2010: A Classroom Odyssey

Symphony #9 In E Minor, Op. 95, “From The New World” – 2. Largo
Antonin Dvorak

2010: A Classroom Odyssey

A Chinese Abacus

A Chinese abacus with the value in each column given.

The music is from Dvorak’s The New World Symphony. It captures the composer’s impressions of what was for him the “New World”, the United States of the early 20th century. But the idea of a “new world” is not specific to any one country or any one idea. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s science fiction was my “new world.” As an educator the idea of a “new world” is found in the impact technology has made on my classroom with the potential of growing it into a room without walls or borders.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey redefined the science fiction film for my generation. I remember thinking how realistic the animations and special effects looked and could not imagine that space ships could be done better, at least not until real space ships could be photographed in actual deep space. About ten or so years later the first Star Wars film came out and the graphics in this film dwarfed the graphics in 2001. I just recently looked at the first Star Wars and the graphics in this film were not as crisp and realistic as I remembered them.

I do not know if this is because special effects in films have gotten so much better or because the films live more vividly in my memory than they ever were in fact. To what extent do the visuals in any film depend on the imagination of the viewer to fill in the missing pieces and smooth out the rough edges. Perhaps this is not unlike what people do when they read something they have written. They see what they intended to write and not always the spelling and grammatical errors they in fact wrote. This is one reason English teachers encourage students to have peers look over their papers before turning them in for a grade.

One reason 2001 was praised so highly was for its vision of the future. Michael Chabon in his book Maps and Legends writes about his love for genre fiction, one of the genres he praised being science fiction. He does not like the 2001 variety of science fiction that attempts to be prophetic in how it imagines the future because these kinds of stories, he thinks, get so much more wrong than they get right. As an example he points out that in 2001 for all the technological marvels that the film imagines, the characters are still carrying around clipboards. In 1968 who imagined “clipboards” smaller than a transistor radio.

Directed by Fritz Lang
Production Company:
Universum Film (UFA)

When the film Metropolis came out it did not receive the attention it received in later years. But it too has been hailed as ground breaking and prophetic, as paving the way for films like 2001. Yet in its opening sequence the futuristic flying machines are bi-planes. The film is amazing for what it was able to accomplish with 1927 technology, but though the spirit of many of its prophesies have come to pass, the letter of these prophesies are a bit wanting. I live near Boston where we just spent billions of dollars doing away with the kind of highway system Metropolis envisions.

Poster of Robot and Futuristic City from the film Metropolis
Poster for the film Metropolis

Will Richardson in his blog comments on a debate on Web 2.0 technology hosted by The Britannica, the folks that bring us that other encyclopedia. The debate focuses on the impact new web technologies will (or will not) have on education and the modern classroom. It is a necessary dialog. Schools are changing as the world in which they live is changing. But to what extent do the future classrooms teachers are being encouraged to imagine resemble the bi-planes and clipboards in these science fiction films.

The problem with the future is that something can happen tomorrow (perhaps it has happened already) that will change the whole direction the future takes. One of the first jobs I had after graduating college was for a banking firm. I worked with customer accounts and everything was done on computers. The computers of 1977 were a bit different from those today. I remember seeing the Hewlett-Packard mainframes that were used to handle all the information the company had to manage and manipulate on a regular basis. There was a room with about a half dozen of these units that stood about six feet tall and maybe three feet wide (I remember their height much more vividly than I do their depth or breadth) and the peripheral equipment necessary to keeping them running. There was a special fire extinguishing material that would suck the oxygen out of the room and kill the fire without using any water. They used huge magnetic tape drives producing reels of tape that had to be stored in other large rooms. It all seemed amazing to me at the time.

I remember being told by one of the folks that worked these machines that most of what was in the computer housing was empty space. He believed they were built as largely as they were not because they required that much space to do what they did, but because no one (at least no one responsible for buying the machines) would believe they could do what they did if they built them any smaller.

The discussion that Will Richardson describes in his blog and that the folks at Britannica are sponsoring is important. Schools do need to incorporate new technologies if they are ever to prepare students adequately for the world that students will find outside of high school. But imagining what that future will in fact look like can be daunting. All schools can do is help students find their bearings in this new world. Wherever the new technology ends up, it will get there through whatever it is we have available to us today. But the world of work in the next decade or so will probably not resemble the world of work today or any world of work we can imagine.

It is not difficult to imagine a time when the new laptop is more of a palm top, something the size of a pocket calculator that serves not only as a computer, but as a telephone, and complete entertainment center as well, that perhaps come with special glasses that make a 2″ screen look like movie theater. But this is easy to imagine because there is technology available today that resembles this. But to what extent are the technologies we imagine the clipboards of our day, remember the clipboards in 2001 did look futuristic.

There is another article in today’s (10/26) Boston Globe. It is about education and America’s place in the global classroom. The article is by Jay Mathews and is called “Making the Grade.” Whatever one thinks of his analysis of American schools as they compete in the world he makes a point that captures the essence of the modern teacher (or what that essence ought to be).

There is, in any event, scant evidence that test scores have much to do with national economic performance. Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, analyzed the disconnect between test scores and economic growth in a column reprinted in his 2001 book, “Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.” Samuelson told of the computer guru at Newsweek’s Washington bureau who had an English degree but found, through a series of jobs that taught him new skills, that he had become a technological expert indispensable to Samuelson and his colleagues. “People don’t learn only at school,” Samuelson concluded. “What counts – for the economy, at least – is what people do at work. . . . On the job, people learn from supervisors, mentors, co-workers, customers and – most important – experience. One Labor Department study estimates that about 70 percent of training in the workplace is informal. Culturally, this is America’s strong suit.” Mathews, “Making the Grade”

What struck me was not just that the computer guru at Newsweek did not have a degree in technology, but that he had a degree in English, which is probably as far removed as one can get from conventional thinking about computer gurus. The important thing I take from this is that the 21st century teacher does not only need to be the master of her or his discipline but also to be open minded, adaptable, and possess a vigorous curiosity. There is not a lot of money to spend on the kind of professional development that will make good teachers into technologically savvy teachers. The way professional development is done in most schools would probably do more harm than good in any case.

This means that teachers will probably need to explore independently and possess a level of curiosity that will motivate this kind of exploration. This would also suggest that time needs to be made available to teachers to do this. People often talk about money as an issue in education but that is an incomplete argument. No matter how much my school pays me there are still only twenty-four hours in a day and no amount of money will enable me to do twenty-five hours of work in a twenty-four hour block of time.

As the Richardson article argues, each discipline has its own needs and dynamics and the lessons designed for each discipline need to come from within that discipline and from that discipline’s teachers. But what are also needed are teachers like the technology guru at Newsweek, who want to play around and explore the neighborhoods of these new technologies. School districts are not likely to pay teachers for the exploring they do or the curriculum they develop, nor are the tools going to be easy to come by with the economic problems currently faced by all of the public sector. But students need to see modeled in the classroom not only the kinds of adaptability the work place of the future will demand and reward but also the kind of enthusiasm for these new tools and technologies that will get students excited by this future and their place in it.

How High the Moon and the Music of the Spheres

From “Agnes Dei”, Mass for Five Voices
William Byrd
Tallis Scholars

How High the Moon and the Music of the Spheres

The music is by William Byrd and is a selection from one of the Catholic Masses he wrote. He was unusual for his time in that the careers of most Catholics, whatever their profession, were often frustrated by the powers that be of 16th and 17th century England. Byrd was one of the few that enjoyed some success. This was probably in part due to the fact that he began as an Anglican (Protestant Church of England). The music is characterized, for me anyway, by its ethereal quality, that seems to soar in the upper registers of the human voice, but that may just be me.

These thoughts about William Byrd were provoked by a feature on NPR this week about an English composer during the reign of Henry VIII who wrote music for the Catholic Mass. Only fragments of pieces, none of them complete, survive to this day due to the vigor with which King Henry stamped out all things Catholic during the Protestant Reformation in England. The broadcast focused on a modern composer who works, and has worked for many years, at reconstructing the missing bits of the music from what has survived. I was driving home when this came on and because I had to focus on what was happening on the road the name of the modern composer did not register (I was going through a Massachusetts rotary and had to focus on the unorthodox behavior of those drivers trying to enter the roadway). I think the name of the English composer was Robert Jones, but I am not certain of that either.

What did move me though was the music itself. Like Byrd’s music it was exhilarating to listen to and very moving. But what I found most striking was the story behind the music itself. The sheet music was burned or used to wrap fish or worse. Everything possible was done to stamp out this music. As an English teacher I teach books that at various times in their careers were slated for burning or other forms of censorship. It is not unusual to discuss book burning, not just in school but also in the culture at large. But last week’s news broadcast reinforces the fact that not just the written word but all of the arts have come under attack by those that are offended or frightened by them and the ideas they articulate.

17th Century Russia book burning of noblemen's books

Burning books of Nobility during Feodor III of Russia regorms (sic, I think) 1682 old litograph

Nazi book burnings in the 1930's

1933 May 10 Berlin book burning — taken from the U.S. National Archives

That the Nazis burned books is common knowledge but I was fascinated by the first image of Russian reformers burning the books of aristocrats, not in 1917 (who would be surprised by that) but in the 17th century. The aristocrats always seemed adept at avoiding such things, if only because they could afford to get out of town, but apparently not. What were the themes of these books that were burned? The one doing the burning was also, of course, an aristocrat. What views did he have that put him at odds with the books of other noblemen? What is it in the human heart that wants to destroy the ideas that it does not endorse? But, again, it is not the destruction of books alone that is troubling.

When a painting is destroyed that can never be recovered in quite the same way it existed originally. A piece of music can be played the way it was originally played on period instruments and the like if someone was able to recover or remember the original score. Books often return after burning because there have been those that make the effort to preserve them either by memorizing them or hiding them. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his memoir The Book and the Calf talks about his writing career while in the Soviet Gulag. He could write nothing down because if it were found it could be used against him to get him into more trouble than he was in already. And in addition the work itself would be destroyed and lost. So he composed his poems and stories in his head and memorized them so that they could not be found.

He eventually got out of prison and started writing things down. It got him into trouble of course but because the writing had gotten him a reputation outside of the Soviet Union he had a bit of cover, though he was eventually forced into exile. But what happens to the ideas that are destroyed before a permanent copy can be preserved. What happens to the painting, the piece of music, the book or poem that is entirely expunged from the cultural record? Do the ideas continue to exist; do they survive somehow? Is there a muse, an Erato of ideas, that plants the ideas in another place where they can live and prosper long enough to make a mark on world culture? In the video that follows Ray Bradbury discusses what went into his writing of the book Fahrenheit 451, a novel about the attempts of those in authority to silence the ideas they disagree with. Bradbury also said “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” The interview runs about eleven minutes, so if you choose to listen you may want to get comfortable.

Ray Bradbury discussing the writing of Fahrenheit 451

Is it necessary to destroy the ideas with which we disagree in order to rid ourselves of them or is a kind of benign neglect all that is required. The world is facing serious economic problems. This is an environment that makes it much easier to cut funding for the arts and the humanities. There is an attitude on the part of many in the United States that sees the arts as a kind of elitist entertainment that is only enjoyed by members of these elites. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with entertainment, but the labeling of art as only entertainment is intended to trivialize it. This view takes a kind of pragmatic market driven approach to things that sees little value in anything that does not increase the Gross Domestic Product.

But what are the long-term consequences of ignoring the arts and by extension the imagination? Is the esthetic imagination necessary to culture so long as that culture produces those that can imagine within the confines of math and science and the market place? Is there a problem with a culture that can invent the iPod but not alternative forms of energy or other less profitable technological advances that would improve the health of the world and the individuals in it? What role is played by the arts in maintaining the psyche of a people; its intellectual and emotional health? The first step to solving a social problem is admitting a problem exists and it is difficult to recognize problems we do not first imagine if only by empathizing with those that are struggling with those problems. Will teaching the arts end world hunger? Probably not. But is there a problem with a people that can only grasp the problems with which they grapple as individuals?

In the end why are people frightened of ideas that run contrary to their own? If it is true that “iron sharpens iron” then the ideas that run counter to our own are necessary to the health of our own ideas. They are a kind of gymnasium that tests the endurance of an idea and forces it to grow strong and healthy. It is also in this exercise room that we all learn the limitations of our own beliefs whatever those beliefs might be.

Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash

“Take Five”
Paul Desmond
The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash

The music comes from a record by The Dave Brubeck Quartet called Time Out. The name of the song is “Take Five.” The title is a multi-layered pun. On one level “take five” means take a break; take five minutes to catch your breath. On another level it is how those in a recording studio refer to the fifth attempt to record a track. It may suggest that there were four less than perfect takes and this is the fifth crack at getting it right. It might also suggest five different ways of playing the song and that the group is experimenting with the music, perhaps to find a way of playing the music that is the most interesting.

The title of the song in fact refers to the time signature, the tune was written in 5/4 time, hence take five. Each of the songs on the album employed a different and unusual time signature, hence the title of the album, Time Out. The time signature is important because it suggests how a piece of music is to be played. There is a sense in which literature has a kind of time signature that may refer to the time in which the work is set or the time it was written, or both if the time signature of the story is different from that of its composition. This time signature suggests to the reader how a work of literature is to be read and understood. The Last of the Mohicans, for example, was written in the Post-Revolutionary America of the 1820’s while the story is set in the Colonial America of the 1750’s. How important is it to know and understand the time signature of a work of literature and what exactly constitutes that signature?

People eating an elizabethan dinner


When I read a book, especially a book written many years ago, I wonder what daily life was like for the authors. The image above shows Elizabethan types eating dinner. But what exactly did they eat and what did their food taste like. They did not have refrigeration so there must have been compromises made with freshness. Did Shakespeare buy his own groceries, did he take out his own trash, and if he did where did he take it? What was Shakespeare thinking of, for example, when he has Iago say “Who Steals my purse steals trash”? We all know what we mean when we call something trash, but what did Shakespeare mean? Was he thinking of yesterdays newspaper?

It is not necessary to know what specific articles of trash came to Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote this line, but it seems likely there were some specific articles of useless junk that presented themselves to his mind when he used the word, perhaps something he had thrown in his trash basket that morning. It is not necessary to know this to understand the line, but it might give insight into the character of Iago to know the kinds of things he might think about when he thinks about such things.

One reason students have difficulty getting inside literature, classic or otherwise, is because they have difficulty humanizing the people involved. Part of understanding a play by Shakespeare is understanding Shakespeare’s humanity and the human issues he had to confront in his daily life. Do these issues make their way into the plays, does knowing what he did with his garbage make his plays more accessible? Probably not, but it does make the reader place him in a real world with real problems and the plays are influenced by the world in which Shakespeare lived. The characters in his plays must be humanized if they are to be appreciated and humanizing the author helps to humanize the characters.

It is difficult to be engaged, let alone enjoy, a novel if we do not care about the characters. I think empathy is the door that leads to involvement in any literary work that revolves around characters, whether it is a poem, a play, or a novel. I think this is even true of the personal essay, we will not be taken in by the essayist if we do not care about the struggle she or he documents on the page. Fay Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen writes “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano.” Part of understanding this novel and of empathizing with its heroine is understanding the risks a young woman of Jane Austen’s time took in refusing the proposal of a well to do young man. I read this passage by Faye Weldon often to my students to emphasize the importance of empathy to getting a foothold in the world of the stories we read.

Though it may not influence our understanding of the tale, to a certain extent understanding some of the details of daily life in the story’s historical setting helps the reader to empathize with the characters, to appreciate what they are going through and all that is involved in living day to day. I know what it means for me to get up in the morning, what it means to go through various daily rituals. What were Shakespeare’s daily rituals and by extension the daily rituals of the characters, like Iago? Did Iago brush his teeth that morning? Was the remark about stealing trash perhaps precipitated by his taking out the garbage that morning?

Like any metaphor, that of time signatures can only be taken so far. When a contemporary novel is set in the fourteenth century, as, for example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was, it is to say something about contemporary life, not about the time in which the novel is set. To what extent are Friar Baskerville’s sensibilities 20th century sensibilities and to what extent are they those of the novel’s setting. Even the name of the monk suggests a certain 19th century detective.

Can readers of the modern age, whatever that age may be, divorce themselves entirely from their own time and read as a reader of the story’s present. I remember being told by one of my college professors that such a thing is impossible. I disagreed at the time but after watching a few reality programs where 20th century folks are placed in the American west of the late 1880’s or the East Coast of America of the early 1600’s I am not so sure. These people had to live with only those materials available to the people of the time in which they were placed.

But these people struggled in ways the original pilgrims and pioneers did not. Those of the 17th and 19th centuries did not expect and were not used to anything other than what they had, those transplanted into the past brought with them memories of all the modern conveniences they left behind and also brought with them the knowledge that these conveniences were available and they were enduring a voluntary technological fast. Still, there is, I think, a value to understanding the life and times of a story’s setting and setting off, if only in our own minds, on a journey where we live for an imaginary day or two in the world of William Shakespeare and perhaps help him to take out the trash.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Time Has Come Today
Joseph Chambers & Willie Chambers
The Chambers Brothers

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

A Man hanging by the big hand of a clock on a clock tower.
Harold Lloyd from the film Safety Last

Filling the time is often difficult. Some believe ninety minutes is too long for a class to last and others that forty-five minutes is much too short. It all depends, I suppose, on how the time is employed, The modern teacher has excite the class about something, give the instruction on how to complete the assignment, and have time left over to actually complete the task. Ideally there is time after the task is done to review important points, discuss the homework, and set up the nights reading assignment. Time and its management is a tricky thing.

How is time used most effectively, especially in the classroom where I work (not that time isn’t important for people that work outside the classroom, but they will have to find their own answers)? So much of effective education depends on repetition and paying attention. Instruction is given, for example, on how to complete a bibliography (something few outside of academia care much about). The steps are pretty simple. The citation that must be placed inside the paper is also pretty simple. These tasks do not have much that is confusing about them, but the tasks and the instructions on how to complete them, are tedious. And even if the students are going through the motions of paying attention, their minds are elsewhere. When the time comes to complete the bibliography or cite the source most will be back asking how it is done.

Other tasks are more complex and have the potential of inspiring more interest, but only to those that already possess an interest in the subject. I often tell students that if the class is statistically balanced fifteen to twenty percent will be interested in what I teach, English. The remaining eighty percent or so will be interested in the other disciplines (math, science, history, phys-ed, and foreign languages). There will probably be another few percent that are interested in other things that are not likely to be found in a classroom. But then many students have not yet come to understand why education is important (they understand the argument that is made and most agree with it, but many have not “owned” the task as necessary.)

So does it matter if the class is ninety minutes or half an hour? Does it only matter that the time is somehow filled, however much it is, with material that will hold interest and provoke, perhaps, students to dig deeper into the material on their own time and at their own pace? I think educating the mind is exciting, I have always been curious, and as a result have always wanted to know more than the teacher taught, no matter how much the teacher taught, but, honestly, only about the things that interested me. I found Gauss an interesting man so I looked up material on him while in high school and learned a lot about his life and work, but did not learn much of the math that is necessary to really understand his work. I suppose that is how most of us are; we investigate what interests us and, maybe, a few of the tangents, a bit less deeply, that present themselves along the way.

The school that sponsors my classroom went from ninety minute blocks to seventy-five minute blocks in the morning, hence the concern for time. I find that I cannot get done in seventy-five minutes what I used to get done in ninety. That should come as no surprise, the other fifteen minutes should have been filled with something, and that has to be left behind. Another five minutes have been added to the afternoon classes, going from forty-five to fifty minutes. But five minutes is not enough time to introduce something new and than finish whatever that something new happened to be. For those that count minutes in the classroom five minutes is five minutes no matter where it lives. But of course in the classroom where the five minutes lives can make all the difference in the world.

When I was in college the university I attended thought they would save money and make students happy by ending the first semester at Christmas break in the middle of December rather than the middle of the following January where it traditionally ended. However, the missing four weeks or so had to be made up somehow. This was done by adding a chunk of time to each class. I forget exactly how much time was added to each class but it equaled the amount of class time lost by ending early. One of my professors thought this was wrong. That adding some time to each class could not make up for the time lost because in those four additional weeks students could be given additional books to read and discuss. The time in class did not change but the time spent out of class preparing for what happened in class did change. It takes time to read, digest, and reflect on a work of literature. Much of the time devoted to reading and reflecting is what was lost.

That is perhaps the larger issue. We are in the midst of an election. Time needs to be spent finding out what it is we want the government to do, and what it is the government must do if the nation is to remain healthy and strong. Most importantly we need to think about which candidate can do those things. This decision ought to be the product of time spent thinking and reflecting on issues and problems. Most, though, will probably make this decision based on their political philosophy; the conservative will vote for the most conservative candidate and the liberal for the most liberal. Odds are that after reflecting a bit the result would be the same anyway so why invest the time. There is some truth in this, but what happens to a society that does not nurture reflection or develop it as a skill in the first place.

Popeye for President
Director: Seymour Kneitel
Producer: Paramount Pictures

In the Popeye cartoon we see Popeye and Bluto both running for office. Their platforms revolve around giving something to voters, not on the best interests of the community, though by promising the electorate spinach Popeye has the health of the electorate more in mind than his opponent. This is satire of course and real politicians are not as blunt as this. For this sort of campaign to work, the electorate cannot look too deeply into what the candidate truly stands for. Few voters would be won over by campaigns as crass as Bluto or Popeye’s, but to avoid being fooled time must be spent. James Thurber believed you could “fool too many of the people too much of the time.”

That may be true, but only if citizens do not take the time to find things out to think in some depth about what is actually going on and being promised. Some complain about how long this election has gone on. It has been longer than most, but though the candidates have spent more time talking and debating have voters spent more time thinking about the process. Do they complain because they are used to things taking less time, not more, to be completed. Again, the issue is not so much the election, though that is important I suppose, but the resistance to the contemplative process. There are important decisions that life and society place in front of us and though we would wish otherwise there is a cost to making these decisions too quickly and too thoughtlessly.

I wonder what the desire to streamline things, from classrooms to computer access, has on people. I know in my classroom students struggle with books that make demands on their time and interest. They have difficulty understanding what a book is about when plot is set aside for other interests of the author, like setting or character. In their minds understanding a book relates almost entirely to knowing what is happening. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel students know what is going on, but when he is giving a speech or the poet is philosophizing about the nature of honor students get lost. That, I suppose is what the teacher is for, but is it wise for the teacher to always help them out of these literary potholes; don’t students need to work their way through some of these problems on their own? This becomes difficult when class time disappears.

I think stories are important in this regard. When we reflect on them they give substance to the concepts we believe and help us recognize the importance of the issues the stories raise to our daily lives. The stories do not need to come from the canon of great literature, nor do they need to be long and involved. Theodore Roosevelt (I believe) once said “Loyalty is being faithful without being famous.” That is a story of sorts or at least it contains the kernel of a plot that could make a good story. I started reading a new book by Margaret Atwood today. It is called Payback and she begins with an observation by another writer, Alistair MacLeod, that writers write about what worries them. Atwood adds that writers also write about what puzzles them.

Our relationship to time and our attitudes toward time, worry and puzzle me. We are becoming less and less comfortable with free time. But it is in these unfilled blocks of time where we come to know ourselves and the world around us. Atwood’s book begins by telling a story of Ernest Thompson Seton and the debt he owed his father (it is a wonderful story and you should read the book). She wonders about our indebtedness to those that raised us. Time spent by the adults around us teaching and caring for us is an investment. No one has figured out how to quicken the race to adulthood, it still seems to require eighteen some odd years. The kind of adults our children become depends on the kind of time we invest in them. Some of this time is invested in classrooms. I worry about how this time is spent and am puzzled by what some think is a wise and productive allotment of that time.