"[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

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.