clarity: common ground and garden variety metaphors
I'm riding my bike near nineteenth avenue. It's a crowded street that straddles the line between urban and suburban; a sort-of purgatory on pavement where people grow edgy in the invisible permissiveness that invites people to jaywalk, yell at a car or chase down the bus, because the cops are busy dealing with the homeless lady who yells at pedestrians for walking too close to her teddy bear collection.
things become clear when they become unclear
So, in the midst of this atmosphere of anarchy, a man bursts through with a voice amplified by a megaphone. He's shouting gigantic curses on “this generation,” reminding me of Heaven and Hell, but mostly of the fires of Hell. He tells me there is a magic incantation to recite, a Sinner's Prayer, all typed up for me so that I don't have to use my own words. I listen for a minute, but the voice fizzles out before the sound, until he's eventually just a man in a suit, gently kissing the a technological medium that promises power in exchange for words.
It's not that I disagree with him . . . at least on the core issue of the possibility to know God. I love Jesus; not the Silverscreen Jesus who speaks with a British accent, as though he is ready to have tea at any moment while he waves his shiny Treseme hair to his well-behaved students. But I love the rebellious one who challenged the standardized system and suggested that the rules and coercion and social hierarchy were meaningless in an upside-down kingdom. The problem is that the megaphone approach tells the story the wrong way, full of fear and anger. It's like stripping the beauty of Romeo and Juliet and making it into porn. It just feels wrong.
The Megaphone Man dominates the debate on public education. Wearing the same polished suit and gently kissing an even more technologically-developed medium, he gains power through a loud voice. What scares me is how easily I try to compete with Megaphone Man. Sometimes I look back to my blog and wonder if I am falling in love with my technological medium, using it to feel powerful rather than to express truth.
Sometimes I have to step back and and realize I am becoming the very person I am dogmatically fighting against. Brad says the greatest teachers of all time were able to listen more than they spoke and to engage in mess and mystery instead of lobbing insults at those who are misinformed. Perhaps the answer is in admitting that I'm the scared guy with the flickering light in the lonely cave.
* * *
I become stereotypical in trying not to be stereotypical. I relish in the notion that my Legion of Piss Poor Scholars can often out-think the honor's crowd. But then, I'll get a kid from the honor's group who will force me to confront my own prejudice.
At the beginning of my class, I offer the students a fill-in-the-blank response to some philosophical questions. It becomes the impetus toward discussions on how we define truth and reality in a digital-shaped, image-overload environment. She answers the question:
Truth is ________________
I'm surprised that a straight-A student refuses to do her Bell Work.
“What did you mean by this?" I ask her.
“I can't define truth. I haven't figured it out in thirteen years and I don't think I'll get it out in ten minutes, either. Truth just is, you know?”
“Like it's self-evident.”
“What's does that mean?”
“Self-evident means it's self-existent. It means it stands alone.”
“Yeah, like you can't define it. It's the beginning of everything else that you define. Logic and feeling aren't the beginning of truth. They're the result of it."
A student on my track team asks me what I think of the rogue sheriff who deports people indiscriminately and breaks up families.
“I hate that man and hate is usually a word I reserve for genocide and olives.”
“When was the last time you prayed for him?” she asks.
I am silent. “What would you do if you met with him?” I ask her.
“I would try and find common ground. I wouldn't get into a shouting match or nothing. I would begin with what we share and then I'd try and see if he could be open to expanding his view of the truth.”
I'm thinking of that term “common ground” right now. It feels a lot less like a cliché when I'm in the garden and Joel and Micah are sloshing through the mud. Mystery. Mud. Dirt. Common ground. The earth we share. Gardening is not crisp and clean and nice. It's messy, like paradox and mud.
* * *
Students in my district have a hard time passing the standardized tests. It's no secret. You don't have to show me another graph advertising this in an in-service meeting (if you really want to provide me a service, you might want to ditch the graphs next time).
Some say the problem revolves around the incessant drill-and-kill instruction geared to teaching to the test. Students fail to engage in higher-order thinking and the learning is not authentic. Others claim that the problem is students lack the practical skills like reading fluency or writing mechanics. Both sides are right. I have students who are missing a few key practical skills and others who have not been challenged to think deeply. If I want to address this, I need learning to be both holistic/conceptual and skills-based.
Some say it's wrong to expect students to do well on a standardized test that fails to hold them accountability, especially when the test is culturally biased and requires prior knowledge they do not have simply because they are from the working class. Others say those are all excuses and that low standards have created unintentional academic ghettos. Both are right. My students face immense barriers, but offering excuses won't fix that issue. Test or no test, I want them to increase in their knowledge of the world.
Some point out that that the test is irrelevant to their lives and especially irrelevant in a Digital Age. Others point out that students will have to pass tests in the future and that the tests can give a relevant, albeit fuzzy, picture of what students know. Both are right. The test is irrelevant when it is the bottom line. We spend way too much time and attention on it. Yet, I have found that students need the skill of finding their own answer and then fitting it into something which best matches their idea.
I wonder if the major culprit is not the test or the students or even the poverty. I wonder if the major culprit is binary thinking. Edu-pundits latch onto one major idea and then try and create a solution that fails to address the whole picture. Transnational corporations hijack the conversation so that they can make more money off of mindless test prep materials. We rush to solutions without seeing the comprehensive problems.
Imagine a person in a horrible car crash and the doctor responds, "Yes, his heart is failing and he has internal bleeding, but we really need to treat only his brain injury. Thinking is all that matters."
Case in point: students need the core curriculum of reading and writing and math. Yet, they can't unlock a passage without prior knowledge and those are found in social studies and science and art and PE. Students need fluency in reading and yet one of the best ways to become fluent is through drama. One of the best ways to improve in math is being involved in music. Yet, a student will fail to grasp a subject like social studies without knowing how to read or write.
Both/and thinking feels very wishy-washy and dangerous. It begins to feel like a cop-out. And perhaps I am copping out on this one. However, my experience as a teacher suggests that everyone is right regarding why students are unable to pass the test and both sides are typically right on the issue of whether or not students need holistic education and job skills and both sides seem right about whether knowledge is created or transmitted.
* * *
Jesus stands before Pilate and gives a brief explanation of his identity. Blind by hubris, still a bit drunk with power, a hungover Roman governor speaks for humanity. "What is truth?" he says or asks or perhaps even exclaims. Silence.
There would be a time for preaching and teaching and speaking. A time for listening intently. In this moment, though, the answer is silence. I would do well to follow that example a little more often.