Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hard Talk

Been wondering about the value of having conversations with people whose politics can only be described as delusional.  I't's really a waste of time.  Just this week I found myself privy to social media discussions on a number of things from the current presidential race to education reform.  In most cases the thread of the dialogues involved people trying to maintain civility while completely disagreeing with one another.
Fascinating how the U.S. Constitution can have such divergent interpretations.  Add to that the Bible, and most of the spewings of political candidates.  People mask and rationalize their racism, their nativism, and their empathy or lack thereof.
I've even come face to face with some folks who will always believe that Barak Obama is a Muslim.  Paranoid delusion is the only explanation I can manage.  I suppose this denial is something they really need to hold onto.  Another "friend" of mine continues to bash teacher's unions in his desire to remove poor teachers and drive his view of "school reform."  He conveniently forgets that these unions are composed of teachers and serve many purposes from securing a just wage to defending academic freedom.
I'm not going to take the bait anymore.  I've been hooked and managed to throw the hook, so not going to go there any more.  I'm coming to believe that it's only worthwhile to exchange views with people on education if they have taught more than a decade.  Ridiculous, I know, but so many people have strong opinions on school reform and education policy who have just not walked the walk.  So, I try not to talk their talk.
Another phenomena that keeps rearing it's ugly head is how to respond when someone makes a blatantly racist or homophobic or sexist  statement in public.  Of course, if you respond directly, you'll be labeled "politically correct."  What happened to simply being correct?  To merely tell the truth and to push back against those who do not.  This would certainly be part of my curriculum.  Great opportunity for role playing.  Maybe one of these high paid TV executives could pitch a TV show that offers people a chance to role play these situations.  "What Would You Do" comes close but what we need now is the opportunity to play the roles from all sides.  Not gonna happen, is it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A friend of mine is putting together a panel about work/life balance for a teacher education class at UC Berkeley.  I had to sadly decline an offer to be on the panel because I won't be in town but it got me thinking.  In some way I was the poster child among my colleagues for someone who seemed to have the balance figured out.  That's because I had a few very specific passions I incorporated into my life throughout my 33 year teaching career.  After about 7 years in the books, I had what amounted to an "Is that all there is" moment.  I was fascinated by oral history and teaching both history and literature through traditional and contemporary music and began to think about a project where I could combine these pursuits.  What resulted was a radio program I produced for a listener sponsored Pacifica radio station in Berkeley.  I had been involved in a traveling show about the life of Woody Guthrie (another work/life balance adventure) and had some contacts with the radio station after we did a series of benefits.  One of the station producers agreed to assist me with the project and it took life after a couple of years working on it during summer breaks and now and again on weekends and whenever I could get a few minutes. It was an oral/musical history of hobos and rail-riders.  The folklore and folk music is rich in this area.  From that initial venture came another radio program based on another passion of mine, thoroughbred horse racing.  The race track was a perfect sub culture to investigate and contained many similarities to the romanticism and alternate universe that surrounds train hopping.   That second project led to another career in journalism after I was asked to write an article about my interviews with horse trainers, riders, and the plethora of colorful characters that surround horse racing.  The music, from traditional folk to blues, to progressive country is rich in horse racing lore as well.  Over a period of 10 years I became a correspondent for an industry publication that, pre-internet, came out weekly and brought me a small bonus income while allowing me to meet and interview many of the athletes (equine and human) in the sport.
All this while teaching full time, and if I might be so bold, garnering a teaching excellence award from my district and peers.

So, what's missing here?  Well, the balance comes at a price.  It ain't easy and requires some sacrifice.   Let me explain.  When I'd taught about 5 years or so a friend once asked me how it was compared to how I thought it's be.  I used a metaphor to explain.  "Remember that guy who used to be on the Ed Sullivan show when we were little.  You know the one who'd get the plates spinning on sticks and then get some plates twirling on a table in front of him simultaneously, and the have to rush around to keep them going, but all the while still adding more and trying to juggle balls at the same time.  There would always be one wobbly plate you were sure would fall but he'd revive it at the last minute as the audience gasped."
"Well, I said, that's my life teaching."
In the end, the takeaway here is that you have to make room to explore other interests if you want to keep everything spinning.  To do that requires sacrifice.  I used to get up just as early on weekends to do laundry while grading papers or lesson planning so I could free myself for other pursuits.  When I wrote for the horse magazine, an article was on a 24 hour deadline.  That sometimes meant working on school things on a Friday night to clear the weekend and making sure I knew what I was doing (and had everything in place!) for Monday.
I think I fooled a lot of people, because the balance didn't come easy.  I tried to be one of those teachers who said I never do anything after 9:00 pm or I clear all my weekends...always.  When your students write, you can't do that.  But you can overlap.  You can take a couple of hours for yourself daily.  (4-6pm was mine...if possible)   And then there is the complexity of relationships to factor in.  That changes everything and you have to be an expert in compromise.  Again, it's not easy and there were days when I was irritable because I ended up going to a family function or doing something I didn't want to do and lost time on my precious "project."  In the end,  go for the balance and let it take whatever shape works for you.  Teaching is consumptive; you can never do enough for your students and you will never be caught up.  Once you realize this it is possible to develop other parts of your personality, other talents, other interests.  It's all worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talk To Me

We all know that the impact of ever changing technology is having a dynamic impact on how we relate to one another.  The contradictions are glaring.  We are supposed to be closer to one another than ever, but the reverse is often true.  People walk around tethered to their phones sneaking looks at the small screen.  They often walk into things, lose concentration, and probably most significant of all, don't relate to other people.  They drive around with personal soundtracks booming, sometimes with earphones on blaring something else into ears assaulted with multi rhythms.  I was once reminded by a student who seemed disconnected, "we can do more than one ting at a time."  So can I but is that always a good thing to do?
Out of all tis came the comment from a friend the other day about a sports team from a high school traveling on a bus.  The driver had remarked how quiet his passengers were, and that was only recently the case.  Connected to phones, I Pads and ear buds leaves little time for conversation.  I've noticed, too how every time the media shows a professional sports team arriving for a game the players emerge plugged into something.
Is face to face conversation threatened these days?  Apparently so.  Recent studies suggest we engage in live face to face (face2face) conversations increasingly less than ever.  What are the consequences for a culture when we speak only through text message, email or phone?  Do we speak differently, alter our speech in inflection and content?  What about our ability to focus on another person and actively listen?
This bus ride thing got me thinking.  If young athletes traveling to a venue don't really talk to each other like they once did, what was it like on a team bus20 or 30 or even 50 years ago?  Minor league baseball teams are famous for 12-15 hour bus rides.  Imagine taking one of those trips in the late 40s or early 50s?  What went on for 12 hours?  A quick bit of research yielded an idea of what that must have been like.  Players traveling from Minnesota to Colorado or California to Washington or even across the state of Texas (nine hours from El Paso to East Texas) My guess is that the did two things more than anything else.  Aside from sleep, they played a lot of cards.  So where does that leave conversation?  Probably baseball was high on the list.  They must have talked about their own stats. their opponents, the various cities they rolled through and their opponents.  Then on to the big league players and their dreams and goals of making it to the big time.  Since we are talking about mostly 20 something young men, probably a portion of the conversation had to do with their love lives or lack thereof. In the days of the Negro League, it's a good bet that they talked about their treatment.  Which cities were better for players of color.  What the "Green Book" said about places to stay or eat, or which places to avoid.
 I'll keep looking at this because it's not impossible that they regularly talked about other things, things that seem to go undiscussed these days.
A colleague of mine once suggested that one reason kids were often too talkative in a classroom was that they were rarely in an environment where the TV or other media weren't constantly on, so that when such distractions were not present, they made up for lost time.  Plausible.  At least they are talking...It's what we do with that talk that can make a difference because it looks like opportunities for one on one conversation are dwindling.  Who will we be then?