Sunday, November 30, 2008

Society is the Spice of Life

Many Thanksgivings ago, my father told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

“Society,” he decreed, “is the spice of life.”

First, some context: Dad made this declaration in response to a story I was relating, one of my “life as a teacher” chestnuts involving a pedagogical pet peeve of mine: the tendency of high school students to heap all worldly ills onto the hump of an amorphous entity known only as “society.”

According to my students, “society” is the root of all evil. In their essays and during class discussions, they rail about how “society” dictates what we all wear or buy or listen to. (Don’t worry: teens still wear and buy and listen to these things. But some of them, at least, resent it.)

Gender stereotyping, conformity, ozone depletion, telemarketers calling during dinner—my students pin it all on “society.”

And sometimes it gets personal: as a student once ominously wrote, “I was betrayed by society.”

And yet, teenagers aren’t the only ones guilty of slinging the “society-blame”; adults do it all the time. Last fall, for example, two Michigan teens, Jean Pierre Orlewicz (17) and Alexander James Letkemann (18), murdered, then burned, then beheaded a 26-year-old man named Daniel Sorenson. Responding to the brutality of the crime, prosecutor Kym Worthy said, “It makes us think and ask a lot of questions about our society.”

Well, yes… but shouldn’t it first make us think and ask a lot of questions about Orlewicz and Letkemann?

“Society-blaming” has become so pervasive, it even got parodied on NBC’s The Office. The show’s September 25th premier treated viewers to this exchange, between dumb boss Michael Scott and dumbfounded employee Jim Halpert:

Michael: “We are here because there is something wrong with society.”
Jim: “See, you’re always saying there’s something wrong with society, but… maybe there’s some wrong with you.”
Michael: “If it’s me, then society made me that way.”

Does an array of factors influence our actions and decisions? Absolutely. But using “society” as a fail-safe scapegoat for every aberrant behavior smacks of laziness. And even more insidious than that: society-blaming, to me, somehow exonerates the people who actually do bad things. No one person does anything wrong anymore, because seemingly everyone does everything wrong. And if we blame everyone, aren’t we effectively blaming no one?

So, just what is “society,” anyway, and why does it always seem to cultivate such nasty behaviors? And who lives in “society”? Me? Do I live there? And if so, what does that say about me?

I haven’t ironed out any real answers, but as far as I can tell, “society” is inhabited by “they”—you know, that ambiguous “they” who serve as the go-to source for all the day’s pressing issues. (“You know what they say about ‘Tag’? It ruins kids’ self-esteem.”)

While living in this “society,” “they” seem to spend a lot of time doing “research” or conducting “studies,” which no one has actually read but everyone can reference (e.g. the “studies” that say bacon is good for you).

Moreover, “society” seems to be run by the “government,” an untrustworthy, Big-Brotherly system that keeps us in the dark about bad guys in our midst or earth-devouring black holes.

But even more powerful than the “government” is the “media,” an insidious network that basically forces the good citizens of “society” to buy products they don’t need and vote for candidates they never respected.

Finally, what can’t be blamed on the “government,” the “media,” and all those “studies” can always be chalked up to “human nature”—a convenient card to play whenever you want to defend questionable behavior.

Incidentally, even as I’m saying this, I am fully aware this diatribe against generalizations is sort of generalization in itself. And even a not-so-astute Dunder Mifflin employee could accurately point out that, by suggesting my students have picked up their society-condemning tendencies from adults, I’m blaming their fascination with “society” on (for lack of another term) society. Which brings me to two final points about society-blaming:

(1) It’s scape-goating, an easy way to avoid asking hard questions; and

(2) Like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving night, it’s really hard to resist. (Spice of life, indeed!)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

No, Not That "Twilight"

All this hubbub over the film version of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" got me thinking about another book with the same name, a fascinating text I used to teach about eight or nine years ago: Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

Smith's Twilight may not involve vampires, but its main topic is a dark one nonetheless: the Los Angeles riots from April 1992.

In case you're unfamiliar with the L.A. riots, a little history lesson: in March 1991, four white L.A. police officers were caught on tape brutalizing a black motorist named Rodney King. A year later, the four police officers were tried-- and acquitted. That verdict ignited a literal and figurative firestorm, as rioters set fire to over twenty-five blocks of central L.A.

The riots lasted for three days, from April 29th to May 1st-- three days of beatings and burning and looting that caused damage to more than 3,000 businesses. In the end, according to the Los Angeles Times, the uprising resulted in 12,111 arrests, 2,383 injuries, and 58 deaths.

Not long after, Anna Deavere Smith-- an actress and playwright who was also, at the time, a drama professor at Stanford-- was commissioned to write a one-woman show about this frightening moment in time. To probe into the very heart of the cataclysm, Smith interviewed approximately two hundred people who actually experienced the riots. These interviews became the material for her show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Or, more accurately, these interviews were the show.

The play is comprised of approximately twenty-five different monologues, all performed by Smith, who would assume the identifies of her interviewees. Even more extraordinary: the material for these monologues were the verbatim words taken from her interviews.

Because her characters are actual people whose actual words inform the script, Smith's work is sometimes "documentary theatre." The Laramie Project falls into the same category. The difference, of course, is that Anna Deavere Smith (an African-American woman) plays every single one of these "actual people" on the stage-- no matter if that person is male, female, white, black, Korean, Latino. The resulting performance was described in a June 28, 1993 Newsweek article as "an American materpiece."

Now, I never saw Smith perform Twilight live, but I have seen the PBS-produced film version, which came out in 2000. And, of course, I read the print version, which Smith describes as a "companion to the theater experience."

Obviously, watching Smith's performance-- witnessing the way she morphs into these differnt characters-- is critical to the experience; however, the book can still stand on its own. In fact, Twilight more than stands on its own as a work of literature.

The book version provides the transcripts of all the interviews/ monologues she ever performed, along with additional interviews she never included in her stage versions. Some of the most compelling interviews (in my opinion, at least) include the following:

  • Daryl Gates, former chief of the L.A. Police Department, who voices, four times during his interview, his indignant dismay that he has become "the symbol of police oppression" in the United States, "just because some officers whacked Rodney King."

  • Elvira Evers, a pregnant Panamanian woman who was shot during the riots. Doctors had to remove the baby, who survived but was born with "the bullet in her elbow." This miraculously saved both their lives: Elvira said that if her baby "didn't caught it in her arm, me and her would be dead."

  • Maxine Waters, California congresswoman whose office was burned down during the riots. Waters, in possibly the most poignant line from the book, describes riots as "the voice of the unheard."

  • Walter Park, a Korean store ownder who was shot through the eye during the upheaval and had to have part of his frontal lobe removed.

  • Reginald Denny, a motorist who was famously pulled from his truck during the chaos and beaten to the point of unconsciousness; in an eerie echo of the Rodney King, Denny's attack was also catured on film and aired on the news. In his monologue, he says one day he's going to have "riot room" in his house, but it will be a "happy room"-- a place to put all the "funny notes and the ltters form faraway places" he received in the wake of his ordeal.

  • "Anonymous Young Woman," an affluent student at the University of Southern California who was worried that the riots would reach her neighborhood and that someone would throw a bottle at one of her father's antique cars. "One bottle," she says, "one shear from one bottle in my father's car, he will die. He will die!" (Naturally, the irony of those words are lost on her.)

  • Twilight Bey, an ex-gang member who delivers the last monologue in the book and whose name became the title of the play. Twilight is trying to organize a truce between gangs in L.A. but he realizes his ideas are not always accepted. He's called "Twilight" because, as a mediator between opposing forces, he's stuck in-between: "Limbo, I call it limbo... I'm in an area not many people exist."
Obviously, this review is incomplete, but I wanted to give readers a taste of this provocative, thoroughly original, and oft-overlooked work. Check it out if you get a chance. And if you live in Arizona, you can see Anna Deavere Smith in a new one-woman show called The Arizona Project, which debuted November 5th. (You can also check out Smith on early episodes of The West Wing, playing National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. OK, no more plugs.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Great Desk Debate

Decisions, decisions-- teachers have to make them all the time, and they're often of the "behind-the-scenes" variety, the kinds of deliberations that non-teacher-folk would rarely even consider.

Here's one of them: rows or circles? Or, in other words: Do you arrange the desks in rows or in a circle?

It's a real issue. Traditionally (if we're to believe all those Norman Rockwell prints), it seems teachers have always set their classrooms in rows, and intertia, after all, is responsible for many decisions in big institutions like schools. (Why else do you think we’re still reading snoozers like Jane Eyre?)

But is this arrangement the best way? What about all those kids who hide in the back of the room? Besides, configuring the classroom in this way reinforces this idea that the teacher is the one dispensing all the answers, and the students just passively take it all in.

On the other hand, arranging the desks in a circle suggests community and equality. No one voice, not even the teacher’s, is more important than any other, and the circle (what Paschal called the perfect shape, with all points an equal distance from the center) reflects that idea.

With the circular layout (or something like a circle-- a horseshoe, say), no one is sitting behind anyone else, which means students have an easier time actually “seeing” each other and thus talking to each other. Also, since no one can “hide” in the back, the circle encourages the more reserved students to participate.

Morever, the circular arrangement, with the teacher as just another curious and interested voice in that circle, goes a long way to helping students see that not every idea has to be filtered, somehow, through the teacher. While not a guarantee, the circular set-up tends to allow for better, and more student-centered, discussions. (Certainly, more things go into an effective discussion—the choice of text, the enthusiasm of the students, the number of students who actually did their homework, etc.—but the circle configuration can definitely help.)

And, I think students recognize all this. In fact, if you usually have your desks in a circle, and you put them back into rows for whatever reason, they notice. (You can even use this rearrangement to your advantage, as a "punishment" for the students, a reminder of what class could be like if they don't shape up.)

However, the circular set-up isn’t completely perfect, despite what Paschal might say.

If a plus of the circle is that it gets students talking, a minus us that it gets students talking—when they’re supposed to be listening. Obviously, sitting right next to a peer, or in between two peers, intensifies the temptation to chat. For some, the undercurrent of chatting might outweigh the benefits of the rich discussions. As one of my colleagues once said, after she gave the circle arrangement a try: “There were just too many Chatty Cathies.”

Also, the circle configuration may not be the best for tests and quizzes; for some, just knowing the right answer might be just a few inches away may be too much.

So what's the answer to the "row vs. circle" debate? Ultimately, the idealist in me knows that arranging the desks in a circle contributes to important discussions. On the other hand, the realist in me knows some practical considerations get in the way. For example...

If you are sharing a room with colleagues (which I do), you both have to be on the same page as far as the desk arrangement. If not, that means you have to move the desks every time you want to have a discussion—and move them back at the end.

Taking a minute out of class to rearrange the desks into a circle-- not a big deal, especially since you're enlisting the students' help. Getting the desks back into rows for the next guy who's coming in after you-- that's where things het hairy.

At the end of class, you’re trying to collect homework, this student has a question, that student needs you to sign something. Then the bell rings, and everyone bolts. Meanwhile you’re left trying to put twenty-desks back into rows before the next period. And it's not like you don't have things you need to do before youre next class.

As always, it comes down to the issue of time. My school, Glastonbury High, has 45-minute periods; as it is, we have hardly any time to waste. To take up time at the beginning and at the end to move desks may not be the most effective use of instructional time.

Me, I compromise. I have my A.P. English classes get themselves into a circle every day; other classes, I only have them get into a circle on days when I know we're going to have what I like to call a "Life-Altering Discussion of Literature" (that's for another column).

Ideally, I wish I could have the desks permanently in a circle. I think arranging desks in a circle is excellent in theory and often in practice; unfortunately,as with virtually everything in education, we do have to attend to practical issues. What do you folks think?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Back to Reality

I just got back from a family trip to Walt Disney World. Truly the great American pilgrimage. And if there's a better way to feel like a kid again, I don't know what that is.

They call the park the "Magic Kingdom," and it really is-- if only because of its ability to yank back to the surface all of that childhood innocence laying dormant in the depths your jaded adult soul. I mean, when you're there, you actually fall into believing that Chip and Dale are legitimate celebrities, not some guys in fuzzy suits. Talk about magic.

Unfortunately, that time-transcending magic ran out at about 1:17 on the Tuesday I came back to school. Not because I was back at work, but because of a tragicomic exchange I had with a group of students.

Here's the deal: I was talking to a student right after class. Now, this student is definitely Big Man on Campus: the star quarterback, varsity lacrosse player, brilliant student. Amazingly, he's also just about the humblest guy you'll ever meet.

So, he and I talking in the doorway, and I notice that two female students are waiting in the hallway. When I asked my student if these two girls were waiting for him, he confirmed that they were. So I say, as a joke, "What are you, the Fonz or something?"

Blank stares.

"You've heard of the Fonz, right?" I ask all three of them.

"I think so," one girl hazards. "He was on that 70's show, right?"

"Well, yeah," I say, thankful that this pop culture icon is not lost on the youth. "It was on during the 70's..."

"No," the girl corrects me. "I mean the show called 'That 70's Show.' Wasn't there a character called Fonz?"

"No, that's Fez!" I'm crushed at this point. "The Fonz was on 'Happy Days.' It was like, the number one show for years. Please tell me you've heard of it!"

"Well, when was it on, again?" the other girl asks me.

"Late 70's, early 80's," I answer. And this is where the magic officially stops.

"Are you kidding me?" both girls answer. "We were born in 1991!"

That's the rub with teaching high school kids, I guess: you're getting older, but the kids keep getting younger.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Simile and Metaphor Lyric Game!

Obviously, I want to comment on the historic election of Barack Obama, and if I weren't so pressed for time, I would. But for now, I guess I'll just say the following:

Yes we did.

Now then...

I see myself being too busy to post anything for the next few days, but I wanted to get something up here. (This blogging stuff is all inertia, I'm discovering; once you go a few days without posting, it becomes way too easy to keep not posting.) So, I'm offering up to cyberspace, completely free of charge, my Simile and Metaphor Song Lyric Game. Woo-hoo!

Here's the deal: each song title below contains a simile or metaphor. Either the song title is actually a simile or metaphor (e.g. Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number” or Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”). Or the title is excerpted from a line in the song that includes a simile or metaphor (e.g. the title of Bon Jovi’s song is “Bad Medicine,” from the lyric “your love is like bad medicine”; the Hall and Oates song is “Maneater,” but the lyric is “She’s a maneater”). Got it?

Song and artist, please. Answers follow. (Hint: For some reason, there are more simile answers than metaphor ones. I was in a simile mood, I guess…)

1. “I’m on the hunt, I’m after you”

2. “Through all these cities and all these towns, it’s in my blood and it’s all around”

3. “So what is wrong with a night of sin?”

4. “Believe me, believe me, I can’t tell you why, but I’m trapped by your love, and I’m chained to your side”

5. “I’m high as a kite, I just might stop to check you out”

6. “I’m a consecrated boy, a singer in a Sunday choir”

7. “You’re looking for gold, you’re turning away a fortune in feelings but someday you’ll pay”

8. “Here we are now, entertain us”

9. “At night I wake up with my sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head”

10. “Just a fool to believe I am anything she needs”

11. “You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal”

12. “And I stood arrow straight unencumbered by the weight of all these hustlers and their schemes”

13. “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky”

14. “Just like a muse to me, you are a mystery”

15. “Your love thawed out what was scared and cold”

16. “I had to stop in my tracks for fear of walking on the mines that lay”

17. “Who’s to say they way a man should spend his days? Do you let them smolder?”

18. “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future”

19. “I found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea that stole the only girl I loved and drowned her deep inside of me”

20. “All I know is that to me you look like you’re lots of fun”

21. “There comes a time when you heed a certain call”

22. “They set you on the treadmill, and they made you change your name”

23. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now”

24. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom”

25. “I took it all for granted but how was I to know that you’d be letting go?”


1. "Hungry LIke The Wolf," Duran Duran
2. "Life is a Highway," Tom Cochrane (or Rascal Flatts)
3. "Rock You Like a Hurricane," Scorpions
4. "Love is a Battlefield," Pat Benetar
5. "Blister in the Sun," Violent Femmes
6. "Loves Me Like a Rock," Paul Simon
7. "Cold as Ice," Foreigner
8. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana
9. "I'm on Fire," Bruce Springsteen
10. "She's Like the Wind," Patrick Swayze
11. "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan
12. "LIke a Rock," Bob Seger
13. "Dust in the Wind," Kansas
14. "Like a Prayer," Madonna
15. "Like a Virgin," Madonna
16. "Fortress Around Your Heart," Sting
17. "Paper in Fire," John Mellencamp
18. "Fly Like an Eagle," Steve Miller Band
19. "Just Like Heaven," The Cure
20. "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," Dead or Alive
21. "We Are the World," USA for Africa
22. "Candle in the Wind," Elton John
23. "Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin
24. "Another Brick in the Wall," Pink Floyd
25. "Cuts Like a Knife," Bryan Adams

Monday, November 3, 2008

You're Not Really a Teacher Unless...

Last week, Native-American author Sherman Alexie appeared on Stephen Colbert-- which got me thinking about Alexie's novel Reservation Blues, which got me thinking about this line that has stuck with me for the past nine years.

In the book, Alexie has one of his characters, a Native-American woman named Chess Warm Water, say, “You ain’t really Indian unless there was some point in your life that you didn’t want to be.”

Well, I've come to put my own spin on it: you’re not really a teacher unless at some point in your life you didn’t want to be.

Personally, those “points in your life” happened to me all the time-- daily, maybe even hourly-- during my first year of teaching high school.

You have to know a few things: I have been teaching English for twelve years; I’ve taught college, adult ed, and high school; I regard teaching as perhaps the most important and most noble profession that exists; and my first year teaching high school, I absolutely hated it.

Hated everything about it, as a matter of fact. Hated the hours: waking up inhumanly early after staying up late preparing the night before. Hated the never-ending paperload. Really hated seeing how quickly the essays I spent a weekend correcting would end up in the trash can.

I hated the breakneck pace, how things never seemed to let up. I hated “re-creating the wheel” every day, trying to come up with ways to fill up the interminable forty-five minute class period. I hated watching a “can’t miss” activity, one that I painstakingly created, bomb before my eyes.

And while I won't go so far to say "hate," I think it's safe to say that, for most of that first year, a really, really big part of me couldn't stand the kids. Pretty much everything they did drove me up the wall: how they wouldn’t stop complaining about everything we did; how they kept asking when we could watch a movie; how they complained about my choice of movie when we actually got around to watching one. (“Why can’t we watch ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’”)

I couldn't stand how they wouldn't shut up, how I couldn’t get them to respect me, how I had no classroom management, and how every one in the room knew it.

Most of all, I hated what the job was doing to me and my relationships. I hated hearing myself unload, once again, another “woe is me” speech on my wife. I hated seeing my general “Mr. Optimist Prime” personality rot away, as I slowly became someone I didn’t recognize, Sir Cynicism, complete with a new philosophy of “Why am I working harder than anyone else? Screw it!” I hated that guy.

You get the idea. Basically, hundreds of times that first year, I thought about quitting. And if I didn’t have two small children to support, I probably would have.

That was then. Now, it's a thousand times better, obviously-- especially in terms of my feelings about the students. Now they make the job, when they used to break it.

But some things-- the unrelenting pace, the crazy hours, and especially, the astronomical paperload-- have remained the essentially same.

This past weekend, I probably spent sixteen hours correcting papers; I was still correcting at 9 pm Saturday night. I'm still not done.

You think, during that marathon correcting spree, I didn't experience a few of those points when I didn't want to be a teacher?

Of course, there's another side, too. Just last night, I was thumbing through Alexie's Reservation Blues, and I came across another great line, also said by Chess Warm Water: "Can't you handle it? You want the good stuff of being an Indian without all the bad stuff?"

Well, that's the other side, isn't it? The interactions with the kids, the rush of seeing learning happen, the thrill of learning something new yourself, the laughter, the hugs at graduation, the sense of amazement you feel when somehow it all seems worth it-- yeah, that's the good stuff. (And summers aren't bad either.)

How can anyone expect the good stuff of being a teacher without the bad stuff too?