Wednesday, July 13, 2016

It's not me, it's you

Dear Wes,
           I used to think it was me.  That time I saw you in New Mexico?  At the cowboy bar/dance-hall?  When you opened for The Band? That was pretty surreal.  Earlier that day, I'd been herding sheep on the Navajo reservation or something, and then drove like a bat out of hell back to Albuquerque with just enough time to shower off the lanolin stink and high tail it over to the place where people went to Boot Scoot Boogie.  And then when I saw you twenty years later in a record store and they set the show up backwards so that everybody who walked into the store basically hit you with the door as they entered?  Good times, Wes, good times.  But tonight?  Tonight takes the cake.   Instead of playing an outdoor concert in the local amphitheater like everybody else in the summer concert series, you played in the lower school auditorium of the school where I teach and where my kids go. Apparently it was raining or some other excuse.  There you were, with a three to four piece band standing where my daughter did her amazon rain forest animals presentation in fourth grade.  It was all too surreal. The joke you made about missing the Dylan concert tonight even though you had second row tickets?  Dude, my boss offered me his extra FIRST ROW ticket, but I had to decline because I couldn't get a babysitter for the kids. (BTW, your kids play baseball with his kids and they all go to that other school.  There are only five people in Philadelphia, apparently) The woman I was sitting next to, who was trying to sell me tickets to the Pro-Ultimate frisbee championships on Saturday and I were the only people at the show under 50 but over 13 besides you (maybe, I'm trying to be generous here), your wife, and the band.  It's never a good sign these days when I'm below the median age of the audience.  But when you brought up the guest artist and the young woman/frisbee fan said, "Hey, that was my high school French teacher!"  That was it.  We're done, Wes.  I finally realized, I'm never going to see you in a normal show.  It's not me, it's you. 
PS.  The gig was great.   Can't wait for the new album.
PPS. I'm looking forward to seeing you on a triple bill with a drag queen Runaways tribute band and the guy from Blue's Clues, just once for old time's sake.  But after that, were done.
PPPS  If you really want me back, you'll play this live sometime at a show I make it to.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

We have to have that conversation now.

When I was a kid, probably around 10 or 11, my cousins gave me their boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I devoured them.  Then I talked with my mom about them.  Mom has an MA in English literature.  Mom's first comment, "You know," she said, "Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus, it's all Christian allegory."  This was crushing to me.  Being Jewish was a strong part of my identity, not because I was actively Jewish (we were a high holy days and Saturday school kind of family), but because most of the kids around me weren't.  In elementary school we sang Christmas carols in school choir in public school.  I remember being in a phase in fifth or sixth grade where I felt I should only say things that I meant, and I mouthed the words.  Discovering that Narnia was written to make me less Jewish was heartbreaking.  Thankfully mom didn't point out that the gnomes were crude, vaguely anti-semitic stereotypes.  This played out a couple of times.  I made her read Stranger in a Strange Land and she pointed out "the martian is a Jesus figure."  After ruining a couple of more books she suggested I skim the New Testament since a) I couldn't understand most English literature without it and b) she was tired of wrecking things for me. 

When I re-encountered Narnia as an adult, I was thankful my own kids didn't like it (or at least the ones who are old enough to have read it haven't liked it).  I didn't want to have that conversation.  You know the one, it's the one I avoid when I discuss my great love of The Who, or the times I showed Chinatown in class.  What do we do when artists we love do something stupid or horrible?

Sometimes, it's more complex than that.  What happens when artists we love, in part, because their world creation is sophisticated and wonderful and closely aligns with our own political beliefs?  And what happens when subsequent works betray those feelings of kinship and recognition?  More frequent readers of the blog might think I'm talking about Orson Scott Card who went off the deep end some time ago, but this posted is prompted by J. K. Rowling's latest revelations about magic in North America.

I should have seen this coming, of course.   She'd screwed up her history of African magic (see Tim Burke's critique here and his alternative history here).   If you need to know what's wrong with it read this by Loralee Sepsey an undergrad at Stanford.  Sepsey gets a lot right about what Rowling gets wrong.  Rowling's Hogwarts is steeped in deep understandings of British history and her background in Classics.  It's no accident that some of the key dates in Wizarding history align with key dates in British history, 1689, 1945, etc. etc..  Rowling had a life time of education to draw on. 

But with North America, at least so far, it's a disaster of old narratives.  Plymouth Rock but not Virginia, quick alliance and then no mention of Native Americans.  Nothing on slavery or the Civil War.   Imagine if, for example, the praying villages of Christianized Native Americans that were massacred by both Native Americans and colonists during King Philip's War were actually disaffected Wampanag Wizards who were covertly seeking to learn European magic?  What if Merry-Mount was actually an attempt to create a bi-racial Wizarding haven?  There's no doubt that the massive destruction of King Philip's War indicates massive wizard involvement.  And that's just New England, she ignores, not only Virginia and the Middle Colonies, but New Mexico where wizards fleeing the Inquistion clearly helped create the unique culture of Hispano New Mexico (whether those wizards were also crypto-Jews is an open question).  

Which leads to the next conversation.  What am I going to tell my daughter.  She loves Harry Potter so much, she nicknamed her little brother Dobby.  Her sig line in her e-mail is a Dumbledore quote.  She's deep.  But she's also progressive in the way her dad is, and like her dad, she is particularly aware of issues pertaining to Native America.    She's going to be disappointed.  And then we have to have that conversation, about how artists we love screw up sometimes.  And how they could have avoided that screwing up.  In this case, Rowling made some severe rookie mistakes writing about Native North America.

If anybody out there is interested they are:

1.  Native Americans are really different from each other.  There are hundreds of tribes, hundreds of languages and dialects.  Even closely related people like the Apache and the Navajo are pretty different.   The idea that Rowling has (or seems to have) that skinwalkers exist in all indigenous cultures is just wrong. 

2.  Native Americans are present throughout American history.  They are everywhere all the time. 

3.  Kinship networks matter.  Kinship based societies operate fundamentally differently from European states.  This can make history really confusing if your framework is early modern Europe. 

There's a couple of other conversations to be had too.  This is a different conversation from why I still feel guilty when I listen to The Who.  Or do we go see the movie?  Or do this change how we feel about the first 7 books (short answer, no).  And for us liberals in the audience, remember how we dismissed those critiques of Piss Christ?  Chickens coming home to roost and all that.  More on this later. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In Memory of My Colleague Stan Parker

When I first came to Springside School back in the fall of 2001, Mr. Parker, as he was always called, was already mythical.  At the time, he only taught 1 class, honors US history to 9th grade boys, and thus he did not have to attend our coordinate department meetings.  Still his influence was everywhere, “what would Mr. Parker say if he saw you with your shirt untucked,” “what would Mr. Parker think of that effort,” “what are you going to say to Mr. Parker when you have to explain this to him.”  Now mind you, this was kids, saying this to other kids.  After a couple of years of this, and still never having met him, I was convinced that this “Mr. Parker” was 10 feet tall, carried a giant club for bashing heads, and was possessed of a voice that caused your face to melt like the Nazis who saw the Ark opened in Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

Imagine my surprise when Stan became history department chair and I finally met him,  the bespectacled scholar whose neat notebooks contained tightly organized lesson plans and reams of primary documents.  This was the legendary Stan Parker?  No pitchfork?  No forked tail? 

Well, of course not, this was a man, after all, who a student once described thus:  “Some teachers, it feels like they want you to fail, with Mr. Parker, it feels like he always wants you to succeed.”  And that was the essence of Stan right there.  Stan wanted you to succeed, be you a student, an athlete,  a colleague, or a friend.  He held himself and everyone around him to a high standard but his expectations were simple.  Be on time (but generations knew that "early is on time, on time is late, late is left"), do your best, if your best wasn’t good enough, ask for help so you can do your best next time, tuck in your shirt, ask a good question, be prepared, take good notes, don’t panic, take a deep breath. 

It was easy to get fooled by the bluster.  By the time I met Stan, he had already been teaching longer at CHA longer than most people teach in their entire careers.  And he would teach for more than another decade.  Despite his penchant for using the past to explain the present (he was a historian first and foremost), he was incredibly innovative.  This fall, for example, he organized a symposium for his AP Gov students where they had to present plans for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  It was the type of assignment that gets talked about as “21c” in the lingo, cutting edge, innovative, school for the 21st century.  And that was Stan, the guy who created the Washington trip, the guy who guided students from typewriters, to computers, to cell phones.  He didn’t make a big deal out of it, but he always understood that technology, used properly, was useful.  And in his own cranky way, he embraced it.   He was always innovating, always looking to get better as a teacher, as a colleague, as a person.

And that’s what he’d want from us going forward and the best way to honor him.  Be on time, do your best, if you don’t do your best ask for help so you can do better next time.  It’s a pretty simple playbook.  Stan was always a fan of “playing the game right way.”  If we can do those few things, it’s the best way we can honor his memory. 


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

This is not a map but it is probably a poker table

This is not a map.  It is a chart and not a particularly meaningful one.   I am not exactly sure what CB Insights does.  Something with helping people take money that could be used to pay teachers, or social workers, or building maintenance and spend it on IT instead.  In any case, if I were a smart person with money, I probably wouldn't use them.  They could have taken the information and made a map of which VC companies were funding which start ups and given us some visual cues as to where the actual money was going.  Maybe they could even have the thickness of the  bars that connect them reflect the amount of money invested.  Are VC firms spreading the wealth around evenly?  Do they think some sectors are more promising?  And nowhere, nowhere!, is Pearson even mentioned.  Ed-Tech VC is a lot like the poker room at Vegas.  If you don't know who the sucker is at the poker table, it's probably you. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

I Got Suspended.

The video explains everything

I have some amazingly talented students. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Kids Are Alright

It's been really quiet around the Panopticon of late.  I've been terribly busy with a new course that is kicking my butt.  I just found out I'm teaching AP US next year and I needed to put together a new summer reading and find a textbook.  We were hiring.  I'm trying to make sure every senior gives their senior speech before they go on senior projects (more on that in a second).  My wife's business is crazy.  I had another ER visit for an allergic reaction.  My spouse's business is going gang-busters but that means I'm doing extra dad duty, and there's been a lot of that.   

And so I have a lot of half-formed posts all of which seem out of date and irrelevant or just crappy when I get back to them.  It's all been a bit much. 

If it seems like I am down right now,  I'm not.  Just busy and exhausted and lacking some confidence.  So on Friday, I swung by the auditorium and cleared the stage from the orchestra set up so I could put the screen down to show a video in assembly, taught a class, raced backed to the auditorium, hooked up the video, set up the mic for the senior speeches, figured out who was actually there to give them and tried to take attendance of my junior advisees. 

And then I listened to the speech.  I had approved the speech weeks earlier, but the student giving it was sick on her assigned day.  Now the timing seemed perfect.  It was national day of silence and, she came out as bi- pansexual as part of the speech.  But that was not the moving part, the part that spoke to me.  Rather, it was the part about not listening to the critic in your head, the one that said "don't do that paper topic, it's not good enough; ditch that idea for the video, you won't be able to pull it off; you can't; you can't, so don't."  I've been hearing that voice a lot in the last few weeks.  So tonight, I'm blogging. 

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There's a facebook meme going around that I hate.  It's the one that talks about how great it was to grow up in the 50s, 60s and 70s and compares it to stereotypes about childhood and young adulthood today.  It's a giant "get off my lawn!" with a helping of "make America great again" on the side.  I actually took the time to debunk it on somebody's fb page I found it so irritating.  And the reason I found it so irritating is that kids today have a raw deal.  They play outside less because their parents are working more for less pay and they have wayyyyy more homework at a much younger age than we ever did.   For those that want to go college, it seems unaffordable and the choices of careers that could actually support them seem to shrink daily.  Are they all on meds?  A lot are, but a lot fewer are self-medicating with drugs, nicotine, or alcohol.  They are making better choices about sex, and like the student I heard speak on Friday, they lie to themselves and each other far less than we ever did.  And they take action.

Today my daughter attended the second annual Girls Climate Change Summit conceived and organized by a student who is a junior at her school.  It featured expert speakers  (Jane Goodall Skyped in!) and encouraged the attendees to act in large ways and small to prevent climate change.  More importantly it encouraged them to brainstorm their own solutions.  My daughter is in seventh grade.  She's already written two successful grants, conceived and run a pop-up restaurant that actually made money, plays steel drums, runs cross country and plays lacrosse, takes a drama class, and is teaching herself to code.  She's not atypical of a lot of kids today, even if she has exceptional opportunities.  The stakes for her and them are high and they know it.  A mistake that would have gotten me suspended could get a kid today arrested or killed.     But they're not giving up.  They keep trying to make the world better.  You know what, the kids are alright.