Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pedagogy ("Real Talk for Real Teachers" by Rafe Esquith)

When you enter a college teaching program, the very first thing that happens--before you've sat down for a single lecture, observed a single classroom, or even met your professors--is that you're given books. Lots and lots of books. And these thick, expensive books come with dense, impressive-sounding titles like Classroom Instruction That Works and Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning and Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design. They're almost always written by tenured professors who've done extensive research and assembled binders full of data, and their names are always followed by an alphabet's-worth of accreditation. At some point--usually the introduction--they offer a real-life anecdote from a real-life school to not only personify the problems they hope to address--the problems running rampant through our education system--but also to make up for the fact that, behind their curtain of insights and recommendations, they are speaking without the experiences of an actual, full-time educator

The three examples mentioned above aren't just random titles pulled from the internet; all three were textbooks I was given during the five years I spent in college.* If I actually finished any of those books, I don't remember doing so. What I do remember, however, is that each one infuriated me from the very first page, and each one was just as meaningless as the next. Most of what they said was common sense--know how students learn, design lessons with the goal in mind, tailor your activities and projects to the interests and abilities of your students, and so on--except it was common sense smothered under the ever-warm pillow of Hard Data. I kept those textbooks, hoping they would actually be useful once I had my own classroom and my own students, but they stayed buried in the dusty bins filled with all of my college materials until, one bright summer day, I pulled them out and recycled them, having forgotten until that very moment that I still had them.

That's not to say the content of these books are irrelevant or wrong. On the contrary, many of these concepts--backwards design, differentiated instruction, individualization--have radically changed American education for the better and helped drag it from the sucking, smelling tarpit that has swallowed up so many millions of students over the last half-century. The mistake these writers make is assuming their ideas will fix The System when, in fact, it's The System itself that has been the problem all along. Speaking as someone who actually enjoyed high school--at least as much as one person can enjoy such an experience--and had fantastic teachers, even I recognized long before entering college that our nation's schools are set up as one big people factory:  they take in diverse, thoughtful, creative people and grind them all up into the same stiff, thoughtless pulp on a crusade to "prepare" kids for "the real world" by transforming them into button-pushing office drones. Respect was replaced by fear, enthusiasm was replaced by compliance, intelligence was replaced by rote memorization...and as a result, the generations we hoped would better our world had no qualms about watching it deteriorate alongside those who had raised them. A system that is supposed to encourage creativity, individuality, and free expression is designed instead to discourage those very same traits.

Most teachers recognize that success happens in spite of The System, not because of it, and any educator with an ounce of common sense understands that teaching kids to be good students--that is, good at taking tests, writing essays, and doing homework--is not as important as teaching them to be good people. It's wonderful when a lesson or project raises a student's reading scores a point or two on a test, or demonstrates their ability to identify nouns or integers or the mistake in a chemical formula; it's even better when those same lessons teach students to work together, embrace a new attitude or perspective, appreciate themselves, or solve a complicated and unusual problem. These are often called "real-world skills" by five-cent politicians hoping to pick up a few extra votes before Election Day, but even that term has been corrupted to include skills that will never come in handy beyond the classroom.** Our purpose as educators is to prepare students, not for five years of college or four decades of full-time work, but sixty or seventy years of being an adult with a career, a family, responsibilities, life-or-death decisions that need to be made, and so on. And those skills, whatever they end up being, cannot be measured by data, even if the letters after your name tell you it can.

Thankfully, I had enough ambition in college to seek out books that downplayed the pedagogy in favor of common sense, personal reflection, and stories from the front lines--after all, as a future English teacher and lover of books, I'd come to value the lessons in a good story anyway, so this seemed like the better avenue. And down this path is where I found the men and women whose words, wisdom, and experiences have kept me sane for the last nine years of my life. They have informed my teaching, changed how I view my roles and responsibilities as an educator, and chastised me for my mistakes long after I've finished chastising myself. Their books still sit on my shelves years after those costly data-tombs found their way to the recycling bin, and their names--Jim Fay, David Funk, Robert J. Mackenzie, Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, Gary Rubinstein, Esme Raji Codell, Vickie Gill, and, later, Frank Stepnowski and Frank McCourt--are etched in my subconscious with reverence and gratitude. And at the top of this list--the one teacher whose books I come back to over and over again--is Rafe Esquith, who has now been teaching in the same Los Angeles elementary school for three decades, and whose lack of abbreviateds after his name is no match for the vast number of awards and honors he has received, including a National Medal of the Arts and being made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

There are boundless reasons why Esquith is a much more reliable and trustworthy expert on this topic than the hundreds of other self-anointed experts currently out there. For starters, he's still a teacher, which means he's facing down the waves of reform instead of causing them, so he's fully aware of how damaging they can be. It also means that, unlike other educators in recent memory, he didn't abandon students for a higher-paying job as a lecturing consultant, activist, or ivory-tower number-cruncher.*** Esquith is more than willing to lay his shortcomings, mistakes, and failures out for us to see, especially when they provide readers with a valuable lesson about the realities of teaching. (His most important lesson for new teachers? You will have bad days. Expect it, accept it, learn from it, and move on.) He's also more than happy to show us his successes--his new book is filled with letters from former students--and explain just what allowed those successes to happen in the first place. He works long hours for very little pay--his district rewards teachers who take classes, something Esquith doesn't do--and while Esquith refuses outright any attempt to make him the standard for effective teachers--every teacher, school, class, and student is different--he does hope that teachers take a few simple lessons from his own classroom. One of the most important--and the one that has appealed to me ever since I began reading Esquith--is that he doesn't teach content, he teaches people.

Every day, teachers contend with a myriad of forces working to keep them from doing their job well. There are the professors and their books, politicians and their misguided reforms, difficult or absent parents, obstinate colleagues, children who live in poverty and come to school hungry, outdated materials, ramshackle buildings, funding cuts, and shifting government standards; there is work that needs to be graded, lessons that must be planned and revised, calls to make and emails to send, reports to file, meetings to attend, and so on. Lost in this shuffle are the students, who deserve nothing more than the best we have to offer but more often than not must deal with frustrated, distracted, or downright exhausted teachers. Esquith's plea is to not just for teachers to prioritize within their own buildings but to prioritize students over the subject they're learning. Even though Esquith works twelve-hour days, weekends, and over summer, almost all of that time is spent on student learning. And even though he is still beholden to the same standards and benchmarks as every other teacher, he makes sure that everything he teaches has a lesson behind it that goes beyond data and standardized tests. The time he has with his students is precious, and he doesn't just want them to be good students by the end of the year--he wants them to be good people.

In Real Talk for Real Teachers, Esquith covers a lot of the same ground he tread in his three previous books, only now the lessons are clearer, distilled for his readers, and he includes many more personal stories to support his beliefs about education and teaching. Which is perfectly fine because, as all teachers know, it sometimes helps to repeat a lesson over and over again for its knowledge to become permanent. Sometimes, as teachers struggle with all of the extraneous distractions and frustrating roadblocks, it's good to know there's a resource written by someone who has experienced the same and found a balance that doesn't take away from his time with students. And it's also good to know that, despite the maelstrom of voices telling us that teachers are not measuring up to a constantly changing set of standards, there are those who understand the real standards we should have for not only our students but ourselves. In Esquith's classroom, learning the content is important but ultimately secondary; learning to understand one's self and the world around us is the primary lesson, and it's the goal every teacher should have--to make their lessons relevant, relatable, and personal.

It's because of Rafe Esquith that, two years ago, I tacked a single, three-letter message to myself to the wall behind my desk. In 72-point font, against a bare white background, is the word "Why?" Every morning, as I settle in and prepare for the day, that question hangs just above my head--a reminder that, if I don't have a reason for teaching something, I shouldn't be teaching it at all. Following that message has been difficult--after all, what's meaningful and profound to me can be dull and pointless to someone else--but it's perhaps the  most important word in all of education today. If we don't have a good answer to that question, then we are doomed.

*Unfortunately, this practice doesn't end with graduation. In the last month alone, I was introduced to yet another one of these books, this one titled Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional Practice, which weighed about a pound and a half. It was being passed around the table at a conference, and I didn't even open it. Good money says I'll never have to, either.

**For example, I was a standout in high-school English, took every undergraduate English course I could fit into my college schedule, enjoy reading and writing in my free time, and have taught 9-12 English for 4 years...and in all that time, I've never once needed to know the different kinds of pronouns and adverbs. And if someone who spends their life neck-deep in the English language doesn't need to know them, why should a 15 year-old? I'd rather read John Steinbeck--at least he can teach us something useful.

***I'm alluding to Michelle Rhee, who trained to be a teacher for only five weeks, taught in an actual classroom for only three years, and has since spent the last decade telling everyone else what makes good teachers. She did much of her sermonizing, by the way, while overseeing a school district that was later accused of fudging its test scores to look better. Go figure.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Aliens ("The Humans" by Matt Haig)

If science fiction has taught us anything, it's that the arrival of alien life--in whatever form--will spell certain doom for our species, if not the planet as a whole. The last decade alone has seen films in which alien visitors engage in battle with the American Navy (Battleship), incinerate cattle (Cowboys & Aliens), abduct parents (Mars Needs Moms), endanger teenagers (I Am Number Four),  and just basically destroy anything in their path (Battle: Los Angeles, Transformers, Cloverfield, Attack the Block, etc.). There are exceptions, of course--E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both by Steven Spielberg, are two that come to mind--but the vast majority of these films, as well as most science fiction literature and one infamous radio broadcast, see no benefit for our species in the arrival of extra-terrestrial beings.

Which is ironic, since a search for "films featuring extraterrestrials" reveals that the earliest movie depicting alien life is Georges Melies' 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon," in which men from Earth ride a rocket into the moon's eye in order to explore our planet's lone satellite.

And while Melies' film does include what would we consider alien life--in this case, ugly insectoids called Selenites--they are aliens only to us as the viewers. In reality, the astronomers who've landed on the moon are the extraterrestrials, having violently crashed their ship on a world that is not their own and almost immediately engaged in a war with the native population, of which they kill quite a few before returning to Earth. It's strange to think that this one film--12 minutes long, silent, French, black and white, made over a century ago, the predecessor to almost every film ever made--laid the foundation for science fiction, a genre populated by violent interstellar war and apocalyptic invasions, by casting human beings as the dangerous, destructive aliens.*

It's this idea--human beings as aliens--that lies at the heart of Matt Haig's The Humans, a novel that starts off with a humorous bend but becomes, over the course of almost 300 pages, a deeply touching and wise exploration about what it means to be one person living among seven billion other people. And it all happens through the eyes of an alien assassin living in the body of Andrew Martin, a British professor and mathematician who also happens to be an unfaithful husband, distant father, and overall miserable human being.

For the first dozen or so chapters, The Humans is little more than a series of observations befitting the most basic of stand-up comedians, all related to the mistakes, eccentricities, and contradictions that are--in his mind--inherent to humans. We are slow. We are stupid. We lack the ability to understand ourselves, not to mention the world around us. Our priorities, as expressed by the nightly news, are misguided and selfish. The food we eat is tasteless. What we consider beautiful the newly possessed Andrew Martin finds average, even hideous. We focus too much on clothing. (The alien Andrew Martin spends the first few chapters naked.) And we think of ourselves as clever, perhaps even the most intelligent creatures on the entire planet, when Martin knows  for a fact that we are one of the least intelligent creatures in the entire universe, living on our small blue rock in a secluded, forgettable corner of all space and time. Our math, science, and physics are light years behind the knowledge of his people, and the most basic pillars of who we are--birth, parents, war, love, death--exist in entirely different forms on his world, if they even exist at all.

As the story progresses, Andrew Marin the alien slowly gives way to Andrew Martin the man. Sent to eliminate all those with knowledge of the dead professor's work on an infamous theory, the alien begins to understand humans more clearly through his interactions with wife Isobel and teenage son Gulliver--two people who've lived in virtual isolation while Andrew the man disappeared into his work, obsessed, for much of the last two decades. And as he does, he finds his primary objective more and more impossible to carry out; not only do Isobel and Gulliver deserve to live--they know or care very little about his work--but they defy his expectations and reveal themselves to be loving, compassionate, complex, and ultimately lost figures in the life of a man who had little desire to find them. He discovers a long-abandoned novel written by Isobel and encourages her to consider publishing it. He encourages Gulliver, who is bullied because of his father's prominence (and his alien-father's unabashed nakedness around town), to fight his main antagonist in a public park. He cures the family dog's ailments and, together, they discover a love of peanut butter and Claude Debussy. He works to rebuild the man he now is, not because he has to--he could end his mission at any time--but because he wants to, first out of curiosity, then out of a strange new sense of loyalty to the people he now knows and even loves.

Towards the end of the novel, after Martin has faced down quite a few of his own antagonists, including mistakes made by the man he used to be that continue to haunt his family, he creates a list of 97 pieces of advice "for a human." He types out the list quickly, and he leaves it to be found by the one person who knows his secret more than anyone else--in fact, he's the one person who not only changes Martin the most but is changed by Martin the most--and contains as much knowledge as could be learned by one alien over the course of such a short span of time. And while some of the advice is cliched, especially to those readers who live in a world filled with words-of-wisdom memes, others have their own special significance, not just to the novel, but to the world beyond it. Reprinting all 97 would be sacrilegious to the author--it's worth reading the book just to get to the list itself, though even without it the book would still be an excellent read--but my favorite, and perhaps the most relevant to the story, is Number 73:  "No one will understand you. It is not, ultimately, that important. What is important is that you understand you."

Over one hundred years ago, Georges Melies depicted a group of astronomers launching themselves to the moon to...what? To explore? To understand space? To gain notoriety for themselves? To be daredevils? It's never really made clear why, six decades before man could actually land on the moon, Melies' characters felt the need to go there. However, if they did make their voyage in the interest of scientific discovery and understanding, they did a piss-poor job of it. They damaged the moon's anthropomorphic face, killed as many of its inhabitants as they could, and did very little to advance science. In fact, in the film's first scene, when the very idea of a voyage to the moon is proposed--by an old man at a chalkboard, a man in some ways like Andrew Martin--his idea is met with outrage and disbelief. Fists are raised, shouts fill the observatory, and the frustrated elder throws his papers at the others in frustration. His idea--his dream--has been met with defiance on the part of those who should understand. And that's the flaw in us, according to Haig's alien:  we spend so little time understand ourselves and who we are that we stop, abandon our dreams, and become what we think we should be. The family our narrator finds himself a part of is one in which Isobel, thinking she had to abandon her work for her husband and son, gave up on her novel; one in which Andrew and Isobel, thinking they had to mold their son to fit their own idea of how he should act, pushed him away and force him from his dreams; and one in which Gulliver, under pressure from--and because of--his parents, feels that his only way to escape is to escape in the worst way possible. Each member of this family is an alien unto themselves, unwilling to understand themselves because they are misunderstood by those around them.

In one of the novel's less heartfelt moments, Andrew and one of his few pre-alien friends, Ari, engage in a discussion about how an actual alien might exist on Earth. Ari maintains a belief in extraterrestrial life, without a doubt, saying that aliens smart enough to arrive at earth would also be smart enough to disguise themselves well, and adds that human beings resist the idea because "then we'll have to know, once and for all, that there is nothing really unique or special about us...." (155) It's a throwaway line, delivered at a cafe towards the end of a profane rant about science and history, but it's a telling line, too--the idea that we are so involved in being some bigger version of who we really are that we don't realize we're living in a world filled with the same. We are aliens in our own skin living among other aliens. Andrew Martin is the literal example, but in the world of Haig's novel--ostensibly our world--there are seven billion metaphoric examples, too.

*A link to Melies' film, undoubtedly one of the most important films every made by one of cinema's most important people:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FrdVdKlxUk

Monday, July 1, 2013

Magic ("The Kings and Queens of Roam" by Daniel Wallace)

During the five years I spent in college, I was so bogged down by research and distorted by literary analysis that I only read one book for pleasure: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It took me three months to read...three long, glorious months, during which I absorbed every word as best I could. Each page was its own separate novel, each paragraph its own story, as though Marquez weren't just writing about the Buendia family or the little town of Macondo, but a history of everything that ever was or would be:  love, birth, death, corruption, perseverance, illness, strength, joy, war, peace, success, failure. The world was in that book, something I recognized from the very first line, and I lived in that world every day on the third floor of my campus library. For almost an entire semester, that book was my education; the rest was just distraction.

Marquez remains the master of magical realism--that blend of the actual and the fantastical--and very few writers have managed to strike that same balance with the same skill and effect. (In truth, it would be foolish to try.) Daniel Wallace is one of the few writers today--and perhaps one of the only American writers--who embraces the magical and fantastic and their influence on the real with the same clarity as Marquez, even if he's destined to stand forever in his predecessor's shadow. Big Fish, Wallace's first novel, concerned a son whose only window into the life of his dying father is the old man's repertoire of strange, unbelievable stories--of a giant named Karl, of a town where the people are kept from leaving by a Cerberus-like dog, of a massive snowfall that buries houses up to the roof, of war and snakes and big, uncatchable fish. By the end of the novel, the stories William Bloom so long dismissed as ridiculous become the stories he himself tells about his father--a moment when the fantastic and the real become one in the same.

Now, fifteen years after the publication of Big Fish comes The Kings and Queens of Roam. Set in a strange, secluded area of the American wild--an area filled with ravines, bears, wild dogs, thieving vines, and sudden downpours--the story concerns the residents of Roam, specifically two sisters, as the town slips into ruin decades after its silk factory--the only foundation of its economy--has stopped producing. The younger sister, Helen, is beautiful and blind, while the older sister, Rachel, is ugly and sighted; Rachel is also vindictive towards Helen, who relies on her for information about the world beyond her almost sightless eyes, and in a moment of selfishness, Rachel "switches their faces" with a sudden, vicious lie. Suddenly, Helen thinks of herself as hideous and her sister as the epitome of beauty; when the townspeople compliment her on her looks, Rachel tells Helen, they are lying out of pity. It is a momentary burst of anger and resentment that Rachel doesn't understand, even as it's happening--one due in part to the sudden deaths of both parents in a car accident some time before and in part because of Rachel's constant need to take care of Hannah--but it causes Rachel to run from home and forces Hannah to examine just how deep her ugliness goes.

Interspersed with the story of Hannah and Rachel are other stories of the Roam's residents, both past and present. We learn how the small village was founded--the kidnapping of a Chinese silk-grower by an American man--and how their partnership in business eventually became a friendship that was, much like the sisters', based on little more than selfishness and anger. There is Smith, the massive lumberjack who lives only for his dogs and never speaks; Digby, a waist-high bartender whose tavern is populated by the ghosts of dead citizens waiting for a home to open up in town; and Dr. Beadles, an aging man who finds the cure of all ailments in the water of a hidden river. Each story on its own is a fascinating look at how Wallace crafts characters who are unique individuals on their own but come together to create a foundation for the central themes of loneliness, love, and forgiveness. It's these characters and themes that come together in the novel's closing moments and, beautifully, resolve not only the resentment felt between both sisters but also the entire tortured history of Roam.

While Wallace is no Marquez--and has never claimed to be--he is clearly indebted to the Venezuelan Nobel Prize-winner nonetheless. Just like Marquez's most famous novel, Wallace's newest is populated by contrasts:  the giant lumberjack alongside the "not-a-midget" bartender; the young Hannah meeting the super-centenarian Chinese silk-spinner and kidnap victim; a city of the living now increasingly populated by the dead; Hannah's internal and external beauty alongside Rachel's internal and external ugliness; and so on. Wallace also allows all of these contrasts and extremes to exist without undue attention. That ghosts should not only haunt Roam but speak to the living, sit in a bar, and look for available real estate would normally be the focus of the author's distracting need to explain away every implausibility; for Wallace, it's little more than a natural part of this world, and it adds to what would otherwise be a basic story of family arguments and personal discovery.

In fact, it's these elements--the fabulous and the normal so wonderfully mingled together--that are the heart of the story. Yes, the relationship between Helen and Rachel dominates the novel, as it should, but each character hides a depth behind their hyperbolic facades that is its own rich story. Their heartbreaks--of wanting to love and be loved, of wanting to be more than just survivors in a literal ghost town--normalize them in a way that no physical description ever could. That their town should be called Roam--named for the two founders' sojourn there, though perhaps also an ironic nod to the historical empire--is telling. Not a single character who lives in Roam appears happy until they are joined with someone or something else:  a quiet tree-feller and his dog, a ghost and his house, or a short bartender and a woman who loves him. Or even two sisters, one beautiful and one ugly. Their reality is one of loneliness, and it's only by searching--by roaming--that they find their own personal magic.