Friday, September 12, 2014

SHS 1964: reflecting on our high school 50th reunion

I had a glorious time back in Somerville, NJ last week seeing so many of you former classmates and reminiscing about those long bygone 60's days. Hats off to those who planned and oversaw the fabulous events (link to my shots posted to Facebook here). 

I left home immediately after Commencement in 1964 (seriously bitten by the Rock 'n Roll bug, to the utter fury of my now-late Dad), and this was only my 3rd time back in New Jersey since leaving the state. I have had a busy, interesting, and fulfilling life, but I have to now admit to much regret that I never maintained friendships with my classmates. Feeling the loss now. You are an impressive bunch. I wish you all the very best going forward.

apropos, I wanted to share with you a book I just finished, Garret Keizer's amazing "Getting Schooled: The Re-Education of an American Teacher." Got it yesterday. Had to put the world on 'pause.'

I continue to be a lifelong learner. There remain more books I still have to read than there are hours in the day. I've been studying a lot of late on the myriad facets of learning and teaching (the pedagogy, the politics), mostly for my Health IT blog work as they pertain to the requisite elements for an adequately staffed and competent health care workforce.

"Getting Schooled" blew me away. It simply overflows throughout with elegant prose and humbling, reflective insight. I'd like to share just a bit with you. Highly recommended. Here's an excerpt from the close -- Commencement Day:
As in the past, I view commencement exercises as an act of penance for the sins of the teaching year. Not a full expiation, for sure, but at least an act of contrition. The lengthy monotony of the proceedings, the stifling heat of a gymnasium in mid-June, the oxygen deprivation that comes of sitting with hundreds of spectators in a scarcely ventilated space— what else besides a guilty conscience could keep a person coming year after year? Add to these the inevitable if unintended insult that comes of being publicly “thanked” for an education whose quality is thrown into doubt by every other sentence accompanying the thanks, the self-congratulatory tone and smug insider jokes of the valedictory speakers, the steady deflation of making the rounds afterward to congratulate students in whose eyes it’s clear that anything you might have meant to them or they to you is dissolving like a mirage. Most of all, the oppressive loneliness that is relieved only by remembering that any number of the students up on the dais are feeling lonelier still. At the conclusion of what many of them have repeatedly been assured are the best years of their lives— which in some cases will prove sadly true, the relative crappiness of those years notwithstanding— small wonder that more than a few of them will be stone drunk by nightfall.
Of course, there’s plenty to move even a jaded heart: the sight of kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school or the first to be going on for further study, the pride in their eyes and in the eyes fixed on them. The kids overcome with more emotion than the occasion would seem to warrant, as if this were their first encounter with transience. The kids who unashamedly give flowers to their mothers, embracing the only individuals in the world besides themselves who truly know how hard it was to get to this day and how close they came to not making it. The uncanny self-possession of those students who put their high school years in perspective a long time ago, who will go on to do the quiet useful work they’ve set their sights on all along, who will keep their yearbooks but not open them often, who have instinctively understood that life gives a person several true friends at most and who will remain true to their friends all their lives...

Had I been invited to speak at graduation, as teachers sometimes are, and had I accepted, what might I have said? Probably nothing too heavy. High school graduations are not the place for diatribes or manifestos. Neither are high school classrooms. I have always believed it is a teacher’s duty to teach the curriculum and not to pontificate, to inspire debates and not to settle doctrines. I did on one or two occasions tell my students that the society they were living in valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers and that education could give them some of the weapons necessary to fight back. Those things I did say, and I might have ventured at least that far in a graduation speech. I find myself wishing, though, that I had had a simple refrain, some terse slogan I could have repeated to my classes day after day, like the Roman senator Cato, who is supposed to have ended every speech by saying “Carthage must be destroyed.”


In fact, Cato’s refrain might have done nicely. As it happens, the people of Carthage worshipped the same god their Phoenician ancestors had, a Canaanite deity they called Moloch, whose signature burnt offering was the dearest thing his worshippers had. When the Romans eventually took Cato’s advice, they found within the walls of the doomed city a multitude of clay urns containing the tiny charred bones of children. The Romans worshipped their own version of Moloch, needless to say, as do we if our poets are to be believed. “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!” So wrote Allen Ginsberg when I was a mere three years old, half a century before the financial meltdown of 2007– 08, an unknown number of years before the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan.


Carthago delenda est. I couldn’t say that to kids without more explanation than I had time for and more trouble than my long-suffering hosts deserved, but at least I can say it to you. The sentimental hypocrisy that holds children to be our most precious resource even as every indicator from the conduct of foreign policy to the debate over guns puts them several notches down in value from the availability of cheap oil and the goodwill of the NRA—delenda est. The fatuous assurance that children are happiest when their parents behave as if no happiness matters so much as their own and that of their live-in lovers— delenda est. The two-headed effrontery of believing that equal opportunity in the society at large can be promoted merely by reforming schools and that schools can be reformed without radically transforming the structures of society— delenda est, both heads at a single stroke. 

And who better suited to wield the sword than we who are charged with giving our students a “head start” only so that— as one civil rights worker put it years ago— the most disadvantaged of them can run sooner into a brick wall? Who better than us to demand the wall’s destruction? May I live to see the day when a teachers’ strike is at the vanguard of a general strike. 
Till then, I have a room to straighten and grades to turn in. I have an inventory to complete. I have one last installment of my productivity rubric to enter on PowerSchool. I have a few scattered opportunities to tell a few drop-by visitors that I hope they’ll have a safe and happy summer...

Keizer, Garret (2014-08-05). Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher (pp. 288-293). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

This dude can write!

On today's technology:
This fastidious obsession with visual resolution and digital sound, irrespective of the quality of the content depicted— what is it but the inevitable result of our gizmo-hawking market? Vacuity with special effects. We inculcate in our children the sensibilities of raccoons, a fascination with shiny objects and an appetite for garbage, and then carp about “the texting generation” as if thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who couldn’t boil an egg are capable of creating a culture. They grow on what we feed them. It has never been otherwise. The only thing that changes is the food...
We sell the disease and we sell the cure, the carcinogenic chemical and the chemotherapy, the high-calorie soda and the exercise bike. We make kids illiterate by shrinking and/ or wiring their libraries; then we build wired support centers to teach the illiterates how to read. An iPad for the one and an iPad for the other, twice the profit from the same slick deal. I make it sound more conspiratorial than it is. In fact, it is the absence of conspiracy, of anything approaching a plan or vision, that yields these absurd results. A crapshoot is not a conspiracy, but as social policy it’s crap... [ibid, pp. 224-225]
One thing is clear from the outset: the biggest change in education since my departure from the classroom, bigger even than the place of technology in the curriculum, is the move toward uniform instruction. Students and teachers are obliged to be on the same page, or the same screen if you will, in terms of the “desired outcomes.” In many ways the changes are mutually supportive: the technology allows for greater standardization and oversight; it also provides the rationale for greater standardization and oversight. Our kids need to be prepared for the digital age and we need to be sure our teachers are preparing them.

Despite some strong misgivings— the “digital age” is not my god any more than the “global marketplace”— I want to work in concert with my colleagues. I want to do a good job. I recognize the dangers of the self-styled contrarian whose “different drummer” lesson plans amount to little more than a list of pet peeves and arbitrary waivers. I’ve met more than one English teacher, for example, who claimed that “writing can’t be taught” or that “grammar isn’t important.” At the same time, I’m not sure students are best served by a faculty of conformists, by teachers who are less shepherds than sheep. [ibid, pp. 33-34]
But, wait! There's more!!!
For someone who’s spent much of his adult life trying to mine personal experience for “larger,” often political implications, it’s hard not to feel a stinging challenge to my politics. Most teachers are some variety of centrist liberal, if only because they rightly see their own livelihoods as dependent on a generous social contract. But it is only with a great leap of faith that they achieve even the most lukewarm progressivism, which by its very definition requires the belief that human beings can progress— or want to. It’s in making that leap that I lose my footing. I have never doubted that many a disadvantaged kid was saved from the gallows by going to school. But to create a society in which gallows were permanently abolished— how many holdouts would first have to hang? At the risk of sounding impertinent, Comrade Guevara, how many people did your “great feeling of love” inspire you to execute? To reduce ignorance is one thing, but what remedy for inertia— for the tendency in many of us to find the demands of all but the most pedestrian forms of learning or liberation simply too much work? The question is way above my pay grade. I can’t even find a remedy for plagiarism. [ibid, pp. 201-202]
Not kidding. I could go on. But, I'd end up posting the entire book. A great read. Just thought you might like to know about it.

We were lucky to be in high school when we were. I taught "Critical Thinking" and "Argument Analysis" as an Adjunct at UNLV from 1999 - 2004. It was great fun, but, I'd look out over my undergrad classes sometimes and think 'man, you people need to re-take high school...'

We were indeed lucky. We have our parents and our teachers -- and each other -- to thank.

Be well, my friends. Hope to see you again soon.

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