Thursday, September 26, 2013

Monkey in the Classroom

Last week I promised to explain the monkey atop this page and why he graces the frontispiece of this very serious and academic blog.  Well, besides the rather obvious curb appeal, and the fact that monkeys like to climb, he is a symbol for an endangered species in the classroom.  His name is Stone Monkey and he represents the enthusiastic community college student (note that I did not say stoned monkey –we have too many of those as is).  To understand the reference we must look to sixteenth century China and the folk tale Journey to the West.  Although perhaps the most widely read story in the Far East (and subsequently the world), the epic remains a novelty in the US, relegated to world literature courses, such as my own (a pity, but that’s another post).  The story centers around four traveling companions and their journey to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist scripture.  Although, the priest Tripitika is our nominal hero, it is really the eponymous Monkey that steals the show.  Fathered by sunlight, fructified by the wind, and birthed by a stone egg, Monkey is enthusiasm incarnate.  Active and eager, he plunges forward again and again seeking adventure and wisdom.  This is readily apparent in the scene I am most concerned with here, monkey in the classroom:

“One day the Patriarch, seated in state, summoned all his pupils and began a lecture on the Great Way.  Monkey was so delighted by what he heard that he tweaked his ears and rubbed his cheeks; his brow flowered and his eyes laughed.  He could not stop his hands from dancing, his feet from stamping.  Suddenly, the Patriarch caught sight of him and shouted, ‘What is the use of your being here if, instead of listening to my lecture, you jump and dance like a maniac?’ ‘I am listening with all my might,’ said Monkey.  ‘But you were saying such wonderful things that I could not contain myself for joy.  That is why I may, for all I know, have been hopping and jumping.  Don’t be angry with me.’  ‘So you recognize the profundity of what I am saying?’ said the Patriarch . . .  “What sort of wisdom are you now hoping to learn from me?’  ‘I leave that to you,’ said Monkey.  ‘Any sort of wisdom –it’s all one to me.’"

When reading this passage for the first time, my response was “We should all be so lucky!”  Imagine a classroom full of joyful learners eager to consume that day’s offering, interested in learning for learning’s sake.  I mean, that’s the City of Gold that keeps teachers hacking through the wilderness,  the reason many of us signed up for this gig, and the eternal hope that allows us to overlook that short line of digits on our paycheck.  Yet, we seem to be retreating from the Monkey ideal rather than approaching it.

Why is this?

For our part, teachers seem to moving in the right direction.  We’ve exiled the “all-knowing” Patriarch along with his narrow and pedantic closed-mindedness.  In his place are experts of all stripes and backgrounds, a multitude of voices (none of them shouting at students).  Moreover, as nice as rich attire and a fancy chair sound, we are no longer “seated in state.” Our teachers now roam and ambulate.  And more than just profess like some sacred oracle at the front of the room, we practice varied approaches to teaching and learning that seek out and reward participation and active engagement.

Yet, where are our monkeys?  I see them in kindergarten exhibiting all the symptoms described above (flowering faces, laughing eyes, stamping of feet), but something happens to them on the way to the community college classroom.  John Taylor Gatto explains much of what occurs in his brilliant article “The Seven Lesson School Teacher,” but there’s yet more to it  –something specific about our classrooms– and as is so often the case, it comes down to money.

Since the economic downturn I have seen an alarming rise in reluctant faces, crossed arms, and grudging voices.  They all say the same thing: “I lost my last job and now I’m stuck here until I can get another one.”  “I’m tired of making peanuts and so I have to get through this to something better.”  “Mom said I have to go to college if I want a good job.”  “I’ll get this out of the way and then go to university.”  These voices concern me, for they all share the common theme of transience.  At best we’re an obstacle course; at worst we’re a roadblock.  Too many students attend community college as a type of purgatory, something to be endured until they can move on to that which is bigger and better.  Current political trends exacerbate this scenario by denigrating the teaching profession on one end and enacting increasingly restrictive and invasive educational policies on the other.  Even well-intentioned officials seek to defend  the place of the community college by tying it directly to job placement, job creation, and the economy.  The result is not pretty.  Too many students arrive with the perception that this whole education thing is an economic exchange.  As in, “I pay you tuition and you give me my passing grade.  I collect enough of these passing grades and you give me a piece of paper.”  Expressed as an equation it looks like this:

money+time=diploma=good job

Because of the many variables and potential cross-purposes involved, this may or may not be true.  However, what is true, is that it generates a damaging sense of entitlement, and in the process belittles what actually takes place in the classroom.

I do believe that education makes better employees and studies readily show the dollar value of a degree, and yet the classroom is not job training, and it shouldn’t be looked upon as a speed bump or weigh station on the way to a career.  The classroom is and should be a destination in and of itself, a locus of knowledge, learning, community, sharing, exploration, self-discovery, and change.  These outcomes are not all measurable (much to the chagrin of the pencil pushers), and they cannot all be relied upon regularly, but even in a diminished or altered state, they are worthy pursuits.  Yet, if students arrive with the perception that the classroom is just one more hoop to jump through, they risk missing out on the greater fruits of an education.
So what’s the point of all this?  Should we just cry and eat more ice cream?  Should we curse myopic politicians and administrators to the heavens?  These are attractive options, but, as always, we should focus on what's under our control.  Every pair of crossed arms and disinterested eyes is a challenge, and though many students do not realize it, indeed, they have been conditioned to deny it, their hearts and minds are really piles of dry tinder just begging to be set alight.  Rather than wait for lightning to strike, we need to bring that fire with us into the classroom.  Be enthusiastic, be loud, stamp your feet, jump around.  Be a Steve Irwin and get excited about your subject.  If you want active, engaged and joyful learners you have to model that behavior.  You won’t change all of them, but you’ll get quite a few.  After all, monkey see, monkey do.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

At Play in Pompeii

"And if there be a day when all shall wake,
As dreams the hoping, doubting human heart,
The dim forgetfulness of death will break
For her as one who sleeps with lips apart;
And did God call her suddenly, I know
She'd wake as morning wakened by the thrush,
Feel that red kiss across the centuries glow,
And make all heaven rosier by her blush."
     –from "Out of Pompeii" by William Wilfred Campbell

"O Muse, sing to me!"
     –from Book I of The Odyssey by Homer

For ages we have cornered accomplished men and women and pressed them on their pursuits.  What brought you to politics, Mr. Lincoln?  When did you first pick up the pen, Ernest?  Why did you take to the clouds, Amelia?  How’d you come to live in a jar, Diogenes?
The questions never end and the answers crowd bestseller lists and periodically even win Oscars, proving that, as a society, we seem desperately in search of that spark which provokes greatness.  Yet, the topic of inspiration rarely achieves notice in education.  If so many of the Great Ones can look back on a moment or an individual that urged them forward, why are we not more concerned with providing spurs in college?  The question of education’s end and the point of it all is surely a rabbit hole more convoluted than the current conversation permits, but, even in a small space, we can ponder why the notion of muses now seems as antiquated as the billow-shirted poets who once invoked them.  In Greek mythology the muses are known foremost as the inspiration for great works, but it is not by accident that they were also considered the source of all knowledge.  If the forefathers of western education knew that inspiration and knowledge were intimately and inextricably linked, why have we forgotten it?  

Let’s begin with a story.

As a freshman in college I signed up for an Introduction to the Humanities course.  Not necessarily because I was interested in the topic (although I was) but because it deftly fulfilled a pair of graduation requirements and allowed me to sleep in twice a week.  The instructor was a medievalist, a musician, a thespian, and a bit of a globetrotter.   She was also my first academic crush.  It wasn’t a physical thing; she had a good twenty or thirty years on me and the kind of couture best appreciated in Chaucer’s day.  Rather, I was smitten by her combination of smarts, spirit, character, and experience –what the Anglo-Saxons referred to as mōd.  Each Tuesday and Thursday I sat spellbound for an hour as she held court at the front of the room, and as I watched the sunlight cling to her, I daydreamed of living such a life.

On one day in particular, she was discussing the ruins of Pompeii.  Present, of course, were the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, but in addition, and in quite typical fashion for her, she served up some personal experience as well.  It seems that whilst traveling Italy as a young woman she had visited Pompeii, and, having missed the bus, was forced to spend the night there alone, soul-deep in all that tragedy and history.  As she spun this yarn, her eyes bloomed and her voice grew quiet, pulling us forward in our wooden chairs.  Sotto voce, she told of the long shadows cast by the ruins and the many ghostly figures she could feel pulsing around her.  Then, the hour was suddenly up and the spell broken by the sound of shuffling papers and sliding chairs.
For my adored professor, this likely impromptu tale was but five minutes in a busy day of committee meetings, office hours, grading and much more staid teaching.  Ah, but for me –for me this was a geological event, a great tearing of the earth wherein the previous Jason was swallowed up and a new likeness spit forth.  Imbued with enthusiasm and purpose, I determined that day that I too would visit Pompeii, rub shoulders with the ghosts that haunt that sacred space, and return to tell the tale.

Five years later, lean and hungry from a month of backpacking in Europe, I arrived in Pompeii and realized my dream.  I walked the ancient streets and plumbed the winding ways, breaking the tourist rules and snooping into all the off-limit shadows.  And just as I was really beginning to suck the marrow, I was expelled by a gruff security guard, my hopes of an overnight sojourn shattered, but my larger triumph still intact.  Despite this success, I had not yet travelled full circle.  For that, I would have to wait another eight years.

In 2012 I lucked into teaching an Introduction to the Humanities course, and, not far into the semester we arrived at the subject of Pompeii.  After providing the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, I paused, and, feeling the gravity of the moment, sat down atop an empty desk at the front of the room.  I then, ever so slightly, lowered my voice, and told my adored professor’s story.  And then I told mine.  The earth shook and the circle closed.  My students were delighted.  It was a moment.

Never one to trust to the winds of chance or fail to gild a lily, I then went on to briefly elaborate on the Moral of the whole bit:  I was just like you, a small-town kid sitting at a desk just like that, and though it might sound a tad too much like a song by Journey, if you really want something you can make it happen.  It simply takes inspiration, determination, and time.
Returning now to our initial discussion, as educators, we don’t have much control over the determination of our students, or how they spend their time, but we can, perhaps, if we’re good and just a little bit lucky, provide a spot of inspiration.  And the fact that we can’t quantify, institutionalize, or even necessarily plan for such inspiration doesn’t mean that it’s not worth pursuing.  For, eventually the papers will all be written, the assignments all turned in, and if we are not careful, all that will be left to show for a semester’s worth of work is a grade –a tiny glyph whose entire sum of meaning is increasingly determined by hostile politicians and a disinterested economy.

Thus, if we want our students to walk away with more than debt and a piece of paper, we must inspire them to act beyond the finite dimensions of our assignments and our classrooms.  We must inspire them to read Heaney on their own, far away from campus on a bright Tuesday.  We must inspire them to look at the stars with their children and talk about string theory.  We must inspire them to willfully and deliberately think critically at the polls.  We must inspire in each of them their own Pompeii and then turn them loose on the world.

Tune in next week to find out why there is a monkey at the beginning of this blog.