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

Monday, February 15, 2016

How to be critical of the past

The Guys Who Started It
Negativity is Not Enough
Reflecting on the nature of being an historian, John Lukacs writes the following: "The purpose of historical knowledge is more than accuracy; it is understanding" (The Hitler of History, p. 2). Understanding requires some degree of sympathy for the person, period or phenomenon one is investigating or it will remain a sterile (at best) inquiry or something borne aloft by negativity (see the "masters" above).

It was truly this lack of sympathy in James Loewen's Lies that made it unreadable - sensationalism has never appealed to me and he takes that tack not so much by what he writes, but what he fails to write.

Refutation for refutation's sake is sterile. Deconstruction alone never leads to construction. As Stephanie Mackler observes: "Although something new might arise after destruction, destruction itself does not aim toward anything but negation of what is (Learning for Meaning's Sake, p. 11). Since the past is all we know (Lukacs), we ought to treat it well and seek to understand it, not merely criticize it and thereby save ourselves from real self-scrutiny. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Things I love about subbing

Arriving early

In an attempt to be a glass half-full kind of guy, here are some reasons I love being a guest/substitute/single-serving teacher. In no particular order

1. When I repeat my corny stale jokes or engage in painful puns, they're fresh for the students.

2. It is fun to plan and organize the day with just a few minutes to know what the day is going to look like (block or traditional schedule? when's lunch? is there a place to walk?).

Afternoon, heading back to school
3. I almost always can get in at least 20 minutes of vigorous walking, sometimes close to an hour if I get a prep and lunch back-to-back.

4. I get to see a variety of teaching styles (second hand) by (a) examining handouts, texts and other artifacts and (b) by talking to students about their experience in the particular classroom.

5. By focusing on subbing for English and history teachers (predominately, not exclusively), I've had the opportunity to assess myself as a teacher: "Where do I feel more 'at home'? Which subject would I enjoy more - be better at?"

6. I've seen enough of both English and history classes to see that both are subject to certain shortcomings or limitations in the way they can be taught: (a) English - excessive attention paid to technical aspects of literature (mood, tone, diction...) but insufficient emphasis on discovering the meaning of the text (the latter based on numerous conversations with students about this very question - how do you discuss the text? what does it [say, Animal Farm] mean to you?). (b) History - too much "bookwork" and note-taking and worksheets. Likewise, a lack of discussion in any organized or systematic way. Students lack both interest in history and an understanding of its relevance for their lives. The good thing: I'm seeing things to avoid in the future. 

7. I'm getting to know the schools themselves. How they operate, but more significantly, the relationships between students and staff. School culture, in other words.

8. I'm becoming convinced that I could not merely 'survive' but thrive in most of the 15 or so high schools I've subbed at. That's pretty cool.

9. My appreciation for the block schedule has grown by leaps and bounds. I think it is not only good for teachers, but good for students, too.

"Cue the Sun"
10. Even when I have the occasional bad day, tomorrow is a new day.

11. Rarely, very rarely do I have any homework after school or reporting to do.

12. I can almost always work productively with students and have a few laughs.

Friday, February 12, 2016

If I Teach English

The Sum of All Fears

You assign it, you read it
Reading literature requires writing about it on the part of students. That is fitting and just. Striking the right balance between helping students write intelligently and keeping a manageable workload is essential. I've bumped into teachers (or their stacks of essays, see above) who assign enormous writing projects. I think to myself, "Will this teacher ever find the time to attentively read all of that?"

Understanding literature requires conversation about its meaning. Both for assessment but more importantly for the good of the students. This is where Shared Inquiry/Socratic Seminars come into play. Based on what I've seen of class sizes and my prior experience with classes of 30 (and middle school students at that), I think it is possible to divide classes into two or three groups and have productive and meaningful discussions. Not easy but not as ridiculous as trying to read reams upon reams of tired old themes!

I need to understand the correct approach to literature-as-form and literature-as-content. I'm un-apologetically a content guy. To me, what makes literature interesting is the story and ideas discovered therein. I see a lot of charts and graphic organizers in the English classes I've been in and that makes me a little uncomfortable. That is, I would not be comfortable with assigning too much about theme, genre, mood, tone, etc. Must take a look again at those content standards to see what's required versus what is commonly practiced.

The Goal 

The shape of Socratic circle
Yes, there's too much "teacher" in the photo, but this is the idea: sharing a common text together and working at understanding the meaning. 40-45 students in a classroom - is it possible to teach this way? Yes it is. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bad Book, Good Effects

Even a bad book can be useful. Sometimes I read a book and think, "I wish I had written that" or "This author was spot-on." Other books elicit a negative reaction such as "What a waste of paper and ink" or "There goes several nights of reading I'll never get back."

Then there is a third category: books that provoke thought but the book itself is neither admirable nor even readable. Such it is with James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. The unreadability stems from Loewen's approach which is to mock how one-sided and superficial history textbooks are then wade in with his own one-sided, mean-spirited, and [sigh], superficial approach to the same topic. So, while he does a good show illustrating the failings of hagiography-as-history, he falls prey to demonizing historical figures with a sense of moral superiority complex that self-assuredly suggests, "We know better, are better and will be better in the future... As long as you, Dear Reader, understand that by 'we' I mean 'me.'"  There is no moral drama in Columbus or the Spanairds. They are bad, but then so was everyone else back then. What?! 

Spanish Male, ca. 15-16th Century

A note on what history can and cannot be. This comes from John Lukacs' The Hitler of History but is something that I wish Loewen had considered in his book. Lukacs good. Loewen baaaaad! 
Contrary to the "scientific" illusion, in the research and writing of history there are no final results. And the purpose of history is often not so much the definite accounting of the events of a period as it is the historical description and understanding of problems: description, rather than definition; understanding, rather than completeness -- because while a perfect completion of our knowledge of the past is not possible, a reasonable and proper understanding of it is within our powers (xii).
Grasping the limits of our knowledge and the nature of historical truth would have helped Loewen and his book.
I think I can...
The book that needs to be written. Loewen's book did get me thinking seriously about how history is taught and/or should be taught. That could have been the subject of his book, but it is the textbooks themselves that he focuses on. Here are some thoughts after reading several chapters by Loewen.

1. Textbooks are and aren't the problem. Textbooks are the problem in ways that Loewen points out: they're too massive and aim at comprehensiveness instead of understanding. They over-simplify and create an atmosphere of thinking of history as being about brute facts instead of the human drama. But I would suggest that even if the textbooks were "good," they'd still be bad. The nature of the market for these boat anchors is such that they will be the way they are until teachers stop using them. At one point in the book Loewen mentions that there are slimmer and trimmer textbooks that survey much less history. This combined with a rich use of primary sources could make for an interesting class.

Perhaps Loewen is too polite to say it, but there is probably more things wrong with the teachers of history than anyone would like to admit. Loewen does mention that there do seem to be a disproportionate amount of coaches out there who also "teach history." Can you imagine your brain surgeon being a golfer who also "practices surgery"?! The priority of schools is surely to blame here and the lack of historians who teach history. A good teacher can do without a good textbook but a great textbook will never compensate for an incompetent teacher (except for those self-starting students who learn no matter what).

2. History is the story of persons, not mechanical processes. One of the most interesting things about history is how in any major event (and all kinds of minor ones), things could have been different. I don't think it's necessary to stress contingency with an excess of "what if" scenarios, but just because it did happen the way it did happen, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it had to happen that way. Textbooks would be useless in bringing this out, but take a book like Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940 and it is evident that what may be seen as chains of events linked by specific causes may also be viewed as being shaped by persons with all the range of virtues and vices imaginable. This is something worth communicating to students

3. Ideas have consequences especially when we never heard of the ideas (or ideologies, more often). This points directly to the need for philosophy in the high school. Why on earth one can find psychology and sociology on offer but no philosophy course in the dozen high schools I've subbed at is beyond me. Religion? Forget about it. Never mind that religion and philosophy existed for millennia while the other two are recent inventions.

Well, that's enough for now. The book to be written could be titled How to teach history even if you're stuck with a lousy anchor masquerading as a textbook or something similar. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Loewen's LIES

Name Calling Saves Time 

I really thought I could systematically trudge through Jimmie Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me for the greater good of humanity and history as it is taught in our high schools, but I just couldn't do it. I felt like I was faced with one of those Jack Chick tracts. Oh, unfamiliar, well, then see below:

Where does one begin? Jack or Jimmie, one is at a loss. "Holy Faulty Premises!" the Boy Wonder never said. Chick has the advantage of having MORE salacious images which is not exactly a compliment, but Chick is more fun.

In any event, the best I can do for now is to point out the following.

Loewen's Lack of Curiosity 

What seems to be missing from the chapter "1493" (and perhaps other chapters but my gag reflex prevented further exploration), is his disinterest in the transformation from slavery as "acceptable" to an "abominable" practice. How did we get here from there? At one point Loewen points out that "everyone was doing it" so to speak so Columbus and friends were not heinous when judged by the mores of their time, but this is one sentence after a catalog of cherry-picked quotations and sources that lead inexorably to the conclusion that most every Spaniard was guilty of malice aforethought and were gleefully committed to rape, pillage and destruction. 

And naturally this was in no small part attributable to their "pious orthodox Catholic" views. Eek! 

When he's not trashing Catholic Christianity, Loewen bleats "racism" to a degree that is reminscient of Orwell's Animal Farm: "White guys bad, brown guys gooood!" 

One reviewer noted that it wasn't worthwhile to catalog all of Loewen's errors and I must concur. Some authors aren't worth refuting. This is one of them.