Category Archives: Colleagues Welcome

Welcome to my colleagues, far and near. Please feel free to comment on the posts.

CASABLANCA 2014: RICK’S PLACE

`

When does the last plane for Lisbon take off? The background mutter of the Lost waiting for exit is sisyphian. No white house, but white minions hovering. Sam tickles a low hum-hiss tune with no melody–lower key from an apiary. No one will buy his piano at auction–you can get this noise from any HVAC unit.

Rick watches.

Table number 1 for the Hero’s party.  The geography does not matter; the Germans (actually it was the Japanese) are gone. Drinks arrive–plastic bags with long twisting straws. No color, salty taste that doesn’t kill the Hero’s real pain. Your cash is good at the bar. Nothing is ever on the house. Casablanca is a gold mine.

Rick watches.

Ferrari sweeps in, a bombast of certainty. Draws and gulches gullied in his face.  Opinions for sale; remember last week, or was it earlier today? Our conversation is self-generated. It is nonsense; it is all we have.

Rick watches.

Uncertainty is the fog. The parrots are green not blue. They hover and flit with the metronomic regularity absent from the flight schedule to Lisbon. Ilsa waits too. Can there be two exit visas? Most certainly, but not with the same date. Will she take the plane if the Hero is on it? Everyone arrived with letters of transit—Ugarte is already gone.

Rick watches.

Inside the Hero’s compressed world the desert of time and an unseen sab0teur have destroyed the travel schedules. This morning you are the valued Carl; at midnight the breakout was on and you were the mirage-guard in need of a thrashing. Now you are No One in his desert. Ilsa is his only constant. Oasis that is evaporating as her shores erode under the weight of the waiting.

Rick watches.

Watching the old man wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait. Louis brings the news. No plane to Lisbon! Casablanca is terminal, but not this week.

Rick watches, but not in Casablanca.

SHORT FAREWELL TO A LONGTIME FRIEND

BALLAD OF LASLEY, THE WRITERS, AND THE PASSION FOR HEARTS

(Apologies to Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Johnson, Robert Earl Keen, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Bobby Zimmerman, and the Boss)

Call her Ishmael, the traveler not the wanderer. The child of the BOOM escapes from Jersey (allegedly the “New” one) but never with “a damp, drizzly November” in her soul, always on the road to a better land never forgetting the burden of time and place.

At last, the CROSSROADS, otherwise known as Duke—Jersey meets the arsenical green of tobacco. What deal does one make when the Devil is dressed in blue?

Introductions come first.

Says the Dark One: “Betty Crocker, meet Betty Friedan and liberation!”

“What will this cost? Will I have to open a vein and pour my blood out onto the page?

“NO! Too purple!

“My soul?”

“Nay, would be too little.”

“Then, what? My children?”

“Ah, the children, yes. You shall have not three, but multitudes, AND you will never cease to walk the road with them!”

“What road?”

“Do not ask, you will know it when you find it.”

“Where does it lead?”

“It goes on forever, BUT your party will never end.”

CROSSROADS again, further South (of course). Mephistopheles appears in green. Choices are made and awakenings reveal the truth even if told slant. Her children are indeed a multitude. Betty Crocker is fading as Lasley realizes that she “contradicts herself and contains multitudes”. Twenty years of bringing the heat and light of her passion for the words, the thoughts, and the feelings that define joy, hope, and love through the lines of Walt, Emily, and Kate. Reminding her ever-expanding brood that learning without passion is a stillborn creature, and she will have no such thing in her extended family. She sees no heart, young or old, that cannot escape the winter of a Blue Hotel. The journey has been long but “up ahead in the distance….”

CROSSROADS again, time to reflect. What road has the Queen of Hearts been traveling? Highway 61: the path from New Orleans to Memphis, to Chicago, to Jerusalem and back to Asbury Park always carrying and caring for the hearts and souls of her students. “You’ve come far pilgrim.” Like the Rachel, you have always searched for another orphaned learner. Your colleagues and your students have been blessed to journey with you. After 57 years of going to school only three of my English teachers have influenced me in a significant fashion. You Lasley Gober are one of the few. As we see you take a turn in the road, the great bluesman Elmore James said it best, “The Sky Is Cryin’”

Thank you.

 

 

Link

WHAT HISTORIANS DO!

WHAT HISTORIANS DO!

Great article by the President of the American Historical Association

SLEEPING WITH JANIS

 

Janis growled and scrunched. Covers  clawed tighter. Jack Daniels Black, old smoke, sweat, and musk. Geez, how did I get here? Damn, this world is small and dark. The electronic squeal, the pneumatic thump in the ‘throne just before the wail of the D, C, G, A pattern brings me down on her and up with 30,000 others in the dark outside her light. Nah, that was then not now. Now it’s the air–thick with images–raw, animal, consummation in absentia ex post facto.

Cry, Baby, the Benz didn’t happen, but I’m always lookin’ at the rain. Cold, soiled soul listening to gray scrunched sheets obscuring the ball and chain of time. Forever tryin’ a little bit harder to give her a piece of my heart but always slippin’ away to look for home. Ah, “home” I hope she has found it.

Exiled in my home, I don’t sleep much anymore ; dawn always a long time coming as I hear her virginal voice shatter the faded darkness, over and over and over; eternally pleading for someone to warm the small dark world.

 

Long Boats On Graham Creek

The day is fading as is the year. Late summer afternoons slide toward autumn under the weight of heavy air and ever lower levels of light. Strains from Gram Parson and Dwight Yoakam fill the voids in my office, but my soul has strayed to a small far away stretch of the world known as Graham Creek. A yellow-dog brown serpent of moving hydrogen and oxygen that slithers into Wolf Bay. Like a venomous reptile the creek holds the outside world at a distance. The sounds of natural  silence dominate: a few bird calls, the slap of small fish feeding, interrupted by the gurgle of a paddle easing a yellow kayak down the back of the twisting snake of water. I do not own the boat, but I possess the experience.

My wife and I came to sea kayaking some twelve years ago; a relatively late point in life for such an esoteric practice. The attraction was instant. Indeed, paddling in the Alaskan wilderness for a week altered our view of how to spend the last third of our time on the great revolving ball.  We now take every opportunity to “go down to the sea”. Most of the time we go together, but on occasion, when she is busy our  paddling friend and guide, David, launches with me in her absence.  In July David and I made our way toward Wolf Bay reveling in the quiet that made the world seem a better place.

Why? As with many areas of life and culture the meaning may lie with a trinity. First, the boat. To the casual observer kayaks may conjure images of stubby plastic tubs escaping from a child’s toy box on to fast rivers with churning white water. True sea kayaks are at least sixteen feet long and recall more remote places in time and space. http://kayakin.tripod.com/index.html Historically they originated in Greenland, but emotionally and psychologically they echo the Viking longships: long, narrow, fast, and purpose built to venture where other craft could not. Deep, shallow, taciturn, boisterous, salt, fresh, seas or rivers the elegant curves were the conveyance of those who found day to day life too confining. Modern long boats lack only the dragon prow and multiple oars; they lack not the soul of the romantic.

Second, the place. Long boats propel the paddler beyond the confines of our self-inflicted asphalt, HVAC-controlled mini-worlds. Heat, cold, sun, shade, wind, spray, and creatures embrace the quiet energy of the soft moving hull. Thoreau was correct at least once.

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” —Walden

Graham Creek is one long row of finer fruits harvested only from a long boat.

     Third, replacement and redemption . To teach is to give; to teach is to err. It is like a great love affair full of energy, passion, whose enemy is always time. To repair the erosion of high energy passion those who teach (like those who love) need the bliss of solitude. Three bends into Graham Creek’s journey and the trickle of water off the paddle reminds me that replacing lost energy is done best by using quiet energy. Edging the boat around a tight bend while catching a glimpse of a large gar luxuriating in the warm creek water  verifies the reality that I am small and insignificant as are my perceived problems. I am of no concern to the gar. (Thank you Stephen Crane) Redemption lies in the recognition that there is much to contemplate in the simplicity of this intersection of my boat and the gar. For a brief time we share a quiet simple world without critics, without demands. A place in time and space found only in a long boat.

“You gave your word to ME.”–Rico Fardan

Sitting at one of my favorite places in the world, not far from the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, I have been contemplating one of my favorite movies. Whenever I make it to our Bay House I try to watch The Professionals. Released in 1966 this film was based on a novel by Frank O’Rourke with Richard Brooks writing the screen play and directing. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Palance, and (sigh) Claudia Cardinale deliver a spectacular viewing experience.

Lacking the skills of better writers I leave  commentator to provide the core of the film’s appeal.

What distinguishes The Professionals from most actioners is the history Brooks gives his principals: Marvin, Lancaster, and Palance had once fought side-by-side in the Mexican Revolution. Disillusioned, Marvin and Lancaster had left and have been scratching around ever since for a quick buck. That undertone of rueful melancholy gives Professionals an emotional hue few action flicks even attempt.

While Mesce is “spot on” the film delivers on multiple levels. Not the least of which is Brooks’ execution of a film whose title describes not only the characters but also the performers. (While this observation is not mine it has stimulated my thinking in at least one other area) Throughout the movie, Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan, and Strode continually exhibit their attention to the craft of acting while their respective characters do the same for their talents. Marvin is a leader, taciturn; Lancaster is a demolitions expert, an undisciplined adventurer; Ryan is the quiet, emotional equine expert; and Strode is the expert tracker, archer, and racial outcast (except among fellow professionals). This is the movie that goes unmade today. An all-star cast of established, professional craftsmen, telling a compelling story with words and gestures rather than furious non-stop chaos and pyrotechnics.

My most recent late night viewing led me to extrapolate the title into a larger real world context. Educators, businesspeople, and athletes use and abuse the term “professional” with the regularity of the 3:19 train. “She’s a true professional.” He behaved like a real professional.” How often have we stopped to consider what we mean when we say “professional”?

In the film viewers come to discover the nuances of the term. Each character is an expert with a highly developed and practiced skill set: Marvin–weapons, Lancaster–explosives, Ryan–wrangler, Strode–tracking and long bow. All understand their contribution to the mission and no one encroaches on the role of the others; each defers to his comrade’s knowledge and experience.  Disagreements exist, but not at the expense of working together. Who they are matters less than what they contribute to the communal effort. No one’s personal story interferes with the mission.

They suffer together, recognize their limitations and acknowledge the character of their adversary. The  Mexican desert is a cauldron. When Ryan’s character is about to collapse he asks how anyone could survive in this environment.  Marvin (Henry ‘Rico’ Fardan) says  “Men, tempered like steel, a tough breed. Men who’ve learned how to endure.” Ryan responds with “Like you and Dolworth (Lancaster).” To which Fardan retorts, “Oh, no. Men like Raza (Palance).”

They remain focused even when circumstances create human tension. After surviving an ambush by bandits Fardan and Dolworth order the execution of the dead men’s horses. Ehrengard (Ryan) objects in the following exchange.

Dolworth: We just killed men. Nobody bats an eye. – When it comes to a stupid animal…

Ehrengard: But harmless.

Dolworth: Nothing’s harmless in the desert, unless it’s dead. Want to face another pack of Raza’s men? – They’ll head south, to camp.

Ehrengard: They’ll head to the river, north.

Fardan: Suppose they follow us? What then?

Ehrengard: Then shoot them.

Fardan: All right. Cut them loose.

Later we discover Ehrengard was wrong, but there are no recriminations. The group moves forward to the next task as they strive to fulfill the contract they have made. They sacrifice for one another as Ehrengard, the least violent of the group, eventually “takes a bullet” for his fellows.

Eventually they discover that  their employer (Ralph Bellamy) has deceived them; and yet, they deliver on their contract (with a twist) even though it means they go unpaid. In one of the great final scenes ever Fardan reveals one additional aspect of professionalism: being a truth-teller.

Fardan: We both made a bad deal, Mr. Grant. You lose a wife, and we lose 10,000 dollars apiece.

Grant: You bastard!

Fardan: Yes, sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

In a time of intense and unpredictable change do we measure up to the standard of Fardan, Dolworth, Ehrengard, and Sharp, or is our “professionalism” better summarized by the “professional foul” in soccer where a beaten defender takes down his man rather than concede a goal?

DEEP HOLES—FAST WATER: FINDING THE TRUTH IN CREEKS

Once upon a time I suggested to some colleagues that I had no difficulty believing that human life began when our ancestors, whoever or whatever they were, slithered or crawled out of salt water. The comment was not entirely light-hearted. Growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico meant that salt water was a constant in my life. Waves, sandbars, tidal pools, bays, lagoons, marshes, estuaries, creeks, they were powerful forces in my early life and have continued to fascinate me for well over fifty years. The look, the sound, the odor of moving water, and the subtle variety of life which gravitates to the contact zones created by land mating with water have created avenues for understanding much that is non-aquatic.

Where water moves, the soul stirs.  Realism, naturalism, and romanticism emanate from the oscillation of the waves, the flux of the tide, and swirls of the current. Science and philosophy, life and death, past and present all in one place but never constant. Sounds a bit like life in a classroom. No two iterations of water are the same, just as no two learning situations are the same.  So where to begin our exploration?

Creeks! Some flow from inland toward the salt water. Others, like those in the Florida Keys are actually rapidly flowing cuts between small un-named keys. The high desert of Arizona is home to creeks that flow underground all summer; surfacing only during the winter wet- season of heavy rains. A rather “traditional” creek carved my grandparents’ pasture. It meandered; the water was cold; it had great clay hidden in its banks; it had fish. It taught lessons.

Once per year I spent time with my grandparents and their creek. The daily visit to the water in the dead heat of Florida summers was the “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Bathing, playing, and exploring were the foundation of an essential learning experience. The classroom was always familiar, but of course we were never in the same water twice. Familiarity bred respect not contempt.

Specific locations displayed semi-permanent features, but were in constant flux. The remains of the old dam my grandfather constructed to drive the wheel of his long defunct grist mill was fascinating, but thought to be a haven for water moccasins as well as a place where rotten timbers could trap small boys in fast moving water. Far from the pasture the highway bridge blocked light and split the streambed into two paths. Venturing under the bridge meant crossing boundaries – literally and figuratively.

No matter where we chose to play two features were always prominent because topography and hydrodynamics are ever-present forces in streams. One of our favorite spots was a bend in the waterway some distance upstream from the old dam. Within the space of 100 yards the land and water produced a deep hole and a series of shallow rapids. Of course, deep and rapid are hardly absolute terms.

Four feet was probably a generous measure of the hole’s depth, and the “rapids” were fast only because the gravel and sand bottom were so close to the surface as water was forced out of the hole. Yet, the power and influence of these features on little boys was enormous. Each generated specific experiences and lessons.

The water in the hole was dark; you could not see the bottom. How does one overcome the fear of not knowing? Fear is the tool of ignorance, but to wade into the dark and ever deepening water was to overcome fear and discover the secrets of the hole. Fish, well, mostly minnows, inhabited the hole. To move through their world was far more fun than merely observing them from the shore. The realization that they did not bite brought confidence and opened new passages to understanding that I was the outsider. After all, I could submerge into the dark liquid, but unlike the minnows, I had to hold my breath and eventually return to the surface. The hole was deep enough to swim in, but so narrow that one stroke was more than enough to cross into the down stream shallows. The lessons of the hole required the tools of courage, patience, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

Exiting the hole downstream the water moved swiftly across clean white sand and gravel.  Here we could see the bottom, as well as any small creatures inhabiting “our creek”.  The shallows were fun; they reflected light and moved whatever we placed in their path. Their kinetic energy was a near perfect reflection of the little boys who interrupted the water’s journey to far away destinations.  If the hole taught us about conquering fear and appreciating the darkness of depth, the rapids taught us humility. The narrow two inch deep water seemed ideal for creating a dam. We could block the stream and create a bigger hole that would be more conducive to swimming. Moreover, we could exercise our “unlimited” power over the forces of nature. MAN (boy) subdues CREEK! No matter how we planned, no matter how many rocks, logs, and branches we brought into the shallows we always fell victim to some aspect of Bernoulli’s Principle. Our hypothesis that the shallows would make an ideal location for a damn was undone by our ignorance, but we learned. Damming the creek was a short-lived game.

I have not been in that creek since 1969. My grandparents are gone as is their farm. Now as I reflect on my career in education and the idea of integrated (interdisciplinary) learning the creek comes back to me. Any meaningful learning experience needs deep holes as well as fast water. The fast water is in vogue these days. Technology is by definition fast and faster. It allows us to explore a multitude of topics; respond and receive responses almost instantaneously. It is open and fun, just like the shallow rapids in a creek. Yet, it also invites us to indulge in hubris. With so much information acquired so rapidly surely we can change the flow of the creek. Perhaps.

Less in vogue is the exploration of deep holes. Why bother exploring the lessons of slow dark water in one area, when “problem solving” using all sorts of fun fast implements, means we can move straight to the rapids?  To know and understand the creek requires probing the depths as well as the shallows. Why did we want to dam the creek? Pride and a juvenile power trip were key motivators, but so was the knowledge that a larger deep hole would generate more long-term fun. Why did we believe this? We spent time in the hole.

Authentic, extended integrated study needs to be like time spent in a creek. The learners need to be cold, in the dark, slightly afraid, filled with adventure, having fun, and discovering their limitations as well as solving problems.

P.S. This came to me while I was in the shower.

TO INTEGRATE OR NOT TO INTEGRATE?

This is hardly the question! Experience and time has convinced me of the value of using an interdisciplinary approach to studying and teaching. (I really struggle with the education jargon “integrated study.”) After over a decade of collaboration with one of my English colleagues I have no doubt that a well-executed interdisciplinary course generates more enthusiasm and produces more benefits for high school students than any isolated mono-subject experience. Without a doubt my conclusions reflect a bias based on the nature of history (by definition an interdisciplinary discipline) and the joyful collaboration with my great friend and colleague.

Yet as I contemplate the current wave of enthusiasm for “integrated studies” I find myself pausing like Po’s narrator in “The Raven”. Something is tapping at my door. The rapping seems to come from the twin specters of Social Studies and Mediocrity. Having been trained as a historian, the idea of social studies for students in an academically rigorous independent school is anathema. Students need to be challenged by the historian’s attention to asking high quality questions about specific moments in the past and seeking to tell the story behind  those questions with meticulous attention to sources and details. Social Studies functions at a level of generalization which has little to do with the understanding people in their own time and space and how they did or did not change over time. It is an appropriate introduction to the world for younger students, but hardly hones the critical thinking skills that more mature students destined for academic sojourns at major universities need. The fact that the National Council for History Education is fighting so diligently to establish and keep real history courses in schools is a testament to the slippery slope social studies has been.

Mediocrity often arrives in tandem with courses which are based largely on generalization and taught by instructors not steeped in a specific discipline. My high school world history course was taught by a fully certified social studies teacher whose degree was in psychology. Needless to say, I learned very little about history, very little about critical thinking, and nothing about how historians work. Without a well-established background in both methodology and sources instructors cannot help their students increase and improve their intellectual prowess across a wide variety of subject areas.

So why are the dark twins sitting and tapping on the ledge of my consciousness as I stare at proposals for an interdisciplinary course? First, my experience is based on teaching an interdisciplinary course which had both an English scholar and a trained historian in the same classroom. This model allowed for constant movement between the disciplines and forced students to encounter texts, issues, and problems through two different lenses. In addition, students were constantly challenged to use both lenses because neither instructor allowed the other to ignore salient topics or use imprecise methods and language when engaging the material. No document was ever “just” a story or “just” a political tract; it was always both, and always unique.

Second, few schools have the resources to place two faculty members in a single classroom across the entire curriculum. The demand this model places on resources is prohibitive. Thus, the road toward integrated studies must negotiate the issue of one teacher in the classroom trying to be well-versed in two disciplines. The odds are that very few instructors have double majors. Are there detours around this problem? Indeed, but the reality is that once the class begins and the period gains momentum who among us will not gravitate (if not flee headlong) toward emphasizing the topics and methodologies we know best? This is a recepie for mediocrity. I shudder at the thought of my students relying on me to teach them how to analyze a complex piece of poetry.

So what to do? If historians do not have the requisite training for teaching math and English teachers are not prepared to teach history how do we bring the students to a richer and more complex learning environment?

Stay tuned.

Take Your Best Shot

To my colleagues, both physical and virtual, here is your chance to take a shot. Leave your comments on the PAST and TEACHING. Have a go!