15 October 2006

Sunday Musings II: Teacher Man

Teacher Man: A Memoir Cover I just finished reading, Teacher Man, a memoir by Frank McCourt.
You may know him of Angela's Ashes fame.

In Teacher Man, McCourt writes about his 30 year career as a public school teacher in the New York City public school system. Anything a public school teacher has to say is of particular interest to me, as a homeschooler. I am always curious to know what the public teacher thinks of the whole 28-plus-kids-of-the-same-age-crammed-together-in-a classroom deal.

This book flounders. Which is funny, because it totally fits what McCourt is writing about. Born in America, moved to Limerick as a child, moved back to America as an adult, McCourt kind of falls into the teaching profession because he has nothing better to do with himself. He describes his entire life as one big flounder. (Can that be a noun?)

Not quite American- the only thing his English classes want to hear about are tales of his woeful childhood in Ireland, and they're fascinated with his accent, which he suspects is a ruse to keep him off the task of actually teaching anything. Not quite Irish- entering a Dublin pub in an American serviceman's uniform (he served in the US army), he gets razzed for being a Yank. When he opens his mouth to defend himself, he incurs even more scorn for his accent. Not only is he standing there in an Irish pub in a Yankee uniform, but he's a Catholic from Limerick in a Yankee uniform standing in a pub on Protestant soil! (Oh, the shame of it all.) The poor guy just can't win.

McCourt spends the majority of his teaching career wondering what in the world he's doing. There is a division in the classroom: students vs. teachers. Why can't we just come here to learn? Why can't we all be on the same side and enjoy each other's offerings at the table of education? Does there HAVE to be this posturing to determine who is "in charge" and who must be "kept down"? He gets the same thing from the administration and other teachers. "It's us against them. Always let them know you are in control. Never look them in the eye. Show no weakness." Geez, it's like they're taming wild beasts rather than discussing literature and culture.

The key to McCourt's success as a teacher though, is found in the midst of his "flaw." Because he KNOWS he doesn't know what he's doing, he's willing to try anything. He sometimes wonders if his students are pulling one over on him, luring him off the path of education so they can mess around for a week or two by feigning interest. He decides it's worth the gamble if he can connect with something deep inside them. If he can spark a desire to learn in his students, McCourt is willing to throw caution (and diagramming sentences) to the wind. He doesn't want to be diagramming sentences anyway. Much to the chagrin of school administrators.

Here's where it gets good. McCourt and his students begin to treat each other as fellow learners. They discuss ethnicity and diversity (being in New York, there's quite a lot of that). Which leads them to plan a class potluck lunch in the park where each student brings a dish to share that represents who they are and where they come from. Chinese, Cuban, Italian, Korean, Irish... can eating food in the sunshine at the park really be learning? From there, McCourt follows a wild hare and asks his students to bring cookbooks to class to discuss as examples of poetry. Huh? Cookbooks are poetry?

Eventually, the class is not only bringing in recipes to recite, but accompanying each other's recipes with musical instruments like they're in some kind of beat nik coffee house.
"At the end, class critics suggested Pam should have performed last. They said her duck recipe and the Chinese music were so dramatic everything else sounded anemic. Also, they said, words and music were often mismatched. It was a big mistake using bongo drums to back English trifle. You need the delicacy and sensitivity of the violin or maybe the harpsichord and it really puzzled them that anyone would link bongos and English trifle. And speaking of violins, Michael was just perfect backing the eggs Benedict reading, and they really dug the bongos-and-harmonica combination for stuffed pork chops. There was something about pork chops that demanded the harmonica and it was amazing now how you think of a food and an instrument to go with it. Man, this experience called for a new kind of thinking. They said other classes wished they could read recipes instead of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Other English teachers were teaching solid stuff, analyzing poetry, assigning research papers and giving lessons on the correct use of footnotes and bibliography.
Thinking of those other English teachers and the solid stuff makes me uneasy again. They're following the curriculum, preparing the kids for higher education and the great world beyond. We're not here to enjoy ourselves, teacher man."

A new kind of thinking. About the art and science of life, literature, cooking, music, and all things inhabiting our existence. A new way to approach higher education and the great world beyond. Giving students the tools to see overlaps, intersections and themes within their experience. Almost anyone can teach the proper use of footnotes and bibliographies. What McCourt was doing, in his floundering efforts, was helping his students to learn how to learn.

Up next- if Ugly Betty and Teacher Man had a child...


Anonymous Chris said...

Awesome, awesome! Have to read this. (but I think you told me that already). Recipe reading with musical accompaniment: sounds like my kind of class. Especially if you could eat (something, anything) while listening. Here's a thought: How about playing music and deciding what seemed like a good choice to be eating with that music. Maybe I'll try that - got to have a music class anyway!

Can't wait for the next episode to see how Betty and Frank's baby turns out. Do you think it will be a difficult labor?

12:19 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Chris, if you plan that class, I'LL BE THERE. With quiche. Or soup. Or peach cobbler. What kind of music are we listneing to?

1:24 PM  

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