the days slip by. Autumn arrived—actual “this is autumn weather” autumn. Five
days ahead of the calendar, thus.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
painful to watch the space program splutter to a halt over the next 30 years.
On that July day in 1969 that was inconceivable.
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.
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.
still the visionaries, of course. Space is slowly becoming privatized. As with
so many other things, Heinlein was here years ago. Actually decades ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 veryhour. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“We pride ourselves on making a good history of our lives, a good story to be told.” Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.