I’m coming closer to a sample project that will use artistic design as its organizing principle. That is, I’m coming closer to an understanding of how the project I want to do has potential value as a teaching practice. A couple of quick points:
the project should in some way require the kids to look more deeply at something they take for granted - something banal yet ubiquitous, and always overlooked
the project should in some way require kids to rethink what they think they know and reevaluate their stance towards that object and what it represents
the project should in some way lead to an exhibit that has the same function for the audience that they project did for them - it should be transformative
the project should also, educationally, tie in different disciplines and offer “real-world” applications for what they are learning
the project should provide the opportunity to practice good design
the project DOES NOT HAVE TO be the avenue to teach specific content according to standards - it can stand alone and be a tie-in, but does not have to direct all the learning
the project should not in fact be the real goal - the project is the means for the process. The process shall in fact inform the goal of the project, if that makes sense. The project should be flexible enough to change if need be, as the process is the place where enlightenment happens.
And now I think the project should also help the students develop essential questions that are more in line with their own interests. I think of how hard we worked to develop our own essential questions that would inform the direction of the project, and how we then worked so hard to make the essential question relevant to the kids. Perhaps we have it backwards - perhaps we lay out the challenge and the project itself is the means by which the essential question becomes clear to the students? This may be a way to teach the kids how to develop their own questions and devise the means to investigate them - within the framework of the challenge.
What is the challenge?
to see if they can make this from scratch:
Can they make all the components of a Happy Meal in the same way Thomas Thwaites built his toaster?
Logistically, this would entail breaking down the Happy Meal to its constituent parts, and then figuring out how to assemble the ingredients. At first I thought it would involve growing the veg, making the cheese and ice cream, and then perhaps just visiting a few cows and visiting the killing floor (rather than having to procure their own meat.) But Thwaites suggested they even make the box/wrapping and the toy. And the soda component raises questions as well.
But in terms of the larger goal of the project, the essential questions that would arise from that investigation are seemingly endless - whether questioning industrial versus small farming, our relationship to the animals we eat, international trade and economies of scale, working conditions in the fast food industry, questions about diet and health… And one would think the exhibit would center on those essential questions (the burger bit is really about showmanship, isn’t it?) and requiring the audience to consider their own feelings about those questions. Those questions would evolve from the project - from the process itself - which from what I’m learning is the basis of artistic inquiry.
The point is, I not only have an idea for the project, but a rationale for it, and my goal for the next six months would be to explore a version of this for myself - to try it out before I ever assigned it.
was kind enough to talk with me today regarding “critical design.”
As I have mentioned before, I am looking to design educational projects that are built around artistic thinking - based on a suspicion I have that the arts can help me teach the academic core subjects more effectively (more as they epistemologically operate.) The question I have is: what is the critical analysis that artistic thinking provides, or which is best taught through an artistic approach. And does using art as my structure provide my students maximum creativity while still ensuring a thematic connection for the work they produce, regardless of how radically different their interests diverge?
I did not record our conversation, but wanted to relate the highlights while they are still fresh:
He began by taking a toaster apart to see what he needed to make. IN general, the deconstruction at the beginning of the project is meant to provoke questions down to the minutest detail. The more closely you look at something, no matter how familiar, the stranger it gets. Really taking things apart leads to unfamiliarity. The standard toaster becomes a wonder of engineering and holds multitudes of parts that seem to not only defy explanation, but which are aesthetically beautiful.
However, beyond the engineering side, which examines the components to understand how they function, the artistic deconstructive process leads to questions on the human side - how do I engage with this? What is its story? How does it make me feel? In essence, art concerns the human relationship to an object, not just an object’s relationship to itself.
The documentation along the way is the art - the story is the project. The process is the goal. It’s not about actually making the toaster, it’s following where the process of making the toaster takes you, and talking to people as you go. Very enlightened!
The beauty of the conversations you have is that you sort of make the experts think more fundamentally about what they know. By being an artist, you are talking to people from a different perspective - an outsider - which not only gives you access, but which can even make the experts reevaluate how they think. Reading the book he published, you can hear the surprise in the experts’ voices when he asks them if he can borrow a pail of crude oil… Again - good deconstruction leads to unfamiliarity, even for experts, who never have to question their basic assumptions.
We talked about the ways various disciplines entered into the project, making him think about things he hadn’t planned on ever having to think about…learning about metallurgy, for one, or considering the global economy. A good project for the students would allow so many opportunities for a good derive, and would allow me to bridge the various disciplines in a practical way.
Finally, the exhibit is not just proudly showing your work - it is actually where the real conversation begins. It gives people the space to think about things for themselves and leads to new actions and explorations. The danger is in bludgeoning people over the head about how horrible is and how we all just need to change. People will not change, not all at once and not in the way you want. Work with people. This is the beauty of critical design - it forces everyone to see things as suddenly unfamiliar, which is perhaps the purpose of art - to see things in new ways and rethink your relationship to them.
My goal is to begin a deconstructive project to see what is involved, and then to bring that idea to the classroom next year. I will use this or another blog to record that process.
Question: What would a scaffolded, project-based curriculum look like that:
taught students how to engineer artifacts and exhibit them
and completely freed student imagination from teacher-direction
and which provoked an audience to see new complexity to the mundane?
GIven my leave of absence from the classroom, what I’m trying to do on this blog is clarify my thoughts about the role of the arts in curriculum design (rather than reflect on my work as a teacher.)
This new direction is a function of my being at an arts residency, and being surrounded by people who like having discussions about design and creativity.
I do feel there is an enormous value in having the artistic design process function as the basis for modern education, but I struggle in putting my primal feelings into an explanation as to why it should be so.
I jotted down what I have come to learn are the foundational components of both the engineering and artistic design processes (the former from experience, and the latter from my conversations here) and then thought about the relationship between the two:
As it suggests, to me there are a number of fundamental similarities (the arrows,) but the differences lie in what is supposed to be accomplished, and its effect on an audience.
A lunchtime conversation with an architect/sculptor is helping my think more deeply about those differences. We were discussing the image of the heroic inventor and the nature of craft as compared to what it means in Germany. Among other things, craft and invention in America seem to be way less to show technical prowess so much as to show a different way to accomplish a construction, but in an eminently practical way, whereas German craft tradition is to show mastery over technique, but also to think about the role of culture w/r/t to the product you are creating. If that sounds vague, just think of the German beer regulations (the Reinheitsgebot, and the importance of these regulations for providing a sense of connection to German history for brewers and drinkers.)
What does this have to do with education? The question really is, does having a predicated purpose for the projects we had the students construct take away from the other goal of project-based learning - the discovery of passion and the ability to express oneself? Does requiring a project to have a practical end - the recognition that some need in the community exists and that the project can fill it - make what we do too prescriptive? That was the basis of the engineering process we used: sustainability is an issue in Hawai’i, so what can we make that would fill that need? How do we square having such a teacher-directed approach with the belief that PBL maximizes student creativity and self-direction?
One argument in favor of that approach is that it grounds students in something real, something authentic, and then provides a structure for the creation of a physical product, which is the vehicle for so much of the reflective and analytical thought (the real purpose of PBL, to my mind.) It also helps me, as the teacher, organize the kids’ thoughts and actions to the stated purpose.
Yet during the “google time” I offered the kids, so many of them turned naturally to the arts and creative design, whether it was learning coding, or designing the perfect soccer shoe - not necessarily the “find-a-practical-need-and-fill-it” purpose. Whatever “purpose” they managed to come up with to justify their project was only a cover for what they really wanted to do, which was play with design and self-expression in a field they had a passion for. This process is obviously harder to quantify or evaluate as it progressed, apart from - “have you met your goals for the day?” Or to justify, apart from - “they are following their passions and developing them…”
This is sort of different from practicality or mastery - it is pure exploration for its own sake. And this is interesting to me because my conversation partner suggested that so much of innovation has been accidental or secondary to the stated goal of the activity (an extreme example would be the discovery of the corn flake or vulcanized rubber.) His concern was - does having a practical purpose for the project eliminate these happy accidents or detours? Is this not the opposite of the artistic process, in which the detour may be all?
And this is where I find something compelling in “critical design” - that the product at the end of the process of artistic creation is a chance for the creator to provoke the audience to a recognize an issue that most may not even realize exists (or which may in fact only exist within the artist) but which is fundamentally designed to alter one’s perception of the world. This is one purpose of art, no - to make the viewer see things in a new way?
Again, I think of the purpose of the exhibit in schools - to show student work, yes, but what can turn the exhibit from the thought “My, what nice work the students have made,” to “My, I never thought of that before, at least in that way, and I would like to know more?” What work can students do - which still has deadlines, and peer critique, and multiple iterations, and exhibits - that promotes creativity and self-expression AND critical reflection and thought. And which is just as deeply analytical and rigorous and imaginative as this stuff:
The notion that education serves an economic or social purpose irritates me - smacks of technocracy and civic engineering - so the claim that PBL is the best representation of what companies need is not the strongest draw for me. I still like to think that education is meant to turn kids into happy adults, and if that also parlays itself into successful entrepreneurship, all the better. I like the idea that critical design - making projects that both speak deeply to the student’s passions AND to a social issue that has meaning for the student, and which can provoke an audience in both the best and worst ways during the exhibit - captures what we all want to see in our students:
a lifelong commitment to learning
an engagement with the world
an aesthetic appreciation for beauty
the capacity for reflection, self-expression, and critical thought
Ultimately, what would a scaffolded curriculum look like that encouraged both practical project development and untethered imagination - and which provoked an audience to see new complexity to the mundane?
The Wife suggested democratic schools might give students the skills from an early age to see complexity in the mundane - which is its own form of rigor - and help them understand the gaps in our social behaviors, while teacher-directed community-based projects would give students the ability, in the younger grades, of having practical experience in designing and completing projects…
I am in the middle of designing a project for myself to carry out while I’m here that might provide an example of such work, and I hope to use this space to catalog my process…
I was just philosophizing with The Wife (an artist) and the conversation veered to the question of why we need plaques and guided audio tours in art museums. And indeed, whether art needs to be experienced in context or purely by one’s senses. I suggested that that may be a function of education - in which we rely on expertise and authority and measure our understanding by the degree to which what we experiences conforms with authority. Is that genuine insight on my part? Do I really understand what authority is telling me even if I can successfully use the terminology in conversation with another?
I’m reading David Graeber’s Debt, which is something I’d always meant to do but now find time for (since I’m living in a forest.)
I’ve only made it to page 40 at this point, but I’m deeply appreciative of the way he has managed to destroy one of the fundamental assumptions of economics - that capitalism and our attendant financial system were inevitable, and the practical result of no other past system working terribly well.
I’ve always had suspicions of economics as a field of study, no more so than when I was required to teach it. It felt like a con, one in which I was complicit for teaching it. This was especially true of the AP curriculum, which never allowed for a different theory apart from what might have been termed “neoliberal economics” to be explored, or for fundamental questions to be asked. I was once accused by a parent of being a communist just because I had a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my room (I was teaching four sections of history along with my 2 econ classes.)
Graeber is mostly interested in why modern folks have an obsession with the paying of debts (as a way of exploring why the cancellation of private or 3rd World debts is a political non-starter.) He treats us with the standard economic story that money systems emerged from the failures of the barter economy to successfully and/or efficiently meet people’s needs (you know - Bobby makes swords and Jane makes clothes, and they each require a mutual need for each other’s products … imagine doing this at a supermarket today!) The economists who write the textbooks however fail to note that barter systems never actually existed prior to the creation of money economies, and in fact only come into existence when money economies collapse. Rather, older societies ran collective stockpiles of goods and accorded them out as necessities arose among the inhabitants. Moreover, credit and debt preceded coins, which I knew from studying ancient history but had forgotten (the first cuneiform writing was invented just to keep track of who was giving what to the temple or palace.)
Ergo, modern economists imagine a society that was debilitated by the lack of economic theories in order to prove the value of economic theories. A tautology, in other words. A convenient fiction. A false a priori assumption that may not invalidate modern economics as a field but definitely allows for more fundamental questions to be raised, and many more possibilities than heretofore allowed.
Which is what I have been arguing about here in this blog - that modern education closes off many avenues of potential inquiry in the name of streamlining what is allowed. It is a topic I explored with my students when I taught Theory of Knowledge. Clearly, one has to be begin with some valid assumptions, but what is allowed to be questionable and what is assumable is not really explored in any but a desultory fashion in schools. And clearly, you cannot afford to constantly reinvent the wheel or you’d never have time to build on knowledge.
However, errors are also constantly reinforced and it takes a supreme moment of enlightenment to correct them, and another fifty years until new truths are established. Kuhn wrote that it took a crisis in existing knowledge systems to allow new paradigms to arise. That is held as a value added in science, in that no wacky ideas can be immediately embraced, but it might be destructive of innovation, as well. Moreover, I have seen evidence that college graduates are no more educated as to why basic phenomena exists than second graders - their vocabulary is just more multi-syllabic. Knowledge as religious dogma…
Perhaps the benefit of the artistic process of creation is that it requires students to look more closely at what they think they know and to come to new forms of knowledge than might be encouraged by the standard model. Even more student-centered forms of education we see still only allow for results within a narrow range for acceptance:
"In the Civil War, who was right - the North or the South?"
This is even true in history, which is an almost entirely fictive enterprise given the impossibility of ever knowing the past. And which makes the current vogue for predicting future success even more absurd and dangerous…
I am reminded also of The Chaneysville Incident, one of the more powerful novels I’ve read recently, in which an historian copes with the impossibility of ever really knowing his father’s past, and in which whites cope with the impossibility of ever really understanding Black society given its history in the US. The narrator muses that while physicists threw out their old models in favor of a new theory that suggests that not only does the universe run on principles that confound our ability to understand it, just the act of looking at the universe changes it, historians still labor under the belief that the past is knowable from our basic methods. Oh, the evidence we look at changes, but not the fundamental method of extracting knowledge from the evidence.
I am now musing on what an educational environment looks like that actively requires kids to investigate the veracity of what they receive as wisdom, and derive new truths as a matter of their own investigations. I do not know what this might look like on a practical level, but it’s worth thinking about. But I imagine the artistic process, which stresses clarity as the end result of practice, not the beginning, and which requires constant debate and peer/audience engagement along the way, as a means to that end…
Perhaps in the form of questions that don’t necessarily require you to reinvent all knowledge but to explore how you know what you know more exhaustively…
"Is the past knowable?
Can you communicate successfully with another, or truly understand what someone else is trying telling you?”
We have now a system in which the first stage of every new period of learning is completely controlled and mediated by authority, and in which the end stage is almost completely closed off to any debate - which is why large numbers of Americans freely disseminate and reify false understandings about the Constitution because they are NOT challenged.
Imagine an educational process that begins with almost no mediation but in which every stage after that is completely lived in the public sphere, open to contention and reformulation?
Or as I asked, “How often in life are you thrown into a room and told to make do with what you find and at the end of the day asked to account for what you think?”
Said The Wife: ”Only in the artistic process.”
What might this look like in practice? Three years ago I recounted what happened in a history class in which the students had to explain the meaning of a document without any interference from me, and in which consensus would decide that meaning. I just didn’t push it far enough…
One of my favorite things to do is to develop a half-baked understanding of a difficult problem in quantum physics and then misapply it to explain everyday things in my life.
I watched these two videos while eating an egg on toast this morning and strained the analogies presented to match my developing theory on arts and education. Watch them if you dare:
The second video suggests that time is both a way to ensure free will (and explain - or cause? - entropy) and to create a way to measure experience. Time increases disorder in the universe and ensures stability in the past.
Video one, in explaining the many worlds theory, suggests that infinite possibilities exist because of experience - in which quantum units come into contact with each other in the Environment/universe. But what struck me is that subjectively, we as quantum mechanics experiences fewer options as time progresses because we are fixing systems by our experiences. There may be infinite versions of ourselves experiencing the effects of all choices, but there is only the subjective me experiencing this one causal chain because of the series of choices I make. It’s as though we narrow our world of possibilities rather than expanding them, in terms of our perception.
So, what can my misunderstanding of quantum physics possibly have to do with education? As an exercise, consider the possibility that everything in the environment is mysterious to a child because a child knows nothing about it in order to understand it. Empiricists suggest the purpose of play is to discover the rules by which the environment operates. But what if the opposite is true - the child conforms to the environment because it encounters existing conceptions about it, not necessarily because of the nature of the environment as the child experiences it without foreknowledge.
It’s almost like saying - gravity exists because kids are told it does, not necessarily because it makes sense given the way we interact with the world. On an educational level, the child learns by accepting a version of reality that immediately precludes all other options. In fact, knowledge is the willful surrender of all possible choices save one or two that are deemed correct. yes, new discoveries are made all the time that change what is taught in school, but for the most part, those discoveries either confirm our existing world view or merely slightly change it so that it functions better. Disbelieving that is termed “ignorance.”
Here’s a stupid analogy: Children believe in monsters until such time they are told and then can confirm that they do not exist. But what if monsters existed because children believed in them… until they didn’t any more, and then the monsters went away? Does the act of accepting a version of reality harden that reality into being?
Educationally, does our empirical system of education preclude marvelous things from being discovered, or interpreted, because of its epistemology? I do not mean to suggest that any interpretation of anything should be acceptable, but is there a way to question the systematic pursuit of knowledge in order to leave open multiple possibilities that we can’t predict, but which may be perfectly naturally for an un-indoctrinated mind to conceive or accept?
One aspect of the arts seems to be its ability to make us perceive the commonplace in new ways that shake our belief in what we know. In other words, arts opens up the myriad possibilities that get closed by our epistemology. Without running the risk that children may go through their lives believing that fire can’t hurt them because they haven’t been taught that will (damaging false knowledge,) could an arts-based curriculum actually change an Newtonian, content-based education in which the answers are predictable, into a more quantum-based and theoretical education in which play is more important, and uncertainty is the reward?
We call that “lateral,” or outside-the-box thinking. The most creative and unexpected solution is not always the best, but if the goal is to expand the range of possibilities - and we call that “innovation” - it’s another argument in favor of building an educational curriculum around the arts, not the other way around.
I kind of like a world in which monsters may be hiding in the woods, myself…
So…I’m sitting in a castle in Stuttgart while my wife is a Resident Fellow at Akademie Schloss, and I’m surrounded by artists who are all receiving stipends by the government to work on their projects.
This is definitely not something one would see in the States - at least, not for art. For political thuggery, perhaps, but not art. Naturally, my thoughts turn to the role the arts have played in American education, and their slow diminishment due to budget cuts, yes, but more so, the relatively small place they hold in the public imagination. Most schools would forfeit their entire arts faculties than lose a football field, and that’s the world we live in.
I also began to reflect on what I truly know of the arts curriculum, and the degree to which I’d been faithful to that while teaching in MPX. Arts classes for me were always one note affairs, and were predominantly hour or so long periods in which I was left alone to draw, mold clay, or take pictures. The grades were always mysteries throughout the quarter but I always emerged with an A. Thus, it cannot be said I really know anything about the way art is created.
On the other hand, I have seen glimpses of it at work, whether in the efforts of my colleagues in the arts department in Hawaii or in my wife’s projects, and I have seen it in the collaborations I have done with the Arts Director in my own MPX classes. I do believe it is the key ingredient in the 21st century skills of creativity, adaptability, and innovation currently being bandied about (specially in TedTalks.) The problem is that I know how to teach history and literature in terms of a system - I can leapfrog in and out of skills work or process because I can see the whole. I can’t do that with art, and I suspect very teachers really can. Few educators really understand it - even the most gifted teachers I know struggle to define it.
I knew going in to project-based learning that i didn’t want the students’ connection to art be simply - “take a picture of something that illustrates the _____________ we have been studying.” The question is, how to capture the process of artistic creation in some way that can be integrated into the standard curriculum?
I have had a few weeks now to meet the artists here and decided to throw that question at them, in a roundabout way. I had been talking briefly about the engineering design process, which i have discussed previously in my blog.
My feeling was, folks go into a design process with a fairly clear of what they want the construction to do - the challenges of redesign focus a bit on the best way to achieve that end.
Is that the case in the artistic process? There was not a consensus answer to that question - some said a clear vision was critical, while others said the artist’s intent was the catalyst, and others said - “who the hell knows”- but there was a general agreement that whatever emerged at the end of the process was often nothing like what initiated it.
The architect said something like - “art is the process of deconstructing meaning from the world and examining yourself in relation to that.” What occurred to me from that is perhaps while the engineering process is meant to get you as close as possible to a product that carries out your goal, the artistic process is designed to get you closer to a statement of meaning - that the product that emerges is less important than the process of becoming and the future debates that take place around your statement.
I asked - “does this mean that artists spend 90% of their time in the first stage - of clarifying intent or vision?” In other words, is the goal of the artistic process just to get an answer to step 1? Does the process and the product serve the “Definition?”
If that is a truth, or some approximation of a truth, it would imply that the frequent discussions, collaborations and reflections do the hard work of helping the artist define her or his meaning-slash-intent. ”That is in fact the case,” said the architect, and my wife, and several others.
This idea, this artistic process is something I’d like to investigate a little more while I’m here. This is certainly something we stumbled across in MPX. Our near constant reflections, our constant discussions - what do we know, what do we need or want to know, what do we know with our knowledge or understanding - our endless rounds of critique and self-feedback, and the final rounds of self and peer evaluations… It appears we were closer to an understanding of the artistic process than we knew.
But the exhibit seems contrary to the goal of the process, in a sense. If the final piece serves the goal of helping the artist think through to a deeper vision, this reminds me of the process of creating and then destroying the mandala in Buddhist practice. The piece matters less than the process, or the enlightenment that occurs from it. What is the goal of the art that is constructed in our western world? What is the goal of its exhibit?
A former Fellow, and one who has gone on to make a splash on both TED and the Colbert Report, called his work ”critical or discursive design" and summarized it by saying:
“So, I am a designer, but in the broadest sense of the word I suppose. I guess design is becoming broader and broader and that’s something which I’m kind of pleased about! I’m coming from this area of design which was variously being called critical design or speculative design, or discursive design – the idea of which is to use methods and techniques and processes, tricks of design, not to necessarily make products for sale, but to investigate the world around us and then to present these investigations, to society at large.”
In which case, the exhibit is not the final component - it is the catalyst for a new round of the process, but one that involves the public. What might it look like to spend a school year, or a series of years, building from one project to the next, always linking a past investigation to a new one, using past insights to develop further insights? This is, I think, similar to the way the ancient Greeks viewed education, to the way Leonardo da Vinci worked in his study, and to the narrative way our minds work naturally. Our brains don’t like disjunctures - swerving from one subject to the next. We naturally build stories to link our knowledge so that we can understand it. A natural course of study would perhaps play to that strength. In that case, could arts education be that critical component - a way of linking all the disciplines and replacing the scattershot schedule and compartmentalization we currently experience in schools?
Most of my memories of those first two years are the kind that haunt you at 3 a.m. I committed so many mistakes - so many elemental mistakes - of teaching… Either I was forgiven them, or no one knew they were mistakes at the time (which is in its own way kind of disturbing.) No one became a great writer because of my class, and no one became an historian, though one past student does blame me for her becoming a history teacher (mostly because I used A People’s History of the United States.)
That’s not to say I did not have an effect. A few students have written to me over the years to tell me how something I said or something that happened in class did make a difference for them, somehow. Curiously, the connector seems to be that I was simply being a human being at the right time. Not because I was lecturing, or grading, or disciplining, or any of the other stuff that got drummed into my head. Had I been capable of deep reflection, I might have figured that out sooner. And I will eventually come back to that point.
At any rate, the school and I soon parted ways - rather abruptly, in fact. I ended up in the Bay Area teaching at a school that was something of an intellectual factory. Smart kids (certainly more intelligent than I was) and dedicated professionals. People did in the outside world what they taught. That was a novelty to me. Office conversations reminded me of the better times I had in graduate school. I could start class discussions just by asking a question in the first minute and then watch the arguments build on their own. Most of the kids arrived fully formed, in terms of their skills. My first year, a sophomore told me he was reading Marx’s Das Kapital and did I want to discuss it with him. A Freshman once asked me which translation of Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment did I prefer. These were outliers, of course, but on the whole, these were very accomplished kids, the kind who end up starting companies or working for the President.
Yet, I was bored. I initially thought it was because there was nothing to change. It being San Francisco, the liberal kids were liberal and the conservative kids were reflexively more conservative and everyone knew why they were what they were. There could be no surprises, for everything that happened fit easily into a world view. I thought I still had the Zinnian vision - to shake people up and make them ask questions of themselves - of why they believed what they believed, and then to turn self-enlightenment into action.
But that was not the reason I was bored. It went deeper. A little part of me knew it - that leading chronological or thematic investigations into the past or into other books was beginning to resemble the rock of Sisyphus. Yet, what else could I possibly do than be a teacher? And the only model I knew was as the knowledge expert. So, it became important for me to learn more and more so I could develop even more surprising theories of history. Was I successful? Perhaps, and yet again, students will write from time to time, and only recently do I see that my success was really, yet again, because I was a human being at the right time for them. The kids weren’t impressed that I knew stuff, they were impressed because I was seen reading, or because I cared deeply about something that they also cared about - or at least, something they subsequently found interesting because I cared about it.
In 15 years, I have worked in 5 schools and seen perhaps two thousand students. I am still haunted at 3 a.m. by my mistakes - at my occasional egoism, but more so by missed opportunities. But I think I have achieved a level of clarity. My beliefs over what is important to teach have shifted dramatically. I thought initially it was political awareness, and then I thought it was the capacity for intellectual rigor, or the maturity and readiness for college, and all the variations thereof.
But, the real goal of education is to produce human beings - people who have the capacity to make choices in their life and possibly be happy. The world has in some ways become more constricted even as the opportunities seem infinite. Somehow, in the past, when there were no educational reformers, when there was not even institutions of higher learning, people discovered new things, developed new thoughts, made choices, and were happy. Even if choices were fewer, little people often grew up into big people (if they managed to survive childhood, of course.)
I was reading a book called Paleofantasy not too long ago that pointed out how in societies we find very primitive, children somehow learn conflict resolution, adaptability, and cooperation by age 4 or 5. In our society, kids have those lessons ground into them over 12 years of school (or not) and emerge almost entirely without those skills, if business leaders are to be believed. Or gauge that truth based on your own experiences with the world and tell me I’m wrong.
As social beings, I believe we are hardwired for the need to be creative, communicative and cooperative. I believe that teaching kids to be adaptable is critical. Of course people can think critically. Noam Chomsky once pointed out that the level of analysis he hears from two schlubs talking sports is equal to the chatter at the University where he teaches. But education turned the schlubs from talking about philosophy towards sports and entertainment instead. I forget that much of what I still remember I taught myself, but my time as a student is a blur (mercifully.) Does that not suggest that the best way to teach is just to get out of the way? And yet, that is the one thing NOT taught in educational programs.
If the classroom is meant to approximate the world in which the kids will move as adults, what should it emphasize? How to survive when tossed into a new environment? How to find the answers to your questions? How to walk into a room with 15 strangers in it and not crawl into a hole in the floor? For parents, it’s how to convince someone to hire you for a job. For me, it’s how to see the world with a critical eye and then figure out how to make it better. For you, it will be something else. Maybe it’s just how to achieve a sort of contentment. But none of that is learned in the current way we educate our kids. Everyone can point to one or two kids that flourished in a traditional setting, but for every one you point out, I can name a hundred whose love for learning died that way, and another one or two who became successful despite it.
I’m not surprising anyone that the US reaction to criticism has been to lower standards and then fail to even to teach success at those, or to destroy teacher unions, or to change the textbooks to represent cultural beliefs, or to heave expensive computers into the classrooms and then run. It has also been to further compartmentalize subject areas, to add more test-based special programs, to cut arts programs and add more drilling
This is all well-meaning, but ultimately reflects the world view of two groups - people who were successful at the traditional system, and want to double down on it, and people who want systematize it according to philosophical principles - free-market enthusiasm or religious conviction - that may not actually work in the real world.
If I was, say, writing a book on education, I would have no interest in recounting the battle between Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee and why I think both are wrong. Nor do I have a unified field theory of education to peddle. Nor would I be writing anything to explain why I am a great genius of education and how I have single-handedly saved more children than you. Rather, I would write the story of how I and a few of my fellow collaborators stumbled onto some very basic discoveries about the way the kids we worked with learned, and how very painful that process of our education was.
I spent part of the following year traveling along the West Coast and teaching reading skills when I wasn’t painting houses for cash with my roommate. I call it a trial by fire, since I had no real idea how to teach anyone but somehow had to work with 5 year olds, then junior high kids, and then adults in the same day, while tomorrow would bring me high schoolers in the morning and 2nd and 3rd graders immediately after. It was the best training I could have asked for. I had no time to consider child psychology or the establishment of proper work routines. The entire point was help self-motivate people to become better learners. This was not, however, resume bait to the fifty or so private schools I applied to after dropping out of the University.
I got one call back, however - to a small school in Los Angeles that was on the verge of bankruptcy (though I didn’t know it at the time.) I told my Sand Creek Massacre story to a group of 8th graders and they loved it. I got the job - 6 different classes on a range of grades from 8th to 12th, with two APs in the mix (I faked any understanding of economics) and the job of 7th grade dean. I was told that it would be a big help if I could coach, as well.
I was grateful to have the opportunity…but I have since gained an appreciation for teachers’ unions.
In the meantime, before the school year started, I read my way through Howard Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train. This, I thought, was what history teaching was supposed to be - awakening kids to the world around them and inspiring them to act on their beliefs. I thought a bit on what it was like to grow up in Reagan’s America - where political discussions were rare and high school students were invested instead in buying the right jeans. I distinctly recall being disgusted by what was happening throughout the 80s - Iran/Contra, support for Apartheid, Reagan’s apparent senility and endless stories of corruption - yet somehow emerging in 1989 to express support for our invasion of Panama because I felt it was expected of me.
Well, I thought, no one would ever accuse me of passing on the same blind acceptance of gov’t to my students. I would be a Howard Zinn! I imagined writing him a letter after my amazing success in raising up a new generation of student activists. Maybe he’d even invite me over for a beer! But first, I had to figure out how to actually teach a class. More than that, I had no idea of how to actually start the first day.
Two days before the school year started, I joined 10 other first-time teachers for an orientation by the school’s Dean of Faculty. We must have been terrified; it’s hard to remember that far back. But we were told we were going to have a discussion about how to be a good educator, so we were eager and attentive. The Dean rolled in a TV and a VCR (or as we called it, an AV center) and said, “I’m going to show you a clip from a movie.” He pressed play and there was Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society, telling his students to rip the intro essay “Understanding Poetry” from their books.
I remember looking at everyone’s faces - there was outright excitement there as the clip continued. And I thought - here, at last, was a clear sign that I had made the right choice to become a teacher. This was revolution! We were going to set the kids’ souls free and teach them to live their aspirations.
Then, the Dean said, “This is what you should NEVER do! This is the opposite of good teaching. Sure, it makes you popular, but it sets you against your peers. Never work against your fellow teachers. It’s always you versus the students. Now, here is an example of EXCELLENT teaching.”
He slid the offending tape out of the VCR and pushed in a new one. The scene shifted - now I was looking a bucktoothed nun in a wimple standing next to a piece of art. “Watch what she does to engage the audience,” the Dean whispered reverentially.
I think my heart broke. After 5 minutes, he stopped the tape and said, “Did you see what she did there? Can you give me an example of great teaching?”
Dead silence. Finally, I felt kind of badly for him, as he waited for someone, anyone, to answer his question, his smile undimmed. “She faced the viewer?” I squeaked. “YES!” he shouted, excitedly. The others began to chime in - “She was interested in her subject.” “She had an example she was pointing to.” “She was well-dressed.” Each statement was answered with a “YES!”
I don’t remember who said it, but someone piped in - “You know, I was told by a veteran teacher that it was important to scare the kids straight on the first day so they wouldn’t give you any trouble.”
The Dean chuckled and said, “good advice. Start out mean - you can get nicer later. The students sniff out weakness, and you can’t get the kids back if you lose them on the first day…”
The orientation was over, the AV center wheeled back, and we were released. The message was clear - we were all in this together, and against the kids. I can’t tell you how many times I subsequently heard that message, regardless of the school I worked at.
To say I knew when I would become a teacher is false; I feel I had teaching thrust upon me. One of my mentor teachers in my history graduate program told me I was a “born” teacher, which I suspect, in hindsight, meant I was not likely a “born” professor.
That was also the verdict delivered by a college professor whom I asked to me write me a recommendation letter to various graduate programs. He actually wrote me two letters for two different schools, but switched the letters accidentally. I knew this as the letterhead that was faintly visible through the envelope didn’t match the letterhead that was stamped on the envelope. So, I opened the envelopes and put letter a in envelope a and the same for b. But, of course I read the letter, and discovered he had written me a Dear John letter that said, and I wish I could quote it exactly, that I had not the intellectual prowess for a PhD program but would make an okay high school teacher. How did I get into the graduate school mentioned in paragraph 1? That was the one school that did not require a recommendation letter.
My small failures continued - in my said master’s program, I was encouraged to submit my first major research paper to a journal of history. The paper came swiftly back to me, along with the peer reviewers’ comments. One kind gentleman suggested I was not even fit to teach kindergarten. I was surprisingly sanguine about it at the time, thinking back on it. I think I knew that wasn’t my best work.
My second major research effort nearly made it into publication - the reviewers split 3 to 3, but ultimately, the journal felt my efforts were not historical enough. The paper was an attempt to use group psychology and anthropology to parse why some folks joined in on a massacre of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe at Sand Creek in 1864, and why others didn’t. A side conclusion I came to in the paper was that democracies may be invoked by abstract principles, but may in fact rely more on racial unity to hold together than we suppose. Two years after my paper was rejected for its lack of historicity, Prof. Michael Mann published a ground-breaking work in which he concluded that “democracies may be invoked by abstract principles, but may in fact rely more on racial unity to hold together than we suppose.”
I eventually ended up at a prominent West Coast state university for my PhD but was becoming disenchanted with the university lifestyle - not to mention my poverty - and the job market was bleak. I paid for essentials by working the checkout counter at a local deli/market, and at least once a week squirreled away a bag of supplies when no one was looking - bread, cheese, milk, etc. But it left me free to read and write most of the day, which is what I thought I wanted to do. But I quickly began to question the entire enterprise - or at least my place in it.
Most of the students were post-modernists, which basically meant they had all read the same quotation by Michael Foucault, and class discussions were occasionally torturous, and usually incomprehensible. Strangely, though, my writing became turgid and solipsistic, and I found myself leavening my conversation with words like “fulcrum of power” and “discontinuities.” I felt I was going down a rabbit hole and having conversations with myself, by myself, that were becoming stranger and stranger.
I also took stock of my professors - they had once seemed like gods to me, but now I saw the failed marriages, the drinking problems, and lack of attention to hygiene that signaled depression. My (new) mentor professor, who had pulled me into the program himself, met with me to ostensibly discuss my doctoral work, but spent the entire hour talking about his love for the Dodgers, and all the fishing he would do once he retired.
I think I knew it was over when my Thursday seminar was discussing the apparent failure of the black community in the South to rise up against the whites in the 1930s in the wake of several decades of lynchings and Jim Crow. With all seriousness, the class standout - the one we all knew would likely end up with a tenure track position somewhere when she was finished with her dissertation - said that blacks had a duty to revolt, as they were the fulcrum of power, and as we all knew from subaltern studies, it was the oppressed that had the most leverage to overthrow the system.
That this was a clinically insane position to take didn’t seem apparent to everyone in the room. After I spent ten minutes arguing that simply surviving Jim Crow was perhaps the best measure of revenge blacks could get in 1930s-era Alabama, I finally said - “is the entirety of post-modernist studies really just a way for middle-class white people to avoid having to do anything about injustice?” There was a silence, and my professor (God love her) said, “You know, I think you’re right…” Was my education merely becoming a route to complete inaction? Utter inconsequence?
I found myself work that summer teaching groups of high school students how to read their textbooks more efficiently, and even though this was a two and a half hour summer class in Southern California, the kids seemed actually interested by my little historical digressions on the text. Some of them even said wistfully they wished their history classes were as interesting as this one. ”Well, well,” I said, (probably self-indulgently) “look for me when you get to college! Ha ha.” At the end of the summer I returned to the University and found I could no longer afford graduate school as I was still considered an out-of-state student.
And that was now I became a professional high school teacher. (cont’d)