"[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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shakespeare in the house

LAUSD students working on fresh approaches to Shakespeare
To be honest, this blog has been quiet for the past couple of years because, although I've been working harder on teaching than I ever had, I didn't have a lot that I felt I could or should share with my fellow teachers.  The journey was largely personal, finding my own way integrating myself into a high-expectations inner city high school.

But this week I am embarking on the kind of project that I went into teaching in order to do.  Let me backtrack.  One of the reasons I was brought into American History High School in Newark was to kickstart efforts at developing a drama organization, which is as essential to a full-service high school as having at least one significant sports team per quarter and a functioning music program.  To begin with, these programs are often the only thing that pull some students into school, students who may be struggling academically, socially or emotionally.  It gives them a place of belonging and very specific and authentic tasks to perform.  And the tasks themselves teach a lot about working in groups, meeting deadlines, solving problems and accepting responsibility.  They are not "extras" in high school--they are core learning experiences.

But we are a magnet school in an urban environment wrestling with issues of poverty and crime and it is no small matter for students to be able to stay after school four afternoons a week to participate in a conventional school play rehearsal schedule.  This issue has stymied our efforts to build an effective program, despite having many talented and engaged students.  (I even had a student win an acting scholarship in a Rutgers-based competition even without our group having completed a single production for the year.)

But-- we have an excellent video program led by a fine teacher, Jason Lee.  In his first full year on campus, several writers and directors of note emerged, and one of them completed this short film which has won praise from literally all over the world.

And the young woman who wrote and directed this film is not our only talented filmmaker.  So I have this data floating around in my brain when the other weekend my wife and I are watching Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (a play I have directed myself), which he and his wife shot in their house with their own money with their friends.

I had one of those moments of synthesis (appropriate, since it is one of our goals this year to teach our students when and how they are performing synthesis) and realized that if we could not stage a play continuously on the stage, we could FILM one.  It could be done piece-by-piece, a few actors at a time, but in contrast with a video class project, in which the actors would be using an original student-written script, we could adhere to our agenda as a Drama club and engage with a classic text, applying our own experience and knowledge to it.

Of course, the play would have to be out of copyright in order for us to film it, not to mention adapt and cut it, but that just played to my own prejudices, which run toward exposing students to the Classical texts.  (Note to self -- write post about why our time with students is better spent addressing the great classic stories and texts and that applying the tools of storytelling to purely contemporary matters is better left to higher education, after students have fully absorbed our culture's own myths and archtypical narratives.)

I put a short list of Classics before the club members, including some Shakespeares and some Ancient Greeks.  There was a certain amount of interest in the contest of the poets in The Frogs by Aristophanes, which we were thinking of staging as a full-on rap battle.  (We may yet get to that one.)  But in the end, we turned to the play I expected to be the favorite, Romeo and Juliet, but not for the reasons we thought.  We stumbled over a new and exciting reading of the play which revolves around social matters very much on the front burner for us here in New Jersey, a reading which I am not quite ready to share publicly, partly because it may stir some controversy and partly because it is SO FREAKING BRILLIANT that somebody will probably try to steal it.

I am working on my own first pass with the script this weekend.  Happily, I've taught the play a few times and recently edited it for an uncompleted student production, so the text is a very familiar friend.  The plan is to shoot the whole film within our building, much the way Orson Welles's adaptation of The Trial was shot almost entirely in a single abandoned railway station in Paris.

I even have a frame story that sets up the all-school location concept, but I don't think I want to share that yet either.  I've sent our young director my first pass on Acts I & II for her to add her own creativity and if I can be finished with this rough pass in another week or so we can start casting.  Another adventure begins!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Is there a band or isn't there?

I have too much and too little to write about in my own personal teaching experience -- and I will try soon.  I no longer move from one small success to the next as I did when I started this blog -- there's been too much re-learning, and much of this is not suitable to be shared in a public forum.  (Sorry, if that's a strange remark in these share-it-all era we live in.)

But for the sake of keeping this gasping blog alive, I thought I would share some recently published pieces that may suggest we are beginning to outgrow the cant about school reform which has made our jobs as teachers so difficult and has palpably damaged the education of our children for half a generation.  It was as though you found out that you have asbestos in your house, and you called in a guy who, in order to prevent your children from contracting asbestosis, burned your house down, gave your kids cancer and pocketed a few million from the insurance company.

To begin with, here's a piece written by an education professor and published in my local paper, The Record, (called by most The Bergen Record) remembering a remarkable, life-transforming teacher and observing how unlikely it would be for that teacher to earn a high evaluation using the feckless metrics our public officials have helped put in place.  Think about that.  Remember that great teacher, that one that made you happy to be a student, that person who helped you maybe see a way through towards finding out what truly engaged you and made you happy, maybe even towards your life's work?  Did they prepare you for a standardized test?  Did they execute a perfect, tidy 48-minute lesson in which you had acquired a skill that you never had before?  No, it's ridiculous.  It's a ridiculous paradigm, and people are starting to realize it.

This piece by an actual working teacher and published in the Huffington Post suggests a metric, but one which is unmeasurable:  A teacher is a nurturer.  I do not expect my year-end eval to suggest that I need to do 23% more nurturing.  The fact is, administrators, parents and politicians, you don't understand why I do my job and therefore you have no idea how to incentivize it.  The truth is, that is beyond your powers.  My rewards come principally from my interactions with my students, and only they and I have control over that.  There's nothing you can do, despite your fervid attempts to limit and proscribe those interactions into merely preparing for and conducting endless one-dimensional low-function assessments.

And speaking of low-function assessments, the fact that the Emperors and Empresses of School Reform have no clothes is becoming more readily apparent to more walking-around regular people.  This is the worst hypocrisy.  These people use statistics to prove that our schools are failing, but have no reliable statistics to show that their proposed reforms, the academies filled with inexperienced novices, the pre-fab charter schools, the increasing testing, year after year, cutting into actual instructional time, will work.  They never have yet.  (Check the links in the Salon piece I've linked in this paragraph if you don't believe me.)

I think what America needs is to sit down and watch The Music Man.  That's a super-great musical from The Golden Age in which a slick con-man comes to a small town, invents a problem which is destroying that town's youth.

Then after the gullible villagers have been suitably riled up, he shows up again as if out of nowhere with his pre-packaged canned solution to the "Trouble," no matter what it was. A boys' band is the Magic Thing which will keep the youngsters off the street and busily engaged. Good idea, right?


But there's one problem. He can't do what he says he will do. And he has no intention of doing so. He just wants to collect the money and run? Sound familiar?

And then -- this is where our con, Harold, makes the Big Mistake that our school reformers never make.  He gets to know and care about one damaged and hurt kid and about that kid's family.  And then, all the slick, phony pre-packaged programs and solutions fall apart.  He admits to the boy what he can't admit to anyone else.  He's a liar and a fake.  But then he tells the broken child just how extraordinary he is -- not as a platitude, but from his own personal knowledge.

The boy is not mollified.  "You said there's a band!" he shouts.  Harold looks like he's been hit with a brick.  He shakes his head, "I always think there's a band, kid."

I don't know about our reformers -- I don't know if they think there's a band or if they know perfectly well there isn't.  But I sure do know that there COULD be a band -- if the people who know how to make music were put in charge.

Maybe we could try that.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Flip over and smell the coffee

Salman Khan, guru of the "flipped classroom"
If proof were needed that America is a temperamentally conservative nation, we need merely cite that when it comes to large-scale social institutions, such as education and health, we would far rather cling to an old system that we positively know is failing than try some new system which might fail, even though it might also work.  "Why even try?" we say.  "Since we clearly aren't doing this correctly now, Q.E.D., there is no possible solution and anything else we might try will fail."

So we cling to the 19th-century industrial factory model of school 40 years after most American businesses have dropped it.  Because we all experienced our pre-college education as tedious, dreary, pointless and mostly ineffectual, we believe either that all following generations must be similarly punished or that it is impossible to make early education engaging, valuable and "sticky" (that is, having lasting value throughout our lives.)

We worsen the problem by having our school districts led by educators who are forced to act as politicians defending the school system from the depredations of the mendacious hooligans we elect, which leaves them in a permanently crouching posture, trying to get noticed.  God forbid that the second most important thing government does (I will grant you that protecting our physical safety comes first) be done with intelligence, insight and the proper resources.  There is always a chance that a despised minority will attend public school and obtain some valuable tools in the perpetual conflict the overclass in the way that education can do.

Okay, I didn't reallly mean to get into this rant, but it does get me excited just how stupidly we do school and how we are unable to break the cycle of stupid even in the clear evidence of catastrophic failure.  But a few schools in Bergen County, New Jersey (where I live) are attempting one of the most workable and efficient of the proposed solutions I've heard since I began in the teaching racket.  Specifically, New Milford, Fort Lee and Northern Valley Regional are experimenting with the flipped classroom model which I first presented here in 2011.  And this idea only has become more mainstream with the advent of MOOCs.

Since I first wrote this, smart phones have become even more prevalent, and even in the inner city district in which I teach now, are all but universal.  Therefore, all materials for the flipped classroom, MUST BE AVAILABLE AS APPs on multiple platforms.  Most of my students do not have in-home access to high-speed internet on a computer.  They do, have these pocket computers, and those must be considered the primary delivery method of instruction for this system.  Which also means that visuals must be VERY LARGE and VERY CLEAR to compensate for these tiny screens.  No clusters of text or mathematical characters.

One of the great advantages pointed out by the linked article is the sheer time efficiency.  Students don't HAVE to take in the instructional videos at home.  Using their phones or tablets, they can view while traveling to sports events or between parents' homes, or while hanging out with friends.  (My students can listen to anything on headsets and absorb it while simultaneously tracking their friends' conversation.  Altekockers like me might not believe it, but I have observed that students can recall incidents and dialogue in detail from films in my media course even though they have been gabbing virtually all the time.  They were virtually born multi-tasking, whereas folks like me have had to try and learn it.)

Because the biggest downfall of our present system of education is sheer inefficiency from the student's point of view.  Sure, it's cheap and efficient from the state's point of view -- gather students in cheaply-built rectangular buildings in the largest aggregation possible and present them with uniform materials assessed with cheap-to-correct multiple choice and T-F tests.  But from the student's point of view, none of it makes sense.  We gather them at the times they are least likely to learn.  In high school, we randomly shuffle them from room to room from topic to topic for more time than it takes to absorb one new piece of data but less time than it takes to engage in and complete a genuinely valuable task.  Everyone hears the same thing at the same time and is subject to the same deadline for the same tasks.  And one is discouraged from using the fantastic communication and networking skills one is developing in one's "real" life.
I'd ask you to wake up but you won't remember anyway.

The sad truth is that high school, like college, is being run by interschool athletics.  The only reason anyone can give for high school to be from 8 to 3 is to allow time for athletics after school.  It has no other logic.  Dismissing students at 3, 3 or 4 hours before their parents return home puts them genuinely at risk.  Police will tell you the greatest number of arrests of school-age children is between 3 and 6.  Not hard to figure.

And worst of all, science uncontrovertibly demonstrates that these hours are BAD FOR LEARNING.  Does there need to be any other justification for changing a school practice?  The kids are asleep in class, and not just because they were up all night gaming and texting.  They're not designed to learn at 8 AM, and I wish the Christian conservatives would get on this issue, because our current school schedule is clearly in contravention of God's plan.  Sadly, I discover that this is not the first time I've discussed this here, but new data justifies repeating the point.  Our school schedules have no function except to facilitate team sports and keep budgets down.  They render positive damage upon learning and upon student safety.

I hope I live long enough to see this nation stop saying that children are important and start treating them that way.  Like by spending time and money on them, instead of empty rhetoric.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Whether tis nobler to write a recommendation

These days I find myself teaching high school seniors, primarily, a literally mixed blessing.  At the moment, we are relieved from obligatory preparation for high-stakes testing, as most of that is over; on the other hand, we shepherd our charges through the minefields of college and scholarship applications.  And with that territory comes the not inconsiderable burden of recommendations.

My colleagues recommend forms.  I was a lawyer for 20 years, and even then I could hardly stand to put my name to any kind of form communication.  It felt like an essential compromise of self.  So, like a proud idiot, I write every recommendation roughly from scratch (admittedly, my openings and closings are a bit of a formula) based on my personal knowledge of the student.  I pretty much ignore their resumes and brag sheets -- after all, the Admissions Office can read that stuff as well or better than I can.  I need to provide something available from no other source -- what the student is like as a student.

The problem is when they are a lousy student.  And not lousy in spite of decent effort.  I mean when they have a lousy attitude, a lousy work ethic and lousy results on paper.  I suppose most other teachers would say I should just steer clear of the whole thing.

But is it fair that our life be determined by the mistakes of our youth?  Who of us would survive that?  Who's to say that the inconsiderate lunkhead in front of me could not be an incredibly productive purpose once they recover from universal handicaps of being young, from their urban backgrounds and their toxic families?  Do I, with the short acquaintance of 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week for a few months of their life, have the right to be gatekeeper to their future?

Many of you are thinking of me as hopelessly wishy-washy as you read this.  I suspect you have a bad memory.  The only other explanation is that you were once insufferably perfect and are now intolerably judgmental.  So I say, "foo!" to you.  I cannot be cavalier about these recommendations.  Too much weighs in the balance.  One young person's life -- that's an immense weight for a relative stranger like me to toss around like Adenoid Hynkel tossing the globe-balloon in The Great Dictator.

Scold me if you will, I err on the side of opportunity, of the second chance and the third, all those chances that I needed to get where I am.

So that said, what the devil do I write in such a recommendation?  I adopted a pretty firm policy when I began to teach not to lie.  Not to my students, not to my supervisors, not to parents and not to other members of the educational system.  (This was a drastic shift from the M.O. of the entertainment business from which I had come.)  So I will not say that Johnny is a wonderful student when he is not.  I certainly can't claim greater intelligence or writing skills than he has, since the college or scholarship organization will have their own data on those matters.

So I devote myself primarily to issues of character.  Which presents its own challenges in the case of a student who has no self-discipline and rarely exhibits consideration to me or his fellow students.  Still, there must be some nugget, some kernel of promise somewhere down there.  That's what I write about, all I can write about.  The rest should be capturable by some sort of metric already on the record.

I must confess to smug satisfaction when I learn that research confirms that character is key; that the best predictors of success are not cognitive achievements, but elements of character -- persistence, consistency, those qualities researcher Angela Duckworth gathers under the term "grit."  There's something I can tell an admissions officer about that might not show up so clearly on a transcript.  And if I lack data, I can legitimately shade what I do know in an optimistic direction.

Because optimism is another element of grit.  And I need it just as much as the students.

So maybe I write some recommendations that are more positive than justified.  But who can be sure if that is so until the student in question has actually failed to live up to my hopeful projection?  Until then, it's all about the journey.  A journey that starts with an open gate.  I'd rather let Joe Schmoe in and watch him flail, then lock Steve Jobs out and let him disappear into the mob.

Sue me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Way out there in the blue

Looks like Scar had a white daddy, or at least grandpaw...
This blog has been quiet for a while, partly because I've been preoccupied with launching a new film-oriented course, that is, Social Justice and the Media.  This week, we've just finished looking at The Searchers (1956) and I assigned my students to write a reflection on how a visual device or idea is used to support or explicate a theme in the film.  These sorts of ideas are new to my students, so I created a model, and although The Searchers is one of the most written-about films ever mind, I thought I'd share my hair-brained little ideas with you, my friends here.

The overriding theme of The Searchers is a racism which accepts without discussion that European whites and Native North Americans cannot co-exist on the same vast continent, let alone the same home and hearth. (This belief proceeds from both sides.)  The separation among them must be absolute, and any suggestion of crossing the line between those groups brings expressions of anger, contempt and disgrace.

But five characters are bound together visually by their distinctly blue eyes, which “pop” in the bright color process of the mid-1950s – the eyes of Ethan, the angry hater; of Martin Pawley, the “half-breed”; of Laurie, Martin’s probable bride, who turns out to be an unthinking racist and therefore more worthy of contempt than Ethan’s knowledgeable fear and loathing; of Debbie, Ethan’s niece, who might have been and might actually be Ethan’s daughter and the eyes of Scar, killer of Debbie’s family and possibly her husband. The suggestion is that Scar himself may have been the result of miscegenation, bringing further contempt from Ethan’s burning eyes. Their can be no question that director John Ford chose to use a non-Native actor not just because he didn't know any Native actors who were right for the part, but because he wanted those blue eyes and almost Aryan appearance. And in the final analysis, these characters form a strange family-- uncle/father – son – bride – husband, each connected to all, directly or indirectly.

Moreover, the blue of those characters' eyes are mirrored by the bright blue Western sky under which so much of the action takes place; even though the events are dark and the seasons are varied, the blue sky remains a near-constant from first shot to last. (Even the winter scenes and night scenes are played in shades of blue.) Thus, blue becomes the color that unites and embraces the universe of The Searchers, and while Ethan begins the film in a red shirt of anger, at the end,wearing a deep blue tunic, he lifts up his niece/daughter, clad in a long skirt of blue (or perhaps that is the blue blanket Marty wrapped her in); the blue of loving eyes, of the long horizon into the future, of the harmony of creation itself, sky and sea, embracing all living things.  

A bit grandiose, perhaps, but the more you watch The Searchers, the more you see the balances and resonances in it.  Time with this film is never wasted.

Taking a bat to TLWBAT

Insight often takes its time.
Quick, name a significant skill you have acquired in 48 minutes or, better yet, 40 minutes.  What's the matter, can't think of one?  Yeah, me neither.

Aftter the earliest grades, we teachers are, by and large, playing the long game.  Often teaching can be like a tossing a rock into a deep dark abyss and waiting to see when that distant "plash" can be heard. 

How many of us knew our teachers were complete idiots when we were in school, only to realize ten years later that we had learned something really important, something we were grateful to have learned?  (And how many times have you tried to reach out to that teacher?  Did you get a satisfactory response?  Me neither.  It's a sad fact that we will never be as important to our teachers as our teachers were to us.)

I suppose there are times in, say, math class, that a high school teacher can teach a certain specific operation which can be practiced a few times, and because that operation has few potential variables, it can be considered "mastered" within a single class period.  But most of the time, the application of that operation will need to be learned over a period of time, and integrated among other operations.  For teachers of literacy, it can be even more complex.  The great essayist E.B. White admitted that, 40 years after his time under the tutelage of Professor Strunk that he was only batting .500 with regard to omitting the "needless" words, "the fact that."  If E.B. White only got it right half the time after writing for The New Yorker for over 30 years, how is a high school student going to "master" a skill in 40 or 48 minutes?

So what's the problem?  Admit that things take time and get on with it! 

The problem is the way most teachers are required to report how they plan their lessons.  The plan for every day includes a space in which the teacher must specify what "The Learner Will Be Able To" do when the lessons is complete.  TLWBAT.  (When I started it was SWBAT, which is easier to pronounce, but evidently the Student  became The Learner while I wasn't looking.*  This is educational progress.)  The only honest choice here is to admit the lie to yourself and make the honest explanation.  No, the learner won't be able to do that when 3rd period is over on Wednesday.  But a few weeks from now, after some consistent practice, the learner should at least admit -- perhaps under duress -- that the learner ought to be able to do that by now.  Because other than grades or cookies, what is the incentive to practice an important but dull skill which demands steady application?  Yes, we'd like it to have an inherent incentive, but often that's just not going to happen.  Do you know a way to make mastering punctuation of quotes inherently engaging?    If you can't should we skip it?  No, we learn it because it is a small part of the inherently self-motivating task of making oneself understood by other people

There are a lot of moving parts involved in reading and writing well -- especially writing.  It is hard to assess whether those parts have been truly assimilated and meshed well together until a great many steps have been combined and practiced and practiced.  And mastery -- well, if E.B. White didn't get it after 40 years, what can we expect for our students?

The fact is, this daily mastery model does not comport with the science of how people learn.  There are long periods of confusion or mental dullness, followed by flashes of insight.  It is rarely a slow, steady progress.  We teachers just have to keep in there, pitching steadily, waiting patiently for the Great Cosmic A-Ha.

Teachers understand and accept the value of metrics.  We gauge our students by them, and the most honest among us gauge our teaching by our students' metrics.  But many deep, complex important things we teach are not really susceptible to hard-and-fast numeric measurements.  We can test you on whether you know the plot of Macbeth.  We can even ask you to identify themes and discuss how Shakespeare works them out.  But can you really quantify for me the level of cunning when Macbeth tells his wife "False face must hide what false heart doth know"?  Can we test how deep into the bowels of hell Lady Macbeth reaches to intercede with Hecate himself to "unsex me here"?  Can we measure how deeply you register Macbeth's existential despair as he spits out the words, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" 

None of this desire to measure is fatal to learning. But why, administrators, why do you impose the necessity of a silly lie upon us, and then judge us on our failure to achieve a phony metric?

Ultimately, we are dealing with the indefinable, the unutterable, the ineffable, the -- literally -- unmeasurable.

And the end of that learning journey may be years and years from now.

So can we at least put some qualifiers on our TLWBATs?  Or spread them out over days and weeks?  Or do something to make them honest aspirations, rather than industrial-model evasions?
* At least "SWBAT" can be sort-of pronounced -- "SwƏ- bat."  But TLWBAT is unprounceable.  You can invert a couple of letters and get "Twill-bat," but that's cheating.

UPDATE:  My friend Keith Peterson suggests I adopt the phrase "The Ideal Learner Will Be Able To", yielding the slightly-more-pronounceable TILWBAT.  Still not sure exactly what to do with the W, but I think it's an improvement.