Tag Archives: teaching

672. Strong As a Woman

No one would doubt that Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan were strong women,
but so are tens of thousands of unknowns. One of these was my friend.

I’ve been writing forever, and I taught middle school for twenty-seven years, which sometimes felt like forever. I came in as an intern, which put me into a veteran teacher’s classroom for a time before moving to my own. The teacher I was under was wonderful, but tough.

Twenty or so years later I spoke at her retirement ceremony. I’ll leave her name out of this, since she deserves her privacy. That’s why there are so many “shes” and no proper nouns in what comes below.

These are the notes for that speech. I found them today and they made me smile.

She took no crap, and I took no crap, so we were something of a matched pair. When I started to read this at the ceremony, she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Is this a roast? I don’t want a roast.”

It isn’t a roast, it’s an homage.

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I think it is fair to say that *** has a forceful personality. I can’t think of a time when I was in a room with her that everyone there was not aware of her presence. She makes an impression.

Over the years there have been a number of people who have changed their attitudes because she brought, shall we say, compelling arguments to the table.

She generally knows what she thinks, knows what she wants, and isn’t shy about saying so.

She doesn’t mind standing up for herself. Everyone who has ever met her knows that. But if you listen during those endless discussions we all get into in the teacher’s lounge, you will notice that she stands up for more than just herself. She respect herself and demands respect from others, but she also demands respect for teachers in general.

I can’t remember how many times I have heard her say to other teachers or aides, “Don’t take that. Don’t put up with that. You deserve to be treated better than that.”

I’ve also heard her say, “You’re really stupid if you do that. That will get you into big trouble, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.”

You always know where you stand with her.

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She has been at our school long enough to become an institution —- longer, in fact, than anyone else except for the real old fogies like me. It is easy to forget that she spent most of her career at the elementary school. That is where I met her.

I was an intern, on my first day, when I was placed with her. She is actually a few months younger than I am, but she had been teaching seven years while I was off becoming a starving writer. She was mongo pregnant and I was to replace her while she was on maternity leave.

I had a few precious weeks with her before she went off to have her son, and even after she was gone I had the benefit of working in a classroom environment which she had crafted. In her absence I did things her way, and her way worked.

Most people who think they know her, don’t really. You can’t really know a teacher unless you have been in her classroom and watched her teach.

After she returned from leave, we continued to work together for a few months before I took over a different class part way through my internship. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in her classroom whenever I had the chance. Each of us has come to use the other as a sounding board. Those of you who have never team taught have missed something. You can learn a great deal about your partner, and about teaching, when you team up.

When she is teaching, she is the center of attention, but she is not the center of the lesson. This is a subtle and crucial distinction, and one that a person who has only see her lambasting the latest educational stupidity would miss. When she is teaching, she demands, controls, dramatizes, cajoles, exhorts, and forces student’s attention onto the matter at hand. She is the focus of what is going on, but what is going on is not about her. It is not a way to glorify herself, but a way to force her students to confront the tragedy of Anne Frank, or the importance of knowing their own family heritage, or the despair of the Wreck of the Hesperus.

A few years ago it became politically correct to say, “Be the scribe on the side, not the sage on the stage.” What contemptible crap! If you aren’t the smartest person in the room, why are they paying you? It is our job to be tough, organized, enthused, and relentless in bringing our knowledge to our students. But we must be the lens through which the students see, not the actual thing that they see.

I would have figured this out on my own, but I didn’t have to. It was all laid out for me the first day I walked into her classroom.

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So I found these notes and wrote them into the computer. As I did, I had to consider the changes that have come about in these last few years.

My friend and I both knew that if I said something loud and contrary about the endless brown rain coming down from the state board of education, I would be seen as forceful. If she said the same thing (and she did), she would be a bitch. She never let that stop her.

If she has seen a glass ceiling, she would have taken an axe to it.

665. The Devil’s Stars

From an album by the sixties folk band Pentangle.

Fundamentalist Christians are not only uncomfortable in the presence of the number 666, they aren’t fond of a five pointed star inside a circle either. I found this out the hard way.

I was teaching a unit on Drawing Through Mathematics back when I was a middle school teacher. The technique consisted of using two concentric circles, with dots marked off mathematically, and connecting the dots between the circles with straight lines. Then the circles and dots were to be erased.

In this manner you can make stars with any number of points and control whether they are fat or skinny. I’ll show you how at the bottom of this post. In one session of my class we had already made six and seven pointed stars without any problem, but when we did five pointed stars I unintentionally caused an explosion. One student completed his star, then suddenly sat back, face white with fear, and threw it across the table shouting, “I’ve made a Devil’s star!”

I took me completely by surprise. I would never had let the number 666 creep into class. In fact, when I made up my own math worksheets, I always made sure no answer would be 666. It wasn’t fear of the school board. It was just that every kid has a right to his own beliefs, whether they make sense to me or not, and I saw no reason to make them uncomfortable.

I also knew that a five pointed star inside a circle, particularly if inverted, was a devil or witch sign during the middle ages. I just didn’t know that piece of knowledge was current in my community. I should have, since you see it in so many horror movies, but I don’t watch horror movies and I try to ignore their adds on TV. Besides I didn’t think of what we were doing as putting stars into circles, but using circles (and then erasing them) to make stars.

I explained all that to the frightened student, also invoking the fact that the symbol for the Army Air Force in WWII was a circle containing a five pointed star, and that the US government was certainly not an instrument of the devil. It took a long time to calm him down and he was still shaken when he left classroom.

I felt terrible. Probably every student I’ve ever taught felt differently about religion than I do, so I’ve always worked hard not to put any one of them on the defensive, but this incident had caught me by surprise.

It’s hard to anticipate every possibility.

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During the first two or three years of this blog I sometimes offered classroom insights, but I only have a few left that could interest any of my present readers. This might be one. Teach it to your kids, if you have any, and let them impress their teachers. Just stay away from five pointed stars if you are a fundamentalist Christian. Or embrace them if you are a Wiccan.

A three pointed star is rare except for the Mercedes Benz badge. A two pointed star is really just a skinny diamond. A one pointed star can’t exist. Any number of points, other than one, can be drawn by this method with complete control of how skinny or fat the star will be.

Draw a circle the size you want your star to be. Draw a second circle on the same center point inside the first circle. The smaller the inner circle is (compared to the outer), the skinnier the star points will be, and vice versa.

Decide how many points you want on your star. Divide that number into 360. That is the number of degrees each point will take. Divide that number in half. That is the offset.

Example for an eight pointed star —
360 divided by 8 allows 45 degrees for each point, with a 22.5 degree offset.

Draw a line from the center through both circles. Starting on the point where the line crosses the outer circle, draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the outer circle.

Where the line crosses the inner circle, offset a dot by 22.5 degrees, then draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the inner circle.

Connect the dots. Voilà. Then erase the construction lines. I still use the method when designing quilt blocks.

655. All the Little Children

What if Santa Claus weren’t white? What if he weren’t back either, or latino? What if he were a mixture of all the races and ethnicities? He could still have white hair; we all come to that in the end.

What if he were cast that way in a new version of Miracle on 34th Street? What might he say to the little Susan Walker (whatever color she turned out to be) when he caught her refusing to play with the other children?

He might use a word nobody uses any more. It rhymes. It fits — but it would probably make the audience uncomfortable.

Miscegenation is a place all by itself, a separate country. You’ve heard of the British nation and the French nation. Now this is the Miscegenation. It’s a wonderful place. How would you like to be able to to play with all your little friends, no matter what their color of their skin and hair or the shape of their faces? You could you know, if your parents weren’t afraid your babies, someday, were going to come out a different color than they are. 

Its odd how the words out of our childhoods that seemed so wrong then, can come to seem different now. And vice versa. We and They used to seem so normal, but now . . .

Merry Christmas to all the little children of the world.

606. We Learn

University of Chicago

In the review of Louis L’amour’s memoir, a lot was said about self education, but that should not obscure the usefulness of college.

If you cut classes, sleep through classes, read digested notes instead of the textbook, and write merely adequate papers (or buy them), you can get all the way to graduation without learning anything. It takes some effort, but people do it every day.

On the other hand, if you recognize that your education is your responsibility, college will at least provide you with a reading list. And while you are in the stacks there is no telling what kind of other amazing additional things you will find to read.

Also, a few of the professors, at least, will have something worth listening to. I have had brilliant professors and professors who were dolts. You just have to deal with it.

There are grad students (I’ve met some) who were plowing their way toward a Ph.D. on pure inertia. Something got them started down that path and they didn’t have the imagination or courage to make a change. They can make it all the way to professorship with the help of other misfits from the last generation.

It’s pretty much like the rest of life.

I left a town in Oklahoma, population 121, and arrived at Michigan State University in 1966. That year the campus had about 48,000 students. I loved it. I could walk down the street without everybody knowing me, and reporting back everything I did. (Sigh of relief!)

I started in biology, switched to anthropology, and concentrated on the cultures of South Asia. Just before graduation my draft number came up, so my diploma was immediately followed by four years in the Navy.

A word of advice: if you have a degree in engineering, they make you an officer. If you have a degree in anthropology, they make you an enlisted man. Oh well.

I next attended the University of Chicago, where I got an MA studying the interface between South Asian village economics and native theories of ritual purity. Title: Jajmani, an alternative conceptualization.

Obscure? You’d better believe it. Obscurity does not make a thing useless, but it does make it hard to talk to your friends about it.

Then I got blindsided by novel writing, but I’ve talked about that enough in the past.

The University of Chicago is a premier school. California State College, Stanislaus, which I attended a few years later, was known only to locals. The profs at Chicago were probably better scholars, but not better teachers. I got a good education both places.

CSCS is now CSUS. It was upgraded to a University a few years after I left. While I was there, I studied History, and received a second BA and second MA. Why a second set of degrees is a long story, to be told another time.

My thesis was “The Crisis in American Shipping and Shipbuilding: 1865 to 1918” That was an era of arguments about the role of tariffs and subsidies, with much testimony before Congress in which every competing party misrepresented the facts. Same old, same old. Teflon Don would have felt right at home.

To finish this quasi curriculum vitae, I went back to the University of the Pacific a few years later to get a teaching credential. It only required a few courses with all I already had on board. Everything I had done until then was from love of learning. I went to UOP purely to get a job so I could continue eating.

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Everything I learned, everywhere I went, was useful to me as a teacher and as a writer. Over the next few months, I plan to pass on Reader’s Digest versions of some of it that might help you in your writing.

(Yes, I know most of the people reading this are or want to be writers, and more power to you.)

597. Who Speaks for Us?

A teacher in a classroom in Sierra Leone.

I had a post written for today, which I will now boot on down the road, maybe a couple of weeks.

My wife and I frequently watch a morning so-called news program, mostly because the hosts are pleasant people. This morning (that would be two days ago, Memorial Day) they took a moment from time to time to “remember those who served”, and went immediately to the men of Big Little Liars and promised an upcoming interview with Lamar Odom. Then they were going to do in in depth piece on where to find the best Memorial Day sales.

Yikes.

I left quickly. Most mornings all I wait for is a hit of good fellowship, a touch of news and weather, and I’m on to other things. Like writing this.

Their treatment of Memorial Day seemed to strike somewhere between grabbing for cheap emotions and checking off a box, but I’m going to give them a pass. I am not the one to judge, because I can’t be satisfied on the subject. Every time Memorial Day comes around I find myself caught between tears and anger, no matter how well things are presented. I have great respect for those who fought for freedom, but I don’t forget the atrocities committed in America’s name. I know that most Americans are offering genuine respect, and that some Americans are using Memorial Day to push military agendas, and a few are doing both at the same time.

I’m just going to have to let go of Memorial Day for another year. 

Lamar Odom is another matter. Mind you, I don’t know the man, and I avoid any news broadcast containing the word Kardashian. He probably has a story to tell, and certainly has the right to tell it.  Nevertheless, he represents something ugly about America — the Redemption Tour.

You are nobody in America until you’ve hit rock bottom, and clawed your way back up, in full public view.

If you’ve simply lived a wholesome, useful life, you don’t count. But if you’ve ripped off a charity, gotten dragged down by drugs, or cheated your kid’s way into college, welcome to celebrity. America is crying out to forgive you, if you can first tell them a stirring tale of depravity to keep them entertained.

Lamar Odom isn’t the problem; he just set me off. He dredged up something ugly from my past.

I was teaching middle school and we all turned out for a rally. It was one of those manufactured teaching moments, half sermon, half vaudeville, but it went wrong from the start. The presentation was by a batch of ex-cons, who had come to the school to tell our kids to go straight. Supposedly. In fact, it was anything but that. They were strutting baboons, flexing their muscles in their tight T-shirts, showing off their tattoos, and tearing phone books in half.

And, no, baboon is not a racist dog whistle this time. These were all white guys. It’s just an accurate description.

They told the kids, “Stay in school, keep on the straight and narrow, don’t end up in prison cause the guys there will eat you alive. You don’t want to end up like us.”

And the teenage boys all said under their breaths, “The hell we don’t!” These parodies of masculinity were exactly what they wanted to become.

Then one of the ex-prisoners began to harangue a tough looking Mexican-American student. He said, “I know you. I know what you’re thinking . . .” But he didn’t. He didn’t even know the boy’s name. He had never seen him before, but that didn’t stop him from calling the boy out.

It was always like that. Whenever somebody came to our school to make our students into better people, they always zeroed in on Mexicans as the ones they planned to reform.

Any teacher in the room could have told you the boy’s name. A lot of them could have told you his parents’ names, and would have had a pretty good idea of their income. Many of them would have known his sisters and brothers names, and would have taught them in years past. Some of those teacher had probably been in his home.

Any teacher in that gym could have stood in front of those children and have given them good advice about their futures — in fact they did just that every day in their classrooms. But those teachers hadn’t been to prison, so they were in the bleachers while the ex-cons cavorted like movie stars.

If you think I don’t believe in second chances, that isn’t the point. I don’t believe in parading your failures like badges of honor and I don’t believe you have to go low before you can go high.

There is nothing wrong with not going to prison.

Just go high, without bothering to go low first. Nobody will ever notice you. They won’t put you on television or in front of a gym full of kids, but that’s okay. We can live with that.

589.5 Tequila and Lederhosen

Cinco de Mayo caught me by surprise this year. It is an important holiday in California, and was particularly important to about half the kids I taught before I retired.

You will note that I did not say Mexican-American kids. Even before the advent of Trump, a surprisingly large number of (whatever) students didn’t like that name. Some wore a T-shirt that said:

Not Mexican-American
Not Hispanic
Not Chicano
MEXICAN!

I’ve already had my say on the subject of Cinco de Mayo. I invite you to check out these two older posts to see what that was.

One post had the full title: Juan Angus Georg Angelo O’Malley celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by drinking tequila and while wearing lederhosen under his kilt.

The other was titled: Who said you were Mexican?

583. Mutually Assured Destruction

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and every year I taught the manned space program. It was never called for in the required curriculum, but I always managed to shoehorn it in while still teaching everything I was required to. It wasn’t just because I loved the subject, although I did. There were plenty of things in science that I loved but never mentioned.

The plain fact is that seventh graders don’t listen unless you excite them, and the manned space program was exciting.

Here is a schtick I used in my middle-school classroom all through the eighties and nineties. The subject was, “What motivated Americans who didn’t care about space to spend billions to outrun the Russians in the Space Race?”

I would choose two pushy, self-assured young guys and call them to the front of the room. I would put them face to face, about ten feet apart, and say, “Now, imagine each of you has a .45 automatic, and each of you hates the other one. We’ll call one of you America and the other Russia. I don’t want to insult you, so I won’t say which is which.

“Point your guns at each other. (They would gleefully assume the position.) If either one of you fires, the other will have just time enough to pull the trigger, too. You will both go down. If you sneeze, though, you’re a goner. If you blink, you’re a goner. If you look away, same thing.

“Now hold that pose for fifty years.”

Clearly, I couldn’t get away with that today, but this was pre-Columbine. My kids were thinking about cops and robbers, not  a terrorist who was out to kill them.

Do I have to point out that the guns represented the American and Soviet nuclear armed arsenal of missiles? It was a demonstration of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known by its entirely appropriate acronym MAD. If either side had attained an overwhelming superiority in number of missiles, the delicate balance would have been disrupted. Witness the Soviet’s parading their missiles in Moscow, and taking them several times around the block to look like they had more than they did.

The balance could be disrupted by having missiles closer to the enemy than the enemy did to us. Witness secret American missile bases in Turkey, on the Soviet border, which led them to put missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not an unprovoked Soviet threat.

The balance would have also been disrupted by an effective missile defense system. There is no such thing as defensive in the MAD scenario.

What does this have to do with space travel? Two things, one positive and one negative. The entire business was a race for the nuclear high ground. If either side had managed to put an orbital missile platform into orbit, it would have been bad news for the other side. That was not possible, so each side tried to maximize their capabilities in space while proving to the hundred plus other nations on the Earth that they were the firstest with the mostest.

I would repeat that in Russian if I could write Cyrillic.

All this turned into the Space Race, culminating in a manned lunar landing, It’s nice that something good came out of all that nonsense.

The other side of the coin was a reinforcement of fear of nukes, whether it was bombs, powerplants, or space drives. In the fiction of the sixties, the solar system was filled with nuclear powered spacecraft. In the real world, fear killed the idea.

Should we have nuclear spacecraft? I think so, but it isn’t for me to say. It isn’t for you to say, either. It isn’t even for the people to say.

Why? Because we’ve shifted our focus from the Russians to the Chinese.

If history is a guide, we will have a nuclear spacecraft — a few years after the Chinese launch their first one. We’ll be running behind and playing catch-up as usual.

Remember Sputnik?