Friday, February 26, 2010


Two major events put teachers in the news this week. And what a paradoxical pair they were. In Colorado, again, a school shooting in the shadow of Columbine was thwarted when a pair of teachers tackled the shooter. Treated like the heroes they are, the nation is once again reminded what most of the people who teach in our nation's schools are like. They do what they must.
I don't think there is a teacher anywhere who doesn't think (and sometimes dream) about being in that situation. Given the amount of guns available in this country, it's not a stretch to assume that one, or some, are around you everywhere. It is unfortunately the kind of situation anyone who works with the public needs to think about...needs prepare for in your mind. Look alive.
What strikes me about this incident is that it is yet another example that debunks the myth that suburban schools are safer than urban schools. Seems to me that most, if not all of the worst school shootings have been in the frontier land known as suburbia. Sure, I know all too well how dangerous it can be to teach in the inner city, but most of the sociopaths seem to act out in those newer sprawling campuses that have everything. Why is that?
And then the other major story: Rhode Island School Board fires all teachers at high school. Here's the scenario; it is an underperforming school with awful test scores and a low graduation rate. (48%) In a high poverty area, Central Falls High School was in such a free fall that the board felt it was time to throw in the towel.
After my initial shock, I had to ask myself, honestly , how do I feel about this, and what is the real story here?
After much thought, I'm wondering if this drastic step just might afford the opportunity to see what happens when those who purport to know what's best have a chance. Certainly I'm not advocating removing teachers en masse. But when the finger of blame gets pointed their way so many times, by those who do not know what it's like and expect students to "perform" like trained animals, they just might get what they deserve.
The only question that I see here is just who will replace these dismissed teachers? You will not see anybody rushing to switch school and have a crack at Central Fall's problems. Everybody knows, somewhere, that there are greater variables at work here. Everybody knows that in this community with all it's socio-economic realities, it's history of being on the bottom, it's slew of intangibles that always add up to being abandoned, something has got to change. We'll be watching. But for now, I can't but help but wonder what it must be like for many of those fired teachers. What goes through the mind at the end of the school year as they remove their belongings, and then themselves from their classrooms? Will any of them think of their excitement as they began their careers? Will they flee from this deteriorating institution or will they walk away with bowed heads? Emotionally, what will they feel? I don't think the anger will be with them; perhaps some of their fondest memories will accompany them out the gate. Some might smile, knowing full well that they will be back again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Death of the Imagination?

2.3.10 - If adopted, the proposed common-core standards for writing will kill the spirit that produces great literature and nonfiction, Edgar H. Schuster argues.

The contradictions between the real and imagined worlds that our educational system struggle to serve are many and varied. If there ever was one word to encapsulate that battle, it's definitely be the word STANDARD. That word, in my view, is better suited to describe bathroom plumbing (American Standard, look for it in a restroom near you) than human behavior. So it is that the battle resumes in a recent article by Edgar H. Schuster that we do a great disservice to students by holding them to a set of "standards" that, in effect kill their imagination.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, about killing anything, so this is a battle that I have been on the front lines of throughout my teaching career. I always felt that my saving grace was not to have been an English major. That, and the fact that I intuitively privileged the creative spirit in my approach to teaching. It strikes me as peculiar that some folks are just now getting hip to the fact that the imagination is threatened. A good deal of research shows that there is indeed a huge gap between teaching grammar and its usage. Now I'd be the first person to agree that we have to agree on some basic ideas and that proofreading and re-writing, and "correction" play an important role, but it ability of think freely, to imagine, to play with the language to experiment, if you will, with form and phrase is the real skill.
And then there are the contradictions. Most English teachers come to realize, early on, two huge contradictions. First, most of the reading they are asking their students to do is fiction, and most of the writing they assign is non-fiction. The fearful term essay plays a big role hear. But the second large paradox, and one often figured out by students first, is that many writers, including many of the great writers violate the "rules" all the time. They know the rhythmic impact of a fragment. They dare to write a paragraph that might only be one or two sentences. (I once knew a teacher who taught that all paragraphs had 5 sentences, a lot of reading she did, huh?)
So the match race between structure/form and voice continues. I think its possible for both to cross the finish line together. As one of my mentors likes to say, "If you want to write well read good writers." For my money, the best writing comes from an uninhibited imagination.
Of course there is another dimension to this war. With increased attempts that amount to a corporate takeover of public schools, only those who can afford to release their imaginations will have the opportunity to do so. There is "something happening here" and I think it IS exactly clear. Just imagine (pun intended) if only those who take control of their own education will be the only ones to develop their imaginations. That means the only ones free to play with the language and live in a world devoid of 5 paragraph essays. Gosh, why ever would any educator want the public schools to be depositories where young people aren't taught to think and dream, to critique and wonder, to feel comfortable and part of a larger community of writers who think and care deeply about issues and each other?
Your answer please...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Go Outside

It's been an eventful week. Looks like the DSM IV is becoming the DSM V. That's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for the American Psychological Assn. We could just call it the Big Book of Official Mental Illnesses. It is time for the 5th edition (V) because we know so much more and some "conditions" are now perceived differently. It's often a good thing, but not always. Case in point the proposed changes for Asperger's Syndrome. The Aspies, as they like to call themselves, are angry about being lumped together with Autism. They should be. There is such a variation of Autism, and Asperger's Syndrome has an even wider variation. A former student of mine, an Aspie, is most vehement about this proposed reclassification. The fact that he is about to graduate college and is a powerful thinker and writer says it all. A final note before turning this page: I will be curious to see the new material on Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorder when the 5th edition comes out. By the way, it should all be online too. Seems to me that Bipolar has become the mental illness de jour lately. It's tossed around effortlessly and often worn as a badge to explain all manner of questionable behavior. If history serves us, the section labeled Personality Disorders will probably have a few new names this go round. Can't wait to see what's next.
Go Outside
I read an article the other day about the impact of the film Avatar on some young people. In brief, the article said that recent research showed a rise in depression after seeing the film. Apparently a fair amount of people become depressed because they realize they are not, nor never will live in a world as beautiful as that one. Now I've heard that 3-D glasses can mess with your brain, even your perceptions but this one begs the question:when was the last time you looked, really looked at this planet? Major irony here is that some of us need to look now...Right now! If you think the beautiful blue world of Avatar can make you envious to the point of depression, just think what destroying this planet will do.
I'm very fortunate. I live in the state of Oregon. I can find Avatar in the Cascades anytime I want.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No Pain

I've got a new dentist. Not a bad guy, but very talkative. In fact, going to this dentist is all about stimulation. Let me say now that going to the dentist is probably my least favorite thing. In fact, I'm sure it is. It's not the pain; it's thinking about the possibility of pain. So going there is always a big deal for me. Then, when I'm all but disabled orally, he starts conversations. The kind I can't respond to with a simple uh huh or even a thumb's up or down.
Yesterday he suddenly announced that he was going Vegan for a month. I was curious why just for a month, but of course, was unable to get my "internal" question answered. It got humorous when he was talking to his assistant about butter substitutes and I kept trying to figure out how to communicate OLIVE OIL.
This office also features a TV for the enjoyment of patients. That's so unlike anything I'm used to that it raises some interesting issues. What channel do I want, for example. I wonder how many people opt for something middle of the road because it's safe. "Oh just put on the Today show or the news, but they are secretly lusting after HBO or some inane entertainment show, or maybe even like me, the horse racing channel or ESPN. But I wonder, does that really make the experience any different? I can't imagine watching something I enjoy like a beautiful fly fishing show while managing the anxiety and pain. Who needs that kind of conditioning.
Also in the area of avoiding pain are some recent observations by people with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Sarah Palin continues to charm the ignorant. She is truly the incarnation of simplistic. But make no mistake, dangerous, very dangerous. And then I heard Sherry Shepherd, of The View fame, dis The Who after their Super Bowl halftime show. She'd never heard of them; say no more. She couldn't get past their age. Guess what, we all get gray hair eventually. (lots I could add here, but I'm evolved and won't take the low road) As one critic pointed out, she'd never have done Stevie Wonder that way. But I'll forgive her, she just needs to be educated.
Question: Is the music business really as bad as it seems these days, or is it just me?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Tale of Two

Last week we lost two originals. I hope they don't come in 3s because right now we can't afford another. Authenticity was the name of their game. No prisoners. No compromises. Just one dose of the hard truth after another. But what contrasts. Howard Zinn was increasingly visible in his last years. A People's History is just beginning to get some widespread attention. It's use in classrooms increased with the wonderful work of Bill Bigelow from Rethinking Schools. Fortunately this work began before his untimely death because we need Zinn's perspective and his innate sense of democracy all the more now. He knew that real history is not top down, that it is comprised of all the people from all the levels of this culture; all their experience too. His books ring with heartbeat of what this country is all about. Howard Zinn once said:
“Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.”
Works for me. I'd love to teach a course based on this contention. Of course Zinn's works would be required reading, but I wonder if students in such a class could support their ideas with other documents. Howard Zinn showed us where to look.

We knew where J.D. Salinger was hiding, but he would prefer we didn't come calling. He was essentially gone for 50 years. But the widely read author of Catcher in the Rye probably said what he needed to say in the few works we do have. In all the pop culture eulogies of Salinger I've read in the last few days, very few seem to understand some of the basic themes in Catcher. They all focus on the disaffected teenager's expression of angst, the rebelliousness from a conforming culture. They miss the death of his brother Allie. This point was effectively addressed in a brief essay I read in the S.F. Chronicle last week. No surprise it was written by a high school teacher who has had the privilege of discussing catcher with his classes for 20+ years.
One of the most haunting images from that novel is Allie's baseball glove with poems written all over it. That's the Zen Koan that Salinger has given us.
My favorite quote from the novel comes near the beginning when Holden says, "It was the kind of day that you thought you were disappearing."
They are gone now but forever appearing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Many More

I survived my mother-in-law's 85th birthday celebration. In all, 72 people showed up to munch the hors'd oeuvres, sip wine and congratulate Betsy. If ever anyone deserves to be called a diva, it is she. It's remarkable how, after she lost her husband of 56 years, she's rebounded with a new boyfriend and her identity in tact.
Seems odd to call an 89 year old man a "boy" friend, but with Ed now driving a new 2010 Porsche, it's a lot less incongruous.
If it were just a matter of schmoozing with the elders, the neighbors, and an occasional family member, it'd be a lot less taxing. But everyone came out for this event. It's a tribute to Betsy's degree of divatude. That means all the cousins, their kids, and in some cases, their kids.
The day begins when I get carried off by Morgan, 9 and Cora, 6 to Betsy's closet for a session of dressing up the King. This means that I sit on a stool for about 20 min. while they adorn me with their great grandmother's pearl necklaces, earrings, and an occasional broach. My ensemble is topped off with a glittery ribbon wrapped around my neck. I emerge for pictures as Cora tells me, "You may not be the best looking person at the party, but you will be noticed."
At the midpoint of the festivities, my brother-in-law John clinks his glass and recites a poem to his mother. Everyone smiles, responds to the call and response, toasts Betsy, and continues eating, drinking, and exchanging niceties.
My favorite moment of the afternoon comes when Aster, the former caregiver of my father-in-law arrives with her two daughters. They are Eritrean, and quite striking looking. I haven't seen them in about a year and the two girls, aged 15 and 14 have really grown up. Both are now taller than their mom. We share a few laughs and I hear all about their new school (Oakland Tech. HS) and then I ask Aster about her family. I think to ask about her sister "China" (pronounced cheena) who was so named because she looked more Asian than African. I think later that I forgot to ask about Abrahet, a deaf sister. Then one of my sisters-in-law comes over and announces she knows someone in Ethiopia who is a diplomat in Addis Ababa. "If you're ever in Addis, and you need something...blah blah blah... I thought she knew Aster was not Ethiopian. I thought she knew those two countries were at war. Ouch.
But the best line of the day comes when we all sing Happy Birthday to Betsy. After the song, evryone sings "...and many more."
Aster's never heard that before. She looks over at me and starts laughing. "Yeah, that's a good question, she whispers in my ear; how many more?"
"No Aster, I tell her, "they're not asking how many they're saying and many more, wishing her many more birthdays." But you know, I think I like your question better. How many more?