Archive for the ‘Story’ category

Trying to Remember My Virtual Students

September 19, 2020

For the past four and a half weeks I’ve been teaching 7th Grade Language Arts virtually and now in-person. Half of my students stare at me from a computer screen and the other half stare at me from their seats in the classroom.

I am very much an in-person teacher, comfortable talking to the live bodies in front of me. Obviously that comes from 36 years as a church pastor preaching to the live people in front of me…and a few who could be evaluated as dead!

There is multi-tasking, which I’m not that good at (except walking and chewing gum at the same time), and now there’s multi-audiencing, which I’m really, really not good at.

This week I paused my last class of the day to take 3-4 minute “mask break” outside. By the last class of the day they are squirrelly and doing unintentional impersonifications of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character. They whined enough that our 4 minute break grew into 7, before we went back inside. As I came around to my desk I saw 12 faces staring at me- the 12 virtual students!

Let kids at Disney World who had gotten separated from their parents, they had the deer in headlights looks.

“My bad!” I apologized. “I totally forgot about you all!”

They looked slightly hurt by it, but extended grace to me. Some of them were probably feeling guilty about missing assignments that I keep asking about, or the video game controllers they have hidden in their laps. Others may have taken the opportunity to get a “power nap.”

Most of the in-person students thought it was hilarious. After all, they had lured me into the squirrel trap of extra down-time and discovered one of my weaknesses. Mr. Wolfe loses track of the virtual students. It brought back memories of a high school teacher who could have played the leading role of an absentminded professor. When he wasn’t looking, students would escape from his class out one of the classroom windows. Others would even enter through the windows when he was distracted. I don’t remember learning much in that class, although his name is burned into my memory.

And now it hits me! Maybe I’m the new absentminded virtual teacher! Maybe 30 years from now the students I have now will talk about the pranks they pulled on me and how clueless I was.

And then, horror of horrors, I consider the possibility that they will remember nothing that I have taught them…just my name!

Deceptive 7th Grade Virtual Students and Clued-In Teachers

September 13, 2020

Teaching a virtual learning class of 7th graders has been rewarding, challenging, and…revealing! I have found that a teacher doesn’t necessarily have to have students in an actual classroom to discover their personalities, strengths, and tendencies.

Back in my eastern Kentucky neck of the woods, we used to say “I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck yesterday” to make the point that a person wasn’t as naive as someone else was thinking. In my classroom, I need that a bushel basket of turnips displayed.

Most of my students are awesome and on task. Some have been prone to even doing more than what is asked of them. A few have been very helpful in explaining a technology glitch to one of their virtual classmates or…me!

But there are those who think I’m fooled by the fact that there is a screen between us. They believe that I can’t see very much, that I can’t see their eyes drifting to the right or left, or their tendency to, evidently, look down at their pants every few seconds.

I’m sure I’ve helped the Fortnite score for a few of them. Although they are clueless about what a dangling participle is, they know where the nearest zombie is coming from on their game screen. Next week when students return to their real in-person classrooms two days a week, some of them may have video game withdrawal. Maybe if i throw a few zombies into the discussion they will stay attentive.

There’s also a few of the eLearning Einsteins who seem to always have internet issues. “Mr. Wolfe, that page isn’t coming up for me.” “Mr. Wolfe, I can’t see that assignment on my screen.”

“Wait a minute! You mean the assignment that we’ve been doing for the last 45 minutes, and you’re just now saying something to me?”

And then there are the “muters”! When they accidentally unmute themselves you hear the loud chaotic music in the background of some artist who recorded immediately after having half-a-dozen Red Bulls. Or there’s the sound of the video game crash and the bash action. Or the conversations of a few other people who are in the same room with my lonesome student.

I’m okay with the security blankets that several of them cuddle up with. I’ve even seen a few stuffed animals auditing the class.

The big one, or most blatant example of someone’s belief that I took a spill from that railroad turnip train car is when the student consistently clicks his/her camera off. One student’s camera clicks on and off so many times I wonder if he’s checking with his attorney to see what view might incriminate him.

And then we have the late-arrivers, always the same ones, with always the same excuses- poor connection or their laptop was having issues that day. On the other hand, it always seems to be the same faces who arrive first for class.

One of my classes has almost everyone waiting in the virtual “lobby” for me to admit them when I finally arrive. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that every student in that class still has an A+. I asked them the other day if their grade performance was because they’re all awesome students or I’m being too easy on them? They told me it was because of their awesomeness. I felt my right foot slipping on a few turnips.

Tomorrow begins the new frontier- half of the students in-person in-class and half virtual. This week there will be no more hiding of the truth. I’ll find out who are truly amazing and who are more resembling of the zombies.

The Blotches I Suddenly Could See

September 12, 2020

It was late in the evening, which is anytime after 7:00 for me, and I was sitting in a quiet moment of reflection. I thought about the day that had been, the conversations and challenges. The end of another teaching week was just another day away. Day 17 had proceeded without too many glitches and I was anticipating the Friday plan of tired eyes and distracted twelve-year-olds.

As I gazed at my hands I saw them, a couple of age spots, blotches, AARP markers on the backside of my hands that had not been there when I was twenty, or even thirty, but now, at 66, I suddenly could se them.

It’s not that they had suddenly appeared like the Colorado September 8 snowstorm the day after it was 97 degrees in Colorado Springs. No, I realized that the journey of time had slowly developed the indications of my advancing elderliness.

Perhaps it was a God-sign for our times that the thought came upon me. Like so many things in life, the differences and injustices in our culture and in our world that have been there for so long suddenly catch out attention. We see them where we didn’t really notice them. And I realize that events such as pandemics, and 9/11 terrorist attacks, race relations and tensions, financial heartbreak, closed churches, and the hyping of political fears cause the blotches of our world and aged issues of the past decades to stand out.

Like the imperfections on the backs of my hands, the imperfections and imbalances of our world have been there for a long, long time, but in a short focused look we suddenly see them with disturbed eyes.

The thing is they won’t be corrected or erased quickly. Noticeability is simply the first step in redirection. Unlike my skin blotches, however, the bruises of our times can be healed, perhaps slowly and painfully, but they can be “unwounded”.

Return to the Stool

September 7, 2020

It was open! No sign was in front of it saying it was still temporarily closed.

My Starbucks stool– to be specific, the last stool on the right looking out toward Pike’s Peak– went back on the coffee cafe’ market. So, I planted myself into it and started typing…this!

Writers like writing spots, like children like a certain teddy bear or blanket. We become attached to it. It becomes our place of inspiration and creation. My Starbucks stool has been the home for the writing go many of my blog posts. It’s also where I met Kathy Buchanan, who used to sit on the last stool on the left. Kathy has been a writer/producer of the “Adventures in Odyssey” series for several years. She encouraged me to go to the Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference in Estes Park, where I learned a mega-amount about the craft of writing, literary agents, publishers, and editors.

The absence of the stool has been an ongoing reminder of the pandemic’s dark cloud hanging over us, like the rain cloud that always seemed to follow Charlie Brown.

The baristas at my Starbucks know of my stool devotion. The last few weeks I’ve been sitting outside on the patio, arriving at about 7 AM and going to “the last table on the right”. (Notice a trend here?) It was all right, except when it started resembling a dog park more than cafe patio. This morning when I noticed the vacancy sign flashing over my stool I asked barista Destiny if it was true.

“Is IT really available?”

She nodded and probably smiled underneath her mask. She was already preparing my cup of Pike Place before I even arrived at the counter. I was like a hog wallowing in penetratingly cool mud on a hot summer afternoon.

Of course, since I’m teaching 7th-grade munchkins five days a week, my visits to the stool will be few and far between for the next few weeks. It will make the writer’s heart grow fonder and perhaps I can discover a few new adjectives to bring redolence to this space.

The Patience of a Virtual Teacher

September 6, 2020

I’ve heard that saying, “He’s got the patience of Job!”, for years. Sometimes it’s been used to describe me and at other times it’s been said in connection with someone who is having to deal with me.

We use the saying in referring to the character in the Old Testament who abstains from exploding on people who keep offering him lame advice in response to all of his adversities. I’ve thought about Job a lot these past couple of weeks as I’ve been teaching 7th Grade Language Arts virtually, shepherding about eighty students toward greener writing and literature pastures.

Each day has been an adventure, punctuated with misadventures.

Did you find that next activity we’re going to be doing?”

“Mr. Wolfe, my screen is blank.”

Okay, try refreshing your Schoology page and see if that fixes it.”

There’s a pause as the lost lamb seeks to be found.

Okay, I think I’ve got it.”

Multiply that conversation a hundred fold and you discover what my day usually is. Add to that my side of the difficulties…technological illiteracy, forgetting to do Step 23# in the twenty-five step assignment process, trying to figure out is little Johnny is still with me virtually or is playing Fortnite on his game system set up right beside him.

Patience is the word- patience with my students, patience with my own inadequacies, patience with slow internet service, and patience with students who are a bit more like a turtle in their learning pace than the other thoroughbreds who sprint to the end of an assignment.

And then God, in his patient wisdom and compassion, puts this verse in the midst of the scripture passage I’m preaching on this Sunday. “Be patient with everyone.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

I might add “everything” to that. Patient with CenturyLink, patient with myself, patient with things that don’t make sense, patient with my eLearning dyslexia.

Getting through these COVID-19 days requires a heavy patience medication. Impatience looms in the next meltdown.

And then, right about the time, I’m ready for a hair pulling episode, one of my students guides me to the solution of a technology problem and all is well again. It causes me to rediscover another gift from God that often is attached to patience.

Grace.

My First Virtual Teaching Week

August 29, 2020

Like a lightweight boxer going back to his corner, I survived the first round of my virtual teaching week. My trainer mopped up the perspiration on my virtual face and checked for technology cuts and scrapes as I stood in front of her counter. She patted me on the head and gave me some quick instructions.

“Watch out for the clueless expressions you see. They’re just trying to catch you off-guard. And be aware of the faders, the ones who suddenly only are showing the top part of their head and hiding their eyes from being seen on the screen. That’s the student who’s probably eating a Chipotle burrito. Since his sound its muted, you can’t hear the munching! Or, even worse, he’s holding a video game controller in his hands and playing Fortnite!”

She sent me back out to face Schoology and Google Drive. I thought they had me in the opening moments, but as the first-round week of classes progressed I gained more confidence, a little swagger in my virtual dancing and dodging.

“What about the kid who figured out how to mute me? What do I do about him?”

“Don’t worry about him! We’ll take care of his disrespectful attitude and just when he thinks he’s causing you to pull your hair out and he puts his guard down, he’s going to take a fall!”

“You’re doing great! You don’t act like an eLearning rookie teacher. You’re impressing some of these kids, but don’t get cocky! You lose your focus and all of a sudden you’re in some no man’s land screen and there’s no going back. Stay with the game plan, stay with the assignment! Remember, this is going multiple rounds. The first round is just to get you breathing hard, but not to the point that you hyperventilate.”

The bell was about to ring to indicate another round of going at it.

“What if there’s a multi-punch attack? Should I cover up, protect myself, stay on the defensive for a moment?”

“No! That’s when you dance around and tell one of the thousands of stories that calms the swell. Be smart! Revert back to that story about the kid who could never remember to bring a pencil to class with him. These kids still remember the pencil days. Use that to your advantage! Dance around with that episode for a few moments, that will settle down their aggressive natures and put you back in control.”

“Gotcha’!”

“Schoology is going to try to throw an uppercut at you. Stay focused and stay sharp. You get through this next round and you can get another cup of coffee!”

“I could use that caffeine right now.”

“Suck it up, buttercup! You’ve got to earn it!”

There was fire in her eyes. I clapped my gloves together and faced my next screen filled with 12-year-old faces. “I’ve got this…kinda’!”

The Balance of Fear and Courage

August 22, 2020

Fear and courage are two over-used words in these days of hoped-for vaccines, election tensions, and employment uncertainty. They are hyped and griped in the media, echoed in the quivering tones of our voices, and thought about in the aloneness of our homes.

The middle school where I’ve coached for twenty years and substitute taught for the last four called me up on Tuesday to ask me to come and teach a language arts class for the next several weeks…or months. So I said…sure!

It manifested some fear in a couple of family members. Not body-trembling, nail-biting fear, but fear and anxiety about a 66-year-old entering a school building. My fear, on the other hand, was focused on the new Blob monster called “the virtual classroom”. On a laptop screen in front of me all these faces will be staring at me, causing me to wonder if I’m unzipped or have a piece of chive attached to one of my front teeth.

Fear can be a benefit. Cockiness usually leads to some bad conclusion, like the Soviet sub commander in The Hunt For Red October whose excessive opinion of his mastery leads his First Officer to say to him, right before the sub blew up, “You have killed us!” Fear can be a guide that tells us to proceed with caution or reconsider our direction.

Courage is the awareness of fear and the determination to stay the course. Courage demands the possibility of a bad ending of some kind, but also the potential for a beneficial conclusion. Courage is not self-seeking, but rather mindful of the good that can be done for someone else.

Fear is often trumpeted in such a way that it causes us to think that the end is near. Unfortunately, courage is sometimes communicated as if the person portrayed is like the new messiah and has no fear.

At my school this week I witnessed a teaching staff that all had fears and, from what I could see and hear, all had courage. It’s a courage to keep guiding the educational canoes filled with kids. I use that picture of a canoe, having known the unstableness of such a vessel as it moves down a stream…especially with hyper adolescents occupying its paddles.

There are some anxious educators, wanting the best for kids and trying to navigate around all the rocks and low-hanging tree branches as the classroom canoes face the rapids.

As some wise advisor once told me, “Time to put your big boy pants on!” And I would add “And pray!” Psalm 23 seems to be even more relevant each morning about 7:30!

“Though I walk through my virtual classroom of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me!”

Responsibility In The Crosshairs of Freedom

August 12, 2020

There are certain situations in our everyday lives that demand that freedom be put on the back burner. For example, the speed limit on streets and highways is meant to keep every driver and vehicle safe. A crash caused someone driving recklessly not only threatens their life, but the lives of those in other vehicles. And, oh my, most of us have experienced the frustration of backed-up traffic because of one speed demon crashing miles ahead of us!

America is a free country. We say those words and stretch the elastic in the waist band to the breaking point. Pardon the expression, but we try to fit a size XXX of freedom into a 28 waist with no apologies for the cultural bulginess is creates.

Responsibility seems to be a word that we use to overkill with our kids and place in storage for our own lives. It’s more than an issue about wearing masks and washing your hands. It’s a personal and corporate value that is being viewed by more and more people as a relic of The Andy Griffith Show era.

When freedom and responsibility co-exist and work in rhythm with one another like an Olympic figuring skating duo, it’s a beautiful thing. Most of the time, common sense and community benefit join hands with them, and the local newspaper must rely on news stories like whose house did Billy Bob and Joann Rice have dinner at after church on Sunday, or which 4-H’er was awarded the grand prize for her winning pig at the county fair. The teamwork of freedom and responsibility seldom makes good headlines, but, seriously, wouldn’t we like a few days that would be ho-hum and un-sensational?

It seems in these times, however, that responsibility is often in the crosshairs of freedom. Freedom drives a car smack dab into responsibility’s front window and takes off with items that don’t belong to it.

Freedom gone crazy is like a bear in a honey store. Look out! there’s going to be a lot of licking, broken glass, and beastly entitlement. I can understand bears. It’s the crazies who have mistaken free reign for freedom that I cringe about.

Lean on Me From a Distance

April 4, 2020

Bill Withers passed away yesterday at the age of 81 of heart problems. One of the many songs he had written was “Lean On Me”, the year of my high school graduation, 1972.

His passing at this time in our country’s struggles seems strangely appropriate because it has brought that song back into our minds. It’s a time to lean on one another, even from a socially acceptable distance. The words from the song resonate in our minds and spirits: Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna’ need somebody to lean on.

Each one of us has times where our lean is more pronounced than at other times. Weary health care workers are looking for a wall to lean against for a few minutes. First-responders are in need of a listening ear to lean on. Grandparents lean their ears closer to the phone to hear the angelic voice of their young grandchildren. Pained souls lean into a YouTube video of a church choir singing Amazing Grace.

When Bill Withers wrote those lyrics almost fifty years ago he had no idea that they’d be intently listened to in 2020.

Oh, there are still plenty of people under the illusion that the world revolves around themselves and the purpose of everyone else is to please and pleasure them, but I think this pandemic has brought a new awakening– I guess that would be a reawakening– of how I need you and you need me.

My wife, caring of the need of others, took a half-dozen rolls of toilet paper up to our middle school this week, where bagged lunches were being distributed. Her thought was that those who qualify to receive the free lunches might also need a roll of TP! I walked by the school an hour later just to say hi to a couple of the workers and they informed me that those rolls of TP had not lasted long. They had all been given…quickly!

Leaning on one another, once in a while, means something as simple as that. As Bill Withers sang, “I just might have a problem that you’ll understand. We all need somebody to lean on.”

 

Realizing What We No Longer Have

April 2, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 2, 2020

                        

When I recently taught 7th Grade Language Arts for 8 weeks, I noticed somber-faced students entering the building at 7:30. Although some were excited about being at school for another day of broadening their educational experience, most were as excited as a skateboarder at a geriatric bingo night.

Many of them longed to be anywhere but a classroom. Some of them had arrived at the notion that their purpose in life was to drive teachers looney. 

And now they are just one example of a long, long list of realizations of how good we, and they, had it! E-learning has been more taxing than their 57 minute class times in the school building. Teachers expect them to still be students and most of them can no longer be convincing when they say to their parents that they don’t have any homework.

Sometimes we don’t realize what we had until we no longer have it. No workouts at the Y! No booth at Red Lobster! No library to browse amongst the rows of books! Our routines have been knocked down like Lego blocks that we assumed were firmly in place, and now new routines, less certain and more like a Jenga tower, are being assembled.

Last Sunday I attended three worship services in different parts of the country- southern Ohio; Champaign, Illinois; and Pleasanton, California. Of course, all three were streamed into my study at home. It was a unique experience, and it made me realize how much I miss the “community of presence” when a church congregation meets together. I was fed the Word and yet I missed the fellowship that touches my spirit.

Grandkids miss grandparents and vice-versa. Waving to one another from the other side of a car window doesn’t do it. In some ways, it elevates the loneliness. 

I miss my writing stool at my local Starbucks and the baristas who I would joke with each day, giving each other new first names that began with our first initial, like Bartholomew for my “B” and “Catastrophic” for the barista whose first name begins with “Cat.” 

I miss the days when you didn’t look at people with suspicion— Does he have it? Shouldn’t those young people not be hanging around there?— or cut a wide berth around an elderly couple walking in the opposite direction.

We realize that things will never, in our lifetime, be what they once were. Our future plans are on hold. Our questions about when we might take a vacation have no clear answers. Our special events just lose some of their specialness when we participate by Zoom.

And I also think, in the midst of these cataclysmic changes, that many of us have come to realize how much of our lives have been revolved around things and events that, in the larger scheme of things, really aren’t that important. Many of us are coming to the discovery that our lives don’t have much depth to them at all. We’re shallow, like multiple text messages that just keep saying “Hi!” and “What’s up?” Perhaps, in the midst of this journey, we’ll dig deeper roots into things that matter…relationships, purpose, and spiritual nourishment. 

I think of the story of Job in the Old Testament. It’s painful, in many ways to read. Job has the good life, things seem to be in perfect harmony for him. And then it all comes crashing down…wealth, health, the respect people showed toward him. But at the end of the story, after Job has everything else stripped away from his life, he finds that nothing and no one can strip away his relationship with God.

Realizing what we no longer have may help us understand what we do have and can’t be taken away!