Oh, a Rhinoceros!

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In just nine days we (seventeen students, a parent, and I) leave for Veszprém. We will spend three days there as participants in the National English Language Drama Festival; the students will perform Eugène Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros and their own (completely unrelated) Rhinocerosn’t. Here’s a short clip of a recent Rhinoceros rehearsal.

 

We have three rehearsals (including one twelve-hour one) and an in-house performance before we go; the twelve-hour rehearsal will include a session with guest director Kata Bajnai, author of Farkasok.

The in-house performance will take place on Wednesday, May 22, at 3:30; it will be a dress rehearsal, but with an audience.

The festival itself will be chock full of performances and workshops; it doesn’t get a whole lot more nonstop than that. Much like the rhinoceros itself! (Unless the latter is plural, in which case, “rhinoceroses” and “themselves.”)

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. The video is posted and shared with the students’ permission.

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core: that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different, so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value, but instead they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy, of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument, nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites, as it allowed for focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

“It’s All About the Brute Struggle,” Says Schools Deputy

rhinocerosLutte, NY–After receiving numerous requests, pleas, and demands for adequate resources and space in the public schools, Associate Schools Deputy Bruce Eris divulged the Department of Education’s philosophy at a crowded district assembly. “It’s all about the brute struggle,” he said proudly. “If the kids aren’t tearing each other to pieces, you’re still in la-la land. We can point you to plenty of schools that are dealing with the real thing. You’ll see the difference right away.”

Murmuring and shifting followed. The moderator called for silence.

“You guys are saying you can’t cram yourselves into tiny classrooms,” he continued, panning his glance around the crowded hall. “Well, some people do it day after day. They might not like it, but they do it. If you can’t do it, it’s your failing, not ours.”

The first parent at the microphone suggested that it wasn’t good for students to be toppling onto each other, pushing past each other, and competing with each other for bathroom stalls. “Good?” Eris guffawed. “What is good? You’ve got your idea of good, but I’ve got mine, and I can tell you, lady, mine is based on sending my work teams to hundreds of schools and reading their reports. Your view is of these walls right here. You say they’re too narrow. Well I say let them be narrow! I say let this come to a boiling point! We’ll be happy to close you down.”

A teacher brought up the difficulty of teaching a good lesson when things were at the “boiling point.” “In the classroom, students need some space so that they can focus,” she said. “If a kid pushes another kid, even by mistake, it can throw everything off.”

“That’s what ineffective teachers always say,” Eris snorted. “We know that line. You’ve got to look at effective teachers. Effective teachers never have kids pushing each other, even when there are fifty of them in a tiny room. For a long time we’ve been saying that if we get effective teachers in the classroom, virtually or physically, your kids will get a good deal, even if we have to double the class size.”

A student spoke next. “Mr. Eris, I see a contradiction in your worldview,” he said. “On the one hand, you say that the ‘brute struggle’ is the reality, and anything short of it an illusion. On the other, you say that ‘effective teachers’ restore peace and productivity instantly just by walking into a classroom or appearing on Skype. Are you suggesting, therefore, that the ‘effective teacher’ is an illusion?”

“I’m not an intellectual sort of guy,” retorted Eris, “and it sounds like you’re coming at me with some highfalutin learnings that aren’t on the state tests—something your school could cut, if it really cared about resources. But I’ll give it a shot—the only thing is I have to leave right afterwards.” He took a sip of water and looked at his watch.

”If you want to talk philosophy,” he said, “I’ll tell you our philosophy. It isn’t contradictory as you’re making it out to be, but it takes some effective thinking to put it together. Now like I told you, I am not an intellectual, but I know what effective thinking is, and I practice it every moment of the day. That’s why I’ve got the salary I have. Do you have my salary, kid? Do you?” He took another sip.

“What’s your answer?” someone cried out.

“All right, all right. This is a kind of a trade secret, but here it goes. You see, the brute struggle is going to reveal who’s effective and who isn’t. The effective ones will have these amazing, packed classrooms where the kids are doing something productive every second. The other classrooms will be in chaos. So we will separate them out. We’ll fire the bad teachers, get rid of the bad schools, and then start up some new effective schools, and then let them go back into strife when they get too crowded, so that we can close them down except for the effective few. Eventually everyone’s gonna get the message. Be effective or bust. Finally you know how it will work out? Every single damned school in this district will be effective. You’ll see a hundred kids in a room, all standing up, all straining to learn from a teacher who wastes no time and takes no excuses—and gets them to exert their own creativity and critical thinking. Anyone who doesn’t cut it will be gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” another voice called out. The room had grown loud; the moderator called for quiet.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he said. “As long as the ineffective folks aren’t in our face, they can go wherever they want. It’s a free country. There are other districts. Private schools. Prisons. Canada and Mexico. Jobs at Kinko’s. The sooner they get out of here, the better. Speaking of getting out of here, I have to go now. I have a dinner engagement.” Eris and his three attendants walked briskly out of the hall.

After a hush, a principal spoke up. “All right now, let’s follow Mr. Eris’s advice and get this brute strife thing going,” she said. “If you haven’t hit someone in this room, you haven’t done your duty. Let’s see some punches here.”

Strangely, no one hit anyone. Clearly a sense of humanity was keeping people in check—and holding them back from the final ruthless glory.