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How Diligence Paid Off Cataloging Indigenous Plant Species of Louisiana (And How I Came Upon the Secret of Motivation)
In this post, I wax nostalgic about a class I took in high school and how it taught me something about human motivation.
"You'll need to collect one-hundred specimens of native flora from Louisiana to gain a perfect score for this project," intoned our Biology teacher — I was in Eleventh grade. I had opted to take a class called Biology II rather than Environmental Science. It was unlike me. Having gravitated more to the arts and humanities, even in high school, taking an advanced science class went against the grain. But it was one of the most immersive courses I took in high school. I liked the botany unit. We had an entire semester devoted to exploring indigenous plant species of Louisiana. I had even gone as far as to purchase a used copy of a field guide to plants of the state; "Don't collect invasive species," our teacher had said. So I wanted to make sure I knew the difference between Kudzu and an indigenous Wood Sorrel.
|Look around you. There is a |
world to catalog and discover.
What drives motivation? What made me so motivated to pursue a task that before I had taken it, I would never have followed on my own? Most likely, it was the challenge of the project. Something about discovery: and the idea that I had to explore areas outside the boundaries of my neighborhood or looked closely at the familiar. I don't remember what my classmates did for the project; I don't recall working with a partner.
I had my parents purchase for me a ginormous three-pronged binder and a bunch of styrene protective covers. To successfully save a plant specimen, it is necessary to place the plant parts into a book or under a newspaper fastened with something heavy — like a book or a rock. It can take days for the specimen to set properly — our teacher had specifically said that if you don't let the plant sufficiently dry out — it will rot and produce mold once you seal it in the binder covering. The first few plants I had picked out delivered such a fate — I didn't press them long enough — so afraid of having points deducted from my project, I did them over again.
I was diligent and methodical with this project — I managed to collect about ninety-eight specimens — everything from Sweet Bay Magnolia to a Pitcher Plant. I noticed how invasive species could completely take over an area, their massive and quick growth, quickly suffocating plant diversity in the area. This specific invasive plant called Chinese Privet — I found lots of those everywhere around my backyard. Seeing the ubiquity of certain herbaceous plants made me realize the destructive force of nature when human intervention is too rapid, and Mother Nature cannot keep up.
Motivation is tied to relevance. If you can tap into the significance of a task, then you have your student's attention. Make a task too easy, and it loses its relevance; make a task unattainable, and it becomes a chore. I like how my teacher implied that the project had a perennial aspect to it; I still have that binder from high school. And I still have the plant species; they are labeled correctly and nicely preserved.
It wasn't an easy task, but it promised discovery. So finding a rare plant species proved to me a gleeful moment — filled with joy, as on a particular jaunt into the woods behind my mother's house in Madisonville, Louisiana — I found a Devil's Walking Stick — properly named because if you pluck it you will automatically be stung by its many sharp prongs that line its length. Walking deep into the woods, I came across a bayou that flooded its waters often when rain fell heavily, which gradually seeped back into the ground or wended its way back to a tributary and then into the Tchefuncte River and then finally into Lake Pontchartrain, which is an estuary that opens out into the Gulf of Mexico. Everything is connected. I knew then and know now.
As a teacher myself, I now give students projects and written assignments, as one is wont to do as a teacher. I have never given out a botany project like the one my science teacher did for us — but I marvel at what motivated me to complete such a project so painstakingly. I sometimes joke with colleagues that if someone were to crack the code of what truly motivates people to be industrious, creative, or simply do work — especially work that at first glance does not seem necessary — they ought to win some kind of Nobel Prize for Ingenuity. I never went into Botany — heck, in college, I only took a handful of Science classes. The bulk of my undergraduate course load was filled to the brim with Dante and Kazuo Ishiguro — with ample servings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Shakespeare — can you tell I went to a heavily Western-centric liberal arts college? But I never forgot my foray into botany. That project stayed with me over the years. I still remember the scientific names of certain plant species — for example, Live Oaks and White Oaks — and all oaks — belong to the Quercus genus. And figs are in the ficus family. And if you take a walk with me in the woods, I will revel in the joy of discovering a field of Crimson Clover — it's still a beautiful flower.
My Kids at School Publicly Say They Want School to Close
I teach high schoolers, who in the main, will tell me that they wish school were closed. "Just close school!" While school may close, I remind them, we'll still have school available online. My school is in the process of figuring out how they'll do that properly. We have a meeting tomorrow to do just that.
I Don't Want School to Close 😟
I am dreading the possibility that school will close. Going to school everyday gives meaning to my life. I like seeing people and school often connects me to others in a way that helps me to go beyond myself. I feel like my co-teachers know this about me. "Yeah. You'd hate quarantine," observed one teacher. She's right!
COVID-19 is Spreading Around the World
Countries like China and South Korea have reported that COVID-19 (Coronavirus) cases have been steadily decreasing and Taiwan seems to be working hard to keep the virus at bay. In Italy, citizens are in lockdown - the country is at full stop; while, in the United States, actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have come forth saying they've both contracted the illness (although it appears to be a mild case). It appears we in North America are up for a real test of resilience and resolve.
Remaining Calm but Using Purell
I'm washing my hands, avoiding touching my face, and trying not to let the COVID-19 news coverage distract me to anxiety. However, it seems like things will get worse before they get better. I'm having flashbacks to living in Louisiana during hurricane Katrina. But this time 'round crisis mode seems to be set to slow motion mode. There's no outright panic on the streets, but people are anxious and nervous.
Let me know, yall!
Pour me a hot cup of tea, please. Raise a cup to the unknown. And let me know if you're a teacher (or even if you're not) - and what you're doing to ride this virus out.
|I took this photograph in Madame Dietrich's French class on the last day of high school.|
How Much Does Environment Play Into Future Success
Has Applying to College Changed A lot Since the 1990s?
A lot has changed since I applied to college. I went to a public high school in South Louisiana where most of my classmates graduated and went to the State University - or the military - or they stayed in my hometown. I applied to Saint Joseph Seminary College and Centenary College - both small schools in Louisiana - one Methodist and the other a Catholic seminary. My mother wanted me to go to the Methodist school — and we drove up there to speak to the head of the philosophy department. That's what I wanted to study. I ended up going to the seminary college.
I took the ACT (and I made a mediocre score). I also took the ASVAB. It’s the military job placement exam. Both my brothers joined the army after high school (I’m the only one who didn’t). Taking the ASVAB is how I learned the difference between a Phillips and a standard screwdriver. Our high school had college counselors - but no one ever visited their office — it was on the edge of campus next to the shop building. Their main job was to organize random statewide testing administered during the year. In Louisiana, one had to pass the LEAP test to graduate from high school. Rumors spread about the few who didn't pass and had to repeat the twelfth grade.
|Will you need to know this? Probably.|
I still have a papier-mâché vase I made in art class. I’ve never made a vase like that since — but my mom has the vase in her living room. Did making this vase help me get into college? No. But it was something I did that pulled me out of what I was used to. We don’t know what skills we’ll need to know in the future. Technology is rapidly changing, but we need people who can adapt and apply themselves in novel ways.
Compare and Contrast: How the Song "Teenage Dirtbag" was made into a Choir Version to Advance a Documentary on Bullying in American Schools
It's a rather heteronormative narrative - but I have a crush on this song - maybe because the song talks about "getting into tube socks" and references "Iron Maiden" - and its an elegy to unrequited love - with a twist at the end. This is to all the teenage dirtbags out there. Also - Wheatus's song was the song attached to the movie Loser - as you can see by the music video.
A couple of years ago I went to a professional development workshop on peer-to-peer bullying in American schools. The presenters screened the documentary film Bully. The opening song is a choir version of "Teenage Dirtbag". I immediately recognized it and I thought it was an apt song to cover the phenomenon of bullying as it relates to school life.
As a teacher, I often encounter bullying. What pains me the most about bullying is that often the targets of bullying are exceptional children, "the teenage dirtbags" that often go unnoticed.
Choral Version of "Teenage Dirtbag"
Watch the following choir version and hearken to the facts. We can be a voice for those who are tormented because they are gay, queer, brown, different, black, non-gender conforming, or just don't fit in (according to whatever social norms are popular right now).
Review of Frederick Wiseman's "High School" (1969) and Jean-François Caissy's La Marche à Suivre (2014)
|La Marche à Suivre (2014)|
|High School (1969)|
Word Walls are great for
English Language Learners
|A bilingual phrasebook in Mandarin and English|
|At Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana circa 1998|
I visited Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, when I was a Senior in High School. Mom drove me. We spoke to the professors in the Liberal Arts department, and I asked them questions about their philosophy program.
I did not enroll in the school - I ended up becoming a seminary student at Saint Joseph Seminary in Saint Benedict, Louisiana.
However, Centenary symbolizes the trajectory I could have taken if I had chosen to stake out my own way as a college student on my own terms.
In the Lamb Shakespeare for the Young, a classic children's book version of Shakespearean plays, the opening act of Midsummer Night's Dream is retold.
|A Midsummer Night's Dream|
The Lamb Shakespeare for the Young
Illustrated by Helen Stratton
Egeus comes before Theseus, the Duke of Athens to "complain that his daughter Hermia, whom he had commanded to marry Demetrius, a young man of a noble Athenian family, refused to obey him because she loved another young Athenian, named Lysander."
It's funny how in this Lamb Shakespeare for the Young retelling, published in 1908, the author comforts his readers (presumably the young) that while daughters who refused to marry the suitors their fathers chose were to be put to death under Athenian law, "this law was seldom or never put in execution." The author also adds — and I am not sure Shakespeare makes such a big deal about this part of the plot — that fathers "do not often desire the death of their own daughters, even though they do happen to prove a little refractory . . ."
In the drawing, Hermia is rather resigned. She sits. Her hands are calm by her side. Her father, while old, is a spry old man, and he seems animated in bringing his case before the Duke. Egeus is thoughtful like a student, with his chin resting in his hand.
I wonder if Hermia is seething with anger? Or is she just blithe and becoming, secretly humming a lighthearted tune? Maybe she is already scheming her escape with Lysander into the woods.
What do you think?
Shakespeare, William. The Lamb Shakespeare for the Young. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Duffield and Company, 1908.
Image Source: Google Books
While, this may not sound true - how can a word be like a bullet? - it is VERY true.
Our words matter. Like a bullet, words can DO something. Cause destruction. Words can cause a revolution. Words can shatter. Words rock.
Here we have a collection of your words, strung together to make a PORTFOLIO.
Writing has not yet deserved a funeral. But a resurgence.
It has been a quirky, productive year. Even Susie Q agrees. Bon Qui Qui also concurs. Even, Mr. Roselli, that unkempt teacher, who barely gets his grades in on time and wears mixed-match clothes, seldom shaves, and looks like he is married to a coffee cup, agrees - words matter. Keep writing.
I remember all of you:
Especially these random things:
1. Raised hands; 2. fixing my hair; 3. plushy fish dolls; 4. Au Revoir Les Enfants; 5. Oedipus at the Museum; 6. Mr. Hebert's benign interruptions; 7. Mr. Stabiler's talk on Greek Mythology; 8. big words; 9. "imitation is the best form of flattery"; 10. "familiarity breeds contempt"; 11. Google Hacks; smartboard mishaps; 12. "Y'all are hot (higher order thinkers)"; 13. "A MANNNNN?"; 14. literary rally champs; 15. "Hey, I know what hyperbole means!"; 16. "Thunk is my word!"; 17. "Does reading about Lady Gaga count?"; 18. "You're making us read this .... sophisticated newspaper ...?"; 19. "Can we read the Inferno? I like hell"; 20. "How can a guy survive on a lifeboat with a tiger? I mean come on."; 21. "Mr. Roselli, you need a hug?"; 22. "You know you love us."; 23. "OMG! I love that book!"; 24. "This may sound funny, but I wrote this paper last night. But, it's brilliant."; 25. "You guys are sick!"; 26. "You know, it reminds me of an episode from Sponge Bob ..."; 27. "Give me back the pen, buster."; 28. A severe whooshing sound; 29. pile of sweaters; 30. Free Writes!; 31. interactive notebooks; 32. scotch tape; 33. indecipherable handwriting; 34. chronic sleepers; 35. overachievers; 36. underachievers; 37. "Hitch your wagon to a star! Or, what's a heaven for?"; "Can you exterminate the lights, please? Or is it terminate? I can't remember." 38. There's a difference: To be is to do (Socrates); Yabba dabba doo (Fred Flintstone)
|The Author as a High School Graduate|
If we need another example of anti-intellectualism in America - there you go.
Or, it could be just ignorance. Legitimately, maybe she did not how music and science can inter-relate.
However she sussed out the situation for herself, it was still a dim reminder to me to of how much my job is often looked at askance - or in a larger view - the often conflicted view Americans have of education.
I graduated from Mandeville High School (class of 1998).
Here is a transcript of a speech I wrote — but since
I was not selected to be the graduation speech-giver — here is the
speech verbatim (that I never gave).
Our journey through these Halls of Learning has been like a journey through the woods. Close your eyes and remember your school experience. Remember your discoveries, remember your first-grade teacher, remember your favorite teachers, remember the evil teacher, remember music class, remember recess, remember dances, remember the bully -- were you the bully? — remember tests, remember labs, remember football games. Remember school like a walk through the woods. Pick the wildflowers of your school memories and don’t forget the poison ivy. Remember the sweetness of the one you loved. Just sit and remember, and it will all come like a stream flowing.
For twelve years, we have been offered a platter of knowledge. We were given the chance to pick from its variety of choice fruits. The Homeric metaphors and the rhythms and workings of the body have been offered us. E=MC^2. Supply and demand. Manifest Destiny. Endless conjugations of foreign language verbs. We will leave these halls with a diploma. It will say more than a graduation certificate. It says we have gone through the treasures of boundless knowledge and survived. We have survived the words. We have been led by Puck, Heathcliff, Virgil, and Prospero. We have been led by Newton, Einstein, Madame Curie, and Michelangelo. We have been led by Franklin, Lincoln, Luther, Douglass, Dix, Charlemagne, and Tubman.
These woods can be dark and brooding like Snow White in the forest with living trees clawing out at us. Other times the woods are bright and copious. Wolves are sparse and goodness is near. Sometimes the skies open and torrents of rainfall, like King Lear in the heath, and cleanses us. We have been nurtured through our journey and now we find ourselves at the edge of the forest, peering out into the wide expanse. We can’t turn back now but must plow forward.
I like to think we are all knights of knowledge on our horses prancing toward the rising sun, singing in our heads the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I’ve got my books and my poetry to protect me. I’m shielded in my armor — safe within my room [or shall we say safe with our diploma?] — I touch no one and no one touches me — I am a rock; I am an island.” It has always given me comfort to know I have all the poets, saints, sinners, builders, politicians, princesses, kings, slaves, and singers behind us. We can carry the Divine Comedy, the Principia Mathematica, and the Holy Scriptures, all tucked beneath our arms — ready to go beyond the woods and into the mountains.
We have so many experiences and emotions that have welled up in us these many years. My English teacher Melanie Plesh said it so correctly, “We are tender creatures, so affected by words and actions from other people.” We have been molded by so many people, words, and actions that have sculpted us. We have watched ourselves develop in our souls spiritually, mentally, and physically. We were babes, now we are mature — nourished by our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. Thanks for the woods, the cleansing.
Now we can offer the world our pain, our laughter, and tears. We can share our poetry and our logic. I am girded by my friends — my mail is heavy, but I remind myself: “We are the stuff dreams are made of.”
date: Apr 14 8:08 PM
subject: re: online quiz (to be done at home tonight)
High School prom dances are social experiments. Prom season creates news headlines when the desires of students do not coincide with administrative rules. Prom for me represents a tumultuous time for adolescence. Prom is the end of high school innocence. From the word, promenade, a vestige of the old-style formal walks, prom in America is still a showcase. At this school, a mixed group of middle-class to socially high class, black, mostly white, and a smattering of Asian and Hispanic groups, Prom is a smorgasbord.
The principal announces Prom king and queen. No blood à la Carrie. Thank god. No shaking of constitutional rights tonight. The chaperone shift is almost up. I go home to have a drink and read Stephen King.
Use this simple hand out to teach students how to form an argument for a research paper.
|photo credit: trainsignaltraining|
pen to paper smooth
his face squished, concentrated
in the morning,
he is aglow with the joy
in the span of a day,
will you complete the cycle of turns?
will you go from ruddy to rude?
from studious to confused,
or cling to a man, a boy or a girl,
unaware as of yet on how to
articulate a body in space
the essence of being human?
I finally figured out why none of my students likes the Odyssey or the Iliad, or the Aeneid (except in an anti-nostalgic, oh yeah, my parents read that in High School, kind of way; or oh yeah, I am supposed to like this story because my grandfather read it in the original Greek, or oh yeah, someone told me it was good; I'm supposed to like it, like I am supposed to like Catcher in the Rye because my English teacher read it as an adolescent).
I would love to teach Six Feet Under as an epic - or Angel the Vampire with a soul - or even fuck, Mio, my Mio by Lindgren. I am fucking tired of Odysseus. He was a fucking unlikeable twat. I really don't like him anymore. Why do we stick to the tried and true "classics"? Folks are swayed by better narratives that fit their current milieu, but we still drill them with Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Here I am teaching about the rage of Achilles where most kids have figured that out living with themselves nowadays is tantamount To Achilles’ rage. I don’t need to teach an ancient greek epic for them to figure out their own narcissistic tendencies. Now, granted, as a ninth grader, I loved the tale of the Odyssey, but my teacher was unique. She did not care if we actually “read” the book. What she would do is weave stories in class based on the epic story relating to events in real life. For example: Penelope. She would talk about the plight of the single mother — something we could relate to in the classroom, because a majority of us came from single family homes. But, even the kids who didn’t read got the gist of what my teacher was saying and passed the tests. Here I am teaching the Odyssey, about a man longing for home, but most kids don’t have a home (at least in the metaphysical sense of the word) so the story is lost on them in the reading, only to come alive when I mention that perspective.
Both the Odyssey and the Iliad are vibrant tales. Home, loss, anger, curses, fathers, mothers, sex, honesty, revenge, you name it. The issue isn’t the brilliance of this ancient epic, but rather, the children I teach are already subsumed in their own epics. I know I am going to get fire for saying this, but TV shows nowadays — if you scan through them — have their own brand of epic tonality that beats the Ancient Greeks. Take for example Skins — a brilliant TV series from the BBC. The beginning scenes of its first episode about a Telemachus named Tony— the shenanigans of a British teenager — beat out the tumultuous fatherloss of Telemachus in the first four books of the Odyssey. Like I said, it is not that the ancient epics were not good — but fuck — I am trying to teach a beautiful epic here, where kids are completely toned out. They won’t read the thing, save for a few of them, who are secretly bitter that they are the only ones reading. I have too much to compete with: Madea, Fuel, Adult Swim, American Idol (okay, here I will say the ancient epics are paramount). I am not sure anymore what makes a narrative great. I am not sure anymore about the CANNON.