Keats Everywhere

And don’t the days slip by. Autumn arrived—actual “this is autumn weather” autumn. Five days ahead of the calendar, thus.

I have put a lot of time into the show the past two months; hence the lacuna.

At one point during that time I was thinking of pulling all my blog posts down and starting over with a purely Discworld-themed website—but that’s not what I want. Maybe it would be easier—and maybe not! But it’s definitely not what I want to do. So I really have to start (and keep) making blog posts again.

Summer passed without my noticing. It’s odd how that can happen when you get older. I’m very aware of the arrival of Autumn this year, obviously, but somehow I didn’t notice Summer’s beginning or Her end, nor what came in the middle.

I have to notice Autumn though. He’s been my favorite season since my first year of school. September, especially, has been my favorite. The change of seasons coupled with the beginning of school marked the beginning of my favorite time of year.

I never really talked about the reasons for this preference. Whenever “what’s your favorite season?” has come up in conversation, I’ve promptly said “Autumn” and failed to elaborate, changing the subject as quickly as possible.

Throughout my education, including college and graduate studies, anyone who looked forward to the start of the school year would’ve been considered odd, at best.

Being exceptionally intelligent is a two-edged sword. Ironically, it seemed I was not intelligent enough to learn that after getting the lesson (in various forms) many, many times.

Many of those lessons took place outside the classroom. Still, Autumn is my favorite season. Keats’ “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” has stuck with me ever since I encountered the line. That is the autumn that I love. Early Autumn. Early Autumn.

One Small Step…

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

The day we landed on the moon—and it was very much a “we”— I was almost 13. The world was a very, very different place then in almost every way imaginable. The accomplishment of landing men on the moon and bringing them safely back to earth was nothing short of staggering. People understood that at the time.

I was fascinated by the space program, and especially Apollo. I’d been too young to really understand what Mercury was all about. The Gemini missions were interesting, but it was Apollo—it was that reaching for the moon—that seized the imagination. I think maybe Apollo 11 was the last manifestation of American innocence and naivete. There was a great deal of controversy about it, because of the cost and the desperate need for improvement of the American standard of living and its extension to a much larger slice of the population. We’re still working on that one. Or, some are, and some are fighting tooth and nail against it.

Even so, at the time the moon landing felt like an accomplishment all of us as Americans had taken part in. Many of us had no doubt that it was the pioneering first step that would lead to space stations, the exploration and settlement of the solar system, and the eventual next great leap into the unknown—this time, of interstellar space.

For my part, I was sure we would have installations not only on the moon, but Mars, by the time this fiftieth anniversary rolled around. Lots of people have spent a lot of time trying to explain why that didn’t happen; why in fact the opposite took place. America was bored with the moon by the time the final Apollo mission returned to earth. We’d done it, sure enough, but then we’d gone back five more times (successfully) and there weren’t any earthshaking discoveries or advancements from that. There were, of course, but very few people could see them at the time.

It was painful to watch the space program splutter to a halt over the next 30 years. On that July day in 1969 that was inconceivable.

There are of course those who insist the moon landings were faked. A slightly different conspiracy theory says we found aliens on the moon, and they warned us off further space exploration. Then there is the refinement of that paranoia, which says that some of the aliens actually befriended us, and helped us establish secret bases on the moon and Mars. They have to be secret of course. Otherwise it wouldn’t be any fun.

The cynical, frequently paranoid American public of 2019 may or may not buy into any of the conspiracy theories. But, at least until the last year or so, they had largely dismissed the idea of the exploration of the solar system, at least as something that was likely to happen in their lifetimes.

There are still the visionaries, of course. Space is slowly becoming privatized. As with so many other things, Heinlein was here years ago. Actually decades ago.

I don’t know if these latter-day visionaries, under the bumbling, ignorant “leadership” of the individual currently occupying the White House will be able to return to the moon in a few years, and reach Mars a few years after that. I do know that the reality of climate change, which is (far too late) settling into the consciousness of the average American, makes it more imperative that we not keep all our eggs in the basket Earth. How that can happen on any meaningful scale in the next century is beyond me. It would take a global push of the magnitude of the American push that was Apollo.

To a twelve-year old kid, though, on that astonishing July day fifty years ago, it seemed not only possible, but inevitable. The sky, it seemed, was hardly the limit. As I said, a lot has changed since then.

In Remembrance

The Gettysburg battlefield as seen from Big Round Top. Little Round Top, where approximately 375 men from Maine broke the confederate attack and most likely saved the Union, can be seen to the right. Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

I will be watching the second half of Ted Turner’s Gettysburg today. It depicts the third day of battle, on July the 3rd, when Robert E. Lee sent 12,000 men across a mile of open ground to assault Union troops atop a ridge in fortified positions. The result was a bloody slaughter, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate army, and cause.

However trite the phrase, the battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the American Civil War. Before Gettysburg, the Union had not won a battle. Afterwards the South was never able to mount a serious challenge to the Union army, and the war settled into a bloody stalemate. In its last 18 months the war resembled the First World War to come, with the Union engaging in assault after assault against entrenched Confederates, until Grant laid siege to Lee’s army, and essentially starved them out.

Half a million American men and boys died in that war, and countless others were wounded. Many of them were horribly maimed. Both World War I and World War II would scar a generation in the same way.

World War II is of course referred to as “The Good War.” No war is good, but Hitler had to be stopped, and Fascism destroyed. This was accomplished at a cost of perhaps 40 million dead amongst all the combatants. Pause for a moment and try to imagine 40 million people being killed in five years. Fascism was destroyed, but of course the fear, racism and xenophobia that engendered it are not only still extant, but on the rise this very hour. Once again dictatorial world leaders, and one wanna-be dictator, threaten the world’s peace and the cause of freedom.

What does all this have to do with Gettysburg? It’s pretty simple, and it’s the kind of connection I endeavored to have my high school history students make. A divided America would very likely have resulted in the United States being unable to effective fight in WWII, and to a lesser extent in WWI. But in WWII, American production and Russian blood defeated Hitler.  Yes, America shed blood as well. But we did not have our cities leveled or our civilians slaughtered. A divided America would quite likely led to the victory of fascism in WWII, to put it bluntly.

Once again, we are facing the challenge of stopping intolerant authoritarianism, which in fact is what fascism is. The situation is much different than it was in 1861, or 1941. One thing is the same, though. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The attribution of the quote is uncertain, and today we would say “people” for men, but the sentiment is as true now as it was when it was first uttered.

The other thing we must remember, and a thing which was a major motivator for me as a history teacher, is Santayana’s “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On this long Independence Day weekend, as a pro-authoritarian, anti-democratic sitting U.S. President stages a spectacle mimicking the Nazis’ torchlight parades, or the parades held in the Soviet Union to commemorate various Soviet triumphs, and witnessed by the Soviet elite from a bandbox on the route, it is imperative that we remember both the quotes cited above.

It is imperative that we remember the sacrifices our nation has made in the defense of freedom. Freedom is once again threatened, and the fact that threat is being aided and abetted by a U.S. President makes it more, and not less imperative that we remember, and act.

The Silent Ebbing

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

A 34-year old teacher in Virginia, Jessica Gentry, recently resigned her position and posted her reasons why on Facebook. She asserts that good teachers are leaving the profession “like their hair is on fire” because of the stress and frustration they feel trying to deal with large class sizes, with large numbers of students who need special attention due to their home situation, their mental health issues, and the demands placed on them to be all things to all students all the time.  Gentry cited the toll this all takes on teachers’ physical and mental health and said “When kids are struggling with home life, poverty, abuse… the things they do and say— it takes a toll on you mentally. I carried all of that home with me,” Gentry tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She became short-fused and checked out at home and had to temporarily take medication for depression and anxiety due to the stress of her job.

This exodus has been taking place for at least 25 years. It’s not something people have noticed unless their child’s favorite teacher resigned unexpectedly. The stress and anxiety of being asked to be all things to all people are a big part of the reason why I left the public school classroom, 25 years ago. And the problem’s only gotten worse. My hat comes off and my heart goes out to our Jessica Gentrys, whether or not they’re still in the classroom. We are losing more of them every year. We’re losing them early, and losing out on 20 or 30 or even 40 years’ benefit to our children from their teaching. And no one notices, essentially.

We’re noticing the effects, though. We’re noticing them more and more, both quantitatively and qualitatively. We’re becoming a less literate, less tolerant, more badly-informed and badly-polarized society every day. A democratic society in which that is happening has to own up to the fact that its education system has failed. I’ve seen over 35 years of hand-wringing about the state of American education. I haven’t seen any owning up yet. Like climate change and extreme economic inequity, the collapse of our education system has reached any correction point short of revolution. And all revolutions devour their own children.

Not Only a Nation

Image by Greg Bierer from Pixabay

I went back to school to get my bachelors and teaching certificate in the fall of 1983. The attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon took place that fall. I remember a girl running out of Ed 201, after we’d watched “Cypher in the Snow.” Turned out she had had a friend in that barracks, one of the ones who didn’t survive the bombing.

        Fall 1983 was also the time of the “A Nation at Risk” report on the state of American education. It outlined the ways in which our flawed education system was putting the nation at risk, and urged immediate action to remedy the situation. If we didn’t do so, the report suggested, then in 25 years we would have lost our lead in technology, but even worse we would have a population in which the teachers began to become as poorly educated as the teachers, since those teachers were themselves emerging from a flawed system, from public school all the way through their work on their bachelors and teaching certificate.

        In 2008 I wasn’t in much of a position to ponder this too much. Just from incidental encounters I could see that a lot of younger people were poorly educated. They weren’t stupid. They just hadn’t been taught basic math, English or social studies. They were ignorant.

        Nobody talks about education reform at the moment. Climate change and the political circus we’re experiencing have people’s attention. The failure of our education system led to both the emergence of a large number of people who are so ignorant they don’t understand climate change, and who are easily sucked in by the pernicious and increasingly common use of false information to convince them of the most outlandish things. And of course we have a person in the White House who is a major climate change denier, as well as one who has created a cloud of misinformation about himself so dense that is becoming impossible to see a human being in it.

        At the end of the Permian Era, about 252 million years ago, the fifth mass extinction event in the planet’s history took place. It is often referred to as “The Great Dying,” since approximately 96% of the species living at that time were gone by the time it was all over.

        That was a very, very long time ago, and life came back. So what’s to worry about today? Only the fact that as many as one million species may become extinct this year, joining the uncounted others that have met that fate since humanity became a cancer on the earth.

        There are scientists who predict that this ongoing event will be another “Great Dying,” and imply that homo sapiens may become extinct, after causing the extinction of so many other life forms.

        And we have a climate change denier in the White House. The chances we will take effective action to ameliorate the effects of climate change are about nil. When 90% of the earth’s cities are at least partly underwater, in 30 years or so, what will we do then? When extreme weather events have become the norm, causing untold damage to property, and taking many lives, what will we do then? When loss of species results in the failure of crops, what will we do then?

        There are a lot of other questions in that vein, but I’m not going to pose them. I just hope there are people out there who understand that climate change is not only real, but inevitable, and who are learning (or teaching others) to deal with what’s coming on a personal level. There have to be, and they will have a decent chance to survive what’s coming.

        I won’t see this change in its fullness. I’ll be long gone by then. But it’s happening right now, of course. I will see enough of the change to have pity on humanity, and be thankful I won’t have to be around for the really savage and ugly stuff that will happen when there are millions of hungry and homeless people trying to survive. When you’re in survival mode, you’ll do whatever you need to do. I know this is true, because I’ve experienced. I’m glad I don’t have to be around to see what will happen when tens of millions of people are doing what they have to do, to survive. It’s bad enough to imagine it.

Committing Academe

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

“We pride ourselves on making a good history of our lives, a good story to be told.”  Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

        Ancora imparo. Right now, I am learning how to come to understand an author through his work, without referring to biographical material. As I continue to do my podcast, I’m coming to admire and appreciate Sir Terry’s work more and more, and although I do of course know a bit of his biography, I’m purposely avoiding learning any more of it, at least for now. What I am thereby doing, of course, is committing academe. Old habits die hard. This particular exercise is one I only scratched the surface of as un undergrad, though. Either time.

        Now I am enjoying, and finding fascinating, the process of inference I am using to create that better understanding of Terry Pratchett through his work. This is a taste of what it would feel like to work on a Ph.D. in Lit, I imagine. It is a highly intellectual undertaking, and not everyone’s cup of tea. I have always loved intellectual endeavor, which I think should be pretty darned clear from my previous posts.

        My bias in my own learning has been toward the intellectual since I was a kid. Emotional and spiritual learning are endeavors I began later, sometimes much later. I’ve been focusing a lot on the latter two lately, but my work on my show is giving me some better balance, weighted toward the intellectual as it is.

        I began studying the topic of learning in a more-or-less formal way since about 1990. I did so because I wanted more ways to understand my students, and learning styles were one tool. A very powerful one. I have also been learning about myself as a learner ever since, and the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t have a clue about.

        This is called wisdom. I am enjoying the research on Pratchett, though. And since it’s June, this feels a lot like summer school. I readily admit that I am such a school nerd that I loved summer school. Still do, although it’s a self-directed one-person seminar these days.

Nexus (in perfect hindsight)

As I get older, I am spending more time surfing the Internet of memory. I’m finding it more and more imperative (and enjoyable) to find out what it was that changed the me of then into the me of now, and how. Seriously.

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

        I’ve been trying to recall the specifics of my transition from student to teacher. It doesn’t to think about a transition from learner to teacher. If you think about it for a minute, you’ll see how silly that notion would be. Yet we have the notion that we do, those of us who teach, outgrow student-hood somehow in the process of truly becoming teachers. Thank you for playing, but WRONG!

        We have to have a framework for thinking about things, though, and what I’m really thinking about is how, when and why my attitude toward learning changed. Because it did. That’s not when I went from student (or learner) to teacher. It’s when learning ceased to be a joy and became an imposition for me.

        The prelude to this took place in the summer of 1973. I was between junior and senior years of high school, and I had been selected to attend a statewide JETS camp at the University of Colorado in Boulder, along with one of my classmates. JETS stood for Junior Engineering, Technology and Science camp. My classmate and I were selected on the basis of our grades, not on the basis of our interesting in E, T and S. In retrospect it’s a pretty dumb way to pick kids to attend a camp that is supposed to expose them to careers in engineering and the sciences. Nobody bothers to try to find out if the kid selected to go has the least bloody interest in these things.

        I didn’t, except that I was a science fiction fan, but the idea of four days and three nights in Boulder was enough to sell me on the deal regardless.

        I was dazzled by the experience. My older brother had gone to CU, so I was predisposed to be dazzled. Even though, they pulled out all the stops on this one, and we got a wide-ranging but mostly misleading exposure to both the aforementioned careers and college life.

        When I went home, I wanted to go to CU and study engineering. So, it worked on me. The one tangible thing we took away was a plastic case, sort of like a flattened ring binder with the rings gone. On the left side of the open binder there was a slot for loose papers. Up at the top of the right side was a horizontal slit that went all the way across. The idea was that you could slide the backing for an 8 ½ x 11” pad of paper down it, and the pad would be held in place.

        It had a University of Colorado seal on the front cover, and a dedication line at the bottom of left-hand side of the open binder. It said something about “presented to __________________ in recognition of his coming to this camp.” The letters were in gold leaf, and my name had been written into the blank in gold leaf.

Forty-six years later, I still have the left side of the binder. The seal on the cover is as good as new. The words of the dedication/inscription/what-have-you are pretty much illegible, so much ink has flaked off. But it’s still a handy little unit to carry a few loose papers in when you’d rather not fold them. It is also the item I have had longest in this life.

        As I think about it, I realize that I’ve kept it as a reminder of how, starting that next year as a freshman engineering major at CU, I slowly had my joy of learning partially stifled, and more importantly I had the notion of learning as a chore or an imposition first cross my mind. Maybe I kept it as a reminder that a nexus you don’t perceive at the time is a nexus nevertheless, and if you do only figure it out later you might find it’s caused all kinds of compications. As for me, I lost something then that it’s taken me years to begin to retrieve.

Spirituality and Memory

Image by Okan Caliskan from Pixabay

I came across this Terry Pratchett quote last night, It’s from his book Jingo. .

“Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly in purple. In the clear air the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the desert and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity overhead, they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.”

I think Sir Terry thought the ground state of human existence was existential angst. I know my older brother, who crossed in November of 1973, did. I know my oldest sister does to this day. And I know her nihilism started when my oldest brother died.

I tried existentialism but it didn’t do anything for me. After years of agnosticism, I finally realized that it’s not about religion at all. It’s about spirituality, a word which took considerable abuse in the 19th Century. I’m strongly attracted to Celtic spirituality, as well as India’s religions and spirituality. I also have a strand of Native American spiritual tradition in me as well. There isn’t a name for my belief system, and Goddess forbid that it ever get one. For then it becomes a religion. The moment a spiritual tradition becomes a religion it begins to degrade.

The Gnostic/Essene/Judaic spiritual traditions were rounded up and labeled Christianity. From that time to now we have come from do unto others and Love is All_ to right wing evangelism and fundamentally stupid fundamentalism.

Last night my wife was watching an episode of 24, and she said “the vice president’s going crazy” to me as I walked out of the bathroom. My reply was “ ‘Did you hear the news? The vice president’s gone mad. Where? Downtown. When? Last night. Gee that’s too bad.’—Bob Dylan, Clothesline Saga.” It’s just in there. Sometimes I can access it instantaneously. Then there are times when I can’t remember what I went in the kitchen for. My wife’s gotten used to it over the course of 42 years, but she still frequently says, “How do you do that?” I can’t really answer her, beyond pointing out the obvious, that I have a good memory. It’s not the having part but the instantaneous accessing part that kind of blows her mind sometimes.

What has this to do with spirituality and religion? Not a damn thing to do with religion. Spiritual tradition would say it is a special gift, vouchsafed to me. And so it is. Not surprisingly, it served me extremely well when I was in the classroom.

Outside In

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Spending four years as a substitute also helped give me an unusual perspective on teaching. When I went back to school to finish my bachelors and get my teaching certificate, my subbing time was disdained and I was made to take a bunch of courses I didn’t need, except to get that degree and certificate. So I went through the process—three semesters in the classroom and a semester of student teaching.

When I finished it was the summer of 1983. I’d been out of “my” school for two years. I started subbing again right away, and nothing much had changed (except that I had the certificate.) A couple of teachers who had previously been aloof seemed to find that it was appropriate to talk to me now that I was certificated, but as before they said nothing worth listening to.

In December of 1983 the social studies teacher was forced to resign abruptly. He was in the middle of a nasty divorce, and his wife accused him of molesting her daughter (his stepdaughter.) The district hurried him out the door as if he had leprosy, which, in terms of teaching he did. Guilty until proven innocent.

I was offered the job, and I took it like a shot. I would be teaching at the school my wife worked at. The school we had been a part of for over three years. I could barely believe my good luck.

Coming from the outside into the fold in mid-year would have been interesting and challenging enough, but it took me about an hour to realize I was in for a really rough ride. Not to put too fine a point on it, the guy had also been an alcoholic who actually kept a jug in his desk drawer. He poured it into a coffee cup and drank all day. The kids knew it. All he ever did was write and assignment on the board and then sit and drink. The kids therefore had what amounted to a free period every day. The unspoken agreement was that he wouldn’t bother them if they didn’t go wild and try to burn the building down. As long as they kept the noise down, they were pretty much free to do as they pleased. A minority of them resented this, because they wanted to be taught. When the novelty wore off a larger number of them wearied of the arrangement as well, but they didn’t know what to do about it.

Then one day he resigned, and there I was as their new teacher. All I had to do first was completely change the classroom culture. I went at this full-throttle. Lectures every period, homework that was actually graded and returned, tests that actually required them to study—and coming down hard when some of them decided to see if they could still get away with screwing off. I quickly got a rep amongst the faculty as a disciplinarian. It was just self-preservation, but it would carry forward, and save me a lot of trouble with new classes in the future.

The guy’s gradebook was an absolute nightmare. He had columns for every homework assignment, test and quiz, but many of them had no grades at all, and others had just a few. There was not a single column that had grades recorded for every student. This went all the way back to the beginning of the school year.

When I consulted the principal about this, he said it was ok to base their grade for the quarter on the two weeks’ worth of grades they would have to me. I could test them on that material and call it the final exam grade. I determined the semester grade (all that really counted) by averaging their letter grades for the two quarters—in other words, an A and a C would equal a B. It was crude and highly inaccurate, but it was the best I could do.

It was a good thing it was the last two weeks of the semester. I worked 80-plus hours each of those weeks. Over Christmas break my wife tried to reassure me that it would be easier in the spring semester. It was, relatively, but I made it harder on myself by hewing to the traditional lecture/homework/test model. It was how I had learned history in high school, and my three semesters of ed courses hadn’t shown me a viable alternative.

So I came all the way inside. A traditionalist teacher who expected a great deal of his students, took no shit, and in return gave them a lot of information about historical topics. I didn’t recognize/realize it, but I was trying to fill their minds. It would take several semesters for me to recognize this, and to realize I had to find a better way. That took some time.

Dreaming and Teaching

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It is said that some people are born teachers. This may be true. It is definitely true that some people are born with a love of learning, and that sometimes leads people into teaching. With me it was the latter. I had never given thought to getting a teaching degree, and during my first four years in the classroom I didn’t have one. In fact I didn’t even have a bachelors, but these were small schools and they were sometimes just glad to have a warm body to substitute. I was warm, and it soon became clear that I was a very good substitute, and became much in demand.

I first walked into a classroom as a substitute in the fall of 1978. I had just turned 22 in August, so I wasn’t much older than the members of the senior class. I never stopped to consider that, though. I was their teacher.

        It didn’t take long before I was modifying the lesson plans I was left, which were often extremely sketchy, or nothing but a bunch of busy work. Busy work is one of the great frauds of the classroom. Assigning kids a chapter to read and a bunch of questions at the end of that chapter to answer will NOT keep kids busy. It will bore them. They know why it’s been assigned, and they know it is going to be boring. Hence, the fifty-minute class period will be boring—or in some cases, more boring than usual. And the person at the desk is not their regular teacher, but is very real, and very competent, beyond that.

        Busy work with a sub in the room is open season, in other words. Kids are like sharks, and they smell blood with the sub in the room and nothing to really do for 50 minutes. I knew this would happen. I had loved high school, and I knew all the tricks a high school class would try on a sub. So I made sure right away that the kids recognized me as a teacher, and not a “sub.” I told them I didn’t care what usually happened in that classroom, but I was NOT their regular teacher, and we would do things my way while I was their substitute teacher. I also told them about respect—specifically, that is has to be earned. I pointed out that works both ways, and that startled a lot of them. With one statement I had brought the power dynamic of the classroom right out into the open. I had created an alternate reality in that classroom. That which was not spoken of openly, “Who’s the boss, and how does this all work? And how come nobody ever talks about it?” I had opened a door on another method/approach/perspective to/on teaching. Method, approach and perspective would doubtless all have been used to describe what I was trying to do. I didn’t need to describe it. I just needed to do it. Once we were through that door together we were in a place where teachers respected their students enough to acknowledge that fact, and use the teachable moment to help them realized they had a reciprocal obligation to respect me.