Saturday, July 29, 2006

Aberdeen & Pierre

I’ve spent the past week in Aberdeen, South Dakota (pop. 25,000) for the 55th Annual South Dakota Coaches’ Clinic, followed by a two-day training course. Last night I made a brief stopover in Pierre in order to catch my flight(s) home today. (Something to be aware of: here in South Dakota, Pierre is pronounced “pier,” which is how they know the locals from us visitors.)

The coolest moment at the coaching clinic, at least for me, was when Dan Fitzsimmons, the track and cross-country coach at Yankton High School, which is always a national powerhouse, was giving a talk about his training program. He discussed how he strives to always change and better his training program, and about how his most recent change came from a discussion with Marcus O’Sullivan (for the non-runners: an Irish runner, and one of the greatest indoor milers of all time). I won’t get into the technical details here, but Fitzsimmons went on to describe exactly the sort of workout I have been doing almost weekly for the past four years. This isn’t too surprising, since Tom (my college coach) coached Marcus and still works closely with him. I’m not sure how well known Tom is out in the Midwest among high school coaches, so I wasn’t sure if anyone else in the room had any idea who Tom Donnelly was; but it was nice to hear his wisdom again, so far away and so unexpectedly. It gave me a little faith in all that I’ve learned from him and from my teammates—beyond just a technical knowledge of mile repeats with short recovery.

Aberdeen is one of the biggest towns of 25,000 I have ever been, or at least thinks of itself in that way. I was for the most part unimpressed, but that may have been because we were staying on what one of the other coaches dubbed “Fast-Food Row,” a strip of gas stations, motels, and restaurants along Route 12. Basically it offered all of my least favorite aspects of the East Coast, from the sprawl of commercialization to the fake tough guy teenagers, driving around with too loud mufflers. I counted at least five tanning saloons, and the math teacher in me says that the citizen to tanning saloon ratio in Aberdeen seems incredibly high. But it still felt like South Dakota, sometimes; occasionally I could catch of whiff of the sweetgrass, and when we got away from the motel there were more open spaces and that same big sky. And lots of pick-up trucks. On our last night in town, I got in a pretty good ten mile run at dusk, which took me out to the edge of town and through some of the quieter residential neighborhoods, which sort of endeared Aberdeen to me a little more. My opinion of Pierre was formed about the same way; I found myself liking the city a lot more after I got in a run along the Missouri last night. City, of course, is a relative term, which was part of the appeal: it is still small enough to feel like a pocket of people, surviving out on the plains; but the river, big and black in the darkness, offers reassurance, connecting Pierre to the rest of the world, and everyone that I have for the time being left behind.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Real Prairie

I wrote this the other day, after it seemed like everyone else had left South Dakota. This is the first time since then that I've managed to make it on to the internet.

No pictures today, just a little bit of sentiment as everyone heads home from South Dakota for a couple weeks before we come back here for good. I actually have one more week in South Dakota, but I’ll be ten hours across the state in Aberdeen, where things are very flat, learning how to coach my nonexistent athletes. I’m driving out to the coaching clinic on Monday with some folks from Crazy Horse, but I wasn’t really up for spending the weekend in my empty, unfurnished house alone and without a car, so I’m crashing for the weekend with Matt Douglass, another teacher over on Rosebud.

I spent the afternoon drifting down the Niobrara River in Nebraska with Netha, Jen Page, and Kate B. It was less of an adventure than I had anticipated—the Niobrara is never more than three feet deep, and the current is about three or four miles an hour—but it was a nice way to relax after a stressful week that has left me feeling less prepared for teaching than when I left Houston. So lounging on a river for a couple hours was a nice escape.

Around 3 PM the girls dropped me off in Valentine to head out towards Pine Ridge and Rapid City. I wandered through Young’s Western Wear, contemplating which elements of the cowboy outfit I will feel comfortable wearing first, and then got myself lunch at Mike’s Taco Casa. Just as I was finishing up lunch, Matt came to pick me up and we got some laundry done.

The most striking thing for me today was how different the prairie feels once everyone is gone. We’ve been a pack of almost thirty teachers for the past seven weeks, and all of a sudden everyone was dispersed; instead of teachers across the hall, all I have now is open land. We’re going to return one by one over the next couple weeks, tucked away in our different corners of our different reservations. Standing alone at a corner in Valentine, Nebraska—a dusty town of 2800 and the biggest town I’ve seen in a week—the difference between here and home seemed a little more profound than usual. I felt like I arrived on the prairie for the first time—like it wasn’t the summer anymore, but a real life that I was starting. Matt and I did some laundry in an unattended Laundromat on the edge of Valentine, playing Ms. Pac-Man while we waited. Even laundry seemed different today; it wasn’t just a chore that I could squeeze into some small, free moment, but one of those dull but very real cornerstones of a new, real life out here on the grassland. Later, when we were driving back to St. Francis, where Matt lives, with a carload of new-apartment essentials, we crested a hill, and for a second we were above the prairie, which stretched for miles in every direction. No cars, no cows, no water—just rolling hills of grass. Without the romantic light of a prairie sunset, it was pretty spectacular in a different way—almost overwhelming.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


I just wanted to make a note that all the photos in the post below are finally up.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Today was a "personal day," which meant we were supposed to move into our house, buy cell phones, get furniture, etc. Neither Luke nor I had much to drop off at our house, and our house wasn't really available for furniture or anything like that, so we just ended up exploring. We borrowed a car from Matt Kull, our program director, and drove over to Pine Ridge this morning listening to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue. Seemed like appropriate music.

I have picked up a bunch of crap during my time in Houston, so we got let into our house and I dropped some of this in the foyer. The house isn't completely ready yet--the carpets have to be shampooed and some other cleaning is necessary, but it's fairly nice. My camera died, but Luke took a bunch of shots.

A coulple of shots of the exterior.

This is the den, which is just inside the front door.

This linoleum space is directly connected to the den. I imagine we'll have a dining room table here.

Two shots of our small, narrow kitchen.

One of the bedrooms.

Our bathroom.

The backyard.

After we dropped everything off, Luke and I drove down to the gas station/grocery store in town to pick up something to drink. We asked the cashier how to get to Wolf's Table, which is the canyon where Adam, my math teacher/XC coach predecessor did a lot of his running. She directed us to a dirt road across the street and told us to drive up that way four miles. It was an interesting drive, including a couple cows grazing in the road (see the pictures) and a rough patch of sand which caused a big billow to blow up and get sand all over the interior of Matt's car (sorry, Matt). After a couple miles we could catch some glimpses of the badlands through the trees. Eventually we had to turn off onto a smaller road, which ended in a turnaround. We were both pretty giddy when we got out of the car and saw just how extensive the canyons were. We walked out a little ways, but the rocks were pretty crumbly and I didn't want to tumble to the bottom of the canyon. I'm pretty sure there are a couple of other turn offs that end up at the bottom of the canyon. This is probably where I will be running every day.

These cows were standing in the middle of the road as we drove out to the Table. They gave us a very funny look when we drove by.

Some shots of the entire extent of our badlands.

Me at the top of Wolf's Table.

Luke at Wolf's Table.

After taking off from Wolf's Table, Luke and I drove up to Kadoka, the closest "town" to Wanblee. It's actually a slightly smaller town than Wanblee (750 v. 716 or so), but because it is just off I-90 I think there is a little more going on. We bought some deodorant and other essentials in the grocery store and then ate a lunch in the park next door. I tried to get a haircut at "Creative Cuts and Fitness," which struck me as an odd combination, but the two gentlemen inside told me that she, presumably the barber, was gone till 1, and then had a perm scheduled, so I wouldn't be able to get my haircut till 4. So I skipped that.

Luke and I headed on to Interior. We had to take a scenic byway through Badlands National Park, and the brief 5 miles that we saw were pretty spectacular. They tried to charge us $15 to enter the park, but we claimed we were local traffic. The ranger didn't believe us, and told us that if we stopped and got out of our cars we would be fined. There was no need to get out of the cars, because everyone ahead of us was driving very slowly, gawking, and it took us forever to make it 5 miles back out of the park. I figured Interior was a fairly big town, since it is mentioned prominently in most of the tourist books I've looked at. Turns out the population is 67. We took a couple shots, bought another couple drinks, and talked to a local guy in a Native American crafts shop. When we said we'd be teaching in Wanblee next year, he said we were braver than we looked, and that reservation kids were pretty wild. Seems to be a pretty common stereotype amongst the white folks around here, but I don't feel like I have a whole lot of reasons to trust his authority.

Here is the Interior jail. Looks like it is not much good except for locking up drunks.

Welcome to Interior. I think there might be some embellishments here.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Wildfire Blog

I found this on the Rapid City Journal website. No reports on the fire currently raging in Valentine, but lots of information on wildfires in the region. As dangerous as the fires are, they seem to be an object of fascination. Lots of people were pulled over taking pictures, and some were pulled off pretty close to the fire itself.
Home, Home on the Rez

We're back home at the Rosebud Casino Quality Inn after two days of driving. It was a quick run up the middle of the country; we stopped outside of Dallas for some great barbeque at the house of an '05 SoDak corps member, and then stayed last night in Wichata, Kansas, where our low quality Super 8 felt like a palace after the wonders of Moody Towers.

A parting shot of the Mood:

A couple shots of downtown Houston from the road. I never actually made it downtown, and I sort of wish I had. I don't really have a good sense of Houston, except that I didn't like it much.

Outside of Houston there is a huge statue of Sam Houston. There was a billboard we passed beforehand that said "The Tallest Statue in the World." We scratched our heads (Statue of Liberty, anyone?) and then noticed the small type underneath where it said "of an American Hero." Way to go, Sam Houston. I would have liked to have stopped, but we were on a schedule. Next time I roll through Houston, I guess. I wasn't able to get a very good shot of it, either.

Dallas from the road. Besides OK City, it was the only real city we passed on the way up.

This morning (day 2 on the road), we stopped for gas in a very, very small town in Kansas. Basically just an abandoned looking house and a gas station.

A ways south of Valentine, Nebraska (the town closest to the Rosebud Casino) we could see a huge wall of smoke coming up. As we got closer, we realized it was coming from very close to Valentine. There has a been a pretty nasty heat wave this week--100 degree days in South Dakota everyday, and according to Ryan, our Executive Director, it was 117 degrees in Pierre yesterday, an all-time record high. Couple that with the really dry environment, and you have a recipe for wildfires. We turned on the radio and heard that the flames were 500 feet high. The fire certainly looked huge, and was spreading. A few of the smaller patches were probably about a half mile or less from the highway. This is only 8 miles south of where I am now, and these pictures are about 2 hours old, so I have no doubt that this fire is still burning, and burning big.

The Rosebud Casino, my home for one more week. Tomorrow I will actually be going out to Crazy Horse and getting into my future house, where Luke and I will drop off some of our stuff.

Friday, July 14, 2006

School's Out for Summer!

Teaching is weird. It can be tough, disappointing, and frustrating, and then at the last moment the kids will pull your heartstrings and make it all feel better. We finished up school this afternoon, and for the past couple of days we have been having all kinds of final activities that make us forget that we have lived off bad food, lots of stress, and little sleep for the last five weeks by flashing inspiring pictures from the summer before us. Today, Martin, our very, very talented Curriculum Specialist, ended up final all-school meeting by repeating after him, "I am a teacher." Well, I guess I am.

Yesterday we administered our final assessments. This was probably one of the lowest points of my summer experience. Our goal this summer was for every student to score 80% on our final. We had been fairly close to this on our last quiz (85% class average), with the exception of one or two students, and I thought we had a shot of getting almost everyone over that 80%. So it was kind of heartbreaking to pull out the first final, from one of my usually high-scoring students, and to end up writing 60% on the page. This was followed by one 87% and then a series of 70s and 67s. My fifth period class did no better. The class average on the final was 75%. Not too bad, but I don't think it's really acceptable for these students, who were so well trained and eager to learn coming in. Despite my complaining earlier, there were no real behavior and nothing to hold them back except my own teaching. That was a bit of a blow to the confidence, and I was sort of shocked at how hard I took my students scores. It was the most depressed I have been in a while. Grading is not fun. It's difficult to give a hard working, motivated, and well behaved student a 58, but I was working off quiz scores, and this is what I had to do. It didn't make it much better when I noticed that my grades were much lower than their other teachers' grades.

I was expecting the last day of school today to be a bit chaotic, and it lived up to my expectations. During our first period, we had "Expo Day," during which all five of the students' teachers talked a little about what we had done that summer. The parents left after an hour, which left me with ten more minutes, and no activity to fill the time. A couple of the boys convinced me to put on "Hips Don't Lie" so that Edwin could dance (I had played it for them earlier during an activity). This led into most of the class gathering around my computer, searching through my music library and looking at photos of South Dakota. It was the first time I really realized the connection I had made with my students this summer. Later I visited my students in another class, and they gave me thank you cards, and they all wanted me to sign their "yearbook" pages that Mr. Webster had made for them. I didn't expect it, but I am sad (though also a little relieved) to see it end.

Here are a couple photos I took the other morning before students arrived. Hopefully there will be more photos coming the next couple days.

Here are the Most Valuable Mathletes from Week 3, our best quiz. The MVMs scored over 80%.

Room 106, ready to go for the school day:

Good Times in H-Town

A few more photos courtesy of Shannon.

First off, a shot of Moody Towers at sunset. This has been our home all summer. We fit about 600 people in here with plenty of room to spare, so I'm pretty sure these dorms could house the entirity of Haverford College. There is also a dining center inside ("Real Food on Campus"...delicious), so there is little reason to leave the towers. Apparently Moody (also know as "The Mood") was briefly famous for a shooting in the 1970s. A student went off the edge and holed himself off on an upper floor with a sniper rifle. I don't think anyone ended up being hurt, though.

Early on in Houston, we all headed to Minute Maid Park to catch the Astros against the Royals. Pretty crappy game, good times. This is a view of the field from our cheap seats way up. They close the roof when it is hot out, so it is pretty much always an indoor park.

Here is the crew at the game. Front row: Matt Cox, Anna, Kim, Shannon; Second row: Russ (my roommate this summer), Wes, Juliet, Anna (Bryn Mawr gard), Kim, Erin, Matt Douglass; Back row: Luke (my roommate next year), myself, Jeff, Dave, and a random drunk guy who doesn't belong in this photo. The girls actually arrived separately from the guys to the game, and ended up being unable to get tickets in the same section as us. We actually only met up with them in the few minutes before this picture was taken, and left the game right afterwards. For a while we had this weird male-female segregation thing going on. I don't know.

Finally, a shot of a monstrous crawfish I had when we went to the Ragin' Cajun. Excuse the tabasco sauce that is all over my face and hands. As most of my friends know, I am a very messy eater.

July 4

I previously gave a description of my July 4, but thanks to Shannon I can now show some pictures of what it was really like.

First off, the beach volleyball court on which we inaugurated our soon-to-be tradition of volleyball. (I'm proud to say that we came back a couple days later and I didn't suck nearly as much.)

Here were on inside the cage on the roof of Moody Towers, waiting for the fireworks to go off in the distance. We all had to hang from the bars in order to get a good view. My roommate for next year, Luke, is in the foreground here, and that is Jeff in the background looking crazy:

From the other side. Kim and Jeff are in the foreground in front of me.

These next two photos are not very indicative of our fireworks experience. I think they must make heavy use of the zoom lens. They make the fireworks look nice, though.

This is a more representative picture:


Courtesy of Shannon, a fellow SoDak corps member, I now have some photos to showcase our times in Houston. I'm going to start off with some pictures from this past weekend, which I never really mentioned on here. I was in desperate need of a mini-vacation, so I jumped at the chance to drive down to Galveston and hang out at the beach for a couple of hours. I'm not usually much of a beach guy, but I'm to hit the shore once or twice most summers, and since I'm moving to the middle of the continent, that might not be much of an option soon.

Galveston is supposed to have remarkably ugly beaches, with oil refineries visible from the shore. I didn't really notice these until towards the end of our stay; they're really just a blur off in the distance. I wouldn't say the beach we were at was particularly nice, but it wasn't so bad, either. The water was much warmer than I'm used to in the Northeast, and there were some crazy fish that would jump a couple feet out of the water all the time, which I found a bit unnerving.

Here is Katey enjoying the beach:

Ryan and I lounging:

Katey and Amber, who is making full use of the fact that East Beach is the "party beach" where "alcohol is legal," as signs told us, by drinking one beer:

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Air Conditioning

One of the most important things to know about Houston is that it is an air-conditioned city. It's understandable, given that it is unbearably hot and humid outside. What makes less sense is the seemingly universal decision to have a 20+ degree differential between interior and exterior temperatures. I often find myself walking in 95 degree heat wearing a sweatshirt, because I know it's going to be refridgerated inside.

Apparently the 7th floor of North Moody Tower, where the South Dakota girls live, is especially frigid. Lots of people have taken to taping up their air vents in an attempt to find some way of keeping warm. The air conditioning usually proves to be an inevitable force of nature, forcing its way through any man-made barriers. In what I am told is a true symbol of our Institute experience, here is a picture of Netha's "war" on the air vent. She says it makes the room 10 degrees warmer, which is probably just about a comfortable temperature.

I think the duct tape already was already overcome at least once.

Tomorrow is my last day of teaching. On Thursday my students take their final assessment and on Friday I'm having a pizza party. I'm hoping in the next few days to get my hands on a lot of photos of Houston so that I can provide a retrospective of the suffering. I also have a video of one of my classes on Friday, but unfortunately it is burned onto an 8cm DVD, which my computer doesn't read. I'm also not sure that I can legally put up any footage of my students. But if I'm going to see you in person later this summer, and you want to see some fine teaching in action, I can give you glimpse of the magic.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Winding Down

In one week we will be packing up, ready to leave Houston behind. I'm not going to say that I'm sorry to see it go. There's been a lot of talk here about how we're almost through, and a lot of people seem to have gone on autopilot to cruise through next week. I definently did that, and then last night I started panicking because my laziness was clashing with my perfectionism, and I felt like my lesson plans for next week were terrible. And I wanted to sleep. A little before midnight I was freaking out a little bit, even though I was almost done; but then I talked to Netha, another South Dakota corps member, who was very calmly preparing to stay up later than I have all institute, which she has been doing on a regular basis. That's when I realized how ridiculous I was.

To talk about something rewarding, I feel like I had a bit of a mini-breakthrough the other day with my one student who had been struggling the most. After I handed out some worksheets, she was just sitting at her desk, not working. "Do you know how to do this?" I asked. She didn't. "Do you have the notes I gave to show you how to do this?" She didn't. So I gave her a copy of the completed notes and told her to copy them down. And then for the rest of the period, she worked through the problems based on the notes. It's not going to be enough to catch her up in the next 5 days, but it was nice to see her working hard. Also rewarding was another student today who, after he finished his quiz, called me over because he didn't understand my lecture on rates earlier in the period. Just to see these kids want to learn is nice.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Freedom Behind Bars"

I wanted to give a brief rundown of what the Fourth of July looks like here at Institute. Rather than getting the day off, we had abbreviated sessions today, which began at the "late" hour of 8 AM and essentially ended with lunch. While the rest of Institute racked up a few extra hours of sleep, I decided to wake up at 6 AM to get in my run, so that my afternoon might be free for celebratory antics.

Those celebratory antics never really materialized, because after lunch everyone got right back to work, so I had little choice but to work, too. Finally around 4 PM, some SoDak corps members inaugurated our new tradition of beach volleyball. I quickly proved myself to be the least talented and most sweaty player on the court.

We broke for dinner off campus at a pub, and then rather than heading downtown for fireworks as I would've prefered, we returned to UH for more volleyball. I decided to sit this one out, and as a reward I was attacked by mosquitos--but just on my feet. I count over 40 bites on my left foot right now. Around 9:30 we decided to try to catch the fireworks from the roof of Moody Tower. Unfortunately, the accessible portion of the roof is a metal cage. Some sort of weather station, apparently. So we celebrated the birth of freedom from behind bars. The fireworks were pretty tiny and far away, and accompanied only by a tinny rendition of "Born in the USA" from one of our corp member's lap-tops. And a CMA came by and told us that we couldn't have beer on the roof. So much for freedom, right?

Monday, July 03, 2006


So I thought today was going to be one of those Mondays. We have tomorrow off for July 4, and some schools had today off. Russ, my roommate, for example, had today off. This meant he got to sleep in for an extra hour. The problem here is that I've been sleeping with ear plugs in--we live right across from the computer lab, which can get noisy at night. The ear plugs are powerful enough that I sometimes don't hear my alarm, and more occasionally don't hear Russ's, either. But I made sure Russ set his alarm for 5:40 so that I would hear that and get up then. Around 5:00 AM I was half awake and looked at my watch to see how much more sleep I could get. And then awhile later I was half awake again, and it struck me that it seemed like a lot more than 40 minutes had passed. So I looked at my watch at it was 6:15. Luckily I've been getting up way too early, so I had time to get dressed, pack up, and eat breakfast before my 6:50 bus.

I was kind of frazzled for my lesson today, but I think it went well. I think my opinions on trying to discipline these students has changed. I was trying to live up to the standard TFA model of extremely silent, orderly classes, but I wasn't letting the kids have fun. They're well behaved enough that when I let them out of their seats today to do different problems posted around the classroom, they wasn't any problem. I also gave them some candy, with which we practiced finding ratios. Later on there was a rumor going around school that today was my birthday--I guess one of the other teachers asked where the bags of candy came from and one of my students said I gave them out because it was Mr. Upholt's birthday. Oh well.

There are only 6 more days of real teaching before I head back up to South Dakota. Houston has made South Dakota feel very much like home. Or at least a place I would much rather be.