Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End Papers

I did the unthinkable last week—at least, it was the unthinkable for me. I canceled my subscriptions to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

I have been a subscriber to the Los Angeles paper for twenty years or more, through four different addresses, a host of natural disasters, a plethora of cataclysmic world events, and a wealth of local stories that eventually wound up having worldwide significance.

But enough is enough.

Since Sam Zell took over, the paper has diminished in quality to the point where all semblance of quality has left the building. Sure, Steve Lopez is still there, and David L. Ulin, and a few other stragglers from the glory days. But the paper takes less and less time to read, and costs more and more of my income in a time of diminished circumstances for a lower middle class private school teacher. I can read the best of the paper—a very thin group of articles on the best days—online in a matter of minutes. Why pay for home delivery of what I can read for free on my desktop?

The New York Times got the boot for a different reason. I still enjoyed the paper, thought the writing still had merit, considered it still the paper of record for American journalism. The problem was in the delivery. I found myself calling three or four of the seven days of the week to complain when the paper had not arrived at my house. Sometimes a replacement copy came; many times, I received an apology from an electronic voice and a credit of a buck fifty to my account.

Not good enough, by a long shot.

Again, I could read the full paper online for free. Why pay for something that could not be consistently delivered as promised?

A funny side note to this: after I canceled the paper over a week ago, The New York Times now arrives, on time, every day at my doorstep without fail, even though I have called three times to confirm my cancellation. I am waiting for my credit card statement to see if I have been charged before screaming bloody murder.

Overall, I did have other motivations for canceling my subscriptions. I needed more time for books. In these days of diminished financial resources, I find myself also economizing with time. I need more time for study and writing, so a choice had to be made.

But did I make the right choice?

There is something addictive and enthralling about the immediacy of journalism in a magazine or newspaper. I could read journalism forever and be a happy camper. But I am also a book lover, and I could read books forever and also be happy. In fact, my happiness might just be dependent on reading everything forever. There is, however, the problem of the twenty-four hour day and the finite lifespan.

I cannot live without thinking and pondering. I cannot live without reading. I cannot live without writing. These are the touchstones of my life. Meanwhile, my students’ papers pile up. The garbage needs to be taken out. The dog cannot go more than sixteen hours without urinating. Life is a deadline, and there is not enough time to read everything.

For now, I will visit the news stand and occasionally buy my copies of the papers there. As much as I can, I will read online. The world has changed. Book publishing is experiencing declines; magazines are cutting staff and trimming pages; and newspapers have become about the profit margin instead of keeping people informed.

David Carr, a cultural reporter for The New York Times, had this to say about the state of newspapers in the Upfront column in last Sunday’s Book Review: “The physical artifact will become a luxury item over time. Small papers will do fine, many medium-size papers will tip over and large newspapers will have to globalize to survive. The second and third worlds are hatching new customers every day who have a need for high-quality, uncensored information.”

Who would have ever thought that a newspaper might be a more valuable and welcomed commodity on the streets of Iraq than on Main Street, U.S.A.?

As for me, what I will miss is the wood pulp artifact of yesteryear with the news of the world thudding at my door every morning. That sound, I fear, is gone for good, and I mourn the loss.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Season of Light

To all my teaching colleagues, family, friends, and especially, my students: may you find peace, joy, and prosperity in this season of light.
Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Getty At Night

The Getty Museum, in what is known as the Sepulveda Pass, is one of the tourist hot spots in the summer. I prefer it on a cold winter night when I have the place to myself.

The museum used to be open until 9:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. I would tell my students to meet there at six and we could have dinner in the cafeteria and then wander the galleries until closing time. Alas, the Friday evening hours were cancelled a few months back.

The place is magical at night, full of angular shadows and pristine lines. The museum is one of the cultural jewels of Los Angeles.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Winter Rose

I was inspired today to find beauty in the everyday landscape of life. Who inspired me? Take a look at The Jimson Weed Gazette for a beautiful shot of downtown Los Angeles at night. Once you have exhausted the images on the blog, move over to the photographer's website, East of West L.A. Kevin McCollister is a talented artist. It is difficult to make L.A. beautiful, exotic, ghostly and haunting. He does it all, sometimes in the same photograph.

The weather is turning colder this weekend. The solstice is coming. The moon is in its full stage, and is passing closest to the earth, so it looks huge and bright in the night sky. I was just out with Stone, taking in the view. Ah, the smell of wood smoke.

Winter in Los Angeles can, on occasion, be beautiful, like a winter rose.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Cathedral of Thinking

On the occasion of my one hundredth post, a nearly wordless tribute to the library. In this case, it is a photograph from the Archive of the Royal Commission On The Historical Monuments of England entitled "Library After Air Raid, London, 1940."

These are the ghosts of another era.

Friday, December 5, 2008


December 8, 1980. I am riding home from a school event with my father. It is dark and late. The radio is full of your death. The world grieves over the loss.

My father does not seem too upset. Not surprising. My parents only like country music. He fiddles with the knobs, trying to find the Laker game.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night…

I am eighteen years old and I am hanging out in a jazz club listening to a band put the finishing touches on a killer version of Norwegian Wood. I will spend several days in the coming weeks playing the song over and over again on the piano, painstakingly working out the arrangement for my own band. I love the melody. There is something exotic about the song.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…

So world-weary. I know now. Yesterdays haunt us like ghosts, and in the end, I now believe yesterday tells us the truth of our lives. The past tells us what the present is all about, and dictates what the future holds. It is the river—everywhere at once.

I believe in yesterday…

The dark trees fly by the car window. Christmas is in the air. I am unhappy, depressed. I am uncertain of the future, of what my life might hold. I feel the weight of the world, false hopes, dreams that will not fly.

So this is Christmas…another year over, and a new one just begun…

Sometimes it seems like all the great voices have been stilled. You were younger than I am now when you died on that Monday.

You were only waiting for this moment to arise…

Arise. I think of a phoenix rising from ashes. I did not see the Dakota on my trip to New York. I should have made the pilgrimage.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.

Sometimes the light goes away too soon and we must learn to live on in darkness. Paul has not been as good without you. Neither have we.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Week of 12-1-08 Through 12-12-08

Here we are, back from the Thanksgiving break, all rested and fresh. Yeah, right. The weather has turned cold—today—could be hot later this week. The Christmas tree is up in the quad area. The PTO has started a drive to help needy families whose children are in the hospital over the holidays. And we are in the final push leading to Christmas vacation.

When we return from the break in January, we will only have a few weeks until final exams for the close of the first semester. So students should be reviewing and studying over the holidays. The work never ends. I will be grading papers and finishing planning for the remainder of semester one. Still, it will be nice to spend time with family and be at home.

So, in the next two weeks, I will finish Siddhartha with my tenth grade honors class. Instead of a test, they will be working on a paper comparing Jesus as he is portrayed in specific biblical passages to corresponding passages in the novel depicting Siddhartha. By the end of the first week, we will be returning to Oscar Williams’ anthology for more study of poetry, beginning with Ben Jonson and my particular favorite, John Donne. I accidentally stood on Donne’s grave in the floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London a few years back. I hope he forgives me, and knows that I am in awe of his work. “All of mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…” Love John Donne. So many great quotes.

Freshmen honors English will return to the anthology as well after weeks of speeches and other work. We will be reading some Whitman, more Ray Bradbury, and dear Robert Frost. Together and separately, we will again contemplate the roads we travel, the places we go, or should go, in our lives.

Seniors will dive into William Blake. Religious zealot, fanatic, artist, writer, guardian of innocence and experience, we will look at all sides of this great figure in British literature. Here, too, we will use the Mentor edition of Oscar Williams’ anthology of British poetry.

AP Language and Composition will focus on cultural criticism over the next two weeks. Some of the writers they will be reading include Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame, Adam Goodheart, and Jessica Mitford, a writer most famous for exposing the foibles and intricacies of the funeral industry.

When we meet again in the afternoon, we will continue our study of SAT vocabulary words as well as critical reading and other test skills. I have also incorporated some current news articles about college admissions, the validity of SAT and ACT testing, and current thinking on what makes for a good college student into the mix. We analyze the essays, most from The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and try to determine an action plan for dealing with the testing and admissions processes that are only just beginning for these eleventh graders.

Off we go.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Feverish Look at the Obama-Biden Plan for Education

So I have been home sick most of this week—fever, headache, you know the drill—and therefore gifted with a failing body and a racing mind, I am simply full of ideas.

I sit at my desk, and in a fit of delirium, begin flailing through my folder labeled “Potential Blog Topics.” Like cascading autumn leaves, the air is thick with fluttering sheaves of paper. Then, right in front of me, there it is: The Barack Obama and Joe Biden Plan for Education In America. Change we can believe in, right?

I started rereading the plan, available here. Obama wants to reform No Child Left Behind. Is it worth reforming something that arguably has failed? He will start by funding the plan, something Bush forgot to do. That might change failure to success.

“Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” Amen and hallelujah. “He will improve assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner.” Okay, is the “he” Obama or Biden? Or, is it some kind of two-headed beast: the Obama-Biden Education Monster. (It’s the fever talking.) The sentence has to be incredibly awkward and wordy, as well as offering to change the entire world of American education in one fell swoop.

Obama-Biden will “make math and science education a national priority.” I hate math. I can say that because I am over-compensating for my intense fear of math. Science, I can snuggle up to, but why make only those subjects a national priority? Make them all a national priority! And where is the literature? And where are the writing skills? And what about history, and languages, and culture, and philosophy, and geography? What about theatre, dance, art, photography, and ornithology? (Where did that last one come from?) How about ichthyology? (Jesus, I need a B12 shot.)

In an article in The New York Times a while back called “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” (here), we learned that some of our most prominent, influential Americans, like American Idol runner-up Kellie Pickler (surely the Joni Mitchell of her generation [sorry, Joni]) do not know that Europe is not a country. In answer to the question “Budapest is the capital of what European country?” Ms Pickler responded by saying that she thought “Europe was a country.” She had never heard of Hungary. “That’s a country?” said Ms. Pickler. “I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.” If Hungary, eat Turkey. I swoon.

The article goes on to quote Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, who says that America and its citizens are in a bad place, firmly caught up in “anti-intellectualism (the attitude that ‘too much learning can be a dangerous thing’) and anti-rationalism (‘the idea that there is no such thing as evidence or fact, just opinion’).”

“Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge,” Ms. Jacoby says, “but they also don’t think it matters.”

The only thing that matters is that we be seen at the mall with our Gucci dog carrier and our adorable Chihuahua. But I digress.

All in all, Ms. Jacoby asserts that “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more.”

Obama-Biden should make all the subjects—in fact, all knowledge—a priority. That way, we might just make it to Mars, and be able to tell a rock from ice from sand from alien life, and possibly have read Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells as well.

Hop scotching around the plan, our new fearless leaders will recruit teachers with promises of scholarships. They will require all schools to be accredited. And most controversially, they will reward teachers for their excellence: yes, this means merit pay.

Why is merit pay such a problem? If someone does a good job, shouldn’t they be rewarded with more pay? In the business world, in the real world, aren’t employees rewarded with higher pay for greater productivity, higher sales figures, better job performance? Why should schools be different?

I am dreamy with excitement and the buzz of last night’s shot of Nyquil. I believe that Obama-Biden might be the breath of fresh air we have been looking for. I am buying into the hype, the promise; I am not just drinking the Kool-Aid, I am swimming in it.

Then Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in The New York Times, throws cold water in my feverish face. “President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration,” Kristof writes here. “He ranked it fifth among his priorities…”

Kristof believes this is a mistake, and I agree. He believes, and claims there is a “fair amount of evidence” to suggest that it is our school system, “which for most of our history, was the best in the world but has foundered over the last few decades” that has made America great.

Once again, we hear America’s greatness in the past tense. We were once. Will we ever be again?

Politicians are forever running on a platform of educational reform. They promise change, they promise accountability, they promise money, they promise the moon. Then they get elected and education is forgotten.

I hope this time it is different. I hope. But I have my doubts.

In the fitful dreams of a feverish slumber, education and the life of the mind become America’s first priorities. Oh, and I look like Brad Pitt.

Hey, a boy can dream.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Week of 11-10-08 Through 11-21-08

I got a late start this week on preparing my published schedule for each class. Since grades were due last week, I had many a sleepless night. Therefore, I took the weekend to catch up on some reading and some much needed rest. This is the time of year when things start bogging down, mainly because both the students and the teachers are burned out and waiting for the holidays. We are also all irritable; I have had more than one or two skirmishes with students this week, and things will not get better any time soon. The day off for Veterans’ Day will help some, but next week are Parent-Teacher Conferences, and depending on the class and the performance of the student, things could get testy that day as well.

But let’s not forget the most important part of all this: the classroom and the study. Learning is its own reward. I do wish the reward was sleep, however.

In my English II Honors course, we are steaming through Hermann Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha. I have been outlining the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism for students, and we have spent some time comparing the theologies and dogmas of Christianity with the Eastern counterparts. I have tried to impress upon the sophomores that Jesus would have made a great Buddhist. This idea will surface later when I ask them to write about the book.

The other thing I have stressed in class is that words are not sufficient to capture the essence of these two great religions. Indeed, most of the books written about Buddhism and Hinduism turn out to be very thin. Few words often equal deep thinking. Some of the texts I use to prepare to teach the novel read like poetry. In fact, the Bhagavad-Gita is poetry. Here is a sample: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in minds.” Good advice for those entering the teaching profession.

The fulcrum of our discussions so far has been Siddhartha’s quest. We are all on a quest—to find ourselves, to find out place in the world, to discover our lives. That is Siddhartha’s quest in the novel. This is difficult for my students to grasp because so much is handed to them. They are a generation that rarely feels want; their needs are met, sometimes to extravagance. I do not fault them or their parents for this. We all want our children to have what we did not. However, struggling through difficulties, and doing without builds character, as we will see in Siddhartha’s situation.

My freshmen are giving persuasive speeches, and I must say, I have not been impressed. We are done with about eighty percent of the class, and only a rare one or two really nailed his subject. Most only give superficial reasons and evidence to support their assertions. They also lack the performance aspect of the speech. We need to really work on this in the next few days. They are young, and even though they have known each other for many years, they are extremely nervous getting up and speaking. Being able to pull this off is an important skill and part of the California State Framework in English. So we will spend some time recapping and examining their performances later this week.

They will take a break on Wednesday this week from the speeches to read C.D.B. Bryan’s great short story, “So Much Unfairness Of Things.” Then they will do some writing about the choices we make in life.

The seniors in AP Literature and Composition are reading Hamlet. We are nearing the end and the devastating finale. So far, the students seem coolly receptive to Hamlet’s plight. I feel like I need to schedule some kind of activity or exercise to make the play more real to them. Sometimes when fatigue sets in, the books become just something to get through. I hate when that happens. We have a curriculum and a set time to cover it, but I want the works we read to have the maximum effect on the students. Right now it feels as if we are reaching to understand Hamlet’s problems. Reading things as a class assignment makes them often more cerebral than visceral. We need to get into the tension of Hamlet’s dilemma and feel his desperation and anxiety.

My eleventh grade AP Language and Composition is in the same situation as the senior class. We are knocking off one essay after another in the Norton anthology, yet our class discussions feel circular and stagnant. This week we will move from profiles to a section on human nature. Again, the struggle here is to make this meaningful for them, not just reading one essay after another.

The same group of students in SAT Prep/Composition are really suffering, and I am beginning to doubt the benefit of this vigorous test preparation. The books we are using are self-directed workbooks. The answers are there, so students, when faced with other homework and responsibilities, do not always take the exercises seriously. Yes, they want to improve their test scores. Yes, they want to go to good colleges. But the workload is heavy right now, and doing the exercises in this book seem mundane.

With preparation classes for the SAT, the trick is the trick, meaning that most test prep centers work not only on the content of the test, but tricks and nuances to defeat the test. I am admittedly not an expert in these shortcuts. I did some research, but I focus my attention more on the content of the test. But the content is also covered in our curriculum and textbooks. Unfortunately, we were thrust into this situation by the principal responding to parent concerns. Most students take outside classes in SAT preparation. I really think we would be best served in the classroom to concentrate on the content as it comes up in our curriculum.

So, my goal is to get them through these prep workbooks as quickly as possible and get back on writing and grammar. Hopefully, this will help them lock on to the lessons and concepts more concretely and with more urgency, and therefore find themselves more prepared for the SAT.

So, as we steam toward Thanksgiving and the holidays, the struggle continues, the learning, hopefully, goes on.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack and Roll

At 8:00 this evening, all the major news outlets are projecting that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States, and the first African-American to hold such an office.

I am thinking of the dead in Iraq, the falling towers of 9-11, the divisive politics of the last eight years in this country. George W. Bush is the worst president in history, and now he belongs to history.

The road ahead will not be easy. One of my students today suggested we might be in more trouble with a fully democratic government—president, House, and Senate. Our country faces financial ruin, demoralization, a lack of education, and worse, a denigration of the value of education. Racism is still an issue. Gun violence plagues our cities. We lack direction, a good reputation, an honor code, a mind life. We are America, land of the free, home of emptiness and failed possibility. We used to be somebody; now the world hates us for our arrogance and for what was once our dominance.

So it is time for a new resolve. We must return America to the top of the world—the ethical nation, the nation that helps other nations, the place of opportunity, the beacon of hope in the world. We must make sure every citizen has health care and a place to sleep safely at night. We must take care of our elderly, our mentally ill, our people.

This is a tall order, and might be impossible. But this is America, and we used to pursue the impossible as a matter of course. We, the American people, have infinite potential and unlimited possibility. We must seize the day, tighten our belts, and fight the good fight.

Only in America, where black men and women were once traded as property, and were once counted as three-fifths of a human being, who had to fight and scrape for every human right and dignity, could a black man become president. This is history; this is the dream. We are living in a new age, a new time. We are witnessing the greatness that is America, the great experiment of the world.

Let’s Barack and roll.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Turning Point, Hopefully

I found it poignant that we spent some of last week reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in my ninth grade English class. And of course, I was asked all week who I would vote for come Tuesday, November 4th.

I did not answer the question. I am not trying to be evasive or defensive. I tell the students straight out: “It is not my job to tell you what to think, or to tell you how I think. It is my job to make you think.” So I answer the question by outlining what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate based on what I have read in newspapers, magazines and journals. I encourage students to add in their own thoughts and ideas. If they are in a listening mood, I might also tell them how the ancient Greeks considered participation in the democracy to be incumbent upon every Greek citizen. Therefore, as descendants of that classical civilization and democracy, we should be discussing the merits of the candidates, the propositions, the issues, and arguing vehemently for our opinions in coffeehouses, meeting places, and classrooms, even if we never come to a consensus.

My actions are a little idealistic, but you get the picture.

Education is about teaching people to think for themselves. That is the principle of the classroom. So who will get my vote? Senator McCain certainly has a long resume. I like that he has not always voted with his party, and that in the past, he has voted based on his beliefs and ideas, even if they differ from his fellow Republicans. I also admire his service to our country during a difficult and unpopular war. Having had three uncles involved in the Vietnam conflict, I see that war as turning point in our nation’s history. We no longer view wars and the military in the same way after the 1960s. One of my students asked me this week if I thought McCain would bring back the draft. That question is a product of the Vietnam War, and no, I do not think McCain would bring back the draft.

In the same breath, I also do not think McCain’s service to this country and his years of torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam conflict make him a good candidate to be president. His experiences are worthy of our admiration; he is definitely courageous and a true warrior. But these things are not the only characteristics of a strong candidate. A president needs diplomacy, patience, an iron will, the ability to deal with stress and remain cool and calm. In this long campaign, and even in his history in the senate, McCain has not always been able to control his temper and his emotions. He often looks as if he will explode into anger. He has engaged in some questionable behavior—I was less than enamored with his “Bomb, Bomb Iran” rendition and his reported gambling habits.

Barack Obama is a smooth and polished politician, and this might be a reason not to trust him. However, what we need in a president is a polished negotiator, someone who can present an intelligent and competent face to the world and follow up with reasonable action and discretion. What Obama lacks in experience can be remedied by the people he surrounds himself with as president. He strikes me as an intelligent man who will be a quick study. His ethnicity may also be just the thing we need to convince the world we do not hate people because of their religion or color of their skin. He represents the multi-ethnic society that is America, and that is just what we need after the disaster of George W. Bush.

But to adopt a big picture outlook, I do not think that one president in one term can change everything that is wrong with our country and our world. This mess will take years to sort out, and will involve sacrifice and hardship for every American. We will pay for the sins of the last eight years.

When we were attacked on September 11, 2001, the world was horrified. Most countries quickly registered their condemnation of those terrorist acts. Now, years later, how many of those countries still side with us? Many have distanced themselves from us, and we have alienated the world with our belligerence, our invasion of Iraq, our arrogance and dismissal of the rest of the world as somehow inferior to the great America.

So whoever wins on Tuesday, the road ahead is difficult and laced with dangerous potholes. Joe Biden was correct, I think, when he said we will be tested in the future. McCain leapt to the conclusion that Obama would be tested; I would propose that we all will be tested. The test, in fact, never ends. This is our world, and we must all find a way to live in it and get along in increasingly more dangerous times.

All of this returns me to Martin Luther King’s dream. Tuesday, we will either elect a black man as president, or a woman as vice-president. We will usher in a new age, one only King could imagine all those years ago on the mall of Washington D.C. But we know from experience that in dreams begins responsibility. We must vote, we must act, we must think, we must endeavor to do what is right and just, and always consider the rights of others in our own actions.

I think of King giving that speech all those years ago, the assassination of John Kennedy only a few months away, King’s own murder on the horizon, the Vietnam War, the hope and promise of a decade of change, the Civil Rights Movement—was there ever a more tumultuous time in our nation’s history outside of the Civil War? Arguably, the 1960s brought some of the most important changes to our Great Society, as President Johnson called it then.

We stand on the edge of another turning point this week. I do not know that Americans have the strength and character to truly change the country and the world. Some might think we lack the fortitude of previous generations, like the one that weathered the Second World War. But I hope we are, to quote Tennyson, “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As we enter this crucial week, the most challenging week in recent history, a turning point in our life and culture, this is what I hope.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Week of 10-27-08 Through 11-7-08

Last week, the extra day off because of the fires in Porter Ranch set us back in most classes. So I spent most of the week trying to get caught up and keep on schedule. The quarter draws to a close this week, and grades will be due at some point in the first days of November, so I am scrambling to grade the last assignments and wrap everything up in order to put this grading period to bed. Meanwhile, the teaching goes on.

Tomorrow, when I am not teaching, I have to attend a workshop on our computer system for grading and report cards. There is nothing worse than having to teach or attend meetings every period of the day. I really have only one prep period tomorrow, the last period of the day. Then I will have students coming in after school for office hours. So things will be hopping.

In my tenth grade home room, we will continue our study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So far, about half the class has presented, and the remaining students will follow suit this week. Some of the presentations have been complete; others left much to be desired, and I wound up jumping in to fill in the gaps. I am hoping the students realize that standing in front of them every day to conduct class is not as easy as it looks. I believe the realization will come when they see their grade sheets for their individual presentations. This work will be counted as part of their first quarter grades.

On Monday, November 3, we will begin our study of the Hermann Hesse novel, Siddhartha. I will introduce the work that week with a little background about Buddhism. Students usually respond very well to this book, and I anticipate, once again, some intense discussions about our American materialism and philosophical values.

The ninth grade will be starting their speeches this week. We have been reading some speeches in their anthology, and beginning with this arc of lessons, each student will be standing in front of the class to argue his or her point of view on an issue. I could tell last week that many of them were already nervous, so this should be good for their self-esteem. I think the audience will be sympathetic since they all must take a turn at some point. This will be their first grade of the new quarter.

I have finally released the seniors from hell. They are finishing up their writing about Dante’s Inferno, redemption, and self-discovery this week. In class, we have moved on to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I introduced the work at the end of last week. Now we will begin our study of Act I on Monday. I am thinking of sources to use with this study and will make some decisions this week. I know I want to use the Kenneth Branagh film version at the end. In any case, studying this play always affords many opportunities for parallel and tangential discussions. We are a little behind on my course outline, but I am not concerned at this point. We just need to keep pushing ahead.

In the eleventh grade AP Language and Composition course, we will be reading profiles. I am amazed that Norton left out the greatest profiler working today, the New Yorker’s David Remnick, but they did include many other fine writers. We will be looking at Thomas Jefferson’s portrait of George Washington, M. Scott Momaday’s American Indian stories, and David Guterson’s piece about the Mall of America.

In their second class period of the day, we continue to study for the SAT, focusing on writing style and vocabulary. I am rushing to finish both workbooks hopefully before Christmas so we can move on to AP writing and review. This is probably the least creative period of the day, mainly because we are tied down to these workbooks that are really student-directed. I have tried to schedule some activities and review games to break up the monotony. The students recently took their PSAT exams, so I will be anxious to see the results to gauge what we should review and focus on in this particular class.

Students and teachers are fatigued at this point. Halloween will add to the mischief and tension—any time you mix sugar and costumes the school goes crazy. In the coming weeks we have parent conferences after report cards. We will be ready for the Thanksgiving holiday when it arrives.

And can’t we do something about this heat. Ninety plus degrees in October? And of course, the smell of brush fires never entirely clears. All part of living in southern California.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

All About You

So it’s time to write your college application essay. It’s time to tell the world what is inside of you, namely all of the nuances, hidden talents, capabilities, and strengths not revealed in your SAT score, your grade point average, your list of extra-curricular activities, or your near mastery of the ukulele.

It’s time to write about you—the you nobody knows and should know, the you that will soar and fly through the halls and student unions of a college you have chosen to live at and study in while paying exorbitant fees and running up substantial debt.

It’s all about you. And at this moment, in this essay, the focus should be nowhere else.

In her essay entitled “On Keeping A Notebook,” Joan Didion writes that “We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves…(‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion…).”

The best advice I can give you about feeling self-absorbed and egotistical when writing this particular essay is to get over it. You are the star of this piece, and if you do not seize the moment, you most likely will not be going to the college of your choice, or possibly it will be your second or third choice.

How it feels to be you, to experience what you have experienced, to gaze reflectively at your navel—those are the most important aspects of this gig. A certain amount of self-absorption will be necessary and required.

Writer David L. Ulin told a class of students once that writing is an arrogant act. You are grabbing the reader by the lapels and demanding that he listen to what you have to say. You are taking away his time, the minutes he will never get back again, and forcing him to read your thoughts. So you’d better have something worthwhile to say.

First, let’s look at a sample prompt from a college application essay, in this case, the University of California application.

“Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” This prompt is for all freshmen applicants.

The second prompt is for all applicants. “Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”

These kinds of prompts are common in college applications. They are usually looking for an experience you have had that has influenced your life or changed your perspective.

Now let’s look at some common mistakes that students make with these kinds of prompts.

Often, students will write about a particular experience, say, travel to a foreign country. The essay might go something like this: “The summer I traveled to Paris changed me. We left from LAX on a Friday. It was the first time I had flown alone. When I arrived in Paris the next day, my study group was waiting at the airport. We went to our hotel and checked in, and then we began sightseeing. We were in Paris for a whole week, seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and even journeying outside the city for a tour of the palace at Versailles.”

From here, the student makes a fatal error. He skips the most important part of the essay, the part where the change actually takes place. The essay continues from here with: “My summer in Paris greatly changed the way I see the world. When I go to college, I will again have to be on my own and be self-sufficient. I am ready for this challenge because of my memorable summer in a foreign country.”

We know the student has changed, but there is no how or why this change occurred. There is no action, no dialogue, and no process. “I went to France and I came back a changed man. This is why I will do well in college.”

Another mistake is the essay that focuses on everybody but the student. “The summer I hosted the exchange student from China was the summer where I changed the most. My guest arrived at LAX at 11:00 PM. We picked her up and drove her to my house. She knew a lot of English, and even though she was obviously very nervous, she was really into seeing Los Angeles. We went to Disneyland, LACMA, the Getty Center, all the cultural and entertainment venues in the city. It was an incredible month of fun. When she left, Sue, as we came to call her, told me she felt like she had grown up completely. As she boarded the plane for Beijing, I saw a woman who was ready for anything the world might throw at her. During that summer, we had both grown up.” So if Sue applies to the same university, this student has already written her application for her.

Finally, students often throw in things that result in accidental negatives. These are aspects mentioned in the essay that could be taken the wrong way. “Every day during the summer between junior and senior years, my mom would drop me at UCLA on her way to work so I could take my SAT class. The class was rather boring, but it did give me the opportunity to meet people. After the class I would spend my time in the library waiting for my mom to come and pick me up after work. Normally, I hate libraries. I like coffeehouses better. There is more action and more people to meet. But sitting in the library that summer was not so bad.”

Honesty is always the best policy, the cliché goes. In this case, condemning the class as boring might give the wrong impression. Saying one hates libraries might also not endear an applicant to the admissions committee.

So what should you do with this application essay?

First of all, realize that the number of words you are allowed make this a case where you need to write in a focused, detailed manner. Tangents might waste words and not necessarily move your piece forward. Start with an experience. This might be a success, a failure, an opportunity, a missed opportunity, or a negative event with a positive outcome.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with describing a trip to another country that you think made you mature or more responsible, or be interested in exploring the world. Fully describe the trip, or the experience. Put us in the middle of it. When you finish writing about it, try to look at it from the perspective of the readers. Do you really make them see the city, or feel and appreciate the experience? Details and description will win the day.

Next you must fully write about the reflection on the experience. This should actually be the bulk of your essay. “When I arrived back in Los Angeles from Paris, the city seemed smaller, less colorful. I began to think about the differences between the two places, and how since I traveled to Paris, my home city now seemed less cultured, less interesting to me.”

Be sure to include in this section how the experience changed you—how are you different now? This is the growing part, the epiphany. “I realized that I wanted to see more of the world, that I love new cultures and new people, and that the experience in Paris energized me and set the course of my life. I want to see the world and learn.” Yes, a little idealistic, but you get the picture. We need to see the change happen.

The last section should be about the wisdom you have accumulated in the experience, and how this connects to your view of college life. “My trip to Paris makes me the ideal student for the university. I am ready to contribute to, and benefit from, the diversity offered on your campus. Having experienced at least one major world city, I now hunger for more—more experience, more learning, more culture—and this will make all the difference as I pursue my educational goals.”

Of course, the essay hinges on your prewriting practice. Most students find themselves stymied by the enormity of the essay. I mean, this piece could be the key to, or the lock on, your future. Do not panic. Simply start writing. Write whatever comes to mind and keep going. You can cut, shape, throw away, later. Right now, just open the tap and start writing about a memory, a moment, something that sticks in your mind, a question, even if you do not know the answer. Do not worry about cohesion, or length, or style, or spelling or grammar. Just write. Recognize that this piece will need extensive process, meaning revision and drafting. If you start thinking finished product, you will block yourself.

Therefore, you cannot write this the night before it is due.

You want to shape it, mold it, and make every sentence tell. That will take drafts, and working on it sentence by sentence, point by point.

But initially, just write.

It also might help to read some essays. The Norton Reader is a good source, or any of the other nonfiction anthologies in the book store. I use an essay by writer William Michaelian called “A Map of My Heart,” about growing up Armenian in the central part of California. You can access this piece at:


It is an excellent and powerful piece of writing, although much longer than most application essays. Still, it is an example of putting the reader in the middle of something. You cannot read Michaelian’s piece without understanding and appreciating his Armenian heritage and the warmth and depth of his family life and history.

So you sit down at your desk and you start writing. You come up with several rambling possibilities. How do you shape them into an essay? Start in the middle of things. Let’s begin in the airport in Paris with the crowds surging around you and gendarmes armed with machine guns patrolling the concourse. Or, start with some action: “I only had a moment to act before the train left the station and I would be lost in the French countryside.”

What if it’s too long? In revision, cut exposition. Cut the experience—often it can be stated in one to two sentences. We need to see the moment of change, the reaction to the stimulus. Knowing you flew into the city on a Tuesday night is probably not as important. Look for the parts that tell us detail, that put us in the middle of action. Cut the background information that does not move the story forward. Focus on the turmoil, the change in you, the reflection part.

You can also cut the “this is how I’ve changed” part. We can see this in a single image. “Upon arrival at LAX, I made my way to the luggage carousel with confidence, a young woman moving among the numerous throngs of travelers, each finding, like me, her own destiny.”

You also ask if you can lie and make up a story. No, because false stories lack conviction, and can also be checked, and being caught in a lie is pure embarrassment. You can, however, bend the story to fit your needs. Absolute fact is never as interesting as your impressions of an event. It does not matter if something happened over two nights; if the story is not lessened, make it one night. You can combine characters, or change names. But the basic facts should stand. However remember that it is your impressions that will make the story real for the reader. We are seeing this event through your eyes. How does it feel to be you in this mess, and what did it leave you with?

The admissions committee has your test scores, your grades, your basic application, your teacher’s recommendation. What they do not have is your voice. They may, at some point, require a personal interview. Many colleges do. The application essay is another opportunity for the committee to hear you. You are speaking directly to them, so tell them what your stats and resume do not.

You might explain a bad grade in a difficult class.

Talk about the time you moved or changed schools.

Talk about something you witnessed—a fight between parents or relatives—that you did not come to understand until later, and changed the way you viewed your family.

Talk about where you live.

Talk about a time you did something wrong and never got caught, but regret to this day.

Talk about you. It is all about you. This one time, in this one essay, it is okay to be the most important person in the room.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Week of 10-13-08 Through 10-24-08

This is a new feature I am starting on the blog where I will detail what we will be studying over the next two week period in all of my classes. This way, parents, students and anyone else who cares to may keep up with us on our readings and assignments.

The first quarter of the year is rapidly disappearing. Therefore, it is time to start bringing the first group of readings and rounds of exams to a close.

In my homeroom, English II Honors for tenth graders, we are finishing our first group of Shakespearean sonnets. Early in the week, the students will write an essay on the group, their second major essay of the quarter. So far, our focus has been on Shakespeare’s style and finding the ways he plays with language outside of the theater. We have read a number of famous and lesser known sonnets, examined the sonnet style in rhyme scheme and rhythm, discussed scansion and meter, as well as figurative and literal language. We have even analyzed a few of the sonnets as essays, figuring out what Shakespeare’s thesis is and how he makes his case by the ending two line couplet. Next up, the students will take control of the class. Each has been assigned a sonnet to teach the others. I will observe and fill in the gaps where needed. The next two weeks should be a bit different from the course so far as it will be more student driven, something I enjoy a lot more. This also fulfills our state requirements for public speaking.

The ninth graders in my second period English I Honors course are in for a rough week. They have a number of tests to complete for me. They have read short fiction by Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a poem by Walter de la Mare. Now they will take a short answer exam on each selection followed by an in-class essay linking the themes and characters of all the selections together. They also have a vocabulary test on Thursday. As we wrap up the first unit in their anthology, I will be assigning them personal persuasive speeches to be given in class in the coming weeks. They will read some classic speeches, including “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King, and “The New Frontier” by John F. Kennedy, among others. We will dip into some Native American work, and discuss just what makes a good speech. Again, these lessons work with the state standards for public speaking.

The senior AP Literature and Composition course has multiple assignments working right now. They are waiting for me to finish an edit of their first draft of the college application essay. I will be returning those with extensive comments and they will begin the rewriting and revising process. Meanwhile, we are finishing a detailed study of Dante’s Inferno. We will discuss the last few Cantos this week, hear some music based on the poem, and prepare for a short answer and take home essay exam on the work. Then we will launch into Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In AP Language and Composition for grade eleven, we continue to study our sample essays in the Norton anthology. We will again visit Joan Didion’s work this week, as well as other favorite writers of mine, Scott Russell Sanders and Annie Dillard. The students are finishing the writing of a paper on their definition of home due Tuesday when we return from the long weekend. They will also be working on more informal writing this week in the form of journal entries. Many of the pieces in this section of the Norton come from the writers’ notebooks. So I have them emulating the great writers in their journals. They will turn in a sample of their journalistic work during the second week.

I have the same group of students in eleventh grade again later each afternoon in SAT Preparation class. There we are working on writing the SAT essay. We will write a number of practice essays and read some student samples while working through our Kaplan workbooks. We will also once again hit vocabulary really hard, a common weakness with most students.

Even though tomorrow is a holiday for students, the teachers will be on campus for a workshop. Thus begins a busy week with the due date for final quarter grades just a few weeks away.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Grind

I have spent the last two weeks trying to catch up on my stacks of ungraded student papers while watching my meager retirement savings slip away. In both cases, time is of the essence: some of the papers go back to the first week of September; at this rate of loss I will be able to retire in forty years when I will be 84. These are bad times. Not the worst of times by a long shot, but bad nonetheless, and there are some disturbing harbingers of the misery to come every day in the news.

After two weeks of solid work, I am not even close to being caught up on those papers, and probably never will catch up.

Because I read for a living, I sometimes have the urge to vegetate. I want to just sit somewhere and stare off into space, or watch people, or simply go to sleep. Fatigue is a huge problem right now. By the time Friday rolls around, I am nearly unconscious with fatigue. Driving is real fun, as you might imagine.

There is no chance to vegetate, no rest for the weary. The papers and the lessons cannot wait. So I push on. Here is my plan:

I have decided to focus on one set of papers each night. Rome was not built in a day, or, insert your own cliché here. That is what I will do: one set per evening; one set per weekend. With the exception of this weekend: I will do two sets because I have essays from the seniors from September, and I have their first drafts of application essays for college. Both must be done by Monday. So this weekend, I will deal with two sets of papers.

I also must write lesson plans for the next two weeks, and review all the readings and assignments for five different classes.

Oh, and I must update the blog.

Saturday, my grandmother-in-law turns 92 and I promised my wife I would barbecue for everyone.

Time to make lists and prioritize. I am constantly making lists and prioritizing.

Given the choice between reading and grading papers, and reading and rereading texts for class, I would rather read the books. I also believe that although there are many ways to cover yourself as a teacher, being unprepared is inexcusable. I always prep for the next day’s lessons first. Then, if time allows, I’ll look at some papers. Being prepared to teach is imperative because nothing fails like dead air in a classroom with twenty minutes of class time left on the clock. Yes, preparation is key.

The other problem I have is that the administration is requiring more and more paperwork that adds nothing to teaching. Just today, I was given a seventeen-page handout to complete when I observe a teacher in my department. The administrator who gave this to me does not teach a class and has the time to write a seventeen-page handout for us to fill in when observing our teachers.

Where does this paperwork lead to better teaching?

To be a good teacher, one needs luck, talent, hard work, and preparation, for teaching is a craft, and one must study and practice the skills to perfect the craft, providing one has talent and ability.

In addition, a teacher must have security and stability in order to do the job well. In these trying times, there is no stability and security anywhere in the world. We are all operating by the skin of our teeth. We are a nation of distracted, worried people, and it shows, from our erratic driving to our pained faces. We are in trouble.

Like the literature teacher I am, I look for solace in books, in the wisdom and towering intellect of writers. God knows, the economists do not have any wisdom to spare these days.

Dante places the greedy on the fourth circle of hell in his Divine Comedy. These sinners must constantly push heavy weights against resistance from other sinners. In illustrations of this scene, the weights take the form of a gigantic wheel or huge bags of money that burden the sinners.

I think for those CEOs and CFOs floating to earth on golden parachutes this is hardly enough punishment. Drawn and quartered—that is my idea of punishment. And to keep pace with Dante, I would have them reassemble themselves each time only to be drawn and quartered again.

In the twenty-one years I have been a teacher, I amassed $35,000 toward retirement. It would have been more, but the archdiocese conveniently lost my paperwork after I left their employ. They have no record of my four years as a teacher at a Catholic school.

In the last month, I lost $7000 of the $35,000. From polling my friends about their 401Ks, I got off easy. I also have another twenty years to work, giving my portfolio time to recover, I hope.

As we heard in the news this week, the people who are retiring in the next year have the greatest problem. I worry about those people, like my colleague, the science department chair, who wants to retire at the end of this school year. I have seen him in the halls, smiling, talking to students. He seems fine, and I haven’t the heart to ask him how his investments are doing.

Then there are the darker stories, like the man who killed himself and his entire family last weekend in Porter Ranch, California, just a few miles from my school. He left letters indicating he was wiped out by the downturn in his investments. He felt the only way his family could avoid shame is if he took them all to the afterlife with him.

All of this leaves me feeling like one of Thoreau’s men of quiet desperation. I count the empty houses on my block every night on my walks with Stone. The signs are everywhere: public auction. As a headline in one of the smaller, less developed nations of the world’s newspaper trumpeted: “This is how the first world nations fail!” Except the crisis only began in the first world nations; now it is global, affecting everyone.

So the stacks of ungraded papers remain, looming over me like a caustic shadow. The quarter ends in a few weeks.

I cannot tell a teacher “You are doing well,” or “You need to work harder at classroom management,” without filling in seventeen pages of fruitless paperwork.

The season of autumn calls. The leaves are beginning to turn, even here in southern California. It is the perfect weather for high school football on a Friday night, for a smoky barbecue, for a good walk, or a good nap.

There are books to be read and life to be lived. But in what feels like the twilight of the empire, we must simply keep plodding on. As our world economy crashes and burns, there is no turning back. Time moves in only one direction.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

To Read and Study Great Books

We have spent a lot of class time in the first four weeks discussing how to read and study. I gave students handouts about the different kinds of reading we do for different subjects, as well as how to take notes, annotate a text, and prepare to write about complex ideas in a thoughtful and interesting essay. In all my classes, we are now deeply immersed in the books, beginning to put these study and reading skills into practice.

What my students do not know is that this renewed interest in how we read and study comes from an article I read way back last fall in The New York Times, entitled “Small Campus, Big Books,” by Dirk Johnson (November 4, 2007).

Johnson writes extensively about Great Books colleges like Shimer College in Illinois and St. Thomas Aquinas College in California. Great Books colleges are liberal arts colleges that utilize texts, not textbooks, to teach core subjects. “In a method known as shared inquiry,” Johnson writes, “[students] wade together through a core curriculum of masterpieces in literature, science, philosophy and mathematics, steeping themselves in the works of Homer, Darwin, Kant, Shakespeare, and Einstein, among many others.”

According to Johnson, the Great Books curriculum offers a broader, richer education than most other college curricula.

This sounds like a dream. In a classroom where we look for connections among books, ideas, subjects, current events, philosophies, religions, sciences, et cetera, a Great Books program seems like the perfect recipe for a well-rounded and knowledgeable student.

The Great Books movement began in the early 1900s at Columbia with a literature teacher named John Erskine. “He argued that ancient Greek and Latin ‘are not dead languages unless we assassinate them,’” writes Johnson.

Another educator who jumped on the bandwagon early on was Robert Maynard Hutchins. An educational philosopher and dean of Yale Law School, Hutchins worked with Mortimer Adler to develop a list of great books that could be used to teach a variety of subjects. As president of the University of Chicago, Hutchins tried to get the faculty to pass a resolution to adopt a Great Books curriculum only to be rejected three times. He persisted in his quest, believing that these texts were “teacher proof,” meaning that teachers just had to get out of the way and let the students loose in the books themselves. Great Books would put students in direct contact with the original thinkers, eliminating the middle man, the classroom teacher. The teacher would now be the “guide on the side,” instead of the “sage on the stage,” meaning the end of the lecturer and the coming-of-age of the facilitator in the classroom.

This lead to the development of a main tenet of Great Books: the concept of the Shared Inquiry.

“The goal of Great Books programs us to instill in adults and children the habits of mind that characterize a self-reliant thinker, reader, and learner,” according to the website http://www.greatbooks.org/. With this curriculum, the focus is on the questions encountered in the reading. Students are directed toward formulating their own questions and then searching for the answers through discussion with peers as well as critical and analytical thinking on their own. In fact, the emphasis is shifted completely from the teacher to the text itself. “As a Shared Inquiry leader, [the teachers] do not impart information or present…opinions, but guide participants in reaching their own interpretations.” According to the website. Teachers pose thought-provoking questions and direct the conversation in response to student discussion. In doing this, teachers help students develop “the flexibility of mind to consider problems from many angles, and the discipline to analyze ideas critically.”

Students must also listen to each other. “In Shared Inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as evidence demands,” according to the website. “They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts.” This sounds like utopia, and might, in reality, be a bit idealized.

There are a number of liberal studies institutions that use a Great Books program. One such school is Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. According to their website (http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/), “students analyze and discuss in tutorials, seminars, and laboratories these works of the greatest minds of our tradition. By daily practice in reading, translation, demonstration, and argument, students form habits of thought and discourse which will stay with them throughout their lives. And by means of these habits, they can better lay hold of the knowledge and wisdom recorded in the Great Books.”

The website goes on to list all the authors and works to be studied over the four years of undergraduate residency:

For example, in freshman year, students read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripedes, Thucydides, Aristophanes in Greek and Roman mythology; Wheelock and Nesfield in Latin and English composition; Euclid in mathematics; Aristotle, DeKoninck, Fabre, Galen, Harvey, Linnaeus, Pascal, Archimedes and Mendel in laboratory sciences; and Plato, Porphyry, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Holy Bible for philosophy.

Sophomore, junior and senior years offer similarly challenging texts on the reading lists.

The counter-argument to this kind of curriculum might be that it consists of the classical “dead white males.” Indeed, I found the only women represented on the list were Willa Cather, Jane Austen, and Flannery O’Connor. And this being a Catholic institution, there are an overabundance of religious writers present on the list. St. Thomas Aquinas appears numerous times, although one could argue the value of his work in any study of philosophy.

The other problem with this particular college is the strictly enforced Catholic rules of conduct. “Mass is offered in Latin and visiting a dormitory of the opposite sex is grounds for expulsion,” according to Johnson. This is hardly a congruent social environment to a liberal arts college.

Finally, not every student is capable of understanding the source author’s prose and ideas. Arguably, textbooks perform a valuable service by clarifying the original author’s work. However, there is a fine line between “dummying down” and clarifying.

Still, the argument can be made that studying the dead white males on the reading list as a basis for all knowledge is a way of laying the fundamental groundwork for more enlightened study to come in graduate school. The foundations of western culture are definitely represented in a Great Books curriculum. Have we shied away from such reading because it is too difficult? Difficult things are often those most worth doing. Reading and understanding the roots of our cultural traditions can only give us a firm understanding when we compare and contrast our literature and history with that of other nations and people. Would a Great Books curriculum work in every school, public or private? Possibly, but training students and teachers to rethink how they conduct the business of learning will be a monumental task. Administrators would also have to commit to seminar-style, smaller class sizes of ten or so students. It would, however, be an experiment worth trying, especially for honors and Advanced Placement courses.

The bottom line is, history and science textbooks are rendered in such flat and uninspiring prose that it is no wonder that students see reading as a chore. With the Great Books program, we shift the focus to the reader and writer of the source text and the delicate thread that ties them together, and we eliminate the textbook author and publisher, the people who publish new editions every two years at exorbitant prices that bankrupt students and their parents. Many of the books in the Great Books curriculum come in cheaper paperback editions that do not change year to year. Many are available for free online.

Anyway, who would not want to study physics with Einstein, astronomy with Ptolemy, geometry with Descartes, philosophy with Aristotle, and the personal essay with Montaigne? It is the equivalent of the thinking person’s no-brainer. In our day of failing schools and a collapsing American educational system, a return to Great Books maybe just what we need.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shadows and Light and the City of New York

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."

-Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself"

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lessons From The Latin

When I entered high school, I signed up for Latin I with Brother Eugenio, a teacher who had been at the school forever, and had taught my father and a number of his five brothers.

A brother is not a priest, although he might dress like one. In certain religious orders, brothers are the teachers. They run the schools. Brother Eugenio had quite a history at my high school. He had taught Spanish to my father, and I had heard many times the story of how he would read the newspaper in class while the students were doing their exercises in the verbs and vocabulary of Espanol.

My father remembers that one day, while Eugenio was absorbed in his paper and possibly asleep, the students threw a bird’s nest into the light fixture. This was in the days before florescent lights, and the bulbs at the center of the fixtures burned hot. The nest caught fire, causing Eugenio to wake with a start and demand that the students flee the classroom.

Brother Eugenio remembered my father and uncles and teased me incessantly about how I would be the disappointment in the family. Immediately upon arriving on campus, I had joined the marching band and music program. I took up the xylophone, marimba, and concert bells. I joined the larger section of percussion, and since drums are loud and not always needed in rehearsal, we worked outside on the fields, playgrounds and open areas of campus every Wednesday night from seven to ten p.m. Brother Eugenio, who lived in a special brothers’ house on campus, heard me practicing one evening and came out to see who was making the racket. This led to him calling me “Tinkerbell” in class, and mocking me for not being a tough football player like the other men in my family.

Of course, at an all-male school, this went over like a bomb. People I did not even know began calling me Tinkerbell, and even though I now shunned the concert bells entirely for the marimba and xylophone, nothing seemed to repair my damaged masculinity in the eyes of my fellow students.

So the torment continued, and I struggled on in Latin. By the end of the year, I squeaked by with a barely passing grade. I now had a choice: I could opt for Spanish I and start over with the freshmen. Or, I could enroll in Latin II and try to finish the program. The only thing worse than being called Tinkerbell in front of other males was being a sophomore in a class of freshmen. I took Latin II.

The fall of my second year in high school began with a surprise. Brother Eugenio was feeling his age. He struggled to make it across campus from the brothers’ residence to his classroom. He climbed steps one at a time, and rested a good thirty seconds after each climb. He taught the class from behind his desk and rarely wrote on the chalkboard anymore. After his two classes each day, I would watch from the window of my fifth period class as he struggled back to his rooms. Often, the seventy-five yard trip took him forty-five minutes.

By October, he could barely gasp out a sentence. The class was stalled. We were doing most of the work on our own, and Eugenio now missed at least two days a week. There were rumors of heart failure and bypass surgery. His skin was the color of wood glue and his eyes were swollen and red. Once, when I was going over one of my tests with him, I noticed his fingertips were blue.

Sure enough, as the air turned colder and we made our way toward Thanksgiving, I arrived at Latin class to see the principal at the front of the room. “I regret to inform you,” he started, “that Brother Eugenio passed away last night in his sleep.” My fists clenched under my desktop in silent celebration. “We will find you a substitute teacher as soon as possible. Seeing that the course is Latin, this might be difficult, but you will have a teacher.”

A week or so later, we arrived at class to find a woman standing behind Eugenio’s desk. She stared at us intently as we took our seats. “I am Miss Phillips,” she announced. “I am a feminist and your new Latin teacher. I do not believe in make up or in shaving my legs or underarms.”

We froze in our places, our mouths hanging open. The principal breezed into the room. “Good morning, boys. I see you have met Miss Phillips. We feel very grateful to have her here. She is a linguist, proficient in many languages, especially Latin. I expect you to welcome her and get right back on track where dear Brother Eugenio left off.”

Miss Phillips was a competent teacher for the first two weeks. As Christmas break approached, someone asked her what she would do for the holiday. We sensed she was not from around these parts.

“Well, I have started dating someone on campus, so I will probably stay here in California for the holiday, unless he goes out of town.”

We were shell-shocked by this news. Who could she be dating? Just the day before we had gotten a clear shot of her hairy legs. The hair was almost as thick, black and wiry as the unstyled mop on her head. One kid spontaneously threw up. No one had the nerve to ask her who the lucky guy was, but we all took bets.

The mystery was solved a few days later when we were shocked to discover Miss Phillips in the bleachers during our soccer match. Mr. Singleton was the soccer coach, and the best looking male teacher on campus, hands down. All the girls in our sister schools swooned over him. In addition to coaching soccer, he also taught chemistry. Later, after the game, several students saw him leave with Miss Phillips. Singleton and Phillips—who would have figured them for a match?

We started trying to get her to talk about the relationship in class. “Is it true, Miss Phillips, that Latin is the language of love?”

“Well, it is the father of the romance languages.”

“Yes,” but we insisted, “is it possible to use Latin to get women.” She hesitated just a second. “I mean, you’re a woman,” one student continued. “Does Latin get your blood going?”

She smiled secretively at us. “Let me tell you about love, boys…”

And with that one phrase, we left Latin behind. Our hormones were raging like a cliché, and we soaked up knowledge. Most of us knew little about sex, about what turns women on, about the intricacies and details of lovemaking. Miss Phillips laid it out for all of us.

We left for Christmas break in a white-hot stream of testosterone. My only hope was that we could keep her on sex and off of Latin in the new year.

The first day back to class, my worries vaporized. “Guess what I was doing at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, fellas?” Miss Phillips, now Mrs. Singleton crooned.

We heard every detail, ever caress, every thrust of the two weeks of honeymooning the two teachers completed. The marriage had been incredibly spontaneous. She told the tales, and we listened with an intensity that left us sweaty and exhausted by the end of the period. I felt like my brain would explode. To teenage guys locked in a classroom, this kind of information was earth-shattering. As it was, we all lied about sex; that is the nature of the beast in teenage males. But this was not a story from our peers; this was the real deal, and we ate it up.

As winter turned into spring, we had more love and less Latin. What little of the language we studied was Greek to me, and by the close of the third quarter, I was failing the class. I went to Miss Phillips for help, but she was brusque and brief with me. Evidently, I was not her type. There were a few boys she liked in the room, but she made me feel like I had somehow missed the joke. My interest in her sexcapades was waning.

As we began the fourth and final quarter of the year, Miss Phillips came into the room and announced that her contract would not be renewed. She was livid. It seems someone’s parents had complained about the content of the course. We all looked around at one another. We had universally agreed that no one would tell anyone about the sex talks. I knew that other students knew; we could not prevent the gossip from spreading among students, but I was sure no one told parents.

After a few days of silent work and sulking on her part, her mood shifted. It seems another colleague ratted them out for an “encounter” after hours in the science room. Or was it the faculty room? With Miss Phillips, it could have been any room.

For the rest of the year, she let us do whatever we wanted during her class period. Latin was done, a dead language returned to the grave. During the last week of school she announced that anyone with a B or an A in the course would get an A; anyone with a C, D, or F would get a B. I was now “above average” in Latin II. I had made it through the language requirement.

Miss Phillips left at the end of the year without incident. Mr. Singleton lasted another year or two, but left eventually as well. We heard they got divorced.

Years later, when I became a teacher, I had to teach English grammar, and I realized that what little I remembered from Brother Eugenio in Latin I was helping me get a better handle on English grammar ten years later. I also drew on my Latin roots when teaching vocabulary—many English words have their origins in Latin. My students spoke Spanish, as did my wife and in-laws. I could almost understand everything they said simply from my long ago, halfhearted study of Latin. I came to the conclusion that if I had learned Latin adequately all those years ago, Spanish would have been a breeze.

I dug up my old Latin books and began thumbing through them. I vaguely remembered a few things as I tried to work through several lessons. I decided to give learning Latin a try on my own. I called our textbook company and asked for some samples of teaching manuals. Latin is still taught today, and Latin textbooks are still begin published. I went to the bookstore and picked up a book I had heard about in teaching circles: Wheelock’s Latin. I renewed my efforts to work through some exercises. It was slow going.

The worst thing about Brother Eugenio is that he taunted me, goaded me into being frustrated in class. But I did learn at least a little something about Latin. The only thing I can say about Miss Phillips is that we learned nothing about Latin. Sex education came again to our classroom during senior year when our religion class was called “Family Life.” Sex was explained scientifically. We learned birth control methods, how the sperm and egg join, why a child has blue eyes, and the philosophical reasons why one should wait for sex until he is committed to another person. The Church calls this marriage; we were urged to think it through and define the commitment and our sexuality for ourselves. We were mature enough to handle it.

Those classes we had about sex were not as titillating as Miss Phillips’ true confessions. They were however honest, clear, straightforward, and instructive. We learned everything we needed about the subject.

I wish I had learned as much Latin.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Last Days of Summer

“August, die she must.”  Paul Simon

It is night and quiet. Stone and I walk the streets of my neighborhood. Frequently, he pauses to sniff the air and stare off down the darkened streets while I contemplate the stars and think about the end of summer. It all went so fast.

This has been an unpleasant summer for Stone. We have had nothing but trouble from Stone’s stomach. Evidently, he has irritable bowel syndrome, and has suffered through several bouts of extremely painful digestive problems. At one point, he was on antibiotics and other drugs, as well as a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice. When he recovered enough to return to regular dog food, we had to change to a brand free from grain and other additives.

In the months we have had him, the dog has been nothing but polite and loveable, a true gentleman. I hate to see him in pain. He stares at his stomach like he cannot figure out why it hurts so much. Walking seems to ease the discomfort, so we are walking. Other than a distant drone of a police helicopter, the night is calm. Tomorrow, it all begins again, the real new year. My stomach leaps with anxiety. Stone is not alone in his discomfort.

9:00 AM. All the department chairs, counselors and administrators gather in the lecture room. We call this group the Academic Council. We are supposed to decide the academic direction of the school and solve any problems that occur in the area of curriculum and study.

This year, the focus is on goals and objectives, and as we break these down and discuss them, the thrust becomes clear. We must raise the academic level of our school. We lost a large number of students due to the bad economy and competition from other private schools. So we must raise our standards, demand more of our students, and offer more programs and enrichment to remain competitive.

After the meeting, I try to set up my room. Interruptions are numerous: there are problems with class lists, new students who want to be in honors and Advanced Placement courses, and teachers who have needs and questions. Finally, I am able to sort and arrange the books on my shelves. I have brought in a crate of new books and magazines to share with students.

By the end of the day, my classroom is set up. Only a few more posters need hanging, and then I will be ready. My hands hurt from pushing thumbtacks into walls and handling files with razor sharp edges—who ever thought paper cuts could be so painful. Tomorrow is another day of meetings and work without students, although the kids are all over campus. They stop in to say hello while picking out their lockers, buying books, and taking care of business in the office.

Once back at home, I turn on my computer and continue revising my syllabi and course outlines. Before I know it, the clock strikes 1:00 AM. I am not tired and continue working. I finally go to bed at 3:30. My mind races and I cannot sleep.

Stone scratches the edge of the bed at 5:45 AM. One of the side effects of his IBS is that he is sometimes ravenously hungry. The food goes right through him. I take him out into the warm humidity and walk up and down the street. I can actually read the look on his face: this urination is a formality. He wants to eat. I feed him and take him back inside. He goes back to sleep while I make coffee and read the newspapers.

9:00 AM again. The English teachers gather in my classroom. I had worked out everything I would say in the shower last night and again this morning, but when I open my mouth, the words come out mushy and disorganized. My colleagues stare at me as if I’ve had a stroke. About forty minutes into the meeting, I find my sea legs and things begin to pick up. We talk about the changes, we talk about goals.

The principal and I had an intense discussion at the end of last year. He wanted the English and math departments to team teach an SAT preparation elective. We have been down this road before and it did not work. I argued with him that SAT material is included in all our textbooks. He wants us to use one of the test preparation workbooks and drill on the test skills only. I respond by telling him we should not be teaching to a test; the skills required for the SAT are not the only abilities our students need to succeed in college and the workplace.

We compromise. I have two periods each day with eleventh grade students in English. During the second English period each day, we will drill skills for the SAT, the ACT (another entrance test), and the English AP exam. The math department will run the elective separately. So during the my department meeting, I set this up with the eleventh grade teachers. We discuss the book and a scope and sequence for the course.

In addition, I encourage all teachers to keep in mind that we are trying to raise the bar of academic excellence in the school, and that each teacher must do his or her part. I try to end on an upbeat note, and then we are off to the full faculty meeting where teachers hear some of the same things all over again. It is rather mind-numbing.

By the time I arrive home, I am exhausted. And tomorrow, the students arrive. Where will I find the energy? I still have more work to do on my courses, summer reading tests to write, the list goes on and on. I also know that I will be too nervous to sleep tonight.

Even with the anxiety, this is my favorite time of year. I love going to the office supply store and buying school supplies. New pencils, pens, notebooks, folders—I love it all. I feel a rush of excitement when I smell new books.

I remember riding my bicycle to school, the fall air, the sharp smell of wood smoke from brush fires that always seemed to strike southern California in the fall.

I remember my Catholic school’s carnival that always came around in October. We got out early on Friday and had Monday off. We went every day, and my parents worked the booths. We rode the rides and ate cotton candy.

I remember the Friday night football games, playing in the marching band, feeling the first crisp breeze of autumn drifting over the field. We began the season in September, sweating and facing dehydration in our heavy uniforms. By November, we were cold in the stands, blowing on our hands to stay warm.

I remember my grandmother’s house after school. My mother would take us there and we would play football on the lawn and eat oatmeal cookies.

The daylight would fade early, slanting off to the west, filling the streets with gold-orange light. We would come home, change out of our uniforms, and run outside to play in the dying day. We would throw the football, race through the streets on our bikes, feel the season change. I can hear my mother’s voice, calling us home for dinner.

As a teacher, I always try to remember what it was like to be a child.

In my darker hours I remember the difficulties, the cruelties, the disappointments, the sudden realization that things are not always what they seem. And then in a hint from the night air, I will remember riding the Ferris wheel at the school carnival, and the time when I first held a girl’s hand. The fall of the year reminds me of these things.

The moon is bright as Stone and I walk the empty streets again. The air is hot and humid, more like summer than fall. Knowing California, we will probably have a heat wave in the middle of September, and records will shatter.

We walk the block listening to the traffic on the boulevard. I run through my list of things to do. My mind is racing, and I feel my chest tighten. I am still nervous about returning to the classroom, even after twenty-one years. I still have nightmares where the students will not listen, or my teeth have fallen out and I cannot speak, or that I have forgotten all my notes and plans at home.

Suddenly, the air changes. A breeze begins down the street. I can hear it coming through the trees, whispers of wind. A few leaves on the ground swirl and dance. I smell a hint of smoke. Autumn is coming, underneath the heat.

I tug on Stone’s collar and we head for home. It is time to get ready for tomorrow. Summer, like childhood, has slipped away, leaving us to anticipate what will come in the new school year.