Monday, March 9, 2009

The Class

So I went to see The Class on Saturday. It's a movie that sticks with you after you've seen it. I've been running a number of scenes back over in my mind for the last two days. It's certainly one of the most honest movies I've seen in a long time. It's about one classroom and one teacher's attempt to create a community of discourse with this one very particular group of students. It's very true to life in that way; no two groups of students are the same. Add a student, take away a student, and that changes everything as well.

It's true to life in other ways as well. Nothing about the teacher, the students, the school, or the administration is romanticized. It's about a group of people trying to get along and to learn something from one another, none of whom really have the skills to pull it off. I don't think I've ever seen a film about education which has so many "teachable moments" on display. What's interesting is that in a few of those moments, the teacher, Francois Marin (played by Francois B├ęgaudeau in a role based on his own experiences as a middle school teacher) manages to find an adequate response, but very often, and very often at the most significant moments, he fails to come through. In fact, I'd say that the film is ultimately about the many ways in which, despite our good intentions, we fail each other every day. It's also about class in the other sense of the word, the hierarchies of authority both inside of the school and in society at large. The question of "Who gets to decide?" is everywhere. Who gets to decide what we talk about in class? Who gets to decide what language is appropriate? Who gets to decide what the consequences are when a student behaves inappropriately? Who gets to decide what happens when a teacher does?

The narrative arc of the film leads toward a defining moment in which one of the students, a charismatic but recalcitrant student named Souleymane, who guards his private life with a formidable array of attitudinal and verbal weapons, winds up, in a scene that in retrospect seems both accidental and thoroughly predictable, putting to the test the entire system and the assumptions upon which it is based.

It's a very good film. I found myself wondering what part of it was documentary and what part of it was made up. One review I read suggested that the movie was not actually scripted but was more or less blocked out by the director and then improvised by the actors. It certainly has a spontaneity about it, and the ring of truth.

So How Do You Like Your New Job?

People ask me what it's like in my new position as Director of Instruction, and whether I miss being in the classroom after having spent my entire adult life teaching kids. What I find myself telling people is this: yes, I do miss being in the classroom. I miss the daily interaction with kids, and I miss the sense of continuity that comes with staying with one primary set of goals with 20 people pretty much every day for a semester. In my new position, I have many more things on the agenda, a greater range of things coming at me each day. I have a number of groups and individuals with whom I meet once a week or once every two weeks, and often by the time I cycle back to one group or issue, I have trouble remembering where we left off the last time, so in some ways it feels like I have to keep starting over.

Which is not to say that I'm unhappy in my new position. I like being in on discussions that help me understand how the school as a whole operates. I like the people I work with. I like the challenge of trying to sort out all the pieces and then trying to put them together into something that makes sense. I hadn't thought about this until just now as I was writing it, but in some ways, the work I've been doing with art is the analogue of what I'm doing during the day: trying to pay attention to what's in front of me, taking found materials and trying to arrange them in my mind, making connections and trying to shape something that has some structural continuity and makes sense. Maybe what I like about the process of making artworks is that I have more of a sense of personal control: all of the decisions are my own, whereas in my daily life I'm interacting with dozens of people all of whom are bringing something to the table. That's not a bad thing, but it does complicate things. I've arrived at a point where if you were to ask me for an explanation about just about anything going on on our campus right now — the one-to-one laptop program, the sustainability initiative, the leadership institute, the service learning program, the entrepreneurs-in-residence program, our attempts to provide support for students with learning differences, the K-1 initiative, the WASC self-study, or any one of a dozen other things going on over and above our regular curricular and co-curricular programs — my answer would probably start with the words, "Well, it's complex..." My job, it turns out, is to be the guy who tries to sort through the complexities and figure out how it all works. Which is fine by me. It's interesting, challenging work.

And yes, it's true, I certainly don't mind not having two or three hours worth of papers to correct every night like I did for the previous forty years. That's the thing that people outside the teaching profession don't get. As a teacher I made a commitment to myself and to my students to get any papers I assigned to them back the next day, or within two days at the outside. I never quite saw the point of assigning work to students and then getting it back to them too late for them to be able to apply what they had learned from whatever feedback I gave to them on the next assignment. I think it's critically important that kids write regularly, but it's just as important that they get the writing back quickly so that they can make adjustments as they go along. So I put that sword over my own head, and, when I go back to the classroom, I'll put it there again. But sure I don't mind that it's not there now.

Plus Three

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Full Circle

Well, I've been on a couple of journeys: geographical, intellectual, and artistic. And now it feels like I've come back full circle. I haven't been posting partially because I've been away, first to Maui for three days as a member of an accreditation team visiting a private school there, and then to Chicago for five days to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. So that was the geographical part.

Intellectually and artistically I've been circling deeper into the world of art, which has had the effect of taking me out of the worlds I would normally inhabit: the worlds of reading, and of writing, of playing chess or doing crosswords. Now when I have an hour or two open, I'm breaking out the materials and getting to work. I've also discovered a lot of people who have been out there before me, people like Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell , and that has been the beginning of another sort of education.

When I got back from Chicago (where I spent a number of hours at the amazing Art Institute of Chicago ), I found the February 24 issue of the New Yorker waiting for me. Every once in a while an issue of that magazine just hits on all cylinders, and this was one of those for me. There's a terrific profile of Ian McEwan by Daniel Zalewski, for example. Late in the article, he quotes a passage from McEwan's Saturday describing how the main character, a surgeon named Perowne, feels when he is at his work. Zalewski's point is that the description of Perowne's "ecstatic concentration" might serve as the analogue for McEwan's own engagement with the process of writing. But in reading it, I found myself saying, yes, that it pretty well describes the state of mind that I find myself in when I am trying to put together a collage:

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

That's dead on: clarified emptiness and joy.

In the same issue of the New Yorker, there's also an article by Louis Menand about Donald Barthelme. What blew me away about that article was that in his discussion of Barthelme's characterisically oblique and elusive writing style, Menand winds up comparing his method to that of Rauschenberg. Barthelme, it turns out, actually wrote a catalogue essay for a Rauschenberg exhibition in Houston, in which he says "The principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems to me also to be one of the central principles of literature." Menand points out:

The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals only with one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, was to treat sentences as if they were found objects.

We rarely experience sentences this way, because we're trying to look through them to the things they represent, just as, in traditional easel painting, we look through the canvas, as though it were a window, onto the world it represents. That's the kind of looking and reading that modernism was committed to disrupting...

The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Bartheleme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of the newspaper.

Reading this article helped to circle me back from the (art)work I've been doing recently to the work I've done all my adult life as a teacher and student of English, trying to work through and understand the logic of reading and the logic of writing and how they inform one another. So now I find myself, having been away for a while, back here, typing away, looking for the throughlines.