"[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, September 22, 2011

First impressions of the first week

I am gratified to have received so many messages of support for me in my new position (mostly upright) at American History High in Newark, and so many inquiries about my first week. These Interwebs can really reinforce one's sense of community. (Or, for some people, their illusion of community, but this is not the time or the place.)

So a few scattered observations about Week One, partly to satisfy the curiosity of friends, but mostly to amuse myself when I reread it at the end of the year.

First, the students have been enthusiastic and welcoming, and judging from the comments reported by my principal and colleagues, hopeful for and supportive of me. They in turn seem to be ready and willing to do what is required for success and to effect change in their lives and perhaps the lives of their families. When I talk about ramping up the workload, where I would have received loud protests in my old suburban district, here I get a few murmurs and demurrals, with a general understanding that the expectations must be high in order for them to reach their goals. The students seem to know and accept that the results they want can only come from hard work, even if they have the natural resistance of the young to the prospect of hard work (although usually not the work itself).

The faculty is definitely on-board as well. The school is only five years old, and yet has already had a change of principals and some upheavals in faculty, some caused by the madness of our politics around school funding. [If you ask me, and you didn't, school funding should be in a lockbox as untouchable as that for Social Security, buffeted from changing political winds. It is part of the sacred compact between us and the Americans who preceded us and between us and those who will follow. To suggest crippling changes is to recommend treason to the very idea of America. Sure, we can argue about how to spend the money, and see if we can't do it more efficiently, but savings should be plowed BACK INTO OUR CHILDREN, not any other little projects people have up their sleeves. End of hysterical screed.]

As anyone who knows me would expect, I have far more doubts about myself than about my students, who are still young and flexible. Will I be able to maintain the pace and the standards? Will I find the words to say and things to do to coax and coach my students to performing at a collegiate level? Virtually all of my classes are with seniors (I have a handful of juniors in Creative Writing), and as far as we at AHHS are concerned, they are all college bound; therefore, the biggest part of my job is to make sure that freshman English contains few, if any, shocks or surprises.

So the question is, can I get my assessments out of the trap of worksheet-type short answers on the one hand, but steer clear of assignments that aim so high they become vague and poorly defined? Can I tune the tone of my students' written voices so that they have the detachment of the academic voice without losing passion and personality. (I always think of E.B. White as the perfect essayist - calm, rational and observational while also being warm, human and SPECIFIC.) Will I get these courses to hang together and make sense in the brain as we move from project to project, from one literary work to another? Will I properly differentiate among students and among classes? Will I figure out a bright-line distinction between CP English and Honors English? Will I challenge my AP class without wearing them (and me) out? Will Creative Writing get its focus and not devolve into throwing things against the wall to see what will stick?

I've volunteered to advise National Honor Society, which is a first for me, but seems appropriate for a teacher of seniors. I have only a slight idea of what and how much that entails, so that is terra incognito. I will not even discuss my other extracurricular plans, insofar as they are only in the proposal stage now, but suffice it to say that should they move forward, a huge amount of trenchwork will be required, as there is no pre-existing infrastructure to support such activities, as there was in my last school.

All this to say, I really hope I am up to this. That said, my supervisors are investing a lot of confidence in me, and if I succeed, it will be done more to justify their faith in me than because of my innate belief in my abilities. I know I have taste, energy, seven years of classroom experience and an ability to communicate. I feel the lack of formal training in teaching, especially in literature. This is where I feel most acutely that we should change our titles from teacher to coach. I know how to coach -- that's how we teach music and drama. It's an apprenticeship, trial and error method. There is no map, and that is what I am used to. But real literature teachers have maps, and I will learn to make and use them. And being a mere child of 55, I am just as resistant to doing something new as my 17- and 18-year-old students.

We all know that we have to stop thinking about schools like factories. But are we ready to think of them as laboratories, as loci for, in FDR's words, "bold, persistent experimentation?" To do so is to accept that some experiments will fail. This doesn't trouble me. The default position for young brains is to learn. They will learn, willy nilly, like it or not. Often, the best thing you can do as a teacher is not to impede the education that is going on, with or without your own agency. The question is exactly what and how students will learn. Stephen Sondheim got it right (as he so often does) about our responsibility as parents and teachers.
Guide them but step away,
Children will glisten.
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn,
If just to be free.
Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen...
Also, I really need to get more sleep.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good luck or bad luck - you never know

I am very pleased to announce that I will begin teaching senior and AP English classes at American History High School in Newark on Monday, September 19th. Both the classes I have been assigned and my students are elite. AHHS is a selective magnet high school, rated 6th in its category in New Jersey by the Newark Star-Ledger, with a 100% graduation rate and 97% continuing their education.

It's easy to guess that it will be a privilege to work in such a place. What is less intuitive is that, for me, that only became possible because of all the jobs that seemed wonderful to me that I didn't get. Over and over I would have an interview which seemed reasonably pleasant, but which bore no fruit, and over and over I would curse my bad luck at not being offered such a plum position. Little did I know that the real plum would have been unreachable for me if I had been under contract as of the first day of school. It is one of those weird concantenations of circumstance that makes one realize that while it's pretty easy to know when your luck is good, it's hard to know when your luck is bad.

All through my middle and high school years, I was a devoted fan of the humorist Jean Shepherd, who improvised 45 minutes of comic observation, jaundiced nostalgia, social comment and kazoo music every weeknight for almost 20 years on WOR. Shepherd later became famous as author and narrator of the film A Christmas Story, which weaves about a half-dozen of his written short stories. His first full-scale film project was The Phantom of the Open Hearth starring Matt Dillon as a teenage Ralph Parker taking a summer job in an Indiana steel mill. It was my brother who brought my attention to the film's chilling closing words: "Once you've stared into the enigmatic face of the Phantom of the Open Hearth, she will give you either good luck or bad luck -- no one knows which."

As Hal pointed out, this is an ambiguous conclusion (probably deliberately). It may simply mean that at the time the luck is conferred on a person, that person does not know in advance whether they will receive good or bad luck. Or -- and more significantly -- it could mean that one never knows, even at the very end of life, whether one's luck was good or bad. There are just too many imponderables.

Somerset Maugham's story "The Verger" is an old favorite of mine. It tells of a church sexton whose tiny world is shattered when he loses is humble but beloved job because he is illiterate. Distraught, on his way home, he seeks the solace of tobacco. But he cannot find a convenient tobacconist between the church and his house. Detecting a gap and an opportunity, the former verger scrapes together some savings and opens a tobacco store. And in time another, and another and another until he is the tycoon of a vast chain of stores. A bank manager dumbfounded by the huge deposit being made by this illiterate titan of retail, asks:

Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to [read and write]?"

"I can tell you that sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still
aristocratic features. "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."

I do expect this new position to be a harbinger of good fortune, success and happiness. But I arrived there by dint of a lot of what I thought at the time was bad luck. And after all, I am the son of a woman who, while virtually on her deathbed, wrote an article for a church magazine called "The Blessings of Cancer." You just can't rely on bad luck to stay bad.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

This is how we ALL will be teaching in less than a decade

The Flipped Classroom

This is a good presentation, although it's slightly too simple. I would also add the use of video games, as I discussed in an earlier post. And for those of us who teach writing, videos may not be terribly useful. Most likely, there will be some other online resource for the student to access in non-classroom time.

Still, there's no question this is a better use of the extremely rare and precious resource of teaching time than what most of us do today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lecturing and teaching

I first saw Professor Michael Sendel of Harvard talking about his book Justice: What's The Right Thing to Do? on The Colbert Report and immediately sought it out. It's a very readable, straightforward, unfootnoted primer on Political Philosophy built on an inquiry into ideas of justice, morality and ethics.

Then I discovered that the course from which this book arose had been recorded for broadcast on PBS and was available on disc and online. In fact, here's the first episode (warning - it's 54 minutes long and there is a good chance you will be fascinated and unable to stop watching):

Now you can paint me blue and call me a Buick, but I don't think any of that is beyond a reasonably accomplished high school senior. (I believe Professor Sendel's course is for freshmen -- they sure talk like freshmen.) And if I had the chance, I would love to build a course on the use of these lectures (they are divvied up into discrete 24 or 25 minute segments), using my own classroom as the seminar-discussion portion of the class between lectures, just like in college. It would be a nice foretaste of college procedure, and these are issues and ideas that automatically engage any young person. In fact, these are the issues that any thoughtful young person MUST reflect on as they are becoming who they will be.

But that's beside my point in making this post. What's really interesting, beside Dr. Sendel's clear and simple explication of the ideas and analysis of the writers and questions considered, is a good illustration of the difference between writing a book and teaching a course. As I said, the book Justice is ultra-clear and ultra-simple to read. I think I even almost understand Kant's categorical imperative, at least if I stand very, very still and don't look at any flashing lights or kitties or anything.

But oddly, it is almost too clear, too smooth. It goes very fast and ideas rush at the reader very quickly. It's probably not a good idea to sit down and read the book straight through, but to stop and reflect for a while between each chapter. But when you watch Professor Sendel teach virtually the same material it doesn't rush at you the same way. We can see him "feel the room," engage in dialogue with the students, incorporate what he needs, deflect what he doesn't, and yet make every student there feel included in the conversation. Because oddly enough, while he is teaching in the most regressive and (research tells us) ineffectual mode available, yet he is effective and his ideas land and stick and leave a residue in your mind after the video is over.

Of course, when you're actually at Harvard you have a week or so between lectures to absorb what Sendel has said, to read the material for the next class, to find the holes in his arguments and to prepare questions about how it all fits together. But even without that, the videos are more effective than the very fine book. I would summarize the difference as teaching.

It all put me in mind of another series of lectures recorded at Harvard back in 1973, when Leonard Bernstein occupied the Norton Chair for Poetry and conducted six very lengthy lectures -- the longest was just shy of three hours -- on the direction of concert music. In fact, the whole thing was a defense of diatonic harmony which had been on the wane for the previous 60 years or so, but which turned around and defeated non-tonal music within a decade of his lectures, especially in the work of Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. And oddly enough, Bernstein built his argument on linguistic theory, justifying the whole series as a matter of poetics, which was what the endowment was supposed to be for. (But really, who would have hassled Bernstein if he had wanted to show home movies of his dog for 102 minutes?)

Again, the lectures were published as a book, but the book is really missing something. What they're missing is both Bernstein's pedagogical skills and the force of his personality. Which are inseparable, as they are with the charming, though less histrionic Professor Sendel.

Here's a short excerpt explicating Bernstein's central conceit:

Fun, huh? And you don't even have to know anything about music to engage with his ideas. You don't have to agree, but you almost HAVE to respond.

What makes this work, what makes old-fashioned lecturing appropriate for both Bernstein and Sendel is that they are not simply delivering information you could get from a book or a website. They are conducting an inquiry and constructing an argument; engaging in the fine art of persuasion. And to do that effectively, you must bring the power of human personality to bear, provided you have one.

Aw, the heck with it. Here's the entire first lecture by Bernstein, if you've got an hour and three-quarters to burn. It's really worth it.

All of the Sendel course is available on YouTube, and here, where there are supplemental materials. And all of Bernstein's Unanswered Question lectures are on YouTube, absolutely free. (The DVDs cost hundreds.) Isn't this a great age we live in?

And if your school IT guy still is blocking YouTube, show your principal this and start knocking some heads together. Don't take any guff.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The scientific literature

Cards on the table time: I have always had the desire to teach English in a school setting primarily devoted to math and science. This may relate to a family proclivity -- my father, brother and son all are engineering types who were and are extremely articulate and verbal. (My brother is even a published author in his field.)

Or it just may be that teaching English to literature nerds is like shooting ducks in a barrel. How much more satisfying to lead science and math wonks to discover how important the ability to explicate and persuade is? After all, sooner or later, scientific progress depends on the ability to communication with non-scientists, even if for something as crude and utilitarian as writing grant proposals and accurate succinct abstracts of reports?

Literature and Science have a lot to say to each other, and science has provided a number of protagonists in literature, going back to the near-mythic character of Doktor Faustus, who poses the elemental question as to whether it is possible to know too much. More recently, we have turned scientists into characters of legend and, yes even myth. Galileo, Curie, Pasteur, Fermat, Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Heisenberg and Feynman have all proved to have achievements and personalities large enough to gather deep cultural resonance, beyond the specific facts of their lives.

Let's leave aside science fiction* and mad scientists, and acknowledge there is a body of film about good and real science. A Dangerous Mind, Infinity, October Sky, and Apollo 13 which has at least as much science as it has adventure. Sloan Science and Film is a major NGO project that celebrates good films about real science.

But the theater has been a far more hospitable place for the serious consideration of science, including Brecht's Life of Galileo, Copenhagen (about Heisenberg and Bohr and the atomic bomb), Proof, In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, RUR (the play which originated the word "robot"), and the musical Fermat's Last Tango. Any of these would be marvelous to study and/or produce in a high school setting. And, in a way, Shakespeare's Tempest, while about a magician rather than a scientist, deals with the problem of having so much knowledge that on the one hand, you can manipulate the people around you, and on the other hand, the community becomes dependent upon you.

Today, in a technology driven age, it can be argued that Galileo, Tesla and Einstein are more significant mythic figures than Odysseus, Sisyphus and Pandora. In any event, it would be exciting to explore them with students who know more science than I do.
Bad science fiction is about adventure and most good science fiction is actually about politics, which make them irrelevant to this discussion.

Spoiler alert: Stop worrying about spoilers

The reports broke a few weeks ago, and personally I was not surprised at all. "Spoilers" is a misnomer, because knowing the end of a story ENHANCES enjoyment of the work rather than spoiling it, according to a study by two UC San Diego professors published by Psychological Science. As a group, English teachers go berserk at the thought of Cliff Notes and their equivalents being widely available for free online, for fear that students will vitiate the reading process by jumping to a synopsis or summary of the book being read by class.

Aside from the regressive practice of having the entire class read the same thing at the same time, the over-emphasis on revelation on story or plot points keeps students frozen at the lowest level of the reading experience. It teaches students not to enjoy reading, but to endure it in order to get to the important thing -- What happened at the end? Reading becomes a means, not an end in itself.

The threat is not the use of supplemental materials in connection with reading, but their being used as a substitute for real reading. And focusing your reading assessment on having the students know what happened not only cripples and reduces the reading experience but is an open invitation to cheat. It's like the NCLB cheating scandals -- when you place huge stakes on something which CAN be arrived at by cheating, of course people will cheat. Your assessments (and the government's assessments of schools) need to be conducted in such a way that cheating is impossible.

Ancient cultures knew this. The stories of Odysseus, Jason and Oedipus were told over and over and always ended the same. I suspect the same was true of Gilgamesh, not to mention Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. The essence of the oral culture was not surprise endings, but the art of the teller, the beauty, harmony and expressiveness of the verse, the telling details, the vividness of character. Scheherazade didn't stay alive with O. Henry plot twists, but through the artfulness of her storytelling. An Athenian wouldn't think of going to a play for which he didn't know the ending. Likewise, mostly, for an Athenian. Stories were all about the mythos, the definition of the culture that produced the story, its values and aspirations. One is not supposed to be surprised by one's own culture. It's the water you swim in all the time. It's renewing, enriching, inspiring, rejuvenating. Perhaps sometimes cautionary. But never startling, except in the way that all deep truths are startling.

And as teachers of reading, we should be teaching the appreciation of how stories are told, not the content of the stories. We should be dealing with deep thematic content, subtext, structure, style, language, syntax, diction and the relationship of the story to mythos, not What Happens Next.

Bad news. Sooner or later, this is going to require students to write at length and in detail. Which means that you're going to have to read it. And if you don't craft the task well, this could be quite tedious, especially if you have three or more sections doing the same thing at once. (I would love to be able to teach the same course in different order to different sections some time.) But if you're not prepared to read a lot of student writing, much of it substandard in a lot of ways, and make a lot of comments and endure the rewriting process with them, perhaps you're in the wrong racket. Because no matter the value of alternate assessments for different learning styles and different intelligences, the bottom line is the student's ability to decode and encode ideas and emotions from and into written language.

Stories -- they can be told with gestures, with pantomime, with pictures. Stories are not literacy. So if we use stories to advance literacy, let us focus on the literate aspects of that expression, not on the crude lineaments of narrative.

And in the spirit that spoilers make reading better, let me recommend a very fine site, The Book Spoiler. You can even be paid for submitting your own detailed synopses of books, spoilers and all.

You can take your hands off your ears and stop shouting "La la la" now.