Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"pictureless chains of black print"

Yet another depressing article about the teaching of English in these here United States. Apparently, the rising generation--those "digital natives"--are so radically and profoundly different from any human being that preceded them that they cannot access the printed word anymore. It simply can't be done. Or, maybe it's just that they find everyone who was born before them, and everything those people endured, boring. It's an old and tired argument:

Until we do a better job of introducing contemporary culture into our reading lists, matching books to readers and getting our students to buy in to the whole process, literature teachers will continue to fuel the reading crisis.

That sentence seems to fit the article's title: "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up." And it fits the bumper-sticker synopses that I've read from several bloggers who have linked to the article. It's all our fault for forcing children to, you know, participate in the history of the world.

However, there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Yes, the author flogs the usual suspects: classic literature is boring, kids can't relate, they want something contemporary, reading is boring, and so on. But there's another culprit on the scene, and the folks talking about the article are decidedly not talking about it:

"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."

So let's give the classics a break, for once, shall we? They've surived many generations and there is no reason why they cannot be appreciated by many more. It's our English teachers who are getting in the way--who are turning art into a chore. Even "The Scarlet Letter" can be saved. The Wife used to teach it to inner-city New York teens, years ago, and it was their single favorite book of the year. Why? Because she helped them find the soap opera within it. She helped them connect with the living, breathing human beings inside the story.

That used to be what English teachers did. They helped students understand literature that was a little bit challenging, a little bit above their heads. They gave them access.

Now, I guess, too many of them just give quizzes.

Education is about one thing, and one thing only. Really and truly, it is. We make things so damned complicated, but it's really all just this: Education gives children access to the world in all its variety and complexity, so that they will be prepared, someday, to inherit it. The end. All the skills, all the content, all the 3Rs boil down to just that. Because otherwise it's just noise.

So does it matter whether every single high school graduate can remember the components of a grasshopper's digestive tract? No. They will not all be scientists. But they will all be human beings, and as such, they need to understand the interrelatedness of living things. Because when they inherit the earth, I'd prefer it if they didn't destroy it. They will be human beings, and as such, they need to be able to look at aspects of this complicated world from multiple viewpoints--to see things the way scientists do, sometimes, and the way historians do at other times.

When I was in the classroom, I did not expect all of my students to become the next Dylan Thomas; but I did want them to be able to use literature of all sorts to understand how the world looks, tastes, and feels to different people. And I wanted them to be comfortable enough with writing in all sorts of genres to be able to communicate to other people how they thought the world looked, tasted, and felt. Because you need to be able to walk around in other people's shoes, if you're going to be any use as a human being (see? I learned that from "To Kill a Mockingbird").

You want to know what's going to be on the test, kids? Yorick's skull is going to be on the test. Because you're all headed there in the end (that's right, kids. Where be your gibes now?), and what you do with the time you have--the short, short time you have--actually does matter.

Or maybe it doesn't. I don't know. "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps," Mr. Beckett says. And he should know.

So does it all matter or doesn't it? Your paper should be five paragraphs long and as devoid of interesting content as possible. And please...I have a 125 of these things to grade. Neatness counts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Where is Supernanny When You Need Her?

It was 10:15 PM when my host's son came to the door to pick up his child. The two-year-old was remarkably fine: wide awake and happy as a clam. My hosts, on the other hand, were dead tired after a day of entertaining the two year old and Thing 1, whom I had brought out to California on an 8-hour road trip at their invitation (but alone, after Thing 2 came down with a nasty stomach virus that kept him and The Wife at home).

We had all had lunch together: my hosts, their son, the two-year old, Thing 1, and me. And as we were settling up, the son turned to his father--my friend, a supremely generous and kind man of 62--and asked him if he could take the two-year-old for the afternoon. He said this knowing full well that his father had guests for the weekend. That didn't seem to faze him. He had things he wanted to do. And his father, who adores his grandson, said, "no problem."

And, honestly, it was no problem...for the afternoon. But then it got to be dinner time, and no sign of the dad. So we took the (adorable) two-year old off to dinner with us. And then it was after dinner time. Thing 1 took a shower, read a book, and happily passed out (after a day of playing golf, swimming, and playing more golf). I came downstairs after tucking him and found my two hosts still entertaining the two-year old. They looked wiped out, but they kept on going. They had to. What choice did they have?

And then, at 10:15, the father came to pick up his boy. He didn't hug him or pick him up. He let his mother carry the boy out to the car. He did not seem to notice--or care--how tired his parents were.

And it all just mystifies me.

I see behavior, sometimes, that seems (to me) to be so clearly and obviously wrong that I can't understand how normal and rational people can endulge in it without shame. I can't even imagine asking my father or my in-laws to look after my children at a time when they were entertaining guests. Who does that? What kind of person is so convinced of the importance and rightness of his desires that he can't see anything else? Or who can see other people's needs, but discounts them down to zero compared to his own?

I know, I know. Tons of people. But I still find it mind-boggling.

My hosts never said a word about it. They are far too decent for that. I also said nothing (though I am not too decent). But I could see a pained look in my friend's eyes, and it was about more than being tired (though he was surely that). I could see the annoyance, and worse, the embarrassment. This particular dirty laundry was not, I think, part of what he wanted to share with us this weekend.

And I felt bad about his embarrassement, because surely that emotion should have belonged to his son. That emotion, or worse. Because embarrassment is easy. Embarrassment is what happens when you get caught. What his son should have felt is ashamed. Shame is what you feel when you know you've done wrong--whether you get caught or not. Shame is what you feel when you catch yourself--when you realize that you have fallen short of the standards you have set for yourself, or the standards other people have expected of you. It's what you have to struggle with when you know you haven't been the person you should be, or would like to be. It's more than an Oops, and requires more than a Sorry.

It's an emotion that seems to be in short supply, these days.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Idiots on Parade, Chapter XXXIV

From MediaMatters:

David Gregory on Edwards: "Is this another skeleton in the Democratic closet that Barack Obama must struggle to overcome?"

Ah...yes. Of course. Because Edwards' adultery was not a personal decision; it was an expression of party principles. No--worse--philosophy. Adultery is actually a key plank in the Democratic party platform, placed there by Bill Clinton himself (don't laugh; some Republicans probably believe this, even while they conduct their own clandestine affairs). No, wait, it's even worse than that; his extra-marital sex was probably conducted in some kind of secret Democratic party clubhouse, while the lady in question wore a donkey mask and moaned, "Tax me, baby, tax me."

It's too bad. I used to like David Gregory.

Where, oh where, is the national news anchor leading with this headline: "Edwards' affair: why is it any of my goddamn business?"

No Clothes

Quoted from The Daily Howler, who does his best to keep everyone honest:

OBAMA (8/5/08): So now the Republicans are going around—this is the kind of thing they do. I don't understand it. They’re going around, they're sending like little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is “Barack Obama's energy plan.”

Now, two points. One, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is they're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 to 4 percent. It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.

You know, they think it is funny that they are making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference.

Wow. The Audacity of Hope is nothing compared to the Audaciy of Telling the Truth. Clearly the man is going to be punished for daring to use the L word (no, not Liberal: Lying).

You know, I think McCain is probably intelligent about all this stuff. He knows damned well that the tire gauge thing is not Obama's whole policy, and that it's an actual and real energy saver, even taken by itself. In fact, he came right out and said so (quietly, and later, when no one was listening). It's just sad that he's surrounded himself with the usual hacks and idiots, and that he's allowed them to run the game for him.

And even they aren't ignorant--that's the really scary part. They know what's true and what's false. They just don't care. They love love love the Big Lie--because it's cool, isn't it? To be able to take something so patently false, so completely the opposite of reality--and make people believe it's true? Now that's power. John Kerry was a coward; George Bush was a war hero. HA! Barack Obama is a pampered elitist; John McCain is a salt-of-the-earth commoner. HA! What should we do next, make you believe the rain falls up? Let's try it!

This is the apocalyptic end-result of politics being combined with marketing: the utter and absolute comtempt of the leadership class for the people they lead. The kings of old had contempt for their subjects because their power was not in any way dependent on the people's happiness and satisfaction. Our so-called democratic leaders have contempt even though their power is dependent on our happiness and satisfaction, because they're so fucking easy to manipulate.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha

Well, not this time.

So, John Edwards--who is not running for public office at the moment (and is therefore what kind of Pressing National Interest?) had an extra-marital sexual affair.

And that's news...why, again?

Oh that's right--because our national news media have an insatiable appetite for scandal. And since this is America, appetite translates as entitlement. I want it, therefore I have a right to it.

You know, a swarm of reporters shouting questions at you is not the same thing as a bailiff swearing you into courtroom testimony. The press has a Constitutional right to ferret after and publish whatever it considers to be news--but that doesn't mean that any of us have a Constitutional (or any other) obligation to be honest with them. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite. We've come to believe that a Man with a Camera has a right to your innermost thoughts as long as the camera is pointed at you. That's nonsense. He has a right to exactly nothing.

As far as I'm concerned, the only honorable response to public questions about your sexual exploits is to lie. Politicians and other celebrities should lie like hell whenever they're asked about their private lives--and they should announce clearly and plainly that they are lying, and will continue to lie--perhaps ludicrously so--for as long as the press continues to ask such idiotic and unimportant questions. "This is none of your business," they should say, "and if you continue to ask me these questions, I'm just going to start making stuff up."

Sure, they'll print it anyway, and the first few victims will get smeared, and The General Public will believe it. But after a while, the sheer volume of nonsense coming out of everyone's mouths will start to make the questions pointless. And then, perhaps, they'll stop.

Death to the Gatekeeper

Okay, I was wrong; I did have something to post today. Take a look at this article by a 20-year veteran TV writer who decided to leave it all behind and become an English teacher:

[A]pplying to a teaching-credential program has taken me months of pointless, numbing, bewildering toil. I've submitted stacks of applications, online and on paper, along with college transcripts and letters of recommendation. I've written a five-page letter of "self-reflection," completed 45 hours of early field experience, endured a TB test and had my fingerprints taken to prove that I'm not a convicted felon.

And that's just the start. It gets worse and more humiliating as it goes on, ending with this:

I understand the idea of "standards-based" education. But the standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards, a mountain of detritus generated by various acts of legislation whenever new statistics come out showing that California schools are failing, that teachers are fleeing the state, that high school students can barely read. In a system so broken, why are they trying so hard to weed out anyone who, in spite of everything, still wants to come in and change a child's life.
There is much sad wisdom in that quote, especially this part: "The standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards."

Actually, it's not a high pile of standards; it's a high pile of bullshit. It's a high pile of tasks. A real standard is not a chore or a task; you should be able to demonstrate in many different ways that you meet a standard. For example, if we had real standards for high school graduation or college entrance, a student would be able to get her degree or enrol in college regardless of whether or not she ever attended high school.

Set me a standard and give me a chance to show you I meet it. What's the standard? Ability to write a long and literate essay on a topic of your choice? Bring it on. Ability to solve complex equations? Throw some at me. Let's go. Who cares whether I sat in a crappy classroom for four years or worked by candlelight at home? All that matters is that I can walk the walk.

But obviously that's not where we live. We don't really care about standards--because they're elitist by definition; because they're hard to meet, and god forbid we should demand the hard of anybody; because they take ability and talent, not simply endurance.

What we do care about is hoop-jumping. If you've abased yourself sufficiently to show that We are boss and You are dirt, then you can come in. If you've jumped when we said Jump, then you're our boy. Oh, and don't forget to write that check. One has to pay one's dues.

I think back fondly to my first teaching job, at a wacky little private school for troubled kids who had simply not fit in at any of the normal schools they had attended. There was nothing normal about this school...or its teachers. And whenever we needed to hire a new teacher, the headmaster would look through the resumes and dismiss the ones that smacked of Credentials. "All I care about," he said, "is whether they know their stuff and love kids."

And, really, that's all it should be about, isn't it? Show me that you know and love your subject area--inside-out and upside-down, not just what's in the syllabus--and show me that you love hanging out and talking with and listening to kids. Everything else you need, you can learn.

If we stopped creating un-manageable classrooms full of too many kids with too many different problems and not enough time to do anything meaningful with them, we wouldn't have to spend so much time simply trying to "manage" our classrooms. And then maybe we could reach out to those 20-year veteran TV writers more easily and say, "You want to teach kids? Go ahead--teach."

Making Various Artistic Media Do What They Shouldn't Be Able to Do

I have nothing wise or insightful to say today--or, really, for the past week or so. So here are some pretty pictures instead...courtesy of Frostfirezoo.