Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Television and the Meaning of Life

We watch people in life and death situations on television in an attempt to make our life choices seem like they're powerful or at least escape to a reality where such choices occur. At any given moment we could teeter of the cliff into realizing that our life and job are meaningless. Whether television helps or hurts this is questionable. In some ways it is the ultimate distracter, like many distracters before it and epics before that. Each narrative attempts to help us escape and find a place in our work and lives that is meaningful. Some might argue that pursuing it this fashion we become further removed from true meaning.

I bring this up to you tell you about The West Wing and how it relates to people telling you that they will hit you "in yo motha fuckin' face." I’ve been watching the West Wing and in an episode in the first season Josh gets a card that will direct him to the safe zone in the event of nuclear attack. He is conflicted about this privilege throughout the episode, and the root of this is revealed when he visits his old therapist and explains that his sister died in a house fire. He feels responsible and does not want to feel that he has survived those he loves, again, undeservedly. What a powerful moment. All the history woven together and scored and profoundly acted. Imagine this arc when your holding your coffee cup and wondering if you have time to use the bathroom thoroughly, before driving to work.

At the core of the West Wing is the question: what is it to be a good person?. With our eyes fixed on the figure of the President it is easy to understand why he is held to such a high standard. In the hands of Aaron Sorkin every conversation reaches the sublime with wonderful nuances of language and the gravity of every sentence is seen and felt with the impact of ninth inning World Series pitch. In looking at my life I see a constant stream of tiny choices. Times when I can be rude or, in my mind, justifiably angry in a last ditch effort to draw boundaries with people. In comparison these choices seem small and hollow. 

No, you cannot go to the bathroom. 
Yes, you can borrow that pencil in exchange for your house key. 
No, you cannot have some of the almonds in my lunch box.

I want to be good. 
I want to be a part of something. 

The West Wing makes that dream seem so possible, which is part of the show’s escape. Our office job or classroom seems to carry none of the gravity of the Oval Office. If we turn our ear to a certain Avant Gardes ,they would have us think that this dichotomy only reveals the inherent purposelessness of all existence and necessitates our need to create meaning for ourselves outside of institutions and super structures.

Reading is important. Yes, you have a quiz tomorrow. 

What a daunting task: constructing meaning in one’s life that can carry the weight of drudgery. At times work can become only because the means by which we get to enjoy the people or things that give us purpose and that can be kind of a drag. Man.

Have a seat please. 

It is however a worthy task. But sometimes that task is being undertaken in February. No matter what another teacher tells you, February is the hardest month. We see it on each other's faces. I tell the first year teacher everyday at lunch, “Don’t kill yourself.” He nods like this is valuable advice and really appreciates someone saying it to him. After I told him that Monday, students ran and threw themselves into my door and then when reprimanded told me they’d hit in me in my “motha fuckin face.” Now, they don’t mean it. They really didn't, but the social skills and coping mechanisms necessary needed to not tell an authority figure that you want to hit them in the “motha fuckin face” are severely lacking in our current education system. (For example there aren't any classes about starting a snarky blog.) It is my response to being told that I'll be hit in "my mutha fuckin' face" that can make my classroom feel like the Oval Office some days.

Comic Created by Matt Posky

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Most English Teachers Know They're Better Than You

If you have friends who teach, you already know about The Arrogance, and all I can do for you is apologize for all of us, thank you for your patience, and try my best to explain why we need it. 

I like to image The Arrogance as a talking but inhuman head growing out of my shoulder. It looks and sounds like the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. The Arrogance grows inside a teacher’s body somewhere, or inside a teacher’s brain. Sometimes, it makes that teacher say things no healthy adult would say. It condescends and corrects. It has even been known to sneer.

Imagine a conversation between two healthy adults. A literary allusion would sound like this: “I chased it all over the place like Captain Ahab.” That is a clear reference and no explanation is required. In a conversation between one healthy adult and The Arrogance, that allusion will be explicated: “I chased it all over the place like Captain Ahab. You see, there was a very famous book called Moby Dick. It was written by a man named Herman Melville, and it is about a man named Captain Ahab who vengefully pursues a whale.” Be calm, dear reader.

A healthy adult may say this phenomenon is “pretentious”. The Arrogance would say this phenomenon is “pretentious. That words means conceited or overly showy.” Do try to unclench your fist.

The Arrogance is a system of defense. Our days are spent in front of crowds not guaranteed to understand us or believe us or care about what we are saying. Bear with us.

Confused Disney-eyes often greet the inter-textual verbosity savored by lovers of language. (The Arrogance is eager to tell you what “verbosity” is, with examples drawn from classic and contemporary literature, but I am doing my best to keep it silent.)

Skeptical glowers often greet our often vain attempts to assert our authority. I mean here our intellectual authority as well as our dominion over the classroom. (The Arrogance is eager for me to tell you, anecdotally, all about my past experience with this, as a way to totally prove that everything I am saying is right and you should believe it because you’ll need it when you go to college. And, anyway, I’ve seen this kind of shenanigan before so you’re going to have to get up pretty early to throw me for a loop, Buster.)

Profound apathy often greets our frequently giddy content-area geek-outs. (The Arrogance wants to win your interest in this topic by comparing it ham-fistedly to a scene in The Dark Knight Rises.)

The Arrogance grows out of habitual strategies designed to deal with these situations. It isn’t easy to leave it at work. We teachers, like everyone else who works passionately in a field that matters to them, have trouble putting our occupations behind us when we’re back in the non-work world. The Arrogance comes out over dinner or in the lobby of the movie theater. I’m sorry. It’s not me. It’s The Arrogance talking.

I hate The Arrogance. I hope to extinguish it someday, and not because I want to be popular at dinner parties. I would be a better teacher without it. Yes, to assume my students understand or know or care about too much can result in poor instruction, drowned in impenetrable obscurity and obfuscation. However, assuming they understand or know or care about too little can result in an opposite problem. My students often respond to The Arrogance much as you do, by shutting down. Who wants to listen to some snob, anyway?

I’m doing my best. In the mean time, your patience and tolerance are appreciated. When you see that Skeksis head pop up to correct your grammar, smother it. Just be understanding when you do.

*Special Guest Post: Arrogance  
My good friend Michael Stohrer wrote this he's an amazing teacher, musician and writer. You can read his fantastic music reviews here: and his teaching blog:


Tune in next week for the delayed post about Television and The Meaning of Life

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Interrupting MurderTube for the End of War

In looking at Counterinsurgent warfare we can see a reflection of the change that is happening all around us and learn how change can be implemented in our communities. Counterinsurgent warfare means an end to a frontline marked on a map or with razor wire and the birth of “Suspicion in 360 degrees” as David Finkel puts it in his book The Good Soldiers. His book takes place during “the surge” in Iraq and focuses on one of the battalions stationed near Baghdad. This battalion’s commander, Kuazlarich, is a true soldier ready for war. Instead, he and his soldiers are tasked with being community developers and advancers of democracy instead of winners of battles. As an aside, the difficulty of this kind of war is why we won against the British Empire in That War. This kind of war makes one nostalgic for World War II where the boundaries and objectives were clearer and met advancing in one direction.
Counterinsurgent warfare demonstrates the complexities of the issues we face domestically. Take education for example: there is no war to be lead. No front line to charge at. I think this realization disappoints a lot of people. We saw the citizens of Iraq pull down the statue of Saddam – we saw Saddam and Bin Laden killed – but none of these moments give us the feeling of victory that we think V day would have given us. Our current society really lacks the moment when we get to see THE END. And I venture that is it because THE END was the biggest lie we ever swallowed. This reality really upsets people. We carry signs about what God wants and who He hates. We yell in the street. We make an Independent film and make our family and friends sit through the unabridged version or we start a “noise band” or a blog. Whatever our outlets we get a little upset and start longing for WWII and the Cold War and to be European because the boundaries were clearer and we had someone to demonize.
In education we have no demon. There is no leader of inequality that we can hold siege and give our list of demands to. There are just 1,000 towns that deserve long term cohesive teams. Early on the education movement we had a progression: the creation of public school and Brown vs. Board. We crossed boundaries. Now, we have a giant mess. There is not a clear answer beyond finding teachers and principals who can work as a team that are committed to excellence in a position that –with wonderful notable exceptions – is seen as noble but without prestige. Can we expect 6,000 U.S. soldiers to become duel citizens, fluent in Arabic, and commit their lives to changing a country they’re not from? No, but we can expect U.S. citizens to become involved in their local communities.
After each election we look to the President to change everything for us. We want the Legislative branch to bow to him and have our favorite Ex-President awakened from the grave (metaphorically in legislation) and enact the new Golden Era or become Europe!
Instead what we are called to become involved our communities. In volunteering, becoming active in local elections, paying attention to our neighbors and neighborhoods we can create change. There are no IEDs or EFDs waiting for us as we go to get the mail. Only a neighbor we hate because they’re too loud; a school we wish would just go away so that we can pocket the millage; a local proposition we don’t have time to read about; a child who is not ours and therefore not our responsibility. Becoming involved in one small aspect of our community and contributing a garden or free technology workshop or giving our time as Big Brother or Big sister can prevent  a shooting, give happiness, raise property value, and enhance our self-worth.
Spoiler alert: we weren’t able to change Iraq into what we envisioned, but we can change the U.S. It just takes the grit to continuously act on the problem we see right in front of us every day.

This ends this public service announcement we now return you to your regularly scheduled MurderTube.