12 September, 2012

A Balancing Act: Where Do We Stand on Our Freedoms?

Wednesday morning's High Point Enterprise noted that a book was being debated by the Guilford County School Board. There is a list which promotes reading literature for students (an issue I will explore in another blog post) and a title on the list, The Handmaid's Tale, has stirred the ire of at least one parent and some members of the board.  The article points out that Catherine Barnette and other parents have "complained" about the novels "graphic sex scenes and violence." I have five daughters and confess there are something that I have shielded them from.  For example, I did not watch the classic 1982 film by David Lynch, Blue Velvet, with my oldest daughter until she was in college. But let's step back and consider: what are the reasons we may have as parents or teachers to have books available and what are the reasons for, essentially, banning books.

The most obvious reason supporting access to books comes the the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees NO action from the government can abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.  As we have seen with the advent of the Internet and the Arab Spring: information liberates people.  The framers of our Constitution wanted to make it abundantly clear that the role of government in the United States is to assure access to information, not prohibit access.

Teachers (and I would hope, parents) certainly have the role of encouraging critical thinking from our students.  One way to assure critical thinking is going on is to challenge the assumptions students bring with them to the classroom.  Sometimes, this challenge emerges from reading controversial material. The Handmaid's Tale certainly requires students to critically think about many issues:
  • What is the role of women in a post-women's movement world?
  • What is the relationship between men and women?
  • What is the role of religion?
  • How does religion shape our values about one another and about ourselves?
These are just a few questions I believe Atwood is exploring in this "fable." And these are important questions that certainly teenagers are wrestling with in high school.  What better environment for a discussion of these issues than in the safe environment of school and home?

Another reason for allowing access to information is simple: try to hide it and teenagers, specifically, and others, in general, will want this "prohibited" information even more. I bought a privately published edition of D. H. Lawrence's controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, many years ago.  The reason it was "privately" published was that the novel was considered "obscene" by some American perspectives in the 1920s. Yet the book still made its way to our shores and subsequent court decisions upheld the legitimacy of this work. The bottom line: tighter the attempt to control ideas, the more ideas get out into the world!

On the other hand, there are reason for curtailing access or "free speech."

Consider, for example, the Supreme Court's actions many, many years ago that a person cannot stand up in a theater and shout "FIRE!"  The curtailment of "speech" seemed reasonable to the Court simply because of the potential injury of those who panic. Ordinances have supported this decision across the land and we, by and large, live with this source of constraint on our speech.

Another issue, as a parent, has to do with my assessment of where my child is in her maturity to be able to process information.  As I referenced above, I "censored" access to Blue Velvet to my daughter: the language is raw, extremely raw; there are scenes of extreme violence; there are passing images of sexual behavior.  I just did not believe my daughters were capable of processing this film that I believe is one of the BEST ever made in the 1980s until they had more experience with the world.

Lastly, one possible reason for limiting access to information can be the standard established by the Supreme Court many years ago: that standard is defined by what is acceptable within the community.  Certainly, in large urban areas around the country, there are more things young people are exposed to simply walking the streets in contract to your people in more rural areas.  As parents and as a community, we have values that I believe we wish to uphold.  Thus the way to assure the values are perpetuated from one generation to the next is linked to what I allow my children to see or to read or to listen to.

Here is a case in point: an art faculty member took off points from a student's description of a religious painting because as the student described the work (a work which features Jesus as a significant element in the painting), the student would capitalize "His" (e.g. "to His left is the disciple. . . .").  The faculty member's goal is to show how the "real world" picks on issues--such as capitalization--and rejects those pieces of writing.  The student, on the other, working from her religious conviction, believed she had an obligation to capitalize "His" since it refers to Jesus, the Son of God--and religious names are always capitalized.

Ultimately, the Guildford County School Board's action was to do nothing.  The article reports that the board "did not challenge or change how the book got on the list." The interesting aspect for me--both as an educator and as a parent--is where we are, here in the 21st century, still wrestling with competing values: embracing and celebrating the freedoms we hold and assuring the our personal values are carried forth through our children and grandchildren.

Nivens,  David. "Board Debates Book List." The High Point Enterprise. 12 Sept. 2012, 1f. 

11 September, 2012

ENG videos: The Mindset for Davidson County Community College's Freshman Class

For some time now, I have asked my students to do a simple activity:

I show them the "Mindset of Beloit College" (both a couple of different videos and the lists from as far back as 2002).  I then organized them into groups of four or five, given each group a "Flip camera," and told them to come back in week with a video directed to the faculty here at DCCC about their "mindset."  They are free to show us individual, group, or generational perspectives.  Here are some from this year:

It Isn't Easy: Baby Boomers and a Snapshot of their World

Trivial Pursuit: Game for Boomers!
Professionally and personally I have been interested (some may say "obsessed") by generational differences for over 10 years.  My first experience was a professional development on Davidson County Community College's campus and I recall using generational metaphors to underscore differences in values and perspectives.  In March 2012, I co-presented with Jody Lawrence on generational differences and leadership succession planning in Philadelphia.

I share this background to illustrate my opening: I have a long history of looking at the four generations living and working together in the US today.  However, as a Baby Boomer (I was born in 1953), my focus in my speaking about generation differences has been to illustrate TO Baby Boomers the differences they are likely to encounter in Gen Xer's and ME's.  Since my audiences have primarily been "Boomers," I was able to gloss over our perspectives.  Now I believe is the time to explore for my ME audience who we "Baby Boomers" really are.

One way to understand "Baby Boomers" is the simple demography: this generation was born from returning veterans of WWII.  My dad was a POW in Germany and he returned in summer 1945.  He and my mom married in 1947 and I was born in 1953--which is the mid-range of this "boom."  My brother was born about 18 months late in December 1954.  My mother could not carry any more children and our "nuclear family" was in place.

There are others ways to understand "boomers." For example, we can understand them through their interests in popular culture (did you notice the card above?).  Television was becoming increasingly accessible into homes across the US throughout the 1950s.  Both the standard of living and the technology itself were drawing the parents and their children.  Early TV included the "nuclear family" shows: Ozzie and Harriett (1952-1966), Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), and Father Knows Best (1954-1960). Each of these shows perpetuated a myth of the "standard" family of being a heterosexual couple with 2.5 children (the Andersons, for example, had three).  This myth about the American family still haunts us today even though the "nuclear family" never really existed in American culture.

Another aspect of TV and popular culture has to do with values.  Look, for example, at this opening clip from the Adventures of Superman (circa 1952):

The values of this Superman are clearly and proudly stated: "Truth, justice, and the American way" are the values proclaimed at the end of this opening.  Not only are these values openly stated, note that there is no doubt that these values exist "out in the world" and that  anyone can readily see and embrace these values.

Contrast this clear values statement and the location of these values "out in the world" with the values from this video by Five for Fighting, "It's Not Easy (Being Me)" which is a song from the TV series Smallville (2001-2011):

Notice the differences between these two depictions of the SAME character! Listen carefully: the speaker in the Five for Fighting song is clearly the iconic Superman, but his values are extremely different from the 1950s character.  He is "in silly red sheet" and he is "More than a bird. . . more than a plane/ More than a pretty face beside a train."  The imagery here--tho' it resonates with the 1950s Superman--is twisted to show both different values AND the location of those values.  

[NOTE: I am leaving this right now so you can see how I am approaching this topic.]

06 September, 2012

Writing: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly or How to Be Successful in College


I have to confess that I have always had a penchant for words, so it seems reasonable that writing would also be simple for me.  I was the weird kid in junior high who would come home from school and READ the dictionary.  So when I look back at my public school experiences in Forsyth County and when I assess where I am now, what are the things that I see the helped me and what would I either add or ask for  a "do-over."

The first "success" I have concerning my success in college and in writing I need to attribute to my parents: they made sure there were lots of books in the house as I was growing up.  My mom took me to the public  library and read voraciously in elementary school.  By the time I was in 7th grade, I was reading Gone with the Wind--all 600+ pages!  I saved my money from birthdays and from my first part time job (when I was 12 years old, I sold cantaloupes door to door and earned $12 for my efforts) and then bought books at the school's "book fair" ( I still have a few of these books on my shelf: Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Mysterious Island, Verne's sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). I continued reading throughout junior high and high school and have to point to this experience as critical to my effectiveness in writing.

The second "success" was that I studied.  I know this seems strange but you need to remember a couple of things: I did not have a TV in my bedroom until I was in high school and they TV only picked up three channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC. So TV did not distract me like it certainly does my daughters today.  Also, my parents were working class: my mom worked until I was born and my dad was a POW in Germany in WW II and he was insistent that develop the skills to be successful in college because, "by god," I was going and I'd better do well! I remember sitting in my room for hours, listening to the radio and pouring over my books.  This habit, I believe, had a profound impact on my college-life and beyond.

A third "success" in high school was being encouraged by my teachers to write.  I still have the journal my senior English teacher required us to keep.  I was drafted in my senior year to write a parody of Chaucer's "Prologue," using the students in the English class as the "pilgrims" and revealing something about them as individuals and their direction after high school.  I was asked to write research papers from eighth grade on, and in the nineth grade--even with my arm in a cast from my hand pass my elbow--I had to produce a library research paper. The support and encouragement of the faculty certainly contributed to my college success.

On the other hand, there are some things that I wished I'd had access to which, I believe, would have sky-rocketed my academic performance at college.

First, if I'd had access to the resources of today: OMG what could I have done!  We still had to go to the library, take our notecards, match them with bibliography cards, and read and take notes.  Very labor intensive!  If I could have been in my room, with internet access and a computer, my writing would have improved exponentially!

If I'd had the option, I would certainly NOT spend lots of time reviewing grammar which is how ever year started in public school as far back as I can remember.  We were drilled on subject verb agreement, pronoun agreement, spelling and vocabulary development, punctuation drills (I still believe a writer can live a fully successful life and NEVER use a semicolon), and on, and on, and on!  I was a native speaker of English! Why did I need all this drill (I have sense learned why this practice is still in play today, but that would be another blog for me to post)?  I believe that this grammar experience is certainly something I could have lived without.

Speaking of grammar: the third thing that I believe was a waste of my time was diagramming sentences!  I remember agonizing over the process in junior high and in high school.  Having all the lines going in the correct direction.  Having the modifies subsumed under the correct part of speech on the baseline.  Having the dotted lines connecting coordinate conjunctions, while having sloped line with subordinate conjunctions. I never could fathom why we had to do this activity, particularly when it did not preserve the inherent quality of the sentence!

William Faulkner said, "Read, Read, Read. Read everything-- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it."  I certainly read everything I could: the dictionary, GWTW, Frankenstein, every Perry Mason novel I could find, Ian Fleming, Leon Uris. . . . the list goes on and on. So this message would be to any one planning on college: read, read, read and you will find college writing and college in general more likely a success for you.

05 September, 2012

This I believe

Since I was having password trouble, I could not write with you this AM as I normally prefer to do.  So I apologize for my delay in sharing with you my notions of what I believe:
  • I do believe fully and completely in each and every one of you and in your potential to make a future for yourself, your children, and your grandchildren.  I would not have stayed at this community college nor in education if I did not hold this belief.  The brightest part of my year is in March when I have a chance to engage the current group of 8th graders.  At this point, we have been hosting the 8th graders here for about 10 years now--so I have talked with over 20,000 8th graders. I believe this illustrates my commitment to you and the future of us all.
  • I believe we live in an imperfect world and that we work to try to make it perfect, it cannot be.  Some call this imperfect world the "fallen state" from the particular perspective.  I do not.  I simply believe that the world--by definition--is imperfect because we--by definition--are imperfect.  I am not saying that we should not try to do our best.  I am not saying that we should not strive for perfection.  But I am saying that we do not need to "beat ourselves up" because we fall short of some notion of perfection.  We need to acknowledge that we did, in truth, try our best and that we have learned from our endeavor.  That is what life is about: striving for perfection, falling short, and learning.
  • I believe  in the future and what marvels it holds for us.  My grandmother was born in 1893. She was a teenager when the Wrights "flew" at Kitty Hawk.  She saw Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. Can you imagine moving from a horse and buggy world to the moon within a life time?  Can you imagine what is out there for us to still discover? 
My grandmother, Dovie Mae
  • I believe in love.  I love my family and my wife, passionately.  I love the people I work with--and have worked with for 29 years now.  I love my students and the passion they bring about their future. But I also remember well the line from William Blake:  “He who binds himself to a joy/Does the winged life destroy/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” This means to me that if we hold onto those that we love, we destroy that very thing we love.  So with regret, I have to encourage and support my students when they move on to the university.  I have to encourage and write letters of recommendations for my faculty who "fly."  I have to encourage my daughters to spread their wings and fly, when I'd rather they be at home--safe and sound, where I could simply look in while they sleep. 
  • I believe in learning stuff.  I don't care whether it is about astronomy or zoology.  I don't care whether it Achilles or Zola.  I don't care if it is . . . .well, I hope you get the picture.  I have not told you yet, so I am sharing this now: by the end of this term, I can promise you that I will have learned more from you that you have from me.  And I appreciate this learning opportunity!
  • I believe in awe. Sam Keen wrote a profound book, An Apology for Wonder, that I go back to from time to time to remind myself of the awe we seem to have forgotten. I can see how we have lost our sense of awe: we have seen men walking on the moon, we have seen information and change happen in "real time," we have let our language rob us of the capability of sensing "awe."  But I have seen a golden sunset bathe the countryside around the college.  I have seen light streaming through the stained glass of Coventry Cathedral.  I have seen snow in Glendalough, Wicklow, Ireland. I have seen a rainbow touch the waters of Lake Innisfree. . .  .these are all "awe-inspiring," and I would encourage you to think about what the term "awe" really means!
  • Lastly, I believe in this equation: difference DOES NOT EQUAL deficient. I believe we have embraced the opposite; however, different is simply that: different.  We tend to want to find what is wrong with differences instead of simply accepting them.  I owe a boatload of thanks to my graduate faculty in grammar who drove this point home with me and which resonates with everything I do: different is simply that--different.