Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Canon, and Other Instruments of War

[Updated August, 2017]

There is (and will likely continue to be) a great deal of debate between two camps of English teachers – those who preach the canon of “great literature(s),” and those who specifically seek titles outside the canon.  It is almost impossible, at times, for members of the two camps to speak on the issue without polarizing epithets such as “purist,” “elitist” or “prescriptivist” being hurled at the pro-canon educators, or similar (and even worse) being levied against those who would incorporate more non-traditional and modern texts.

In the seventies and eighties in New York State, a student coming up through the ranks in English/Language Arts might have found his or her curriculum doled out thus:
7th:  Grammar, language arts, mechanics, writing skills, vocabulary, and writing.

8th:  More of the above, and a lot of writing.

9th:  Genres of Literature:  A smattering of poetry, a novel, one or two plays[1], a few short stories, thorough review of key Language Arts fundamentals, and a lot of writing.

10th:  American Literature:  A rigorous tour of the movements in American Literature (colonial/federalist, romantic, transcendentalist, naturalist, realist, Lost Generation…), five or six required major pieces,[2] and a ton of writing.

11th:  British Literature.  Like the above, only, you know, for Britain, plus a ton of writing. This would have been a NYS Regents Exam year.

12th:  Exploration/enrichment – semester electives, specialized/focused coursework, or A.P. classes.
There are a number of reasons why this has changed: demographics, economic and social issues, trends in research, politicization, and simply the all-too-familiar and mercilessly destructive myth of change-for-change’s-own-sake.  But one undeniable and very empirically real trend that has beset our schools over the past generation is a staggering increase in students who, for whatever reason or reasons, enter intermediate and high school absent the literacy and basic writing skills to be successful.  This article is not about blame (at least not exclusively), as everybody has a theory and a personal scapegoat-of-choice.  This is about observations, and maybe, solutions.

In recent years, the old, familiar Language Arts mission of intermediate school years past has been replaced by variations on a theme: world literatures, multiculturalism.  The desire to expose children to various styles, views and types of people is laudable.  It is not a stretch, however, to posit that the loss of certain core elements from that former curriculum has contributed to many of the deficits we now see, and I would suggest that – if we are really dead set on the latter – it is not impossible to hybridize the two, to avoid proffering the latter at the expense of the former: to teach grammar and mechanics in the context of short readings that achieve the new purpose, while still fulfilling the old.

A response to increasing diversity – not only in language and culture, but also in ability as “tracking” becomes passé and heterogeneous grouping becomes the norm (not coincidentally in recent years perhaps, stingier budgets lead to staff cuts, which increases the necessity of heterogeneous grouping, not out of any especial love for social leaning theories or constructivist teaching methodologies, but out of the simple financial mathematics of being no longer able to offer all students enough targeted, developmentally appropriate classes to meet their specific needs) – has been to “throw out the canon,” to quote a former colleague. I understand the motives behind such a philosophy, and to a certain extent, I do subscribe to the Krashen-era philosophy that massive amounts of reading, any reading (Krashen has been known to tout the virtues of comics, graphic novels and role-playing games, all of which, for the record, I am a huge fan of) can only be good. However, I also believe that for the few works that a teacher selects to study and investigate as a class in depth, it is important to retain as much of the canon as possible. Works become part of the canon for their staying power, the enduring nature of their universal themes, and/or their close connection to times and events in history (typically in our case, United States history) that it is important to preserve and commemorate.  In this way, and taken in the aggregate, they form what may be called the “root metaphor” of our culture.

A common concern is salience: Will my students “get it?”  Especially students who are under-prepared for reasons of recent immigration, language interference, a de-emphasis on academia in the student’s home, or just plain poor prior academic performance.  Attention span and motivation are also common what-ifs: “My students simply won’t pay attention or care if I try to get them to read X.” By way of hackneyed analogy, the temptation to offer children snacks instead of food is overwhelming, as any parent knows whose child refuses to eat at mealtimes.  Now, I certainly would not characterize all modern works, YA titles, and such as pseudoliterary “snacks,” but I would say that without a steady diet of more nutritious “food,” the mind slowly starves. And of course, there are new works that emerge as “Great Works,” by some big and intangible consensus, and they become part of the canon: The House on Mango Street, for example, Night, or Fences. At one point, all publications were new and untested pieces, after all, and even much of Shakespeare was little more than the occasionally scandalous pulp fiction of his day.

One solution is to relegate extracanonical titles to Independent Reading status, and indeed, IR programs can be an important part of a successful ELA class structure.  This is also a great place where short works of fiction can be used, saving perhaps the assigned major works for more traditional and time-tested pieces.  In other words, newer, edgier, on-the-vanguard short stories and more appealing or salient novels might be used to get students’ feet in the door, hook them, get them reading and involved in class discussions on a chosen theme, topic or “essential question,” thereby saving the “major works” slots for more established canonical pieces.

Or, efforts can be taken to identify those more contemporary and/or accessible titles with a distinct literary flair. Some that I have come across: Journey of the Sparrows, Trino’s Choice, The Last Unicorn, The Hunger Games, The Things They Carried.

Another solution is to tie lesser known works into larger thematic discussions that scaffold up to more established (and perhaps complex) canonical pieces.  The aforementioned Trino’s Choice and other works featuring two characters from different worlds provide a great opportunity to presage Romeo and Juliet.  Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” both very short and easy pieces with dystopian settings, serve as excellent springboards to more adventurous and advanced pieces such as Farenheit 451, Brave New World, or 1984.  Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and “The Smallest Dragonboy” by Anne McCaffrey, both self-discovery pieces with a fantasy theme, are wonderful bridges to The Lord of the Rings, or the study of classical Hero’s journey (a la Joseph Campbell) mythologies, such as the story of Orpheus, the epic of Gilgamesh, or Homer’s Odyssey.  (In fact, many YA “coming-of-age” or “taking your lumps” stories would fulfill this scaffolding need.)

With planning, this process can satisfy even the most long-scale “essential questions”-themed curriculum planning.  For example, My Brother Sam is Dead (for younger/intermediate readers) or The Things They Carried (for older readers) can be set nicely against Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and his poem “War is kind,” as well as Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest.” Throw in Anne Frank and/or Maus, the excellent short stories “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty and “The Censors” by Luisa Valenzuela, have them watch the movie Good Morning, Vietnam, and do some non-fiction reading(s) about the Stanford Prison Experiments and Milgram’s obedience research, and you have a very serviceable, diverse, interesting and varied term-long unit on War in Literature.  (Throw in Gunter Grass’s 700-page magical-realist fictional WWII memoir, the Nobel Prize winning The Tin Drum, and also perhaps the harrowing and once-banned Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, if the class is truly advanced or A.P.-level).

Even canonical works can scaffold to other canonical works, especially if one is in a more easily digestible format:  The Crucible lends itself particularly well as a huge anticipatory set unit to a reading of The Scarlet Letter (especially with a couple of Jonathan Edwards sermons as supplemental readings!)  The relative simplicity of the drama’s format, stripped of verbose and baroque narration, streamlines the students’ appreciation of aspects of Puritan Colonial culture; the witch-hunt motif and the courtroom imagery prepare them well for the more dense (and intense) novel.  In fact, when I teach this unit, I begin with an investigation of a song lyric, “Witch Hunt” by Rush (lyric by Neil Peart) which I teach both to review the basics of poetry analysis and figurative language, as well as a launching point for my lessons on Crucible and/or Letter.

With the proper respect paid to important canonical pieces, modern public ELA education can still be salvaged from the onslaught of the über-progressive juggernaut which is the “essential question,” which, like so many other trends in education, is well intended, but ill applied. Instruction in English classes has, for better or for worse, shifted from a study of literary movements and the rigid application of what used to be called “language arts” to the nebulous and amorphous conceptual blob that is the aforementioned “essential question.”  The idea is to present pieces of literature not as standalone entities, but as part of a larger philosophical structure that is supposed to impart salience, relevance, and a base to anchor otherwise decontextualized knowledge, to enhance retention, etc...  The arguments are convincing, and they really make it sound like students’ best interests are being served.

They’re not.

Consider a parallel from the other side of the curricular tracks.  Efforts to take math classes and modify their sequence from the standard Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II/Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus to an “integrated,” “inquiry-based” platform almost universally meet with failure.  The reason is simple.  An algebra curriculum presents a series of core concepts that are required for all future math study, and it does so by scaffolding in the previous years’ arithmetic skills (the four functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; fractions and decimals; positive and negative integers…), and so neatly adds another layer to existing knowledge.  Also, since the set of skills and concepts germane to algebra is rather small, it is possible over the course of a school year to investigate algebra with great depth, providing a secure foundation for later study. Efforts to break up traditional math courses into integrated courses that are “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” do so at the extreme peril of denying students the opportunity to appreciate the gestalt that is algebra.  With no real concept of algebra as an entity unto itself, students are forced to learn lesson to lesson; with a minimum of transferable skills from each lesson to the next, each new lesson is like starting over, with little chance for the valuable synergies that really move learning forward.

This is not just a simple personal prejudice in favor of traditional mathematics instruction methods; the decade-plus of research following the adoption by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989 of new standards that de-emphasized traditional modes of learning in favor of trendier, more “progressive,” methods of instruction combined with intentionally less rigorous and less empirically objective standards of assessment was a 50-state cataclysm the debris of which is still being cleared.  Called “fuzzy math” by advocates of more traditional mathematics instruction, this short-lived revolution singlehandedly dropped the United States to dead last in international competitions and comparisons in mathematics education, skill and prowess.  With its emphasis on exploration, the gold standard being “trying” and not “solving” or “knowing,” a destructive “good enough” mentality, its negation of absolute rational standards, and a knee-jerk denial of the value and validity of such old-school practices as rote memorization of times tables, this wave of kum-ba-ya warm fuzziness annihilated an entire generation of American mathematics study.

Now let us return to the 7-12 English curriculum from the halcyon days of ELA respectability, as delineated earlier (look back if you need to).  Here is what it became all over my state by the start of the 2010s:
7th:  World/Multi-cultural literatures, literacy “strategies.” Students advance with their age-appropriate peers, whether or not they have successfully mastered any skills or content (social promotion).

8th:  World/Multi-cultural literatures, literacy “strategies.” If a student is 15+, s/he advances to 9th grade regardless of grades earned in 7th and 8th grade.  If not, promotion is still usually “social” in nature.

9th:  General Literature Study and Appreciation: 2-3 novels, 1-2 plays, how to write a paragraph, introduction to essay writing . A poetry unit that focuses largely on autobiographical "I am" type poems.  The average student is 1-4 years below grade level by most rubrics, and so much of 9th grade is remedial. Sorry, that's a dirty word now. "Developmental."

10th:  General Literature Study and Appreciation: 2-4 novels, 1-2 plays, lots of template-driven writing (geared specifically towards passage of the NYS Regents exam). Much of tenth grade is still remedial.  Fortunately, by 11th grade, many of the truly dismally lagging students will have left due to attrition, incarceration, or re-tracking through GED programs (since so many schools have had to cut other programs -- art, music, vocational education, school-to-career, in order to fund efforts to meet government-mandated standardized-test-success-rate targets).

11th:  General Literature Study with a mild (if any) focus on American authors.  Not an American Literature course.  No more than a couple of major works, which are equally as likely to be of the new trendy “topical non-fiction” genre (Fast Food Nation; The Tipping Point; Guns, Germs and Steel; Nickled and Dimed, etc…) as they are from the canon of vaunted American Literatures.  More essay writing, largely for the 30-40% of students who have failed the Regents once or more, and geared almost entirely to passing the Regents ELA Exam through the use of template-based essay writing, guaranteeing that the only essays that most students will actually be able to write are those whose structure mimics exactly the ELA Regents prompts, as opposed to developing a set of flexible and organic writing skills that can be then used to write any essay type.

12th:  Same as 11th grade, probably with a unit of resumes and college essay writing, and maybe a research paper thrown in.
As you can see, with the exception of the possible addition of a research paper (or a Power Point presentation, since many English teachers seem to think that writing traditional essays will damage a student, and Power Point is somehow a functional equivalent), nothing is really added to the secondary ELA curriculum that a generation ago would have been considered anything above 9th or maybe 10th grade. Instead, educators are concerned with fragile student egos, appeasing anxieties by making gestures to validate their diverse backgrounds, and not challenging them too hard.  A wave of politically correct descriptivism has made it passé to talk about good grammar or “correct” English, and much like the fuzzy math of the bad old days of the post-1989 NCTM regime, has stolen away the precision and the urgency with which education’s most important skill – literacy – is imparted, in favor of installing false confidence and pride in students who are by the age of 16 still unable to construct a simple paragraph without graphic organizers and a lot of hand-holding.

Look at what two crucial elements have gone missing since the old guard in ELA education has given way to the new:
1.  Rigorous and thorough instruction in English mechanics.  By the time students hit ninth grade now, they are still tragically ignorant of the most basic aspects of subject-verb agreement, sentence punctuation, singular vs. plural, apostrophe use, the subtleties of verb tense (went vs. have gone, vs. had gone, for example)…  In bygone decades, these were taught in a defined developmental sequence that was carefully scaffolded, and most importantly, as a primary objective, not as an afterthought or mini-lesson buried in the context of some random reading.  Students knew: the goal and purpose of this unit/semester/course is to master the basics of proper academic English.  Now, even when grammar is taught, it is an “oh, by the way…” event, and clearly subordinate to the larger issues of “big ideas” and “essential questions.”  Students nowadays lose essentially two full years of designated instruction in English language mechanics, all sacrificed willingly at the altar of progressive education (which is apparently defined these days as that process whereby all students, regardless of cultural heritage, skin color or socioeconomic status, are equally allowed to be performing below grade level), and schools are spending precious time and resources to remediate students, often with insufficient success.
2.  Presentation of American literature that allows students to not only appreciate the country’s history but to see how its literature changed in response to it.  In previous generations, American Literature would have been taught as a 10th grade course, one year in advance of U.S. History, thereby assuring that the 11th grade student of U.S. History had a thorough backing in the basic movements and ideas that swept the nation, from Jonathan Edwards’s Calvinist/Puritan fire and brimstone, to the more recognizable colonial America of Ben Franklin’s autobiography; from the Romanticism of the early days of American expansion to the local color and harsh realism of slavery and Civil War-era America; from the Lost Generation of the Depression Era to the westward thrust of Steinbeck.  In much the same way that the integrated math movement of the 90s crushed any chance for students to perceive the distinct identity of the entity that is algebra, the current state of American Literature in many schools denies students the chance to take in all that is and has been America, a sad irony in a nation in whose schools’ classrooms American flags are still flown, ostensibly proudly.
Please note that, in regards to (2), above, that this does not mean that the trendy, multicultural YA literatures that make up much of the current grade 7-9 reading regimen have no place in schools!  In fact, as I mentioned earlier, they make excellent first-level readers that can then be used to springboard to a more robust piece of canonical literature, and are also excellent components to an Independent Reading (IR) that should go hand-in-hand, though in the background somewhat, in the grades 7-8 Language Arts courses (students should shoot for at least one book a month of outside reading).  Imagine, then, a 7-12 course sequence in English/Language Arts that hearkens back to the 70s and 80s in terms of scope and sequence, but where options are put into place that maintain the rigor of a traditional ELA program while at the same time providing a developmentally appropriate place in the course sequence for the exposure to, appreciation of, and appropriately rigorous academic study of, multicultural literatures.

School administrations in urban centers in particular, whose demographic often includes a staggering adult illiteracy rate, inadvertently play in to the insecurities of the families whose children languish in re-designed “progressive” programs such as these, with teachers afraid to assert their pedagogical know-how in the faces of parents who are often simply too uninformed – despite what may be their best intentions – to know what is best for their children’s own education, and/or who often suspect racism or some other sort of “elitist” discrimination around every corner, and in the faces of School Boards who are too afraid of those same parents to actually care about education as anything other than a means to avoid parental and/or societal wrath.  As teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and Boards of Education, we cave in and invent feel-good rationales for our declining expectations of students, and these reasons become our shields when confronted with evidence of declining performance.  We are so afraid of litigation and bad press that we have become unable to draw lines in the sand and defend the absolute, rational, objective standards that must exist for a high school education to have any real value or meaning. [Please note: This is not an endorsement of the so-called Common Core State Standards. Sadly, nowadays, when anyone uses the word "standards," that's the assumption people make.]

[1] In my 9th grade English class, we did Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Antigone, and a lot of poetry (especially Poe and Frost), and To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m sure we read short stories, but I cannot recall which.

[2] In my 10th grade English class, our required major pieces were "Bartleby the Scrivener," The Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd, Huck Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and Our Town.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Do we place those who are "different" in a mental museum case?

[Updated August, 2017 Potlatches of Northwest Coast Tribes: A Peabody Online Exhibit, referenced here and in this article, is no longer viewable.)

One of the things we tend to forget, living in contemporary America, is that cultural analogues exist for most, if not all, of our institutions, in other parts of the world.  We seem almost genetically programmed to divide the world into “us” and “them” (it may well be that, epistemologically, the most salient conceptual observation we have intuitive access to is that of contrast or difference) and to see cultural disparity where none actually exists, or where the differences are no more than superficial.  We see this perhaps the clearest in our tendency to present ethnographic exhibits as art.

By highlighting the rituals and ceremonies and artifacts of other cultures by removing arbitrarily selected elements thereof and placing them in museum cases, we somehow (de-)elevate them to the status of curiosity pieces.  People in our society are taught from early on that museums are repositories of knowledge, wisdom, history; they are special mystical places where the young can go and be transported, educated, entertained by the ancient, the strange, the alien.  Similar to the fashion in which the modern tele-addict may give automatic credence to anything on an infomercial or talk show, or online news junkies automatically accept anything published by their echo chamber of choice, we would-be educated individuals typically do the same with museums; we are open, receptive.  The problem, then, is simply this:  when a culture’s artifacts are presented in a museum, regardless of the historical information that is given along with them, there is the automatic tendency to see them as Different.  Specifically because they are in a museum, we choose not to see the fact that what is being presented to us is a mirror of our own culture, with substitutions made for available technology, resources, and so on. We are in many ways the same, but our ability to place them in a museum creates an artificial separation that somehow makes us feel better about our way of life, enables us to sleep more easily at night, whatever.

So, which came first?  Was it our need to characterize the world as “us” and “them” what led us to start housing displays of other cultures’ lifestyles in museums, safely on the other side of red velvet rope-barrier fences, in climate-controlled halls with gift shops and cafeterias that serve watered-down coffee and seven-dollar grilled-cheese sandwiches?  Or was it such museums that acclimated us to seeing other cultures as so completely disparate from our own that we are no longer unable to see the similarities?  What possible justification, for example, is there for going into a museum and seeing, as an ethnographic exhibit, a plain wooden spoon?  An ordinary wooden spoon?  Is that something that is so radically outside of our culture’s experience that it warrants display?

The answer is yes.  And no.

There are two basic ways to present cultural realia in a museum context.  Firstly, they can be presented as artistic specimens.  Secondly, they can be presented as anthropological specimens.  And of course the two can be combined in varying shades of grey.  Presented as artistic specimens, the responsibility of the “curator” is to discuss their form, color, design, material, medium, texture, process.  Merging art and the anthropological realm, the curator can discuss the role of the artist in the community,  the history of the artistic tradition(s) displayed, the cultural significance of any symbolism and iconography and so on..  In a purely anthropological sense, the curator can discuss the purpose(s) of the objects in everyday life, and/or their role in ritual traditions, as well as the role of the production of the art object in the marketplace, both local and worldwide, if applicable.

In deciding how to present an exhibit, one needs to ask the question “To what degree can, or should, these elements be taken out of context?”  Is it feasible, is it even appropriate or accurate, to display them in a museum?  Or does the problematic nature of museum display more than offset any potential value?  Do we present the anthropology and not the art?  (All function and no form?)  Do we present the art, and not the anthropology?  (All form and no function?)  What magical alchemy is required to balance them?

The troubling online exhibit on “potlatches” presented by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum was a perfect example of what not to do.

Museums invite people in, ask them to look upon what they have the power, wealth and resources to present, have them partake in their activities, and bid them peruse the gift shop for a trinket to commemorate the experience.  Then the patrons can walk back out the front doors and return to their home gaming systems, smartphones and iPods, breathing a collective sigh of relief that they live in a country where there are ATMs, detergents with color-safe bleach, and pornographic websites.  And museums ask us patrons to pay for the privilege!  Which, to return briefly to the topic of the degree to which we open ourselves up with wonder and awe reflexively at anything that appears in a museum, brings up another issue:  we also tend to respond the same way to anything we have to pay for.  This hyper-openness and ultra-receptiveness sets us up for the kind of cultural programming that exhibits like the Peabody’s potlatch exhibit suffer us to endure.

The exhibit begins with an introductory page reading “What is a potlatch?”  The Peabody online curator describes the potlatch as a social event given by an individual or a family “to uphold their place in society” and to “highlight [their own] status by displaying wealth.”  He (I’m using the masculine because all three named professors that contributed to the exhibit were male) goes on to comment that in the gift-giving rituals of the Northwestern clans’ potlatches, the attendance at such events and the acceptance of the hosts’ gifts confers validity and tacit acceptance of the social status that they proclaim.  A potlatch is defined as a social gathering celebrating a significant event in the family, including “speeches, singing, feasting, dancing, and gift-giving.”  (All direct quotes came from the text of the website.) This is what you and I would call a “party,” a relatively common cultural phenomenon for us, to be sure, but throughout the cyber-exhibit, the curator fails utterly to draw any connections to the common experience of the modern museum-going mainstream American, creating the illusion that the rituals presented are somehow significantly different, a process I have referred to in other recent blog posts as exoticization.  In fact, that there is virtually no element of these “potlatches” that is in any way alien to our own experience.  In failing to draw these connections, to make these links, to show the common elements of world cultures instead of focusing on the superficial differences, this exhibit contributes to divisiveness and ethnocentrism.

The display is presented in sort of a slideshow format, an internet analogue to individual wall- or floor-mounted display cases.  A single photograph or small group of photographs provides the visual, and a paragraph or two of explanatory text replaces the index card of ethnographic data familiar to most museum-goers.  The exhibit is easy to “stroll” through; every attempt has been made to recreate the feel of walking through a museum, and I believe that they have succeeded – all triumphs and shortcomings intact.

The first sub-heading of the exhibit is entitled “foods and feasting.” It goes on to describe customs and traditions associated pre-20th century potlatches: how guests were seated, and the nature of the feast(s).  Among other things, it informs us that guests were often seated on the basis of status, a tradition not at all far removed from the concept of the “head-of-the-table” common to traditional American dining rooms, or that of the special table reserved for the members of the wedding party at a reception (the “head table”), or even the differentiated-price seating that is commonplace in all theaters, concert halls, sporting events, and political fund-raising and charity dinners – the closer you are to the action (i.e. the more prestige) the more you have to pay (i.e. the greater your socioeconomic class, or status).

Further, it offers us the revelation, “Foods served at potlatches varied seasonally.”  Duh.  In an agrarian society (remember, we’re still talking about pre-20th century, here) of course the food offerings will have varied seasonally.  You can’t even get strawberry pie at Baker’s Square twelve months a year in San Leandro, California... is this supposed to be a significant piece of cultural information?

The illustrations provided are of “traditional feasting artifacts.”  I should laugh myself sick; can you see some 23rd century anthropologist referring to a picnic as a “common American leisure-time familial celebratory feasting ritual” and paper plates and plastic flatware as “traditional feasting artifacts?”  This is a common practice, the phrasing of a concept in a more haughty or esoteric fashion to give it a more scholarly bent.  Lunch hour at school could be called a “diurnal communal feasting ritual” but it’s not, because there is no driving need to make school lunch seem like more than what it is.  However, with museum exhibits, this need abounds; hence, silly and inflated phrasings of things that would probably be better understood (and more honest) if they were presented into laypersons’ terms, unless there is a pressing need not to. (This would also render them more accessibly, and would demystify and de-exoticize, allowing for more appreciation and understanding, which is ostensibly the point all along.)

More to the point, the illustrations are photographs of some spoons and some dishes or serving trays.  The exhibit does differentiate, with the spoons display at least, between an item designed for daily use, and an item designed for feasting use.  The difference is quite clear:  the regular spoon is carved wood, whereas the celebratory utensils are horn and copper.  This suggests a relationship between the preciousness of the material and the importance of the event, although it could be a number of other factors:  perhaps it is the luster of the material?  Or the difficulty of the workmanship?  Or the scarcity of the material?  Or the superior smoother feel of metal or bone as compared to the roughness of wood?  We are left to draw our own conclusions to a very important issue.  Further still, no discussion is given to the form and style of the spoons; they are presented as functional objects, which, unfortunately is anticlimactic and uninteresting, the function of spoons being by-and-large blissfully uncomplicated.

The next section of the exhibit is entitled “gifting.” “Excessive gifting developed during the 19th century as a means of negotiating status within and between groups.”  First of all, what is implied by “excessive”?  It is never explained.  Secondly, how is this any different from the concept of a bridal dowry, a phenomenon common to many cultures?  How is this appreciably different than the common anxiety that we often feel, that we will be judged on the quality of our gifts, or that we do not want to be outdone by someone else’s gift. During courtship, do we not typically lavish our loved one with fine gifts?  Why does a man buy his fiancée a $5,000 engagement ring instead of a $1000 one when 99 and 44/100 out of 100 people do not even possess the specialized knowledge of gemology to differentiate quality-wise between the two identically-sized diamonds? It’s the same social force.  Why were these connections and explanations not provided, or even alluded to, by the Peabody?  Did they not think it valuable to highlight social constants and universals?

“Available resources determined the kinds of gifts distributed.” Is this earth-shattering wisdom? Is it the role of educational institutions to state the obvious?  Would anyone be so foolish as to say, “The car that I shall buy will depend on the money I have available to buy it?” (Credit and such notwithstanding, though if the curator’s comment were designed as a lead-in to a lament of the Northwestern clans’ lack of access to Visa and Mastercard it would be at least forgivable.)

This faux pas was partially redeemed by a brief but useful follow-up discussion on the effects of European contact on these traditions:  In particular I found it interesting that, over time, the nature of gifts shifted from items such as lambskins to include such things as sewing machines.  But in the rare cases (such as this) where the curator did provide some valuable historical contextual discussion, it was shallow, and brief.

The display ended with a brief encapsulation of contemporary potlatches, stating that they “continue to be important events in the cultural lives of native peoples on the Northwestern coast” and that “the patterns of gifting would be recognizable to the coastal tribes of earlier periods.”  Again, the over-inflated talk of simple matters.  Why the concerted effort to make anthropological inquiry so inaccessible to a normal person?  Why the calculated neglect and failure to link other cultures’ behavioral patterns with our own?

The answer:  To heighten the sensation of “us” and “them.” If “they” become too much like “us” then we can no longer justify putting “them” in a museum.  

You wouldn’t cage your cousin, would you?

In concluding its remarks on contemporary potlatches, the curator begins a paragraph with “‘Parties,’ as they are now sometimes called, commemorate a significant event...”   This is the pinnacle of ludicrousness. Has “party” become a new piece of inner-circle anthropological jargon?  Last I knew, it was a term in fairly wide use, and reasonably well-understood at that.  (For that matter, even the lexical similarity between “potlatch” and “potluck” is ignored; whether or not there is any true etymological significance is irrelevant - the fact that it is something that would naturally occur to the average person viewing this exhibit makes it automatically worthy of mention and clarification.)

I believe I know what the curator meant to say, that being that the Northwestern peoples have begun to adopt the word “party” to refer to what they formerly referred to as “potlatches,” a statement that, phrased properly, goes a long way toward illustrating an effect of the dominant-culture paradigm on language, culture, and tradition.  But the Peabody failed to do this.

It states in hushed awe (well, it’s a silent exhibit, but if there were aurally discernible awe, I’m quite sure it would be hushed.  After all, it is a museum…) how the planning for these “parties” – and of course, “parties” must be in quotes! – could last weeks, and reach costs of over $10,000.  Which is all well and good, except nowhere is there any discussion of what sort of planning used to go into the potlatches of the 18th and 19th centuries, and nowhere is there an analysis of the relative value of $10,000 to an elite clansman now, compared to a sewing machine to an elite clansman 50 years ago, compared to a couple of lambskins to an elite clansman 150 years ago.  Without that context, the figure of $10,000 for a party is relatively meaningless.  Have you priced weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, funerals, proms, or honeymoons lately?

Regretfully, what we as modern American life-long learners would expect from this distinguished institution falls far short of what we need.  This extra-contextual means of presenting cultures diminishes their value in multiple ways:  the arbitrariness of the means used to select the artifacts used as visual cues, the enhancement of the subconscious “them” versus “us” mentality, the emphasis on dichotomy presented luridly under the guise of “exoticism” without being balanced by a bit of world-context grounding, the relegation of the most mundane objects of a culture’s daily life to curio status... we are collectively Ariel, The Little Mermaid, oohing and aahing at forks and tobacco pipes.

In the 1982 animated feature The Last Unicorn, the screenplay of which was written by the author of the excellent novel of the same name upon which the film is based, Peter S. Beagle, there is a potent scene where Mommy Fortuna, an illusionist witch, has captured a real unicorn for display to her carnival-goers.  Mommy Fortuna’s magic has no true transformative power; she can only create illusions for willing and gullible viewers.  But the world is in a sad state of affairs, and because man no longer believes in unicorns, that they even exist or ever have existed, most people cannot see them, perceiving them instead as simple white mares.  In recognition of her audience’s deficiencies, Mommy Fortuna casts a spell to put an illusory horn on the unicorn’s head, one that the common folk can see.  Mommy Fortuna’s assistant, a hedge wizard named Schmendrick, a man of faith and good heart who recognizes the poor trapped creature for what she really is as soon as he sees her, and understands that her place is not in a museum, consoles her in her cage as he schemes to rescue her (transcription is mine):

SCHMENDRICK:  (hurriedly but calmly, looking over his shoulder to not get caught) Tell me what you see here, don’t be afraid... look at Your fellow Legends and tell me what You see…

UNICORN:  (amusement, turning to anger)  What [she] calls a Manticore looks to me nothing more than a shabby, toothless lion... and she has them believing that that poor old ape with the twisted foot is a Satyr!  Illusions, deceptions, mirages!  (with a hint of superiority)  Your Mommy Fortuna cannot truly change things!

SCHMENDRICK:  (with great sorrow) That’s true, she can only disguise, and only then for those eager to believe whatever comes easiest .... No, she can’t turn cream into butter, but she can make a lion look like a Manticore for eyes that want to see a Manticore, just as she put a false horn on a real Unicorn to make them see the Unicorn.  (profound reverence now)  I know You.  If I were blind, I would know what You are.
The question is, then, how blind are we?

I wonder, when we are dealing with students from different populations, different backgrounds, different races, religions, cultures and traditions, how often do we inadvertently cross the line between respecting the individual, and condescendingly exoticizing the individual? 

Jewel, Tupac, and the crooked teeth that grew from concrete

[Updated August, 2017]

"Is this art or entertainment?" Jewel Kilcher once asked herself after a gig.

Most of course know her as simply “Jewel,” yet another of an endless string of celebrities whose mononymity screams pretense.   (Madonna? Cher? Diddy? Tupac? Sia?)  Or maybe her question reveals a certain sense of self-awareness, one that is often bitch-slapped out of the way by the hubris of celebrity.  After all, the “pop” in “pop song” means “popular,” whereas we tend to ascribe the more serious status of “art” in historical retrospect, when we have had the time to assess cultural impact, staying power, and so forth.

Jewel is also known for having one of the most famous books of pop-star-penned poetry in the market, the much-maligned A Night without Armor.  I wonder if it would have been so maligned if critics had not gone into the review process already knowing that Jewel was a pop-star trying to cross over.  Could she have gotten a fair trial?  Poet David Beaudouin observes: “There are people out there who have labored in the fields, teaching and writing. She hopscotched over a lot of grief that most poets have to deal with,” and laments the trendiness of the popstar-cum-poet, a phenomenon he calls the “Barnes-and-Noble-ing of American poetry.

I remember the first time I saw a colleague using poetry from slain rapper Tupac Shakur in a high school English class.  She used the poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.” See the original here -- most websites and teacher handouts get the format and "spellings" wrong.

Publisher Simon and Schuster extols Tupac’s verse thus: 

His talent was unbounded, a raw force that commanded attention and respect. His death was tragic -- a violent homage to the power of his voice. His legacy is indomitable -- remaining vibrant and alive. Here now, newly discovered, are Tupac's most honest and intimate thoughts conveyed through the pure art of poetry -- a mirror into his enigmatic life and its many contradictions. Written in his own hand at the age of nineteen, they embrace his spirit, his energy ... and his ultimate message of hope. 

Really?  I mean, I used “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” in my English 9 classes to illustrate some basic figurative language devices (personification, metaphor), but I would never ascribe to it the status of high art.  Of course, Simon and Schuster has to sell books.  Do they really believe what they say in their blurb?  Is what they have to say a legitimate analysis of Tupac’s oeuvre?  Or is this just the publishing and poetry-consuming power elite (few if any of whom, perhaps, look like, talk like, sound like, and/or share many life experiences with Monsieur Shakur) hyper-exoticizing and over-romanticizing Tupac’s existence? By elevating his musings to the status of literature, we effectively put him in a museum case, safely on the other side of a velvet cordon; he is not one of us, therefore he is special. Aren’t we progressive, inclusive and hip?

Jewel, on the other hand, gets no such love. 

Forget that she lived for a decade in a van, plying her trade, the hardest-working girl in showbiz.  Her poetry is dismissed, more often than not, as amateurish.  

Of course, maybe it just is. Johns Hopkins University poetry professor Allan Grossman, while he considers Jewel to be a legitimate “American modernist poet,” confesses that:

… the subject matter is often simple, and most likely will appeal only to young people. That makes sense, given that some of the poetry in A Night Without Armor was written while Jewel was in her teens.  (Tamara Eikenberg, The Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1998)

But wait… Tupac’s verse was written “in his own hand at the age of nineteen, [and] they embrace his spirit, his energy ... and his ultimate message of hope.”  Doesn’t Jewel’s “amateurish” poetry convey, you know, any of that good stuff?  Or is there some other reason for elevating Tupac’s status?

Hold the phone, I take that back.  Jewel’s experiences do get romanticized a bit. Sayeth The Guardian UK:

Jewel has crooked teeth. This may seem unremarkable, but among American celebrities, it is a bit like having three legs. Jewel's teeth have become a kind of symbol of her 'unspoiled' upbringing, of her naturalness. Her teeth, and her undemonstrative taste in clothing. 

Ah, in the end, it all comes down to image, doesn’t it?  It’s all marketing, brand-enhancement.  Apparently, the poetry is secondary.  I don’t know if it’s relevant, but Jewel’s teeth are now straight.  Tupac, as far as I know, is still quite dead.

Is the life (or the death) of a poet relevant in assessing the “literary value” of the poetry?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Praise of the Humble Haiku (The “Orange Juice” Theory of Poetry)

[Updated August, 2017]

Students in grades 7-9 often hate them, or at least don’t take them seriously. Many teachers seem to pass them off as mere intellectual conceits. Perhaps the idea of arbitrary constraints on personal expression seems unduly restrictive. I like to think of it instead as a challenge.

I teach my students the “orange juice” theory of poetry. What is that? So glad you asked. Consider the humble can of frozen orange juice concentrate. Imagine you take a can, let it thaw, pour a shot, and slam it. Mmmm… good right?

No, of course not. The stuff is pure, intense oranginess, compressed, concentrated, so that the barest minim contains an explosion of citrusy goodness, to the point that it’s almost overwhelming. You want juice? Add water; dilute it down, i.e. distribute the concentrated oranginess over a larger volume.

So consider the poem. Let’s set aside lengthy epics for now. Consider a basic lyric poem, a sonnet, elegy, ode – Neruda always gets me going; or a Frost joint about trees and such in blank verse, or some vintage Dickinson with her ballad stanzas, slant rhyme and iambic tetrameter; or some cool bit of free-form jazziness like Nash or cummings. Poems are like orange juice concentrate.


Take a short story, any short story. Let’s take (because this is my blog) “The Simplest Thing in the World” by Ayn Rand, which clocks in at almost exactly 5,000 words (5,004 if you include the title). Read it, digest it, consider all it has to offer. Place it in its various contexts – the time period and social, political and historical context in which it was written, its purpose and theme, the author’s background and formative experiences, her larger oeuvre. Look at its narrative style, its point-of-view: Who is the narrator? Is he reliable? What’s his story? Is he a cipher for something, a stand-in, a metaphor? Really dig beneath the surface. Whip out Bloom’s Taxonomy and really go to town. You know you want to.

Now write a really thoughtful analysis or response. I’ll bet that your elucidation, however pedantic and erudite, would still be far less than the 4,998 words of the story itself. Put another way, the essence of the piece (the concentrate) is expressible comfortably in shorter form than the piece itself (the juice). The published story is that concentrated essence, distributed over a larger volume.

But the opposite is true of most poems. Take Frost’s “Birches,” which, at 60 lines and 510 words (511 with the title) is about as long as most poems that schoolchildren are exposed to, and longer than most. Go through the same series of questions. Really get inside the poem. As C.S. Lewis says in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, “the inside is bigger than the outside.” The words required (the juice) to even minimally elucidate all of the “writerly noticings” (curses to Dr. Kelly Chandler-Olcott at Syracuse University for ever introducing that term to me) far outnumber the meager 510 words that Frost uses (the concentrate) to communicate his message. The poem is the concentrated essence, stripped of unnecessary subplots, characters, wandering words, red herrings (the water); it is an intense dose of meaning, sensation, feeling, imagery, presence.

And no form of poetry, perhaps, achieves such supremely concentrated essence as the humble haiku. A really well written haiku can take seconds to read, but minutes, hours, days to wonder over. It is much harder than it looks, to write a good haiku. I’m not so sure mine are great, but I’ll present some of them anyway. Most of these were inspired by the annual Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge, an event that fuses creativity with civic awareness, often with beautiful (and sometimes silly) results. Here follow some haiku I wrote, all inspired by the city of Syracuse.

In response to a news story about a criminal:
Predatory scum
Preying on the old and weak
Let there be a hell...
A random musing:
"Someday, I will glow
Just like you," said the porch light
To the bright full moon.
An homage to the dilapidated, Detroitesque streets of Syracuse, and the now-closed china factory that bears its name:
City streets, empty
Abandoned, like the china
With its once great name
In celebration of firefighters returning home from duty:
Narrow city streets
Widen, as if to welcome
Heroes coming home

City lights burn bright
The only fire left glowing
In the firemen's wake
On contemplation of a sunset as viewed through trees in a city park:
Standing here alone,
Whitman's 'Learn'd Astronomer'
Understood at last...

Trees, like people, need
To express themselves in song;
Shhh, let's listen in...

When day becomes night,
Where do red and yellow go?
Will they be back soon?
In contemplation of an ultra-modern building’s windowed façade:
Facets of jeweled glass,
A geometer's whimsy
An architect's soul

Glass palace, standing
Delicate, fragile, yet strong,
Rather like us all...

With my small squeegee,
I fear I may just have to
Be at this all day!

Heat is multiplied
By congeries of windows
We walk coolly by
On the Erie Canal:
Banks of the canal
Decked out in their Sunday best
Baptized by the waves

Punting on the Thames?
Strolling along la belle Seine?
Erie, in the Spring.
Of a young girl walking a dog:
Panting in the breeze
Racing down the shady lane
Who is walking whom?

My dog has four legs,
I have only two, that's why --
I run twice as hard!
At a jazz club:
Gin joint, spotlight hot
Waiting for the first downbeat
Calm before the storm

What's "vermouth?" he asked...
"Shhh..." she urged, impatiently,
"It's about to start..."
A girl, shoes cast aside, spinning in the fountains of a city park, amidst a gallery of statues:
Cinderella spins,
Wat'ry sentries stand in awe;
Her prince stands close by.

Without her shoes on
She can feel the city's heart
Beating through the ground.

Raven-haired beauty,
The city's concrete jungle,
Add water, then stir...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Education - A Politicking Time Bomb

[Updated August, 2017]

Language teaching – well, all teaching, really – is political territory. If you teach structure and correctness, or teach to any kind of “standard,” you practice hegemony, and are some kind of imperialist swine who is so swollen with privilege that you obviously have no moral center. If you practice a holistic, communicative, or social constructivist-inspired method, then you are averse to objective standards and are a politically correct commie-lib anti-American historical apologist.

Extremists love the either-or fallacy.

The irony is this: It is true that our educators are, and have been, among the greatest purveyors of mass propaganda. (Or at least the governments, Boards, and agencies that control them are.) Just look at a few select bullet points:
  • From the Right: This worrisome tidbit, the 2012 Texas G.O.P.’s official platform with regard to education; read it and tell me that there aren’t those in the government trying to “program” minds (note - this language has been scrubbed from the platform as of 2016, thank goodness):
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
  • From the Left: Recent attempts by New York State to remove "offensive" words from their standardized tests, such terrifying and corrupting words as "birthday." Test makers are not allowed to even reference anything that might make a student feel bad, such as mention of private ownership of personal computers (because not all students have them so it's unfair to mention it, as it might upset the students in the class who don't?) So instead of celebrating diversity, the State is propagandizing a fake homogeneity?
  • From both sides: Modern iterations of teacher education and evaluation programs, often not set up to reward teachers for powerful teaching (whatever the heck that means) but to reward teachers for cleaving to the prescribed ideological dicta of a particular district or state; naysayers and activists, free-thinkers and rabble-rousers, are expurgated summarily, denied tenure, etc... under the guise of their being anti-social or disharmonious. 

With regard to the last bullet point comment about the hive mind of educational administration and its desire to root out any behavior that is "anti-social," "unmutual," or "disharmonious," that is, not lock-step with their stated principles (even when their guiding principles are destructive to educational and pedagogical integrity), take 48 minutes of your time for this excellent allegory from 60s classic British cult TV show The Prisoner. Watch the whole episode here. It's okay if you're not familiar with the overall premise of the show, all you need to know is that it centers on a secret agent who has resigned unexpectedly due to matters of conscience, and the "powers that be" are trying systematically to break him down to get him to spill his secrets and cooperate with them, and either fall (back) in line, or be destroyed. Very surreal, Kafkaesque, classic 60s British camp TV, but with a searing counter-cultural (some would say, and have said, subversive) message. EVERY teacher should watch this episode, and tell me if they don't feel the same more with alarming frequency.

When we celebrate diversity, should it not be more than skin (color) deep? Should it not include a diversity of ideas, experiences, perspectives, and should it not respect and protect the right and abilities of members of the educational community to hold, offer, and share such?

Personal Statement of Educational Philosophy

[Updated August, 2017]

In 1974, philosopher and author Ayn Rand addressed the graduating class of West Point and said the following: “Nothing is given to man automatically, neither knowledge, nor self-confidence, nor inner serenity, nor the right way to use his mind. Every value he needs or wants has to be discovered, learned and acquired – even the proper posture of his body. … Well, philosophical training gives man the proper intellectual posture – a proud, disciplined control of his mind.”

Ready to stop reading at the mention of Ayn Rand's name? Not so fast. Read on. I won't be commenting on economics or politics today.

I love the field of education, because I love the capacity of the human mind to reach out to, grapple with, and ultimately tame, the abstract. More and more in contemporary education there is an emphasis on what I call the Gestalt of education: getting students to see the interdisciplinary relationships between and among the subjects they study, that they are not courses taken in a vacuum, but that they all interact and interrelate. I believe in education for its own sake, as an end in and of itself, and that the training of the rational mind, critical thinking, and exposure to new ideas that all come with a rigorous quality education is the single greatest asset any young adult can take into the world. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.

By the same token, I also believe that for that education to have any real value, objective standards and a certain level of rigor must apply. I have read that the group that struggles the most with the transition to college is the effortless “A” student, the child who coasts through his high school’s relatively unchallenging curriculum, earns good grades and the accolades of the staff, and then hits college like a brick wall. The student has never been challenged, so he never develops the capacity to do hard work. The student has never been truly tested, so he quails under the pressure of a truly high-stakes college midterm exam. The student has never been trained in organization and time management, so the increased autonomy required of a successful college student is not in his character make-up. His self-esteem has been so padded by the illusion of his academic success, that his crash, when he realizes that his 99th percentile work last year is only 25th percentile this year, is cataclysmic. According to the “data,” however, the collection of which is typically discontinued upon high school graduation, this child has been a meteoric success.

This is the thesis of the succinct and on point, albeit provocatively named and just a skosh hyperbolic, op-ed “Modern EducationKills,” by Edwin A. Locke. Many students who now struggle at the college level experienced success at the high school level, and it can be disorienting to the student in trouble, who is used to academic success, or at least to being told that he or she is a successful student. In 1987, when I graduated from a California public high school at the age of 16 and entered Cornell University, I was that student. The reconstruction process was long and painful. I would not wish that upon any student.

We do the same thing when we inflate the grades of the mediocre student or socially promote the failing student. When effusive praise becomes ubiquitous, it ceases to truly be praise. I believe in acknowledging, thanking and congratulating students for work well done. I speak to them in terms on honor, integrity, investment. If a student performs poorly, I will let him or her gently know that the work was unsatisfactory; I create no illusions that “just getting the work done” is even remotely good enough. The work will get re-done, if need be. Over time, there is real, measurable improvement, and what’s more, trust in the teacher who dares to be honest in this way (students are more perceptive than we often give them credit for being). Students eventually believe that they can do the things that they themselves have been holding back from doing, and with honesty and reliable constructive feedback, students will meet or exceed high expectations, instead of a teacher’s having to lower expectations in order to be able to say the same. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.

Teachers need to do everything in their power to empower students to be successful, to seek to help students understand that frustrating or unsuccessful formative educational experiences in no way need to translate to or preordain for them a frustrated or failed summative experience. It takes a sense of ego integrity to accept a setback or a failure and still move on productively; teachers must help students appreciate the value of hard work, a good work ethic, and the willingness to accept the occasional setback as a natural part of academic and professional development and evolution.

Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed. In a rush to engage the 21st century learner – modern, multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic, technologically savvy members of the Twitterati – we have forgotten the extent to which we are all in fact the same, and the extent to which we share the same basic human needs: I refer to the needs of young people to be engaged, challenged, given a sense of deliberate purpose, and to feel pride and a sense of value. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.

Back when people used to refer fondly to what was once called the “American Dream,” it was never the case that the Dream was different for different demographic groups – whether it was English separatists in the 1600s, freed African slaves, Italian or Irish immigrants to the East Coast, Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Cubans fleeing Castro, or the Lost Boys of Africa, the American Dream has until recently been all about what your hard work could earn you, not about what the sense of entitlement you believed you had would coerce someone into giving you. The need for hard work as a means to earn one’s status has always been universal, that is, until perhaps the most recent of times. A sense of entitlement, one that borders upon a demand, has crept into American public schools. I have watched it happen over my 20+ years of teaching. There is now a sense that students must be given considerations and concessions as a precursor to being expected to achieve, almost like bribes, instead of as earned rewards. There is now more and more a sense that students have not an equal right to educational opportunity (students still have to do the work and earn their way by demonstrating achievement, mastery and understanding), but an equal right to the tangible fruits of an education (a diploma, certificate or degree, by hook or by crook, the ends justifying the means, otherwise the system is somehow depriving them of their prize). This has led in many cases to a gross relaxing of standards and many well-intentioned but ill-executed attempts to put pragmatics before principle.

But I believe this: We can be progressive, inclusive, cosmopolitan, and modern without sacrificing core principles of integrity, honor, rigor, and merit.

Carlos Fuentes wrote the following: Todo, las comunicaciones, la economía,… las revoluciones en la ciencia y la tecnología, nos indica que la variedad y no la monotonía, la diversidad más que la unidad, definirán la cultura del siglo venidero. (Everything, communication, the economy,… revolutions in science and technology, suggest that variety, not monotony – diversity, not homogeneity – will define culture in the century to come.) He called this El Encuentro con el Otro, “Encounter with the Other,” and it is one of the notions that made America great.

That notion, however, is being turned on its ear, by well-wishing ideologues who believe that one’s antecedents entitle one to unearned rewards, and that to level the playing field, we must hobble some while selectively enabling others, instead of making all comers go through the same juggernaut, and facilitation or providing support as needed to allow students to achieve. The trick – and the true test of the educator – is to enable all, through a combination of differentiated/individualized instruction; support systems, programs and aides; constant, consistent, honest communication with students and communities. This combination must then be set against a backdrop of consistently rigorous and objective standards, high expectations, and a commitment to educate all students. (And it is possible to do all this in an environment that is enjoyable, at least more often than not, for students!) That’s what is required of the educator.

For my part, I have worked for twenty-plus years in urban and diverse schools, teaching English, ESL and Spanish. I am a sociolinguist by avocation and training, and my Masters is in English/TESOL. I have taught multi-level, differentiated-instruction classes; I have taught “Inclusion” classes and participated in many CSE and IEP meetings; I have taught ESL at the college level, and worked with countless international students of a variety of backgrounds and statuses. My understanding and appreciation of the diversity of student and community populations informs everything I do professionally. I came from a school district recently where, instead of training ESL students to be successful on tests, students were forced to take standardized tests that they were not prepared for (and in some cases, were not even officially eligible to take), often a year earlier than the state required, in order to get them to fail the test enough times to be able to take an easier test, so they could “graduate.” This, to enhance the school's “numbers,” which were, and I suppose still are, published in the city papers and online. This is a perfect example of the kind of data-driven cravenness that is exactly what I am NOT about. There is no honor in manipulating students (who rely upon us) in order to satisfy the arbitrary requirements of a bureaucracy – be it state, country, district or site. Teachers should do their best, with integrity, at all times. I believe students can tell the difference, and I believe they will thank us.

On the part of the student, education is the ultimate test of character; in no other pursuit, save perhaps parenthood, is one asked to suffer the willingness to accept such an extreme delay of gratification. In third grade, you received a colorful sticker on your spelling test when you got a one-hundred. Maybe your seventh-grade teacher used to reward you with candy in class when you got a right answer. It is the educator’s job, however, to ensure that this kind of Pavlovian reward-response does not become a habit; habits become expectations, expectations become entitlements, and entitlements become an excuse later in life to avoid the rigors of honest hard work. The true rewards of education are long-term, hard-won, and rely heavily upon a deep faith in the human spirit and the rational mind. Hard work will be rewarded. Self-esteem does not always require external and explicit reward; in the proud and honorable student, self-esteem can sometimes be its own reward. Ayn Rand, in her address to the 1974 graduates of West Point, said, “Honor is self-esteem made visible in action.” It is our job, teachers’ job, to raise students who are honorable, who have the “proper intellectual posture,” and who will go forth into the world, proud of the education that they have worked for, and rightly earned. This is true for students of ALL colors, creeds and backgrounds.