Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.
Tag Archives: IB English
Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!
And now for something completely different.
I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.
Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.
I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.
My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.
My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.
It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.
And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.
days I listened
to 24 young
for 20 minutes
a piece about
literature, and 10 of
those 20 minutes
were dedicated to
a single poem
by Seamus Heaney.
Most of them
did fine work,
but I couldn’t help
recognize and remember
and then start to
phrases or beginnings
that I think I heard
over and over again.
First I thought.
I’d like to begin.
What I noticed first.
What I noticed right away.
In the first stanza.
As the poem progresses.
In the middle.
Finally, the last.
K. So. Um.
Uh. And stuff like that.
Eventually, the purpose.
In this poem.
Seven, five, ten, four,
whatever is half of a
off-rhyme, slant rhyme,
near rhyme, maybe if you heard
it in an Irish accent,
there would be more rhyme.
Capital letters at the start,
This is a poem.
The InEquity NonPoem (a manifesto)*
In my school district
we’re having the conversation about equity,
and mostly, we’ve been asked to focus on potential
inequity between white kids and our students of color
and how to minimize or abolish that inequity.
Let’s do a quick little statistical analysis, shall we?
Of 80 students in my IB English classes, 72 are white or
Eastern European white. One white kid identifies as Hawaiian,
but not ethnically. Another white kid identifies as Cuban,
which, despite her light skin, makes her decidedly not white.
One is Mexican and a native Spanish speaker. One is Vietnamese.
Two are black. One is mixed-race, partly black.
Another one, mixed-race, but not black.
Of my 7 students of color in these high level classes,
three are struggling; that’s almost half of them. But
the other 4 are completely on top of the game,
some of my very best students.
There’s that. The same could not be said of the white kids,
that almost fifty percent of them are struggling.
But there are a lot more of them. If I pulled
the right 6 or 7 kids from the white population,
I might find fifty percent of those kids were
struggling also and the other half were on
top of the game. More interesting to me than
the fact that 3 of my 7 non-white kids in IB English
are struggling is the fact that there are only 7
non-white kids in the entire group of 80.
Let’s talk about equity, honestly,
and come to terms with the fact that in a junior class
of which a full 20% are non-white, only 13% of those
are enrolled in a college level English class, while
33% of their white counterparts are enrolled
in a college level English class. And while we’re
at it, let’s remember that equity is not only about
race but also about gender, and let’s wonder why
girls outnumber boys in my IB English classes
2 to 1, while boys outnumber girls in my “regular”
English classes 2 to 1. And guess which gender is
typically more challenging, behaviorally and
academically. The boys are. Which gender has
the highest number of failing grades? The boys do.
Could we complicate things even further by
thinking about income inequality? No, we can’t.
I’m told no one has access to that information
except the cook and the bookkeeper and that they
are explicitly told to keep that information
confidential. Here’s my guess. The students
in my IB English classes are mostly from middle
class families and above, and the students in my “regular”
English classes are not–for the most part; and also, it is likely
that most of the kids I have who are successful
are from middle class families, while the kids who
struggle are not. How do I know this?
Statistically, it is true that the greatest indicator
of a student’s success on a standardized test is the neighborhood
he or she lives in, the student’s socio-economic status,
and most of the students in my IB English classes
are doing just fine on their standardized testing.
There are always exceptions. There are always exceptions.
Generally speaking, though, the above is accurate and true.
So what does it mean? First of all, it means that, yes,
we have issues of equity in my school and in my district.
Secondly, the inequity is systemic, and not related
to how kids are treated in my classroom.
And finally, to conclude the inEquity nonPoem,
I must now reach a more satisfying conclusion. I conclude that working
for educational equity is the most important kind of school
reform we could ever undertake–but that working for equity
is not so simple a thing as race, gender, or class considered
in isolation, and that gender inequality should not be ignored
because most of the kids suffering are white boys–who
historically were not the ones underserved, but the ones
on top, and finally, that economic inequality should not be ignored
simply because we can’t see it with our eyes. And ultimately,
the way we battle any kind of inequity is the way we
make effective classrooms possible: knowledgeable, caring professionals
who understand or can learn the culture of their various students;
a humane teacher-to-student ratio that makes it possible for teachers
to KNOW their students in meaningful and significant ways;
a challenging, rigorous curriculum and high expectations for every kid,
despite race, gender, or class differences–which means ultimately
accomplishing the thing I’ve been railing about for 25 years:
the elimination of a tracked curriculum where the haves
are separated from the have-nots, where mostly white kids
and girls are taking high level college credit classes and getting
the very best education tax money can buy away from “those other kids.”
This abruptly concludes my manifesto: The InEquity NonPoem.
*this piece was composed and organized in lines so that I could call it a poem. Because that’s how I roll. The “nonpoem” in the title is just a way of expressing my misgivings that there’s anything poetic about this piece at all. Maybe I have invented a new genre: the essay poem–not to be confused with the lyric essay, a poem disguised as an essay; this is rather an essay disguised as a poem. O genre gods, forgive my trespasses.
So I wrote a little blog post some many months ago now. It was 2000 words long. It was a furious little rant about how one of the books I teach in 11th grade IB English, Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, was being removed from, or at least being considered for removal from, or, as I see it now, being reconsidered for approval in our curriculum as the result of some complaints by parents and concerns by our principal. I decided not to publish that blog post. As I understood that the book was being removed, that blog essay was written in the heat of a full month of fuming and without ever speaking face to face with the parent or parents in question. The essay made some assumptions, perhaps, about the book’s detractors and might have been construed as mean-spirited and unfair. While I am the kind of guy that likes to call things as they are and is not afraid of controversy, I also am a peaceful dude by nature, and cautious, meaning that I thought that maybe the way I saw things was not REALLY the way they were. So I did not want to bring further conflict or distress on people I do not know, who then might take it out on people I do know and have to work with. Hence, this resulting blog post, a kind of compromise, a kinder, gentler approach to the problem.
Our principal, to avoid further conflict and controversy, I suppose, and, for personal reasons, because she couldn’t see herself defending this particular title to the death, initially had simply asked us to consider another text to teach instead of Kalpa Imperial. In some ways, this is not the most heinous or destructive or even prohibitive request a principal could make. New books! Whoopee! There’s hardly anything more rewarding than being allowed to choose a new book to teach–it is a rare experience for English teachers, especially in times of budget difficulty, or in our case, crisis. But there are two problems with this request to replace the Gorodischer novel with another text. The first is that we are in a time of budget crisis; and while the IB English program in our school has purchased two-plus year’s worth of new curriculum over the last several years, my English department colleagues have not had that opportunity. I could not tell you when last my fellow English teachers adopted a new title, let alone two year’s worth of new titles. And the second problem with the request is this: no matter how sweet sounds the opportunity to adopt a new book, ultimately we would all be complicit in an act of censorship, of book banning–at least within the walls of a single classroom–because of a minority voice of dissent.
I want to keep teaching Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, translated from the Spanish by Oregon’s own Ursula Le Guin. Here, I plan to talk about why this book is great, why it’s an important addition to our curriculum, but also to address as specifically as I can some of the complaints I understand my principal, parents, and their students have about the novel.
Kalpa Imperial is a fantasy novel, broadly speaking, and perhaps incorrectly so. It’s also known as speculative fiction, or as a sub or side genre to fantasy called fantastic fiction–and fantastic here does not mean superlative in the way we mostly mean it when we use the word, but rather imaginative or fanciful. The line that distinguishes fantasy from fantastic is fuzzy, but it is a distinction the author herself makes about her work, preferring the latter term. However, the basic premise of Kalpa Imperial, reduced to it’s very simplest form, is this: the novel sets out to tell several interconnected stories or episodes from the history of an empire, an empire of a totally indeterminate time and place, over the duration of a kalpa, a sanskrit word meaning aeon, or roughly 4.32 billion years. Each chapter in the novel tells the story of a distinct era in the empire, but as readers, we’re never quite sure whether these eras are arranged chronologically or not, how far apart the eras are from each other, or even if the empire described from one chapter to another chapter is geographically the same. Time and place in this novel are slippery fish. A narrative line that runs from start to finish, also a slippery fish, if not an altogether invisible fish. The novel is unconventional, to say the least, and at times, difficult. Some kids love it. Some kids hate it. The reviews aren’t often mixed–although some students, bolstered by curiosity and an inquiring spirit, wade their way through, ask lots of questions, and come to a deep understanding after all, despite their misgivings. And these students are the real rock stars, because they are exhibiting characteristics of the kind of student who is most successful in an IB English class.
This is unrelated, essentially, to the reason the book was questioned in the first place, but sometimes a book is controversial because it is difficult. Kids and adults alike are often afraid of, suspicious of, or dismissive about things they don’t understand or don’t immediately “like.” And yet IB English is a college level literature course. And the IB learner profile asks students to be open-minded, inquiring, thinking, knowledgeable, and (especially relevant to the task of a rigorous and potentially controversial curriculum), risk–taking. Sometimes the language in the novel is difficult, sometimes the sentences are complex, but the difficulty of reading Gorodischer’s novel is much more related to the description above. The aspects of the novel that make a long work of fiction accessible to most readers, namely, a through plot, an identifiable setting, and the contiguous development of a group of characters, are mostly slippery fish in Kalpa Imperial.
Nevertheless, Kalpa Imperial is a masterful novel and it is unlike anything students have likely ever read. Novelty alone does not make a work of art great, but there is profound educational reward, I think, after studying through one’s entire school experience works of drama, fiction, and poetry that are conventional or traditional, and mastering the language and academic concepts that apply to that kind of reading, in discovering something new, something that defies the rules, that flies in the face of all the conventions in one’s previous understanding. That is learning–real learning–in the most powerful sense.
Stylistically and structurally, Kalpa Imperial is inventive, but its cohesion and its real value comes, I believe, from its thematic arc, from its philosophical implications. Paradoxically, while the whole novel is “spoken” by a series of storytellers, the novel is less about story and more about idea. Each tale in the series of chapters raises powerful and thoughtful questions about themes that are relevant, useful, challenging, and intriguing to anyone who cares about the way societies work, the characteristics of effective leadership, the truth and how one arrives at truth, how history is recorded and by whom, the ways in which power is used and abused, where wisdom is found, encounters with “the other,” the way in which culture is spread, the way culture changes and mutates over time. Most importantly, perhaps, Kalpa Imperial, through its succession of various speakers, talks about the importance of storytelling as a key device for passing on culture, values, meaningful ideas—which touches the very heart and soul of any serious study of narrative art. It is my belief that these things completely and utterly outweigh the potential controversy caused by short sections of the novel.
Kalpa Imperial does contain potentially controversial material. It contains description of violence and battle scenes, explicit in varying degrees from very general to mildly graphic. There are short scenes that could be seen as sexually explicit—or potentially explicit, and these particular scenes are the ones that seem to be raising the most hackles. These scenes include one very short passage in which an intersexed military leader plans and fails to sexually abuse a male prisoner of war, and an absurdly comical scene in which a human curator of a freak shop wishes to have relations with some kind of fantastical bug. These two scenes take up less than a paragraph of the novel’s whole. There are other chapters in which gender is ambiguous—potentially controversial for some readers, perhaps, uncomfortable or limited in their own understanding of gender roles and gender identification, or the possibilities thereof. There are chapters also that deal with issues of spirituality unrelated to any known world religious practice, but perhaps analogous to some eastern religious philosophies—again—this could be controversial for readers who are hyper-sensitive about these things or otherwise intolerant of religious views different from their own, or who cannot imagine a world, fantasy or not, that does not include their own spiritual practice, as was the case in our school’s recent controversy over Life of Pi, when parents and students could not fathom or tolerate an interfaith person or character.
In each case, it seems to me, where Kalpa Imperial dips into controversy, the argument against the censorship of such material is easy to make. What does literature do? Often, even in the fantasy genre, great literature describes the world as it is–and not as we’d like it to be. And as the world contains ugly stuff, literature often portrays that ugliness. It does not condone the ugliness, it only describes. If it condones or glorifies the violence or if it titillates the reader with graphic sexual content (healthy or not, abusive or not, intersexed or not), we’re not dealing with literature any more, but with pornography–and Kalpa Imperial is no Fifty Shades of Grey.
In a recent meeting between my principal, two administrators from the district office, myself and my IB English teaching colleague, the question was posed: why this particular book? Good question. But why any particular book? As an IB school, we must choose a text from a prescribed book list on which Kalpa Imperial is listed with hundreds of other titles. IB makes no claim that any of the books on their list are superior or more worthwhile than any other books on their list. Schools must choose. And we chose this title because it fit certain characteristics we were looking for: it was written by a woman (our literature program is notoriously and traditionally male), it was written in Spanish (our neighborhood is becoming more and more Spanish speaking), we liked it (it’s no fun teaching a book you’re not interested in), and it provided sufficient rigor and challenge for a high school English class through which students can earn college credit. There it is. And, lest I forget, it was contemporary; no more stodgy classics for our kids! (I personally love the stodgy classics, I just prefer not to teach them). And yet, even here, by choosing contemporary literature, we run the risk of controversy; the more modern the text, the more risks in this vein it is likely to take.
But ultimately, my final argument is that controversy in a literary text should be embraced and not shunned, for all sorts of reasons, but primarily, because it gets us thinking, it gets us asking questions, it asks us to examine our values. Will it corrupt us? Not likely, because most often, I believe, great literature is moral–even if it describes the most heinous of heinousness–and Kalpa Imperial is tame compared to some of the alternatives, alternatives far steamier and more violent, alternatives that are indeed on the IB prescribed book list. And this novel, I find, is particularly moral in light of all of the thematic implications I’ve listed above.
It looks like, as of this writing, Kalpa Imperial has won a reprieve. I will be teaching it this year. But the conversation and the commitment to teaching intellectually challenging and controversial literature will continue, I am sure of that, and we will see what next year brings.