Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beats Me

I received a small gift from a lifelong friend the other day.  He'd been to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and sent me a copy of a new book of poems by Jack Hirshman.   I go way back with Hirshman.  As an undergrad at UCLA, I used to see Hirshman way up in the stacks of the University Research Library.  I worked there doing various things and one of the most enjoyable was shelving books.  Unlike working at the check out desk or checking IDs, pushing carts of books to be re-shelved was meditative in its own way.  Often I'd find bookmarks and various "souvenirs" left behind in the books.  Who knows how long the pressed leaves or ferns were hiding in volumes untouched for years.  There were thousands of books in hundreds of languages.  There were collections and sets and donated libraries.  Each floor was a universe of literature in its own write.
Occasionally I had to all but step over Jack Hirshman while finding the proper place for a book.  he lived up to his reputation as a Beat poet.  After he'd given up his job as a University faculty member (or lost it) he still remained a presence.  Hirshman has lived in San Francisco for many years now.  He's flourished and seems to be writing better than ever.  Even though I have some political differences with Hirshman the Marxist, he still inspires me:

            Off The Floor
                        (for Jack Hirshman)
c2012 Blgreene

At first, he was just an old poet I found,
Barely awake in the stacks of the research library.
A beaten Beat,
Covered in wooly sweaters and sleep stains.
He’d been somebody,
A University professor with a wife in the Town and Gown

At first, he didn’t move,
But I learned to step over his habit,
And if I worked carefully,
I learned there were surprises in the books
I was assigned to shelve,
Crow quill scratches,
Pressed ferns white as English lace,
Calendar pages still roaring from the 20s.

When I read he’d chosen to quit the multiversity,
I sought out his poetry.
I found a limited edition.
In brightly colored words
Lining white pages,
One red print, one green ink,
Another blue.

He praised the immortality of Blake,
The androgyny of wet flesh,
He said, “You see,
I cannot tell a lie.”

He chiseled with the alphabet of collage,
Layered the riffs,
Extra Miles on the Coltrane

Now, in glossy editions,
He lives,
Resurrected from the research library floor
Jesus with arms spread,
One hand with cigarette burning
The other a fist.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Social Justice is a popular theme in school curriculum these days. In fact, as a concept it is often listed in state standards and graduate teaching programs as a important part of the underpinnings of all curriculum and teaching. And why not? We are all concerned with justice in this society. Often Social Justice takes the form of egalitarian principles or cultural sensitivity. Again, this is crucial stuff on which to build education in a democratic society.
More particularly, Social Justice means making choices in what and how you teach something. That might involve taking into consideration language capabilities, cultural practices, or long forgotten or deliberately omitted historical events. Teachers who are cognizant of a diverse, unbiased curriculum are aware of the limitations of using textbooks. Aside from the fact that textbooks contain some of the worst writing ever published, even the good ones,(and there are good ones) severely limit what can be covered in class. As a wonderful colleague of mine likes to say, "It's not how much you cover, it's what you uncover." Sometimes the primary sources necessary for social science teachers can be painful. Sometimes they are ugly, racist, hateful, distorted views of human beings and their history. I make the case that they still must be included. Rather than "fetishizing pain" as some have called it, I see it more like teaching tolerance through the objects and artifacts of intolerance. To be sure, these tragic pieces of our past must be used carefully. But their power to transform is powerful. I have seen this time and again over the years I have taught. These "ethnic notions" from any racial and ethnic group function like talismans. They are carefully kept and displayed under the most careful conditions because they are documentary evidence of our past. We are fast approaching the time when events like The Holocaust, or the ravages of human slavery in this country, will come under increased scrutiny and pressure to prove that they really happened. Strange and difficult as that may seem, it is happening already. That's why I was pleased to discover, recently, The Jim Crow museum. (see web site) Not only because these folks get that it is important to use some of these difficult images and objects to teach about the past, but because, as one of many collectors of this stuff, I now know where my modest array of these materials will probably end up one day. After all, you don't put racist, stereotypical books, posters, magazines, or advertising images all over you house. They don't belong on the walls or the coffee table. This area is rich ore to mine, but it must be done carefully. And it's not without controversy. I know many teachers who would never use some of the advertising images or the popular music of the early 20th century in their classrooms.
Fine. I'm not one of them. Funny thing is though, you don't have to go back a hundred years to find questionable imagery. It's still out there in mass media, music, TV and certainly in people's minds. Take a look at some of the stuff that has surfaced since Barak Obama took the White House. Social Justice sometimes is nothing more than having the courage to face your past. Like historians always say, how can you know where you are going until you know where you have been. More to follow...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Highway is Alive Tonight

Bruce Springsteen's birthday is today. I think he's 62 or 63. When I think about him I don't really think about all his hit songs. I don't think about the concerts I've attended or the recordings I have. Well, almost. I think about one...only one in particular. The Ghost of Tom Joad. That CD and the title song came along at just the right time for me. As I recall, the CD coincided with what has come to be know as the economic downturn in this country. To honor a character in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath while in the classroom I was making comparisons to the 1930s was a gift. I taught Grapes of Wrath for at least 25 years. For some reason it became the crescendo of the academic year. But I learned it was best taught before and after the Winter break. That's because the reading amount is heavy for most high school juniors and they have the holiday break to finish and really appreciate the last few chapters. But today is about Springsteen and his genius in writing and performing "the ghost." One of the most fascinating things in teaching The Grapes of Wrath was always how students and in many ways their families, responded to the text. I must confess that I made a big deal about it because I really believe in what the book says. Its thematic content is needed these days just as much as 70 years ago. But inevitably, every year somebody would tell me that the book is too depressing. How can a novel that focuses on the perfectibility of human beings be a downer? I did my best to stress less depressing themes but ultimately that only goes so far. I prefer to think of the intensity of the human experience as challenging, maybe even inspirational. Not depressing. Sure shit happens. That's the point. So Happy Birthday Bruce Springsteen. So glad you got the message.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sound It...OUT

Like most things, teaching has always been fraught with contradictions. Just as the variety of human personality types, there are many approaches to achieving success in the classroom. I guess that's why the concept of standardization seems counter intuitive to most educators I know. Bottom line is, if it works do it. OK, so that's fine, but what if teachers are being "required" to use methods that they know and feel are intrinsically wrong? This is what is occurring all over the country now with the use of scripted curriculum and one size fits all approaches to skill building. Teachers are being de-skilled in many ways. With that comes one of the most important parts of remaining in the profession...JOY. When you are told what to say and when to say it, when you are evaluated by test scores, when you have lost your voice and your will to pursue the natural curiosity you possess, we have a problem. A very big problem.
This morning I read part of a conversation on a national list serve of teachers. The concern today was the use of dog clickers (those sound making little devices that trainers use to reinforce positive behaviors) in the teaching of reading. A quick bit of research tells me that this is indeed happening in schools where administrators and school boards have tasted the poison Kool-Aid of pseudo reform. People often ask me to explain why teachers need unions, why teachers seem to always be at odds with various attempts at reform, why teachers feel so threatened these days. Think I'll begin with the dog clickers. That will lead to behaviorism v. humanism as approaches to learning and perhaps we can go from there. Now, I have no problem with reward and punishment, or using some of the techniques that reinforce various behaviors. But not for something like reading. That's a no-brainer. No wonder half the population of this country did not read a book last year. (either digital or print!)
In my last couple of years in the classroom we fought off attempts to remove "whole" books from our curriculum. In one of the most meaningful things I've ever done, I recall participating in a public reading of Fahrenheit 451 with colleague and students BEFORE school started at 7:30 a.m. That way parents people driving by, bus drivers and pedestrians could all participate if thy choose. The message got least temporarily. A final thought. My old school district, Richmond Unified, in Northern California, nearly went bankrupt back in the early 90s. The short version is we had a Superintendent who spent wildly but couldn't pay the bills. One of those bills was $29 million in computers and hardware. There was a time when we were encouraged to write curriculum and courses based on what teachers and students wanted. This freedom was heady but short-lived. I was able to teach a class called Black Authors in my school. With 45% of the student body African-American, it was soundly supported and immediately popular. When the debt hit the fan, it ended. Lasted only two years. What remained were the books I was able to purchase before all the funds dried up. How ironic. But then something good can often result from something disastrous. I see a lot of well-trained dogs in some parts of the country some day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Masked Man

He's got one of those faces you see all over. The kind that you can't place because it's always out of context. He speaks to yo on occasion as if you've known each other for a lifetime. You don't know his name. In fact you know absolutely nothing about him except that you recognize his face and it keeps popping up all the time. Today, he's really animated. Fired up because he has something to say and he's got to say it right now. He spills out of the coffee shop and into your face. He sets the scene. Apparently some guy in there is on the phone or on his computer having a video or audio conference. He's way too loud and could care less. He forces his conversation, which is meaningless to everyone in the room, on the faint music in the background. He rapes the ambiance with his voice. He's wheeling" and dealin"' and oblivious to the reader in the room. Oblivious to 3 other conversations near him. Oblivious to the baristas, their supervisor, the guy who emotes into his journal daily with his head in his hands. He wants you to know, this familiar face. He wants to tell somebody and it might as well be you. You listen. He tells you he is a runner and when he hears voices creeping up on him he gets paranoid. It's because he runs, he says. He wants everyone to play by the rules. But there might not be any rules. You understand and you tell him so.
You share his concern. A thought strikes. You say, "Maybe there should be some kind of universal symbol...a non-verbal sign a person could make to communicate that the border has been crossed." Something that says, hey bud, you're too loud, be aware of yourself and those around you. He agrees. He really agrees and lights up like the Statue of Liberty. You suggest making the time out sign. You form a T with your hands and he's ecstatic. He exits muttering to himself and then turns to see you enter the coffee shop. It's quiet inside, and you still don't know his name.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Very Rich

It only takes one night to see the striking differences between the Republican and Democratic conventions. Even though the process of politics, with all its influence peddling and diluted legislation remains the same, the Democratic Party looks and talks a lot more like the people that inhabit this country. Of course it depends on where you live and how you speak and what you value, but it's abundantly clear that this convention looks very different. Factor in Michelle Obama and her very personal speech. That just cements the perception. Watching the Castro twins from San Antonio, one the Mayor, another running for Congress, is a reminder of what this country will look like in 30 years. After hearing them, It's going to be just fine. Of all the contrasts between the two parties and their conventions, the most striking to me is the role that former presidents have played. I still find it incredulous that George W. Bush was blatantly absent from the big party In Tampa. Cheney I can understand. He's barely alive on a daily basis, but Bush has taken a complete power from public view. How's that for a validation of all his policies and programs. I guess it's terribly inconvenient when none other than Bishop Tutu, one of the most respected world leaders and one of the finest minds on the planet is calling for your prosecution. To paraphrase historian Harvey Wasserman, whose history of the United States from 1865 to the present begins with an intriguing sentence about the Civil War, "The war with Iraq made a few businessmen very rich." That this country is hugely polarized is obvious. Yet both political parties conjure up and embellish the mythology of the American Dream, both have rags to riches stories,and both support policies that have failed. If President Obama is reelected, we'll all have an opportunity to see just how effective a leader he can be. Without the burden of reelection and all the baggage that comes with that, he has an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. In the end, "the American people," whoever and whatever that means anymore, are terribly pragmatic. Only n America can a moderate centrist like Obama be labeled a Socialist by reactionary Republicans. It's clear that the Republican party is in shambles and will need to enter the 21st century if it ever hopes to regain the White House. What fascinates me more is what direction the Democrats will go post Obama. That could be as soon as next year, but I bet it won't.