Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Reading


I recently received the following e-mail from a former teaching colleague of mine.  “While hanging out at the pool, I have been doing my summer reading requirement and have actually been profoundly moved by the book I am reading and immediately thought of you and wondered if you have read it as well. It is A New Culture of Learning, Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It is all about the notion of play as the new way kids learn in the digital world. It is amazingly concise, organized and has tremendous clarity about the importance of play as the best way to learn and how it is happening - cannot be avoided; we will be left behind if we don't embrace it. You probably know all about it but I thought I would mention it in case you had not come across it yet. Plenty of good references within the book to other sources and writers on related topics as well.”

It so happened I’d been reading the book myself and also found it compelling. Though not, strictly speaking, a book about school reform, I think my friend is correct in assessing we will be left behind if we don’t embrace the importance of play in learning. 

I find it ironic that a book about the importance of play is required faculty reading.  To be fair, this book was an option among several titles faculty were asked to choose from. I can understand a need for some common ground for opening of school year faculty discussions.  Still, there is a sense in the assigning that things will fall off the rails, wind up going nowhere, unless someone at or near the top of a hierarchy determines what will be read, maintains some control. It is the element of control that bothers me.  It is as if whoever assigned the book never read the book, or never really quite got it. 

I’ve sat through some of those return-to school-meetings where everyone has had to read and then sits in small groups to discuss the assigned material. The grousing, lack of engagement, and resistance, are palpable.  Of course, in a few days, those same teachers will turn to assigning their students reading. And a few days after that begin to fret over students’ lack of engagement.  Does anyone make the connection?

What if the administrator who assigned the reading had instead simply posed a question or two?  Set a problem for colleagues to wrestle with. Something like, “What is the role of play in learning at our school?  What might it be?  What should it be?”  Then invited faculty to read, discuss, research, ponder, and play, with the question.  Perhaps have the school’s tech people set up an online forum where people could compare notes, mention books and articles they’ve read, YouTube videos (There are some good ones on the topic, including this one by John Seely Brown: http://bit.ly/Vvyed), questions they’ve been asked at a wedding reception, play they’ve engaged in, anything. Create the possibility of a networked discussion throughout the summer (thus avoiding summer learning lag for teachers) that could continue through and beyond the opening of school.  Allow people to contribute anonymously if they so chose.  Such networked collaboration might even lead to the question, “What do we do about the role of play in our school? “  That question invites the possibility of growth and change.   Unless, of course, growth and change wasn’t part of the agenda to begin with.  Unless, no one wants to hear too much of what teachers think about how the school might operate.  Then, assigning a book makes perfect sense.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"The child stayed with the man."


I have been reading and rereading James Gleick’s elegant book, The Information.  It is the story of the development of information technologies as they have advanced over the course of history, from early alphabets through telegraph, telephone, radio and on up to the digital Information Age we live in now.
Until reading the book I was unaware of Claude Shannon, best know as “the father of information theory.”  It takes a book the scope of Gleick’s to properly describe and credit Shannon: electrical engineer, mathematician, cryptographer, author of a master’s thesis Howard Gardener called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.”  The range and wealth of Shannon’s work is astounding. 

One thing I find especially noteworthy about this brilliant man is his sense of play.  He was a lifelong tinkerer.  His interests were as varied as juggling, chess, and unicycling.  He invented all sorts of devices for fun: a robot mouse that could learn to solve a maze, a motorized pogo stick, an early computer chess program, a device to solve Rubik’s cube. 

An interesting YouTube video on Shannon can b found here:

Gleick writes about him:  “A curious child in a country town in the 1920’s might naturally from an interest in the sending of messages along wires, as Claude Shannon did in Gaylord, Michigan.  He saw wires every day, fencing the pastures – double strands of steel, twisted and barbed, stretched from post to post.  He scrounged what parts he could and jerry-rigged his own bard-wire telegraph, tapping messages to another boy a half mile away.  He used the code devised by Samuel F. B. Morse.  That suited him. He liked the very idea of codes – not just secret codes but codes in the more general sense words or symbols standing in for other words or symbols.  He was an inventive an playful spirit.  The child stayed with the man.  All his life, he played games and invented games.  He was a gadgeteer.  The grown-up Shannon juggled and devised theories about juggling.  When researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Bell Laboratories had to leap aside to let a unicycle pass, that was Shannon.  He had more than his share of playfulness…”

“The child stayed with the man.”  My concern is that in and out of school the child and the man get separated.  We don’t give the child enough time to play, time to exercise the imagination.  Nor do we encourage the practice of play in adults.  We don’t reinforce the value of play.  As Sir Ken Robinson says, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.  We get educated out of it.”  Claude Shannon was a special intellect, to be sure.  But he grew up in conditions that fertilized that intellect with play.  My concern is that conditions of the sort that nurtured Shannon are increasingly rare for today’s children.  Where and how do our children get to exercise their imagination? Hands on experience with imagination.  We must never forget the value of play.   

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tinkerers, John Seely Brown, Mike Toborg



I just rewatched John Seely Brown’s short video “Tinkering As A Mode of Knowledge Production” http://bit.ly/l0usP3.  I recommend it. Tinker is such a good word.  A quick dictionary check found:  to fiddle with, adjust, fix, try to mend, play about with, fool with, futz with; tamper with, interfere with, mess about with, meddle with.  Ask yourself; in what classes in school did you get to tinker?  If not, literally, with things, then with ideas.  If you are a teacher, ask yourself how students get to tinker in your class.  If not, why not?  Thinking about what Brown has to say reminded me about a former student who certainly qualifies as a tinkerer.  I’ve written about him before on this blog: http://bit.ly/m647GW.  Tinkers, the fixers of things, were itinerants. How can we make student tinkerers itinerants across the curriculum, beyond the curriculum, and ultimately curriculum creators?




Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Will It End?


The college driven mania in New York’s private schools continues apace.  Consider this recent article from the Wall Street Journal.  http://on.wsj.com/mu0RuF Then, read this about tutoring in New York City: http://nyti.ms/mlJdqJ  It’s no accident the same names pop up.  Parents aren’t complaining about the costs?  Please.  Parents put pressure on coaches to make sure a kid makes a team.  Parents will call school not only to complain about grades, but also about how quickly papers get handed back.  Positions on the editorial staff of a school paper are subject to trustee pressure.  Teachers hand back essays knowing full well they have graded the work of a tutor, or a parent, but opting not to challenge the origin of the paper.  One wonders how many stories there are about how the integrity of schools gets compromised.

How does education at this price, with this narrow point of view, prepare one to collaborate, to be open to new ideas, to create?  How does education at this price prepare one to participate in a democracy?     

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Playing The Tapes




I woke up early this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I found myself doing something I too often do.  I call it Playing The Tapes.  My anxious mind is like a cassette tape player.  I have a collection of well worn tapes.  When I come up against a problem, when life seems overwhelming, I insert a tape and let it play.  Then I pop in another one.  Some of the tapes are dreams, some are plans or schemes, what if scenarios - some leading to resurrection, some leading to doom.  Virtually none of the tapes contain any new material. Just recycled ideas, plans, hopes and fears.  Perhaps gussied up in some way, or with the playlist altered for the present occasion.  Here are some popular titles:

 See Me/See My Talent – sort of a Bluesy ballad of self-pity, a chronicle of my wait for discovery. Sometimes has an upbeat end where someone recognizes how truly gifted I really am.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town -  Someone will want to rescue me.  How do I reach out to them?  A rich uncle, a benevolent friend, someone who will surely be sympathetic to my plight and want to swoop in and save me with cash in hand.

My Boss Is/Was A Jerk – Lots of true facts on this tape. Plenty of heavy metal numbers on it.  Loud, angry, aggressive.

I Gotta Get Outta This Place – Close to some sort of rap.  Lots of repetitive themes and schemes about how I might improve my lot.

I Can Start Tomorrow – A second album by the group that made I Gotta Get Outta This Place, The Procrastinators.

I’m not psychotic.  There is basis in fact in these tapes.  Part of the “fun” of playing them is marshalling the facts to support the title.  The crazy part comes in thinking that playing them repeatedly is actually going to solve something.  Playing these popular titles over and over does nothing to make me feel any better.  In fact, they often make me feel worse, robbing me of sleep.  Then I play As Soon As I’m Rested, a promise to start soon on the way to a better future. 

My tapes are what the writer Steven Pressfield calls, The Resistance, in his book  the WAR of ART.  The Resistance is the enemy that holds us in place.  What I’m trying to learn, trying to understand, is that when I feel paralyzed with fear, tapes blaring, that this is a good sign.  As Pressfield writes:  “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.  Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.  That’s why we feel so much Resistance.  If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

In his biography, The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff writes about being a teenage boy with a stammer, sitting in a public speaking class, waiting to be called upon.  His turn finally arrives and he plows his way through a speech he has committed to memory.  By the end of the experience he concludes he has learned something important, “Doing it is never as bad as not doing it”.  I’ve often used Wolff as a model for my students.  Sometimes it pays to listen to what we teach.  To practice what we preach.  For me that means, shut off the tapes, get out of bed, and force myself to write or to work at solving the problem that’s made me so fearful.  A hard lesson to learn.    

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Party Clean Up


I’ve been writing this blog for a little over a year now.  It’s subtitled “a blog on creativity, in our schools and in the workplace”.  My most recent post, “Party On” touches on creativity, only in the sense that one of the most creative teachers I know was recently fired. By far, however,  “Party On” has received more hits than any other post I’ve written.  There may be several reasons for this.  A) I’m getting better at letting the world know about what I’ve written and how to access it.  My learning curve creeps up the Y-axis.  B) My former colleague and I have many alumni in common.  The sad news spread quickly through this alumni network, especially given my friend’s popularity.  C) Perhaps most distressing of all, there is a great deal of interest in news about the current lack of regard for teachers in this country. Over the year, three of the most popular posts I’ve written have been about the plight of teachers:  “Party On”, “The Mailmen”, and “Demoted to Teacher”.  These posts, seeking honor for the profession, and seeking for those in the profession to honor themselves, seem to strike a nerve.  I’m curious why, and I’d be curious to hear what any readers think. 

As for my recently fired friend, here are a few of the comments from former students:

“WTF?  He was one of my favorite teachers.”

“This is just so wrong.  (He) is one of the best teachers I have ever had.  I credit my writing style and voice to him.  I can’t believe they pushed him out.  It’s a shame.  AND he is such a cool guy on top of it all.”

“He was unbelievably important to me, always encouraging my creativity.  So sorry to hear this.”

“What a shame.  He was one of the best teachers.”


“Great, so now no students will be allowed to bring coffee to morning classes (this is not a trivial point - as you know teenagers' circadian rhythms are programmed to wake up circa 10:00, and with a morning class at 8:15, I had to get up, shower and dress at 6:30 to get to the Westside from Brooklyn by 8. Students in Queens and the Bronx had it much worse. That coffee was an act of mercy.), to go to the park to write poetry reflected on overheard conversations, be read to from William Carlos Williams, played the audio recording of Lee J. Cobb performing Death of a Salesman, or introduced to the music and life of Bill Evans, all of which changed my life.”

In a recent TED talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6-VRO8G5LE), Sam Chaltain, one of the most important speakers and writers on education in this country, talks about the key components of a learning environment:  It is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, experiential.  My friend provided all of these.  More important, he allowed students to discover and express what Chaltain calls a biological urge to speak, an inherent need to express ourselves, to be seen and heard.  Good teachers do that, help others find a way to speak for themselves.

I take it as encouraging that the times when I’ve written about the frustrations and obstacles teachers face, I’ve found an interested audience.  Not, I have faith, because people enjoy the suffering of teachers. Rather, because there are teachers and learners out there who are looking for a better way, and are sympathetic toward and eager to learn from those who will help lead the way.  This blog, then, will continue to be about creativity, in a search for better answers, in support of those who lead the way.  I stick firmly by the quote from William Carlos Williams at the side of the site, “the imagination will not down…”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Party On


I went to a retirement party for a former teaching colleague of mine this week. There were lots of other teacher colleagues there to wish him well.  He’s had a long, successful career: a gifted English teacher, especially inspiring to students as a teacher of creative writing, a published poet, an award winning translator, a Guggenheim Fellow.  Not to mention his special brand of humor, his integrity, his sweetness and a warm heart.  As the school year wound down, he was justly celebrated with an invitation to speak at the Cum Laude Society’s induction ceremony, with a standing ovation from students and faculty at a closing day assembly, with another standing ovation from faculty at a closing luncheon, and, of course, myriad private best wishes.  And yet I grieve.  There was an air of defiance in the celebration.

I grieve because this man was forced out of his job.  With the party over, he will have to contend with the loneliness of being on the outside.   Jealousy, vindictive backstabbing, insecure leadership, ageism, institutional callousness, mendacity; all played a part in his undoing. Not the first time petty politics at a private school have brought someone down.   To be sure, there were those who acted in his defense, often bravely.  But ultimately the institution prevailed.  An institution with no long term memory or respect for the gifts a teacher bestowed upon it over the course of many years.  An institution blind to how it might make the best of what this man has to offer.  Teachers, not only, but especially at this school, are treated with the dignity of light bulbs, hallway carpet, or office furniture. Replaced if they are deemed to be too worn, burnt out, or out of fashion.  

Which brings me back to the farewell party.  There was lots of talk about what a shame it was my friend was leaving, how unfair, how wrong. The gathered flock was unnerved.  And yet, at the same party, I discovered (unfortunately not to my surprise) that there is difficulty filling an open position as a faculty representative.  Faculty representatives are elected by peers to negotiate with the administration, in part to develop and secure the practices and procedures that ought to have helped protect my friend.  Unless, of course, administrators feel entitled to circumvent said practices and procedures, even though they are set forth in a faculty manual. By far, the most important role of the faculty reps is to serve as an ongoing reminder of the respect good teaching and good teachers demand.  

The position pays nothing, requires time and energy, and above all means speaking truth to power.  And yet, such representation is the only means to help brake administrative fiat.  The representatives are the institutional means by which the faculty communicates with the Board of Trustees.  The torch needs to be carried. Even when carried by a brave few, it does not ensure that people such as my good friend will not be abused.  If someone does not step up to help defend what is right, this year’s partygoers can surely count on one thing.  There will be another party next year and more in the years to follow, each with a new guest of honor.  Sometime, teachers will stop pretending these parties are celebrations of a job well done and understand them for what they are, a wake for professional dignity.             

    

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Mailmen


In the past few years I’ve seen the high end and the low end of education in New York City.  I’ve taught in a private school (the kind the media like to refer to as “elite” or “tony” or “prestigious”) and I’ve taught in a New York City public school (the kind media currently hover over to see what the school’s next performance grade will be and if it is in danger of closing).

When I first arrived at the private school, thirty years ago, I was given a piece of advice by my department head, a long time teacher at the school.  “Don’t stick your head up too high, or it will get chopped off.”  It was my introduction in how to survive at the institution.  It was a kind of shorthand to help understand an unwritten institutional contract. The students at the school were, by and large, the sons and daughters of the rich and successful. Their number was rounded by a few carefully selected, bright, minority children. The clear expectation was that these students would go to the best colleges.  The faculty’s job was to get them there. While good teaching was not disallowed, and to a certain extent practiced, far more important was good grading.  By good grading I mean certifying with an alphabet that began at A and ended at B that these were top students.  A shorthand job description for faculty at this school would be, Enabling the Entitled.  Ignore the blemishes. It was easier to ignore a problem than it was to confront it. Cynical perhaps, but with more truth in it than people would like to admit. The easy route for faculty was to place no obstacles on a student’s road to success.  Student imperfections, if addressed at all, were often outsourced to expensive SAT prep courses, high priced tutors, private college admissions consultants, learning specialists and mental health professionals (Please keep the latter a secret.). The institutional scale tipped not toward integrity but toward ensuring kids got into good colleges.  

The kids I worked with in the public school were designated Special Ed. As one of their teachers so graciously put it, “ They’ve got an IEP (an Individualized Education Program, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), so that gives them a license to act retarded.”  Student problems and problem students were best kept out of sight, out of mind.  A shorthand job description for faculty dealing with these kids would be Enabling the Disenfranchised.  Assume they are entitled to little or nothing. Prepare them for that position by asking nothing of them. Do nothing to explore their potential. Keep them together in the same room from year to year.  Make sure they cause as little trouble as possible.  Keep them under control.  They’ll be out of school shortly.  Rehearse them well to be non-participants in our society. Reward passive compliance. I worked with these kids because they were considered “at risk”.  Money was being spent to help keep them out of the criminal justice system.  The great irony is they were already incarcerated in a place called school.  A place where no one ever really bothered to listen to them.

What the schools share in common is their steadfast adherence to the status quo.  
Kids at both schools are like the mail.  They’ve already been pre-sorted and classed.  The teacher’s job, like the mailman’s, is to ensure the mail gets to its proper destination.  The First Class/Special Delivery to be sped to destinations in Cambridge, MA, New Haven, CT, or Palo Alto, CA.  Kids from the public school are bulk mail, delivered to every doorstep in their neighborhood.  Like bulk mail, many were ignored, destined for recycling, attended to only when they created a disturbance that could not be ignored, or when they littered the street. 

Good teaching and good teachers do exist.  I’ve seen teachers willing to confront the entitled and to insist upon genuine effort from them.  Telling them they didn’t work hard enough to deserve being on a team, insisting on a paper being handed in on time, determined to consult with parents and not let a problem fester.  I’ve seen teachers ask special ed students to write and talk about their circumstances, often for the first time; to encourage a student, also perhaps for the first time, to perform their work in front of a group.  To give kids who have been ignored a chance to make themselves and their work, public.  To be seen and heard.  

Great teaching gets done in places where people make or are given the room to be remarkable.  Schools or classrooms that seek not to define who students are and what they should know, but ask who they can be and what they might create.  A few teachers risk being the poets who write beautiful letters.  The rest, alas, keep their heads safely attached and deliver the mail.  Going home promptly at the end of the school day to lock in a deep embrace with mediocrity.  

Monday, April 4, 2011

It Takes A Village


Since January I’ve had the good fortune to work with students from It Takes a Village Academy (ITAVA) in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.  Recently ITAVA’s Robotics team won the First Robotics Competition at the Jacob Javits Convention Center here in New York City.  Now the team is trying to raise money to make the trip to the finals in St. Louis.  I’m asking for your support to help the team.    They deserve it. Here's how you can help.

Read the New York Daily News Article about the schools and the team here: http://nydn.us/faEBa4   NOTE:  Be sure to scroll all the way down to read the entire article. 

Go to the Brooklyn Community Foundation website to learn more:  http://www.bcfny.org/media/in-the-news/itava-robotics-campaign



Saturday, March 19, 2011

Only In New York?

In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/edN8oj), Susan Engel describes eight high school students who took responsibility for designing their own school within a school for a semester. With the advice of a guidance counselor they were able to determine what they wanted to learn, how they would go about learning it, and how they would evaluate what they had accomplished.  When studying math, for example, “They sought the help of full-time math teachers, consulted books and online sources and, whenever possible, taught one another.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of these students made use of Khan Academy, an excellent online resource for math.  (For more about Khan Academy go here: http://bit.ly/fNuTcZ or here: http://vimeo.com/11731351).

Engel notes, “The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented.  They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn together.  In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.”

I was thinking about the Independent Project while working with some students in a New York City public high school recently.  I’d suggested students should take a look at Khan Academy.  It’s a quick and easy way to get help on any discrete math topic, factoring quadratic equations or the Quotient Rule in calculus, for example. We went to school computers, found the Khan Academy website and tried to open a lesson.  Oops.  Not in New York.  The Board of Education website blocks all those wonderful lessons.  So too, I discovered, with free courses, lessons and lectures from MIT, Stanford, and iTunes University.  If students want to use these resources and others like them, they have to do so from home, provided they have a computer with an Internet connection.  I have no idea how many other potential resources I'm not even aware of are blocked.

I understand that in a large city system there are risks involved with Internet usage.  As students already seem to know and quickly explained to me, essentially anything that involves a YouTube video will be blocked via the Board of Ed connection. However, I noticed kids engaged on other websites through the Board of Ed system.  I asked them to show me a few.  It is possible to view movie trailers on Yahoo without any problem.  I saw a girl who aspires to becoming a doctor spend quite a bit of time going from trailer to trailer.  A bright fellow who plans on a career in engineering spends lots of time following basketball on the NBA website.  If students want to download music to have something to listen to while they write an essay, easy.  They can just go to mp3skull.com for their listening pleasure.  Finally, I asked a pair of girls if they knew of any way they could get on a social networking site via the Board of Ed connection.  In a flash they’d called up a Twitter account.

I am NOT suggesting that the Board of Ed cut off access to any of the sites I’ve just mentioned.  I do come back to Susan Engel’s statement that schools thwart the intensity and engagement teenagers are capable of.  I’m no tech guru.  Far from it.  But I have to believe there is a way for the Board of Ed to make it possible for students curious and eager to learn to have access to sites where they can learn.  Assuming, of course, that the Board believes in the value of having students take responsibility for their own learning.  Or, as Engel puts it, allowing students “to be the authors of their own education.”

  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let Kids Rule The School

Susan Engel  wrote this in the March 15 New York Times.  http://nyti.ms/edN8oj  I'd be curious to know more about what the kids she describes did.  What books did they read?  Did any of them use Kahn Academy for math help?  We need a Part B to help spread the word, to give other kids the confidence to try to learn this way, to help educators overcome the apprehension about letting kids do something on their own.  Kudos to a school willing to empower young people.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sal Kahn & Kahn Academy


Many of my friends in education know about Sal Khan and Khan Academy.  Yet there are many more who don’t.  He’s quite an amazing guy.  I believe his work will change education in important ways, even more than it already has.  Here are links to two videos about him.  One is a recent TED talk.  The other is from a GEL conference. 

I tell kids I work with in New York City public schools about him.  His site is such an easy way to work on discrete topics at one’s own pace.  Of course, in my experience, the computers in the city schools can’t connect with his site. Kids try to connect from school but nothing happens.  They have to go home to reach his site.  We worry about test scores.  Then when something comes up that truly might help kids, can’t seem to find a way to make it available.  I don’t know if this is true citywide, but in my experience kids working through city school computers can’t utilize a terrific opportunity that provides them with autonomy and some control over their learning. Sadly, maybe that’s the point.  We’re afraid to give kids autonomy.      

But this site isn’t just for educators.  Everyone should know about this work. Help spread the word.  I would love to have this post be the most widespread of any I’ve ever put out there.  Move it along people.    


Here’s the TED piece:  http://bit.ly/dE093t

Here’s the GEL piece:  http://vimeo.com/11731351




Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Williams vs. Watson?


Watson, the supercomputer, just defeated two Jeopardy superstars. I know that Watson’s predecessors beat champion humans at chess and checkers.  What games are next?  As far as I’m concerned Watson is a one-trick-pony.  I challenge Watson at Blankety Blanks.  

Back in the mid-70’s I was a contestant on a new television game show called Blankety Blanks, hosted by Bill Cullen. I was paired with Anita Gillette against Soupy Sales and a female contestant.  Soupy and his partner won.  I left with a small Samsonite suitcase.  At its best, Watson would have done no better than I.  Even Watson can’t control chance.   The opportunity to answer a question was determined by the spin of a wheel.  The wheel never spun my way.   Soupy won for his partner.  Anita, my partner, got called on but couldn’t deliver the goods for our squad. She apologized to me as I, never having spoken a word, left the set. I resolved never to go on a show where chance played such a large part in one’s success.  Had I, or Watson for that matter, had the opportunity to play the game, we would have been trying to come up with punch lines to vaudeville style one liners.  “Where would Superman live if he lived in South Africa?”  Capetown.    “Why did the chess player keep his wife in the refrigerator?”  He didn’t want a stale mate.  “What would you call the Czech national trampoline champion?”  A bouncing check.   I have to think, if the show were still running, if chance were left out of the game, if Watson and I were to go mano a machino, that I’d win.  Maybe sometime in the future Watson will develop a fuller sense of irony, a sense of humor, a sense of play.  But for now, in these matters, Watson is, dare I say, elementary.  Alas, my tenure on Blankety Blanks was brief and Blankety Blanks’ tenure on the air wasn’t much longer, a mere ten weeks before they pulled the plug.  I doubt there is much pressure out there to deliver a Bill vs. Watson showdown on primetime anytime soon.  

Over the course of his career, Bill Cullen was the host of twenty-three different game shows.  Blankety Blanks, I’m sure, was not a highlight in that career.  How many of those shows would Watson do well on?  I concede, I can see Watson as a real champ on The Price Is Right.  And we know Watson is terrific at Jeopardy.  In what ways would some of those other shows test Watson’s flexibility and imagination?  To my mind, the real test won’t be when smarty-pants Watson learns to get all the answers right on all the shows.  That’s going to take a lot of work on Watson’s part, with some help from his handlers.  When Watson dreams up a new show, devises a new game that can even match Blankety Blanks’ ten-week run, when Watson creates something, then we can marvel.  Until then, Watson remains a Big Blue idiot savant in my book.  I’m ready to take him on.  You listening Watson?    

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

FULL CIRCLE

Twenty-two years ago I wrote a college recommendation for an outstanding theater student of mine, Mark Shanahan.  I began by writing about his significant talent.  I continued by saying…”even though I begin by writing about talent, it is probably the thing I value least in working with young actors.  Talent can spoil and go to people’s heads.  It hasn’t with Mark.  I prefer workers.  Mark is a worker.”  Nothing changed over time.  He continued to work hard at his craft.  He’s appeared on Broadway.  He’s acted and directed at important regional theaters.  He continues to look for ways to grow and to practice his craft.

There was more to what I wrote.  Mark had an ability to get others enthusiastic about theater.  He supported and encouraged others, even those who didn’t think they could act at all.  “Mark’s work ethic has rubbed off on other kids.  He has been a leader by example.  There are younger actors now (one sophomore especially comes to mind) who openly admire his skill and want to emulate him.  Part of this emulation is because they find Mark open, approachable and easy to work with.  He is open and giving onstage and off.  Another part of their emulation is due to the sensitive, intelligent, and probing questions they hear Mark ask as he approaches a role.  His enthusiasm has attracted several of his senior friends to try theater for the first time.  One boy, who has suddenly found himself this year, began as a stage manager last year after Mark dragged him in to help paint.  The same boy has now acted in two productions.  The rise in self esteem and general success this boy has experienced are due in part to Mark’s friendship and encouragement to get involved with theater.”

I’ve had the good fortune to remain friends with Mark. We’ve stayed in touch over time.  Being at his Broadway debut was one of several wonderful moments I’ve had in the theater while following his career.  The more he’s grown, the more he’s stayed the same: modest, hard working, curious, sensitive, and generous. 

I lost my teaching job two years ago.  Mark was among the first to reassure me that losing the job did not mean I’d lost my talent.  He helped me clarify that I need not let school politics contaminate my sense of what I had to offer.  A few weeks ago Mark called and asked if I’d be interested in co-teaching a college acting class with him.  I jumped at the opportunity.  Last Friday I taught my first college class.  It was thrilling to be back in the classroom, working with students who were hungry for what I had to offer.
The chance to play creatively, the challenge to observe carefully in order to offer constructive advice, the collaboration in finding solutions to problems, the reward of seeing students grasp something.  And yes, being appreciated for it.     

Twenty-two years down the line and Mark is still bringing people into the theater world.  He didn’t have to drag me, just offer an opportunity.  I’d been an outsider for too long.  I’m grateful and fortunate to be his friend.  And just like his high school buddy, “…the rise in self esteem and general success (I’ve) experienced this year are due in part to Mark’s friendship and encouragement to get involved with theater.”   

Sunday, January 30, 2011

SCRANTON SUNDAY

I went to the theater recently.  The show was charming and engaging, an original commedia dell’arte piece that included some very clever use of puppets of all shapes and sizes.  I was taken in by the silliness and the artistry behind the silliness; and quite literally taken into the production when some audience participation was employed.  The child in me (and the adult) was enthralled with the entire production. 

There were, alas, plenty of empty seats in the theater.  It was Sunday.  There were football playoffs going on.  It was a frigid January day in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  None of these elements help attract people to see commedia dell’arte, even if they know what commedia is.  At another time, or in other times perhaps, the intrepid performers might have ventured to the nearby town square or some similar venue to perform.  Taken the theater to the people. Returned commedia to its street origins.  But for now, in January, in Scranton, best to perform in the relative warmth of the theater.

There were two little girls seated several rows behind me in the audience.  From time to time I could hear them giggling and laughing in response to the show.   They happened to be the only children at this particular performance.  The show is most aptly billed as “A Show For The Whole Family”.  Nonetheless, these girls were the only bona fide children in the audience.  I found no way to count the “inner children” who accepted the performers’ invitation to play.  Mine was there.  My wife’s was there.  I was too preoccupied with what was in front of me to conduct an accurate “inner child” census of the entire house. 

I saw those two little girls in the lobby after the show.  I asked if they enjoyed the show, knowing full well what their reply would be.  I was most happy to volunteer (some late, but nonetheless full, disclosure) that my grown-up “little” girl was one of the three performers they’d just seen. 

But there in the quickly emptying lobby, not for the first time, I was saddened that performers were giving the gift of their art to empty seats. Sunday it happened to be Scranton.  I’ve had the same feeling at Lincoln Center. It immediately occurred to me that there ought to be plenty of children in those seats.  Schoolchildren.  Theater management, I fear, has lost some of the necessary drive to engage schools and children.  One can appreciate a producer’s frustration. In Scranton I was told a story about a teacher who had gotten the required permission slips signed, made transportation arrangements with a bus company, ordered the tickets, only to be told by a principal that it was School Spirit Day, and that the kids had to stay in school to cheer for athletic teams or attend a pep rally.  Sure kids need schools with spirit.  Kids also need to experience live theater.

 I refuse to believe that there isn’t a way through the thicket of frustration, bureaucracy, ambivalence, ignorance, and even prejudice that keeps kids from experiencing something so vital and inspirational. This particular show was based on the Wizard of Oz.  The familiar lessons of the Oz story are there again for all to see and be reminded of.  Equally evident are the heart, the brains, and the courage of the performers.  The immediacy of the commedia style, the improvisation involved in the performance, is a most valuable lesson for children.  Plus, an important stimulus to exercise their own capacity to play.  Play, something not understood, valued, and encouraged enough in schools and diminished outside school, in part due to time spent in front of screens of all sizes.

Maybe the theater should take a risk and offer a free performance for administrators, teachers, bus drivers, librarians, parents, newspaper editors, politicians, just about anybody.  Maybe the adults would be reminded of the power of improvisation, of the ability to say YES.  Reminded of the capacity to take a given circumstance and make something positive out of it.  Filling an empty theater with children would be a good place to start.   



 
     

Monday, January 3, 2011

WHO KNEW?

Forty years ago Peg Sawyer, a teaching colleague of mine at a small school in rural New Hampshire, and I got the idea to direct some plays by children for children in the summer.  We got the support of some local friends, and thus was Andy's Summer Playhouse born.  We weren't thinking beyond our first summer, we had no mission beyond having fun doing theater with kids.  In that we succeeded.  We were invited back, the baton was eventually passed, and this year Andy's prepares for its 41st season.  Here is a promo video from YouTube.  Forty years of Andy's were about as far from our imagination as YouTube and devices we watch it on were.  Go here to enjoy this year's promotional video:  http://bit.ly/egFEQN