I started this post on Héctor’s blog, but because it kept growing, I felt it was probably inappropriate to put it inside a discussion–it looks a bit more like a rambling monologue than a shard of a conversation, but of course that’s what blogging allows, the unfolding of thoughts without someone else interrupting, so here’s the post, referring to the discussion between Héctor and Mary Ellen:

I’m jumping into this discussion with some hesitation as I have yet to see Farenheit 9/11 (can you believe it?). But as a teacher who grew up the daughter of a historian and who is now sister-in-law to a documentary filmmaker, both of whom agonize over your questions of objectivity and perspective, I just have to put my two cents in. Here’s a little story:

When I was a child my father would walk into town just about every day to pick up a stack of newspapers–all kinds: local, national, and when he could get them, international; from all points on the political spectrum. And somehow, he’d read them all and leave them conspicuously about for us to find. (He still sends us clippings…)

Every night at dinner he would open the evening’s conversation with a provocative question about world events (we were growing up during the Vietnam War). No matter what tack we took, he would circle around–or eventually my brilliant brother would–and point out the opposing perspective, or another interpretation, or additional statistics. If we had read even some of the days’ newspapers, we’d do alright; if not, well, on those nights I’d slip out of my chair and join the animals beneath the table. We learned how to think, to speak, to take a balanced view while arguing our little hearts out. It was brutal. And electrifying. And the best damn education I ever received (Exeter, Williams, Oxford and Bread Loaf included).

BUT he never let us use works of fiction to support our side. He had (and still has) no use for literature or film, claiming that there was too much to read about (i.e. primary documents as well as reporting and historical analysis) what really happened to use that valuable time reading about what people imagined happened. And that was a mistake… Without literature’s contributions, even he couldn’t see the full picture. And yet his passion for the details of events as they were unfolding and how they related to previous events was infectious.

(Of course the great irony is that I write fiction and teach literature and creative writing and arts writing! Ha! But that’s another post for another time.)

By this little excursion into my childhood, I want to stress the impossibility of being even-handed as educators. I don’t even think we need to be–in fact, the teachers I remember and who had the greatest impact on me were, above all, passionate about their point of view (my father included) and devoted to a thorough grounding in the subject, but not unbiased. PASSION is what I talk about a good deal with my students–if they care enough about a subject or outcome, they will do whatever they can to do it justice, and that means “to delve deeply” as Héctor puts it, and BOLDLY, I would add. They have to dare to make mistakes, to sound idiotic. They will, then, naturally, seek out those before them who have studied the subject; they will want to learn effective strategies and processes and skills.

So, what does this mean for educators? What aren’t we getting right? Well, I think we expect too much of the outcome, too much too soon. My father conducted his “dinnertime classes” night after night, year after year (he did the same with our writing too, if truth be known). And he was patient. Mistakes were welcome. He was interested in the process, not who won the argument. Now my middle brother is one of the greatest speech writers and speech makers I have ever heard. My oldest brother can sell you
anything (especially his obsession, cars) because he knows everything there is about what he sells and he has found an avenue for expressing that passion. And I spend my time in Middlebury classrooms getting my students fired up about what THEY want to learn about whatever subject is on the table. And I tell them that it takes time. But while they’re putting in all those years of apprenticeship (after all it was Yeats who said on his deathbed, something to the effect that only now was he beginning to understand what he was trying to do) they must find the joy in it, their own natural connection to the material, their natural as well as schooled expertise.

That’s where we fail. We think our students are empty vessels needing filling. We think it is our job to give them the goods, because they won’t get’em elsewhere. We think there is a right way to go about education. And we let them know that. They expect us to deliver. They want to walk into the classroom and give us the keys.

An so, together, we kill passion. We abdicate our responsibility by letting students abdicate theirs. We do not allow for mistakes–we’re constantly trying to measure outcomes rather than building skills and igniting passion. And we do not stress responsibility. Why isn’t civic engagement central to the curriculum? What could be more important?

And here is where technology, I hope, will make a difference. If we had all kinds of tools in a mobile setting ( I’m not saying that well–I’m thinking in term of a tool box that has everything we need in it, but the tools themselves are also adaptable like those Swiss Army knives with a gazillion blades and gadgets for every camping need), and we as teachers had the confidence to let our students EXPLORE the subject areas through an integrated approach, collaboration and independent endeavors, I think we would go a long way to improving our education. I’m convinced that re-envisioning our classrooms as communities (a la– yes, here we go again–Lévy’s reciprocal apprenticeships and Johnson’s description of emergence, will be a huge step in the right direction., But of course, this is what my BLOGTALK paper is about…Farenheit 9/11 (can you believe it?). But as a teacher who grew up the daughter of a historian and who is now sister-in-law to a documentary filmmaker, both of whom agonize over your questions of objectivity and perspective, I just have to put my two cents in. Here’s a little story:

When I was a child my father would walk into town just about every day to pick up a stack of newspapers–all kinds: local, national, and when he could get them, international; from all points on the political spectrum. Every night at dinner he would open the evening’s conversation with a particularly provocative question about world events (we were growing up during the Vietnam War). No matter what tack we took, he would circle around–or eventually my brilliant brother would–and point out the opposing perspective, or another interpretation, or additional statistics. If we had read even some of the days’ newspapers, we’d do alright; if not, well, on those nights I’d slip out of my chair and join the animals beneath the table. We learned how to take a balanced view while arguing our little hearts out. It was brutal. And electrifying. And the best damn education I ever received (Exeter, Williams, Oxford and Bread Loaf included). BUT he never let us use works of fiction to support our side. He had (and still has) no use for literature or film,claiming that there was too much to read about what really happened to use that valuable time reading about what people imagined happened.

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