Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Teachers Who Don't Feel Like Working



In yesterday's New York Times there was a story (Link) about a new PBS mini-series--Shakespeare Uncovered--which began its six-part run last night.  (It's on DVR--haven't watched it yet.)  Anyway, I was reading the feature in the paper (by Neil Genzlinger), figuring it would be fun to watch in these dark drear dour days of January and February. Until I came to this sentence:

Sure, the hourlong programs feel a bit like something high school teachers or college professors might show classes when they didn't feel like working ....

(By the way, if I were grading Genzlinger's sentence--on one of those days when I feel like working--I would circle his they and mention it doesn't have a clear antecedent: the closest plural noun is classes, but it's probably not the classes he's talking about.  Or is it?  Not clear.  Rewrite the sentence.  Make it clear.  Picky English teacher.)

Well, I was surely glad Genzlinger didn't mention middle school teachers in his sweeping dismissal.  He must have known that middle school teachers would never show a film or video just to, you know, have something to do when they didn't feel like working.

I taught middle school for about thirty years, college for a few, high school for about ten--and I really got out a lot of work by showing films.  I'm alarmed now that Genzlinger has outed my colleagues and me--has revealed our darkest secret to the readers of the New York Times, whose reporters never don't feel like working--well, there was Jayson Blair, that reporter who faked stories, fooled his editors--but, hey, let's not condemn all NYT reporters because of a couple of sluggards.  Let's save that for educators.

First of all: confession.  The first year I taught middle school (the first year I taught anything) was 1966-1967.  I had five classes a day, forty seventh-grade (i.e., wacko) students per class.  (Do the math.)  I had two sections of American history, two of English, one of reading.  Three different preparations each day.

And then ... a screw-up in the bus scheduling, so the principal added another thirty-minute period to the day and called it activity period. Now I had a couple additional preparations.  (I found myself involved, via activity period, in the drama and journalism programs at the school.  I loved both.)

I didn't complain.  I was having fun.  And--some days--I was drowning.  Overwhelmed by work and detail.  And, yes, sometimes on those days as I slipped below the surface, I would show a filmstrip or a film, giving me time to swim back up for a little air.

I did not show those films because I didn't feel like working but because I had so much work I couldn't do it all.  And I was under water.

The job never got any easier.  There were years when I had fewer classes, fewer students, but there was always more to do than I could possibly do.  But I started figuring things out, too.  I organized my days better, my evenings, my weekends.  (Critics love to bleat about how teachers don't work in the summer; what those critics don't mention is that we work seven days a week, plus evenings, during the academic year.)

And I started integrating films and other visuals into the curriculum.  My middle-schoolers read The Taming of the Shrew--later, Much Ado About Nothing--and then we watched the wonderful films of those plays.  (But just on days when I didn't feel like working.)

When I taught The Call of the Wild, which takes place during Klondike Gold Rush, I showed students Chaplin's film The Gold Rush (same era)--but only when I didn't feel like working.

When I taught The Diary of Anne Frank, we read the play, then saw the film--but only when ...

When I taught Hamlet, we read the play--up through Act IV--then saw one of the films--but only when ...

When I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I would show the Huck-related segment of Ken Burns' film Mark Twain--but only when ...

It's annoying for anyone--a teacher, a reporter, a politician, a cop, a welfare recipient, a teenager, a hunter, a lawyer, a priest, an investment banker, a mother, an anything or anyone--to be compared constantly with the worst of our sub-species.  But we do it to one another, all the time.

It's a kind of shorthand.  Kind of easy.  Even kind of fun.  Very self-satisfying.

Except, of course, when we are the target.  Then it's something else, isn't it?  Then it's bias, prejudice, ignorance--all those other ugly words we use to characterize people who don't understand us. And who don't take the time to try.

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