1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Book I'll (probably) Never Teach

Walker Percy's Lancelot 

Clearly Percy's darkest novel and most theologically daring. So, what's not to like? Why not teach it? Well, the immediate objection at the high school level is the sex. But that's just an obvious objection. The deeper problem is with the inability of the average student to even see what Percy is getting at. I got it (finally, after a much closer, second reading) and his point is well worth noticing:

I. Modern man is confronted with three possible modes of existence

1. The "go along, get along" nihilism of the super-majority who may not have the indecency to be lewd but worship lewdness at the altar of the Hollywood Stars. Then there are the hyper-sexualized Stars themselves who turn out to be utterly vacant. Some examples:

I looked at Maude in astonishment. Had everybody in this town gone nuts or was I missing something? The special nuttiness of movie people I was used to, but the town had gone nuts. Town folk, not just Maude, acted as if they lived out their lives in a dim charade, a shadow-play in which they were the shadows, and now all at once to have appear miraculously in their midst these resplendent larger-than-life beings. She, Maude, couldn't get over it: not only had they turned up in her library, burnishing the dim shelves with their golden light; she had for a moment been one of them! (Page 138, Ivy Books edition, 1993)
Dana was something to see: barefoot, tight jeans with silver conch belt, some kind of pullover homespun shirt, necklace with single jade stone, perfect helmet of yellow hair, perfect regular features, perfect straight brows flaring like wings. He moved well and had grace. He was a blank space filled in by somebody's else's idea. He was a good actor (133).
I didn't think Raine was wonderful. She was amazingly pretty, with a pure heart-shaped face and violet-cobalt eyes which seemed to look from her depths to yours, a trick I came to learn, that steady violet gaze, chin resting on the back of her bent hand. Her depths were vacant (100). 
2. The Neo-Stocism/Southern Ideal of Lancelot that is agnostic about God, Christ and love but certain of how to act. How to be in the world that is this corrupt:
I cannot tolerate this age. And I will not. I might have tolerated you and your Catholic Church, and even joined it, if you had remained true to yourself. Now you're part of the age. You've the same fleas as the dogs you've lain down with (144).
Then how shall be live if not with Christian love? One will work and take care of one's own, live and let live, and behave with decent respect towards others. If there cannot be love -- you call that love out there? -- there will be a tight-lipped courtesy between men. And chivalry toward women. Women must be saved from the whoredom they've chosen. Women will once again be strong and modest. Children will be merry because they will know what they are to do (145).
Which is worse, to die with T.J. Jackson at Chancellorsville or live with Johnny Carson in Burbank? (144)

 3. Christianity. 
If you were right, I could stand it. If your Christ were king and all that stuff you believe -- Christ, do you still believe it? -- were true, I could stand it.... I could live your way if it were true (140-141).
II. Lancelot's Quest is Fulfilled in Percival

As is Percy's way, the novel ends on an ambiguous note (what will Lancelot in the end do with his life?), but what is clear (after my second reading; after my first, I was merely flummoxed) is that Father "Percival," the nearly voice-less listener to Lancelot's tale or confession, is converted by Lancelot's quest for evil, for sin. Lancelot alludes to Percival's lack of faith throughout the novel:

  • There is only one way and we could have had it if you Catholics hadn't blown it: the old Catholic way. I Lancelot and you Percival, the only two to see the Grail if you recall. Did you find the Grail? You don't look like it (162).
  • You don't even  believe it yourself, do you? ... But if what you once believed were true, I could stand the way things are (140). 

Percival, the priest-psychologist has lost his faith. Lancelot sets out to definitively prove the existence of evil/sin and thereby force the world to make sense, but in the end Lancelot cannot see it. Percival does. Some relevant passages:

  • The truth is that during all the terrible events that night at Belle Isle, I felt nothing at all. Nothing good, nothing bad, not even a sense of discovery. I feel nothing now except a certain coldness. I feel so cold, Percival. Tell me the truth. Is everyone cold now or is it only I? (236)
  • Come here [Percival] and stand with me at the window. I want to show you something, some insignificant things that you may not have noticed. Why so wary? You act as if I were Satan showing you the kingdoms of the world from the pinnacle of the temple (237).
  • I'm like that old lady at the window across the street. I don't miss much. For example, I saw you earlier down there. In the cemetery. Surprised? I saw what you did, even though you did it very quickly. You stopped at a tomb and said a prayer. [Earlier in the novel Percival refuses to pray for the dead.] A relative? A friend? A request? So you pray for the dead. You know, something has changed in you. I have the feeling that while I was talking and changing, you were listening and changing (238).
Beautiful, subtle, unexpected. But not one I'll probably ever teach. Bummer. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

CSET, English, Subtest IV reflections


Results in a few short weeks. Went into it with a plan this time and hopefully it pays off. Spent time reviewing all four prompts and making brief outlines and recalling relevant quotations/anecdotes that would help flesh out responses. All that front end work left little time to go back and edit for clarity. I don't think my answers were overly verbose (hopefully).


To pysch myself up, I reviewed the preparation I've done over the last few months:

I. Books Read. Of Mice and Men, The Things They Carried, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm.

II. Sources Consulted. Signed up for a course/resource online, bought and reviewed CSET English test prep book, a book on theatre, read bits of Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why, watched and annotated a 2012 Olympics TV advert,

III. Practice Writing and Other Activities. Attempted three or four timed writing exercises, made outlines of potential prompts. Created dozens of note cards with definitions, facts and details.

The Day Of - Attack Strategy

1. Know what the prompts are asking for and thoroughly deliver it.

2. Provide relevant examples (anecdotes) but avoid the theoretical

3. Find the problem and solve it (especially in the details of students work provided).

4. Use the language of an English teacher.

5. Don't be afraid to synthesize, compress, reorder or rework your own experience in fleshing out answers.

6. Use bullet points to save time

7. Write as much as needed and gently edit at the end of the testing period.

8. Be positive.

Did all this pay off? Stay tuned for details. Hopefully, I won't find myself like this poor fellow when I get the results...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

CSET, English, Subtest IV

They say the third time is the charm, and I need big medicine to pass this examination. It seems to contain my deepest fears and resentments in the way I think English ought not to be taught: many technical and superficial details without much meaning or depth.

The breadth of these four mini-essays chokes my mind and pulverizes my spirit; I am bereft on the shores of some obscure analogy. Woe, is me!

Finding Positivity 

Facing my fears about English-as-discipline (versus what it primarily is, as a great mentor, Ted Snow, wistfully pointed out to me years ago: a language!) has been useful. At the very least I'm experiencing for myself the anguish that many students face: How do I continue to love literature, art, drama, the spoken word, and, yea, even technological marvels when I am asked to distill all of this greatness into a muddy canal or trickling stream? It seems to be a horror of sorts: to do the thing you love you must first murder it.

The language alive boiled down to bullet points and pragmatic tips for students. I'm no Shakespeare, but I think he too would be horrified. Dare I say that the Bard himself might never have been credentialed to teach English. And yet he is what is Taught!


The struggle of preparing has led me to reflect on my two previous failures and understand what is to be done tomorrow. It's a simple matter and for once the criticism of "You're over-thinking this" rings true (Q. Why don't we hear more talk of under-thinking? Isn't that a greater fault?). On my two previous attempts I took the prompts as springboards to wax eloquent about all things tangential. That was my fault.

This time I will stick close to the question and flesh it out thoroughly. No digressions, no chit-chat. Just the facts, ma'am. I possess the knowledge and the ability to demonstrate it. I need only the humility to do what is asked.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Care and Feeding of ... Substitute Teachers!

It's not every day that I come across something uproariously funny subbing, but this is by far the best. In the sub notes, the teacher left this essay assignment for potentially miscreant students (there were none, they were just great).

It starts with these words: A substitute teacher is an ordinary person, just like you or me.

I immediately thought of the instructions you might get for your first puppy!

Monday, December 14, 2015

World War I

Recognize this man? 

I didn't either, but I just read his history of World War I . Coming in at over 400 pages it is not a light read but S.L.A. Marshall's prose is delightful and he's even-handed in his treatment of heroes and villains alike.  

How about this lady? 

Well, this is the actress (Alicia Vikander) who plays Vera Brittain whose memoir Testament of Youth  inspired the film. I confess that when I say the DVD box I was prepared for the worst (can you say, "Atonement"? That turkey should have been called "Crucifixion," for it was exceedingly painful to watch, er, endure).  Don't judge a film by its cover art.

Compare THIS
 with THIS

See how I could get confused?  I'll try not to judge my appearances so much. Testament of Youth is really a film about facing the deepest fears in life and being either destroyed by what happens when the worst possible thing happens or opening to find the deeper meaning in circumstances.

It is wonderfully modest in portraying war's horror and human emotions. It is tasteful, beautiful and profoundly moving.

Definitely a watchable film for say, World History. 

Speaking of World History, here's a nice tune to introduce the rockers in the class to Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est":

Re-contextualizes Owen but I feel the mood in the song.

A Little Push...Military History

Door Number One or Door Number Two?

Frankly, I don't remember which door, but behind one of these years ago was Sherman Oaks Elementary's library. Sometimes I wonder where my fascination with military history came from. Some of it from my father who avidly read about aviation history (which lends itself directly to military history, too).

I recall going to the school library and wanting (really wanting) to read Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. I think the version we had had some pictures but the text was way too dense for my fourth or fifth grade self.

Our teacher gave us time to just browse the library. What a luxury and an education in itself.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Furniture. Or "Saint Ikea, Pray for Us!"

American society at times seems to hinge upon the thesis that buying stuff is "transformative" and necessary for self-realization, so I hate to aid and abet that point of view. However. However, there is something to be said about classroom space.

By space I mean the physical dimensions of the classroom and the arrangement of furniture and its types. Take the typical seat-desk combo found in many schools:
Exhibit A
Sleek, sturdy but of single purpose. Note the fusion of table top and chair (the wire basket underneath is well-intentioned but becomes merely a place that good lose things or place their trash). With this unity of table and chair, there can be no separation. The unit is heavy, unstackable and expansive.

Here is a better alternative: 
Exhibit B
I have come across only one classroom that uses these but they are in service! Notice the adjustable height for starters. Then check out the space saving design (nothing extends beyond the length of the "feet"). Granted, the military hospital green is little dull, but that is far out-weighed by its practicality:

  • Need space in the center of the room? Stack 'em! 
  • Need a way to section off space in the classroom? Arrange 'em! 
  • Need traditional "rows and columns" for a test? Just do it! 
Why is this important? 

Limitations are manifold in teaching. A simple thing like getting students into the right space for learning ought not to be an obstacle. Exhibit A is filled with peril. Exhibit B allows for creativity and flexibility. 

A dude like John Dewey did not have the limitation of reality when he theorized and laboratorized about education. He could tailor make students and their numbers to suit his purposes. He could cherry pick the raw material and be an artist without the constraints we proletarian teachers face. Alas, I need every edge I can get with a classroom of 40 kids. 

Shared Inquiry Discussion

SID is possible with even 40 students and here's how: Rotate 3 groups of students this way: (1) Inner Circle, (2) Outer Circle, Style feedback, (3) Outer Circle, Content feedback.

It needs some fleshing out but problem is solved in the numbers department. 

I have looked closely at every classroom I've subbed in and asked myself, "Could I run a Socratic seminar in here?" For the vast majority of classrooms the answer has been "Not without a big change in the physical layout!"  Next slide:
Image result for classroom high school packed
Exhibit C
Notice this poor teacher. Not only is he shackled with a man-leash but he must feel a bit claustrophobic. There is no space to move. Nowhere to move the furniture, either. 

"Fulcrum, meet Lever. Lever, Fulcrum."  Enough said. The future belongs to the slim and trim table labeled Exhibit B.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Of Mice and Men (Film, 1992)

Gary Sinise retains the best of the dialogue and gently adapts the story on either end for cinematic purposes. John Malkovich is credible without being maudlin as Lenny, and Sinise does a fine job as George.

A change I didn't like was the substitution of the Luger for Colt or S&W .38. The Luger gave a dark undertone that American revolvers lack. (That's my biggest "complaint" for this fine film)

Book #3 for November 2015

George Orwell, Animal Farm 

A good month for reading. Animal Farm is always a treat. I was really struck by the openness of the "dumb" animals to the ideals of Animalism despite evidence to the contrary. Illustrates that politics requires faith, even misplaced faith.

Also, found this sweet little rendition of "Beasts of England" which gives it a bit more contemporaneousness for today's youth.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Higher Standards or Appropriate Methods?

Recently Overheard:
History is Boring

Image result for high school history boring

Regardless of what one thinks of the Common Core standards and their implementation, the truth of the matter is that standards tend to measure (if/when they boiled down to a standardized test) the end, not the means of education.

It's the Methodology, Silly 

This semester of substitute teaching has given me the opportunity to informally poll and interview students about their experience of school: the books they read, the way teachers teach, the interaction with their peers, and a host of other topics that are of interest to me professionally (both for a better theoretical understanding of education, but more concretely, of "sizing-up" schools to understand their strengths and weaknesses). 

Recently I asked an obviously bright student about history: 
Me: What do you think of history?
Her: It's boring.  Me: How so?  Her: [Shrug] Just a lot of random facts.  Me: Really? I find history totally interesting. Do you discuss things?  Her: Well, the teacher lectures and we take notes from the book. We do "DBQs" (document-based questions that bring primary documents into focus in order to highlight some part of the historical era under investigation). Sometimes we have a debate, but that's usually 5 students against the rest of the class.  Me: Conversations about history or historical questions?  Her: No.
I didn't say so, but I thought: If I were in her shoes, I too would be bored out of my skull. Not every class takes a laundry list approach to history, but Common Core or the next placebo that rolls off the assembly line is not going to do much of anything by itself. What is needed is a spirit of Wonder, which is simply a Socratic way of saying "inquiry."

When/if I get the chance to teach history again, Socratic seminars will have pride of place. History is a conversation about reality and what is worth living and dying and fighting for. It's not boring. Only adults who have forgotten their love for reality can make it so.

Book of the Month: November #2

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men 

How is that English was my favorite subject in high school  but I missed so many of these books? Perhaps I was spared them in high school in order that I would truly appreciate them later.

This is the kind of book that can be hijacked to serve a simple politicized goal (from euthanasia to various forms of social justice) or be boiled down to a truism, such as: another case of man's inhumanity to man. But there is something mysterious about it. Having read it only once now, now is not the time to comment on it.

Very rich for a novella but I was left with a kind of sadness. Still, I liked it -- a lot.

Gots to watch one of the movie versions since I've "earned it" by reading the book

Saturday, November 14, 2015

STNG "The High Ground" or Trolling for Relativism?

I have such a love/hate relationship with Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was clearly both a visionary and a secular humanist on the scale and order of say, John Dewey, which makes him (Roddenberry) an interesting "educator" who suffers not from Dewey's turgid prose.

Here's an episode that can't just decide between good and evil. Are we heading ever upwards to the sunny peaks of progress or will we be bedeviled by our propensity toward violence and self-destruction?

The terrorist leader pictured above -- in desperate need of the ministrations of the Flowbee -- gets his comeuppance from the agile Kerrie Keane who just says No his shenanigans. Meanwhile, Picard and Riker dither and kindly suggest less lethal means for dealing with this shaggy sociopath. Well done, Ms. Keane. You've done the galaxy a favor by going where the men would go neither boldly nor at all. Sometimes it takes a woman to do men's work.

Pope Francis had this to say about the Paris mayhem: "These things are hard to understand. There is no justification for such things. This is not human." Recognizing the inhumanity in a situation is a clarity of judgment that is need now as it will be in the 24th century.

Books of the Month: October & November

As I prepare to retake the California Subject Examination for Teachers (English, Subtest IV), I'm reading and/or re-reading some "classic" or at least perfunctory high school texts. For the sake of being better prepared for the four short response (but high stakes!) questions, and just for the fun of it.

October 2015: To Kill a Mockingbird. The first part seems to really drag. Perhaps the way I was reading it or perhaps Harper Lee was getting paid by the word? In either case, it was interesting and generous toward our human complexity. I like the wee lil girl perspective that comes through Scout and her growing awareness of the world as a place far more dangerous and interesting than at first suspects. Yeah, the injustice totally sucks, but we saw that coming. A moral perspective infuses the book: What if you simply can't change the system (for we are all implicated in those systems) and you just have to endure the evil and strive after the good -- what then? Where and how will you stand?

November 2015: William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet." Love Hard, Die Young. What's not to like? Most interesting for me is the sense of redemptive-tragedy. Yeah, the kids die and several of their kin but we don't have the Chorus showing up and saying, "Hey, this is what happens when you mess with the gods." Instead we have the reconciliation (not annihilation!) of the warring clans and the Prince concluding (ironically?): 
A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Would that all strife end in peace.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Movie as Metaphor...for What Ails Education?

The Pentagon Wars is clearly a "B" movie, 

and a nearly humorless comedy at that, but that does not prevent it from having some explanatory power.

The movie is allegedly based on the book by a retired Air Force Colonel who wrote what looks like a serious and detailed study of bureaucratic malfeasance in the Pentagon's procurement process (James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard).

Stacked up against such notable classics as Catch-22 or Doctor Strangelove, it surely fails as a "military-lunacy-film," but it does score points in showing how idealists can get co-opted by the system or simply eliminated. The film does seem to leave open the possibility of a "third way" within the system in the character of one Colonel (later Brigadier General) Smith who feeds tidbits of truth to the press and Congress. Yet his timidity suggests this third way to be a compromise that one ought to not consider to remain morally coherent.

The Connection with Education...  

As he was near leaving office, President Eisenhower famously warned of the "military-industrial complex" which could lead to a consumeristic approach to the planning, production and acquisition of war materiel. The film demonstrates how some of the dynamics can work on a small scale. In this case, with the long drawn-out design and testing of what would (finally) become the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

The education establishment does not consist of generals, but principals, superintendents, professors at schools of education, textbook publishers, lobbyists and politicians. The latter are in abundance and, while they cannot rival the Pentagon's annual budget, education policy and practice far outstrips any cultural contribution the military makes.

And rather than inflated weapons systems that get pushed into the pipeline and have a way of being refined one way or another, the educational schemes that emerge from the "educational-bureaucratic complex" seem to have less "quality assurance" than say, the M16 (one of the best moments of the film is when "Colonel Burton" tells the tale of Vietnam veteran he met who used on the early M16s with the cheap ammo that cost hundreds of lives in the early days of its fielding). When soldiers die, people begin the notice. When educational schemes fail, does anyone notice?

Religion in the Public School - What's Over the Line?

As a substitute teacher I often find myself giving "micro-lessons". on a topic. Recently I was in a Civics class and they were just beginning a unit on the Bill of Rights. "First things first," thought I. Placing things firmly in the hypothetical, I said, "Let us begin this lesson in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Brothers and Sisters...."

What's wrong with this picture? I asked. "You can't do that," they said. "Right, so where's MY freedom of religion?" A good discussion ensued from there. Rights, responsibilities, teaching versus indoctrinating, the teacher as representative of the State. In short, a glorious can of worms.

This moment led me to go back and re-read this document: A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools which has strange bedfellows ranging from the National Education Association to the National Association of Evangelicals. Well worth a read whether one is religiously inclined or not.

Functionally, the above cartoon may be applied to religion in the public schools in an Orwellian way:


Which would be to not have a grasp of the Court's rulings on the 1st Amendment, religion and the public schools. Sadly, religion does get ignored because it can be contentious, so better ignorance than a hassle, right? Er,...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Questionable Music: an Alternative to Despair

What happens when students have had three weeks of random substitute teachers?

A flippant response would be, "Nothing good!" That is close to the money, but I had a chance to sub this week for a week's worth of lessons. It's an unfortunate situation when a teacher has an unforeseen situation and it doesn't quite merit a long-term sub. The teacher suffers, the subs suffer, and the students become disoriented and -- some -- become derisive and cynical.

After the second day with these students, it was clear that something beyond worksheets was required. (We had just finished the French Revolution and it seemed to me to be a distinct possibility that if I handed them another worksheet, I might be ascending the steps to the Guillotine!)

The curriculum called for moving into the Industrial Revolution and remember subbing a few weeks before for a psychology teacher in Roseville. I played the video. The video was about memory and how the mind remembers best when there is a context. In the video, one of the shrinks spouted off a set of random numbers and asked us, his audience, to remember them: 1-7-7-6-1-8-1-2-1-8-6-1-1-9-1-4-1-9-4-1, Impossible. But then he said, "American history." Ah, yes, key dates in America history. Easy to remember.

Remembering this, I thought, "How do I give a simple but memorable introduction to the Industrial Revolution?"  I found a catchy (or perhaps irritating if you have taste in music) music video on YouTube and two other songs (one on consumerism, the other on oppressive work).

It was more interesting for me than another worksheet. Based on our discussions in class, same for some of the students.

Industrial Revolution Musical Retrospective

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Star Trek, Immortality and Evasive Action

The name of the German philosopher who claimed that all philosophy begins in the face of death escapes my mind. However, this particular episode (even while being the most anti-theistic I can recall) does show the limits of human development, technology and evolution. The final frontier is not space, but death:
"Who Watches the Watchers"

In one of his books Peter Kreeft notes that it is popular to equate religion, magic and superstition as opposed to reason and science. (He then argues that both science and religion are rational, while science and it's manipulative overuse [that which Neil Postman characterized as "Technopoly"]: technology, which he says is a modern version of magic, are fundamentally irrational).

In any case, the above STNG episode reveals more about the Enlightenment Soul of Gene Rodenberry than it does about the future of religion. "Who Watches the Watchers" looks at religion and preaches that men (well, sentient life) simply "evolve" out of religion into rationality and technique. Religion in this view would seem to be - at best - a kind of substitute for science which fades away once a people invents the lightbulb or, say, television.

To go where every man goes...

Despite the episode's superficial and dismissive view of religion, there is a moment rather poignant. After the proto-Vulcans have mistaken Captain Picard for "The Picard, a god," a Federation anthropolgist dies. Confronted with the stark nakedness of death, we hear this bit of dialogue:
NURIA [the Mitakan leader]: Picard, you could not save her?
NURIA: You do have limits. You are not masters of life and death.
PICARD: No, we are not. We can cure many diseases and we can repair injuries, we can even extend life. But for all our knowledge, all our advances, we are just as mortal as you are. We're just as powerless to prevent the inevitable.
It is that mortality which calls into question the "Rodenberry Hypothesis" that humanity is always heading onward and upward toward sunlit peaks. We "do have limits" but we desire the limitless. Not merely the "Bad Infinity" of the galaxy or even the universe, but that total satisfaction without end.

I could be reading something into Patrick Stewart, but I had the distinct feeling that even he might have thought that last sentence above was incomplete. I would end it thusly: Perhaps, though, what is inevitable is not annihilation but eternity. There remains so much we don't know.... 

That would seem to me to be a more scientific view: let the question remain open.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shared Inquiry: setting the stage

Just over a year ago I was entering my second year teaching middle school Religion at a Catholic school. The previous academic year I had sporadic success with Shared Inquiry and decided Socratic seminars were something I needed for my own sake -- if not "for the children."

Now I'm firmly convinced that Socratic seminars are not worth doing if they are done poorly. How then to introduce all of the students to this method?

Enter Big Hair Days

Thank God for the Internet. The Great Books Foundation put out this as part of their introductory materials some years ago but it is still relevant. It gives an overview of a text under discussion ("The Melian Dialogue"), the rationale for Shared Inquiry, the discussion itself, and comments from students after the discussion.

This video helped everyone get on the same page and have a few laughs at the same time. I sometimes give a copy of the selection; other times, I simply summarize the dialogue itself. To help them follow along, I give them some questions to answer and an opportunity to ask questions.

For each section of 6th, 7th and 8th grade I concluded the activity with a question: Do you think you could have conversations like this? If so, do you want to?

Overwhelmingly, kids wanted to. It was a great success. It made AY 2014-2015 more than bearable.

Friday, October 23, 2015

One need not "role play"

Before I started the work of being a substitute teacher, I had certain stereotypes in my mind of what a sub was or was not. Most of these were negative. I had literally seen substitute teachers sit and read a book while the students did, well, whatever. I had returned from an absence and seen clear and obvious signs of neglect that were preventable. Most insidious of all, I had my own cherished memories of making life Hell for the poor, unforunate soul who subbed for Mr. Green in 6th grade!

Thus as this stint began I realized I could either "fall into character" and act according to these stereotypes or do something different

Is that you, John Wayne? 

It was clear to me that I would not survive if I chose to simply show up and do the minimum. For my own sake I decided that I would focus on the noun, not the adjective in "substitute teacher." It seems to be paying off. Students may be surprised that I plan to work them hard, but I think they are largely relieved. Who likes to waste time? That's really the other option. Especially when you're talking (as most classes seem to be) 80-100 minute block periods.

Move over, Duke!  I'm gonna be myself today.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Flexibility and Finding the Essence

Between improvisation and the punch-list 

For some sub gigs, I'm given a veritable punch-list of things to do with students. I appreciate this sometimes: it ensures that we won't be at a loss for what to do. At times it is hard to know how serious the teacher is about the list. Do I have so many things on the list because the teacher really thinks they all ought to be done or is it a kind of "mercy" for the sub to have more than can be accomplished so that the kids will stay busy? I generally take the stance that the teacher has in mind the latter and that getting at least some of these things done is the goal with the perhaps unstated goal being, teach them something. 

Flexibility is important.

The Essential
Image result for three kings what is the most important thing in life
"What's the most important thing (in life)?"

I try to always find a "hermeneutical key" for  both myself and the students. That is, I try to find an idea, theme or phrase that has a seed that has within it an idea that can make sense of the tree. An essential part that makes sense of the bewildering whole. Two examples.

Micro-Case Study #1. I was "thrown-in" to sub for a sub for the first period of a U.S. Government class. After a sentence stem writing exercise, the question of Donald Trump's "suitability" for running for President came up. This led rather directly to questions about how to sort out the best person for the job. Ought it to be something to be sorted out by the system or settled a priori? Good conversation. Essential question: who decides?  Pointed to the need for philosophy, for sure.

Micro-Case Study #2. Same day: three sections of World History. Activity: jigsaw elements of French Revolution and the Terror (nine groups). I'm in a bit of logistical hell, here: how to keep kids on task? Well, a struggle but not a failure. The essential question: How did those high ideals of the Enlightenment (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) turn to the guillotine and buckets of blood?

Questions of meaning are always there.

DEATH SENTENCE - Almost as good as Sharknado!

Good Heavens!  Rating: 3 out of 5 amputations below the knee

Still of Kevin Bacon in Death Sentence (2007)
Where does one even begin? This is perhaps the funniest movie I've seen since Sharknado!  Granted, with the shark film, I had already braced myself for absurdity but with Death Sentence, I had no idea what kind of film I was getting myself into.

The premise is intriguing: a father witnesses his son getting killed in a random act of gang violence, and decides to take the law into his own hands. This could go in multiple directions, all of them interesting. Moral complexity? Well, the raw material is there but you won't find it here.

What you will find is Kevin Bacon as a kind of Clark Kent miraculously transformed into The Terminator. Professionally, he works for a corporation and seems to be responsible for -- risk management! The film is politely incoherent and all the bad guys get wiped-out (this was not a surprise once I realized the film was not serious).

Special effects are from the George Romero School of Film: a dead cop in the car who has a fountain of blood streaming from his neck; one gang member flies in the air 30' when a car hits him and he's doing just fine in the next scene; another gang guy loses the lower 2/3 of his leg below the knee after a blast from Bacon's 12 gauge shotgun in a moment that is reminiscent of the knight fighting scene from Monty Python's Holy Grail. Rich stuff.

The award for best contrived scene surely goes to the rooftop garage scene where Bacon wraps a seat-belt around a bad guy's neck and the car -- defying gravity as it propels itself up a slope! -- flies off the 3rd level and onto the ground. Sheesh, sometimes seat-belts don't save lives! 

There's also a great chase around the house almost as funny as Inspector Clouseau versus Cato in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The highlight is when Bacon literally pulls the rug from under a bad guy right before he blasts him.

Best unfathomable moment is after Bacon has shot up the town and returns with his rat-scalped self to his now empty house (he has succeeding in getting his wife killed). The lady detective shows up with a convoy of cop cars to his house to ... tell him his remaining son is going to be okay! No arrest, no lecture about going on a killing spree, just good news. Holy Implausibility, Batman! 

Not to be missed: the scene where Bacon shaves his head badly and at the same time plays with various guns and ammo. It lasts about ten minutes but the haircut is worth every second.

Look, I know Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, and, yes, Renee Russo all need to make a living, but is this sort of thing really necessary.

The MacGyver School of Education

Being a substitute teacher gives daily opportunities for improvisation.

This quotation was given as the warm-up for a series of World History classes:
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. ~Winston Churchill.
I love it when the permanent/regular teacher gives me just enough raw material to do something interesting but not so much that I'm constrained by a kind of punch-list. There is always the possibility of teaching a bit of something, be it historical background or human frailty.

This quotation was a springboard into the live of Winston Churchill during one class period (a slightly abridged version of his life and times).  Fortuitously, I had recently read Roy Jenkins' Churchill.

Jenkins really brings out Churchill's virtues and vices, his triumphs and defeats. A man, a fallen man, a great man. For one class, I went a bit overboard in my peregrinations. I noted that despite his gargantuan ego and other unlikable qualities, Winston was a man who could see through Hitler. It might be (or not) an overstatement to say he was responsible for saving Europe (and hence, North America) from totalitarianism, but his rise to Prime Minister meant that England held the line against the Nazi war machine and Hermann Goering's incompetence was brought to light. The Battle of Britain was a turning point, though this was not obvious at the time.

Yet having so much background knowledge can take me over the line. Alas, I had a bit of a "Smokey" moment...  [viewer discretion advised]

I had gone on and on (Over the line!), and then set the students to work on their jigsaw activity on the French Revolution. Time is a finite quantity and when I called "Time," a shy but intelligent girl pointed out, "We spent too much time on the warm-up, and we need more time to complete our piece of the revolution." Indeed. Well, "Walter" has taught me that when the facts of the case are clear, one bows to reason despite the desire to press ahead. I gave the class a more reasonable amount of time to complete their tasks.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Substitute Teaching: Entry #2

Today I was at a small school that reminded me of Mapleton Early College in Denver. A very, very different teaching and learning environment than Thursday and Friday of last week. The commonality? One can be "present" despite the different needs of the students. I only one or two inquiries about the text itself (Unbroken) but I kept myself open and available.

I proposed that work on the text together as a class but they preferred to work on their own (not once, but three discrete classes). Well, maybe next time...

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Substitute Teaching: Entry #1

I'm at roughly the two week point as a substitute teacher in three nearby school districts and it has been an adventure. I've been quite fortunate in that I've been able to (a) work every day I've wanted to, and (b) have good choices with regard to the assignments.

Based on my experiences to date, I have to say that a bit of my pessimism about the fate/future of Western culture/civilization is being rolled back.

Take the foundational document, er, film, The Sandlot. I made reference to it at one of those periodic moments of exasperation and several students replied, "I love that movie." Warm. Fuzzy.

More seriously, I'm finding that students take an interest in what they're studying, and, when conditions are really good (there's the Mystery of Teaching, namely, what creates or allows for these conditions to emerge? Patent that and send the bill to Bill and Melinda or that facebook fool), we engage in real dialogue.

And despite the negative chatter I read about Common Core, kids are reading actual literature and historical texts, not merely IKEA how to assemble instructions (as "real world" as that kind of learning might be -- but is there really a world-wide shortage of those little Swedish Gnomes who make that furniture? I doubt it)! Examples of texts I've read with students recently:

  • Hamlet
  • Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 
Yes, real literature, real language real transmission of a tradition.