Thursday, December 24, 2015


I was driving down the street today. The weather was unseasonably warm but humid and basically gross. As I approached the corner I saw a woman on the sidewalk, waiting at a bus stop, old her phone over her head so she could stare into it, make a strange face and then put the phone down. She was taking a selfie at a bus stop.

I hate selfies, especially of me. I hate most pictures of me but selfies more than that. They smack of narcissism, a lack of compositional subtlety and narcissism. I also don't like how I look.

I know that selfies aren't a new idea. Artists have been drawing self portraits for a while now, and some of the early photos were of the photographer (I had a student write a paper on this a couple of years ago). And yes, I once, way back in the days of 35mm film cameras, aimed at myself and opened the shutter. The resultant picture of the top third of my face was not one I kept for posterity. But when an artist or an experimental photographer took an image of himself he was trying to say something. He had a significant point to make -- his art or picture was a window into something more significant that simple image. The teen ager who takes 14 pictures while at the water fountain in the library has nothing to say with those pictures. They don't catalogue and important moment or experience. They are not special expressions of self because the scarcity principle no longer applies. Back when a photo took time and money, or a drawing was rife with impression (or at least a show of skill) the rare self-image gave unique insight. These pictures are no longer unusual so we lack any adjustment time which would allow the next picture to provide something new or different to craft a deeper appreciation.

What makes standing at a bus stop important enough to be memorialized in a photo? Even more so, what makes it so special that it needs to be shared. Have we no private moments that can be held in a personal and not communal memory? And then people make "stories" out of a series of pictures, as if my sending you my picture isn't good enough -- I have to write the captions so that you have a full idea of my experience of eating grilled cheese. We are living vicariously, through the mundane experiences of others that are imbued with sacredness by the fact that they belong to someone else. And worse than that, we are living through other people's experiencing our experiences. I want him/her to see me at the bus stop and I need the feedback: what was it like to see me at a bus stop? My vicariousness needs a vicariousness.

So if we are so hell bent on having others stretch their voyeuristic muscles and see us when we brush our teeth, why do we get surprised that people share inappropriate pictures? Is it really that much more of an extreme? And when those pictures are then passed around, or when people hack into phones and take "private" pictures can we really be shocked? Haven't we cultivated this culture of all-access by sacrificing our private identities on the altar of virality?

We don't make stupid duck faces because our college chums want to see us like that. We make faces which accentuate our celebrity or try to emulate what we imagine important people do in pictures. Then we get indignant when others comment, manipulate or otherwise refuse to honor us through our pictures. We put our egos out there to be stroked and get upset when someone kicks them instead of loving them.

The next time you are shopping and decide to share with all your friends every stop you take in the mall, consider how you are devaluing your own uniqueness, how you are flooding the market with the product that is your identity and how you are making a live conversation with you, an actual interaction, superfluous.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How to teach good

I have seen teachers, good and bad, and I have read books purporting to instruct people how to be more effective in the classroom. I haven't been impressed. I think I run a pretty OK class so I figure it is incumbent on me to give the low-down, the real truth behind how to be a good teacher. Not a great one, mind you -- I have gone on record as saying that a teacher can be taught to be good or better than he is, but greatness is something that is inborn. Not saying I have it, but just that it can't be quantified or taught.

Also, my advice about how to teach good is not the end all and be all of what you have to do to be successful. I can't tell you how to modulate your voice, grade papers, control your body language, sharpen your hearing and peripheral vision, determine a suitable amount of homework or empathize. I can tell you about the actual teaching part. These should no longer be secrets. Maybe they haven't been, but if they were well known, then why aren't they being abided by?

Step one -- make sure what you are teaching matters. That's a huge step and, truth be told, I'm not sure how many math and science teachers contextualize their work in a way that makes it matter. And I'm not talking about the content for a strong honors class who would take notes if you lectured about shoe size. Those students like to learn for the twin reasons of "earning a top grade so as to get into the best college" and "intellectual curiosity." Mostly the first one. I'm talking about working with a class lower than the very top, where students need to be drawn in. Don't expect the material to be self-apparently important or useful. Spell it out. And make sure that they know that you are constantly learning it along with them because it still amazes you and matters. This might mean taking a long hard look at what you teach and challenging yourself to be able to justify what you are doing. I defend what I teach as falling into some broad categories, such as:

a. cultural literacy
b. transferrable knowledge
c. transferrable skills

but I make sure to remind students of the relevance of each during the lessons so that they don't forget that there is a reason to do what we do or read what we read. I can make a student care about Shakespeare by pointing out that the story is universal, or that the lines are well known, or that the exercise of close reading will make for stronger thinking in other contexts. Or some combination. Whichever I chose, I have to be honest and transparent about it. Tell the students that none of this is easy for anyone and there are no shortcuts, but that there is a reward of sorts. If I don't think it is useful, or can't find a reason for them to learn it, they can tell and won't connect. And, yes, in the right relationship, the following suffices: "Because I don't want you going out there and sounding like an idiot -- that would make me look bad."

Step two -- teach the material without regard to buzz words and "best practices." If you can't get up in front of a room, and drive the content delivery by force of your own presence, in the absence of technologies and bells and whistles, leave the classroom. If, and I have said this before, your pedagogy is prioritized higher than your content then something is wrong. A good teacher should be able to walk into a room with a single idea or topic (or even less) and walk out after 45 minutes having had a great class. I am not advocating not prepping, but teachers plan and students ignore (paraphrased from the Yiddish).

Step three -- check to make sure that they are getting it. I don't care if that means looking at their eye contact, asking low level questions to ensure that they heard you, giving homework or quizzes. I care that I can ensure that a student says "yes" when I say "do you understand?" and can be pushed to respond in a salient manner when I follow up with a question about content. Tell them that the next class will cash in on what you are doing today so they should review it so that they can excel tomorrow. Make sure they know that problems on a Tuesday don't magically disappear so Wednesday's material will make sense. Good teaching is about building. Weak foundation? No building. Elicit questions from them so you know what they know, what they need and if they care.

Step four -- if it isn't working, decide why, and react accordingly. Is the content useless? Do the students not understand why the content is useful? Is the delivery not clear? Are the students preoccupied for good reason (life is happening to them, no matter how great your content seems to be)? Are there other variables you didn't consider? Get louder, softer, more passionate, more mysterious, angrier, friendlier or whatever it takes and hope it works. Repeat.

Step five -- realize that any and all methods are just possible resources and what worked yesterday might tank today, or in 5 minutes. Change constantly. Go home tired because you had to be everything to everyone and had to make each student think he or she was the only one in the room and you knew exactly what he wanted and what he was thinking at all times. If you aren't a step ahead, then your are falling behind.

Step six -- realize that success is measured in loads of different ways and on many different scales, all dynamic and variable.

So tell every story, leverage every resource, see any content as either useful or useless all based on what you can do to make it vital. Go home exhausted, crashing from an 8 hour adrenalin high as you walk on a tightrope carrying the futures of a hundred young people. Tomorrow all credit is erased and you have to start all over again.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Deal me out

In this the holiday season, I wish to take a moment to discuss a timely issue: that of gift cards. When one does not know what to buy another in celebration of the darkest days of the year, the trend is to buy a card which commits the receiver to spending time and energy in a particular store. The logic is "you like stuff, right? Well, I went into a store that sells stuff, and basically told the guy there that you can come in and take 10 dollars worth of stuff for free." Nice gesture. Instead of my buying you stuff you don't like, I am letting you choose your own stuff. I'm awesome for freeing you up to buy something in a store you might not otherwise frequent.

This morning, I stopped on the way to work so that my daughter (whom I love dearly) could buy a Starbucks gift card for her classmate. Because what else would a 16 year old want for the holidays but a cup of coffee? Parents rejoice -- Juan Valdez has supplanted Kris Kringle! I shan't waste your time complaining about coffee for youngsters, the difference between a pour over, an Americano and a goddam cuppa or an order which takes 5 minutes to recite and has fractions and foreign words in it. And she has to buy it for the Jewish equivalent of a secret Santa. I didn't know that a Jewish version was necessary, but here we are and I won't belabor this point. I'm here to discuss gift cards.

So the child returns to the car a few minutes later. She had trouble picking between gift cards because they have become fashion choices. She went for the basic white, with no pictures of winter scenes and no loving sentiments emblazoned on it. I applaud this choice -- why worry about the design when the goal will be for this to end up in a landfill as soon as possible? So I asked, "How much is the card for?" (when one speaks with today's youth, it is considered "cool" to end sentences with a preposition or two) She told me, "Ten dollars." "OK," I responded coolly, without questioning whether ten dollars worth of coffee is enough or too much, "How much did it cost?" "Ten dollars," she replied.

So she went into a store and spent ten dollars on a gift card which gets the other person ten dollars. I asked her, "Why didn't you just give your friend 10 dollars, then?" She sighed. Apparently, I just don't get it.

Here's the thing and I don't think I'm wrong on this one: either the gift card should reward the purchaser, allowing me to buy 10 dollars worth of coffee for under 10 dollars because I have gone in to the store, and am encouraging others to go into the store (which should, in the long run, increase foot traffic and sales for them) or reward the receiver, with the purchaser paying a surcharge to cover the convenience and overhead while the receiver doesn't worry about this but gets the amount on the card. Bottom line, either it should have cost her 9 dollars or 11 dollars, depending on the economic model in play. The one thing it should not have cost was 10 dollars. So that's how much it cost.

This makes no sense to me. This is why I hate the holidays.