Monday, December 27, 2010

Not or Never

A fascinating issue is playing out in the editorial pages of my local paper. Actually, just the fact that I still have a local newspaper is in no small way related to this issue. But that comes later. Here's the deal: The state Superintendent of Public Instruction recently ruled that it's Ok for students to use spell checks when taking tests on computers, or for any assignment. First of all, it's not that they could prevent this, but just the fact that a ruling came down from on high has sparked a huge disagreement. For some it's about the importance of knowing how to spell words. If we allow students to conveniently have their mistakes corrected for them then we are doing a huge disservice to them. On the other side is the view that using a spell check program actually teaches spelling.
I see the merits of both sides. The traditionalists want students to learn spelling and grammar. The progressives feel that while important, it's more important to allow students to take advantage of all the technology, possibly learn to spell by using the spell check program as a dictionary, and turning in a better piece of writing to boot.
I think it's all a moot point. When are some folks going to learn you can't go backwards on technology. It's wishful thinking. If the technology is available, if it exists, students will find and use it. Punto! (that means period...end of sentence...end of argument)*

I think, too, that the expression, development, and illustration of ideas trumps spelling and grammar. Now I know all about the form vs. substance debate. Both are important, but really now, if you had to choose between the two, which is more important?
What's clear is that things are changing and we have to change with them.
What happens when people are not burdened with making spelling errors because anything glaring will be caught? A few things. Proofreading becomes even more important because of all the typos that waltz through undetected. Take a little commonly made error like writing n o t instead of n o w. "We should now pursue that plan."
Let the spell check teach, let the writer proof read.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Confirm Now

Today I had a real social network experience. A friend of mine posted an article from CNN about a new study of Baby Boomers. This study concluded that the majority of boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were depressed. Among other things it suggested that "boomers" were dealing with depression because all their dreams of a better world were not realized. OK things are not going well these days. The economy is in the toilet, the cost of a college education is through the roof, people are seeing terrorists everywhere, while many of the real terrorists look like their next door neighbors. Hate abounds. Homelessness thrives, and it's difficult to have a conversation of substance lest you step on somebody's sensibilities. In my view, we boomers are not any more depressed than anyone of any generation.
OK, so I've been having this ongoing online discussion with a Facebook friend of a friend all day. In the end, though we disagree on everything from the definition of a "hippie" to how the history of the 60s will be written, in the end, we "Friended" each other.
Another confirmation came from the official site of comedian Bill Maher. In his annual Christmas message, he had the "huevos" to say something about the queen of all media Oprah. Here, see for yourself:

Bill Maher's video "Check out my Christmas message t…" on WhoSay

I don't think we'll be seeing Bill on Oprah anytime soon.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I'll be brief, I promise. No lecture. No diatribe. Just the facts.
I saw it in the paper this morning. One of those advice columns, but not the famous ones. This guy writes in with a real concern about his wife. Sees as if she went out and bought an expensive bottle of perfume. Then she gives him specific instructions to wrap it up and give it to her for a Christmas present. That simple. His complaint was that he longed to get back to the way his family did holiday gift giving. He used the words joy and surprise.
I'm not sure which got to me more, the initial scenario he presented or the "advice" he was given. The columnist missed the boat on this one. She told him to accept that his wife has clear expectations about how gifts should be given and wanted to adhere to her family's holiday traditions. She further urged this guy to find what he loved about his wife the most and focus on that. Imagine that, no mention of this distorted notion of holiday spirit.
It's not that I'm surprised, just slightly disappointed. Has this culture's bastardization of any true notion of this season become so disconnected that even a supposed "expert" can't see what's going on here.
What is the definition of a gift anyway? Is it "something I'd like you to have." Is it "something I thought you would like?" How about "something I gotta do?"
I gave a few people on my list this year what I think is a win/win/win. A local artist, in conjunction with raising money for Gulf Coast Recovery, (BP oil spill) is offering beautiful, decorative tiles with the image of a brown pelican for a contribution to the fund. My family/friends get the art work, the fund gets the money, and I get the privilege of keeping to my tradition of gift giving.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What Do You Know?

"How many of you have heard of Nelson Mandela?" The class of 32 high school seniors barely moved until one hand went up.
"Can you tell us something about Nelson Mandela," the student teacher asked.
"Ah... he looks a lot like Morgan Freeman."
In one of my observations the other day, I heard the aforementioned discussion. Yes, it's really true that many college bound high school seniors know very little about South Africa and Nelson Mandela.
When this particular student teacher introduced his world affairs class to the topic, I was asked by the cooperating teacher (aka master teacher) to participate in the discussion. He was eager to have me tell the class about the day that Mandela was released, given that it was a most memorable day in my own classroom and something that these students knew very little about. If you do the math it's easy to see why. They were barely 2 years old at the time.
The intro lessen for my student teacher went very well and when my time came I managed to pack in as much as I could with my allotted 10 min. We never really got to Mandela's release because building an understanding about just what Apartheid was and looked like too the entire time. I decided to do a mini demo about why race is a bogus concept. By having the tallest and shortest kids stand and then the lightest and darkest we talked about how everyone has the same 6 genes for skin color, but that the biggest genetic difference in the classroom was in height. Fortunately the kids responded well and when a blond, blue-eyed kid volunteered to "be the white guy," and one f only two African American girls in the class volunteered to be the person with the darkest skin tone, the point was well taken.
Before the lesson ended I heard a baby cry. Then more noise and a student got up holding a lifelike doll and slowly walked out of the room with the screaming infant. Immediately I knew it was a doll and what was going on. One of those "Social Living" class activities where students are part of a simulation about pregnancy and childcare. Back in the day we used uncooked eggs as the vulnerable life form. Today, the technology is so advanced that the simulated child looks and sounds real. Only the issues about teen pregnancy and birth control are the same.
When I return to this classroom in a month or so (Winter Break) I'll have a chance to see what they know about Mandela. I did mention, though, imagine what it's like going from prisoner to president?

I noted too that someone in Portland last week dropped a S. African gold Krugerrand into a Salvation Army bucket. It's worth about $1200. these days. No mention was made about the system and working conditions that produced that coin. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

About the Money

It's a vague recollection, but I remember it clearly. Is that a contradiction? Not really, I definitely recall an exchange in the main hallway of my old school. It was late afternoon, between 4:30 and 5:00p.m. As I remember, I was walking toward the main office probably turning in my attendance sheets. A student walked toward me and said hello. He called me by name. I reciprocated, calling him by name. He knew me though he was never in one of my classes. I knew him because I'd seen him play on our school's basketball team and many of my students were his friends. He had just signed a letter of intent to play basketball for the University of Kansas (KU) one the perennial powerhouses of college hoops.
I followed his career through ESPN and was only mildly surprised when he only played two years of collegiate ball and turned pro after only two years. The money is too big to turn down, especially for a kid from Richmond, California.
As with all NBA players, part of his initial salary went to establish a scholarship at his high school. Money well spent. According to tennis great Arthur Ashe, who used to give presentations nationwide, there are only a few thousand professional athletes in this country. That's all. If you take all the pro football, baseball, and basketball players, their number combined is less than 5,000. Given the number of kids who aspire to be professional athletes is in the millions. Ashe used to say that the odds of making it to the big show were 1 in 1000. "Would you bet your future at odds of a thousand to one?" he'd ask.
Yet, they all have the dream, and rightly so. Most don't really care about the odds.
A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend about this particular basket ballplayer because it's been almost 10 years now. I was curious if he was still playing in the NBA and if the scholarship fund was still in tact. I knew he had been traded a few times and enjoyed mild success, but was now more of a journeyman. So I decided to do a little research and found that at this point in his career he has played for no less than 9 NBA teams. On his way out? Hardly, I further read that he just signed a 5 year 32 million dollar contract. Guess the scholarship will be around for awhile.
I tell this story only because it underscores more about the values of this culture than a 10,000 word essay, prolifically illustrated, ever could. He's on his way out of the NBA and is earning 6.2 million a year for the next 5 years.
Every year people try to convince me and others that we really care about education. That it really isn't about money. That this country and culture are the greatest ever. (BTW why must one always be better than all others?) I certainly don't begrudge any professional athlete form earning a living wage. But really now...
The battle lines have been drawn in this latest attempt to ward off a corporate takeover. Teachers won't be signing 5 year deals but like the world of corporate athletics, will be under pressure to produce or fail to make the cut. Their stats will be published in the local press, if injured, their contracts will not be renewed. Unlike the pro athletes, they feel no pressure to terminate their education early. In fact, as teachers, they are lifelong students.
No, it's not about the money. I wouldn't know how to live on 6 million a year. I wouldn't want all the madness that would bring. Aside from a decent place to live, if I had excess money I'd travel. But then, I think a teaching credential should be a boarding pass to anywhere at anytime anyway.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Say Something

I taught Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman for over 20 years. Never got tired of listening to the lines either, though I must admit, I was always conscious of where I needed to be by the time a class period ended. That makes for hoping something I know will happen does happen before the bell rings. It means, too, that some discussions have to be revisited because getting back into the moment will take 24 hours.
Still, it all got done and I can truthfully say that it was a rare student who didn't find something to relate to in the anguish of the Loman family.
I thought about teaching the play this week because of a few discussions I've read and had lately about substance. In this tabloid Twitter technological trifecta that is media today, there is much that passes for journalism, that passes for drama, that passes for a good story that is featherweight. Sadly, that's just the way most folks like it.
When I taught "Salesman" I began with a little story that needs to find itself into these pages. Before Act 1 began, I told my classes about my friend Ed Robbin. Ed and I were featured players in a performance called "An Evening with Woody Guthrie" that survived in many bars, taverns, community theaters, fund raisers, benefits, and campus auditoriums throughout central and northern California from 1979 until about 1986. Ed knew Woody; in fact helped put him on the radio when he first got to California. He joined our little troupe when it was evident that his recollections and stories of the Depression era would really provide a contribution to the overall production. Ed died shortly after we stopped playing the circuit of clubs and coffeehouses but during those years we became good friends. His experience as a writer and theater director were an added bonus. So it was no surprise when Ed asked me to accompany him one night to a preview of a major new play in San Francisco. The playwright shall remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, he's a known award winner and very much alive. On this particular evening the director invited audience members to remain after the final curtain and participate in a discussion about the performance. Ed indicated he was interested. We found our way to the first few rows center stage in the Geary Theater (I'd never been that close before) and soon the director came out. The curtain opened and the cast were sitting in a half circle on chairs right in front of us. A question and answer session ensued. Within a few minutes Ed raised his hand and all present turned to look at this 76 year old, long white hair covered by a navy blue seaman's cap. Ed's olive skin, the deep set lines in his face, the pleasant smile, the distinguished look all made him attractive. People waited anxiously for him to speak because, simply put, he just looked like somebody important. Ed rose.
"You're all very good," he said to the cast nodding his head as he panned the group. "But the play doesn't day anything."
"A play has to say something; this play doesn't say anything."
With that, Ed smiled politely and said, "c'mon Bruce, I'm ready to go now."
I know he was right; the play didn't really say much. I'd tell this story to my classes and then hold up a copy of "Salesman."
"This is a play that says something."
As a writer, Ed's little escapade has never left me. Seems like there are a lot of emperors out there today, and they've all got new clothes.