How will people see us?

We take a few pictures with the Kodak we got last year.  The students keep a serious pose, because this is the Guilded Age, very serious times and all.  What with the rise of industry, might as well look industrious.

"Mr. Johnson, do you think people will confuse us when we're gone?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, when we're all dead, will people look at the pictures and get the wrong picture?"  Kids say some of the most confusing and morbid things.

"I'm still not seeing your point."

"I mean, after we're dead and our children are dead.  Not that we should be having children since we're children.   But generations from now, will people look back at the scowls on our faces and think that things were more serious back in the day?  I mean, will they think kids never through a paper or slammed a slate down or smiled when they hit a home run or told a joke?  Will the picture be telling a lie?"

"Like Jesus," another girl adds.  "It never says he smiled, but I don't know, I guess . . . I guess I just always pictured him smiling when the kids ran up to him."

I stop the class at this point as we discuss what we record, the artifacts we leave behind and the huge gaps that are missing in history as a result.  Sometimes it seems that technology itself creates a narrative of a whole people group and its an image, but a very incomplete image.  It's what society wants people to think of itself rather than who the people actually are.  It has me thinking that maybe that's the tragedy of technology and the pitfall of posterity.  It always leads to selective memory.

we still use slates

"What are these doing here?" a student asks.

"Yeah, they're slates.  You've used them, correct?"

"But this is a pencil classroom.  We have paper.  What are we doing with individual slates?"

I explain to my students that there are times when students will use paper and times for pencils and times for slates.

"But slates are so old school!" the student explains.

"True, but so is the human voice.  Don't we still discuss things in class?"

"I thought you believed in the twentieth century classroom?" the student points out.

"I believe in learning. Ultimately, that's what it's all about."

show and tell

I know that I teach older students and therefore Show and Tell seems a bit like child's play.  However, I allowed my students to choose one item and then use our snazzy new set of pencils to sketch the item and describe each one in a few paragraphs.  Students took home the paper and pencils, finished the activity and then brought the item into class.

At first, students were reluctant to talk about the items they had brought. In kindergarten, the children nearly bludgeon one another to death with their swaying hands and "ooh, ooh, ohh, pick me."  Yet, here I ran into a wall of apathy.  

"Why do we have to present if we can just publish this to our plogs and read about it?" a girl asks. 

So, I begin with my item.  I share the red rock from the western frontier where I was born.  I talk about how I kept it as a child so that I wouldn't forget it when we moved back to the flat, dull land of Kansas.  I mentioned what the land represented, how I had been shaped by the sense of the wild freedom out west and why I get depressed in this urban enclave when the smoke stacks and the gray terrain makes me feel trapped.

This opens the door for the students.  A boy shares a deck of cards that he used when his dad was in the hospital and since they had little in common to talk about, the cards became another language for them to speak.  A girl shares a stack of recipes her grandmother wrote out with the note, "This is my legacy.  Don't lose it.  I know you've committed this to your mind.  I know you will modify these meals to make them your own.  But if you ever feel yourself pulled to far by the city, look back at these recipes."  

When it's all over, a student says, "Why can't all school be show and tell?"  

It has me thinking that maybe he's right.  What if it was always this personal?  Or at least, what if there was always a personal element that they could hold onto in each subject?  And what if, instead of "judge and label," the model was "show and tell?"  What if the goal was to demonstrate their knowledge with a tangible item that they could show the world and talk about in a one-on-one conversation.

The beauty of pencils and paper is that it's permanent.  Sort of.  At least more permanent than a slate.  It's portable, too.  Kids can publish on plogs and write on shared documents.  What this means is that the potential for a classroom based upon show and tell becomes more feasible.  

Pencils, Progress and Perfection

Pencils often lie, erasing mistakes in the gray matter of memory, turning stories, once etched in ink, into new shades of half-truths.  Pencils promise perfection. Keep erasing the mistakes and slowly we evolve (or is it "descend with modification?") into something stronger and more efficient.  The word "efficient" is, in itself, deceptively inefficient with vowels and double letters reminding even the most ardent linguist that form sometimes trips up function.

I yelled at a student today after he told me to "fuck off." For the record, I don't think he literally wanted me to fuck off. He just wanted to win an imaginary battle he was having with me or with the system or with whatever the Universe throws at a twelve year old enough to cause an unprovoked "fuck you."  

I didn't "raise my voice."  I screamed.  Red faced, eyes bulging, monster in the classroom.  I scared him.  I scared the classmates.I scared myself.  When it was over I cried.  I think my crying scared him even worse.  Then I apologized. I think the apology was the scariest part. I get the sense he wants to believe that grown-ups aren't as vulnerable as this.  

Pencils promise perfection, but as long as I'm around, imperfection abounds.  If I were a sentence, I'd be a past progressive turned imperfect tense.  Always imperfect.  Sometimes tense. Pencils provide a mythology that the education factory can turn out a series of codified best practices and with just the right amount of training, we'll never screw up again.  

This evening, my daughter, now three, threw a temper tantrum when I tucked her doll in wrong.  I tried to comfort her, but she kicked me in the stomach and slapped my face.  I cried like a baby, feeling broken down by a broken world.  She stopped me and said, "It's okay, daddy.  It's okay."  I'm supposed to be strong here and prove that I'm her protector and here I am holding a child who gets angry for no particular reason and I cannot help her. "I love you even when you cry," she says. 

That's always the right answer. Not much is permanent anymore, but I'll etch that one in India ink. 

"I love you even when you're angry," I answer.  

I go to bed tired, but I'm not sleepy, so I light the gas lamp and pull out the paper.  Edison is promising to replace teachers with motion pictures and phonographs.  At some point, we'll have no purpose.  A lesson is much more efficient when produced by a corporation.  Some day learning will be customized to every student and teachers will be obsolete. Gray films, gray lines, gray matter expanding with the march of industry - a concrete tabula rasa etched with steel.  Either embrace the machine or become the machine. And I'm too tired and yet too resilient to do either. 

I am not a Teacher of the Year.  I am not an award-winning mega-star.  I will not have my picture on the gray print newspaper or star in a monochromatic motion picture.  But I'll be here, in my classroom, vulnerable and broken and ready to cry and apologize and forgive.  I can't offer progress.  I can't offer perfection.  But I can offer myself, inefficient, sometimes even ineffective, but always real.  

a pencil native story

Once upon a time, there was a group of pencil pioneers who pushed their way into the Slate Land and conquered it in the name of education.  All was well for the Pencil People, who changed the name from Slate Land to the rather uncreative Pencil Land.  In fact, they grew rather giddy over the prospects of raising Pencil Natives in this brave new world they had created.

So, they decided it wasn't important to show a kid how to use an eraser or use blending and shading.  In fact, it wouldn't be important that they learned how to write at all, because being a native automatically made one a perfect citizen immersed in the culture.

The Pencil Natives wandered aimlessly, never knowing how to use the tools of their own culture.  Some teachers pointed this out and wondered if these children had actually been born in Pencil Land at all.  They missed the reality that the Pencil Natives were comfortable with pencils and had, indeed, internalized the value system of a Graphite Globe.  They were creating a world that was ambiguous, confusing, gray.  They were erasing any remnants of history and replacing it with every-changing, bite-sized information.

Others said that the old folks were simply clueless and that they should delight in the fact that the Pencil Natives spent their days making paper gliders and paper balls and playing Hang Man instead of writing poetry.  After all, this was their world and we should learn from them. We should let them be our mentors and tutors and guides, because they knew more about pencils than the Pioneer Generation.

The two sized polarized the issue into a binary reality that missed the nuances of the argument.  Instead of asking, "How do we help Pencils Natives make sense out of a graphite globe?" or "How do we get Natives to criticize the tools they use and use the tools they criticize?"  they focussed on the question of, "Why aren't they getting it without our help?"  Instead of asking, "What does citizenship mean and how can pencils be used to sharpen critical thinking?" the adults obsessed for hours about whether or not pencils were luring in creepy outsiders.

So, the Pencil Natives grew up with the dual reputations of Saviors of the Graphite Globe and Dumbest Generation Ever and all the while they secretly yearned just to be kids with pencils, trying to make sense out of their world and their place within it.