I Should Have Learned

(In response to Sarah Kay’s list)

I should have learned by now…
Some kids don’t give a what about writing
So why bother with attempted insighting and grade-grubbing fistfighting?
Give ‘em all an A, like they say, and I can have a stress-free day — Hooray!

No way.

I’m on a quixotic crusade — renegade mental fusillade
Forget the grades, intellectual revolution gots to get made
(And yeah I gots to get paid, but that’s not why I’ve stayed)

I don’t listen to reason, every season apathy allergies got me sneezin
Laziness gives me a rash; my head’s bashed like a slow-motion car crash
I wanna mash on these fools fixated on the cash
Can’t blame the lettuce when they graduate and forget us
I should just take it easy but ignorance makes me queasy
Can’t have a revolution without mental evolution

Keep fighting! More weight! Breathe deep to keep from snappin
I can make it happen, cap’n — “wake a couple ‘heads with my four-star rappin”
The kids who care least need inspiration the most
Wake the ancestors’ ghosts from coast to coast

But I’m exhausted like a muffler tailpipe
Young minds are ripe — don’t believe the hype
Naw, I should be a relaxer and make peace with the slackers
Instead of wearing myself out being a pedagogical attacker
If that kid wants to sleep, what gives me the right to wake him up
and pour enlightenment ambrosia in his red solo cup?
But zombies can be cured — I refuse to be ignored
Knowledge: If you live by this word, you won’t die by the sword

Good enough is not good enough; the world’s full of mediocre stuff
It’s not fair to his family or future identity
If I just let him be — comatose ‘til the age of 23
But what does it get me?
Anxiety, headaches, sleep deprivation
All in the name of some future liberation
I don’t need this frustration and aggravation
How I’m gonna be this kid’s intellectual salvation?

That’s ego domination — right? Isn’t that the explanation?
I should do the minimum required by the administration
I should learn to be bland instead of spicy like selsa
I should learn to let it go like Elsa
But the cold bothers me; I’m from Florida, dammit
Catastrophe is exploding all over the planet
I care about this concept — you need to understand it
A change is gonna come, and it’s time we began it

But why should I care? I can still get mine
If I just hand out worksheets and keep the children in line
Just go for self — isn’t that always the line?
“the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”
It’s the American way; take the path of least resistance
Drop your insistence for significant existence
If I cared a little less and let my classes be lame
I’d have more time for reading and video games

“You can’t reach that kid nohow — he’ll never read a book”
That’s the attitude the teacher’s Little Hater always took
So why be a shnook? Bash your head against the wall?
Pretend there’s a fresh start every year in the fall?
You can’t fix it all, so why put up a fight?
Why not go gentle into that good night?

Because you know the answer — you got red pills to hand out
You’ve got to be Morpheus, make noise and stand out
Rock the Nebuchadnezzar for the future, not vanity
Destroy the whole matrix and rescue humanity

Writing Under the Gun

So there’s a new app called Flowstate that forces you to keep writing, or else all your words vanish. It’s supposed to liberate you from thinking too much and instead learn to trust your core creative self. (What Natalie Goldberg calls “burning through the first thoughts”.)

There’s also a free web version and a Slate article about it which mentions “gamelike qualities” including “flow” — which I view with skepticism as a fair bit of malarkey, unless it’s the psychological concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — but I’m curious so I gave it a try.

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read this twaddle, but here it is regardless.

well I didn’t want to write for five minutes straight, but I guess I’ll have to, since there’s no way to set it for only two minutes. I’ve had this recommended to me by two people now, which means I have to try it. There’s obviously no wait to use italics, which is weird, because I really wanted to italicize that word “have” in the previous sentence. I also worry that I’m focused too much on proper spelling, because delete doesn’t work — or I should say it doesn’t count as actually typing when you’re being measured by this clock in the upper-right corner of the screen. Then again I guess I cannot be too angry at that, because Natalie Goldberg in her book _Writing Down the Bones_ says that when you’re writing a first draft, you shouldn’t even bother to crrect mistakes. There, klook — I kept that typo in, manh that is really againsty my nature but i’m into trying new things so let’s see what happens when I don’t bother with fixing things as I go. I suppose it’s supposed to open some new door of my consciousness, like a Rider on the Storm, but I don’t really believe that’s likely. On the other hand, who knows what will happen when I try to fight the internal censor? Then again I’m just sorta writing for the purpose of writing and I think the pressure of the clock is more hurtful than helpful here. I mean, I want to kin of organize my thoughts but I can’t, because I’m paranoid that if I do the wrong thing all my writing is going to disappear and there are few things in life worse than the idea that something I’ve worked really hard for will just vanish. Then again, that’s kind of what happens when a minecraft server wipes, so you’d think I’d be used to that by now. In a way, maybe this new format is kind of like a Tibetan Mandala, and it6′s healthy for5 us to consider the value of working really hard on something for a very long time only to see it get blown away to remind us of the transitory nature of all things. I wonder how this will read when I’m done — part of me thinks I’ll be all proud of myself to show off all the things I wrote when I’m done, not to mention the impressive 73 WPM that I achieved and DFANGIT i made another typo because it’s actually 83 wpm but I dare not co.. hey look the top of the thing says “WIN!” So I guess I won. Hooray for me.

Didactic SynCast #99: Heresy and Heresy

Another long wait for a show — sorry about that, folks. I’m not sure what I’m going to do for Show #100, but I guess it ought to be special somehow. Any ideas?

Anyway, enjoy this episode!

DS#99: Heresy & Heresy

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Heresy: “Da Call-Out”

A Few Thoughts on Terrorism, War, and Motivation

I was going to relax and play Fallout 4 after school, but instead I wrote a thing about terrorism and ISIS. If you want to know what I think, here it is.

I don’t believe that there’s anything fundamental to Islam that predisposes it to violence more than other religions. I read the Koran a long time ago, and most of what I remember is how terrible the suffering will be for those who deny the glory of Allah.

Reminded me of the Left Behind novels, where all the sinners get bulldozed into pain and torture by a Romanian nuclear disarmament activist who moves the UN to Jerusalem. And the authors of those books insist they’re based on an orthodox reading of the Christian book of Revelations.

What’s the Problem?

I won’t deny that there are terrible things being done in the name of Islam, but that’s always been true about every religion — there’s even a Buddhist guy in Myanmar who’s calling for terrorism toward Muslims. Are there more violent acts carried out (intentionally) against civilians in the name of Islam than other religions? I don’t know, I haven’t done the math. Does it feel like it? Kinda. But the US also drops a LOT of bombs on innocent civilians with our flying robots — and Christianity is the dominant religion in this country. I know we’re not dropping those bombs in God’s name, but when you’re on the receiving end, that distinction evaporates pretty darn fast.. (Just as lots of conservative folks are ignoring divisions within Islam pretty darn fast, after WE got bombed.)

I think it’s important to remember that we’re at war with an ideology, not a religion or a culture or even just one death cult. (It’s certainly fair to use that term for ISIS.) We could wipe out ISIS, just as we could maybe eventually wipe out al’Qaeda, if we kill enough adults. But the ideology can spring up again and again and take new and interesting forms. (I mean, think about this progression: al’Qaeda –> ISIS –> ??? Could there be an even worse form of these same scumbags? Sure; things can always get worse.)

How Do We React?

So how do we fight an ideology? Well, that’s difficult. Destructive ideologies are pernicious because they can sculpt our perception of reality to their will. In other words: Once the lens of an ideology attaches itself to the third eye, it’s very difficult to pry it off. And because we pass everything we see through that lens, we come to ignore parts of reality that don’t mesh with our ideology — and most of the time, the ideology comes with a method to explain away the stuff that doesn’t mesh. (So for example with ISIS, they’re convinced that everything is a plot by “The Crusaders” — ie Christians — to destroy them, their religious purity, their families, their Islamic paradise.)

But the tricky thing about ideologies is that we ALL have them. I do, you do, everyone does. There are things you believe, way deep down in the core of your psyche, that influence how you see the world. And examining those things — to say nothing of adjusting or removing them — can be extremely difficult.

For example: Most people in the US believe that our government generally acts in the best interests of the world. Most Americans believe that we can be too aggressive, or insensitive to other cultures, but at the end of the day we’re out there all the time trying to use our power to help people and stop The Bad Guys.

But there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest this isn’t always true. And not just a couple of rare outliers, but a number of historic cases (East Timor, Guatemala, Iran-Contra) that demonstrate the reality that, from time to time, the US acts out of unconscionable self-interest and leaves corpses in its wake in the name of hegemony.

(Is it obnoxious for me to acknowledge the fact that I’m using some fancy words that some folks probably aren’t familiar with, like “ideology” and “hegemony”? Yeah, but I always want to encourage people to look that stuff up if you don’t know about it. Besides, the only way you’ll really get a sense for what they mean is to read stuff about them. Like Derrida. Don’t get me started on Derrida or his obnoxious, useless fan club.)

The horrible cyclical effect of our ideology is that we’re 100% convinced that we’re The Good Guys and our military only fights The Bad Guys. This can prevent (and sometimes does prevent) our ability to realize that we do some terrible things at times. (Some people believe that our military is ONLY or PRIMARILY used for “evil” purposes, but that’s the same simplistic ideology — only flipped.)

The worst part of THAT is that it means we’re likely to do things that prove the case that the ideology of ISIS is trying to make: The US military is The Great Satan. (Again, I want to make clear that i do NOT agree with that ideology.) So both sides keep playing by this tired old script book, and neither is able or willing to admit that our ideologies (and our egos) are what’s really at war.

Blood Will Have Blood, They Say

So how do we fight an ideology? Yeah, I was supposed to answer that. (We’ve been watching “Barton Fink” in Creative Writing, and I’ve been in “circular logic and dodging questions” mode for several days.)

Well, how did we defeat Naziism? I mean, yeah, it’s not dead — scumbags still paint swastikas on things — but it’s got 1% of the life it had in 1935. But the point is: Many people once believed that it would never be abolished. The frenzy in their eyes was too strong. They weren’t human! Same with the Japanese, right? But now we’re all good friends.

Would it take an actual war, like WW2? Even if that were possible (which of course it’s not), ISIS seems like a cockroach in its capacity to survive great physical assault, and keep going. (Heck, the absurd ideology of Wahhabism might even CELEBRATE such a thing.) And besides, I don’t think it takes wars to change ideologies.

But changing ideologies requires empathy, respect (of self and toward others), and compassion. So that guy in Paris explaining to his kid why the flowers are more powerful than the bombs — he’s absolutely correct. (Only in the long term! Kids, do NOT try to stop bullets with chrysanthemums. OH MY VARIOUS GODS! [Futurama, remember that?] I just spelled “chrysanthemum” correctly without looking it up.)

Because if we keep getting kicked in the teeth, and then kicking the other guy in the teeth, and then he gets mad because we just kicked him in the teeth, and so he kicks us in the teeth, and so on.. well, you know. Who kicked who first? Who cares! We go back far enough and it’s Cain vs. Abel (as we all agree, since it’s Old Testament, heh) and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is what we can teach the rest of the world about what it means to be a decent human being. And a decent family. And a decent community. And a decent city or town. And a decent state. And a decent nation. And a decent species. (The Chicago rapper Capital D said: “My father taught me — kid be a man, protect your family / But what if my family is all of humanity?”) THAT’s how you defeat an ideology. The ideology of fascism took a BIG hit from the Marshall plan. People tend to hate you less when you actually help them rebuild. (We haven’t done very well in Afghanistan or Iraq.)

Decent nations don’t ignore the horrors that ISIS is inflicting on its region and (occasionally) on the US and Europe. But decent nations ALSO do NOT ignore the horrors of its own drone strikes, nor do they ignore their moral commitments to the people suffering from war, hunger, poverty, and violence.

I demand a third way. (That’s my ideology, a refusal to accept only two ways of seeing a thing.) I insist that we CAN stand up for the rights of women, men, and children in every nation on Earth, without requiring the perpetuation of a flawed ideology of moral certainty in the form of military action and unenlightened short-term self-interest.

That’s what I think.

Eulogy for an Educator

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, after we lost an amazing educator. I wasn’t sure if I would post it, but I had a discussion today that convinced me to share it. Thanks for reading.

There is a spirit of compassion in every educator that transcends infinity. What we do in those classrooms every day — We can tell you what it takes, but that doesn’t really tell you what it takes. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears; we give our souls, our hearts, our memories. Our nightmares and our dreams, our minds and our fingernails. Every student who won’t listen, every book left unread, every lost opportunity — they weigh on us like rocks upon Giles Corey. “More weight,” we cry. Sylvia Ashton-Warner said: “Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self — the woman or man, wife or husband, mother or father, the lover, scholar or artist in you as well as the teacher earning money.”

I knew Jane Skalitsky, but (as with so many of the amazing women and men at Sun Prairie High School) not nearly as well as I should have known her. That distance is not a salve in this hour of pain, however — it is a burden of grief. What might I have learned from her, about compassion? About reaching young people? About holding on?

Some days, it’s really hard to hold on. I don’t mean sanity or hope — I mean holding on to the vision that drives us. Holding on to the people around us. It’s so easy to let those things slip and retreat into something else, something easier. Something that requires less energy. Lots of people do that; they stop holding on. Pablo Neruda said: “Between lips and voice, something went off to die; something with bird’s wings, something of anguish and forgetting. Like nets which can’t hold water.” I can’t speak with personal certainty, but I assume others will correct me if I am wrong: Jane held on.

Utah Phillips told a story once about a guy named Eddie Belchowski, who had lost a hand in the Spanish Civil War. He said Eddie taught him powerful things about holding on. When he heard that Eddie died, he wrote a death song for his friend. Then he got a call from Eddie. (He asked him: “Hey Eddie, where ya calling from?” He said Chicago, and Utah said: “Well, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me.”) Utah sang Eddie his death song, and he was amused. Then, a few months later, Eddie died. And Utah Phillips sang his death song at the funeral.

That story is the last track on the album he made with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, and it’s a perfect finish.

For teachers, the past doesn’t go anywhere. Our lives only expand with every new student; we absorb what the universe throws at us, like some kind of mutant pedagogical sponge. Our students don’t go anywhere; they live inside our minds beside our favorite teachers. And somewhere in the cluster of galaxies beyond our consciousness, our favorite teachers work with every student we’ve known.

Because as Chief Seattle said, there is no death. There’s only a changing of worlds. The Vietnamese zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud-now-rain as a vital continuity of our world. I will add: This is especially true for teachers, because teachers imbue themselves into everything they touch. Teaching is an act of transfusion, a daily transfer of precious intellectual fluids. (Also mental, psychological, spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical fluids.)

This teaching stuff is confusing. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. I wrote a book about teaching this summer, but I can’t help feeling like a fraudulent “expert”. I think we all feel this way from time to time. There’s no way to describe it, and if you’ve never done it, then you have no idea. Anne Sexton once said: “I am teaching … It’s kind of like having a love affair with a rhinoceros.”

But never is this more true than when we discuss special education. That name doesn’t fit because the students are special — although they are. But all students are special. They are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, to ironically appropriate the words of Tyler Durden. We call it special education because the teachers are special. Most of us can’t do what they do; I know I can’t.

The more I hear about Jane Skalitsky, the more she reminds me of my mother. My mom was the first teacher I ever met, and she devoted her entire life to special education kids. Her students came from backgrounds of every stripe and flavor. Abuse, illness, neglect, suffering, boredom, poverty, confusion, chaos, distance — these are the worlds from which her students came. (Plenty of students in “regular ed” deal with less acute versions of these experiences, of course.) Ordinary people like me can’t confront these worlds like special ed teachers do. When I was subbing in the Madison area, I always felt bad when I hit the “no thanks” button when the SubFinder robot called at 4:00 AM asking if I would fill in for a special ed absence. But I never felt confident that I could give the kids what they need. I watched my mom do it for years, and I was never as capable or talented as that.

Jane Skalitsky didn’t run from the challenges that came toward her. She poured herself into the students like we all try to do. I feel weird talking about her like this, since I didn’t know her very well. But — again — I trust those with the personal connections will stop me if I need to be corrected.

No one teaches who isn’t ready to sacrifice. Some of us give more than others, and that’s all there is to it. We’re all afraid that we’ll give too much, but we don’t let that stop us. Our love for the young people is stronger than our fear. I didn’t know Jane very well, but I know somehow from something deep inside me that her love always overpowered whatever fears she may have had.

My mother was afraid of what the chemotherapy would do to my father, but she loved him enough to endure it with him. And when he finally died, she was afraid that she might endure the same pain if she ever married again. But she did. And then she did. (My father died from multiple myeloma. My stepfather died from lung cancer.) And despite this pain and the fear that it might come back to haunt her again, she has never grown cold. She knows that her love is stronger than her fear, and she refuses to let the fear win.

You can’t grow cold, if you’re a teacher. Maybe some can — my 11th grade math teacher seemed pretty cold. But maybe I just felt that way because I never got the hang of pre-calculus. I don’t know any cold teachers at Sun Prairie High School, and I can’t imagine anyone with a cold heart lasting two days in special ed. Peter, Lance, Lori, Patty, Amy, Latrina — these people teach me every day about what it means to conquer fear with love. Because for all the talk of SLOs and PPGs and PBIS and RTI and IEPs and 504s and ELL and ESL and 21st century learning and differentiation and scaffolding and personalized curriculum and bundled classes and flexible scheduling and all the rest of it is one simple question: Can you love the students enough — and get them to love themselves — to conquer their fear of failure? Can you teach them how to be more human?

Ralph Ellison said: “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.”

We’re in a desert of loss right now, maybe even feeling a drought of hope. But the cloud has become a rainfall, and as we sing Jane’s praises, her enduring presence is helping the desert to bear fruit.