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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Sacred Place

When I was in middle school, I had a stock lecture on "A Sacred Place" and when Ayers mentions it on pg. 102, it took me back to that almost word for word. That being said....

Heady stuff this week!

For a comic book (I know, I know, a graphic novel), there was not much comedy to be found in the 2nd half of Ayers Journey.  He asks us to consider what it takes to be a GREAT teacher.  Not a competent teacher, or a decent teacher, or even a professional teacher.  Ayers uses the qualifier GOOD for schools, and gives us amazing examples of the community schools that made their world the way they wanted/needed it to be.  Clearly the word GOOD was not enough for what is expected of teachers, Ayers again and again demands that we push to be GREAT.

Of course this makes perfect sense.  I never set out to be adequate anything.  I never dreamed that when I grew up, I could be a serviceable cog.  If we don't aspire to greatness, how can we inspire our students to do so?  If we survive day-to-day, then no matter what words we put on the board, or literature we introduce, or magic rabbits we try to pull out of the hat, we send the message that manageable is the expectation and the norm, and our students are learning that lesson over and over each time we project it.  I think the competitive opportunities I experienced as a young person formed me in a way to push to be excellent, and that to accept mediocrity was to accept losing.  But there were many other influences as well.

There were two films, whose images I could not shake while reading the 2nd half of the Ayers, and whose influence in my decision to become a teacher are deeply intertwined.  In 1989, Robin Williams played Mr. Keating, a counterculture teacher in the stodgiest of schools for boys.  From ripping pages out of schoolbooks, to marching in the courtyard, to giving the boys sneak peaks at the hidden imagery found in the best poems, Keating does everything he can to inspire their young minds.  I believe in the transcendent possibility of film (and literature, and art, and music...), and the way this teacher builds relationships, and cares so obviously about his students resonated with me.  

Mr. Holland's Opus took a different route, but to the same destination.  In this film, Richard Dreyfuss' character goes into teaching reluctantly, after a lack of success as a professional musician.  Mr. Holland struggles for years, and the movie comes very close to losing the viewer because there is just no movement toward resolution of his rote classroom practices.  Thankfully, help comes.  In the form of other teachers who Holland builds relationships with, and thankfully with the students, the first of which is an unfortunate girl who he is tutoring in the clarinet, and despite no natural ability and no discernible aptitude, she will not give up.  In a monumental scene, he decides to throw the instruction out the window and learn about her.  Armed with this new information, he tries a non-traditional approach to the music lesson, and he reaches her - scaffolding as high art - and she gets it.  As begrudgingly as his teaching career began, Mr Holland figures out that it is about the people, and his students' lives become his master symphony.  

When I think of great teaching, these are two of the references (of many) that I draw on. Although I often fall short of greatness, as we all do, I think the concept of desiring to be great, and striving for improvement continue to benefit my classroom, my students, and myself. 

Understanding Youth took me in a completely different direction.  I could not read through the introduction and first chapter without flashing back to so many moments I have had with my students over the last 15 years.  How many Antwon's have I known?  How many have I helped? How many have I pushed further into their own negative convictions about the way teaching and learning happens.  How many throwaway comments have found sensitive ears?  Thanks Dr. Horwitz for making me feel crappy and guilty and awful. (kidding) I guess what I take away most from the first chapter of Nakkula and Toshails, is that we are intertwined within the lives of young people for a set amount of time, but the effects of what happens in that time do not end when our time together is up, it becomes part of both of us, and affects us, and molds us, and shifts us, and we should be more mindful of how we choose to spend it together.

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