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

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.

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.