Archive for April, 2011

The Best Hip-Hop Right Now

New York is played out these days. Forget the Westside. I’m sorry, Dirty South. The best hip-hop in the world right now is coming out of Britain. Check out this new video from Mystro:

My all-time favorite Brit hip-hopper is Braintax (here with Dubbledge, who is also sicker than SARS):

Check out Dubbledge’s Tell-A-Lie-Vision:

I got much love, too, for the Dirty Diggers. “Wannabes wanna be something they’re not / They copied a lot off of something that’s hot / But by the time they’ve changed their taste / It’s gone from wack to weak to waste”

Recently I found Lowkey, who’s got some important things to say about terrorism. (Also: Jeff Dunham sucks.)

And let’s not forget Klashnekoff. This beat is better than anything I’ve heard in three years of US hip-hop.

There’s good artists elsewhere too, but right now my eyes are locked on the UK. Gimme more!

Who Can We Shoot?

I’ve been feeling a bit like Sisyphus lately. Stacks of papers, get ’em graded. Grade this stack, grade that stack. Get ’em back quick — the research shows that students benefit most from rapid paper turnaround. The kids want to know what grade they got. Put ’em in the computer, hand ’em back. Get to work on the next stack. Meantime, three more stacks have shown up.

It’s easy to get discouraged with the whole “The students don’t even read what we write” thing. But they do. Little Brother put it like this: “The good Lord I prayed to him / And he said, “N***az is listening now” / So I better have something to say to ’em”. We’re all prepared to be ignored, but how many of us are prepared to have someone pay attention to us?

So then I remembered that Albert Camus wrote about Sisyphus. Haven’t found the book yet, but for some reason chapter four is available here. What about it, Al?

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Scorn? Well, I got plenty of that. (And plenty of Scorn, too.) I’ve been feeling scornful because it seems like the systems around me — social systems, the education system, our economic system — they’re all breeding an apocalypse of mediocrity that is crushing my soul. And I thought about the passage in Grapes of Wrath where Joe Davis’s boy is preparing to knock down a tenant’s house.

“I built it [the house] with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down — I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit.”

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look — suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.

“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.'”

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.'”

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot.”

For the record, of course, I am a fierce proponent of nonviolent action and I do not advocate the shooting of bank executives, even hideously criminal bank executives like the people who caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Sometimes it feels like the systems are rocks, like each chunk of mediocrity and absurdity around me is another rock, crushing me like Giles Corey is crushed in The Crucible. And what did he say as he was being crushed to death by an absurd system of mediocrity?

More weight!

Of course Steinbeck can’t just leave us with the nihilistic easy answer of “there’s no one to shoot” — no, that would be too easy. That would give us the luxury of giving up and maybe following Tyler Durden or some other demagogue with shortcut answers.

Instead, the tenant’s got an idea.

“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”

Sigh. Yeah, I know. Si se puede. But these days Obama feels like just another rock. And the democratic party is a big pile of rocks. Even WEAC, the state teachers’ union, feels like a rock sometimes. Most news sources are rocks, leaving out important info when we need it most. So many rocks.

What can we do? Giving up is not an option.

More weight!


Today I was cleaning out my closet to get rid of old clothing. Apparently I haven’t worn my nice dress slacks since the day I married Diane. In the pocket I found the piece I had written for the ceremony (“That Unseen Place”, below).

Do this: Get a time machine. Go back to me in 1991, when I was an insecure high-school student. Tell me that I will one day meet Diane — and describe her, all of her. All of her amazing beauty, and patience, and intellect. All of her humor. All of her love for great movies, all of her passion for ideas and literature and positive political action.

Then tell me that this woman will agree to marry me. I guarantee that I will not believe you. Never, no way. I will laugh in your face. My exact words will be: “That will never happen”.

But it did.

(Pics by the inestimable AmyJ.)

“That Unseen Place”

In that unseen place where our minds connect..
The book, the word. (Saussure is hard to understand.)
But when it works, magic revels.
The idea may gestate — a union of thought.
When you really get it, we can slay the demons of confusion.
Reading Danticat, Achebe, Shelley, Twain..
What is it, this human thing? Where does it find all of us?
And every answer is a question.

I went to that room where the books are,
the words of great woman and men from years past.
I took in what I could — and there were connections, to be sure.
Made ever more powerful because I knew
you had been there.
And would be again.

In that unseen place where our flesh connects..
The handshake, the fist to the face, the hug.
Invited and uninvited transgressions of personal space.
When the dentist is mutilating my gums,
I try to tell myself that pain is simply nerve impulses in the brain.
But surely pleasure is something more.

I did a report in seventh grade about
how babies need to be touched.
It doesn’t go away.

In that unseen place where our hearts connect..
There is a thread of tender affection,
shattering frozen disdain.
There lies a gorge of passionate empathy.
Withered and assaulted by lesser demons, quiet and insipid.
Buy. Get. Own. Take. Control. Dominate. Master.
This iron armor of indifference, hacked at by toothpicks of humanity.
But we see the fruit of this emotosynthesis —
The simple-seeming daily devotions of family.
Children who love in a war zone.
Families of murder victims with amazing grace.
Those with nothing who share everything.

At Virginia Tech, Liviu Librescu —
a professor of engineering science, like my father —
stood before the door and was shot to death
so the kids could jump out the window to safety.
He loved his students.

In that unseen place where our souls connect..
A vision of our heavens coincide,
and the stuff of reality blends into a dream
Friend, mom, brother, dad, sister.
And the sunlight of kindred restoration becomes manna.
Accelerating the joy and cushioning the fall.
These bonds take life beyond mere existence.

In the universe I dreamed up years ago,
worlds and space could not divide the union of souls.
Nothing can describe what that connection feels like.

Is it fate, faith, phantom, folly, fortune, felicity, or fantasy:
This idea, this impossible dream
telling me that someday, I will meet someone
who will connect
with my mind
with my flesh
with my heart
with my soul

It is possible; it has happened.

How Do Students Get Better?

In his 1999 track “Fear Not Of Man”, rapper Mos Def muses on the future of hip-hop: “If hip-hop is about the people, and hip-hop won’t get better until the people get better, then how do people get better?” For educators of conscience, this question should also be at the center of our pedagogical praxis.

In ten years of teaching, I have encountered a wide variety of students. Young people vary in all sorts of ways, from general ability to confidence level to learning style. Today a great many educators, education reformers, pundits, politicians, and other people have become fixated on a few specific elements in the equation, to the detriment of a more macroscopic perspective. This has led us away from the path of truly rewarding education and toward a system of routine, banality, and insufficient training.

Abraham Maslow pointed out in his 1943 Theory of Human Motivation that each person must achieve a foundation of basic physiological needs (food, sleep, etc) and a sense of security (for one’s body, property, and resources) before tackling higher- level challenges. Obviously we humans are a constant work- in-progress, and most theorists would agree that we are capable of transcending the structure in some ways. Still, the theory makes sense as we look at who achieves feelings of esteem and self-actualization (and why).

As educators, we should note that most of the skills we ask students to practice (creativity, problem- solving) are located in the top layer of Maslow’s hierarchy. It makes sense, therefore, that a student who is unable to find belonging among friends or family will have significant difficulty approaching the challenge of examining her assumptions (to give just one example).

At the same time, this is forever a cyclical process. Sometimes, by participating in a classroom activity in which all students examine their assumptions, the student may find the belonging she seeks. This may make it easier for her to self-reflect further in the future. On the other hand, if a student lacks a sense of security with regard to resources (belief that future employment prospects are dim, for example), he may be unwilling to participate meaningfully in the assumption-examination activity, and therefore miss out on the sense of belonging achieved by others. (Still, he may find a perverse counter-belonging belonging by connecting with others who also refused to participate meaningfully in the assumption-examination activity.)

In the Dark

One of the biggest problems we face as educators is that very often we don’t know which needs are being met for students, and which are not. Sometimes the student herself cannot understand (or explain) which needs aren’t being met. Ironically, it is often only through self-actualizing internal interrogation that she can begin to understand what may be missing from other levels of the hierarchy.

We do heroic work to help students meet all of their needs — the kitchen staff and custodial crew work tirelessly to help students meet their most essential physiological needs; many different staff members, but especially administrators and police liason officers, handle security issues; the good people in
student services take the lead on belongingness and esteem needs; and then (hopefully) the students are ready for the self-actualizing activities in the curriculum. But at any given time, our roles can be shifted and suddenly a member of the kitchen staff offers a kind word, helping a student feel a sense of belonging. Or a classroom teacher might remove a dangerous insect, providing a sense of safety.

One of the reasons why I am so troubled by the business-model high-stakes testing-driven approach to education reform is that it ignores this entire framework for understanding human motivation. By enshrining test scores as the sole altar of our attention as educators (and insisting that teachers alone are responsible for their rise or fall), the narrow view attempts to substitute short-term point gains on decontextualized exams for the long-term betterment of young minds that should be the true goal of all quality education. (And, as a recent investigative article in USA Today points out, some schools may be fudging the numbers to show even the short-term gains.)

Worse, the short-circuit approach of forcing students to self-actualize right away on a standardized test (often with the belief that it will affect their basic sense of security in the future, in the form of job opportunity or less free time because of remedial work) has the potential to eviscerate the more substantial motivating factors that make us want to learn in the first place. Put another way: a student who is drilled endlessly on basic memorization tasks trains her brain in that direction, and becomes less willing to try creative problem-solving and intertextual connectivity. (Which is not to say we don’t have to memorize things sometimes. Please don’t send me angry emails, math and science people!)

No Shortcuts

Education historian Diane Ravitch and political economist Jean Anyon have pointed to the urgency of addressing poverty among students, but there are obviously many other factors as well. A student from a background of economic comfort might wrestle with other areas of insecurity, such as abuse, neglect, or divorce; degraded self-image; lack of rest due to a hectic after-school work schedule (either because his family needs the money or because he wants to buy some electronic gadget); or a combination of these and/or other factors. (To add yet another layer of complexity, sometimes a student will feign one obstacle to success, while the actual problem lies elsewhere.)

I do not believe that educators can do nothing to help students deal with the various deficits in their individual hierarchies of needs. But I know — from my own experience, and the decade I have spent in the classroom — that a journey into authentic self-actualized intellectual exploration is a long and complicated expedition. Perhaps Student A needs patient understanding and empathy, while Student B needs stern discipline. (And the reverse may be true the very next day!) Like many teachers, I sicken myself with worry that perhaps I’m not being rigorous enough with some students, or that I’m being too demanding of others. Ultimately (as with all areas of life) it is a matter of balance.

Alas, the more focused we are on pushing every student toward a uniformity of thought and activity, the less able we are to help students become metacognitively aware of their own academic, social, emotional, and intellectual needs. In the end, however, this awareness is precisely what each student needs, because it is the only way for them to grow and get better.


This collection of headlines from The Simpsons is worth a laff. (Especially if you know the stories behind them.)

Today I’m listening to: Mos Def! (I don’t know why this person decided to put stupid scribbles all over the picture of Mos Def.)

Because my students so often misspell the word “college”, today I made the most awesome collage ever.

That is all.