Genius Freak

In love with the kind, the brilliant, the creative, the brave, the generous, the crazy, and the hopeful

This post was supposed to be about research. Specifically, about how real research is prompted by real questions that arise when we are engaged in reading (or talking, or thinking). By the time I was finished, the reflections ended up being about something very different, and more intense, than the idea of doing research. I ended up with so much more to think and feel because of what I found in that research.

I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s gut-punching novel Beloved (1988) because I want to teach it in AP Lit this year.

I first read it shortly after it came out, and appropriately to the narrative, it haunted me. As with all great works that call on us to exercise our empathy, it left me trying to get inside the characters, trying to imagine lives and experiences so different from my own through the depiction of the former slaves that populate number 124 in Cincinnati, Ohio. How much pain can people endure? How could they live in the house haunted by the baby? What could make a mother kill her child?

With this reread, I’ve been sometimes reading Beloved a paperback, and sometimes on my Kindle. The other day when I went onto my Kindle, I somehow ended up in Morrison’s introduction to the novel. That was where I encountered the story of Margaret Garner. Garner’s story was the inspiration of Morrison’s novel. Immediately I felt my history education had short-changed me; how could I not know about Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her own daughter rather than allowing her to be taken back into slavery?

black chain

Photo by lalesh aldarwish on

This sliver of Garner’s story sent me to the computer to do some more research. I what I learned left me with even more questions.

Garner was a slave on a plantation in Kentucky. She escaped with a group of slaves, including her family – husband and children – to Ohio, a free state. Unfortunately (a word not nearly strong enough), they were apprehended by slave traders and US Marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. In order to prevent their being returned to slavery, Margaret Garner tried to kill her children, and did, in fact, kill the youngest.

Her defense attorney tried to get Garner a trial for murder in Ohio. Ultimately she was returned to slavery, and found guilty of destruction of property.

Her children were the property of her white slave master.

They were also likely the children of her white slavemaster. The material I read refers to sources that say they looked something like him, and that based on when they were born – within a few months of his wife giving birth – they were probably conceived in what were called the “gander months” related to his wife’s pregnancy. Gander months were another thing I learned about in my impromptu research. This was a relative commonplace “understanding” of the 17th through 19th centuries which held that during the last month of a wife’s pregnancy, and the recuperative month after giving birth, it was not considered surprising for her husband to find company with another woman if he could. In the case of Margaret Garner, he had a victim who was not free to refuse him.

The idea that the murder of a child is equated to breaking some china is breathtaking to me. I knew the history, the systematic dehumanization of black people that had to be at the foundation of slavery for it to exist as a system. But the compounding and compounding of the hopelessness of captivity, and the insistent denial of basic humanity that creates a circumstance where death is preferable to life in slavery that is at the heart of Margaret Garner’s story, and Morrison’s novel is beyond what my imagination can grasp.

But I don’t doubt the truth of it.

This novel, Beloved, has taught me about the power of telling truth through fiction, through art and how important it can be to how we understand the fullness of our history as Americans, and humans. It has reminded me that the truth is deeper than our typical view of it. And it calls me to look beyond that regular view.

black chain

Looking at things from the top of a mountain lets you get a perspective like nothing else. Cliché? Absolutely. But that cliché about clichés being born out of some truth is true here.

A little getaway to Big Pocono Mountain (aka Camelback Mountain) in Tannersville, PA, was just what I needed last week to think through some of the most important things I have learned in recent years.


Looking northeast from the top of Big Pocono. July 20, 2018. 

One of my first thoughts as I looked down from the peak was about the vast panorama of lives and experiences going on at the same time as mine, none of whom knew that I was standing up there thinking of them as they gambled in Mount Airy Casino, or raced down a waterslide at Aquatopia, or drove a pick-up truck down a steep windy road foot on the break and still going with gravity.

And then I thought of my own drive against gravity to get to where I was. Of course, there is no escaping the metaphor. In the climb – the hard grind of the gears as you move upward, onward – that high pitched hum reminds you of your own exhortations and interjections as you play your own game of tug-of-war with the physics of the universe. Fighting inertia. Fighting gravity. You have done hard things, made tough climbs.

(I don’t know why this is writing itself in third person, but maybe I need to step back from it a bit.)

Looking out over the ocean of trees below, a vibrant green except for the darkness under the cloud cast shadows. Walking through a dark, shadowy forest is a metaphor you have often used in writing about the periods of depression you have walked through in the past, and that others  are struggling with every day. And what you have learned over the years is that the very next step can bring you out of the darkness. From this mountaintop POV, you can see the truth of that. You can see that the shadows are finite. There are patches of deep, deep dark in every direction you look. But each patch comes to an end, and after that, the light.

Up here you can feel that the vastness of your world is limited only by your ability to see it.

You can see that there are mountains – big, small, rolling, steep. Walls of sedimentary sandstone, boulders dressed up now in greenery and you can’t imagine how you’d ever get through them – but you got through to get here, and you will get through to keep going.

You can see the notches between hilltops – places where water and wind and persistence have proved stronger than stone.

And the butterfly’s visit reminds you of your mother.

And the hawk circling above draws your eye up and toward infinity, as the fly bites your ankle and brings you back to where you sit. At the top of the world, or your world at least, with a view to live for.


Post Script:

There is always a little research on the fly as I write. Today’s research brought this piece of knowledge courtesy of Wikipedia:

Camelback Mountain or Big Pocono is a conspicuous geographic feature on the Pocono Plateau. It is not a mountain, but rather a peninsular section of the Pocono Plateau, that when viewed from three sides, appears to be a mountain.

Whatever side I was on, it definitely was mountainy.

Cool rains down

Making the street

Let go of its heat,

Sending it back

As steam

And forgiveness

I hear in each drop

Her tapping foot,

In their sibilance

Her bubbling anxiety.

The white noise

That puts some to sleep

Wakes me up

To tea

And memory.

My Mom loved the rain.

And it loved her back,

The soundtrack

Of her “one-bad-thing-after-another”

World view.

But it loves me back too,

As it washes its way through the gray

Clearing room for

A patch

Of blue

Ill-Be-Your-Blue-Sky-2923352I try in the summer to alternate my reading choices between teacher professional learning titles, and books picked purely for the pleasure they promise. With due respect to those who write to teach me something, I learn at least as much from the pleasure reading – from those who write for the art of it, or for the joy of it, or for the joy of me.

The other day I finished I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos. I have read nearly everything she has published, starting with Love Walked In, which introduced the characters in I’ll Be Your Blue Sky.

De los Santos’s latest novel is a story about love, and forgiveness, and family. It’s about listening to the voice in you that knows who you are and where you belong. It’s about being brave, taking chances, and doing hard things as you figure out who you are and where you are going. And it is a reminder of the mystery in the world, out there waiting to be seen.

I love the way de los Santos crafts sentences. I love the way they sound in my head. I mean, I love the way they come together into people and situations created out of nowhere, but I literally love the way the words sound. I guess some people are big picture readers. I think I read word by word, getting the sound and feeling out of each one before I move on to making meaning. I also love how de los Santos creates characters. Her work reminds me of the power of writing to put us, as readers, in situations that exercise our empathy as we are immersed in circumstances and introduced to people whose lives are not like ours. And it also reminds me that sometimes we find things in other people’s creations that help us see ourselves more clearly. There is a section early on in this novel describing the character Edith that could almost have been written about me – swapping out a few specific details for my own. Reading that section, I felt seen. That is a powerful gift.

I have also been reading Mary Oliver’s poetry collection, Devotions. I love the physicality of Oliver’s poetry. With few words she frames out the connections between all the living world, and clearly articulates that redbird eggs and eyelashes are as attention-worthy as oceans.41wtxbRD0QL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Oliver reminds me that our lives are enhanced, our spirits filled-up when we pay attention to the wonder in the things we might otherwise call ordinary.

After reading some of her small yet sublime, intimate and universal poems the other day, I sat down and wrote about some scraggly tomato plants I picked up at the nursery the other day. And I was happy enough with my own verse to post it. I used to think I had to write deeply philosophical meanderings to convey my world view, but it fit into a tomato. That’s a lesson to remember.

Just like the real craft of writing is in the revision, the real craft of teaching comes in reflection. There are always ways to be better. But unless we reflect on the year, the week, the lesson, we can’t really change, modify, be better.

I do a lot of this reflection in my head. I always say I’m going to put more of it on paper, but I don’t do it as much as I’d like to. I kick myself sometimes thinking what a wealth of material I would have now if I had gotten those reflections down on paper for the past 30+ years.

I have been reading and thinking a lot this summer, but what I am reflecting on today is AP scores. I don’t belabor the scores. I like students to do well because it builds their confidence, and gets them credit sometimes. But I am more concerned with helping them be ready for college reading and writing. (And being confident, compassionate, creative thinkers.) These are not necessarily things that a snapshot test is an adequate reflection of. And though I am confident that the students in my class have the skills they will need to be successful in their college endeavors, the AP scores for my classes were a bit lower than usual this year. I didn’t look at individual scores as much as overall because it feels to me like it’s the overall that’s more a reflection of my work with the students. Our essays were, as they generally are, a bit higher than the “global” average. Not so much on the multiple choice.

Ironically, it was the multiple choice I focused more on this year. Or I thought I did. I used to do more multiple choice practice than I usually do. I think that was the main difference in instructional strategies. I’m surprised, and frustrated that I spent that time with Albert that we could have used on something else that might have been more helpful.

So I’m reconfiguring.

I have the basic texts I

question-mark-3483960_1920want to do in my classes sort of sketched out in my head. But I want to add some instructional tools to my repertoire, and maybe bring back a few tried and true methods I’ve used before.

I’m going to do blogs differently. Each student will make their blog and record their own weekly learning reflections.

I’m going to do some sort of weekly text-based writing, but I’d like to to be more engaging than the Albert questions. Maybe I’ll go back to a choose your own passage to analyze. Maybe I’ll pose a question each week. Years ago I used to do something we called a MSP – Monday Short Paper. It was a short analytical paper due every Monday. Maybe I can go back to something like that, but then add a revision component so they are not all graded.

I read Kate Roberts book on teaching whole class novels, and my takeaway from that is that we tend to spend to long on novels. I have recognized that more than once as I was drowning in the flood of The Grapes of Wrath (which I love), or lost in the woods of The Scarlet Letter,. Roberts presents some strategies for mapping out a novel I’m going to try. If we can be more effective in our reading of longer works, that could help us all be that 1% better.

Of course, this is all subject to more reflection.

I started clearing my garden

This morning, early.

But so late in the season that

The crabgrass and chickweed

Probably thought they were safe

As they spread themselves out

And made themselves comfortable.

In truth, their 20180711_130942greens are pretty.

And those gangly stems with the tiny

White and yellow flowers –

Garlic mustard maybe, or Euphorbia —

On another day I’d let them stay.


But today I have tomatoes to plant.


I try to be gentle as I pull them up

Shake loose the dirt in their grasp.

“Thank you” for holding the space for my

Too late

Too small

Too scraggly

Charlie Brown tomato plants.

I found them yesterday at the nursery,

Left to wither on the sale shelf,

Away from the attention getting

Gerber daisies and Black-Eyed Susans.

In the right spot,

With the right light and water

I’m going to cultivate

With great faith

In the future

Fully expecting miracles. 


Sometime around mid April, in the post-spring break part of the school year, I start thinking about all of the things I want to do differently, and better, next year. And I start feeling apologetic to the students of the current year, that they aren’t going to get the new and improved me of the following year, in this case Mueller 32.0.

My goal for year 32 is to get 1% better every day. Not literally, because apparently the compounding effect makes mathematically humanly impossible. And of course, it’s very vague when you are talking about teaching – What does it mean to get 1% better? It makes more sense to think of it as getting consistently a little better every day. But I like the sound of 1% a day.

So to kick off the summer I have been reading a few books to help me with that goal. Today’s reading was Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, by Jonathan Cassie.

Gamifying is an idea I have been intrigued by for a while, but haven’t quite been able to wrap my head around. But I’m getting there. This book gives some good insight into the mechanics of games (not just video games) that can be used to develop engaging opportunities for instruction and assessment.

I know some teachers have used tools like Classcraft, or systems of their own creation, to gamify their entire course. I’m not there yet. And I don’t think I actually want to be. But I am definitely going to try to adapt some of the ideas Cassie writes about in AP Lit and AP Lang in the coming year.

There should be more play in school. Sometimes play is the glue that helps learning stick. If that is an outcome of gamifying some lessons, it will be well worth the effort, and help me level up that 1%.