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

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,...