Saturday, November 23, 2013

Open Up

Between the time the John Kennedy was murdered while riding in a Dallas motorcade on a Friday and the following Sunday when the nation watched his flag draped casket carried through the streets of the nation's capital, two other significant events of that three day span took place.   The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin took place LIVE on national TV and, of course, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the next president all happened within hours of each other.
I recall wanting to stay in front of the TV every second but my stern father wouldn't allow that.  It was Saturday, the day after the assassination and there were leaves to rake, lawns to mow, and with no football games (at least college games) time to complete some tasks that had long been overlooked.  Maybe it was because my parents had seen the death of a president before, even an assassination attempt on Truman's life, that they tried to avoid the 24/7 media coverage.  I, however, could not.  I kept sneaking into my room and turning on my transistor radio to listen to any further developments in this ongoing tragedy.
When I heard the bulletin that Oswald had been shot, I rushed out to the rest of my family and boldly announced, "Oswald's been shot, we gotta turn on the TV, it just happened."
Even my sometimes tyrannical father couldn't prevent the Packard Bell from showing us the latest incredulous event unfolding.
They showed the scene over and over.  The name Jack Ruby surfaced.  It sounded like something out of the wild west and being Texas, it certainly figured.
We all knew something big was going done, but as Bob Dylan would later sing, "You know something's happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

In the last few days, on this 50th anniversary of the events that taken together comprise what we call the Kennedy Assassination, I've followed and heard many stories, recollections, and versions of how those days have impacted and informed the years and culture that followed.  I would agree with the PBS newscaster Jim Lehre who simply noted that the big take way for him was the fragility of it all.  Just how fragile our lives and world view can be.
Sure it was a right of passage, a loss of innocence, and wake up call.  It was any other cliche and personal experience you can name.  For me, it opened the door to mistrust and fear of my own government.  In the years that followed I had an opportunity to see Bobby Kennedy speak about a month before the night he won the California primary and was assassinated himself.  After marveling at the entire Kennedy clan and hearing some opening remarks, a noisy disruption broke out behind me in the large crowd that had assembled at Cal State Northridge.  They were chanting something inaudible but I got a glimpse of a sign one person held.  It was Don Costello, a boisterous character from my high school years.  He's apparently traded in his cheerleader outfit for political theater.  The chant and the sign all said the same thing.  "Open Up the Archives"  They knew there was more to the story.  Somehow if they encouraged Bobby Kennedy, as President, to review the assassination of his brother and tell the truth to the American people, we would all be better off.  They certainly didn't think Lyndon Johnson would do it; he was out of the picture now.  I can't help but wonder how many young men and women in that crowd that day went to Vietnam.  How many never came back alive?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Passing Period

Mr. Carpenter walked slowly toward the speaker on the wall.  He hopped up on the small stage in the front of his classroom and waited for the tinkling xylophone intro to stop.  The sound, similar to the NBC station identification was a calm way to get attention.  But announcements had ended in period 2.  This was period 3 and from the look on Mr. Carpenter's face, something unscheduled was about to go down.  After a few microphone clicking sounds, we heard the voice of Mr. Taylor, our beloved Principal.  Uncharacteristically, he stammered, cleared his throat, and began.
"This morning, the President of the United States has been shot while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.  He has been taken to a hospital in critical condition.  Further details are not available at this time.  We will keep you informed as the day progresses."

Mr. Carpenter's face drained white.  He said nothing.  We said nothing.  Then we slowly went back to our grammar books.  More sentence diagraming.
 Nobody was prepared for this moment.  Blindsided would be an understatement.
With 20 minutes left in the class period, some of my classmates began to think about the Friday evening that was less than 7 hours away.  Big football game with North Hollywood High.  Beyond that, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation were on the horizon.  Other topics swirled in our minds to avoid thinking about Mr. Taylor's announcement. Who just got their driver's license?  Who just broke up with whom?  Would Senior Prom be as fun as Junior Prom?  My own thoughts included:  Should I run for Senior class President?  Could I win?  Would my new girlfriend, who went to a Catholic school be allowed to go to my prom with me?
 Oh, and then this thing we just heard about in Dallas.  Scary, but our president is young, just about the youngest ever.  He'll recover.  Right?
With five minutes left in the period we began to close our books.  Mr. Carpenter, usually chatty in those remaining minutes, was still off by himself.  A minute or two before the bell was to ring,  Mr. Taylor interrupted classes again.  His voice was noticeably subdued.  He told us that the President was dead and that the bell would soon ring for period 4.  "Please proceed to your 4th period class," he said.  We will resume our regular school schedule unless instructed to do otherwise.  Busses will run at normal times."  He said something else, I think, but nobody really heard it because all was silent.  If silence can be deafening, than this silence shattered ear drums.
My school, Francis Polytechnic High was one of the largest in L.A. City Schools.  With an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students, noise was just part of the campus.  During that passing period, nobody spoke.  Students moved like zombie robots to their next class.  Henry Ford would have salivated at the efficiency of how so many adolescents could move swiftly down the line and be in position to resume work in five minutes.

People were waiting.  Waiting to hear something more.  Waiting to hear who did this?  Waiting to hear how and why we were without a President.  By mid-afternoon someone mentioned that Lyndon Johnson was now the President.  A Texan is the President and Kennedy was killed in Texas?
What does this event do to the Cold War?  Does it rear up like it did the previous year when we were all sent home from school as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.  Things could change very quickly; before the brinksmanship that sent those missiles back to the Soviet Union, I saw how fast bread and other staples disappeared from the local supermarket.  We were waiting to see if the world would explode.
It did not then, but on this day, November 22, 1963 the explosion was happening slowly and quietly.  Questions cascaded like rain and sentence diagraming suddenly meant very little.  At 2:55, Mr Taylor made one final announcement.  "The football game tonight has been cancelled."  Everybody just wanted to go home.

Diagram This

Mr. Carpenter was my 11th grade English teacher.  Actually, it's wasn't called English that year.   The official name for the class was Language Skills.  We did very little writing and reading in favor of diagraming sentences.  We seriously diagramed sentences.  there was a little portable chalk board on a small stage that was in the front of the classroom.  Mr. Carpenter would step up on the little stage after taking roll at his desk off to the left.  He'd roll the little chalkboard out so the class could easily see it and have a sentence already written for us to dissect.

The only other thing I recall about that class, save what I'm about to write now, is that we worked out of a grammar book most of the time.  I had my book covered with brown paper that had once held groceries.  Homework and classwork came out of that book.  It was language skills incarnate.
Mr. Carpenter was the Junior class sponsor.  He was fairly popular, youthful, probably gay, and for the most part very serious about his subject.  He could control our class because he knew how to get the environment he wanted and he knew his subject well.  He could diagram the hair off a sentence and we were all impressed.  Once he gave us the sentence:  "The private laid out his bedroll over the Sergeant's objection."  A trick sentence to be sure, but we all rose to the challenge.  The prepositional phrase "over the Sergeant's objection" was the problem, because it wasn't literally what the bedroll was laying on.
I don't remember how the issue was solved and I don't really care.  So far as I know, it has not made a difference in my life.  It was good fun at the time even if we were all a bit confused.  Mr. Carpenter must have had a good laugh adjusting his lesson plan that day.  I hope he did, because, except for the time I said a swear word in front of him while decorating for the Jr. Prom, the thing I remember most about Mr. Carpenter was his demeanor and appearance on November 22, 1963.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

That Year

The programs are starting.  Small nightly pieces in the national news and major documentaries on everything from Public Broadcasting to CNN.  I can't even imagine what Faux News will do.  It's the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  Time to re-set the conspiracy theories, the shortcomings of the Warren Report, and complete the "where were you when" statements.
One think I've noticed is that every year there are fewer and fewer people who recall the moment.  That's natural, but I did see an interview with the Dallas cop that was escorting Lee Harvey Oswald when he was intercepted and killed by Jack Ruby.  The guy looks great for his age and even admitted he gave little thought to the fact that people would remember him or the event they way they do 50 years later.
I'm in the process of recalling that day as best I can.  In doing so, I've begun to look at the year 1963 itself.  What jumps out for me so far is how many remarkably significant things preceded the actual assassination itself in that pivotal year.  Many crucial events in the Civil Rights movement from the assassination of Medgar Evers to the Birmingham Church bombings and death of those 3 little girls.  There was a young man, too that year who began to get some airplay for a song that rose to number 1 in England.  A timely little ballad called "The Times are Changin'" brought Bob Dylan's name to the lips of man 16 year old kids who wanted a bit of relief from the British Invasion that so captivated the mass media.  Dylan's second album came out in 1963 as well.  "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," with it's iconic picture of Bob and Susie Rotolo walking in the New York snow.  That VW micro bus in the background did not go unnoticed.  Before the end of that tumultuous decade, I too would walk those streets having arrived on the East Coast in a similar van.

By then Kennedy was long gone, and with him most of our illusions about what this country was all about.  Though we looked for answers, and still do, the only one was, as Dylan noted, "Blowin' in the Wind.  Still is I guess.
---More to follow---

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


As this century progresses, I see various vestiges of the last one drop away every day.  More and more electric devices replace every interaction.   I'm not sure it's all gloom and doom, but I do worry about how human interaction is diminishing.  The irony, of course, is that as we get more connected, we actually don't.
If my experience today is any indication of this brave new world, then I've seen the future a bit more and possibly a bit clearer.
I like t read a newspaper in the morning.  I could go online, but I actually like to hold it in my hands, fold it, do the crossword with a pen, look at the sports page and letters  to the editor.  In my town it's even more difficult to get a newspaper.  It's down to 3 days a week for home delivery, and the number of boxes on the street is dwindling.  When you do find one, pray that it works or that there is even one of the few they put inside daily left.
I decided I'm going down with that ship.  I'm going to put the quarters in the slot for as long as it's possible.

I use a debit card on occasion, but I would never buy a cup of coffee or anything for that matter less that $20. with it.  I don't like to leave paper trails, and cash is faster.  But cash is fast becoming a ting of the past for many folks.  I see them swipe a card for everything from a candy bar to a latte.
In the education world I inhabit, the love of data and the use of computers for everything from curriculum to grading is changing the teaching profession.
I fear what is about to happen to human interaction.
Today I went through a brief training session to learn a new online assessment program.  We will soon point and click in neatly organized rubrics for an evaluation that ends up being 1,2,3, or 4.  I actually asked about the comments that could be made.  Answer: 300 characters.  That's about twice the size of a Tweet.
I may not like all this, but I know that it is all inevitable.  No going back.  In about 100 years, it'll be interesting to read what someone says about the latest technology and what it holds for the future.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Model Lesson

It's been 7 years since I've taught a high school class from beginning to end.  There have been a few teacher writing workshops at conferences, and a couple of co-teaching moments in the classrooms of the student teachers I've supervised, but nothing bell to bell.
That might end in a few weeks.  In my role as a mentor teacher, I occasionally have an opportunity to model a lesson.  Trouble is, most of the first year teachers I mentor don't live close enough to me to make that possible.  One is in Alaska, another in Montana.  Still another is on the Oregon coast in a small town, and a few others have been less enthusiastic about seeing the old man in action.
This year might be different.  I've been mentoring a first year teacher close to home.  Well, fairly close to home.
A recent study I read revealed that mentor teachers modeling a lesson and then possibly co-teaching it with the beginning teacher was rated one for the most useful things a mentor could do.  It provides a chance for the mentee to see the mentor as a teacher not just a giver of advice.
There are some considerations before jumping in and taking over a class.  The mentor shouldn't necessarily teach the best lesson ever.  It's important to be vulnerable, perhaps take a risk and fail, struggle a bit so that the beginning teacher is not upstaged in any way.
Problematic?  You bet.

So, I've been thinking about what I might do that meets all the criteria and still would be useful.
My mentee has 3 10th grade Language Arts classes in her day.  I'm thinking of teaching the lesson in the first so she can observe and critique.  Then co-teach the lesson in the second class, finally she could do the lesson solo and I could critique.  Ideally it sounds fine.  We'll see.
Now comes the what to do.
I'm toying with and tweaking a lesson on writing voice that just might fit the bill.  It's fun, it's useful, it's something I think I can still do effectively.
But this time, I want to do it somewhat effectively because it's taking on another level of usefulness.  If I'm successful, I'll make a mistake or two along the way; my pacing will be a little off, and probably some of my schtick will seem stale.  If I'm really successful, this lesson will survive in someone's classroom for years to come.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

We Hardly Knew

In a few weeks we will acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  Thousands of books and hundreds of conspiracy theories later, that day, that event, that moment in time continues to be the defining experience (albeit a tragedy) for my generation.
In thinking about that day, how it began and ended, I realize that my recollections are all filtered through the mind of an adolescent.  Yet November 22, 1963, and the weekend that followed proved to be the tipping point for the remainder of my life.

I will recall that day and the days that followed another time.  As the anniversary nears, and even more books and made for TV movies surface, the Kennedy administration with all it' mythology and curiosity provides a crucial background with which to assess the current political scene.
Today, we see democracy threatened in so many ways.  The rise of the Plutocrat, the huge disparity in wealth, the regressions of the Civil Rights movement all stand out.  The current attack on public schools fits neatly into this portrait because so many of the nations young people were in school when the assassination went down.
It will be interesting to see how the media handle all this.  The troubled history of the Kennedy brothers, the over romanticising of Camelot on the Potomac, JFK the philanderer,  the master of political brinkmanship, the good-looking charming diplomat, the skilled politician, the husband and father, the unfinished agenda will all fall into line as talking points.
Whatever happens between the 2nd and the 22nd, one thing is for sure.  People will repeatedly say that this is one of those rare moments in a lifetime when they knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got the news.
In retrospect, that's a very good place to start.  The loss of innocence that began that instant continues to this day.  That too is a good place to the pieces together.