Arts

The Arts section of Orient Lodge

Back to School Night: Common Core, Ghosts and Seizing the Day

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.

“O Captain, My Captain”

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”

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Little Brother

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.

Before I learned that I’m supposed to be embarrassed to read young adult novels, I downloaded it for free.

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.

Reimagining

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. Another month rolls down the hill like a Sisyphean bolder and a new month begins. What will this month bring? Last month, my 2014 campaign for State Representative began. What kind of impact can I have this time? I went to an event to reimagine the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I’ve shared my reactions and wonder what sort of impact that will have. Meanwhile, I try to balance work and home.

As I try to pull together thoughts on reimaging both politics and religion in the twenty-first century, I keep in mind what a luxury that is. For too many, it is too much to just get by from day to day. How do we encourage those who are too exhausted from the daily grind to be more engaged in politics or religion?

For me, my relaxation often comes from trying to gain new perspectives, particularly through the arts. I’m trying to determine what my literary diet for the coming months will be. Should I dive back into poetry? From Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni to Billy Collins and Denise Levertov? Should I reread some Thomas Merton or perhaps the writings of some Great Awakening preacher?

How do I relate all of this to what I read on Facebook? I’ve been thinking of trying to post something upbeat each day, whether it be a picture of a flower, a great quote, or an inspiring article. I’ve been trying to highlight things going on around me where regular people make a difference. I’ve been avoiding jumping into many of the discussions where seem to be venting with no real solutions.

Saturday, someone posted a link to Download a Free Copy of Danah Boyd’s Book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. This led me to explore the Open Culture website for a while, and ultimately end up checking out their list of films by Andrei Tarkovsky that are online.

I ended up watching Ivan’s Childhood. One person describe the film this way:

First Film by the prophet of modern cinema Andrei Tarkovsky
While Sergei Eisenstein literally wrote the grammar of cinema by inventing Montage, Tarkovsky found the true calling of cinema with his exposition of long shot where the roving camera wanders examining stuff and through its eyes reach into the heart and soul of the protagonist. Through him film became what it was meant to be, the purveyor of dreams. All other developments in cinema are borrowed from other visual and literary developments.

The film is set on the front lines of World War II and traces the experiences of a child, Ivan. It is the sort of film to make you think, especially about the lives of people very different those of us living comfortably in the twenty-first century.

So, let’s see where the boulder rolls this month.

#TEDxVille - Prologue

Still reeling from the death of Bridget and the news that another friend is in the hospital, I got behind the wheel of my rusting 1997 Black Nissan Altima and started my drive up to Somerville to hear my middle daughter, Miranda, speak at TEDxSomerville.

The drive is only a couple hours, much shorter than the trips I used to take when Miranda was in College in Virginia, but to add to my blues was the rain. It seems like every time I drive up to a big event Miranda is involved in, it is raining, sort of like the negative space in a painting.

I’m going through one of those really busy phases at work, and my free time is also at a premium right now. I missed two other important events to go up and hear Miranda. I thought about Bridget. I thought about my friend in the hospital. What is life all about, anyway? I go through the motions every day. I do my tasks at work, hoping to make life better for those around me. On good days, I get a chance to write.

“What I need”, I thought to myself, “is a transcendent moment, a transformational moment, a spark of inspiration.” I go to so many conferences. I gather information. I write about the parts that grab me. This too, has become yet another task, yet another chore, something I do by rote.

I arrived in Somerville, parked in a lot and headed over to the TEDxSomerville venue, Brooklyn Boulders.

Brooklyn Boulders is a climbing community in an old factory. The walls are covered with foothold, handholds and art. It is a great space, but not the sort of space you’d expect to find a TEDx conference. People were climbing as volunteers set out folding chairs and giant beanbag chairs.

I headed towards the Assembly Row blogger lounge. I sat around and talked with other writers, had some amazing champagne raspberry Jello shots, recharged my batteries and got ready for the event.

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