Archival Meanderings, Pt. 4

I’ve had many great colleagues and this rambling rant was the by-product of conversations with one back in 1997. (I’m a little rough on ol’ LAUSD and since then I’ve come to learn that such a juggernaut is by definition a government of laws and not of men, and it was a place where I was able to be creative and hopefully productive.)

“High School is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” -Kurt Vonnegut

“Songs of Missions and of Statements”

“A teacher who arouses a feeling in us for one good action, one good poem, accomplishes more than the teacher who fills our heads with interminable lists of natural objects.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My faculty cafeteria morning break brother Tony Perone and I, whilst once again kickin’ around this or that topic of daily abbreviated, tho’ recurrent, conversation, connected the opening of the movie “Jerry Maguire” and his writing of a ‘mission statement’ with our on-going over-stuffed box of issues regarding school, education, our jobs teaching.  We resolved to trade at the beginning of the next school year “mission statements” about our jobs, our rants and raves, our objectives and responsibilities, as teachers.  Having procrastinated, that is ruminated upon, this little homework assignment until this, the end of summer – Labor Day weekend, I have finally sat down to vent.  Here goes:

“The more I read, the more I meditate; and the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.” -Voltaire

Difficult it is to start, to deal with the singularity of beginning, to find the one opening sentence for a topic so vast, and so long contemplated by me, as the education of the young.  I am also contemplating the first day of school next week, a day I dread and cherish as the beginning of a kind of journey.  As much as I enjoyed last June’s merciful end to the 96-97 school year, so do I relish the drama and rich potential of the first day of class for this next 97-98 year.  As I think Plato said, “the beginning is the most important part of the work,” or someone else’s line, “as we begin so shall we go.”  So, speaking of ancient Greeks, I might as well start with Socrates.

I have three points I would like to make about Socrates:

First, that he was killed for corrupting the youth (a thought which reminds me of the title of one of my favorite books on education, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner), he is the martyr teacher we all should be.  But this subversion, this corruption, this martyrdom is not directed so much at the students as at their environment, the system, the status quo.  As Socrates questioned, so too does every generation of youth question the authority of the preceding generations.  This is as it should be, and we, as teachers, like Socrates, should side with the youth – we should be their advocate.  We should not pontificate nor indoctrinate; rather than giving answers, we should help with the questions.

Second, and speaking of which, that the Socratic Method of questions and answers has been the most meaningful way of teaching and learning for thousands of years, and thus puts to rout all the gobbledygook edubabble on pedagogical methodologies.  Of course, the simplicity of the Socratic Method is unacceptable to curriculum developers and textbook manufacturers, and it challenges the need for administrators and edubusiness parasites who do not contribute to the dialogue of learning – but that rant can wait.  On another course, the simplicity of the Socratic Method is deceptive.  While conducting a discussion involving a series of questions and answers seems basic, the mind set of pupil, as well as the topic and purpose of instruction needs to be known by the instructor.   Unlike Plato, my use of this technique does not mean I believe in a priori  knowledge, but neither is that kid who just sauntered into your room a tabula rasa.  To, in the words of Emerson, “respect the pupil,” the teacher should know the pupil, perhaps as much as s/he knows the subject in order to effectively conduct a Socratic dialogue.  It is a flow, a dance, a game that succeeds only when the Socratic Irony is truly ironic, that is when the teacher knows the subject and the nature of the pupils, and thus flows, moves from question and answer to question and answer – to knowledge and understanding and insight.

Third, that the Socratic Method can be not just the means of learning, but proof of learning.  The instructor’s questions are not simply to stimulate thinking, but to ascertain that the pupil can think.  Thus, I will try to articulate my policies with regard to the use of the Socratic Method in class.  In the past, I have given a reading assignment and then, when the piece was to have been read, conducted a question and answer session.  Too often, much to my consternation, students would be too shy or simply too inarticulate to respond, or worse, it would become evident that they had not done the reading.  This year, Socratic Dialogues will be graded like an almost daily oral exam.  I have always given points for “class participation,” which is essentially the same thing, but for a very important reason I will be giving greater and more specific emphasis to the value of oral evaluations.  The reason is that, thanks to the computer age in which we live, written work, unless done in class with cheating-prevention measures in place, is of dubious value.  Between the internet and the ease of duplicitous duplication, typed assignments cannot be trusted.  Much written work can be copied.  Thus, it is those “mouths of babes” one must listen to in order to insure the purity of the thought and reading done.  Further, the dynamics in a classroom during a good discussion make for some of the most exciting moments in teaching and learning.  It may take some tough grading at first to make sure the reading gets done, but the gain will be worth the pain.  For more thoughts and ideas on the Socratic Method see “The Paper Chase,” starring John Houseman, Timothy Bottoms, and Lindsay Wagner…

“Too much rigidity on the part of teachers should be followed by a brisk spirit of insubordination on the part of the taught.” -Agnes Repplier

Having kicked this snowball off the top with regard to method, let me digress to a rant.  As Mark Twain once politely stated, “In the beginning God made idiots.  This was for practice.  Then he made School Boards.”  However, here my spleen spurts also upon the Ivory Tower – Schools of Education.  We can consider the corollary to George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “Those who can do, those who can’t teach,” with “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”  And alas, these morbid sentiments leave us with an unattributable quotation, “successful teachers are effective in spite of the psychological theories they suffer under.”  It seems that “The System,” the educational bureaucracy that ostensibly guides us, is often tragically out of touch and corrupt.

I recall the distinction, while getting my Masters degree in Education at UCLA, I saw between the “trenches” of being a sub in the public high schools of LA, and the utter BS-schlock being silver-spoon-fed to the graduate students at the university.  Never did we step in a real K-12 classroom, never did the theories we studied help me in doing my real world job, never did the quantitative measures of educational research have anything to do with the qualitative problems of teenagers and the teachers trying to impart some knowledge.  I could go on, but it doesn’t serve the statement.

Regarding the public school bureaucracy I work for, the LAUSD, a few tidbits only.  I recall when the Chief Financial Officer of the district, having gotten busted for doing something terribly wrong, was suspended for five days – only?!  Consider the six figure salaries, provided by taxpayers, to administrators who never see children.  What do they do?  I don’t know.  If 450 N. Grand Ave. (LAUSD’s HQ) blew up tomorrow, it would not affect the day to day workings of my school in the least.  Of course, I may not know what I’m talking about.  Perhaps they do vastly important and difficult things that allow me to do my job – but I have no sense of that in the slightest.  I could go on, but it doesn’t serve the statement.

So, the statement regarding my mission is that one is a teacher in spite of the loathsome realities of school districts and schools of education.  Know your subject, learn about your students, then create – create in the void.

“Erudition, n. Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.” -Ambrose Bierce

Before I go on to the important stuff, one more rant.  This one is more generic and involves, to invoke Sartre, the hell of other people:  parents, the people that make TV, and alas, fellow faculty.

Parents are, I suppose, necessary to continue the influx of clients, but it is fair, I’m sad to say, to put much of the burden of responsibility for the decline of public education, beyond that borne by the bureaucracies and the decline of civilization in general, on them.  Of course, my last caveat provides ample vindication, except as the word responsibility applies to families.  Is “single parent family” an oxymoron? Yes.  In that scenario did someone abdicate a sacred responsibility? Yes.  It takes two to make a child and two to raise a child.  Fill in litany of reasons here.  While the fornicating imbeciles whose unholy offspring populate our campuses are undoubtedly unaware, human infants require more care and nurturing than equine, bovine, canine, and feline offspring.  This care and nurturing involves an acuity of perception, an awareness and sensitivity, which seems to be circling the drain of humanity.  To quote Keanu Reeves (relish irony here) in “Parenthood,” “Ya gotta have a license to drive, ya gotta have a license to fish, but any … asshole can be a father.”  Well, you get my point.  Actually, I only want them to buy their kids textbooks (using the child’s allowance of course), and kick the collective butt of the people who make TV.

Faculty are, I suppose, necessary for me to be one of them, so I should tread lightly here.  But I look around the cafeteria on the first day of the year and I think the bureaucrats and professors of education don’t look so bad, at least they don’t dress so bad.  Furthermore, they make hard working schmucks, like I fancy myself to be, not look so bad.  In the cesspool of mediocrity, I’m proud to say I’m a strong swimmer.  Ah well, upwards and sideways.  And the mission statement resulting from all this is again: labor in love – in spite of indifference.  (Could that read “Make an indifference in your students’ lives”?!)

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” -Oscar Wilde

So let me get to the main point of what was to have been a more clearly articulated list of mission statements, rather than the foregoing drivel-whine.  This bit might also be dubbed my hidden curriculum.  While I am allegedly an English teacher, I am also an ecologist, an environmentalist, a naturalist.  So, while in the coming school year I also intend to be the kinder and gentler Mr. Vail, to educate souls as well as cerebra, to aspire to the higher intellectual fire, I also intend to send a message of love for nature.

As is well documented and equally resented, the state of the earth is greatly imperiled.  News about greenhouse effects, pollution, and the concomitant and synergistic effects of these and other perils continues to acid-rain down upon our ‘ignant’ heads.  Fill in litany of reasons here.  Study the newfangled Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History and Culture(s), and the lessons scream, “the times they are achangin’” – for the worse!  But as an English teacher, am I to curl my bookworm-nose into the dusty past and ignore the looming doom – and encourage my students to do the same?!  NO.  I do not share the sentiment of the band R.E.M. as they sing, “Its the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”  I feel like crap and I’m angry.  So what should the “treehuggin’” teacher do?  We could consider Confucius’ notion on this topic, “When nature exceeds culture, we have the rustic.  When culture exceeds nature, we have the pedant.”  But he didn’t come home from a ten day vacation to see his car covered, encrusted, with a thick layer of petrochemicalsootshit fallen from the skies of his personal urban sprawl.  It’s not necessarily the end of the world, but things need to be done NOW, on a grand scale, to prevent that from becoming true.  Even on the small scale however, changes need to be made, and it is here that the teacher with class can do a little something meaningful.  “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  (“As we began, we went!?”)  Of course, there is the danger of sounding like the bleeding-heart-liberal-drone, and again, we must not indoctrinate.  But the facts speak for themselves, and are we not only helping them develop what Hemingway called a “built-in, shock-proof crap detector”?  It is a rich and complex subject as well, naturally interdisciplinary, involving the sciences and the humanities.  I could go on harkening to Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Barry Commoner; or to lists of heinous ecological disaster facts, statistics of population, pollution, and lurid combinations of each; but I promised myself not to go past this page.  The mission?  Teach a sustainable, livable, groovable lifestyle.  Give ‘em a practical toolbox of relevant knowledge.

Of course I’m not quite finished.  I’m realizing that my alternative to a list of class rules, which I wrote and have hardly changed since I began teaching in 1984, applies here.  Rather than rules, which I have always believed were made to be broken, I have” expectations.”  As they are for students, they can certainly apply to teachers and administrators as well…


So that you will have the greatest chance to experience success in all your classes, it is important that you know what is expected of you.  I believe that it will help you to adopt these ideas as your own and use them in your other classes as well.

You are expected to have respect.  Respect for yourself, as well as those around you, is necessary to be a functioning and fulfilled adult.  Take pride in yourself and your work.  Do not settle for mediocrity, but be humble.  Do not turn in anything less than your best effort.  Don’t be sloppy.  And don’t forget:  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!”  Replace rude, harsh, loud words with kind, considerate, soft-spoken ones; or simply be silent!  Have respect for the people and respect for the planet.

You are expected to be responsible.  It is essential to have the right tools for the job.  Be prepared!  You should have a notebook for this class, and always have a pen/pencil and paper.  Always be ready to take notes.  You should try to be organized and efficient, and of course you are expected to do your homework when it is assigned and arrive in class on time everyday.  And check this:  will you take responsibility for other people too?

You are expected to be curious.  Curiosity is an imperative for meaningful learning.  If you do not really want to know about something, then you will not learn about it.  In order for you to be curious about your classes you need to see how they are meaningful and relevant to you personally.  And the more involved and interested in the world you are, the more relevant and important everything becomes to your life.  Be a sleuth, a detective, an explorer, an adventurer, a thinker!  Be curious.

You are expected to take care of your environment.  Don’t be an obnoxious, knuckle-draggin,’ litter-throwin,’ stinky, skanky, pig-slob!  Throw your trash in the can.  (Recycle it if at all possible.)  Do not write on anything other than your own papers.  And why not make the world a better place by looking out for the negligence of others?

You are expected to try for the best possible grade you can get.  Grading is done by accumulating points, and all work done for this class is worth points.  Strive to receive the maximum possible points available.  Do not skip assignments, and do not sell yourself short!  Also, class participation is essential.  Put in the effort, it will pay off!

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