Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

seaside high school

Seaside High School, Seaside, OR

Retiring from teaching was tough for me, mostly because I was conflicted about whether or not I was making the right decision. Even if I did retire for the right reasons, I knew I would have regrets. Regrets, of course, are inevitable, because no matter how self-confident a person is, when it comes to making a really important, life-changing decision, doubt always finds a way of rearing its ugly head. So I felt that the best way to deal with my decision was to examine what it was that I was doing as a teacher that caused me to now experience doubts about my decision.

What was it exactly that would I miss about teaching?

Time for self-examination.

What I came up with was, really, quite simple. I missed the learning. You see, one of the reasons why I even became a teacher in the first place was that I loved learning. I loved attending institutions of learning, being around people who enjoyed learning and wanted to learn. I know it must be possible, but I can’t imagine any teacher in any classroom who does not love learning. So what job could be more perfect than working in a building full of teachers who love learning and students who “came to learn?” Though I know, of course, that not all students come to school to learn, or at least not by the time they come into my classroom. I missed the learning that was going on in my classroom. I missed watching, observing students who were learning, especially those kids who weren’t used to learning or didn’t know what learning was all about, what it looked like, what it felt like, and then watch them recognize they could learn, even to a small degree.

The act of teaching, no matter the subject matter, has two major components: the content itself, what it is that you want to teach, and they manner in which you present that content. By whatever measure you define learning, a student’s ability to learn is just as much affected by attitude as it is by the content.

If learning has purpose, and the teacher’s approach in the classroom shows the value and importance of that learning (that is, everything we do in this classroom has a specific purpose: to experience some kind of positive result in the same way adults experience some kind of positive result from their daily routine), then all students, eventually, will recognize that they have the ability to learn.

The importance of modeling adult behavior is apparent to me as a substitute. Though a substitute, I am still a teacher. Students need to know that the reason I am subbing is that I enjoy helping them further their learning in some way. In return I get to help a variety of students in a variety of subject areas, and I enjoy that. I tell them my expertise is in English, so I may not have enough expertise to help them in math or science, but that I would expect that they could help me understand what it is they’re learning and how the day’s lesson is supposed to help them reinforce that learning.

Regardless of the content, the principles of instruction and the social construct of the classroom are the same: there is something that needs to be learned and a group of students who need to learn it. I subbed for a teacher who teaches an elective course in alternative energy. The lesson plan included a tough reading assignment that involved understanding how energy calculations can help a family make intelligent decisions about how to efficiently heat a family of five’s hot water. I thought the best I could do is get them comfortable with me, prep them for the assignment with a little personal information I already had about solar water heater use, read the assignment to them, and then help them with some possible strategies for understanding the material. They were used to working in teams, so those who were interested enough in participating were going to hash through it in some way, and those that weren’t interested, well, they weren’t interested.

Here’s where the modeling came in: I joined a few of the groups as Devil’s Advocate, helping them help me to…well, them. It wasn’t difficult to model interest and enthusiasm for them; I was really interested in learning something about solar water heating efficiency. For some groups, students fell instantly, automatically into the role of instructor. I didn’t know much, so they shared what they knew about the subject with me. What some students discovered, indirectly, was how much they knew about the subject (or how little), that by “teaching” it to me reinforced what they already knew (teacher maxim: the more you teach a subject the better you know it), and that one of the functions of learning (of all schools in general) is to become confident enough to share that learning with someone else. In time they learn about learning: sharing of learning validates the importance of learning by sharing or collaborating or teaching.


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Joe Sample passed away last Friday, Sept. 19, in Houston, TX.  He was 76.  I am fond of Joe Sample, primarily, because of his work on the album Carmel.  Sure it’s “crossover” jazz, or “pop” jazz, and I am not especially a fan of the style, though I do admire many of the artists who work within the style, such as Chuck Mangione, John Klemmer, Spyro Gyra, and a few others.  Not Kenny G., however, and not because my mother loved his music, and I can understand why she did (his music was played at her wake).  That “smooth” vein of jazz is more about connecting at an emotional level and much less about tapping into the rational side of the brain.  When we listen to Kenny G., we don’t want or need to know why we are feeling emotional, we want to just enjoy, for the moment, listening to the music and feeling that way.

When there is nothing at stake with this kind of musical emotionalism (Klemmer has been described as a “romanticist”), it’s easy to walk away because most of us are not that deeply affected by the music. I suppose this is why Smooth Jazz is better suited as background music, even appropriate at a wake.  (Caveat here:  of course, I am not lumping all Smooth Jazz together under this loose description). And I mean emotional in the sense of sentimentality, not in the sense of, for example, “blues catharsis,” a hallmark of blues musicians.  The sentimentality of smooth jazz seems to be an end in itself, whereas emotion for the blues singer is more a means of “crossing over” to the other side of a painful and sad experience.  (As I write this, I am reminded of the “river” blues song trope: “The river is deep and the river is wide/The gal I love is on the other side”; “I went to the river but couldn’t get across”; apart from over-analyzed Biblical interpretations, the hardships of a Mississippi River flood have historically been apocalyptic, and survival is often seen as coming from the hands of the divine).

The ultimate goal for the blues singer is not necessarily to make the audience or listener experience the pain of the performer (although culturally different audiences will have different expectations based on their), but instead for the performer to reenact the struggle through the creative act of singing for the vocalist or improvising for the instrumentalist; we are merely witness to the blues experience as a cathartic act which, when it is authentic, can be life changing.  The outcome of such a performance is not always clear for the blues singer; art of any kind requires some kind of response or reaction which is often not very positive.  Often both listener and performer are left relieved but also they are often left confused and dissatisfied by the experience.  The effect of  listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” is complicated for a couple of reasons: the subject matter of course is horrific, but the lyrics and music are artistically beautiful, and we are left wondering how it is possible that something on the surface that is so horrific can at the same time be so sublimely beautiful.  The answer, of course, is the “voice” that speaks of that horror; Billie Holiday touches us at a level that we find irresistible, haunting, and exceedingly beautiful.  And it takes time, perhaps a very long time, to grasp the effects of such a song, effects that are not “smooth” by a long shot.

Billie Holiday performing at the Cafe Society in 1939….one of the murals commissioned by Barney Josephson can be seen in the background

For example, Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” at the Cafe Society in New York City in 1939.  The club was New York’s only truly integrated nightclub, “a place catering to progressive types with open minds.” Even so, Holiday shared some misgivings about performing a song that confronted the issues of racial hatred head-on. When she finished performing the song, “there wasn’t even a patter of applause”(qt. in Margolick). The silence must have been horrifying.  Then one person started clapping and that led to another, and then the entire audience erupted in applause.  Hence, the catharsis of the blues.



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“Comic” Book: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story

I was fifteen years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “Big Six” organizers took to the streets of Washington D.C. in August of 1963.  I had just finished my freshman year of high school, and while I was not at all socially conscious enough to understand why the march was happening, I did sense the monumental importance of what was happening because it was playing out on t.v. in our living room.  Thanks to parents who were both socially and politically conscious, and who took pains to explain it to a kid (like it or not) who would rather be outside, hanging out with friends, the events of that day stuck with me and later became the baseline upon which my future understandings of social injustice would develop and grow.

Part of that understanding tells me that while changes have occurred in the pursuit of civil rights, much has remained the same.  Despite the gains that came, in part, from that Civil Rights March on Washington 50 years ago and even after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in July of following year, the struggle to achieve civil rights continues, and rightfully so.  The fact remains that many of the demands of the marchers 50 years ago continue to be the same demands of civil rights activists today because the “dream” has yet to be fully achieved.  Perhaps that’s the point: achieving the dream is more about the process, the struggle to achieve it than it is about the dream itself.

What Dr. King refers to as “the struggle,” achieving civil rights, suggests a process of activism that is ongoing, non-stop, forever dynamic and changing. It continues to be a struggle only because there is someone, some thing, or some force out there trying to either restrict these rights, diminish or modify them, rename them, or simply take them away entirely.  “The struggle,” by its very nature ensures the survival of civil rights movement because the truth is, left unclaimed, civil rights are more easily denied.  King may say that we must not take these civil rights for granted. We must not assume that those rights will always be there when the time comes to claim them.  We must not assume that we have a trusted custodian of our civil rights out there who will protect them and prevent them from disappearing or from being stolen. If it’s not worth “struggling” for, it may not be worth keeping. There is no protector, of course, because we are the protectors.

The act of denying civil rights seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of the institutional machinery of democracy ensuring its survival:  Republican party’s desire to politicize voting rights by restricting access to the polls for Americans, to push back against raising minimum wage for workers who are struggling to make ends meet, and to radically restrict women’s access to health care.  Protecting the civil liberties of one segment of society often includes denying the liberties of another.  Corporations are a good example of this.  Often the pursuit of profits (a pursuit seen by big business as a constitutional right subtly woven into the fabric of capitalism), come at the expense of restricting, limiting, or outright denying individual civil rights. Looming large as an example of a corporation that seeks obscene profits with a scorched-earth expansion strategy is the ubiquitous Wal-Mart, bane of small business ownership and unionized jobs.

Many would claim that these inequalities are simply the price you pay for living in a democracy.  Too many voices, too many views, not enough tolerance and understanding make it easier for the bellicose voices in the crowd to drone out those voices we rarely hear.

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