"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Friday, October 30, 2009

Standardized tests are reliable because they're objective...oh, wait, they're not...

One of the rationales behind standardized testing is that we can hold all schools to uniform standards. Except that apparently, we can't. In an op/ed piece in today's Record newspaper (which originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor), a person hired to grade the tests reveals how standards were lowered and fudged in order to get tests graded quickly and cheaply. The problem: the job was entrusted to a for-profit organization.
Why does privatization always mean for-profit? Hasn't anybody heard of the Red Cross or the World Bank? Private organizations, answerable neither to government to shareholder, yet without the need to better the return every quarter.

But even that begs the question. I suspect that even within our little Language Arts department at New Milford we could not reach a perfect consensus in grading a given piece of writing. School ccountability, like perfect justice, is a wonderful ideal that may not be practical in this life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maintaining my market value

From time to time I worry that by having to endlessly sign student passes, lesson plans, reports and innumerable other items, I have completely eliminated the scarcity value of my autograph, should my autograph ever acquire any value to begin with.

I see JFK was aware of the same problem. Just one other thing he and I have in common besides nice hair and beautiful, chic wives. (Click on the image to read the letter.)

This is from an interesting site called Letters of Note.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Student playwriting opportunities

Our administration is pressing for teachers to develop authentic-based learning, and having spent many years working in the world outside the classroom, I am in whole-hearted agreement with this goal.

In writing, there are few more authentic tasks than writing and presenting a play. Although most playwriting is a solo effort, the presentation becomes a collaborative effort. The process is riddled with problem-solving, there is a firm, real-world deadline (the first performance), and the audience is, well..the audience. Unlike other, more personal forms of expression, the playwright has the audience in mind at all times.

There are a number of playwriting competitions that have special significance for and connection to our students at New Milford High School (NJ):

Thespian Playworks is an activity of the Educational Theater Association, parent of the International Thespian Society, the theater honor society of which teacher our John Coviello has formed a chapter here at NMHS. Their competition is for plays 30 minutes or less. Each of the four plays accepted will be developed in a professional atmosphere with a director, dramaturg and full production. The deadline is February 1, 2010. You can read about the competition and the program here.

The New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival is an offshot of the Playwrights Theater. This competition is looking for plays up to 20 minutes in length, and (unlike Thespian Playworks) the plays may be written in collaboration. Semi-finalists receive a staged reading by professional actors in a festival in May at Kean University. The deadline is January 8, 2010, and you can read about this competition here.

Finally, we have our own intramural NMHS competition. Plays should be between 10 and 20 minutes in length, and all semi-finalists get semi-staged productions here in May. There are VISA gift card prizes. The deadline will be April 1, 2010 and the rules will be published shortly.

Naturally, any work can be entered in any or all of these competitions. I want to encourage my fellow teachers to incorporate this in their lessons, in order to demonstrate that writing can be more than a exercise to be judged by a teacher.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Directing Shakespeare, Post #2

It's been two weeks and a weekend since my last post on this topic, so it's time to bring things up to date.

Much of our time has still been spent getting the play up on its feet. There is a limit to the effectiveness of table work for young actors, and we need to get the play into our bodies. That also means we have to get the books out of our hands. So the really important work still lies ahead of us.

That said, we're doing OK and in some areas, very well indeed. I was thrilled with the swift and effective work of Christine Batac, who was scouted by Mr. Coviello to stage our tango number. In less than an hour she had our eight couples nicely tangoing, and in another hour she had staged three of the four featured couples in their dancing and dialogue sequences. Every full-time professional teacher should be as efficient and effective as Christine was. And I was proud of the cast's immediate infectious application to the task. Well done, all! This dance sequence will no doubt be, as planned, a highlight of the show.

My lead couple, Kelly Novak as Beatrice and Leonard Perez as Benedick had a great detailed scene work session with me as we drilled down deep on the "Kill Claudio" scene. We agreed that we would get this scene in performance condition as soon as possible to demonstrate to the rest of the company what the play should feel like. They are doing a great job of finding the black humor in this scene which is usually played for tears.

And a large group of principals had an excellent Shakespeare workshop session with me on Friday in which we worked on sustaining our strength throughout the long lines, emphasizing the final lines, and making the action words visible through the use of our bodies. We had fun and played a lot, but I believe we understood the point and I look forward to the work we did bearing fruit in the rehearsals to come.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Teacher as conductor

My principal is very much into technology, and as I believe it is important to our students, I am interested in its application to education as well. I do think that this is a slower process than he would like it to be, because you cannot teach with a technology you have not used to learn with yourself; otherwise you don't understand how learning is done with that technology.

And beside, there is a romantic part of me that imagines that a great teacher needs nothing but a room and students. Not even a book, a piece of chalk--just those selves gathered together.

This video featuring the conductor Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic is about learning to love classical music. And Zander is an exciting teacher himself, which would make it worth your 20 minutes in any event.

The money line comes 14 minutes in when he says,
"The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If they’re not shining you get to ask this question: 'Who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining?' ”
As an English teacher, I don't dispense information. I teach process. I try and impart good ways to do something the student already (sort of) knows how to do--but in order for that to be effective, I must create passion. I need to remember that Monday morning when I go back to my classroom, whether it's filled with gadgets or a bare room. I need to be in the passion business.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Unfortunately relevant

One of the comforts of teaching such a disturbing piece of literature as Arthur Miller's The Crucible is that the passions which inspired it, specifically the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950's are safely dead and embalmed in history books.

Except, of course, that they're not. This week we read that Republican Representatives, on the basis of a book called Muslim Mafia, co-written by an alleged counterterrorism expert named Dave Gaubatz, are calling for an investigation as to whether the Council on American-Islamic Relations has placed spies as interns into key legislative offices in order to influence the creation of American law, especially with regard to the revision of the Patriot Act. The net social effect is to equate Islam with terrorism.

According to website A Tiny Revolution, "[co-author] Gaubatz was last seen explaining how he'd discovered "biological and chemical weapons, material for a nuclear programme and UN-proscribed missiles" in gigantic underground bunkers in Iraq."

At the moment, only right-wing and left-wing blogs are covering this story, and there does not seem to be any independent disinterested journalism going on. It is impossible to evaluate the reliability of this information, other than on the past record of the parties involved. Nonetheless, at this point it feels like guilt by association. Remember those first 24 hours after the Oklahoma City bombing when "everybody" was "sure" it was the work of Islamic terrorists?

What "everybody" knows often is not worth anybody's time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Picket and be happy

Confession time: I once had a political cause. I campaigned actively for the 19-year-old vote. If that sounds funny, it's because our pathetic attempt in 1970 (when I was 14) to get a law passed in New Jersey lowering the voting age to 19 were utterly eclipsed by the 26th Amendment, which passed in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18.

Nonetheless I believe our efforts contributed to an overall political atmosphere which made passage of the 26th Amendment possible. And, I freely admit, it was fun going to meetings and making signs and pamphlets and stuff.

Now the scientists have confirmed my impression. Protesting makes you happy! It's good for you to go out and do something about the causes you feel passionately about. Doesn't matter what those causes are--left, right, center or any other variation. Political activism leads to greater satisfaction in life.

So it behooves us to urge our students not only to take a stand, but--in a safe, peaceful, responsible way--take steps to change the world as they see fit. After all, having more happy young people will make the world better all by itself!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Actually, I do like piña coladas

I just completed a long but very satisfying stint as music director of a production of the murder mystery musical comedy Curtains with the Bergen County Players in Oradell. That saga really deserves its own post, which perhaps I will get to now that I have a little more time.

The "book" of Curtains (the book of a musical is the story, characters, dialogue, critical business--everything that is not a song or a dance) was written by Rupert Holmes, who first entered show business as a songwriter, arranger and producer, most notably for a number of projects with Barbra Streisand and writer of the mega-hit from 30 years ago, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)". Later he wrote book, music and lyrics The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the Public Theater and Broadway (winning Tonys in all those categories) and since that time has become primarily a mystery writer, both for the theater and in novels.

Mr. Holmes, who grew up in Nanuet and lived in Tenafly for a long time has had a relationship with the BC Players for over 15 years, and even wrote a thriller for them. For our production of Curtains, he made some adjustments and adaptations for the theater's unusual configuration and generally advised and assisted our director, Steve Bell.

On Saturday, October 10, Mr. Holmes came to see a matinee performance and stayed afterward for a very generous Q&A session. Then he stayed even longer for pictures and autographs. He was effusive and attentive to everyone, and lavish with his praise for our production.

I have been a fan of Holmes since I was introduced to his first album (in those days they were on LP records), Widescreen, which was designed to be an audio analog to the filmgoing experience. There even was a Maltese Falcon-style radio play at the end of the record. This is one of those albums you carry in your head for a lifetime and I have to admit that I was thrilled to have him autograph the CD booklet from my current copy.

Mr. Holmes and I began a dialogue which may have positive ramifications for New Milford High, but it is too early and tentative to say anything more. Let me just say that I have always been a fan of writers--I find them to be more genuinely interested in other people than most people in the entertainment business--and I confess a little hero worship, since I aspire to be thought of that way myself. It is so gratifying when you meet someone like Mr. Holmes, whose work you admire and who comes up to your expectations of decency and thoughtfulness. A genuine pleasure.

One size does not fit all in post-secondary education

Friday morning I read in more than one news-oriented blog that some of the Big Thinkers in our society are becoming convinced that four-year college is not right for absolutely everybody and that we are squandering resources and wasting time and money by shoving all our kids into that slot. This is not to say that college is "too good" for the kids who are better served learning a craft they can put into a practice. It's just that you don't use a fork to eat soup and you don't use your iPhone to bang in nails.

We all want students to problem-solvers, processors of information, not just recipients. And we want them to learn to work in groups to accomplish defined goals. For some students this begins as an intellectual pursuit, attached to the history of prior learners. Those students are at home with reading books and writing papers, taking tests and all the procedures that are schools have been set up to do traditionally.

Other people think with their hands. This is not a sign of a lesser intellect. Two generations ago, mine was a family of mechanics and masons. These are not unintelligent people. My own son, who is the smartest person I ever expect to know tends to do a certain amount of thinking with his hands. By this I mean that certain problems call for a tactile solution. I experience this to a certain extent myself in the process of staging a play, actually working out how the actors will stand and move. When I began directing, I tried to plan this in advance but found that either my plans were clumsy and impractical or that I became bored with the process because it was so theoretical. Papers and books are not the tools for every job in the world. And there are lots of good careers (not just jobs) available to people without college degrees.

In a serendipitous coincidence I had been commanded by my principal to represent our high school theater arts program (which at the moment is entirely extra-curricular) at a presentation by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). This covers everyone who works backstage--not just the guys who do the rigging and focus lights; it covers wardrobe, make-up and hair, scenery construction, the whole gamut. Traditionally, this has been one of the most difficult unions to enter--family connections were virtually a requirement. Now they are opening up 10 paid apprenticeships in 2010 (with presumably more to come in future years) to 18-year olds who show interest, energy and initiative, pass a simple test and make a good impression on the site visits and the interviews with the presidents of the Locals. A person who completes this program will be enter the union as a journeyman with a wide range of experience acquired during the apprenticeship, and earning $22-29/hour to start, depending on the venue. What's more IATSE will enroll pay for apprentices to take courses at Bergen Community College two nights per week, which courses could be counted toward A.A.S. or even A.S. degrees. This leaves the college option open for those who want to pursue that after they began working. As someone who went to law school at night while working, I can testify that you can get a great education that way, especially from your fellow students who are also working.

Perhaps it seems strange for a high school English teacher to be promoting this sort of thing. Aren't I supposed to be pushing kids onto the college, trying to get my kids into the best schools, jacking up our acceptance rate statistics, and all that. The answer is, I am in the education business. I want students who can think, and I try and give them the tools in terms of reading and writing to make that possible, and help them make contact with other minds. Education has lots of different routes, and it impoverishes us a society to insist that everyone take the same route, regardless of their abilities and aptitudes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Slowly dipping into Web 2.0

I am aware this is no innovation and that teachers all over the world are way ahead of me on this, but I attempting my first Wiki for class. In this case, it is my Film Studies class, which is on a collegiate track, being eligible for credit at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Students are expected to take initiative and work independently. Rolling assignments are to blog regularly on all films seen, in and out of class, and on the reading selections which I distribute periodically. My own model film blog is here.

So we have a precedent for regular resort to the Internet to complete assignments. Now the plan is to use this wiki to contribute to joint endeavors. We're starting simple. I've asked students to nominate a cinematographer they believe to be outstanding. This is a fairly sophisticated critical evaluation. It means the student has to become attentive to the specifics of the visuals of film. For most of us, narrative is everything, and the storytelling techniques pass by our conscious mind. In Film Studies we learn to apply a critical filter even as the film strives to work on our emotions; in short, we treat a film as we treat literature, both as entertainment and critical object.

Having identified a film with some self-evident visual style, the student is to identify the director of photography, look at that person's filmography and decide if that represents a significant body of work. The student then "makes their case" for the photographer in question, illustrating the argument if they wish. As I write this, one of my students has already made his contribution, but you may want to wait a week or two to check in and see what they've done.

Incidentally, Wikispaces offers free accounts for K-12 teachers. These accounts allow you to create a wiki which can only be viewed by a specific community of users and/or viewers. I wanted to make this more authentic, so the wiki can be viewed by the world at large, but only members can edit it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I really should be teaching college...

The Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice of Occidental College is offering a course in Stupidity this year. Finally, a college course I'm qualified to teach. The course description reads as follows:
Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.

Actually, I'm not really qualified to run a course like this. It takes a very special level of stupidity to use a word like "organicity" or describe stupidity as a corollary of knowing; stupidity coupled with a profound desire to use language not to communicate but disguise one's own fat-headedness.

I like the part about examining stupidity in Presidents. Can we start with conducting ill-defined wars against ill-defined wars in Asian jungles and Middle Eastern deserts, please?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Directing Shakepeare, Post #1

Here I am, at the end of the first two weeks of rehearsal for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and it's about time I shared some reflections on the journey so far.

Clearly, most of the cast is still struggling with what they have to say. Not just learning to say it, but understanding just what the words they have to say mean. For my part, I can't understand why it's so difficult to get them to do something about that. Just as horses sense fear, audiences sense uncertainty, and you should never set foot on stage unless you can be completely confident at every moment.

It's also becoming apparent to me that we need to get our books out of our hands as soon as possible, because we will need the use of the entire body, hands, heads, everything in order to make the meaning clear at all times. And that is paramount--absolute clarity. Once the audience thinks they can't follow every single moment, their attention will start to wander, and soon they drift into a polite stupor, and the point of the exercise will be lost. We will be praised, but without genuine conviction and excitement. And polite approval without enthusiasm is death to a Shakespeare production.