6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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20050430

All I Wanted To Do After I Got Out Of High School Was Drive A Truck

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,
It’s a wonder I can think at all.
Paul Simon, The Paul Simon Collection: On My Way, Don't Know Where I'm Goin'


Teaching as a possible career was something I never considered until my senior year at Cal-State Long Beach. I had been recommended by my faculty adviser to teach a course in Comparative Literature. Long story as to how that came about. Anyway, never having taught anything before, I was a little nervous to say the least. It was one thing to be a student sitting in someone else’s class, but to be a teacher standing up in front of a class of unfamiliar faces was an entirely different thing. The fact is I didn’t have a clue as to how to conduct a class. And having a course syllabus that my faculty advisor had helped me develop certainly didn’t instill me with a sense of confidence that I was actually going to be able to pull this off.

The focus of this course was on the quest and fulfillment of a journey by reading and discussing works from Homer’s The Odyssey to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. After introducing myself to the class and explaining procedures, requirements and evaluation, I wrote the following question on the board and asked my students to write a brief response:

Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

After my students finished their initial writing, I read the opening paragraph to Homer’s, The Odyssey. Just as I was to start an initial discussion, a student raised her hand and told me that class had ended 5 minutes ago. I apologized and thanked them for a great beginning, and gave them their assignment for their next class.

Thus began my journey as a teacher. And until that first day, the idea of teaching as a profession was something I never considered as a career. I was a writer, specifically a poet. And as a poet, I wanted to master my craft. I wanted to be with others who shared my interest not just with writing, but with reading as well. My passion for writing and reading has been and still is a life long ambition. But as any young idealist soon discovers, you can’t pay the bills on ambition alone.

Thus during the teaching of that course, I came to realize teaching would be a terrific way to make a living. As Robert Frost put it, the true marriage between “avocation and vocation,” (1936). It was then that I decided teaching for me would become the means to share with others my passion, joy, as a writer and reader, and by doing so, help them understand the process involved with writing and reading, and as a result, become more comfortable and confident with their own writing and reading.

Because I didn’t go into teaching through the front door by majoring in education, and taking the prescribed teacher-training courses, I encountered quite a few interesting problems and conflicts when I began teaching high school. After graduating Cal-State Long Beach in 1980, I moved to a small town in Maine and tried out a high school teaching position in remedial English. The department head wanted me to use the textbook, workbooks and activity sheets that the curriculum committee had approved for the courses I was hired to teach. In reviewing the materials, however, I knew that I would not be able to provide the students with a viable learning experience, and as such, would not be effective in improving their English skills if I were to use them.

At first I didn’t really understand why I considered the use of the recommended (mandated) materials so objectionable. It wasn’t until I reflected upon my own experiences when I was a public school student that I began to realize why I had such a strong objection to what I was being directed to do. I hated school. And in particular, I hated English. And the reason I hated English—with the exception of one particularly good English teacher I had in eighth grade—was because of the half-witted, unenthusiastic tyrants who bored me to death with textbooks, activity sheets, quizzes, book reports, five paragraph essays, and mind-numbing workbooks on grammar, vocabulary and spelling. My frustration was especially acute, if not ironic, considering that the two things I liked doing the most on my own—reading and writing—somehow never seemed related to what I did in English. By the time I had finished 10th grade, I decided school was not for me. I discovered I could actually learn much more effectively and efficiently at home and at the library then I could at school. Yet, here I was ten years later, teaching English to a group of totally apathetic, if not disaffected students.

It was then that I decided I was not going to be the kind of teacher to them that my teachers had been to me. I helped my students develop reading lists based on their interest and needs for books and magazines available at the school and town library. I required them to keep journals for their individual writing and responses to the books and magazines they read. They were also required to keep a portfolio of all their written work that they did throughout the year. Instead of workbooks and activity sheets, I taught writing and reading skills in context with the books the students actually read.

The amazing thing was how interested and productive these students became with their studies. Class discussion, especially group discussions, became both purposeful and enjoyable. Students started to take an active interest in their reading and writing, and started to read and write more significant content as the year progressed. For their final project, students had to put together a chapbook comprised of their best work for the year, prefaced with an introduction on what they learned about themselves in relation to the reading and writing that they did during the course of the year. During the last week of school, they displayed their work in the library, and made themselves available to talk about their chapbooks, and what they had learned.

In spite of the significant improvement and achievement these students had accomplished, especially in terms of their writing and reading development, none of that mattered. Because I had refused to use the required texts and materials, I was told I would not be recommended for a continuing contract unless I showed deference to their prescribed curriculum. I decided to part company, and headed off to graduate school to pursue an MFA in English.

After I completed my first year of graduate work at Wichita State, I began to teach courses in freshman composition and classical rhetoric under the direction of Professors Anthony Gythiel and Peter Zoeller. It was from them that I learned that the teaching of composition and literature as an object of study should be taught as a process of asking questions, of understanding the relationship between thought and word. To read or to write is to initiate discourse, either with the text or ourselves, and that when we teach literature and composition to our students we do so as a collaborative effort by which teacher and students join together in exploring the means by which we make discoveries. Because of them, I began to reflect on what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and to develop ideas in regard to a teaching philosophy that would not necessarily be student-centered or teacher-directed, but instead a dialectical approach which would allow me to develop ideas that would help me transcend the teaching of composition and literature.

After graduating Wichita State in 1984 with an MFA in English/Creative Writing, I moved back to Maine, and secured a teaching position at George Stevens Academy, a private high school. My four years there were fortuitous in that I was able to experience incredible growth and insight as a teacher. Unlike my first high school teaching experience, I was not monopolized by a prescriptive curriculum. I was given complete autonomy in selecting the books and materials for all courses I was assigned to teach. I discovered that given the actual book written by the author, students would read it so long as the subject was made relevant to them. I discovered that when given choices, students would write about themselves, their homes, and their community. I realized that courses could be content rich, without being content driven, and that you could involve students to read mythology, classical literature, etc., and write about what they read with purpose and direction. I discovered that if you showed a student how to read a book, they would read; that if you showed a student how to write, they would write. I discovered learning involves active participation; but for that to happen the teacher must understand that the students are not merely passive recipients, and that learning becomes meaningful only when it is authentic and retained. Show a student how to think, and they will think. Involve them in the work as active participants, and they will understand. As Ann E. Berthoff says in The Sense of Learning, “…if we make interpretation central in our teaching, than anything we do will have heuristic value, (1990, p. 10).

The secret in motivating students to do well, then, is quite simple: see the class not just as a group, but as a whole comprised of individual learners, accept them at the level you find them, and guide them in the direction you would like them to go. I believe it is also because of this approach that I had very few problems with classroom discipline. Teaching for me is largely a collaborative effort by which the teacher and students join together in exploring a subject or line of inquiry to see what discoveries can be made about a work, or the ideas that a work expresses. In essence it is the willingness on my part as their mentor to initiate and establish a continual dialogue with the students for the expressed purpose of learning together. So long as learning is not perceived as an act of coercive obligation, do students rarely become “a problem” within the class. Instead, they become self-directed and begin to assume responsibility for their reading, writing, and discussion by being engaged with their learning, not by being tortured with irrelevancy and disconnectedness.

copyright © 2005 by S. L. Cunningham
All rights reserved.

20050426

"Good To See You."

During the early nineties I was employed as a Medicaid eligibility specialist with the state of Florida. With the increasing number of applications for nursing home placements and other SSI related programs, I found myself increasingly overwhelmed by the thought that I would never be caught up with my caseload. At times I seemed so far behind, and the demands and expectations put upon me seemed so unreasonable. A couple of times I felt as if I were actually going to lose it.

My saving grace, though, was going home at the end of the day and greeting my six-year-old son. “Good to see you,” I’d say.

“Good to see you, too,” he would reply.

I would then sit down with him and review how things went at school, and then helped him with his homework. After homework and eating dinner, we would go riding on one of our bicycle adventures. Living in Cocoa Beach on a barrier island afforded many different routes that we would take throughout the week. Sometimes we rode a couple of miles down A1A to the Mapco Convenience Store for a root beer and a couple of boxes of Good & Plenty. Sometimes we’d head over to the playground behind the former Freedom Seven Elementary School, and just have a good time swinging and talking. Other times we would work ourselves up an appetite by riding our bicycles down the beach, struggling with the friction from the sand and wind. A couple of miles of that and we were ready for a feast of hamburgers and french fries at Krystals.

Reflecting back on that time, I realize just how much I enjoyed the time I spent with my son. Even more amazing, now that my son has gone off to college, is just how fast that time of “growing up” really goes. As the years went by, I made time for my son no matter what my schedule may have been. And as always our familiar greeting with each other remained constant throughout the years. What I didn’t realize then was that my simple greeting was a wonderful way for me to validate his presence. It was my way of saying, “Hey, you really matter to me and I love you no matter what.” Now that he’s in Houston, we talk often on the phone and occasionally chat with each other on AIM. “Good to see you,” though, has changed to “Good talking with you,” or “Good chatting with you,” And so separated by hundreds of miles, we still remain close.

20050416

A Simple Act of Kindness

Last Tuesday morning we had what I hope is the last snowfall of the season. Like the first snowfall of the season, the last snowfall makes me feel a sense of wonderment and anticipation. It has been a particularly long winter this year, and knowing that warm weather is right around the corner made this snowfall of wet, fat flakes that barely stuck to the ground easy to accept.

I quickly got dressed, and then found myself amused by my cat’s reaction when he jumped up on the desk and looked out the window. Watching the falling snow, the back of his head looked like a bobble toy. After getting dressed, I put on my coat and walked downtown Belfast to Chase’s Daily for breakfast.

The place was packed, and there was quite a long line of people waiting to get a table. Seeing a couple of spots available at the counter, I decided to take the stool on the end. No sooner than I sat down at the counter, a young woman approached and asked if I’d mind if she sat next to me. I didn’t object and went about reading the newspaper I had just picked up. The server then came up to us and asked her what she wanted to drink. “Coffee, please,” she replied.

The server then asked if I would be having coffee, too. “Yes,” I replied. It was then that I noticed the server seemed to be writing both our orders on one check. She didn’t ask the young woman or me if we were together, or if we wanted separate checks. Because we basically sat down at the counter at the same time, the server seemed to have assumed we were together. The young woman sitting next to me didn’t seem to notice what just had evolved. I didn’t say anything. I was curious as to how this was going to play out.

After the server took our order, the young woman next to me asked if I might be the radio announcer on WERU. She said my voice sounded exactly like his. “I’m Andrea,” she said as she extended her hand. After telling her I wasn't familiar with that paricular station, I introduced myself, and then engaged in a little chitchat about the weather, what it’s like to live in Belfast, and her campout on Bald Rock last night. After we finished eating, she got up from the counter and ambled off to look at the artwork that was being featured in the restaurant. The server then came over and placed the check in front of me. “You can pay for that when you’re ready,” she said. I picked up the tab, and sure enough, our server had, indeed, assumed we were together.

At first I thought I’d just mention the mistake to the server, and have her make out separate checks. But then I said to myself, why not just extend a simple act of kindness by paying for her breakfast. And so that’s what I did.

Just as I was walking up to pay the cashier, Andrea was walking back to the counter. I turned to her and said, “The server assumed we were together and wrote out one check for our breakfast. I’ve decided to take care of it.”

“What, pay for my breakfast? she asked. “Oh, no. I can’t let you do that.”

I smiled at her and said, “It’s been awhile since I’ve extended a complete stranger a simple act of kindness. It would be my pleasure to take care of this,” I said.

She seemed flabbergasted. “Well, thank you very much,” she said as she extended her hand for the second time. “That’s very nice of you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. After paying the check, I put my coat on and left.

Every now and then when an opportunity presents itself to do something on the spur of the moment, especially when it has to do with acts of kindness toward others, it feels good to simply give without being asked. As I was walking back home through the wet snow, I realized that too often in life we sometimes forget that people aren’t all that different, that we are no different from the person sitting next to us. I think my outlook on how I perceive events, situations and people is beginning to change, though in ways I’m not sure I quite understand.

20050410

"Do You Think Love Is Selfish?"

Yesterday afternoon my son called me from Houston, and no sooner than I said, “Hey, how are you,” he responded by asking me a classic esoteric question that was way beyond any simple answer or definition that I could give him. “Do you think love is selfish?” he asked.

Not wanting to bite right off, I asked him what kind of question was that. He said he had a paper due for a class he was taking in ethics and that the topic he had to write on was whether or not he thought love was selfish.

“When’s this paper due?” I asked.

“Last week,” he replied.

“And you’re calling me now about it?”

“Well, I’ve been putting it off because I don’t know how to answer it.”

I suggested that “love” is a basic positive emotion of regard or affection and as such is neither selfish nor selfless. How love is manifested determines whether one is acting selfishly or not. If, for example, someone chooses to express love toward another based on attraction and affection in the expectation that that person will reciprocate in kind could be considered selfish. My son paused for a few seconds and then asked, “So it’s a question of whether it’s conditional or unconditional?”

When my son was born never did I imagine a conversation like this would ensue 19 years later. If I had, I would have immersed him while he was growing up in the writings of Plato, Shakespeare, Emerson, and D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. I suggested he find a park to take a walk in and take time to think about the question and reflect on what he thinks about it.

After saying goodbye, I sat down and pondered how he might write a paper in which he argues whether love is selfish or not. But then considering I have had several failed relationships and a divorce, I’m probably not an expert on the matter. Maybe in falling in love, but definitely not in sustaining it. Perhaps Lennon/McCartney said it best: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Needless to say, I am no great thinker and too often get lost in my own thought long before I can find my way through someone else’s thought. One of these times I’m afraid I just might not find my way back. Is that the phone ringing again?

20050408

Growing Some Funk of My Own

This year definitely will be remembered as a year of momentous events. My son turned 19 in February and is now living in Houston, Texas where he attends college full-time, and works part-time at the Hilton as a server. My daughter, who lives with my ex-wife, turned 18 in March and will be graduating high school June 9th.

To think that my two children are grown up and preparing to begin their own grand-adventures in life leaves me feeling an odd sense of melancholy. Just turning 51 I find myself to be in a real funk of sorts. Perhaps it is because of the realization of my new status as "empty-nester," or the incredibly long winter that has finally come to an end. But then maybe it is because of the realization that I am free to pack up and move to anywhere I would like to.

To do so would be nice in itself, almost an act of desperate liberation. But as I ponder traveling to points unknown, I start to wonder what I would do with all my things. Not that I have a lot of things, but certainly enough to make a free-spirited move turn into an encumbered act of frustration. There's the pine butcher block kitchen table with the mismatched maple chairs, the monolithic couch that has me looking through the yellow pages for listings under “chiropractor" after I've been sitting in it for more than a couple of hours, the queen size bed that is curiously bowed in the middle, TV's, stereos, books, papers and all kinds of assorted knick-knacks acquired throughout the years.

If I were to move, I think I would definitely pare down my "things" to what I actually need and value the most. Heck, even if I don't move, paring down might not be such a bad project in itself. I certainly don't need the 30 odd pairs of mismatched socks, the shirts and pants I no longer wear or would even dare to wear, and the boxes and boxes of books I'll never read again. Better to give those to the school library than to have them taking up all my closet space.

And so at least for the rest of this month, I will spring clean like I've never spring cleaned before. Maybe after doing so I might not feel as ambivalent about my life as I do now. Think I'll get started by culling through the books I have stored in the back bedroom closet. Earth Sciences. Hmmm? Now that's one book I won't be reading again.

20050405

O.K., where's that cup of coffee?

Posted by Hello

20050404

Reflections On "No Child Left Behind"

Scot Cunningham, 2005

“Rather than encouraging holistic, progressive, or other alternative programs (public or private) that are WORKING for ALL children in their schools, NCLB and any federal legislation that mandates standardization by grade-level testing implicitly DISCOURAGES the continuation of programs that focus on the particulars of children's needs.” Robin Ann Martin, PHD on “No Child Left Behind.”

During the early eighties when I began to teach English as a career, education was rife with change. Mantra one day became dogma the next. New buzzwords came into play quicker than notes blasted from a rusted trumpet found at a yard sale: whole language, holistic grading, writing process, learning styles, etc. And just about everybody with an edD had a workshop or a writing program that would provide a remedy for just about any situation encountered in the classroom. And as much as I had a tendency to accept some of the “newer” ideas being bandied about—especially those that were presented in the education courses I had to take at the University of Maine to obtain teacher certification—I felt uneasiness with trying to implement them in the classroom. When you have students who have limited knowledge and experience with a new subject, you have to have input and intake from the teacher. To think that a student is going to be able to make discoveries with a text--or in creating text--without the teacher providing some kind of framework is at best naïve.

Too often in teaching, we make the mistake of seeing students as objects rather than individuals. It is almost as if we do this to hide behind a veil of timidity. What’s worse, though, is how we sometimes rationalize our failure to establish trust and rapport with our students. Today’s teaching environment certainly isn’t very friendly, nor is it very conducive to learning. Students do need help initially with defining goals that they can achieve on their own. But if students are to achieve mastery of a subject, than instruction has to be tailored to meet their specific needs, especially in regard to having a sense of competence and relatedness to others.

I think what troubles me, then, with any teaching system or style—whether it be teacher-directed or student-centered—is the unbearable superficiality that evolves whenever a teacher or curriculum committee subscribes to a particular method, or set of beliefs, and tries to put it into practice without fully understanding the theory behind it, or when evidence to the contrary suggests something entirely different. As John Gatto puts it in Dumbing Us Down, “Experts in education have never been right; their ‘solutions’ are expensive and self-serving and always involve centralization” (1992, p. 34).

Now that the federal government has mandated that no child should be left behind, the struggle today continues and seems even more acute now than it was when I started out in teaching. In Maine, for example, the big buzz word for the last couple of years has been “reform,” especially in regard to the new state standards that are covered under the umbrella of the Maine Learning Results, a behemoth document which mandates what students are supposed to learn and know by the time they graduate high school. All curricula for all subjects taught from kindergarten through 12th grade have to be in alignment with the new standards. It would seem Pavlov’s dogs are baying at the door, which I think is ironic considering that the very remedy that educationalists are trying to cure us of is what led us to our malady to begin with, and that is the sickening mediocrity that behaviorist, objectivist philosophy has inflicted us with. But there is hope. The ideas developed during the seventies and eighties in regard to student-centered teaching based on constructivist philosophy continues to evolve and is referred more commonly today as “project-based, authentic learning.” Again, the distinguishing difference is that the emphasis is on “process,” not “product” (von Glaserfeld, 1996).

Teaching is not just a quest. It is a process of becoming and being. It is a testament of what it means to be human. But above all else, it is an expression of love. To effectively teach, you quite literally have to stand before your students as one who has gone before. To teach requires and demands a high level of commitment and responsibility to your students. By teaching, we are guiding our students by showing them the path that will lead them toward becoming self-actualized adults who can participate effectively and responsibly in society. It does not matter necessarily that students may be planning to go on to college or enter the world of work. What does matter is whether they can participate effectively and contribute meaningfully in a society of shared but diverse ideas and standards. Will students who graduate high school have learned to connect with others? Will they have the necessary skills to write and communicate effectively? Will they be able to define and complete tasks? Will they be able to work with others in developing a project to its completion? Will they be able to propose and contribute new ideas? Will they be able to conduct research and analyze information? Will they be IT literate? Read any job description, and you will see that today’s employers not only require new employees have these skills, they demand it.


References:
1. Robin, Ann Martin. Paths of Learning. 2004.
http://www.pathsoflearning.org/library/NCLB.cfm
2. Gatto, John. (1992) Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
3. von Glasersfeld, E. (1987). “Learning as a constructive activity.” In C. Janvier, Problems of representation in the teaching and learning of mathematics, (pp.3-17). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
4. von Glasersfeld, E. 1996. "Introduction: Aspects of Constructivism." In Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives,and Practice, (pp. 3-7). C. Fosnot, Editor. New York: Teachers College Press.