cornell and in grad school hugely expanded my mind. It connected me with deep and incredible stories from many cultures and their histories, and it gave me expert guides to help me develop my appreciation and understanding in a way I never could have managed on my own. It connected me with deeply intelligent, thoughtful people I would never have met, across campus and across time. It trained me not in “what” to think anywhere near as much as  “how” to think: about civilization, history, art, and even just being human. When people ask me what it cost, I always hesitate, because it immeasurably enriched my life. In a very real sense, my education was therefore priceless.

There was a ‘hard dollars’ price, of course, and it has only increased since my graduation. At the time (2001), a year’s education at Cornell was about thirty two thousand dollars. From what I’ve read, in the span of the last 15 years it has grown to the staggering amount of about fifty thousand dollars. There is something wrong in that, certainly; there is no way the real cost of delivering a college education has gone up 60% in that time frame. When I reflect on my own experience, that total would certainly have scared me off. Even my 18-year-old naive self would have been too intimidated to sign on: and that would have been a sad thing, I think.

My education has made me a better man and a better citizen. It enriched my understanding of world, national, and community affairs, but it also enriched very simple things, like a walk alone in the woods during winter time (when I had very few earthly comforts indeed), when I could recall my Thoreau, take a deep breath, and get the fire of my mind going. What if I had been “priced” out of all that? What if my students are decisively priced out of it? Yes, there are scholarships, but not for everyone. Is it truly “radical” to suggest that for the ambitious young mind, for whom “a better life” for themselves and their families is the highest goal, the only worry about higher education in a great country like ours should be the academic standard of admission? Washington politicians spend most of the election year talking about how a thriving middle class is the foundation of any sound economy: what then of the legions of aspiring middle class citizens who are exiting college with the equivalent of a full-blown mortgage obligation?

I am a firm believer in hard work and join my grandfathers in my suspicion of ‘handouts.’ I like the old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Government subsidies cause a lot of heat for that very reason. Why should the anonymous taxpayer be expected to hand out fish left and right? But I feel differently about higher education. My college experience was an irreplaceable kind of training.

When I think of the little good I have managed to do in the world and the mindset that enabled me to imagine how to do it, my education is inextricably bound up with it. I was taught to fish in the richest and deepest waters of all. When I look around my classroom at so many of my students (who are scared already at age 12-14 of college tuition prices), I wonder if it isn’t crazy to suggest that the price of that teaching is a price worth all of us chipping in to pay.

Fighting For Your Life

Eight years ago, not long after Valentine’s Day, I lost nearly everything important to me, including quite a bit of my sense of self and identity. Grieving for the loss of those things eventually gave way to a long, hard path of reclaiming them in an altered, better form. The progress was not at all linear: five years ago at around the same time, I thought for sure I was losing everything all over again. Progress there was, though. I look back now and I can’t believe how many problems, large and small, have been solved, and how many great things have been built in my little life. So many of my dreams have been accomplished and I have a clear path to accomplish so many more.

Yet it’s come to my attention lately that I am more stressed than I’ve been in quite a long time. How could this be? So much of everything I’ve ever wanted has come true; I fought hard to make that happen over the years. When I reflected on this, however, something rang out for me: “I fought hard.”

Eight years ago, I was facing complete bankruptcy while eking out a living at a car wash and liquor store. I lived alone in a drafty, two room cottage and my remaining friends were not local. My degrees, for which I had borrowed nearly one hundred thousand dollars and spent seven years in steady contemplation, were stuffed in a box. I needed nothing short of a personal revolution, and I knew it.

So began a long period of intense battle: with my own work ethic, which had slipped in the long years as a student, with my provincial hard-headedness, which found it difficult to imagine a life elsewhere than in the Northeast, with my own expectations, which found something less than teaching a room full of excited, willing students to be unacceptable, with my fear of change and saying goodbye to finished chapters of my life, with my ideas of what the best kinds of friends could be, with the many people who doubted me along the way (shiftless, angry thirty year old career-changer that I appeared to be), with my lack of refined skills in any profession, with my own recklessness and inability to see the every-day details that add up to long-term growth, with crushing financial burden that made it difficult to indulge worthy investments in self-discovery, with self-doubt and the nagging feeling that I wasn’t worthy of the life I wanted, with confusing adventure and real life…

The list could continue. You might say that the one thread running continuously through my very fluid life from 2008 to the present was that of deep conflict: externally with the world, and internally to get better. And you know what? Despite many mistakes, defeats, and setbacks, caused in large part by myself, I slowly won every one of those conflicts. I am crazy in love, even after four-plus years. I have accomplished a lot professionally and personally and I’ve seen the proof: the achievement of my students and the lasting friendships I’ve made through my work and adventures over my short career. I have never felt more supported in my job: my school leader has repeatedly developed my skills and rewarded my hard work.

That continuous thread of conflict: could it be that it has finally unraveled? I wonder if my stress now is related to that: the War of Reinvention is finally over, and I’m having trouble coping with What Comes Next. My wife and my school leader both recently had conversations with me that amounted to the same point being made: “Relax. You don’t have to fight anymore.” That really stuck with me. I recall a lot of accounts of war veterans who have trouble re-adjusting to life as a civilian. Many of them cite the thrill of combat and the great sense of purpose they have in doing it for their buddies, even when the overall purpose of the war seems unclear or questionable. When they return, they lack that sense of purpose. It’s certainly a difficult one to top in terms of urgency. Perhaps my own problem is a far less noble and meaningful version of what they feel: the fight itself had come to define my life.

I’m reminded (in more appropriate and silly fashion, maybe) of my time playing the wonderfully addictive game, Diablo II. In this role-playing computer adventure, you created a character and built their skills in a pattern unique to the kind of hero you wanted, acquiring equipment for them that was both fun to use and suited to those skills. The best way to build the skills and get the equipment was through battle and the trophies that came out of it; you got “experience points” through killing monsters and those points could be spent on ‘leveling up’ your character and the individual skills you liked. I noticed a funny thing while playing this game: while it had a compelling storyline, fun graphics and play controls, and clearly defined objectives for victory, these often fell by the wayside. I wanted the leveled-up skills and the cool toys, so each section of the game became about rooting out every last cave and den with monsters and slaughtering anything that moved, sometimes repeatedly. I found it difficult to enjoy the story objectives while I obsessively and monotonously slashed and hacked my way to “level-ups.”

In that might be the key to my own stress and the stress of others who have attempted to “level up” in this great RPG of life. This is the only life we’ve got, after all. I’ve got so much for which I’m grateful. Maybe it’s long since time to bask more in those things. I’ve got a beautiful wife with a baby on the way, a beautiful little house, great friends and neighbors, an incredible job in which I get to make a positive difference in the world, and people at that job who know and appreciate that difference when its made. There was a time in my life eight years ago when I felt lucky to come home to my little cottage, exhausted from ten hours of labor in 90 degrees on black pavement, flop down on the floor with a cold beer, and smell the ocean air as it came through my window from the beach a ten-minute walk away. “Not everybody gets to live close to the ocean,” I’d say to myself, feeling grateful despite all the legitimate doubt and worry in my life.

Good call, old self. It’s a sad thing when a life has become almost entirely defined by fighting, after all. Those ocean breezes: that’s where it’s at, even through the toughest days, to say nothing of the blessed life I live now. It’s time to ease off on the quest for ‘skill points’ and trophies, and to realize that ‘progress for life’ does not have to equal ‘fighting for life.’



Teacher Challenges: The Part of Student Engagement No One is Talking About

As a Teach For America alum and KIPP teacher of seven years experience, I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I can honestly say I’m no longer fucking this job up. For a few years in a row, I’ve been able to look back and see definitively (whether you judge by state tests or by other less tangible means) that my students have learned quite a bit with me in front of them. During the journey, I’ve seen many, many teachers burn out for various reasons, and either move on to other professions, or (worse) hang on and deliver bullshit in the classroom, content with the benefits, decent pay, and their own excuses for why students don’t learn.

A lot of these people worked harder than I ever have at various aspects of our craft. I can count several who aren’t burned out yet, but are well on their way from burning up countless hours of their lives, agonizing over lesson plans, trackers, data, and student engagement. This is especially true among our brethren who are trying to do right by underserved kids who live in poverty and often arrive in our classrooms years behind. As a veteran of those same classrooms, I salute their effort and I feel their urgency, but I don’t like the tone of embitterment and victim-hood I hear from a lot of them after time spent in the grind.

“So many hours! I have no life! I can’t get them to understand that education is important!”

I shake my head at this stuff.

Education in recent years has become very results-focused: have the kids measurably learned? This is a very good thing in general, but I think we can get so wrapped up in it, that we forget the human element in this game. Ultimately, we are a part of the village that is raising the hundreds of kids whose lives we touch; these kids are not little learning machines that churn out high numbers for our own sense of personal validation.

Along that line: nearly all of the kids know very well that ‘education’ is important, as a big picture concept. Ask any one of my middle schoolers what they’ll be when they grow up, and the ones who don’t say some kind of professional athlete (a subject for another blog), will almost always say some career that requires a degree, and will talk about college as a way to get there. They’ll say that even as an English Language Learner who is four years behind in reading comprehension, nearly that far behind in math, and not even close to being on track for entry into college. Why? Because they don’t truly comprehend the process of how they’ll become these things. After all, they’re kids. The day-to-day work they have to put in for a far-away life goal is completely beyond most of them. Even me: I was a pretty smart kid who understood the importance of education, but as a young teen if I could get my mind off girls and sports long enough to truly connect with school for even a little while, it was a win for my ‘education.’ I can’t imagine how much harder that would be if I were facing the same challenges a lot of my students face.

Duh, ‘education’ is important. Do your kids know your subject is important? Do they know that it’s awesome? Do they know that out of all the things you could do with your life, you chose to come and share it with them? Do they know that you are 100% invested in what you are teaching them– not whether you are invested in them necessarily, or education, or student achievement, but invested in what you are teaching them?

Hell, do you know that your subject is important, awesome, and every bit a worthy addition to their lives?

I can’t tell you how many reading and writing teachers I’ve met who neither read, nor write– not really. Blowing through a YA novel once every few months and reading a series like “50 Shades of Grey” every couple of years doesn’t count, by the way. Then they want to bitch that their students aren’t invested in reading. Kids always respond to modeling, good and bad. Those of us in high-poverty education see all too often what bad modeling does for students in their home lives, neighborhoods, and classrooms. By contrast, kids who develop a genuine love of reading are rarely ever behind in reading comprehension, irrespective of their socioeconomic background; I’ve seen it every year I’ve been in this game.

When I taught English Language Arts, I read out loud with my kids every day: even 8th graders. I chose stories that I thought were awesome and powerful, and chose the moments to model the critical thinking skills the kids had to learn. The stories and the reading dictated when those skills were taught; not the other way around. I chose curriculum to fit my style and passion; not the other way around. If I didn’t have a class set of books for the stories I wanted, I set up a Donors Choose, explained why the stories were great, and got the ones I needed. Did this make teaching more fun for me? Yes! Did it make reading more fun for students and lead to higher gains? YES!

Look, I’m as skeptical of our current cultural focus on test scores as the next teacher, but I think we can all agree that they mean something, even if they certainly don’t mean everything. I’ve had classrooms full of kids with the full range of learners: everything from four years behind in reading comprehension to kids who were ahead. The 165 eighth graders I had one year, most of whom lived in broken homes below the poverty line and displaying this full range, grew an average of over two years in reading comprehension. Nearly fifty of them had failed their seventh grade state English Language Arts test (despite a pathetically low passing standard): 22 of that number passed or achieved an advanced score in their eighth grade year. The following year, in a similar class environment (and with some improvements in my teaching method), all of my 8th graders passed, with over a third of them achieving and advanced score on their state test (85% or higher). Many of my former students who will be graduating high school this year still keep in touch and talk with me about those stories and those authors. It lights me up every time!

A couple of years ago, I switched over to history and did even better from a state testing standpoint. I improved my targeted daily objectives and what exactly I wanted students to learn and practice every day, but honestly, my time spent working at school or at home didn’t go up. There is also the unfortunate fact that social studies education has been fucked over so badly here in Texas (thanks to 8th grade now being the only state-tested year in a true social studies class), that many students effectively get zero true social studies education before the eighth grade.Despite this, for two years in a row, my school earned a state “distinction” star in that category (putting it among about 10% of all middle schools in Texas). Why? My sadly under-used Word Wall and Mastery Trackers had nothing to do with it.

I can tell you right now that my student results (and the lasting relationships I built with my kids) weren’t because of some amazing lessons I had spent hours planning, or student investment in a complex skills-tracking system that I had made, or constant messaging of the importance of higher education, or my school’s investment in some program or curriculum. I sucked at that stuff. Real talk: although I’ve gotten better in some important and necessary ways, I still suck at it.  I love history and literature, enough that they are an active part of my life in and out of the classroom, and that definitely made a difference.

In my class, I geek out every day. History and literature are alive to me, they are important, and I am 100% invested in their stories and their relevance to today’s world. My kids experience that passion every day; they know that there is truly nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than sharing the awesome power of history and literature with them, every day. I’ve always placed modeling at number one on my list as a teacher. Actions speak louder than words, after all. If you don’t love reading (or at least do some actual reading of your own), how can you expect a different attitude from your students? If history isn’t truly important to you, how can you expect it to be so for your students?

Love and passion are some of the most powerful drivers in human achievement and fulfillment: far more so, I think, than rational appeals to good sense. Stop with the lectures about college and education. Slow down on scouring the internet and highly-reviewed books for the best “strategy.” Look in the mirror and ask yourself: is my subject awesome and fun? If the answer is no, get the hell out of the classroom, friend. You don’t belong (I’m looking at you, TFA climbers who are burnishing your resume for law school, even if it’s for ‘social justice’; you too, burned out public education teachers who think the world “owes” you for your service). If the answer is “yes, but…” then we’ve got something! Do you live how fun and awesome it is, in front of your students? Do you choose your favorite things about it, and make them an important part of your teaching? Do your students know that you are pumped to talk all about it with them? This is an incredibly powerful builder of that elusive thing we call “student engagement.” Don’t forget it.

Art With Impact: Hurricane Katrina and “Over the Under”

I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.

One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity, “Beard of Doom” Kirk Windstein fronted and played guitar for the unique Crowbar, Jimmy Bower had helped form a cult favorite in Eyehategod, and Philip Anselmo was (by this time) world famous as the voice of Pantera, who were selling millions of records almost purely on word of mouth and the strength of their live show. Over the years, each of the band members would take a break from their main bands to get together and record an album steeped in their mutual background, with other members of those bands pitching in on bass, production, and other things.

Each of them individually (and all of them collectively) did a lot to found what’s called “sludge metal:” deeply downtuned and distorted guitars that moved slowly, with a rock sensibility and groove that provided a marked counterpoint to the high-speed thrash and relentless pounding of more common heavy music at that time. Down’s sludge has a particularly “New Orleans” feel to it: it’s got a boggy, bluesy, distinctly Southern character. Their relationship with their city and region is deliberately woven into their music; their second album notoriously involved all of them holing up in a converted barn “a tank of gas from civilization” in Louisiana and recording an entire album from start to finish. Down riffs truly come from below sea level, in a way even the guitar riffs from the members’ other bands do not.

Hurricane Katrina hit Down hard in more than one way. The band lost instruments, equipment, and homes. When they released their third album, “Over the Under,” two years later, I had a window into Katrina that no news coverage could ever have given me. The storm touches nearly every song, from the angry, defiant tunes through the jubilant rebuilding riffs and the moments of quiet, reflective jams. Many of the song lyrics deal with the storm’s impact on the city and on their lives, but the music itself does the same thing even more expressively. I could swear I hear (or feel) the water: rushing and roaring in “Three Suns and One Star,”, washing things away in “Beneath the Tides,” and standing in giant pools or drifting in riffles through the aftermath of “Nothing in Return.” The southern, ‘rebel’ human spirit, soaked in whiskey and dirty flood runoff, shines through in “March of the Saints” and “In the Thrall of it All.” The guitars are sludgy, badass  blues as usual, but there’s something more special going on here than old friends jamming together. Even Phil’s voice sounds appropriately ravaged. Lyrically he struggles with the irony that the destruction and isolation may have saved his life: bassist Rex Brown has since asserted that it was the only thing that got Anselmo off heroin for good.

It all makes “Over the Under” a remarkable listening experience for me, and a reminder that art can reflect truth and the human heart in a far more powerful way than the ‘pure facts,’ as important as those are. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, I’m no more a “Louisiana” person than I ever was, but I’m thankful for the connection to it that Down made for us to understand… and it sounds damned good when it’s blared from my speakers while I’m cooking for the afternoon!