“The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time”

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There’s a common assumption in American society, and to varying degrees around the world, that if you are not frantically busy, then you are not working hard enough. A leisurely life, in the view of many, is nothing but a frivolous luxury. Especially if you are a woman, you should be running around doing this and that; many people prove themselves by rattling off their schedule to those around.

It is acknowledged, now and then, that some men need to go off into their studies to ponder, or to the river to fish. But for women, this kind of leisurely solitude has little or no place in the public imagination; a woman who goes off on her own to work on something may even arouse pity. “Poor thing!” they think, if they think about the matter at all. “She doesn’t go out, she doesn’t socialize, she must be so lonely and bored.” Or: “Why isn’t she an activist?

Why shouldn’t leisure (of various kinds) be treated as a good–not only for the wealthy, but for everyone who needs and wants it? “I just can’t afford it,” some will reply. But there are also those who can’t afford to go without it. What’s more, it needs, like other things, to be learned and passed on. This can be done almost anywhere; tt’s possible to create leisure even on a low income. This is an old idea; liberal education, in its earliest conception, was education within leisure, for leisure; while this idea has been contested over time, part of it holds up as strongly as ever, if not more so.

First of all, leisure allows a person to think. It isn’t the same thing as sloth–lying around, dilly-dallying, munching on chips while watching TV (though all of that can have a place). It’s a matter of slowing down enough to carry a thought from beginning to end–to test out possibilities, consider meanings, and so on.

Second, leisure can be profoundly productive. There are things you can’t work on in a rush. For my translation work, and for any serious writing, I need stretches of time, so that I can work without worrying that I will suddenly have to stop. Interruptions are part of life, but too many get in the way of your thinking and condition what you are able to do in the first place.

Leisure also changes your attitudes about life, often for the better. If you recognize that you don’t always have to rush, then you can take time with things that need time. This allows you to actually accomplish them. For example, writers often make the mistake of submitting pieces for publication before they’re really ready, or submitting them to the wrong place. It takes a lot of time to bring the writing to its ideal state and seek out appropriate publications. If you rush any of this, you will probably do something wrong. But if you take the time to persist, something will work out.

Leisure is good for the health, too. On weekends like this, when I don’t have to rush anywhere, I feel rested and clear-headed. I can piece together the events of the past week, month, and year; I can look ahead and ask myself questions; I can have fun and laugh.

It can take place in company; leisure doesn’t have to be solitary (in the most obvious sense, the sense of physical aloneness). Whether with others or alone, you can take time to enjoy something, discuss something, or just be together or by yourself.

But leisurely solitude is a great thing for those who want or need it. It isn’t for everyone. Some people get anxious when alone for too long; others get bored when they don’t have enough to do. Such boredom or anxiety isn’t fixed, though; a person can lose it over time.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leisure” derives from the Old French “leisir,” “capacity, ability, freedom (to do something); permission; spare time; free will; idleness, inactivity,” from the Latin from Latin licere “to be allowed”; it has the same root as “license.” Interesting that it contains both the sense of “capacity to do something” and “idleness.” That is its paradox: to do certain things, you need idleness as your foundation.

Leisure also allows you to do nothing, or seemingly nothing. To look out at the frost on the trees, to listen to music, to read a book, to take a long bike ride, to sit and think, to sit with your cat (who understands leisure very well), to laugh over something funny that happened, to make up a story in your mind, to sense the changing of the light.

I close with “Leisure” by Amy Lowell:

Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.

“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

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An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling there just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs have a wonderful mix of sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

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The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

I made a few edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

A Great Lecture and Bike Ride

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This evening I bicycled to Szandaszőlős, a suburb of Szolnok, to hear Zsolt Bajnai speak about Szolnok between the world wars. When crossing the Tisza, I stopped to look at the Tiszavirág Bridge, which looked ghostly in the distance. The bike path went along the road, for the most part; but when crossing Route 4, it dipped downhill and passed through three tunnels.IMG_0827
Soon I arrived at Szandaszőlős and was amazed by the majestic houses. I might have been to Szandaszőlős before, but not to this part. (The building on the left is the confectionery, the “cukrászda”; the one on the right is someone’s house, I think.)

Finally I made it to the House of Culture and to the lecture. It was great. I learned about various buildings, sculptures, and other landmarks, including the old bridge (which was bombed in World War II), the boys’ school, the girls’ school, the Tisza Hotel (and the unfulfilled plans to expand it), the beach on the banks of the Tisza, the stores in the Town Hall, the Nerfeld-palota, and much more.

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The return trip was much quicker than the trip out there, since by then I knew the way. I rode back the way I came, through Szandaszőlős, through the tunnels, along the bike path, across the Tisza, then along the Zagyva and back home. Here is a backward look along the Zagyva. A good end to the day.

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“And he said….” (pause)

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Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Essay Prep à la Cartoon

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Yesterday I told my ninth-grade students (in Szolnok, Hungary) that today they would be writing an essay about the advantages and disadvantages of replacing a city park with a new parking garage. (The assignment is from the textbook.) Yesterday they wrote their outlines. A few got worried when I told them the essay would be graded. “So it’s a test?” they asked. I explained: no, it wasn’t a test, just graded in-class writing. “So it’s a test,” they replied. One of them asked me if it was OK to add something that wasn’t in the rubric: specifically, a suggestion of an alternative solution, such as an underground garage. By all means, I said; if you wish to improve upon the rubric, please do so.

According to the rubric, they are supposed to give an introduction, then discuss the advantages of replacing a park with a parking garage, then discuss the disadvantages, then wrap everything up with a conclusion and opinion. In my view, it’s a stronger essay if the author makes an actual argument (since the author’s opinion comes up anyway). That is, before the conclusion, the author should explain why the advantages outweigh the disadvantages or vice versa (or offer an alternative). That way, the argument has its own place, and the conclusion can be devoted to wrapping things up. I welcomed students to stick with the rubric in the textbook or modify it in this particular way.

(I use the textbook, but not only the textbook, in class; I supplement it with literature, articles, songs, discussion, skits, writing assignments, and other texts and activities.)

When I entered the classroom today, a few minutes before the start of class (there’s a ten-minute break between most classes), the room was in commotion. A few students were up at the blackboard, explaining what they had written and drawn. One had written a sample outline–not detailed enough to give anyone ideas, but just enough to convey the essay’s structure. Another two students had illustrated the issue itself (in the picture shown above). Unfortunately my photo doesn’t capture the whole drawing; the tree on the garage rooftop had a big “X” crossing it out, and the sun behind the clouds was a bright yellow. (Despite the message of this picture, different students took different sides on the issue; some supported the parking garage idea, some vehemently opposed it, and some expressed ambivalence or took a different tack altogether.)

The two students who had drawn the picture cheerfully consented to having it published on my blog; the one who had written the outline did not want it published anywhere.

I commended them all for meeting before class to prepare for this writing exercise, which, I stressed again, would not be a formal test. That is, they would not be penalized for spelling and grammatical errors. The goal was to show that they could explore two (or more) sides of an issue in a structured essay. This is English class, so part of the purpose is to practice the language. Most of the time, the textbook emphasizes vocabulary, usage, and grammar, as do the tests; this time I wanted them to focus on what they were saying and how they were organizing it logically.

The essays I read so far were even better than I expected: all different from each other, all well organized and explained, and each one with a different quality. One had precise and detailed logical argumentation, another a descriptive flair; another was archly grim, and another had sophisticated vocabulary and turns of phrase. Everyone worked intensely throughout the class period. But I think it’s the few minutes before class that convey what it’s like to teach here. Students conducting “essay prep” with an outline and cartoon of their own making–they grasped both the challenge and the laughter.

Why I Like Robert Pondiscio’s Book (and Why “Main Idea” Is Duke, Not King)

how the other half learnsAfter reading many reviews and summaries of Robert Pondiscio’s outstanding book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, I worried that I already knew too much of the gist and wouldn’t have much left to enjoy or think about. The worry was unfounded. I read it this weekend in several sittings, unable to stop for long. I was drawn into the descriptions, the characters, the daily life of Bronx 1 classrooms, the pedagogical and curricular details, and Pondiscio’s subtle, surprising observations along the way. That very experience–of enjoying the content of the book–points to what I see as its main blind spot. In the book itself, the “Main Idea” is not king–so I am wary of pedagogical approaches that insist that yes, it is.

Granted, I am writing from a high school and college perspective, as I usually do. Elementary school and high school differ profoundly; when people do not acknowledge this, they often end up talking past each other. Some of the greatest misunderstandings in education discussion come from failures to specify what we are talking about. Pondiscio’s book comes to life, and to meaning, through its specificity. He is talking about elementary school–and not elementary school in general, but elementary school for very poor kids whose parents are determined to give them a foothold. Elementary school is where students should be learning certain basics–and the “main idea” is surely one of them.

The refrain “Main Idea is king” rings throughout the book. It’s what the teachers tell the students over and over, and exemplify in their classrooms, at Bronx 1 Elementary School, which Pondiscio visited for a year. Bronx 1 belongs to the Success Academy, a network of charter schools, founded by Eva Moskowitz, that has won both fame for its test score success and rebuke for perceived creaming and overhype. Pondiscio argues that the Success Academy schools don’t cream students; they cream parents. Is this fair? It depends on how you look at it. But for now, back to the Main Idea.

Revering the main idea will help you, up to a point, with reading comprehension. (For instance, if there is a main idea in a text, and if you can identify it, you can then figure out how the different parts of the text support it.) Such regal treatment will also help you with ELA standardized tests, which almost always include questions about the main idea. It will not help you with the kind of discussion that you find at private high schools and in college. In many texts (Pondiscio’s book included), the main idea is only the foundation, if even that; the really interesting stuff is to be found in the subordinate clauses, the observations, the connections, the hesitations, the contradictions. This is especially true with poetry and fiction, but it applies to nonfiction as well.

The main idea of How the Other Half Learns might run as follows: “While controversial in its approaches to admissions, instruction, and discipline, and perhaps impossible to scale, the Success Academy charter schools bring their students to academic success–in terms of test scores, college admissions, and more–and therefore deserve recognition and support.” I don’t need to read a whole book to get that point–but the book did much more than argue it. I was drawn into the description of specific lessons, walkthroughs, leaders’ and teachers’ meetings, hallway activity, Pondiscio’s meetings with families, and characters so vivid that I saw and heard them in my mind.

The Success Academy’s emphasis on the main idea–and other concepts important to the standardized tests–goes hand in hand, I think, with its avoidance of “teacher talk.” For if students are supposed to be doing most of the work, and teachers are to limit their talking, then students must have specific, recognizable tasks to perform.

Third-grade teacher Steven Madan has the children continually involved in tasks, continually (in Pondiscio’s words) “engaged and on their toes.” From p. 46:

“The best learning we get in the classroom comes from other scholars, because we learn from each other,” Madan tells his students, a notion that Success drills into teachers during the network’s summer Teacher School, or T School. The feedback new staffers hear most often is “too much teacher talk.” The standard remedy is to “put the lift on the scholars”: Don’t do the work for the kids. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle. That’s how they learn.

I have heard this many times before, in public schools: that if the teacher talks, she is “doing the work” for the kids. This does not have to be so. Students should have opportunities to work out some problems and puzzles on their own. But listening to the teacher is a demanding challenge in its own right: you must focus closely, figuring out what makes sense to you and what does not, formulating questions, and finding words for disagreements, hesitations, or extensions.

Yes, I am thinking in terms of high school and college, but elementary school students can do this too, and if they can’t, they should begin learning it gradually. This does not mean that teachers should talk all the time, talk needlessly, or strain their students’ attention beyond what they can handle. But “teacher talk” should not be deplored; not only does it have an important place in lessons, but students unused to it will have great difficulty later, not only in lectures, but also in seminars, where they also need to sustain their listening and deal with complex ideas.

I will come back to the “Main Idea” shortly–but want to comment on the “Math Lesson” chapter, if too briefly. Pondiscio states that the teacher’s (Kerri Lynch’s) math lesson, “with its push to get students, not teachers, to do the thinking, and its almost complete lack of direct instruction, bears the hallmark of Success Academy’s approach and a focus–nearly an obsession–of its teacher training” (p. 142). The actual lesson is lively and productive; students figure out, among other things, that 7/8 is greater than 3/4, and arrive at a clear explanation. But what happens with a student who understands, right off the bat, that this is so, and can explain why? What challenge is left? One way to challenge such a student–and others as well–is for the teacher to present an extended solution to a problem, ask the students to pay close attention to it, and then question them to see whether they understand it, can explain it, and can take it in new directions.

For instance, in a geometry class, you might ask students how they would bisect a segment, without using any numerical measurements. They may use the length of the segment itself and the lengths and angles on a right-triangle ruler. But they may not actually measure the lengths and angles.

If they can’t figure it out, give them a helping start: Create an isosceles triangle with the segment as the base. From there they can probably figure out that all they need to do is drop a line from the vertex opposite the base down to the base, at a perpendicular to the base. If they can’t, there are ways to offer hints without giving the solution away. When they finally get it, have a student explain it from start to finish; if he or she gets stuck, others may help out.

Once they have explained it, ask: So, how do you trisect a segment, using the same tools? Let them puzzle over it for homework, part of homework, or extra credit; welcome them to work on it together if they wish. The next day, see who has figured it out; if someone has, ask for a presentation, and ask questions along the way about the steps. If no one has figured it out, give a helping start again, and see whether they can take it from there.

This example still has the students doing the majority of the work–but it is possible for the teacher to present something without turning the lesson into a sequence of procedures or robbing the students of insight. To the contrary: they must learn how to make sense of what they see on the board–not only make sense of it, but take it farther.

Or take poetry. So many poems have been ruined by lessons that insisted on a main idea or relied entirely on student discovery. What do you do with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“? On the surface, the poem is about taking a few minutes of quiet–but in each stanza, the quiet is subtly disturbed. Even the title, “Stopping by Woods…” suggests a temporary stopping, not a permanent one. You do not have to summarize all of this in a single statement; you can instead look at and listen to the different pulls in the poem.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the Success Academy high school’s initial difficulties had to do with the elementary and middle schools’ extreme focus on reading strategies and their stance against “teacher talk.” (Pondiscio states bluntly, when describing the high school’s beginnings, that it was “a disaster.”) Students’ difficulties with seminar may have stemmed, in part, from not knowing how to listen to others at length or how to explore a text or topic on its own terms. This might not have been a matter of classroom discipline alone. It might have had to do with intellectual practices.

This does not mean that teachers should abandon group work or paired discussion (I include both in my lessons). But there is a case for teaching something directly to the students. First, they may not know it; second, it can give them some ideas of how to think about the topic; and third, it can open up discussion at a higher level than would otherwise be possible. The main idea comes up in such instruction and discussion, but it is rarely the goal.  Rather, teacher and students focus on the text’s motion, details, digressions, and uncertainties. The students come to see more than they saw before. The main idea still matters, but it does not merit a crown. Let it be duke.

Pondiscio’s book demonstrates this unwittingly. It is a bracing pleasure; it raises memories, ideas, questions. It holds much more than a main idea. What’s more, it comes from an author with experience, insight, and a gift for writing. It could not have been achieved through turn-and-talk alone.

Note: Robert Pondiscio is a good acquaintance/friend (whom I have not seen in person for some time). I have been reading and enjoying his writing for years–and contributed many guest posts to the Core Knowledge Blog when he was its editor and lead author. 

Also, after posting this piece I realized I should refer to him, after first mention, by his last name rather than his first–since this is a review, not an informal comment–so I made the change.

Learning from Others Within Judaism (Why the Mazsihisz Should Recognize the Reform Communities)

szim salom hanukkah

On December 15, 2019, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) voted not to recognize Budapest’s two Reform communities, Szim Salom (where I serve in a cantorial role) and Bét Orim. The Mazsihisz is Neolog in orientation. While the Neolog movement differs little from the Orthodox in official stance and liturgy, the personal practices of its congregants range from secular to traditionally observant. I am disappointed by the decision (along with many others, some of whom have written about it) but hope that it is not final and that the discussion will continue. The reasons for coming together–and respecting each other, even with differences–are much more compelling than the reasons for staying apart.

The consequences of the decision are not only financial, but those are important as well. In not recognizing the Reform communities, the Mazsihisz denies any obligation to share its funds with them, including Holocaust restitution funds. Beyond that, the decision is humiliating. It is a way of saying: we are legitimate, and you are not. Still beyond that, the decision shuts off an opportunity to work together, learn from each other, and strengthen each other.

Granted, the question of recognition is much more complex than I am acknowledging here; it plagues just about any religious group. In the U.S., the Conservative and Reform movements have grown closer over time; some fear that the Conservative approach–its endeavor to be at once halakhic (roughly translated: observant of Jewish law) and responsive to modern reality–will disappear. The fear is understandable: any formal religion is founded on some combination of law, text, tradition, belief, and principle. Give up too much of it, and you give up not only your reason for existence, but your core of wisdom. On the other hand, if you refuse to let your wisdom evolve, you end up hurting people inside and outside your community. So I can sympathize with those in the Mazsihisz assembly who felt caught in a dilemma. I have less sympathy for those who refuse to consider the question.

At the December 15 meeting (which I did not attend), one Mazsihisz member stated infamously that “a rabbi should not be a woman, because everyone will just be looking at her butt.” (“Egy rabbi ne legyen nő, mert mindenki csak a fenekét fogja nézni. “) Others worried that recognizing Reform communities violates the principles of the sixteenth-century Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, which the Mazsihisz names explicitly in its statutes. If the statutes were to be amended to recognize the Reform communities, the reference to the Shulchan Aruch would have to be deleted. However, as some participants pointed out, few people read the Shulchan Aruch or know what is in it–and those Orthodox communities that do follow the Shulchan Aruch don’t recognize the Mazsihisz. (The Neolog movement initially represented a break from Orthodoxy; its original aim was to offer a more modern and assimilated form of Jewish worship and life. Today, from what I understand, this difference from Orthodoxy is reflected more in the actual practice of the members than in Neolog doctrine.)

In the U.S., I am Conservative in my Jewish orientation; I like the mixture of tradition and modernization and find no limit to my role within it. It was in the U.S.–at my synagogue B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), in lessons with the hazzan of Chizuk Amuno, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary–that I learned not only the basics and intricacies of cantillation (in all six systems–Torah, Haftarah, High Holy Day, Eichah, Ester, and Festival), but the underlying principles and structures. (BJ is independent but mostly Conservative in its liturgy and practice; Chizuk Amuno is a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore; and JTS is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism.) Here in Hungary, I joined Szim Salom, a Reform synagogue, because I like what it does and because I could continue to leyn there. I did not expect to be invited into a cantorial role; when I was, in December 2017, I accepted joyfully and have continued in the role for over two years now. I admire the rabbi, Katalin Kelemen (Hungary’s first–and, so far, only–female rabbi), for her extraordinary persistence, intellect, courage, and joy. I have been warmly welcomed and appreciated by the members.

I used to think of Reform Judaism (the U.S. version, that is) as too watered down, not well versed in Hebrew or liturgy, not as solemn as I would like, not serious in its practice. This may have been true to some extent, but the situation is changing. Reform synagogues are placing much more emphasis now on Hebrew, liturgy, and knowledge of halakhah than they did in the past. As for Conservatives, they are in no way monolithic. Some members go out to restaurants after Shabbat service; others follow Orthodox practices from hour to hour. The rabbis uphold a standard while quietly recognizing a wide range. In addition, the Conservative movement as a whole has opened itself to women, LGBTQ, and people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

I am grateful for the range. It means that I have people to learn from on all sides–people who put care into every detail of their practice, people who crack jokes, and people who do both at once. I often remember a B’nai Jeshurun member who knows the Hebrew liturgy inside out–who was “davening in the womb,” as his wife puts it–and mumbles a hilarious running commentary in English and Yiddish (and sometimes French) over the course of the service. His combination of devotion and humor inspired me from the beginning. The Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun are filled with people of all ages who come for the joy of it–who, regardless of their level of observance, join together in prayer, singing, and dance. (Many people get up and dance to “Lecha Dodi” on Friday evenings; for a sense of what BJ services are like, see these videos.) Within this range, I do not have to stay still or get stuck; I can grow in knowledge, understanding, and feeling. In addition, I learn not to look down on others whose practice differs from mine. They may understand something that I do not.

At this point, in my daily practice, I am closer to Reform than to anything else. This is largely because I do not do well with excessive structure or group activity; I need some unstructured time and space, as well as solitude, in my life. Also, I need the freedom to find the level and form of practice that is right for me, and to be open or quiet about it. Yet I treasure Conservative liturgy, form, and quest. I miss parts of the Conservative services that I have known (at BJ and JTS in New York, and at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas), such as Psalm 136, El Adon (listen to this recording), the seven Torah aliyot, the chanted Haftarah, the Musaf Amidah (with its gorgeous Kedushah), and more. In Hungary, though, while I would gladly visit a Neolog service, I see no place for myself except in the Reform, since I wish to participate fully–leyning, singing, leading, studying, learning. It is a lovely place; I find the members kind, thoughtful, and serious about Jewish life and Torah.

I hope the Mazsihisz will come to embrace the range of Jewish practice in Hungary and beyond. Doing so will strengthen, not weaken, their own communities, which themselves have wide ranges. Yes, there are difficult questions of practice and law–but from its beginnings, Judaism has thrived on questioning. I know little of the long and complex history behind the vote–I have read some articles and listened to some people but realize there’s much more to learn. Yet I speak from some knowledge and experience, as well as openness. The Reform and Neolog communities could learn from each other in unforeseeable ways. I would love to be part of this learning.

With rising antisemitic violence around the world, it becomes all the more important to affirm, to ourselves and others, that Judaism abounds with contrasts, contradictions, and concordances, and that it can hold them all. Jews are not just one thing or another; Jews are not things. To the extent that we recognize each other, we fight off degradation and hatred. To the extent that we continue to learn, we fight off excessive self-certainty. It is not easy to do any of this, but it’s more than worth the difficulty. Shabbat Shalom.

The photo at the top of this post shows our 2017 Hanukkah celebration–just after I had begun in my cantorial role at Szim Salom.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it–most recently on January 5. In addition, I added to the title for the sake of clarity.