"[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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can't believe I forgot

John Keating in Dead Poet's Society. Will write corrective post ASAP.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I have avoided blog posts composed of lists, as I think that is sort of a crutch, but this thought seized my mind a few days ago and won't let go. It probably relates to my other blog, 24 Times Per Second, which I maintain as a model for my Film Studies class. But these are some of the people who may have put my feet on the path they walk today, even though many of them are fictitious.

The topic: Most inspirational movie teachers (presented in no particular order)

1. Mark Thackeray - To Sir With Love (1967) This may be the first film I actually paid money to see a second time. (In those pre-video days that meant going to the movie theater twice.) One of the most riveting things about the character and the movie is that Thackeray realizes early on that he is doing everything wrong. I mean, everything. All his assumptions about the students, all his goals, everything is wrong. (Personally, I like that he is not a trained teacher, nor does this seem to be a career goal, but something that is getting him through a stretch in life.) What he arrives at by instinct, trial and error is what today is called authentic-based learning. Real-life skills and real-life goals. And the film re-defined "learning" for a generation--instead of absorbing mounds of data, learning to observe and process the world--meaning the people--around us. Leadership, empathy, responsibility, engagement, humility and self-worth are his subjects.

2. Dewey Finn in School of Rock (2003). First off, we notice his passion for his subject--once he discovers what that subject is. Then, he devises an extremely authentic task: form a rock band and play publicly and--competetively. As with any well-designed authentic learning, there are many ancillary benefits, learning to work cooperatively, acknowledging and celebrating differences, problem-solving, etc., etc. The other chief characteristic of Dewey is his resilience and refusal to allow setbacks to become defeats, an indispensable lesson for our students. (For contrast, see the real-life model for Dewey in the documentary Rock School. That deranged screaming maniac should not be allowed anywhere near children.)

3. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988). Escalante might call himself persistent--others might use the word "stubborn." Edward James Olmos does stubborn really well, as fans of Battlestar Galactica will tell you. Again, an authentic task is posed, that is, passing the AP Calculus Test, which though in itself inauthentic, will open the doors to college for these disadvantaged youth. Besides his persistence, Escalante tailors his teaching methods to his students' priorities, interests and learning styles. If it makes a difference, Escalante is a real person. And from the evidence in this film, he is a bad-a**.

4. Albert Cullum in A Touch of Greatness (2003). Cullum is the man who, in the early 1960's, taught 5th-graders to debate as to whether Shakespeare or Sophocles was the greater tragedian. Cullum is another one of those people who found himself teaching and made it part of the creative continuum of his life. This film is a documentary, and thank goodness it is, because no one would believe his accomplishments if you could not see them. His greatest lesson to his students was not to follow the path trod by everyone else, to find your own way.

5. Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers (2007). What is remarkable about Gruwell's work is that she was not about bringing something new to the students, but teaching them to use what they already have and know to transform their own lives. This is the business of a writer; whatever their apparent subject matter, their actual subject is the self. The film, as a narrative film must do, shapes its subject matter in dramatic fashion, but nothing essential was altered.

6. Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962). Let us say first that, while the Internet Movie Database lists three film adaptations of the William Gibson play, there is truly only one, the original with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. I saw this film in its initial release--one of my earliest movie memories, and the breakfast table battle sequence is seared in my memory. (I am privileged to teach the play in my freshman English classes.) Anne brings two gifts to her student: vision--the vision to see that there is a person inside that thrashing, destructive shell; and, again, stubborness--the stubborness (more politely, patience) to cultivate that prisoner and put her in touch with the rest of the world.

7. Rafe Esquith in The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005). Here is another nut who thinks 5th graders are ready for Shakespeare. If you don't believe it, you can see them performing Hamlet in this film. And the kids in question are from neighborhoods adjacent to those tough places in Los Angeles the Freedom Writers come from.

8. Leonard Bernstein on Omnibus. If anyone exemplifies the now-disfavored "sage on the stage" mode of teaching, it is Bernstein. The controversy goes on as to Bernstein's place in the musical firmament of the 20th century, but their can be no question that he was one of the finest teachers to be captured on film or tape. His great gift is being able to explain purely musical ideas to people without musical training. This requires the ability to get into another person's head, a person utterly different from yourself. Bernstein was always in touch with the universality of human life--a super-empathy appropriate for a super-teacher.

9. Richard Feynman in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. One of the most significant physicists of the 20th century, Feynman had a reputation as "The Great Explainer." He believed that if a principle could not be explained in a freshman-level survey course, the principle was not fully understood. (He and Bernstein could have been buddies--especially since they were both Jewish New Yorkers!) Also Feynman brought an insatiable curiosity to everything. This is a guy who would take constant readings to find out at what temperature Jello set, or whether he would count to himself faster if his heart beat faster. Every man, woman and child, whether a science buff or not, should read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. By law.

So what are the qualities we value in our movie teachers? Patience, persistence, curiosity, empathy, being student-oriented and instinctively setting real-world [i.e., authentic] tasks for students to accomplish.

Perhaps in a later post, we'll look at Bad Movie Teachers...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heisenberg comes to English Class

I know you all recognize this diagram as a demonstration of the Uncertainty Principle, a concept which guides my life, especially before 9:00 AM and my second cup of coffee.

It is true, I can qualify as a genuine Vague Scientist who spouts science stuff he heard on NPR which neither he nor the radio reporter really understands. And while I cannot wrap my brain around the mathematics of Uncertainty (you can click the picture to expand it and read it more easily), the essential metaphoric truth of it is crystal clear to anyone who has spent any time constructing or deconstructing narrative, to wit: The act of observing something changes the nature of the thing observed. (It also states that you can know where something is going and how fast, but never know both exactly at the same time. This applies to my students most of the time.)

Teachers reading this know where I'm going. I'm being observed this week. And being pre-tenured (I prefer that term to "non-tenured"), I am being observed three times within a one-week span. This is a strange phenomenon for anyone, like me, who had a substantial career in another professional field. I was an attorney for 18 years, a negotiator, a deal -maker. By and large, I was judged by my results. How many deals did I get closed, how good were the terms for the client (or the company), and how long did it take. I rarely was bird-dogged on the actual process, unless there was a sensitive client or corporate matter which required monitoring by someone in a higher pay grade. But they were not there to judge me on how I did the deal--just to make sure there were no promises made that could not be kept, issues that could not be opened.

From time to time I had bosses who wanted to control how I arrived at the results (as contrasted with assessing the results). The technical term for this kind of boss is clueless controlling jerk. Many lawyers think this is a good way to manage. Many lawyers are idiots. Because personal style has a lot to do with the arts of persuasion and negotiation (and that is what ALL lawyers must do, no matter their specialty). There is no one size fits all. When these situations arose, there was a parting of the ways.

But teaching is different. Because like it or not, we haven't yet really figured out how to assess the results of our work. Oh yes, there are constant "assessments;" tests, quizzes, projects. But we don't really know how to find out if and what anyone has learned--at least not for 25 or 30 years or so, when it's far too late. Real learning, not the mere accumulation of data, is at its heart ineffable.

So to some extent, it is necessary to make some judgments about process. One can fairly assess classroom management, responses between students and teachers, the structure of a learning plan, especially as to whether it is likely to be effective given what we know about students and learning at this point. But then Uncertainty kicks in--and the very presence of the observer alters the behavior of the observed--teacher and students.

And despite our best intentions, aren't teachers today like doctors of the pre-Scientific era? We try our best, but it is still necessary to promise to--at least--do no harm.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


One Christmas many years back, my wife and I made a rookie mistake with our then-two-year-old son. We went a little crazy with the gifts and literally overwhelmed the poor toddler. After tearing open six or seven presents and trying to play with each, only to be confronted with another from one of his pushy parents, he shut down. He just refused to open another present and commenced, very sensibly, to play with what he already had. Luckily, his birthday is in February, and we were able to put some things away and give them to him six weeks later.

I feel like an overwhelmed toddler myself this morning as I think back to seeing Ragtime on Broadway last night. [This page is not meant to be a blog about theater-going, but I can't help but think that seeing this production will have a palpable effect on my life as a teacher, and I need to write about it, so here we are.] To begin, I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical sensation of a 28-piece orchestra, including 11 string players and their marvelous rich sounds shooting straight up at us in the mezzanine (yes, I am a poor schoolteacher) from the relatively deep pit of the Neil Simon Theater. We are so conditioned to machines generating ersatz sounds, even in live performance situations that the actual physical buzz of horsehair against string, lip against mouthpiece was exciting. Add to that excitement the richness, variety and color of William David Brohn's orchestrations, which sound brassy and flattened on the cast recording of the original production from 11 years ago. (I must face it, I am a sucker for a harp.)

Then there was the richness of the singing. Judging by the recording only (I missed the original production), the present cast outsings the original in every role, save only Sarah, originally played by Audra McDonald. (Theoretically, there could be an actress with a richer, more expressive and moving voice than Audra McDonald, but I doubt it.) And Stephanie Umoh, the current Sarah sings the part very well indeed and is stunning--I mean stunning--to look at. Christiane Noll was a revelation--the suppleness, flexibility and warmth of her voice made her the perfect Mother. Where Stokes as Coalhouse Walker in the original production was charm turned to coiled danger, Quentin Earl Darrington is a large man with a large soul as if he was marked to be part of history from the start. (It doesn't hurt that his miming of piano playing is excellent.) But every part--down to Henry Ford and the soprano soloist in the funeral sequence, who blended gospel soul with serious opera chops--was sung to perfection.

Nonetheless, lots of shows open on Broadway with wonderful music and wonderful performances and mean nothing. This show will make you proud of America, even if you're not American. Proud of our ideals, regret for when we fall short of them, but with everlasting hope that we will continue to strive for them. The show has special meaning for me in the age of Barack Obama, who redeemed the promise so long broken. This production quickly aligns its population into three groups: the WASPS who run things (for now), the blacks who serve and/or entertain them, and the arriving immigrants who are ready to seize the dream of America. Marcia Milgrim Dodge's crystal clear direction gets to the point right away and stays with it. To my mind, not only does she clarify the play, she clarified Doctorow's novel for me as well! The setting transforms effortlessly from ship decks to factory floors to Atlantic City boardwalks and the costumes are witty and informative.

Where Frank Galati's original production seems to have been a pageant or a parade (perhaps the result of years of directing opera), Dodge's feels like a tapestry--one of those rich double-textured tapestries which is beautiful at first glance, but has a dark and complex tale woven under the bright top layers.

I have saved the most important comment for last--praise for the incomparable work of composer and lyricist Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Ahrens work as lyricist is always specific, clear, scans perfectly (this has become rare) and is always in character. Stephen Flaherty is a musical chameleon--none of his scores resembles another. For Ragtime, Flaherty has absorbed the gay melancholy in such Joplin tunes as "Solace" and put it in the service of his story. And he is a good musical historian in that he does not limit his 1906 palette to ragtime, but includes marches, waltzes, vaudeville schottisches, etc. The pitter-patter melody of the verse to Evelyn Nesbit's vaudeville song sounds absolutely dead-on to me, having grown up playing from my grandmother's songbooks of that era.

Simply put, everyone who cares about the heritage of the Classical musical should and must see the current production of Ragtime. I wept with joy, and I wish you the same.