Sweet Baby James
West of the Moon
Emigrants Crossing the Plains, by Albert Bierstadt, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City
Early in the week I saw a blog by Jim Gates on what a school somewhere in the eastern United States was doing to prepare students for the 21st century. According to the blog there was no mention made, not even once, of a computer, just markers, easels, and large tablets. I would like to think that what Mr. Gates found was a hoax, but he has struck me as a reliable reporter in the past. There are few frontiers left to explore on this planet and we have stopped exploring seriously the frontiers beyond this planet so the only frontiers left open seem to me to be the ones provided by technology and the human imagination.
My eleventh graders are reading The Last of the Mohicans. I put a VoiceThread together to help students consider some of the issues in the story and the historical and cultural contexts that produced the story. (For those that are interested, The VoiceThread can be found at http://voicethread.com/share/187789/.) Mohicans, as other of Cooper’s books, are among the earliest representatives of the western novel and in thinking about this book one is confronted by the frontier spirit that characterized much of early America, if only in the genre of western fiction.
One frontier that remains to be explored is that of technology. This will always be a frontier because the human imagination charts its own course and makes its own worlds. Educators, I think, have more opportunities than most to explore the technological frontiers. We need to know where the technology is headed or we will not be able to prepare our students for the technology they will confront when they enter the world.
Yet it seems when it comes to innovating the classroom schools are often reluctant to make the journey. I do not know if this is because of the cost of the technology or the investment of time and energy required in learning the technology and crafting the assignments. Though, like with most things, the more one works with it the easier it is to use. In the novel Last of the Mohicans Hawk-eye has little use for the character of David Gamet, a music teacher who does not seem to understand the realities of the wilderness.
If one thinks about it a bit, David, though unprepared for the world in which he finds himself, demonstrates a bit of courage in going there. He has a mission and he knows the world is not a safe one. But his work takes him there and he goes there. Perhaps there is more foolishness to this than courage but than the educational process demands a bit of foolishness I suppose. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result I wonder how many teachers are sane.
Some of us are fearful of the tools that would enable us to change the way we do things but even for those that embrace the changes educating the young is a difficult task that often requires doing over again what didn’t work the first time. Sometimes this is how we learn to do what did not work once in a way that will work a second time. But in the classroom it can also be a bit crazy to do the same thing over again expecting the same result. What worked last year may not work this year. Education is a frontier and perhaps too much sanity is a handicap on the frontier.
Hawk-eye had the skills and the tools to survive in a wilderness, but the wilderness in which he moved was one that behaved according to patterns he understood. He could not know what lie behind the next tree or whether anything at all lie behind that tree. But he knew how to interpret the signs and the likelihood of ambush. Perhaps the classroom is a similar wilderness. Perhaps it has its signs and markers that those learned in such things can recognize and understand. On the other hand, it may be that like on the Mississippi River the landmarks are always changing.
I think the frontier is what many of us live for. I enjoy western fiction because it embodies heroism and certain values. It involves risk and rewards and adventure. It is difficult to help another to open and train their mind. The new, whatever form it takes, is always a scary thing. But I have found in my own experience that the things that I wanted to do and didn’t do didn’t go undone because of my abilities. They went undone because I was frightened of the unknown and all that could go wrong and the potential for failure. I do not know if I had the ability to do those things or if I have the ability to do the things that frighten me now, but it seems there is little harm in trying and that it is better to know than to not know. The missed opportunities of the past cannot be recovered but the opportunities of the present can be embraced.
Confidence for our students does not come from taking notes and learning and remembering lessons, it comes from the experience of accomplishing a difficult task. Fear of failure haunts them as much as it does anyone else, including the classroom teacher. The classroom is often unnecessarily safe. A good story always involves conflict and struggle. Many of us spend our lives trying to avoid conflict and struggle. As a teacher I find I often want a classroom that is free from the tension conflict brings. But if what I do is not a little bit scary how can I help my students prepare for a world that is at times a bit scary.
The Angel and the Badman
Directed by James Edward Grant
Production Company: Republic Pictures
In the film above the most courageous people in this western adventure are not the gunslingers and lawmen, they are a group of Quakers who do not believe in using the weapons of the frontier. It is the struggle to keep from using those weapons when threatening situations arise that creates much of the tension in the story. It is because they refused to use those weapons and to surrender to their fear that they have a story to tell.