Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

http://smartborders.wordpress.com

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A River Runs Through It

     There is more than enough criticism in the world. Films and books, in my estimation, should be reviewed as to what they awaken in the viewer rather than attempting to base it off some shifting aesthetic truth. Like wine aficionados imploring you to envision dark cherries and raisins when you taste a chianti, perhaps we could all get more out of our media experiences if we discussed what it awakened in us. For that is the ultimate point of the arts, to awaken memories and fan passions and serve as a catalyst or an encouragement for some change.

 

     Last week I saw A River Runs Through It for the first time. Its sweeping epic, the gorgeous shots of Montana and its nostalgic views of fly-fishing all made me feel as if I were partaking in a classic. They reminded me of my own life, reminded me of the dreams I had as a child, as well as excited in me the desire to take up fly-fishing.

     What spoke to me even more than the stunning landscapes, though, was the idea that someone can make it something beautiful simply by loving it. Paul Maclean, the rebellious son who is embroiled in gambling and drinking problems, somehow elevates all those around him through the simple act of his beautiful casting. As a child he wanted to be a professional fly-fisherman, and even as he grew older and was forced to take other jobs, that driving passion still propelled him and gave his life meaning. To go fishing with Paul was to almost guiltily snatch a glimpse between a man and his true love.

     It strikes me that this is the fundamental act of teaching. Teaching is about many things – imparting responsibility, engendering independence, drilling the basics, and preparing students’ goals – but it is most especially the act of communicating a passion despite its utility. Surely writing and reading are noble classroom subjects, but for me they are more than that, the essence of what holds us together and the foundation of understanding. Literacy is the path to independence, to expression, to nonviolence, to a heightened sense of self.

     On a daily basis, my job is to communicate that emotion I get when I read a paperback with the rain drizzling just outside my window. I try to make my classes sense the excitement of new worlds offered in readings, the pleasure of saying something both necessary and beautifully. At times, this makes teaching the most frustrating job in the world. Rarely do we put our passions on display for others, and one always risks a profound un-appreciation which is both depressing and disheartening. To come to class ready to discuss Holden’s motivation for cleaning off the bathroom walls, only to discover not a single student has read that chapter, is to contemplate whether or not this is the profession to which you were called.

     But, in those instances when you see the flicker of the flame of interest, it is all worth it. Nothing in life compares to the sight of a pupil’s pupil changing from a black hole of disinterest to an open portal of independent discovery. A teacher never teaches an entire class; to hope for 100% passionate students is to set oneself up for failure. But, we do teach for those children who are waiting to get turned on to something meaningful, who have as of yet not been introduced to beauty by someone who loves it to distraction. It is my hope as a lifelong educator that I might be able to share my loves in such a way that my students cannot help but be curious about the power of writing and the self-fulfillment of reading. If only I can love it deeply enough, openly enough, and communicate it truly enough. This is an educator’s dream; this is the river which runs through us.

Published in: on December 9, 2007 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Words are…Power!

WORDS ARE….POWER

    This call-and-response begins class every single day in F114. I impress upon my students that I love my job because literacy is the heart of life. If you do not have a working literacy, you are forced to believe everything you hear. Without the ability to read, analyze, and check sources, my students must take everything I tell them at face value; and while I would never intentionally lie to them, there are plenty in this world who are less scrupulous with the truth.

    At the heart of students’ success is a working literacy. OCHEM, Fluid Mechanics, Intro to Statistics, World Geography, Government – all of these courses are based on a working written language. This fact is highlighted in border schools, where ESL students comprise the vast majority of the student population. The success of each students can largely be predicted by that student’s literacy. Additionally, Mexican culture was a primarily oral culture until just a few years ago, and still many parents and their children do not prize the capacity to mark and interpret black strikes on white pulp.

    Which brings me to the subject at hand. The national push to “modernize” our educational system can be summed up in a dark anecdote published by Time Magazine.

Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls–every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.” [“How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century” Dec. 10, 2006]

 

The past few years of NCLB have seen the American education system throwing millions of dollars to “technologize” its neediest schools. A week after Amazon.com released its revolutionary Kindle ebook system, some may be signing the death warrant of paperback books and their inclusion in our educational system. Grants abound for electronic funding and computer purchases, and private backers love to revolutionize and modernize needy schools (as opposed to buying them 500 books 1/10 the cost).

    Currently, border schools such as the one in which I teach subscribe to 3-5 different computer literacy programs aimed at different student populations. They also “utilize” at least that many test-preparation programs for reading. Many schools have SmartBoards in every class, several boast ELMO’s, and virtually every school is equipped with the bare necessities of their thousand-dollar LCD projectors. Still, however, at the end of the day, my particular school, like many other schools, lacks the capacity to provide books for its students. IN my particular case, I can only supply books for one of my 5 classes. Our school houses only 60 copies of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that all 900 freshman are required to read it each year.

    In the well-intentioned hope of modernizing, we are are neglecting the very heart of literacy – personal, private, independent reading. It is good and well if a students can interpret words in a movie or HTML, but they must also be able to glean information from a single sheet of pressed wood. Nothing can replace the physical joy of breaking in the spine of a new book, of completing that last page, of conquering a book, of downing your first full novel.

    At best, these technological frills are good supplements. Our students will not learn reading if they are never enabled to have reading homework. I have printed 100 copies of Huckleberry Finn from the amazing Project Gutenberg for my students, just so that they could interact with the text and take it home to read independently. I have also utilized a grant to purchase a book for every single one of my students to read and keep. For some, it was the first book they had ever read; the book took on new meaning as a trophy for them and, quite often, for their family. And by entrusting students with their own books, we as educators are teaching them personal responsibility and independence. The excuse that books are old-fashioned, costly, or unnecessary will not hold true unless there are no more books at all. The excuse that technology is the future is based off the implied fact that students possess basic literacy. With increased access to text but decreased literacy skills, our students can never hope to succeed in today’s world.

Words are Power.