Friday, February 27, 2009

All about Me(me): Buddhism

Narya gave me Buddhism as one of my words. I could write pages and pages and pages on Buddhism. I wasn't sure where to start, and lo!, this morning a friend emailed me to ask what the difference is between Zen and other sects of Buddhism. Here's my response to her.

If you'd like me to give you 5 words I associate with you to explore on your own blog, tell me in the comments.


Disclaimer: Dividing Buddhism into "Zen" and "Other" is sort of like dividing Christianity into "Calvinism" (for example) and "Other." Nonetheless, we shall examine what makes Zen so very Zen.

Zen is direct pointing at mind!
Zen is the diamond that cuts through illusion!
If you meet the Buddha, kill him!

Zen is the Japanese translation of "Ch'an," the Chinese word for "meditation." Ch'an is a sect of Buddhism that originated in China. At the time (at least in China), Buddhism was a super-scholarly pursuit, monks spending days and nights memorizing and debating sutras, quibbling over what exactly the Buddha meant when he said this or that. Also, the monastic orders became very wealthy and opulent because Buddhism was held in high esteem.

Ch'an arose a reaction against this ivory tower Buddhism. Legend has it that the first Ch'an patriarch was illiterate, but this may have been fabricated to prove a point. Ch'an/Zen emphasizes meditation and direct insight. (Zen is direct pointing at mind!) Ch'an redefined the concept of Nirvana. In other sects Nirvana is a sort of extinguishment-paradise after death, an escape from rebirth. In Ch'an/Zen, it is the extinguishment of duality and notions, the direct experience of reality, and it attainable in this life. (Zen is the diamond that cuts through illusion!)

Ch'an/Zen also got rid of the worship on the Buddha. (Many sects always did and still do worship the Buddhas. Many Tibetan Buddhists, for example, are very into Buddha & Bodhisattva worship, but of course their flavor of Buddhism is influenced by pre-Buddhist Tibetan animism.) The object is to BECOME the Buddha, here and now, not to worship external Buddhas. All external Buddhas are false. (If you meet the Buddha, kill him!)

Ch'an spread from China, becoming "Zen" in Japan, "Thien" in Vietnam, and "Seon" in Korea. It is also known as "Dhyana," the Sanskrit word for meditation.

It's interesting to note that Ch'an/Zen places a good deal of emphasis on lineage. ("I received the precepts from so-and-so, who received it from so-and-so, who traces his lineage back to Patriarch So-and-So.") This is because Ch'an/Zen has needed to prove its legitimacy ever since its origins as a renegade sect. Also, it may be because of the importance of ancestors and lineage in the Chinese culture.

Recommended reading: Zen Speaks!: Shouts of Nothingness.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Moroccan orange salad. Does that just sound delicious? I'm about to try it. I hope it is delicious.

UPDATE: Yup. Delish.


I've had this happen too often lately. I'm taking a nuanced stance about something, and a person involved in the discussion says one of the following:

1. You're throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
No I'm not, I never said to throw out any bathwater. I'm bringing some nuance to the discussion.

2. You're contradicting yourself.
No I'm not, I'm showing that, in fact, this is not a matter of absolutes. That's what I said at the beginning.

3. Sometimes the other discussant simply starts arguing against a point I never made because they assume that if I believe X, I must believe Y.
I'm not even sure how to respond to that one.

Conclusion 1: I need a fucking vacation.
Conclusion 2: This is why I hate "discourse."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

All About Me(me): Comfort

Narya gave me five words, and Ann gave me five more. I'm going to take them one at a time. Let me know via comments if you'd like five words I associate with you.

From Narya--

My grandmother is a shop-a-holic. Every Christmas, each child would open boxes upon boxes of sweaters, pants, and sometimes jewelry, all bought on clearance at Macy’s. The store subtracted her senior citizen discount from the sale price, and viola!, Charter Club sweater for $2.99.

These deeply discounted sweaters itched a lot.

One Christmas, as my grandma loves to recount, I finally asked her if she might be able to find softer sweaters. “Ever since,” she says, “I’ve always looked for soft.” True enough: The sweaters from grandma, though they may come in jarringly bold colors, are now luxuriously soft. The lovely white towels she gave us as a wedding present, although they do not dry a drop of water, are exceedingly soft.

Perhaps I’ve appreciated comfort from a young age. I don’t know. I do know that life seems better when some of those little things are arranged nicely. We spent a lot on a good mattress. Our bed is a queen-sized planet of comfort. Last year I advised several friends making their own purchases on the markings of a quality mattress.

I enjoy tea and sunshine, baking bread, naps with cats, iPod living room solo dance parties—pleasant pursuits. Why can’t things be a little more pleasant, a little more comfortable? Italians get this. Perhaps most European cultures understand this. I met a nice fellow at the local hotel’s Jacuzzi recently. He said that he likes to leave a bottle of water in a snowdrift outside the hotel’s door. When he’s done with his soak, the ice-cold water is just perfect. “You know how to live,” I replied. “Because of some water?” he asked.

“No, because you know how to arrange those little details that make life pleasant.”


That is all.

Bird feeding update

AHA! It turns out that sparrows--the very birds poking around looking for a feeder--prefer corn in a tray to sunflower seeds in a tube. OK, no prob.

New day, new plan.

1. Start the day with oatmeal, wheat germ, and blueberries. Power breakfast to fire up those neurons.

2. Go to library with books and laptop.

3. Work from my literature review outline. USE THE OUTLINE AS MY GUIDE.

4. Read and write and research, making notes as needed on the outline as I go.

5. Get some exercise.

6. WW meeting tonight--driving with a friend I haven't seen in a while!

7. Count my accomplishments at the end of the day.

Part of my Overwhelm and Dread yesterday was receiving a draft of my lit review back from my adviser. I thought I'd been wrapping things up, and she added notes like, "Please refer to X, Y, and Z authors concerning culture, language, and academic development." And, "Develop this idea more." And, "This is a start, but you need a more detailed intro comparing 1st and 2nd language acquisition." Thus, more research, more writing.

The project grew and grew before my eyes. The infinitely expanding lit review. It's probably an uncountable infinity, at that.

Yesterday about all I could handle was making a shiny new outline and crossing off the few points that are actually done now. I could cross off less than I'd hoped. I also polished the section on Skinner.

Ack. OK, moving forward.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This is called freaking out.

I'm staring at my literature review, unable to move forward, filled with Dread and Overwhelm.

Cognitive dissonance: OW!

The method of Cambridge College, where I am earnestly studying teaching ESL, is to create cognitive dissonance in students. At least in my case, they are succeeding.

I spent most of the past week avoiding writing a reaction paper, because I did not know how to react. I did know that something about the topic at hand--the notion that teaching is always political, always supporting or contradicting a discourse--was bothering me. I had such a bad case of cognitive dissonance that, nauseated and suffering headaches, I was ready to quit graduate school under the pretext that I needed to be available to make G. dinner in the 3 weeks leading up to his PhD defense. (This is partly true--we are both slightly a mess, he more than I, and the situation is troublesome. Only the cats remain sane, as sane as cats ever are.)

I was also troubled greatly by Foucault, who asserted that the struggle for control of discourse is the struggle for power, and that language is never neutral, but power is neutral. Dude. What?

I reread the chapter on which I was to base my own reflections. I felt nauseated. I hated Foucault and did not understand Fairclough. I felt trapped, like I was being instructed to become a radical activist, and radical activism is against my nature. It was like asking a fish to jog, or a bird to live in the sea.

Eventually I figured it out. I prefaced my reaction by stating my personal philosophy: I distrust extremes; like Aristotle and Buddha, I believe that wisdom lies in the middle places. I therefore could accept the idea that teaching is usually or almost always political and seldom neutral, but I could not abide the idea that teaching is always political and never neutral.

I discovered, then, approached from the middle places, that I could accept parts of Freire (students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge), most of Cummins (collaborative v. coercive education), and especially Bordieu's ideas about language as cultural capital. I also appreciated Tollefson's classification of descriptive v. evaluative approaches to language.

But I concluded with my gut-level distaste for Foucault, noting that perhaps I dislike his notions of "struggle" because I see myself as a bridge-builder, not a warrior. I confessed to being mystified by Fairclough, perhaps needing more examples of CDA in action.

You know what? I don't have to be a radical or an extremist. I do not value radicalism, extremes, absolutes. I believe more harm than good comes from entrenched, absolute ways of thinking. And that does not mean I should drop out of my master's program.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

C'mon sparrows, I shelled out for black oil sunflower seeds...

There were a few fly-bys yesterday, but no feeder landings yet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Birthday pressure.

I wonder if I would like my birthday better were it in a more temperate time of year. It falls when I am at my nadir, when I am sleepy and mopey and lacking energy. A birthday creates pressure to have fun--fun!--and socialize at a time when all my instincts say to hibernate, to take it easy.

Ah, well.

I plan to get another bird feeder today. The migratory birds are trickling back. Hawks are circling. Yesterday, two small gray birds were looking for my old raccoon-mauled feeder. Naturally, that one found its way to the dumpster last winter.

PS Also? I'm tired of marketing machines (big online bank, big online application, local spa, etc) sending me birthday greetings. DUDE.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009


I just finished reading Creation after about 4 months. I feel sort of empty now.

How will I feel once I finish my thesis?

Refining, refining

I think that I may be in favor of civil rights and reasonable accommodations, but against identity politics. By identity politics, I may or may not mean a sort of us-against-them tribalism rhetoric.

Clearly, I'm still sorting this out.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Valentine's project

I took a page from Katie Brown today. Katie once personalized brownies made from a boxed mix by frosting them with melted caramels and topping with toasted pecans. (Then she proceeded to make bath salts from scratch, which caused us to wonder, "Why not buy the bath salts and make the brownies from scratch, Katie? Who has citric acid powder and liquid glycerin in the cupboard rarin' to go?")

Anyway, I decided to personalize brownies for my valentine. The man loves brownies, he does. It occurred to me that my best from-scratch efforts will be much more work and not much better than Ghiradelli's dark chocolate brownie mix. Still, brownies from a mix don't say "I love you" in the most romantic way.

I toyed with buying a heart mold, but I didn't want to shell out twenty-five bucks for another cooking accessory to crowd the cupboards.

Then I remembered Katie. Katie, I thought, I didn't know how wise you were.

I bought some chocolate heart candies to place on the brownies. What to stick them with? Of course! Peanut butter frosting! Yippee!

My variation, then: Ghiradelli dark chocolate brownies with PB frosting and dark chocolate heart candies. Thank you, Katie Brown. No, I will not be making bath salts.

Do you have any surprises in store for the feast of St. Valentine?

"What it means to be a real teacher": An effed-up code

Over the last weeks & months I've gathered what many educators think it means to be a real teacher, and I think it's effed up. In fact, many of my personal goals and beliefs directly contradict this code.

For example, Real Teachers Work in the Inner-City, to Improve the Lives of Disadvantaged Yoots.
Corollary 1: There is no Real Teaching to be done in the suburbs, because the suburban kids will turn out fine anyway.
Corollary 2: Teachers in the suburbs contribute to the institutionalized racism of suburban white flight.
(I'm from the suburbs. I like the suburbs. A teacher can teach in the suburbs, not just manage behavior all day.)

Real Teachers Do All They Can to "Save" Students.
(I believe that we are all responsible for saving ourselves, which is why I'm a Buddhist and not a Christian.)

Real Teachers Never Teach Grammar. The kids will pick it up on their own.
(Bullshit. There is nothing wrong with explicitly teaching grammar, as long as it's not the only way that language is taught. In fact, this leads me to kStyle's Newly Minted Theory of Education.)

kStyle's Newly Minted Theory of Education
Use a little of every approach. Find the unique concoction that works for you & your students. Ignore the Educrats.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tomorrow: A retreat for 'Style.

Tomorrow I will take myself away to the heated indoor pool of a local hotel. I will swim, and swim some more. I will use the hotel whirlpool hottub jaccuzzi thing. I will pretend I'm on vacation, a luxurious retreat all by myself, like a wealthy lady of leisure. I may even eat lunch in a hotel restaurant. Imagine! A day's vacation, moments from home! I feel better just thinking about it.

Advice from my advisor.

I wasn't sure whether I liked my advisor when I first met her in the fall, but now she is one of my favorite people. In fact, she is the ONLY person who has given me any good advice about classroom management. Everyone else said, "Remember that you're the one in charge and it will be fine." I'm sorry, but in my experience I need to prove to the kids that I'm in charge; despite my own self-confidence, the yoots do not accept teacher authority as a given.

Bless my advisor and her work in the Boston public schools. Here are her tips, which I'm recording for my own reference as much as anything:

1. "You need to step on them a little." (The most helpful advice ever, especially coming from my radical, liberal, feminist advisor. I hear her saying it in her melodious Haitian accent.)
2. Create a classroom routine and never, ever deter from it.
3. Time-on-task (in other words, maximize active learning time. This is my least favorite mantra of the bunch, because it apparently presupposes that the students want to learn. Ha, and again, ha.)
4. Build a learning community before you attempt group work. (Damn, I wish I'd heard this one before I attempted group work. They so drill group work, group work, group work into us in grad school that I assumed it was a panacea.)

Here's what I've learned myself:
1. To expand on #2 above, create a routine for EVERYTHING. Leave nothing up to the kids. A routine for how to enter class. A routine for how to seat themselves during group work. A routine for when they may ask to use the bathroom and how they sign out.
1a. Create systems to support the routines. The kids never remembered what they needed for class. I now make them check that they have what they need BEFORE they enter class. I also provide a box for each group to keep any small things (notes, drafts) they are likely to forget to bring.
2. The Personal Invitation: Get the misbehaving kid in the hallway and, depending on his/her personality, either flatter the kid and ask for his help as a class role model; or intimidate the punk so that he/she is afraid to so much as breathe wrong in your classroom. This requires a decent reading of students' personalities before proceeding.
3. Things go better if you assume the students are monkeys. Monkeys need plenty of structure, reinforcement, and wrangling to attain a baseline level of acceptable behavior. Moreover, one may become frustrated with the behavior of a roomful of monkeys, but at the end of the day, one might remember that, "oh, well, they're monkeys," which creates a certain peace of mind.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I am growing tired of seventh graders. I am weary. The other teachers, the ones who have been with the seventh graders all year, look even worse. This is a tough group.

Still, sometimes they make me laugh. And I continue to amaze them as more and more realize I am married, but I didn't take my husband's last name, and you can DO that!

I'm looking forward to school vacation next week, and the end of this gig. I've learned some valuable lessons from it, though. Assign groups; never let the kids choose their own. Have a routine for the way that the kids enter class. Do not be above bribery positive reinforcement.

I wonder if I'm really up for a career in teaching. G. says: You are, but not in Lowell. On the plus side, we have developed a wide range of new expressions, such as: "What are you, a 7th grader in Lowell?" And, "Did you go to school in Lowell or something?" And, for someone who looks particularly bedraggled, "Oh, man. Looks like you've been teaching in Lowell."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ms. F, are you married? Part 2

Part 1 here.

I relate well to Ruben, a smart, bespectacled 13-year-old who has little patience for the laziness or shennanigans of his classmates. He's both serious and funny. The other kids aren't always fond of Ruben, but I think that Ruben and I get each other.

On Friday, I was gesturing to make a point when Ruben noticed my wedding rings. "Ms. F__________, are you married?" he asked.


"What was your maiden name?" he asked.

"My maiden name was F______________."

"No, no, I mean, what was your name before you got married?"

"F_________________," I replied, becoming amused.

Ruben looked confused for a second, and then, eyes wide, he asked, "Wait! You and your husband had the same name?"

"No," I replied, trying not to look too amused.

"I didn't know you could do that!" he exclaimed.

Then--this is why I love this kid: "Why didn't he take your name?"

"I don't know, Ruben. I don't know."