Explain myself

I’ve been working around eighty hours a week since school started late August.  I’m working a new prep, as we say in high school teaching biz, and I like it.  But I’m working past midnight most nights, and I look forward to the weekends to have a chance to really plan and grade, unimpeded by classes and meetings.

So I don’t have enough time to write in the margins of my books (my favorite medium) or in my journal (my next-to-favorite).  I’d love to blog, too, but there’s no space in my crowded head even to miss it.

I’ve been blogging less than you realize, if that’s possible.  All of what I’ve posted here in September and October was written or photographed in July or August, with the exception of two written posts.

Via Negativa

It turns out that if you blow on the slit in the back of a cicada shell, you can produce a high-piched whistle. Remember, you read it here first! Does it sound like a cicada? Of course not. It sounds like a very small appliance of unclear function. I saw an ad that said Hunters Wanted, & realized I was still wearing a blaze-orange vest. The sun had set hours ago, following an obscure schedule of its own devising.

From Via Negativa


On Voir Dire (and critic George Steiner’s aversion to critics).  Here’s artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky on art historians:

Art historians . . . write books full of praise and deep sentiments — about an art that yesterday was regarded as senseless.  By means of these books, they remove the hurdles over which art has long sine jumped, and set up new ones, which shti time are supposed to stay permanently and firmly in place. Engaged in this occupation, they fail to notice that they are building their barriers behind art rather than in front of it.  If they notice it tomorrow, then they will quickly write more books in order to remove their barriers one stage further.  And this occupation will continue unchanged until it is realized that the external principles of art can only be valid for the past and not for the future. . . . Theory is the lantern that illuminates the crystallize forms of yesterday and before. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3]

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. [Matthew]

Oct 8

This day I recall
that this month,
the tenth month,
was once a month

in a ten-month year.
This day was once
eight eight: hourglass
figures, days wasted

on warm sand and
decimated by
shadows each
lengthening year.

The Book Bench

To read Tranströmer—the best times are at night, in silence, and alone—is to surrender to the far-fetched. It is to climb out of bed and listen to what the house is saying, and to how the wind outside responds. Each of his readers reads him as a personal secret. For this reason it is strange to see this master of solitude being celebrated in the streets or showing up as a trending topic on Twitter and a best-seller on Amazon. He usually dwells in quieter precincts.

Teju Cole, from The New Yorker’s book blog

A great improvisation

This fall begins my first year teaching an Advanced Placement course – a college-level course for high school students wishing to place out of typical freshman-level courses at college.  I like how College Board encourages AP Language and Composition teachers to develop their own curricula.

The study of language arts in public schools is generally moving in the opposite direction.  Teachers, of course, now teach to standardized tests.  Innovation and skills both take a back seat to content (i.e., knowledge) since most jurisdictions set unrealistic timelines for the mastery of material.

Less well understood is the teacher’s diminished role in the classroom. Teachers are increasingly told how to teach particular material.  While enforced uniformity might be part of a great means of introducing new teachers to a variety of strategies in a safe and controlled environment that frees up his time to learn skills, it hamstrings more experienced teachers.  Enforced uniformity doesn’t recognize teaching as a profession or as an art.  It’s like trying to inculcate a love of cycling while never losing one’s training wheels.

I thought of this tonight reading Kandinsky on art:

The inner voice of [the artist’s] soul will also tell him which form to use, and where to find it (external or internal “nature”).  Every artist who works according to so-called feeling knows just how suddenly and unexpectedly a form that he himself has conceived can appear distasteful, and how another, correct form substitutes itself “as if on its own initiative” for what has been discarded.  Boecklin used to say that the true work of art must be like a great improvisation, i.e., reflection, construction, previous working out of the composition should be no more than preliminary steps in the direction of that goal, which may appear unexpected even to the artist himself. (On the Spiritual in Art, Chapter 8)

It’s the same for teaching, at least the teaching I want to do.

Good teachers plan, collaborate, learn, work at their skills, reflect, and master subject, scope, and sequence.  If the planning is done for them, they’re not really teaching because they really haven’t entered into the material or its presentation.  If they can’t improvise while planning or teaching, then there’s no live performance.  It’s canned.

When I was a kid, I knew the names of every disk jockey on my favorite stations, and I had my opinions of each one’s strengths and weaknesses.  A good disk jockey could educate his listeners and help them appreciate new trends, he could make a good artist or help to break a bad one, and he could mix material to great effect.  He could enhance a love for music.  Because every station decided on its content, and because many stations gave their best disc jockeys some leeway regarding content (and a lot regarding presentation), new musicians had many possible geographic points in which their music could take root and from which it could spread.   And what directions popular music took from the 1950’s to the 1960’s!

Since then, cost cutting and uniformity have effectively eliminated the disk jockey from radio.  Language arts teachers may be going the way of disk jockeys, and language arts skills may be going the way of popular music.

The worst of it, of course, is the child’s experience in school and his lack of skills once he leaves it.