Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Literatue and the Carter Effect

On a recent trip to get a haircut in the city of Northampton, I ended up giving a homeless man $2. The man, who looked to be in his mid 40s, had positioned himself in front of a set of lights at an off-ramp. He held a cardboard sign with a simple message scrawled in marker. At first I instinctively went into defensive mode upon seeing him, locking the doors of my car and beginning the painful wait for the light to turn green so I could be on my way. Within seconds, though, I had a change of heart.

One of my earliest memories of encountering homeless people is set in the city of Boston. I am young, five or six, with my parents and sister. We're walking to some museum or attraction, and there they are, seated on the sidewalk with small containers of coins and $1 bills. As a child, these people fascinated me. Sometimes they would address me or my younger sister specifically, asking us for help. My father would instruct us not to look or talk to them. We were to keep moving and get to where we were getting.

At the time I didn't understand why my dad insisted we hurry past them. While I knew there was something unusual about grown men spending their days propped against the wall of buildings begging for money, I never felt threatened by them. Perhaps that's because I was just a kid, when one's oblivious to the dangers of the world. Regardless, I eventually learned to treat homeless people with a weary eye.

This was probably for my own good, as this outlook as a youngster kept me out of uncomfortable situations with vagabond strangers. When or if I have children, I will likely impart a similar dictum, as a good father needs to be protective of his children. While it was impossible to know if the risks of interacting with homeless people as a child were real or perceived, I suppose any dad worth his salt doesn't want to find out.

As a young man, my first meaningful experience with a homeless person occurred my senior year of high school. I had taken a trip to Grand Bahama Island with one of my best friends during February vacation. As we sat on a pier overlooking the ocean and the evening stars, a man approached and engaged us in conversation. He was affable and good natured, and told us a story of how he'd been homeless for 10 years. His advice to us was to stay in school, a decision he appeared to have regretted. We offered him some raspberry ginger ale, and after a cordial goodbye, he was gone.

My interaction with this Bahamian of no address went a long way in helping me to see that most homeless folks are people of poor circumstances - some brought on themselves, some by external factors. Our conversation enabled me to experience this man's humanity. Afterward, I saw homeless people as individuals rather than members of some collective. When I could, I'd donate .50 cents or a dollar to their coffers.

Through the years, I've given to a wide range of homeless individuals. Some just beggars, others musicians or artisans offering something - a song, a drawing, a trick - in exchange for a schilling. All of these people I experienced face to face. I had stood next to them, looked into their eyes, occupied the same physical space. It wasn't until recently that I finally decided to give to a "traffic braver." And it was because of a book that I decided to roll down my window and extend my hand with two crisp dollar bills to a pair of gloved fingers.

Over Christmas vacation I finished Justin Cronin's 766 page tome The Passage. One of the characters, Carter, was a man who because of destitute circumstances, became homeless. For part of the story, Cronin explains the various reactions Carter would receive from motorists as he stood by a highway overpass with his cardboard sign and extended hand.

When I saw this man standing by the off-ramp, I eventually thought of Carter, and how much Carter would have appreciated my charity.

One of the reasons we read fiction in school is to engage in the telling and appreciation of a good story. Through the stories of others, we discover more about ourselves, our motivations and dispositions, and we acquire a greater understanding of - and compassion for - those around us.

Stories don't need to be true to affect us in the realest of ways. Indeed, it's often works of fiction that have the most meaningful and lasting impact.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A look back at what was

Now seems as good a time as any to look back over the highlights of 2010...

January 2010 - I enrolled in a Master of Educational Technology degree program through Boise State University.

February - Spent school vacation with my wife, parents, and sister at my late grandmother's condo in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

March - Attended the Massachusetts Poetry Out Loud semi-finals in Western Mass, where I got to see some of the state's top student poets recite the likes of Byron, Dickinson, Plath, Frost, and others. The quality of their recitations was both inspiring and humbling.

April - Our high school's newspaper, which I advise, was recognized for excellence in both regional and national scholastic journalism contests.

May - I completed my first two MET courses, Introduction to Educational Technology and Internet for Educators, earning A's in both.

June - Students at my high school selected me as one of three Teachers of the Year. It's the greatest honor and compliment I've received in my 10 years as an educator.

July - Hit up Vermont's Long Trail with my old buddy Dan from high school. We spent about a week in the woods and got great weather and fantastic vistas, none better than the one from Camel's Hump. When I returned from the hike I proceed to go on a Wire binge, watching all five seasons in less than a week.

August - I spent a week at the beach with my wife and read a number of books, including The Kite Runner (disturbingly enjoyable), A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (heartbreakingly incredible), and Doing School (which caused me to reflect on the way I grade and assess student work).

September - I returned to the factory. For the first time in seven years, I am not teaching freshmen. This is due in part to my success at growing the journalism program sufficiently to warrant two sections of the class. My other preps involve one low-level senior class and two honors-level 12th grade English classes. While I miss the energy and enthusiasm of 9th grade students, I appreciate the opportunity to see how students I had three years ago have evolved and matured. I also get to meet new members of the class of 2011.

I begin the third course in my Master of Educational Technology program, Instructional Design.

October - I have a great time mingling with fellow English teachers at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference. Next year I'm definitely going to spend the night and attend the offerings on both days. It's so rare that teachers actually have an opportunity to talk with one another about instruction and ways to improve our practice. I know I was sad to leave at the end of Friday's session, as there were a number of new people I really enjoyed meeting. In addition to attending both days, I might even present!

November - Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. There's great food, you're with the ones you love, and there's no pretense to make purchases. It really is a time to be thankful and appreciative for what you have, and I am.

December - My Instructional Design class finally comes to an end. While the course exposed me to a number of relevant strategies designed for planning and assessing instruction, many of the course's requirements seemed grounded in academia, without any realistic application in the real world of public education. For example, the "culminating assessment" worth 40 percent of our grade involved creating a 35-page instructional document on a lesson designed to take 1 to 3 hours. In an average week I'll teach about 22 1-hour lessons. Assuming I created one instructional document for every 2 hours of instruction, that would mean I'd be generating 385 pages of instructional materials each week. As you can see, this has no grounding in reality.

It would have been more beneficial to ask us to implement strategies and theories into existing lessons as opposed to creating one which can only live within the Ivory Tower. I am hoping that my next class, Evaluation for Educational Technologists, is more practical.

I spent Christmas in New England, and dedicated a large portion of the holiday break to reading Justin Cronin's The Passage. It is by far one of the most gripping and enveloping stories I've read in years. I found myself reading late into the night until my eyes glazed over. When I wasn't reading, I was thinking about the characters, and eagerly anticipating the next time I'd be able to pick up the book. At 766 pages, it's certainly a commitment, but reading was 100 percent willful pleasure. I am deeply upset that I have to wait more than a year for the sequel.