Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Teaching Table Manners to Orcs

Yesterday, at the end of a really, long, tiring day in my classroom, while I was attempting to straighten up my room and tidy up my desk, I looked out across the trash-strewn floor and jumbled desks and chairs (that had been clean and straight early that morning) and had this thought: What I am attempting to do here is like going into the heart of Mordor and trying to teach table manners to the Orcs.

Of course to understand that reference you have to be a fan of “Lord of the Rings.” For those of you who have not read the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” nor seen the movies, I’ll bring you up to speed: Mordor is the kingdom of Sauron, who is an evil Lord who possesses magical powers. The Orcs are his creation and do his bidding as soldiers in his evil army, and they have no choice in this matter—they are slaves who were created for this purpose and know nothing else. Gandalf is a good wizard who has mustered the support of Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam (all Hobbits from the innocent world of The Shire) in an attempt to defeat Sauron once and for all and place the rightful and good king, Aragorn, into his proper place after which all citizens of Middle Earth will live free of the darkness of Sauron and Mordor.

And now a further clarification: I am NOT saying that my students are evil, mindless slave soldiers of a dark and evil force. I simply found myself, at the end of a particularly difficult day, grasping for an analogy that would help me make sense of what I am trying to do here, and to help me understand whether it is even an accomplishable task. So you can be sure that I am not blaming my students for the difficulties they face, I’ll flesh out this analogy/metaphor that I’ve chosen to use further.

Gangs in the city are the equivalent of Sauron and Mordor, and they breed the kinds of problems that my students face every day. My students, much like the Orcs in Mordor, had no choice about what city they were born into, whether they would be raised by one parent or two, whether their parents would be employed, drug-addicted, or whatever; nor did they have any choice about whether they would live in the more affluent neighborhoods of the city or in the projects or in the blocks of boarded up and/or burned out houses in which people actually do live. None of this was their choice, but they must play the hands they’ve been dealt, nonetheless.

How this plays out in my classroom is that I have about one hundred and thirty students that I see every single day, many of whom do not have any understanding of basic civility. This is not to say that they are “bad” kids. After two months of teaching these kids I can say with confidence that none of them are “bad”; but many of them do not possess the basic skills required of civil society. By this I mean that they do not understand that 30 students calling out in a classroom, or carrying on side conversations while the teacher is attempting to address the class, or crumbling up a clean piece of paper on which they have made one mark that they consider a “mistake” and then tossing that fifteen feet over the heads of the other students to the trash can (which they nearly always miss—I hope none of the kids in my art class are on the basketball team because we will surely lose every game if they are) is pure chaos. They do not understand that the words f***, b**ch, motherf***er, s**t, d**n, god***n [if you need clarification on any of these words, email me privately and I’ll clear it up for you], and any number of other colorful words are delegated for the street and not the classroom; nor do they understand that it is inappropriate to call the teacher a c**t, b**ch, w**re or sl** when they do not like the fact that she had to tell them to stop talking so she could teach (these are a small minority, thank goodness, and all got suspension for that kind of abusive behavior). They do not understand that trash should be put in a trash can, not on the floor—three days in a row this week I swept up enough trash at the end of the day to fill an entire trash can—they just throw anything and everything on the floor.

Meanwhile, I love these kids. The lack of basic civility and “table manners” does not make them unlovable (to me, anyway). I’ve made a sincere effort to get to know every one of them and have discovered (not surprisingly) that they all have unique and wonderful things to offer the world. The problem is that they do not see this, nor are they concerned with whether they have anything to offer the world. Part of this lack of concern stems from the fact that they are teenagers—they are “me” machines, primarily concerned with what will benefit them individually at any given moment in time. That is normal; it’s part of the natural course of human development (according to all of those courses in human and cognitive development I was required to take when working on my education coursework and teacher certification).

But part of the lack of concern is a kind of resigned apathy that stems from the unique lifestyle of poor, urban kids. My biggest challenge so far, as an art teacher, has been the sheer lack of imagination that exists in most of my students. When I introduce a warm up exercise with, “Imagine…..” or “In your mind, think of ….” I get blank stares. Then I get a chorus of, “Why don’t you just tell us what you want us to put down on the paper….” I also occasionally ask them, “Have you ever wondered about…..” and get blank stares and no response. I was absolutely stunned, and I talked to other more experienced teachers about what might be the source of this problem. I received answers that ranged from “these kids just can’t….” to “years of having people tell them exactly what to do has caused them to not think for themselves….” to “the survival mentality of the street causes them to think creatively only about emergencies….”

This was all so overwhelming to me, because the lack of natural imagination suggests a lack of hope. Then I remembered something from the book, “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” Josh (AKA Jesus) is trying to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like to his disciples and they just can’t get it. Then Maggie (AKA Mary Magdalene) explains that trying to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like using parables is like trying to point something out to a cat—the cat won’t look at what you’re pointing at, it will only look at your finger, pointing. Josh says that these are the stupidest sons-a-b**ches he’s ever known; to which Biff responds that they’re just being childlike, like Josh told them to be. Then Josh says something like, “yeah—stupid children.” Anyway….Maggie finally says to Josh that they don’t have to be smart to understand the kingdom of heaven, because faith is not an act of the intellect; faith is an act of imagination.

That’s what these kids are missing: faith; hope. They are just struggling from day to day to survive. Every now and then one of them will tell me about some dream they have to be the next (fill-in-the-blank) movie/hip-hop/rap/sports star. And every now and then one of them will tell me about how he’s planning to go to college so he can play football or basketball (without any idea of what he will major in, or what he will do if he doesn’t get picked up by the pros at the end of the five years of playing football/basketball). But few of them really believe that they will ever make it out of where they live right now. They have no hope, which is why they seem to lack imagination (or the other way around—it’s hard to tell where that cycle begins and ends).

The state of Maryland and the National Education Association have standards of achievement for the visual arts that I am supposed to help my students reach. My lessons are all supposed to be designed to lead students to mastery of these achievement standards. But there is nothing in the standards about “developing imagination.” The possession of individual creativity and imagination is assumed to be a foregone conclusion. This apparent lack of awareness that not all students possess the prerequisite building blocks for achieving arbitrary standards is one of the many flaws in our educational system today.

So much of what we are expected to help students achieve depends on mastery of other skills that are assumed to be possessed by all children everywhere. There is a lot of talk about how poverty and crime affect the children we teach, and how that should change the way we teach. But in the end it is all talk—we are simply expected to get these students to score higher on standardized achievement tests, which include nothing to do with creativity and imagination (as if there is a standardized test that could assess this, anyway). In the process of trying to get students’ test scores up, the government, the school districts and school administrations (and many teachers) not only does too little to enhance and develop creativity and imagination in their students, but they assist in squashing it out of them. I ask myself at least ten times a day if my need for an orderly classroom is simply aiding “the system” in squashing creativity out of my students, or if it is actually helping them to have a better learning environment.

As I attempt to look at all of this within the framework of a bigger picture, and as I ponder whether what I am attempting to accomplish is, indeed, along the order of the seemingly impossible task of teaching table manners to Orcs in the heart of Mordor, I have to wonder (every minute of every day) if I am up to this task.

Since I’ve chosen this particular metaphor, I’ll continue with it: What would Frodo Baggins do? Every step along the road of his inescapable journey he was tempted to just run back to The Shire, to the comfort of a polite, civil, peaceful community of like-minded individuals who enjoyed gardening, drinking, dancing and eating. But he never turned back, because he realized that The Shire would cease to exist if he did not complete his mission, because the boundaries of Mordor would simply creep further and further out until all the world would be overrun with the evil power of Sauron.

Last night I told my husband that I wasn’t sure I was up to this task; that I thought it was entirely possible that it is not an accomplishable task, and that I should go to the suburbs or somewhere rural; that there are days, weeks, like this one where I can’t tell if I am part of the solution or part of the machine that grinds these kids down. But in reflecting on this problem, and by relying on my friends from Middle Earth (by relying on my imagination, my ability to hope) to help me sort through the ins and outs of the problem, I came to the same conclusion that Frodo Baggins came to: there is no other road for me but the one that I am on, and it may be my death but I must do it; and if I don’t at least attempt it, who will? I can’t abandon these children—they already haunt my waking and sleeping dreams, and I’ve only been here for two months.

The tide of poverty, crime and injustice that overwhelms the majority of children in this school district will not be turned by me or any one individual, but it is my belief that with enough people making the attempt it can eventually be turned. Right now I choose to stay, even if the Orcs are a little rusty in their table manners.

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