"[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, August 27, 2010

"When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art"

That quotation is heard in this trailer for Waiting for Superman, which opens in the next few weeks:

I just hope, even with the presence of Michelle Rhee, that they don't blame it on the teachers. It's a general social problem, compounded by post-Reagan conservatism, which hates public education and is taking steps to destroy it. Perhaps it's because public education is the greatest challenge to entrenched and unearned privilege we have. Without 1st-class free public education, democracy is impossible.

I just wonder if Waiting for Superman doesn't overlap with The Lottery, released earlier this year (not to be confused with The Lottery Ticket):

And of course, ramping up schools of choice (which is something I believe in) should not be done at the expense of standard geographic-based schools.

The existence of these two films is some indication that people are stoked about this issue and that perhaps the tidal wave is building which will make true postive change politically possible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

To live with literature

At the end of the recent post-apocalyptic disaster movie, The Book of Eli ***SPOILER ALERT***, a character who has been known to be carrying the above-described book turns out to be carrying it in his head, to be recited and copied down. In like fashion, the library that survives the anti-book regime of Fahrenheit 451 consists of refugees in the woods who have memorized entire books and indeed have "become" the books they carry.

In our haste to overtone generations of rote learning we have thrown at least one baby out with the bathwater, namely the virtue of memorizing and reciting literature. We used to say we "learned it by heart," and truer words were never spoken. A poem we know from memory is one step closer to piercing our hearts with its beauty and truth.

Back when I wrote about great teachers in the movies, I can't believe I forgot the teachers, especially Hector, in Alan Bennett's play (and movie) The History Boys. Hector is not a wholly admirable character (nor is he meant to be), but he has a remarkable facility and command of poetry, summoning it on the instant to illustrate or illumine each points he makes. Some critics say his choices are less than perfect, but for heaven's sake, how many of us have enough of a repertory of poetry in our head than we can always call up le vers juste at all times. Heck, I've been teaching them for years, and I don't think I could get all the way through either Sonnet 29 or 116. But Hector can cough up Coleridge or Keats at the drop of a platitude.

I profess to love poetry, but I don't live with it and in it the way I would wish. I suppose that should be a resolution this year. After all, if the young man in the video below can recite "Litany" by Billy Collins with such clarity, expression, and above all, delight, can't my students and I be expected to do at least as well?

Just for comparison, here's the poet reading (not reciting) the same work:

Doesn't the little boy do a better job? Mostly because he's memorized it. Not only does he gain in facility and flow, but the words learned by heart come from the heart.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What are we doing this for?

As we prepare to return to school, obsessed with operational detail--will we get the same room, have we prepared the material, do I have a homeroom this year, when will my prep be--it is good to reflect on why it is we are doing this at all.

By now I expect most people likely to read this blog have already read the remarkable valedictory speech given by Erica Goldson upon graduation from Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York. Being bright enough to become valedictorian, she is bright enough to realize that what was going on in her high school career did not resemble actual education, but compliance with a system which makes less and less sense to a lot of us with each passing year.

Here's some of the sharpest part of the speech:
We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that.”

On the one hand, this makes me feel good. All those kids whose only question in class is "Will this be on the test?" are not necessarily indifferent to education; they have simply learned (because that is what they have been taught) that the only thing they will be rewarded for is what they have learned to regurgitate in tests and papers.

On the other hand, someone this smart has reached 18 and passed 12 or 13 years in the public school system without ever developing a passion about anything. Maybe this isn't a teacher's duty. But shouldn't young people be naturally passionate? One of the great things about sports and arts programs is the power they give us to tap that passion and develop powerful life lessons from them. But it's not just extracurricular activities. Couldn't Erica have become passionate about history or calculus or biochemistry? Why didn't it happen? Was it the mere abstract pursuit of grades? What was all that energy poured out for?

We put so much energy into the strugglers and the rebels--whether they be at the top or the bottom of the class, it's easy to let the slickly competent pass by.

I once saw the principal of my charter school sit with our 7th graders--all 52 of them--and speak at length about the positive characteristics of each and every student in that room. I resolve to make an effort to the same for all 100-125 students I expect to have in my course load, and not to bundle them into a type or a grouping. Each one.

Update on Mt. Olive's "No D" policy

As I noted in my earlier post, Mt. Olive's decision to eliminate "D" from the grading system only makes sense if they have a policy to "catch and rescue" the additional students who will now be considered failing. A follow-up story in the New York Times says that they will indeed have a "watch list" for student tutoring, followed by intervention in the form of a night school called "Sunset Academy" which is not free, spreading the pain to parent and student alike. (The district expects this will cost less than $10,000.)

The expected outcome is that students who have precisely calculated how to achieve a D and no more, will now learn how to earn a C minus. They will, however, have learned a little more material, I suppose. Nonetheless, one way or other, D student or valedictorian, we just seem to teach them how to game the system.