Monday, February 23, 2009

Read Much?

I have been debating the value of classics with some other teachers. It's been an interesting dialogue.

Some of my associates express a vague notion that a classic is something lofty; that they must be all things to all children and that somehow touching them will elevate us to literary Nirvana. However, I maintain that blindly accepting the ‘classics’ and continuing to teach them without asking why or without understanding where they fit in with other things that we much teach is one of the problems in our educational society.

Some say: Let’s teach them something because it’s going to be on a test. Let’s expose them to books A, B and C because we’ve been told those books are valuable and they have been held valuable by the power structure.

I say let’s look at literature differently. Let’s understand the function of literature and not the function of classics.

Let us teach children to think critically, to identify with reading, to appreciate elements in literature that can inspire and instruct, but not to inspire and instruct blindly. Children shouldn’t be made to rotely rattle off concepts of characterization and theme, they should instead understand the connections and cause and effect and understand that literature is a door to a richer understanding of the human condition.

Let's challenge the status-quo and keep a fresh perspective on literature. While I often attack the evolution of the ‘classic’, I still respect these works for their contribution to world culture. Often the classic is the book that has helped address injustices and brought about social change, as in the case of Grapes of Wrath or Black Boy; they have represented those without a voice and have elevated dialogue and given us pride not just in our differences, but in that which we hold in common.

Still, some of you, and you know who you are, hold fast to the sanctity of the classic.

Perhaps, some of you stand as best evidence of the negative side of esteeming a book as a ‘classic’ because it has been held as such by the intellectual power brokers in the form of the church, the university, the local school board, the award committee, or the literary critic. As one fellow teacher who works in Detroit in one of the....wait for it....charter academies....stated it: “A Classic Is a Classic Is a Classic. Either it's a classic or it's not."

What depth of intellectual spirit.

While previously held merit is worth consideration, one shouldn’t view such texts as absolutes. As society changes, so does its literature. It in no way diminishes the past glory of the work, but it might call into question its effectiveness for this point in history and culture.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Classics

College. I'm sitting in a class room listening to some guy hitting on on a girl. I feel like a whore. I've just changed from liberal arts to business, so I can avoid taking a Spanish class.  I'm in an economics class; my teacher, who isn't here yet, hates us. I can tell by the way he seems to throw up a little in his mouth each time one of us asks a question. And from the questions we ask, I don't blame him.

The guy actually leans his butt on the girl's desk. Smarmy. He picks up one of the books she has there, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He flips through the pages, nodding his head. "Reading the classics?" he asks her. It's the sort of voice that comes out of an infomercial at three A.M.; it's the sort of voice that makes parents stand outside a child's bedroom at night discussing the moral implications of going in there and trying to smothering their young. 

"Yeah," he says, handing her back the book. "I've read all the classics."

This is when it snaps. I stand, eyes wild, and confront this stranger. "You've read all the classics? You've read ALL the classics???!!!!!! How was Joyce's 'Ulysseus'? A good read? Did you like 'Farewell to Arms?' I understand he wrote a sequel called 'Hello, the Feet'.  Did you enjoy Sandburg's work on Lincoln? What about Pynchon? There's a fun fellow, eh?"

The whole class is staring at me.

"He's read all the classics."

Over my shoulder I call out. "What an ass." 

I immediately head out to drop Economics and to return to my double majors of English Literature and History (yeah, I probably should have gone into Law instead, or maybe something more marketable like...anything).

I passed Spanish, by the way. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To My Teacher

I despise the depiction of teachers in film. "The Dead Poet Society"? I wanted to vomit and would have run from the theater had I not been in attendance with a group of friends. "Mr. Holland's Opus?" Richard Dreyfuss should have been beaten. "Dangerous Minds?" What? An alternative school with Michelle Pfeiffer? Yeah...yeah that was believable. I liked the part where a student crept into her apartment window----and she let him stay.

Most films about teachers are horribly maudlin. I can imagine my kids sitting at home and watching Robin Williams reading poetry and commenting: "Yeah, that's sort of how Stew is..only more sensitive, more understanding." I can picture them watching "The Great Debaters" and whispering: "Stew's like that...only more inspirational." who are the best teachers on celluloid? The following is a top seven in no special order, from a teacher's perspective. Now keep in mind I teach alternative education, might be a little twisted.

1. Jon Stewart as Prof. Furlong from "The Faculty", a school where the staff has been taken over by aliens and the student population truly has something to fear.

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Det. John Kimball from "Kindergarten Cop". Okay. Arnold was actually a cop undercover as a teacher, but hey, you have to give him points for making a bunch of kindergarden students cry. "IT IS NOT A TUMAH!!!""YOU LACK DISCIPLINE!!!"

3. Ben Stein as the un-named Economics Teacher in "Ferris Beuller's Day Off". Not a big role, but who can resist the dead stare of a veteran educator who has dealt with indulged adolescents for way too long. "Who can tell me about what GNP stands for? Anyone? Anyone?"

4. Ray Walston as Mr. Hand in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High". Here was a teacher's teacher. A rather sadistic individual who gave out failing grades with aplomb. No ego too fragile to shatter.

5. Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi. Okay...maybe more of a tutor but the guy taught both Darth Vader AND his son. Montessori? There is no try, there is only DO.

6. Tom Hanks as Capt. John H. Miller in "Saving Private Ryan". Okay, he wasn't a teacher in the film, but hey, if I'm going to be represented by someone let it be Tom Hanks. Apparently before the war, Miller was an English teacher at Thomas Alva Edison High School in Addley, Pennsylvania.

7.Alan Rickman as Severus Snapes in the Harry Potter series. Yeah, he's not a nice guy, and he's going to be doing some awful things...but come on...the man knows how to inspire youngsters.