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In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the ghosts from his past as he taught rhetoric and quality before his nervous breakdown. In Dead Poet’s Society, the character of John Keating played by Robin Williams, invoked the ghosts of former students, urging his students to “seize the day”.
Last night, I walked the halls of Amity Middle School in Bethany, accompanied by these ghosts and others. My wife was a student at this school over three decades ago. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates was one of my wife’s classmate those many years ago. Did they imagine, back then, that their children would be classmates, carry small devices like the communicators from Star Trek and have access to machines that could print out three dimensional objects? What were their dreams, what were the dreams their teachers and parents had for them back when they walked these halls.
Back to School night started similar to the school day. The principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeakers. We all stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, bringing recollections of the ghosts of those who fought for our freedom. There was a moment of silence, thirteen years after 9/11 as we recalled our friends and neighbors who died in that attack.
Then, it was off to meet the different teachers. There were a few themes that emerged, the total point system was repeated over and over again. There were frequent mentions of the Common Core, and at least to me, it seemed, there was too little focus on the actual curriculum and acknowledgement of the ghosts.
The first class I sent to was World Geography and Culture. There was a good syllabus presented and a discussion about the focus on argument and debate. Fiona, like her parents, loves debate and I’m excited for this class. I did wonder about how much the students will be encouraged to question the assumptions they have about culture based on the culture they’ve grown up in.
The second class was Spanish. I believe both Fiona’s mother and uncle had Mrs. Young for world language classes when they were students.
This was followed by English. I am sure that this will be a fine class and that the teacher will inspire the students, but I have concerns. The teacher will be managing the class using a “behavior management plan” based on corporate structure. I’ve already written to the teacher expressing concern. I am not convinced that CEOs are the best role models for proper behavior. Nor do I believe that they are the best exemplars of the use of the English language.
She spoke about finding examples of good writing to emulate, of “mentor texts”, and my mind went to e.e.cummings, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Somehow I suspect that may not be the sort of texts they’ll focus on. She mentioned that because of the Common Core, the readings would be based more on the skills being taught than on the titles of famous books. I have mixed feelings about this. Skills are important, but so is being literate in certain classics. I hope Fiona will end up reading Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, A Separate Peace, and other great books that illustrate something more important about language than just skills.
The essay, 'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. comes to mind:
If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.
For those who miss the reference, this is a section of the text book that Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society urges his students to rip out.
That said, I remain hopeful for the class and the work they will do. Perhaps the students can form a union to deal with the corporate structure. Perhaps some can even participate in the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. I think everyone should try to write their first novel by the time they complete middle school.
There was a nod to integrated curricula connecting the English class with the social studies class. I was glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of integrated curricula.
The next class was science. The teacher highlighted the classroom and the lab equipment. My daughter wrote that she thought I would like the science teacher, and I do. They will be studying lab safety, metrics, the scientific method, earth movements, meteorology and astronomy. I wondered if AMSB had a weather station connected to Weather Underground. It doesn’t appear as if they do. I figure I’ll have to dig out my ten inch Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope soon. I wonder how much they will get into issues of climate change or the effect of fracking on earth movements. I also wonder to what extent the science curriculum can be connected to the social studies curriculum.
The following class was tech. The teacher recognized me because of my Google Glass and we talked about 3D printing. My daughter is pretty excited about this class as well. As the teacher lauded the school district. We do have a great school district with wonderful facilities, great teachers, all contributing to the success of the students. Yet I remember hearing former New York City school Chancellor Joel Klein talking about equality in education. He spoke about how if the school system is working properly parents should be happy with whatever school their children end up at knowing that they all have the same level of excellence. I thought about students at under performing schools in Connecticut and remembered a great quote attributed to Virginia Woolf, “There is only one thing wrong with privilege, it’s that not everyone has it.”
For the final period, my daughter wrote Phys-Ed/Choir and listed the teachers and rooms for each. I suspect that Fiona, like me, prefers choir over physical education, so I went to the choir room. No one else showed up. Since we were supposed to be following the A schedule, I should have gone to physical education. My daughter had made a similar mistake at one point, missing technology and going to choir instead. Yet it provided one of the best chances to spend time talking with a teacher.
We talked about folk music festivals, expanding musical horizons, and the role of the arts in STEM oriented systems. My middle daughter, with her masters in community arts education always points out that it really should be STEAM, with the A standing for Arts. Without the creativity of the arts, the inventions of STEM projects are too likely to be lifeless and soulless.
There wasn’t any discussion of integrated curricula here, but it would be great if choir expanded the musical horizons of the students to include cultures being studied in social studies.
Like the students, when the classes were over, the parents found time to speak with their friends before heading home. As I drove home, I thought about the Common Core, various ghosts, and seizing the day.
When you think of Robin Williams, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Mork and Mindy? Mrs. Doubtfire? Good Morning, Vietnam? For me, what comes to mind is Dead Poet’s Society, “dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life”, which is from a quote from Henry David Thoreau
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it spoiled after these twenty-five years, stop reading here.
Robin Williams played John Keating, an unorthodox teacher who was a member of the Dead Poet’s Society and urged his students to suck the marrow out of life.
One of the students takes a part in a school play, is a great success, but is lambasted by his father and commits suicide. Mr. Keating is asked to leave the school, and has he does, his students stand on their desks and proclaim, “O Captain, My Captain”.
I don’t know the full story behind Robin Williams’ death, perhaps in some ways life has mirrored art in the death of a great actor. Yet perhaps the best homage is to stand with the students and say, “O Captain, My Captain”
The alarm goes off at six,
as it does on most mornings.
Today, I will not rush down to the main stage
to put down my tarp.
I will not chat with my yearly friends,
trying to remember their names and stories.
I will not plan where my tarp goes,
Or do some Yoga positions while waiting;
Lots of stretches are needed when camping.
For breakfast, I will have oatmeal,
Like I do on most mornings,
Except for at Falcon Ridge,
When I never managed to get around to it,
And instead eat fresh fruit and breakfast bars
Made with oats.
Today, I will grab leftovers from the fridge for lunch,
Instead of some exotic food from a vendor.
I turn on my cellphone and hear it get flooded with waiting messages.
I visit Facebook pages and wish friends Happy Birthday
And listen to their stories there.
I will take a shower this morning, like I do most mornings,
Even though I took a shower last night.
It isn’t like the solar showers,
Or baby wipe showers of Falcon Ridge,
I’ll remove more mud and sun block,
But try to keep the peace.
I’ll try to keep the peace, the hope, the vision and dreams,
As I go about my work day life.
Draw more, write more, be a better friend,
And share compassion to all around me.
It’s like New Year’s in the summer,
How long can I hold these resolutions,
Never turning back?
Recently, a friend posted on Facebook a link to Cory Doctorow’s post on BoingBoing, Why I'm sending 200 copies of Little Brother to a high-school in Pensacola, FL.
The principal of Booker T Washington High in Pensacola FL cancelled the school's One School/One Book summer reading program rather than letting all the kids go through with the previously approved assignment to read Little Brother, the bestselling young adult novel by Cory Doctorow. With Cory and Tor Books' help, the teachers are fighting back.
At the top, Cory has “THE COPYRIGHT THING”. It is chock full of great quotes:
Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing.
As to why he gives away his ebooks, he says,
For me -- for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity… I'm more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who's in the tent bought a ticket to be there.
Well, I’m glad to help with that. Perhaps this blog post will encourage a few more people to check out Cory’s writing.
Yet the quote that has particularly jumped out at me is this:
If you're not making art with the intention of having it copied, you're not really making art for the twenty-first century.
Of course, I wonder what people who advocate not making art, just making something think about this final quote.