Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chicago 10

This has been out for a couple of years but I only saw it recently on late night SBS documentaries.

It's a very smooth rendition of the Chicago 1968 Hoffman / Yippie / Black Panthers (Bobby Seale) trial

1968. I lived through that time and the anti Vietnam war street demos. It was a historical hinge point. This documentary perturbed me because I lived through somewhat similar events in Australia - the sometimes violent protests, trails and gaoling of draft resistors and demonstrators. I feel like saying you have to see this documentary to understand those times. Maybe that's true, I think it is, but if you didn't experience things like this then maybe you wouldn't understand it anyway - because 1968 was such a radical break from the past. If you don't understand what life was like before 1968 then is it possible to understand 1968?

On the one hand NLF flags in the Courtroom and on the hill. On the other hand the pro war voices trying to depict hippies as commies or stooges, which just didn't gel.

I've seen previous versions of the Chicago trial. The previous versions had a different focus - mainly on the gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale by Judge Hoffman.

This one was different and possibly overall more accurate. It presented the Yippies as the main players of protest and Bobby Seale as almost an afterthought. There was new footage in there for me. Ginsberg's bad poetry, Norman Mailer shots and much more.

Two forms of protest or "rage against the machine". The Yippies with fun and drugs, the Panthers far more serious and fight fire with fire. Back then I read their literature avidly trying to work out where I stood. Cleaver: Soul on Ice; Jerry Rubin: Do It! In the end I agreed with Timothy O'Leary (the LSD professor) when years later he was asked why he left the hippies, replied: "I never really like the hippies anyway" LOL

The judge makes all these terrible errors - like chaining up and gagging Seale who was demanding his constitutional right to defend himself. Everything operates on a more subtle level today

I think the struggle goes on but the forms of struggle vary immensely over the decades. The Yippies and the Panthers were very romantic and exciting and I can't escape those feeling when I watch that old footage.

my fake farewell speech

Due to various push and pull factors (one of them being the need to study political economy thoroughly) I am planning to take a whole year's leave in 2010. This got me thinking as to what I would say to my teaching colleagues at the inevitable staff meeting if I was retiring. I've watched all those other teachers retire and now it's (almost) my turn. Since I'm not I won't get to give the speech but here's a draft of some thoughts about it (short version). btw I'm a secondary teacher.

The life of the soldier has been described as long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of terror.

aside: maybe the life of some students is more like that of the soldier than the teacher but these days more accurately described as long periods of boredom (as in "this is boring") punctuated by long periods of playing with their mobile phones. If I was to resort to uncharacteristic sarcasm then I might describe them as the you-twit-face generation (thanks rob!), the achievement of dynamic overlap of you tube, twitter and facebook.

At any rate, for the last cottage industry, teaching is the most contradictory of professions

There is:
  • magic - the magic of a great lesson
  • the almost magic of the almost great lesson - where after describing the wonders of the Hubble telescope penetrating the mysteries of the Universe, a student comes out the front, you think you have inspired him to ask a deep question, but instead s/he says "Can I go to the toilet?"
  • discovery - the continual discovery of new learning ideas and new student personalities, in the final analysis teaching is a great privilege
  • the need for courage - unexpected confrontation, sometimes serious, can and do strike from a clear blue sky. I didn't realise that Nietzsche was a teacher in a Disadvantaged school until I saw this quote: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
  • frustration and aggravation - aka the Department and their representatives
  • attrition - in the end it wears you down
On the magic days it's the best job in the world. On the need for courage days you wonder why the hell am I doing this

Best story. At the end of an excursion one teacher explained to me that when she went to primary school in her class there was a cupboard labelled "teachers cupboard". She thought that at the end of the school day after the kids had gone home that the teacher got into her cupboard and waited there until the next day!

Best compliment. One student once nicknamed me the detective. I asked why and he said, "You never give up on a case"

(in house anecdotes left out)

Marx is thorough

It has been sitting on my bookshelf for 30+ years. Because of the economic crisis (not yet over), I finally got around to reading Part One of Capital by Karl Marx. It took me many hours. It demands the slow, deep thinking mode.

The thoroughness of Marx is very impressive. I think I now understand what an everyday commonplace commodity is and so I see the world in a different way. That's one thing that good thinkers do; they make you see the commonplace in a completely different way.

I hope it doesn't take others 30+ years to get around to it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Dan Willingham's book

I was impressed earlier by some you tube videos and articles by Dan Willingham (some summaries here) so when I discovered that he had written a book I bought it

Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about how the Mind Works and What it means for the Classroom (2009)

From the Introduction:
Repetition is good for learning but terrible for motivation
This quote and book is a timely reminder for me that teaching is a complex balancing act, there is no one true way. Also, the claim that we have learnt "more about how the mind works in the last twenty-five years than we did in the previous twenty-five hundred" is credible. And Willingham makes a brave attempt of translating these discoveries into worthwhile "Implications for the Classroom" in every chapter.

So far I've read two chapters and skimmed the others. Below is a thumbnail of what each chapter discusses.

Chapter 1: Although we are naturally curious our minds aren't naturally good at thinking and often avoid thinking

Chapter 2: Background factual knowledge is essential for skill development (Content precedes process)

Chapter 3: Memory is the residue of thought. If we want students to remember things then work out a way for them to think about those things.

Chapter 4: Abstraction is hard. We understand new things in the context of things we already know and most of what we know is concrete knowledge.

Chapter 5: Expertise. Extended practice is essential to become proficient at a mental task.

Chapter 6: There are no short cuts to teaching expertise. Cognition early in training is very different from cognition later in training.

Chapter 7: Learning Styles. Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.

Chapter 8: Slow learners. Children do differ in intelligence but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

Chapter 9: Teachers. Teaching like any complex cognitive skill must be practiced to be improved.

The book title, Why Don't Students Like School?, is a little sensationalist. This book does contribute significantly to the answer of that question but the main point is better expressed in the long subtitle.