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.