Sunday, November 16, 2014

Condition

Teaching provides many opportunities to collect artifacts.  Here's one I've been meaning to share.  I consider it an art form of popular culture.  Sadly, it's now probably extinct because of the way textbooks are distributed.  But...there was a time, when a teacher was responsible for collecting and distributing books.  Lots of record-keeping here.  Some may still do this, but my experience recently says all students go to the textbook room and check out their own books with computerized ID cards.
Anyhow, one of the rituals back in the day was to determine the condition of the book, record it on the little form stamped inside the front cover, and then add date and teacher's name.
Students, being the clever beings that they are, would often embellish the choice of descriptors.  For years one of the most common forms of written classroom folklore was found inside books that had been checked out.
In deconstructing my classroom of 25 years, one of the last things I did was to go through some old copies of books that I believed might soon be discarded.  I tore out a few of these book condition charts and put them in a folder.  Here's one:

 You can see that in 1971 a student named John Khure was not content with the choice of descriptors and took it upon himself to write a short essay in the space provided for one word.  John wrote: "Examining this book closely, I find very little wrong with it.  But that on no grounds means it is therefore free of blemish."  No good, fair, or unsatisfactory for this guy, he wanted to make a statement and therefore did so.  Reading down the list of subsequent readers of this one book shows that it's condition went from "New" to "Dead."  It appears that for a few years, the book came in at "Fair" and even "Used."  Before it was declared dead in 1989, it languished at "Very Poor" for a decade.
I've always loved the spirit of these little bulletin boards found inside most schoolbooks for many years.  Can't help but think that it might be lost forever.  This one, like the small collection I managed to harvest become like Zen Koans for contemplating the arbitrary spontaneity of young people. Especially when it comes to completing a simple task. In this era of standardized curriculum, here's a flaming torch that shines on individuality.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elliptical Voyage

If every piece of writing has a thousand faces, then a poem must have a few hundred, at least.  So many incarnations possible.
Here's one:


Elliptical voyage  

Music
Inside my head 
Lends Creedence to the rainfall 

With eyes closed
I'm running
Back in time 
Back to brown leather and red flannel 
Back hair and blues music 
Echoing
Moving past Neil Young,
Dylan's acoustic set, 
Harmonicas soothe the
Glare of neon idols
Is this nowhere? 
Does anybody know where
The darkest night 
Has a few bright stars...

Baby, 
Let me
Follow you down.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gifted

A friend of mine just won the "Teacher of the Year" award for the state of Oregon.  Most deserving he is too.  I first met Michael about six years ago when a student teacher I was supervising was placed in his classroom.  We bonded instantly.  He now gets to meet the President, the Secretary of Education and banks a $5,000 check as well.  Sometimes they get it right.
Got me thinking, however about the time when I won a similar, local award.  Not quite as prestigious, but certainly very gratifying for someone like me that doesn't handle accolades well.  Nevertheless to be singled out as one of my district's candidates for what was called the annual "Teaching Excellence" award was very humbling.  I'd been nominated by a colleague (and former winner of the award) so it was even more gratifying.  I received a wooden plaque with engraved lettering in gold, and a check for $500.
I wish there hadn't been a competition for the award.  I'm not sure how many candidates were nominated, but I recall going for an interview late one afternoon and being told that I was the next to last interview of a long day.  They then asked me if I was nervous.  My saving grace has always been that these things don't make me nervous at all.   I either don't take them all that seriously or enjoy the attention.
At the award ceremony I had to make a speech.  There were about 5 other winners who also made acceptance speeches so it was a long evening.  I was feeling at one with the profession that night, but even though I acknowledged all teachers everywhere, I knew deep inside that there were severe differences.  In my speech I talked a bit about my students because they are instrumental in any recognition a teacher might get.  I told a story about the wall in the back of my classroom that was collaged with hundreds of pictures of people.  Sort of a pop culture who's who that often came in handy during class discussions.  At the mention of a name like Amelia Erhard, or a writer like Salinger, Steinbeck, Flannery O'connor, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison...there was a picture.  Lots of athletes, pop culture and music icons too.  Occasionally a student would add his or her own portrait to the wall.  How's that for self-esteem?

One day, one of my favorite pictures from the wall went missing.  It was a lovely picture of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.  Certainly part of my childhood, this picture disappeared right about the time when Eddie Murphy started doing his version of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live.  Now I know that anything in a classroom is fair game.  Once you put it out there, you have to be ready to say good-bye any time.  But I really loved that picture and I told my classes that I was bummed out because it was gone.  It was a beautiful portrait of Buckwheat; in no way stereotypical.  About a week later the picture was discovered in the Boy's Locker Room, destroyed.  Nobody knew why or how.  But what happened after that is why I referred to it in my little speech.  I started receiving pictures of Buckwheat anonymously.  Lots of them.  In my mailbox at school, under the classroom door they slipped.  Once another Buckwheat was added to the wall.  They were all nice pictures, but not the one I lost, the one I loved.  But my students were trying to take care of me and that's what mattered.  I mentioned that in the speech, but I'm not sure how it went over with the crowd that night.  No matter.
My plaque sits on a bookshelf today.  It's mostly what remains of my 33 years in the classroom.  What physically remains.  My district gave me a certificate of thanks, but I'm not sure where that went.  The $500 I spent on a new clutch for my car at the time.  Today I found the picture of Buckwheat I loved so much online.  I feel better.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mental Construct

I said good-bye to someone I recently met.  I said good-bye because this person no longer exists.  She was completely in my mind.  The image, and all that went along with it, were based on misconceptions.  Here's the context.
A few weeks ago I began to mentor a couple of first year teachers.  Since one of the two was someone I never really met, and didn't know well, I assumed I knew she was.  That assumption came from a memory I had when we were actually in the same room together at the beginning of the previous school year. It was an orientation meeting where all the new student teachers meet their supervisors for the upcoming year.  Somehow, I held on to this image as if it existed. So here we are, a year later and this person is now a first year teacher assigned to me.  We spoke on the phone a few times, and I've gotten to know this young teacher in these early attempts to build trust and learn a little about each other.  That kind of trust and knowledge is essential if my efforts and her interest in them are to continue.

So last weekend, after a handful of failed attempts, we decided to split the difference in miles between us and meet face to face. I drove the 50 miles to a coffee shop in Salem. A different person showed up.  She was not who I thought she was.  She looked completely different from the image in my mind.  Maybe there is another teacher I actually did meet once a year or two ago that fits the image I have.  But I was way off.  Off in age, appearance, and demeanor.  The voice was the same, rather hoarse, but the rest of the person was completely different than I expected.
The immediate response I had was one of overwhelming relief.  I'm not even sure why.  perhaps tis revelation brought with it the chance for a new beginning.  It got me thinking, though.  How many times do we construct images and personalities of people based on seemingly reliable information? If we do this, and we do, what are the consequences?
Maybe this isn't a big deal at all.  Maybe it's just a reminder that people are always much more complicated than we think. That, and we are often misled by our mental constructs.
My mistake was an honest one.  I'd met a roomful of young teachers a year ago, thought the one I'd been in contact with was an image I retained from that meeting, and then found out it wasn't.  Sp why the tremendous relief?
I can venture a few guesses.  I realized the instant the face to face meeting began that everything I previously thought about this persons personality and ideology, her values and level of commitment, was subject to change.
What if she experienced the same thing regarding me?  That's certainly possible because all we really knew about each other in terms of personality or ability to work with others, or even our teaching styles, we got from other people.
I was reminded, from this experience, how it applies to interpersonal relationships like dating.  Ever meet someone through a phone call?  Images in the mind abound.  Then the day of reckoning and the person that shows up to the first face to face meeting either fits the image or doesn't exist.  I think the latter is often the case.

Monday, October 20, 2014

More Complex

I realize that it is not enough to simply post these dramatic and engaging drawings with nothing more than a brief explanation.  It occurred to me also that in posting these pieces here that they could easily be reproduced.  I agonized over that for a time but in the end decided that if any young teacher, given today's climate, ever reads this and can clearly see how multiple intelligence theory applies here, then it will be worth the risk.   Like thousands of former students of mine, I lost contact with James and it would be difficult to track him down to secure permission.  The drawings were a gift to me, so legally, I'm covered, but that doesn't lessen the dilemma here.  In any event, what is important now is to offer some additional comments on the topic here: visual learners.  To do this, I ask any readers of this blog to comment on what you see in the drawings.  I'll share a few thoughts and then post a couple of additional pictures.
The concepts of Adlerian psychology reflected here are wholly symbolic.  Though they don't articulate the concept completely, they do invite discussion that will do just that.  After James' group's presentation, many of the drawings were displayed around the classroom so that his classmates could look at them, think deeply, and raise any remaining questions.   This first one represents the concept of organ inferiority.  Adler believed that each person has one organ that is more dysfunctional than others and therefore impacts our personality and behavior.  For example, a bad back might explain why someone continually "backs out" of difficult situations.


This drawing focuses on Adler's importance of the mother.  The brief caption reads "Drink Up."  I leave the next observations and interpretations to you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Complex

One day, right in the middle of the introductory psychology class I taught, a student ran through the classroom door and then just stood there.  I recognized him as an autistic Special Ed. student who was usually accompanied by an aide.  My class recognized him too.
"Hello," I said, "welcome to our psychology class."  He said nothing, but instead ran over to a small bookcase behind my desk in one corner of the room.  My students and I were spellbound.  After a few minutes, he selected a small pink volume from the top row of the shelf.  Without a word, he ran out the door.  I recognized the book as Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings.   Thinking I'd better check with the Special Ed. teacher a few doors down I reached for my classroom phone.  Just then his aide came in, quickly apologized and left.  I never mentioned the book and my students were asking if I ever expected to see it again.  "Guess, we'll find out one of these days," I said.
What followed was a spur of the moment class discussion about autism and a few related things.  More proof that teaching "moments" are unpredictable, happen randomly, and often take their place among the most memorable experiences in an otherwise routine school day.
I think one of the reasons that my class was so responsive and "chill" throughout this little incident is that a few Special Ed. students were sitting right there too.  The introductory psych classes were de-tracked, like most of my schools classes, and composed of the widest variety of learning abilities and learning styles.  As an elective, the students were engaged and eager to share their own experiences and perspectives. The wanted to be there. Typical groups in that class might be composed of students who were headed off to Ivy League schools or the local community college.  Students who would be first generation college students and others whose parents taught at nearby U C Berkeley.  National Merit scholars and students who were headed to the military or the workforce within a year or two at most.
Working with this kind of class really taught me some remarkable lessons on how kids learn within the confines of a typical classroom environment.  It's hardly the same way, as you might expect.  Students learn concepts and skills that never make any textbook or set of standards too.
In one of the aforementioned psychology classes was a student who was a classic visual learner.  He was in my classroom right about the time computer art was first becoming popular.  An immigrant from China, James was the son of a Chinese woman and a British ex-patriot.  His parents were older, if not elderly and he'd spent most of his time in the U.S. as a Special Ed. student.  James enjoyed psychology but his Asperger's necessitated sitting near the front of the room where he felt safe near the teacher.  Over time, I began to see some of James' art work.  He began spending his lunch period in my classroom using a computer or just making ink sketches.  He seldom talked with his peers. Until...they began to see some of his computer art.  He made new friends.  many pieces fit neatly into the Fantasy genre so popular with teenagers.
What was particularly fascinating about this art was its complexity.  It was abundantly clear that James had a fine mind, even if he couldn't always represent his knowledge in conventional ways.
Later on in the semester the class was studying personality theory in groups.  Each group was assigned a theorist and the task of teaching the class, through a group presentation, about that particular approach to personality theory.  Using a case study the class had discussed thoroughly gave students an opportunity to apply the new concepts learned for each subsequent theory presented. James was working with the Alfred Adler group.  His work for the group's presentation remains, in my view, an excellent example of visual intelligence.  Though he could barely write a cogent paragraph, James displayed incisive knowledge of Adler's personality theory through the drawings he made to illustrate the various concepts his group discussed.

These concepts included Adler's Inferiority Complex, his ideas on the importance of the mother, and his views on organ inferiority. Nobody told him what to draw.  The groups simply read and discussed their assigned theorist's ideas and decided on how best to convey them to their classmates.
Here are a few of the drawings:


Oh yeah, one more thing.  About two weeks after that little book disappeared, the student who "borrowed" it returned.  Saying nothing, he placed it on the top shelf exactly where it had been and then walked out the door.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Invitation

The legendary oral historian and raconteur, Studs Terkel, once concluded that "your work is your identity."  This, of course, came after completing the wonderful collection of interviews that comprised his book Working.  Stands to reason that when we change jobs or retire, we often have to deal with an identity crisis.  For teachers, this is all too common. Who will I be when I am no longer Mr. Greene?
Guess what?  If my experience is any indication, you will be Mr. Greene.  Maybe not in deed, but certainly in idea and inspiration.  I no longer arise at 5:47 (that's right) and teach a full day.  I no longer experience the anxiety that accompanies a new lesson or parent conferences or grading or even the weekend.  But I do still discuss the direction of the profession.  In fact, I do it too much.
It's all to easy these days to engage others in an exchange of ideas.  Whether it's social media, or just casual talk in the grocery story or coffee shop, people want to share their ideas.
Everybody went to school, so everybody has something to say.  We are all experts on our own experience, right?

It doesn't take long to get into a spirited conversation, whether it's teacher bashing, union bashing, single parent bashing, or...one of Oregon's favorite targets...public employees.
Half the time we are preaching to the converted, but occasionally the art and skill of sharing your ideas involves being true to yourself without alienating someone with whom you completely disagree.
I've noticed that when I get extremely frustrated with an opinion particularly vitriolic or uninformed, I issue an invitation.  I'm fond of inviting people to join me for a first hand trip inside a classroom. My hope is that I might be able to provide some insight into what and why many teachers do what they do. They never accept.  I expect that.  Something more than sitting in anonymity would be just too much to ask.  Here's another way of looking at this dilemma.
Imagine a clean white linen tablecloth that's suddenly lost its luster with the presence of some unsightly crumbs.  The next course won't come until the crumbs are removed...only there is no one willing to do the honors.  Why should I have to clean up after myself in a restaurant? goes the internal message. All parties have the option to remove themselves and often do.  Game over.