Monday, October 24, 2011

Lessons Derailed by Copiers

Two things led to the pre-dawn alteration of my history lesson today.  The first: some MTA driver found it fitting to drive his 6 train off the tracks before getting to the Brooklyn Bridge stop.  This backed up train traffic all the way across the city and got me to work forty-five minutes late.  The second was a copier malfunction- the bane of many an educator's existence.  While things weren't so bad this morning, I was quickly reminded of past years when a broken copier would send me reeling into such a sorry state of despair that it was a wonder I've had any success as an educator since.

What I term "copier mood" is prevalent in many industries and was made famous in 1999 by Michael Bolton in the American cult classic: Office Space.  I have only experienced copier mood in the capacity of a teacher, the worst of it being my third day on the job.  After being thoroughly trounced by 115 eighth graders for two straight days, I had crawled to my mentor teacher, all of my conceptions of good teaching thrown to the wind, and begged her for something I could throw at the rebels.  What she gave me was an extremely structured, paper and pencil lesson that started with the basics of teaching and being a student.  With no further ideas left about what my job actually was, I took it gladly and willingly and spent hours pouring over it that evening, terrified by every transition and word I'd have to say in the morning.  

When I showed up early the next morning, many other first year teachers had jammed the teachers' work room with the similar goal of making copies for the day, leading me to believe that the first year teachers in the building were under some kind of siege.  After my level of anxiety skyrocketed by a lack of available copiers, my mind exploded into blind panic as I discovered the copiers weren't actually working.  The one I had selected kept jamming and my inexperience with using the machines led me into an odd, barely restrained rage that might have been mistaken to be an odd line dance, especially given the fact that I was the squirrely, skinny white guy from the Midwest. 

I'm not sure what happened the rest of that day.  It was at that point when the days (including the weekends) started melting together into a fretful mess of first year teaching hysteria.  What I do know is that the copier played a major, terrible role in speeding me toward complete insanity, which was eventually prevented only by my mentors and by my now fiancee.
This morning was not so bad when I discovered the copiers to be down.  I just switch one small thing in my lesson, printed out a smaller set of copies from a printer, and went on with life.  The beginning of my first whack at guiding students through a project on the Civil War went rather well in fact.  It was nice to look back and see the massive change from year one to year four.  Copier mood can be avoided, as it turns out, and now #6 trains derail down in Manhattan instead of derailing my classroom, running me into the ground, backing up, and running me down again.

I prefer it this way, though the east side of Manhattan might not.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Education's End: Giving Up on the Meaning of Life

A book I finished a while back was "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life" by Anthony T. Kronman.  This was yet another recommended by a colleague many years my senior.  It outlines a perspective unique to me about how education has changed in the past hundred years, the central idea being that there has been a shift away from the exploration of the meaning of life by the humanities on the college level and that this has reeked extreme havoc on the value of college education. 

Here are some ideas that struck me while I read the book:
  • While there is no correct answer to "What is living for?", the search for the answer can make life more fulfilling.  Guiding young people in their own search to answer this question used to be the job of university professors, but is no longer.
  • Removal of the discussion from colleges has left it only to religious institutions, which in fact only promote single reasons for living rather than a discussion about what living is for.  This in turn leads to fundamentalism centered around a single idea for the way we should live and act.
  • Specialization (via the German university model) led to the idea that the humanities should turn to the scientific method, which is a gross mistake, as it misses the big picture.
  • Humanities are now looked down upon as "fluff" courses.  This is largely because they traditionally sought to explore the meaning of life, but now "do" the scientific method piece poorly compared to actual science courses.
  • This shift is anti-global in the sense that we need to understand the historic conversation happening in the west, as it is the lens through which we view our own society and life. Appreciating other cultures is fine and important, but to act as if the conclusions brought about in our culture came out of cultures across the planet is misguided.
  • The civil rights movement, while very important, took the conversation in a direction that concentrated on minority rights in history, rather than understanding a broader and deeper historical conversation.  It also continues to separate us into groups when we should be thinking of ourselves as one species searching for the answer to the same question.  This focus on minorities may be doing them greater harm than good on some levels.
  • We strive for immortality through technology while we can never obtain it.  This leaves life empty and leads people toward religious revivalism. Extreme religions are gaining ground because of this void that technology has created.  
  • The importance of our own lives and the meaning of our lives is weighed and judged based on the fact that our lives are finite.  Technology begins to tease our the idea that we can do absolutely anything-that we can live for a very long time even.  It begins to skew our idea of what is possible and what is not, thereby skewing our conception of the power of science to determine what is ultimately important.

    Ideas on the relationship of these notions to K-12 education to follow...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

TED Talk: Greening the Ghetto

Here is a great TED Talk addressing some of the issues that directly affect the work we do at our school.  Our neighborhood has the highest rate of asthma in the country.  That causes a lot of absences, which in turn lead to lower reading levels, lower achievement levels, etc.


And I think the air on the Upper East Side is bad...