Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Set that teacher's hair on fire

Janet heard a story on NPR about an award-winning teacher, Rafe Esquith, and she forwarded a link to me about the guy and his book, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. I am full of ideas about teaching, mostly untested and half-baked, so you would think that I would be immediately keen on hearing about someone who was actually doing new things in the classroom.

My first reaction to NPR's page on the story was surprisingly cold. I looked at Esquith's head shot, with the classic chin-on-knuckle thoughtful pose, and something inside of me said, "Slick. Phoney." Then I looked at the cover of his book. Esquith is wearing a suit and tie, and he is surrounded by kids all looking at him as he gestures. He is literally the center of attention. I wonder if actually wears a suit when he teaches . . . it's possible. Then I read the prologue to his book, and it starts out, "It is a strange feeling to write this book. I am painfully aware that I am not superhuman." Harumph. False modesty if ever I heard it. "Not a day goes by when I do not feel overwhelmed by the attention . . . " Just how much attention has this guy gotten?

And the rest of the prologue is more me-me-me, what he hopes and what he's done and how hard his job is and . . . not much about the students at all. A few cliche claims about how "crazy" his methods are. So my first impression was, "Raging egomaniac."

But I also remembered my previous post about being objective and fair and taking responsibility for what one writes . . . and I thought, "I can't pan this guy just because his head-shot gives me the willies." So I listened to the NPR interview.

And . . . I was very impressed with the guy.

He was extremely articulate and composed. Some of the things he said I had been saying for years: teach fiscal responsibility, teach economic principles of budgeting and responsibility and ownership, things nobody teaches but everyone knows are critical to success. (Yes, I know . . . of course I think he's brilliant if he shares some of my ideas. So who's the real egomanic now, huh?) And, when he spoke about the level of his dedication, and how it wouldn't be fair to expect it from everyone, I believed him. I heard someone who had found vocation, and was pointing the way, knowing that few could follow. And when he said that he only wanted to teach and wasn't interested in being a full-time education pundit, I believed that, too. "Well, other people can do that, but that's not what I do."

Then I went back and read the book prologue again . . . and I started to see what I had missed. "Our culture is a disaster," he writes. He clearly saw that the problem was one of culture and values, not merely technique.

So what am I to make of this? Was my first reaction just wrong, an allergic reaction to some good self-promotion? Or was my initial reaction correct, and my intellect papered over it once it warmed to the content? I think he's the real deal, he's doing good things for the kids, and he is worth listening to. He may also think very highly of himself. But . . . mea culpa. Perhaps I only see a mirror of my own ambition and my own ego.

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