The other morning in class one of my football boys, who recently had reconstructive surgery on his knee because of injuries playing, picked a dime off the floor and pointed to a large tablet hanging on the wall. “Look Mr. N, A dime!” Then he laughed. Before Christmas I had written on the tablet the poem from the Ted Kooser/Jim Harrison book which reads: “Sometimes all it takes to be happy is a dime on the sidewalk.” It was an epiphanal moment for me, and I’d be willing to bet for him as well. He had been brooding lately because his football coach had told him he was not big enough nor good enough to play football in college. He thought it to be wrong for a teacher to be so discouraging. He had been rather negative and gloomy as a result. Then he found a dime, and the poem he had been casually reading for weeks clicked in his head and he had to share it. He had made a connection, a dendrite grew.
I bring this up because of the discussion that came up in my doctoral class tonight. Is it ok to try not to bring your ideology into the classroom blatantly? I know that it is impossible not to bring it in. One’s ideology is always present whether one is up front about it or not. However, I also think that part of our purpose, my ideology if you will, is to allow space for the students to discover, construct, define what their beliefs are. As a teacher, I have to not be the moral authority telling them what is right or wrong with their world view, because to do otherwise would be to hegemonic ally impose my belief onto them. Often for that to occur, I have to listen to what I consider to be repulsive thoughts: ranging from neo-fascist interpretations stemming from Ayn Rand, to poorly interpreted versions of Christianity, to unintended slams against teachers. They are after all children. I could argue with them, or simply tell them they are subhuman for thinking such neanderthal thoughts, but that would do nothing except cause them to dig deeper into their beliefs. I try to create a language rich environment in my class. My students write about their lives and their concerns. Their ideas are half-formed most of the time, but it is not ethical for me to tell them what their ideas should be. They invest so much of themselves into their writing and are very rarely able to separate themselves from the words on the page. I try to “improve” them in subtler ways, by simply exposing them to the opportunity to engage through words with their lives in ways that are meaningful to them. The texts I select to use focus on themes around love, beauty, responsibility, and transformational experiences (my ideology, as middle class and sappy as it is), but I do not belabor the point nor ask them to agree with me. I point out figurative language, rhetorical devices, or just nice sounds in the use of the writer’s language. Anything else they get from it is just a dime on the sidewalk.
Today I am frustrated with my classes. My students are becoming more and more reticent about reading. A new student entered my zero hour from some Christian private school. She was shocked by my class. Not the freedom to read and write what she wished, but that I wasn’t going to teach: I wasn’t going to stand at the front of the class and lecture, what Robert Scholes in Textual Power described as the teacher showing off at the front of the room. What I was shocked by was the arrogance of a child who after being in my class for less than an hour had already made assumptions about the “quality” of my teaching. I was already in a foul mood from dealing with the students who had not brought anything to read, who rapped while they were suppose to be answering a quick write, who blew off the reading journal; the new student’s comments were the last straw. Some days I hate teaching; today was one of those days. The day to day managing of behavior is so wearing; it is amazing that any academic learning takes place at all. If it ever does.
My wife and I were discussing why we weren’t happy on our walk yesterday. We have most of the trappings of a soft middle class middle age American life: two ‘professional’ jobs, a comfortable house on the park, cars, electronics, a house full of books. Yet, we are dissatisfied with what we do. Lisa went to a gathering of neighborhood women Saturday evening because she felt that if she made an effort to be friendly then maybe friendships could develop. But at the event, the women sat around talking about their scrapbook projects, babies, and other people. Lisa felt that she was stuck listening to the adults of the old Charlie Brown cartoons, “Blah, Blah, Blah.” This reminded me of sitting in the English workroom eating lunch last week. One of the teachers remarked on some celebrity who was dating another. I casually asked, “How do you know this stuff?” And was immediately reprimanded by another teacher, “It’s popular culture, that’s all. I know it isn’t intellectual but . . “ I felt as if I had said something personally attacking her. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Small minds discuss people, good minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas,” I’m tired of the swamp of people and events. Is to want more elitist? Was Mao right to send the intellectuals out to work on the farms?
I’m out of my classroom today to attend a positive behavior team workshop. Last year instead of griping all the time about my demon freshman I volunteered to be on the PBS committee; as a result, I get to sit through day long meetings once a semester and learn about campus wide policies that can help improve behavior. When I taught middle school, our school went through the training for this, and it was effective because everyone on the campus bought into it. But the high school just sends a team. We have broken into sub committees, a few things have been implemented in a half-hearted way, and nothing seems to change. How do you get the faculty, when it is so large, to buy into any school wide program? A few months ago, the curriculum head for English came over to the High School and ran a workshop for the whole faculty on how to integrate, in just a small way, writing into non-English classes. There was great resistance. I often feel as if I am in some weird episode of the Twilight Zone except there is no Rod Serling to come in with a moral at the end, because there is no end.
I spent the weekend in Houston at the TCTELA convention. It was great. Once again I realize how bad I am as a teacher. There is so much to do, so many things I could be doing better. It is depressing. Maybe It is just the day. I read in the Austin-American that today is the day that most people will be at their low point for the year. I did remind myself in the middle of one of the better presentations I attended given by Valerie Taylor, that I do do much of what she talked about: I just need to refocus what I do do. All these “do’s” remind me of an old joke, which I will end this brief entry with because I have too much reading to catch up on:
Zen: do not be
Sartre: be not do
Sinatra: do be do be do
Last Thursday as I sat eating my frozen vegetarian dinner, she came into the English workroom with a multiple choice test in her hand. “I have a question Kelly,” she said as she shoved the test over my shoulder, pointing at one of the questions. “Is this correct, ‘could’ here?” The part of the sentence she was pointing to was not part of the possible answers on the question of the test, which are usually underlined; it was just part of the sentence. “My students always ask about this kind of thing.” A statement I doubted but refrained from commenting on.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” I said taking a last bite of my lunch, “I’m not a grammarian.’
“Aren’t you an English teacher? How do you get to pick and choose what you teach?” she asked pursuing me as I stood up from the table.
“I’m a composition and reading teacher,” I said throwing the remains of my frozen dinner in the trash.
“How do you teach them the rules if you don’t teach grammar?”
“Every study since nineteen hundred has had one thing in common: there is no connection between the teaching of grammar and the improvement of writing,” a piece of trivia I picked up at a National Writing Project site in 1987.
At that point I felt as if a pit bull had latched onto my arm. My colleague latched onto the argument I had not been involved in, or rather avoided as futile, for at least ten years: Why is the teaching of grammar irrelevant?
I have been teaching for seventeen years. Before I hired on to my first teaching job, I attended the Hill Country Writing Project. The first year I taught, what I had learned in the writing project provided me with a curriculum: my students wrote, and wrote and wrote. They still do. If students are to learn to write, they must write; if they are to learn to read, they must read, not drilled on the subjunctive or read to either by the teacher or round robin as a class. The students must do what you want them to do in order for them to learn how to do it. As in the old Nike slogan, “Just do it.” Maurine Stuart writing about zen said, “The practice is what you throw yourself into. Unconditionally. The practice is the teacher. Your practice is your teacher.” The real teacher for the students is through the reading and writing the students do on their own. The teacher, the trained adult in the room, should be the facilitator to the student, providing the opportunities and the help the students need as they read and write. Lucy Caulkin wrote that we are teaching the writer not the writing. Teachers who still focus on grammar and the “correct” way to write, speak, and interpret what is read are not focusing on the child in the room; they do not need students to teach what they teach, for even in an empty room the lessons would be the same.
So it goes.
I have decided to try and keep up with this space. I found it useful and I enjoy reading those of you still posting (Ann and Peggy thank you). I read a book of four lectures by Richard Rorty called Achieving Our Country right before Christmas. Rorty is a contempory philosopher who admires Dewey. He had some interesting perspectives on politics in America. The four lectures were published in 1998 so it was before 9/11 and the current administrations abuse of the horrific event, but after reading Rorty what the Repubs have done makes sense in a twisted kind of way. Rorty claims that one of the problems is that the left abandoned politics in the early sixties for cultural issues, which has made us all a bit nicer to one another, but has not acheived any real political gains like the ones that occured in the first sixty years of the twentieth century, like women voting, minimum wage, child labor laws. The book, because Rorty mentions Dewey a lot, has made me start reading Democracy and Education by Dewey. I hope to have it done before the spring semester starts. So far I find it interesting because many of the ideas that were brought up in both of the fall classes echo Dewey. Not directly but they are there, and it was written in 1916.
I also read a book by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison called “Braided Creek” a series of haiku-like poems the two men wrote back and forth to each other. Here is one:
Sometimes all it takes
to be happy
is a dime on the sidewalk.
Why Everything is Good for You
“Personal Choice does not count for much these days.”
“The process of reading is not a half-sleep; but in the highest sense an exercise, a gymnastic struggle. . .”
Anything we read ( and I use that term in the broadest and I think most accurate meaning : decoding all of the signs we run into in whatever contexts we can mangage) and any time we read we are engaged in a mental activity that is very complex, from reading Pound’s Cantos to devining the auguries in sheep entrails. Therefore the more complicated the “reading” is, the better it is for us. (The purpose of that, to use Neitsche, is to continue to build the bridge toward the ubermensch, which of course is unreachable). Of course if we can make no meaning from the “text” then we are not reading, no more than children who bark at the page are reading, nor me when I am reading these research articles too late at night. Too much has been made of reading the right kinds of things (this from someone who is often accused of being a literary snob), or watching the right “intellectual” movies, yet ultimately I feel that the more we engage with “texts” the more our brains seek out more complex patterns to decode, because we can decode them because we read more. It is the changing and the changed working on each other. Here is a poem by Richard Wilbur:
The Beautiful Changes
One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
As I was sitting at my son’s nine hour karate test Saturdayin Dallas reading for class, this Wallace Stevens poem popped into mind. I think it was the defining and redefining defining and redefining my definitions like nothing else in Tennessee. One of my students a few weeks ago said as I started rambling off on some subject, “Man, do you have a story for every situation?” I think it would be more accurate, or at least more pleasant, to ask if I had a poem.
The Rattle of the Chains at My Feet
So what do I have to lose? The marxist reading was sad because I agree too often. I am not all that convinced by the copyright law article, at least as far as the limits it puts on creativity. The market has always put limits on creativity, yet somehow the creative work still gets out. I think specifically about contempory poetry over the last couple of decades. The L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets are not at all easy, accesible, or marketable yet somehow they have managed to become fairly widespread, at least widespread enough that I can find them in Austin,Texas, a long way from New York or San Francisco. Ann Lauterbach has Penquin for a publisher now. If all of the books have to pay for themselves, what’s up with Ann? Yes, small bookstores are being absorbed, but pretty much anything I have run across that I want I can find on-line, and I am looking for poetry that is not in Walden or Barnes and Noble. Another thing: the collapse of backlists might be bad for the writers, but when books get remaindered they appear at Half-Price books or from Deadalus, the discount book catalog. For me at least that is a good thing, I can buy books that otherwise were too expensive. So maybe I am arguing for the end of copyright so that I can get cheaper books. OOOh, that smacks of Libertarian self interest: the next thing you know I will be reading The Fountainhead to all my friends. Quick, pass me another copy of the Manifesto! Is it the sound of chains or cashregisters that is the problem. Or are they the same thing?
“Congealed Mental Labor”
I agree that the essay as it is taught in the school system is clotted kind of thought pattern. I think it does not have to be that way. A friend of mine went through the writing program at the University of Iowa with her focus on the essay. To differentiate the essay from what is taught they call it creative non-fiction. She claims that all essays are or perhaps more accurately should be personal narrative. I think that if we taught essayistic writing modeled on “literate” essays like Montainge, V. Woolf, or any volume of The Best American Essay series, then not only would the writing be better, but the students would discover their voices faster and see themselves as creators of knowledge rather than future clone-worker-bees to fill the line at Dell. I suppose I am still stuck in the idea of the liberating nature of education; the idea from the middle ages that the Liberal Arts were the essentials to being a Free human, thus Liber as in Liberty in the name. I have always thought it ironic that we spend a lot of time in the classroom telling the students that they should be themselves, to think for themselves, while at the same time telling them to be like everyone else. A bumper sticker (another exposure of the low level of my thinking) I have posted in my room: Always remember You are unique, just like everyone else. While on the other side of the overhead screen: You non-conformists are all alike. It made me sad to think that I, as a participant in the public school system, am just another turn of the mortar and pestle grinding out the individuality of my students. Even sadder to think that perhaps the same is happening to me as I sit in my grad classes. Sigh. A Ziggy cartoon I cut out in high school and stuck in my binder had the perpetual loser Ziggy sitting at a desk writing, behind him was a sign that read: Think, but not too much.