I Have Been to the Mountain
It’s 11:44 am on Monday, June 4, 2007, and I am done, baby. Flying high. I feel so good after speed-typing through six half hour essays that I’m sitting at my keyboard in the man zone to write a seventh, just to capture the moment. After a year plus of what has at times felt like biblical agony, I planted my flag in the summit this morning. And now I can truly say, I have been to the mountain.
Here’s the blow by blow. Last night I cleansed myself mentally and spiritually by not drinking alcohol (okay, I had a slight hangover from a friend’s 40th the day before), and watching the second to last episode of the Sopranos. Tony and I both fell asleep clutching shotguns to our chests, ready for the final showdown. Oh yeah, before bed a thought struck me, based on good advice from JC on the comment board, so I went down to the computer to look up BICS and CALPs, the stages of English Language Learners’ language acquisition.
Woke up this morning feeling strangely at ease. Instead of reading the morning paper as I normally do when I walk my dog, I studied a single note card on which I’d written the ELL stuff and the six types of questions. For each, I ran down a few talking points: for a comparison to a non-print text, I figured I’d use a Duke Ellington tune or some other piece of music, as I often do in class; for analyzing a kid’s reading, I reminded myself that meaning is constructed by a series of experiences, etc.
The main thing I told myself, as per feedback on the two (I admit, crappy) practice essays I’ve published here: they’re kids, not questions. In other words, I vowed that instead of mechanically paraphrasing the question (for example if asked to “identify and discuss weaknesses, and provide strategies for correction”), I would respond in a genuine fashion, as if I were really addressing a kid in my class. Sounds simple, but I was distracted by the trees.
Guess what? It worked. I found the good in the student responses before pulling out the ugly, just like I would when commenting on a real paper; the million repetitions of “I really like how you.... but this would be stronger if...” finally paid off. This approach felt natural, and let me address the questions from where I really live, as a teacher. To heck with handcuffs, my flying fingers were telling me. Show what you know-- talk about what you do every day in your class, what you’ve been working on for the past fifteen years (did I just say fifteen?). In the immortal words of Bootsy Collins, P-Funk bassist, I freed my ass and my mind followed.
Back to the blow by blow. As I was leaving the house, a remarkable thing happened. A bird’s nest in the hanging flower basket on our front porch had three chicks in it. We’ve been watching with the boys every day, seeing the eggs first, then the eyes-shut chicks, noting comings and goings of the wren mom and dad. Well, this morning as I was leaving, I swear to god, they fledged. We saw two of the three chicks actually fly out from amidst the purple blossoms into the great big world right before our eyes.
That got me to the testing center, where I had a few moments of bureaucratic angst (what would an NBPTS outing be without it?). First was hand copying a paragraph (NOT printing it, the directions insisted) that said I really, really, really won’t cheat on this test or tell anybody what was on it. The low point, though, was once I had settled in front of the screen and began clicking through the tutorial. I reached window six, demonstrating the use of the back arrow, and couldn’t figure out how to get past it. For a few desperate looking glass moments I was stuck clicking back to go forward and forward to go back. (The test attendant came over and moved me along well before I would have begun cackling maniacally.)
From there, I got it on. There were three minutes of anxiety at the end of the first question when I realized there was a second prompt and I had only responded to the first. After that, I understood that I had to click through each prompt and hit the back button (oh, that’s what it was for) to do the whole question. Mechanics under my belt, I could focus on the questions, and that’s what I did.
Foxes were everywhere. One popped up on a writing sample, and another became my non-print text. Actually, I wrote about a fox hat from my travels in rural Alaska. Somehow, it seemed the perfect prop when discussing how I’d get kids interested in a passage written by a Native American author who contemplated her reality versus Hollywood's versions of Indians. (I don’t want to say more for fear of breaking the “I swear I won’t tell what was on this test” clause.)
BICS and CALPs came in handy, and writer’s workshop, and a generous dash of “HOW does it make you FEEL?” During my break I stretched and splashed water on my face, and before I knew it... I was walking out into the sun. A free man. A teacher man.
And so here I am, at the end of a trek I began on February 16, 2006, with these two questions: Am I nuts? Can I do it? I ended that first post by saying I was climbing this NBPTS mountain because it’s there.
It’s still standing, but now I can answer both questions with a resounding yes, whether I get the initials or not. That mountain? Call me crazy, but after all this work, the view from the top isn't what matters most. Turns out, it was all about the journey.