Archive for the 'education innovation' Category

01
Mar
18

Moonlighting until tomorrow

I always thought there was something fundamentally broken or unfair about people needing to “moonlight” by taking a second job outside their vocation. I had consumed a steady diet of TV police dramas featuring daytime cops with evening jobs as bouncers, security detail, bodyguards, driver safety instructors. Then I began to notice teachers working extra jobs, too. Last year, one of my colleagues supplemented her full time teacher pay working as a waitress at a local restaurant. When did she see her family?

The job of teacher is demanding enough, consuming all one’s time and energy, without the added stress of more time and work. It would feel more whole, be more just, if our teachers could just remain dedicated to their professional art and craft and have time for family, friends, and community; for rest and remaining current in their fields. How do I remain true to my calling while earning enough to survive, now, and retire, later?

Other professions, too, require clean hands: a similar investment of time, service, and diplomacy that appears both impartial and above reproach. The teacher’s craft compares with the doctor’s, clergy’s, governor’s. Many of us cheer the idea of a politician whose hands are not sullied by an inordinate desire for money, and who can practice the wonderful work of statecraft without becoming dependent on the money offered by the pharmaceutical industry or gun lobby. I am thinking that there are noble ideals in teaching; but in acknowledging them I must be wary not to judge myself against an unrealistic ideal. Where do my ideals come from?

The movies

If we applaud the home-y philosopher-stateswoman who is not beholden to special interests, we are not necessarily alienated by the Western-genre myth of a person hired to “clean up the town”. See our mythic heroes John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. A higher ideal guides such characters, now seen as archetypal, who have come to be embodied in John Ford and Frank Capra movies.

Sometimes these characters step into volatile situations, act to temporarily bring about equilibrium, and leave the town stronger, cleaner, and more whole than when they arrived. All of us humans are touched by some evil or threat of harm, and even if we temporarily gun it down or fight it off, it will outlive us because only something like a love altogether more powerful will disable it. Hints of such better futures are also found in ideal film performances by Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. But they are perpetuated in new and original films such as The Post and The Shape of Water in performancesby Meryl Streep and Sally Hawkins.

Both Casablanca and Gone with the Wind end with lovers parting, and someone walking off into a mist, the words “beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “tomorrow is another day” reverberate in the theater as the score swells and the camera zooms out. But we overlook the romanticized heroism or love that redeems such flawed people. Rhet and Rick are profiteers with “hearts of gold”, but they admire idealism in others. Rick sees Ilsa’s and Rhet sees Scarlett’s. Louis is a Nazi sympathizer by convenience; Rhet will fight on the side of the South if it pays better. Everyone is caught between the real world, with its demand for practical tasks, time, and money; and the ideal world, with its tough and courageous love that sacrifices all for family, love, and justice. And most of us, rather than being in love with a single task-specific aspect of our teaching jobs, such as grading papers or taking attendance, are aligned to a more general, abstract habit, such a coaching learners toward independence or encouraging creativity in others.

vocation

That is why I feel the vocation of teaching is caught at this moment in history, caught, like night club owner Rick in Casablanca, between the practical responsibility of running his business (casino, black market) and the romantic heroism of aiding the helpless. In an early scene establishing his virtue and higher calling, he protects a married woman from having to compromise her marriage at the hands of a ruthless, predatory male (who can give her safe passage out of Casablanca in exchange for sexual favors) by fixing the roulette game to ensure her husband wins, then sending them away on an alternate route to safety.

In traditional and archetypal film style, the heroic male is costumed in white and lit strongly; in this shot, I see how Hungarian-born immigrant director Michael Curtiz focuses on the woman’s idolizing gaze at Bogie (Rick), as he, a knight in shining armor, defends her; and while the real love of her life, the man in the foreground, entrusts his savings to Rick. The romantic triangle in tableau foreshadows the actual one eventually played out when Ilsa bargains for her own husband’s safe passage, in order to continue fighting against the Nazis and leading his countrymen to freedom through resistance.

I like hopeful endings: they satisfy my acknowledged preference for justice and honor. I fear that, with many other people today, I also share an unacknowledged preference for the unreal Western myth to be realized in the midst of our daily real lives.

Thus it comes about that we have an national dicussion on the table about whether I, a classroom teacher, should be armed with a pistol in order to protect and defend my students.

The film buff in me has always wanted to be Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart — with a little Hercule Poirot and Fred Astaire thrown in.

Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, PUNK?

But I sense there is a collision of worlds in this scenario I have not acknowledged. It is a clash between the Platonic ideal of Teacher and the practical reality of Bodyguard. Yet some idealism about my work remains implanted in me. I am hopeful that my vocation and my workplace can retain their integrity of purpose. Learning happens in an environment that is safe, peaceful, and fun; when Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith makes his stand in Congress against corruption, he uses his proper tool, his voice, until it wears out; when Eastwood as Dirty Harry patrols the streets of San Francisco to stop a deranged serial killer, he carries the appropriate tool of his trade, a handgun. Movie teachers, in their fictional worlds, carry their spectacles, their Browning versions, their chalk, and their occasional cane or ruler.

Just what America needs in the classroom: one more phallic symbol of authority and force. I remember a much earlier national conversation steered by the Western myth. We considered the “Star Wars defense system” proposed by Hollywood actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan. To most of my friends, such a mistaken idea was a collision between two worlds: one fictional, in which war was glamorized because it symbolized noble human deeds and ideas (Jedi Knights and The Force) pitted against monstrous cruelty and power (Darth Vader and the Death Star); the other nonfiction, in which human beings on either side might bleed and die, and no one could say with certainty which were the monsters and who the humans.

Fortunately, there are women to compete with this myth of masculine power. Katharine Graham, whose strength towers over the men in her Washington, D.C. world, those attempting to exert force over her publishing The Pentagon Papers in The Post, resists their influence in order to make her independent choices.

Graham shown here with Truman Capote

As another Academy Award ceremony is telecast, viewers have a choice of new myths in which to believe. The stories themselves may not be new, since they include historical accounts of such events as The Battle of Dunkirk and the fight to publish The Pentagon Papers. Yet the expression of such stories is meaningful and original.

We witness Katharine Graham make a choice that exposes years of top level government officials’ knowledge about the unwinnability of the Viet Nam war; and in The Shape of Water we feel a tyrant’s monstrous contempt for life, beauty, and weakness countered by a mute cleaning-woman’s love and respect for a captive and complex being. Filmmakers, actors, and writers are only a few of the craftspersons serving as today’s “shapers”, the scops [singer-poets] John Gardner wrote about in his 1971 novel Grendel, a reshaping of the Beowulf epic from the creature’s point of view.

empowered teachers

The decisive Moments in our lives are born in the moments we feel the most powerless. We still need heroes, underdogs, and champions; but we must choose them more carefully today.

On Friday I saw a refreshing film hero with an ancient weapon.

I enjoy knowing that the students next to me during the screening admired this teenage girl’s tenacity; two weeks earlier, I had noticed a couple of others picking out the perfect airsoft assault rifle from an online catalog.

Clearly, we are not the first generation to critique the Hollywood commercialization of the myth of the Old West – its glamor, its icons, its hostility to indigenous peoples and disempowerment of women. Unlike some, though, I don’t feel the need to remove all traces of a trigger-happy culture or of a past for which anyone with privilege used it without a second thought. Warhol alters an iconic image so that we can never see it again as we did before. As summer scholars in El Paso at the recent NEH-sponsored “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderland Narratives”, we secondary teachers and UTEP program directors Joseph Rodríguez and Ignacio Martinez saw value in keeping old monuments standing alongside newly erected ones, in order that the whole story could be told and no voices silenced. This new figure of a Tiguan woman stands not far from the Chamizal Memorial and U.S.-Mexico border, whereas previous Texas statues tended to honor conquistadors.

El Paso Times photo

I do believe there is room for a plurality of voices; new monuments and new myths can help to reinterpret the past and to invite participation in a more hopeful future. In a scene from Middlemarch, author George Eliot composes the view from the window of Dorothea’s future house, “happy” on one side, but “melancholy” on the other; she establishes that in “this latter end of autumn”, in the house’s sunless interior “air of autumnal decline” Dorothea’s fiance Casaubon has “no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.” Dual images compete for Dorothea’s attention, the happy side including a small park, a fine old oak, a pleasure-ground, and an avenue of limes “melting into a lake in the setting sun.” The landscapes and interiors represent a choice between two futures: from the same single vantage point today, any of us might look ahead in time in multiple directions and project either dismal and sunless or cheerful and pleasant days ahead. We may not have the agency to effect a change in our circumstance when things appear hopeless. Yet our outlook might take on a new shape given the myth in which we find ourselves.

vocational training

Our teaching can take new shape in response to new students. As Philip Davis writes in The Transferred Life of George Eliot (Oxford 2017), George Eliot had begun one novel in 1869 and set it aside, only to begin a “different novel instead” in November 1870, more than a year later.

The story was of an ardent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, a modern St Theresa though ‘foundress of nothing’, seeking, without the structure of a clear faith, a vocation and an epic life in the modern world. … As D H Lawrence said of George Eliot … ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’

Eliot sets aside one kind of work for another, and her result is Middlemarch, in which she eventually found room to accommodate both stories. And in contrast with film, which by its nature externalizes action, she transfers action to the inside. Her influence is felt in genres as diverse as the mysteries of P.D. James, the hardboileds of Ross Macdonald, and the YA of Sara Zarr.

Marian Evans as the novelist George Eliot is a true teacher, having used the art of poetry to fashion little worlds in which characters investigate vocation, question faith, and imagine better futures. Just imagine if all our classrooms could be little laboratories like hers!

One of the drawbacks to such rooms, worlds, and communities is that it takes a good deal of time to read and probe, through open dialogue – true Socratic dialectic – and reflect on vocation, faith, future, and authority. I feel helpless and disempowered when the school schedule, class size, curriculum, and student interest and inexperience prohibit frequent use of such authentic investigations. Such lack of agency can lead to shame when I seek part-time work for which an education is not required. I have applied for my share of odd jobs in recent month, from library aide to UPS clerk to cafe attendant; and I have done some moonlighting that puts my expertise to work as a copy editor, test-prep tutor, and background actor. At this stage, for me, it is realistic to work part-time jobs, in order to press on toward an ideal class in which students use their voice, participate in community decisions, acquire abiding understanding of ideas and how they work, and have agency.

Such ideals are shaped less, I find, by the myth of teacher-as-hero than by the ability of my students to see themselves as having a role in their own future. Maybe it is time I acknowledge learner-as-hero mythology. [Icarus, Bildungsroman, Fellowship of the Rings, Karate Kid]

changing the narrative

When my students have agency and hope, I am able to step in and guide, support, or nudge them in my role as a learning coach. I can replace outdated or unrealistic myths with models and mentors who show me how to be flexible, patient, and strategic as a teacher. There remains for me a temptation to put off tomorrow, as Scarlet O’Hara does, till “another day”; and to subvert the traditional broken and unjust systems of authority as the anti-hero Dirty Harry does. I have even been attracted to the notion of placing it all on the roulette wheel, cashing out, and leaving the game, like a Casablanca character.

But my calling goes deep, and has a history dating at least back to Socrates, who believed there was justice in showing young people how to question received traditions, systems, and authorities; and there was poetry in the art of speaking properly about humans and divinities. Today social justice is a key term along with agency, and a motivating force in pedagogy which seeks to empower both students and teachers as literate citizens making a difference in society.

Movies and teachers can work to change the narrative stars by which young people sail on their journeys.

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25
Apr
17

your teacher is right

I recently tutored a student online as he prepared for the AP English exam.

“Have you done any preparation in your English class?” I ask.

“My teacher feels that the class should be enough. What we learn in English will prepare us to do well on any exams we choose to take.”

Well, that’s right, I think. So why the choice for online tutoring to prep for the AP Lit exam?

I did not ask this question directly.

I know the signs.

Parental orchestration. Weak knees in the days leading up to the annual May exam seating. A gripping awareness that other people take this test seriously – maybe they know something I don’t.

Leaving aside for now the whole question of The College Board, the value of AP, tests in general; acknowledging that a quick survey of 3o minutes will suffice to acquaint one with the type of questions to expect and the time and attention to allot; I agree with that teacher.

I am that teacher.


A slightly different angle, though, complicates my clear vision: my student’s personal goal is to gain confidence as a writer of AP exam essays. Under the umbrella of Writing Hope Works, I have chosen to subscribe to the mandate to coach writers toward their goals, so that they become more confident and resistant writers who write with clarity and force.

Combine this student goal with my belief that English class (and tutoring) exists to serve student learning purposes, and I do feel I can be of service. My writing conference format works well enough here, except for the urgency of time: it is days before the exam; and I charge an hourly rate for my tutoring time. In the normal writing workshop a revision process recurs, terminating with editing conferences. The student’s role is to do a lot of talking about her/his own writing; mine is to listen, encourage, ask a productive question.

Student choice is very important here. If this student CHOSE to sign up for the AP exam, great. If she/he CHOSE to set a goal and find a writing/literature coach, also great. This particular coach is a co-learner: I prepare (reviewing) major works in my personal time along with my tutee, who does it separately while on spring break. I create charts, analyze text, and outline my own response to pst prompts to the open question. I won’t simply lay out strategies – instead we need to learn alongside each other [the physical limitations of online learning notwithstanding].

20140113-144352.jpg

Me with Penny Kittle, author of “Write Beside Them”  

Yes, this is like English class. I even hear this response sometimes from my pupils, or from others in the background during my online sessions. I harbor a secret delight in their comment: in solidarity with all English teachers I know, the test is not the point. The point is two learners engaging in dialogue with the best minds of all time, both of us finding our voices, choosing how to respond, listening, shaping replies…

I can’t not be who I am called to be as a teacher.


And my pupil responds very positively to this. The young writer initiates and chooses activity. Behind the scenes lurk motivating forces beyond our control; but the writer is in control.

And the AP written exam is primarily an opportunity for a young writer to demonstrate control of language. Each prompt imposes specific constraints whose purpose is to draw out the best in each writer, to allow the writer to flourish. It is not much different from The British Baking Show, when it imposes a time and ingredient constraint such as “three chocolates in three hours — B-A-K-E!” The contestants CHOSE to be there in that tent; they CHOSE to work on their baking at home during the week.

IMG_0045

detail of a novel preparation chart for Gatsby

So today I am resigned in my position. I will use my experience with writing conferences, literature workshops, and oral exams [with my St. John’s tutors] to inquire with my pupil, dialogue about texts, and solve problems together.

I will enjoy the process of co-learning and co-leading, and will value the goal because it is my AP student’s own goal. If I truly trust the system (Writing Hope Works, whose aim is learner agency; writing conferences, whose aim is writers solving their own problems) then my young writer will set new goals tomorrow. When tests are done, today’s short-term goals are rewritten, and new long-term goals are imagined.

Even in the creation of new goals can I identify with all my learners. My writing goal in the coming weeks is to write a scholarly essay on novelist George Eliot as a critical educator. My teaching goal is to observe a local school model of student-initiated activity.

My goals have “real-world” constraints, such as a June 1st deadline and particular genre requirements for the written one, including submission to an audience of peers and professors. My own goal mirrors that of my tutee in its imminent deadline, highly qualified audience, and specialized genre. Observing the school demands fingerprinting, arranging hours, and understanding the rules (e.g. “No one will suggest to a child that one activity should take academic precedence over another.”).


A common theme runs through the posts I have written lately – not all of them published — every teaching moment is also a learning moment for me. And when my own interests, such as playing cards or piano or reading Victorian novels, put me in the shoes of a learner and student, I appreciate once more how difficult and rewarding learning can be. There is no substitute for the personal relationships formed within small groups learning together and the individualized help from a more experienced teacher. Anyone of any age can be a teacher.

Time and again, analog schools and teachers have proven not only better at teaching students, but  they can actually present more innovative solutions for education’s future.

from “The Revenge of School”, in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter by David Sax

 

 

27
Feb
17

interconnecting literacies

I face the challenge of interconnecting ideas. When I encounter a thought-provoking book such as this one, I both associate and resist various ideas and memories of the classroom, students, philosophy, and fiction.

circuits-37211_640

While at times I see such interconnectedness as an obstacle frustrating my simple enjoyment of a book, many times I feel each connection as an intimate part of my transaction with a text.

The back and forth, the push and pull — nebulous, binary, contrary — describe the innumerable voyages that readers like me have taken. Like me, Joseph Rodriguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities, found refuge in his school library and in the books and librarian and authors residing there.

His book, subtitled Latino/a Scribes And Their Rites, is both a handbook of effective literacy img_0013instruction and a catalyst for both more intertextual connections and new approaches that invite all students, not just Latinos/as, to a fondness for literacies.

I use the plural — literacies — because Rodriguez is careful throughout his book to enumerate the various ways young people can engage with words and ideas in the communities they inhabit. The classic modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening continue to be enacted as literacies; but he persuades us that becoming literate in history, for instance, involves the interest and ability to ask whose history, and by extension why this history?; and then to enact their growing understandings in their communities, through multiple literacies: I think of learners creating documentaries, interviewing family members and activists, apprenticing in ancient handicrafts, volunteering at museums, or teaching others the relevance of great books – old and new.

His book makes me want to wrestle with, cheer for, and work alongside with such teachers, librarians, and students.

The best thing this book does for me is to convince me that teacher education programs in this country have not given up but, on the contrary, have

turned their very resistance into the art of teaching

signified by the Master of Arts  degree, and represented by the author and his pre-service teacher-practitioners. If such programs are successful, in whatever regions and for whatever populations are served by teachers who care less about a test performance and more about whole human beings, they may restore hope in public and private schools which have chased dehumanizing business models, fragmented texts, outdated grading systems, isolated subject knowledge, and chased away some youth by disengaging learning from schooling.

Rodriguez’s book is a shot in the arm for public and private secondary school and college teachers. It goes a long way toward restoring my hope in the future for students and their teachers.


[Images: a. Creative Commons no attribution, Clkr-free-vector-images located by Pixabay; b. GH (l) with J Rodríguez in Washington, D.C. 2015.]

 

26
Feb
17

Are you standing at the borders of mystery?

Begin mystified
begin unbelieving
___off balance
learning begins.

We learn to believe
___to accept mystery
___to stop the balancing act.

Such moments, seeds of new knowledge
___of wisdom

V  i  s  t  a  s

Are you standing at the borders of a mystery?

                                                                             by G. Hultberg

We are disillusioned. Teachers, students, and parents are disenchanted with school and schooling. Just when we are about to give up, a new book offers hope.

coverjoEnacting Adolescent Literacies across Communities: Latino/a scribes and their rites (2017) offers a hopeful vision where young scribes:

  • relate learning to their public and private communities;
  • work with teachers to demystify literature, writing, and hidden processes;
  • co-learn and co-lead in their communities to enact their literacies;
  • celebrate:
    • dialogue and discovery,
    • beauty and language,
    • deliberation and negotiation.

Joseph Rodríguez knows teachers. He knows that new and veteran teachers alike are desperate to turn this historic moment into poetry. For some it may be poetry of protest; for others meditative sonnets.

Students, too, want to lend their voices to conversations about the past and present. Who will tell their stories, if they remain silent? Teachers in Enacting Adolescent Literacies invite us to introspection and investigation of past and present lives, and of forces that shape histories.

I love how the same question surfaces in Hamilton, serving as a theme not only of the show, but of histories themselves:

Who Lives,

Who Dies,

Who Tells Your Story?

[PHOTO: composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton] spotify:album:1kCHru7uhxBUdzkm4gzRQc

 

 

 

 

 

In Chapter 2, “Histories and Scribes at Milagros High School”, Mariano Guerra’s students, tired of “succumbing to authority in their schooling lives” and having legitimate questions go unanswered, learn to equate history with investigation and research into the “veracity of sources” and “chronicled points of view”. They move from studying Herodotus, through Mr. Guerra’s teaching as “subversive act”, to their own research as citizens whose education “questions and challenges authoritarian policies”.

The beauty of Mr. Rodriguez’s research and reporting is that it holds out hope for all such students, not merely Latino/a adolescents. Although his work focuses on school sites near El Paso, Texas, with a high percentage of Latino/a students, it invites any teacher to re-engage with the often mysterious, and inherently human, learning processes which drew us into learning and teaching in the first place.


 

Upcoming posts this week will feature a few thoughts about Mr. Rodríguez’s book in connection with my own thinking and learning.  

coverjo

Lexington Books: www.rowman.com

Mr. Rodríguez will co-direct a summer institute Tales From the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives.screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-1-42-31-pm

25
Oct
15

Will this be on the test? 

I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean? 

1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text. 

2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”? 

3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street] 

 Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task. 

I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers. 

I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed. 

I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”

30
May
15

What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning.

Not only is voice featured here, but I admire the paradox of school Autonomy and the provocation for teachers to move Outside their Comfort Zones. The result can be a rich interdisciplinary learning experience. Once again I am left believing that building “bridges” between learners, content, skills, and meaning is a pillar of education.

What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning..

16
May
15

A.I. asks what it is be human

Always.  

 

[Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn in 1957 film: on Pinterest at hyperbate.fr]

My contention is that A.I. is nothing new: Chaucer convincingly created artificial human beings in the technology of his day–ink pen and velum. 

And it may even have happened earlier. Thomas Aquinas writes the strategy of anticipating objections to his arguments in Summa Theologica as if he were engaged in a chess game. His challenge is getting it right–thinking ahead in order to beat his intellectual opponent to a logical move in order to discount it. But his opponent might as easily be another aspect of himself. What he does, as Chaucer and, later, Shakespeare do, is to imagine an equal to himself who will engage in the same sort of thinking strategies. 

The new movie Ex Machina raises questions about what we mean when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Do we mean consciousness in isolation from other entities? Freedom? Agency? And are such manufactured products self-serving, human-serving, or moral at all? The inciting incident of the film is the arrival of its protagonist at a remote top secret villa to interview an android and determine if there are any flaws in her armor.   The human loses his objectivity, and the AI anticipates this. Because he believes she is real – a consciousness that feels – he becomes subject to his own empathy. As a result, a damsel-in-distress scenario emerges. He trades his rationalism and scepticism for the willing suspension of disbelief. He enjoys playing this game.

With literature (plays, anyway) the willing suspension of disbelief is critical to my enjoyment. I want to get lost in the characters and conflicts, to believe that they are real for a while. 

Chaucer’s corrupt Pardoner would be a wooden automaton, a stereotype were it not for the human pleasure he takes in bilking the sheep, and in posturing before his auditors, the pilgrims, as if he were a traveling salesman of the Middle Ages; with verismilitude Chaucer depicts him as greedy, even as the Pardoner confesses that greed is the root of all evil. 

The antagonist in Ex Machina seems to want to create art that imitates life. His latest creation flirts, tells secrets, rebels and, like humans, can appear sincere. Despite the conventions of each genre: the female android has visible “machine-works”; the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath speak in poetry: you can see the artists pulling the strings that make the puppet move —  despite these reasons to disbelieve, the admirer who is the audience deliberately obscures his own awareness of the devices and allows himself to believe in the human before him. 

A recent article which discusses liberal arts, and debates the need for Chaucer among common people today, sees liberal arts education advocates as connecting the virtues of certain subjects of learning to the ultimate ends of human beings — their telos. But lack of consensus about humans’ ultimate purpose splinters agreement about the means and content of education. 

Teachers like me make decisions about teaching and learning based on our assumptions about life’s ultimate purpose. We necessarily grant that the person we teach has a similar purpose to our own. That she or he is human, is on the same journey as we are.

At its heart, Ex Machina asks, among other questions, what are the essential components of humanity? Chaucer, too, in his believable depictions of travelers both greedy and wise, boastful and generous, kind and silly, asks what mixtures of sinner and saint can one person carry inside and still be one of the pilgrims on a common journey? Like Bach experimenting later with the well-tempered Klavier he strikes different registers, tones, ironies, and themes,  making them pleasant, diverting, entertaining, beautiful and truthful. 

Despite the difficulty of ever reaching consensus about a completed canon, or which communities should study which works in order to be culturally literate, scientists and artist continue to create authentically engaging work, meaningful discoveries and innovations that add to or complement our sense of what it is to be human.  

 

My band of pilgrims on a recent trip to Ano Nuevo State Beach to see elephant seals. 

If AI is created, it should serve human beings (or assist us in serving things we value, such as forests or clean air). 

On the other hand, if literary characters can be considered AIs, imposing above criterion of service would restrict my idea of realistically human fictional creations to their usefulness. This limitation seems at odds with my preexisting concept of literature and liberal arts as the opposite of practical arts or techne. 

Certainly recent articles insist that business schools train MBAs in Shakespeare, and that a successful life must include leisure reading and the ability to appreciate complex thinking represented by whole novels, or the ability to empathize with others in order to be more benevolent (leading to service, to success). But for me there is something beyond literature’s usefulness that makes it valuable. I enjoy people in a different way than I enjoy a good story, jazz music or a serving of flan. 

Maybe our difficulty is in demanding both pleasure and service from our AI. The AI computer in a movie like The Desk Set is totally devoid of personality or pleasure. It exists to get a job done, and yet it replaces human beings rather than serves them. In contrast, an iPad can entertain someone for hours, but do we ask our handheld or desktop computer devices to solve difficult problems for us? 

“Where can I get cheap coffee in five minutes with the shortest wait?” 

“Have you ever seen a cat do that before?”

Then again I may be overlooking the obvious element of gender in Ex Machina: it is a male fantasy that the female android learns to satisfy; exactly such fantasies are the subjects and issues of Thomas Hardy plots (Far from The Madding Crowd, Tess of The D’Urbervilles). The concept of an independent woman seems foreign to the self-centered males in all these tales. They fall in love with an ideal rather than a woman. Our culture is quite happy to produce an independent self-driving car or drone but reluctant to grant complete independence of thought or action to other human beings. Too many of us think we’d be content living among those who think, act, or vote just as we do.

Both Bathsheba Everdene in the new film of Madding Crowd and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with The Wind use their independence to manipulate men. They enter into complex negotiations with others and strategize in order to get what they desire. They can play the game. Maybe it says something about our expectations of AI that playing “Jeopardy” is the ultimate test of one’s human-likeness. 

This morning’s #satchat educational focus was on gamed-based learning. In some cases the game allows students to compete for points by achieving mastery, and an element of differentiation occurs due to student choice of quest, individualized pacing, and swift feedback. But if I consider the game that Thomas Aquinas played in order to produce Summa Theologica….How do we get from there to here? from gaming to thinking about ultimate purposes? from mastering a skill for class to actually leading a military siege or debating what makes a society good? 

Robots, games, books and movies offer us a chance to consider what humans need as well as what we enjoy. They also, like poetry, offer us irrational pleasure. We glimpse minds and universes at work.  

 

How do your own view of the universe and your definition of humanity cause you to see others? to teach people in your subject area? to define the problems worth solving and the games worth playing? 




Gordon’s Tweets

  • RT @onewheeljoe: A3 Almost all of the challenges I have encountered I handle by giving the student an alternative. When students have voice… 54 minutes ago
  • RT @danahmaloney: The Pope: “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make th… 59 minutes ago
  • @CathEdToday Newman’s Ideas of a University inform my daily teaching practice. 1 hour ago
  • RT @CathEdToday: “A great memory does not make a mind any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.” CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN ht… 1 hour ago
  • RT @ziwe: if you're arguing whether the children are in cages or windowless rooms, you've lost the plot 1 hour ago

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