Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Deck the hers with bars of hurry. Fa rar rar rarra rara rar ra

Instead of saying "it's more difficult than "herding cats" this expression should be modified to encompass the difficulty of planning a Christmas pageant for very small children. Trust me, this is much, much harder than herding cats. With cats you have tranquilizer guns and perhaps electric cattle prods (less voltage-- kitty version) but for some reason, unbeknownst to me, people don't think these means are acceptable for use on small children. Obviously, these people have never had to deal with trying to orchestrate a children's Christmas pageant.
For weeks preceding the publication of this blog, we, the faculty at Cornell, were assigned the task of torturing these children into learning Christmas dances, none of which had anything to do with Christmas really. When I raised objections as to the content of the dances, I was given that charitable look the Taiwanese are fond of-- a look that says "I'm assuming I heard you wrong, or possibly misunderstood you" their wordless mouths agape at what I had just said, their expression one of immutable pity, possibly approaching scorn. "I'll be upstairs on the internet looking for another job" I would say, and this would generate the same look.

My role in the fiasco to follow was largely transitory, as I am a somewhat marginalized component of the workings of the Cornell school, accepted because of my credentials, but I suspect, talked about on the basis of my co-workers shared distrust for my methods which sometimes involve duct taping kids to chairs. Yes, I used to bring a whole bunch of implements with me to class, the big fuzzy dice, the sticky ball, but pretty much the only tool I use now is a big roll of tape. It can be used for so many things. We can have three-legged races and play "prisoner" a cruel game I have devised as a classroom management tactic for the kid with tourette's, who actually likes me more and more every time I see him-- the little masochist, some day he'll make a good climber. But I digress.

In the weeks that followed the launch of the "practice season" for the pageant, the school was locked down so as to prevent spies from other schools from entering the campus and stealing the imaginative routines and costumes that families who had paid good money so that their children could learn English would unknowingly purchase so that their kids could learn what looked to me to be a cheap rip-off of the Backstreet Boys. I would go to teach my lessons in the Kindergarten classroom only to be told to go away and come back later when they had learned the dance routine with jedi-like control, which, as we would soon see as the performances were unveiled, would never happen. Sometimes these teachers would send an emissary to my office in the form of the smallest and cutest kid from the class to tell me "meesath John. Meeess Claire say no crass." "Ok I'll tone it down." I would reply, it having taken me a second to understand that he was telling me not to come to class, and not that I should avoid being crass, as would have been the request back where I am from. He would then scurry off, mission accomplished.

In the confusion, if he didn't turn up until awhile later, back at the classroom, no one would have been surprised (this is foreshadowing now). I myself would happily resign myself to the computer lab, so that I could not be located on the campus when it was time to employ the not-busy-enough-but-still-on-the-clock by making them cut out little snowflakes out of folded paper.
This situation would unfold day after day with every co-teacher save one. This particular rebel, a teacher by the name of Elaine, whom I initially had some fondness for before she stabbed me in the back in typical deceptive Taiwanese fashion, would pretend that she was unharried by the upcoming Christmas pageant, stating instead that "these parents are paying good money for their kids to learn English! Proceed with your lesson, Mr. John." I suspect that this was all just a face saving ruse to cover up the fact that she was really just exhausted and needed a break from the worst Kindergarten class in the school. This class is prone to chaos and mutiny at the hands of their leader, a hyperactive kid with tourette's who will alternately hug me and kick me when my back is turned, like many Taiwanese people I have met, including Elaine herself, a first year teacher. I had sympathy for her during her first staged performance, a chaotic and poorly orchestrated rendition of "Oh Susanna" which I lambasted on facebook:

Status Update: If I laughed at the Kindergarten kid who fell off the stage during his class presentation of "Oh Susanna" does that make me a bad person?

It was so funny you guys. The idiots set up this stage like 6 feet off the ground with a big gap in the back where anyone could easily fall behind it, especially if they were uncomfortable pronouncing the line "come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee" and were slowly backing away from the front of the stage escaping attention. Come from Arabama... with a banjo.... BAM! He just fell off behind the stage and didn't resurface. I think if it were not for my laughter, no one would have noticed. Later they put three teachers back there as spotters. It would have been funnier if that was not the worst kindergarten class in the entire school, and funnier still if that kid had not needed stitches.

no..not at all. im pretty sure that adds on to fricken awesome points. haha
hahahahahaha. okay. maybe they shouldnt let you around children. the sad part is i can totally picture the whole thing and see you just losing it in the middle of all this. oh miller.
October 19 at 9:51pm ·
Now that kid is scarred for life. You shouldn't be allowed around children - you horrid, cold, uncompassionate excuse for an ape-descended life form. Repent! Repent!
October 22 at 8:31pm ·
Jon East
No the kid would have laughed too if it wasn't him
October 20 at 7:04am ·
any sane person would have!!
Not a bad person. Maybe a bad teacher. ; )

So Elaine took a stand and elected to put the kids' education first, which would be to the detriment, once again, of her kids' performances. Instead of practicing dancing, they learned English. But hey, I respect Elaine for realizing what's truly important-- letting Mr. John teach the class so that she wouldn't have to. I spend the class teaching them a variation of "paper scissor stone" which is useful in conflict resolution. I call it "bear ninja cowboy" and it's basically the same game with different hand gestures. Now it's their favorite game and they practice often, much to the chagrin of people who are trying to teach them to dance.

Elaine had chosen her two songs for the Christmas show, and after careful and considered deliberation, she arrived at the conclusion that YMCA (with it's gay overtones) and "Kung Fu Fighting" (with it's blatant stereotyping of Chinese culture) would be the obvious choices. This did this without a sense of irony; I know this because I know from my own experience that Elaine has no understanding of sarcasm, which is why I often compliment her on how well she works with the tourette's kid who is thrashing around with a dangerous object in the corner.

So because of Elaine's lack of any understanding of verbal irony, I was not surprised when she failed to grasp the situational irony inherent in the fact that the kids were now attacking each other using Kung Fu, having been inspired by the song they had been practicing for 5 hours a day. Elaine was reprimanded for this and made to change the song and re-choreograph her entire dance a week before the production was to take place. I expected her to quit, as several teachers, including my erstwhile companion Roxy, had done, of course fearing the loss of face and embarrassment that would result in a kid falling off the stage. I have this picture of Elaine on the night of the production where she stands next to me but is clearly not enjoying the close proximity. This stands in contrast to the picture of her and my colleague Jordan from Paris (Texas) who has what the Chinese would refer to as good "Ren Ching Wei." At first I thought "Ren Ching Wei" must surely describe food poisoning but in reality, loosely translated it means "the flavor of human emotions" and equates to sincerity and charisma in accordance with Confucian modesty. Basically it means that Jordan also does not understand irony (or sarcasm). In fact, an apt comparison could probably be made to Confucian values and the values of Texans. In the picture that shows Jordan next to Elaine, Elaine's head is slightly bent toward the possessor of the good "Ren Ching Wei" so as to indicate that she is more comfortable around him than she is around me. This suits me fine, as Jordan has to host the Christmas pageant and practice for hours on a Saturday and I merely have to dress up as a certain Christmas character at the end and throw candy at kids and laugh like an idiot.

I ponder my role and as the songs roll by, horribly inappropriate choices which have nothing to do with Christmas but rather, are culled from the most recent top 100 list. The only top 100 song that would have been a good choice would have been the charming "Just Dance" by Lady Gaga. Its damn-the-torpedoes, fuck-it I'm a drunken blond and I know it attitude was exactly and completely a apropos of the chaos surrounding the pageant, and would have been a good choice. Lady Gaga's message? When things are all ratfucked and there is no escape from disaster, "just dance!" Her lyrics?

"I've had a little bit too much/All of the people start to rush (Start to rush by)/A dizzy twister dance, can't find my drink or man/Where are my keys? I lost my phone/What's goin' on, on the floor?/I love this record baby but I can't see straight anymore/Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?/I can't remember, but it's alright, a-alright/Just dance, gonna be okay/Da da doo doot-nJust dance/ spin that record babeDa da doo doot-n"

Well to LAdy Gaga fans, I have a message. It's not going to be ok. If you have lost your keys and can't find your phone and you are at a strange club while horribly drunk, you are in danger of date rape, girl. Dancing is not your best choice. Just dance was a good message for the Kindergarten class though. In my head I reworked the lyrics to the Gaga classic. "I lost my hat, can't find my class! Is that my mom over there? What song is this I don't know! Is it my turn to do YMCA? Just Dance! babeDa da doo doot-n!" And I also think of David Sedaris, the irreverent comic genius and what he said about the kids' Christmas show.

"In the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manges to pass herself off as a virgin. A cloying, preening stage presence, her performances seemed based on nothing but an annoying proclivity toward lifting her skirt and, on rare occasions, opening her eyes. As Joseph, second grade student Douglas Trazarre needed to be reminded that, although his character did not technically impregnate the virgin mother, he should behave as though he were capable of doing so." (reprinted without permission)

My students were similarly sexualized onstage, having been instructed by their tartily dressed teachers who were often hired on the basis of their looks, as was no secret to anyone.

I occupy myself as the Christmas show begins, by trying to get the kid with tourette's to sit down and relax and stop doing Kung Fu on that other kid nearby. I kneel down and look at him compassionately and I try to explain that this behavior is unacceptable mister. He barks at me in Chinese and then gives me this look as if what he just said should explain it all. Elaine interjects and says "Alan. Meester John does not understan" and then Alan looks a little sullen and nods. If my Ren Ching Wei were better, I would probably know a bit more Chinese. In between moments of trying to help Alan to act normal, I filmed him doing Kung Fu on another kid, thinking this to be a crucial moment for the documentation of my life. Please take the time to watch the video here even though blogger sometimes malfunctions in this department. I don't know where he learned these shenanigans he displays in the video. It clearly has nothing to do with the organized and civil competition of "bear ninja cowboy." The other kid in the video is Dick. Sometimes when I'm angry at a kid in class I'll say "stop that, Dick!" and then the kid in question will say "I'm not Dick!" or possibly "me no Dick." This joke relies on plausible deniability because if anyone were ever to confront me and tell me to stop calling the Kindergarten kids Dicks, I would have to claim that I was talking to the real Dick in the class, the one from the video, and that my use of the word Dick was justified. It's the Alberto Gonzales defense.

You can also watch these other videos which words are inadequate to describe. A tiny kid dressed in a cheezy red tuxedo, falls down onstage in the bright glare and then stumbles off after falling two more times. A teacher barks in Chinese at a group of kids practicing their routine be3fore realizing that one of them is running away to leap from the stage in an apparent suicide attempt. She runs after him, her streamer trailing behind. He falls back in line, just like herded cat would. You can watch Elaine's kids struggle with YMCA, but what the video does not reveal is that soon after the production was finished, the kids were sent back top the classroom to change out of their costumes, and one kid by the name of "Trooper"was apparently on planet Tralfamadore and got lost in the course of the 30 meters it would have taken to walk back to the classroom. Starship trooper.For this Elaine was berated publicly by the boy's Grandmother for about 20 minutes as Santa distracted the nearby onlookers with flying Candy. One of the videos shows kids dancing to MAdonna's "material girl"except the lyrics are in Chinese. They are dressed like a streetwalker would dress if she had just come from ballet practice and singing about the true lesson of Christmas-- that they are "material girls." The dance moves are complete with a "booty drop" a move that will ensure their future success on ladies night at the Taipei night clubs. There is a video of Jordan, the host with the good "Ren Ching Wei." In his voice there is some sincerity, but the other host is clearly exasperated, this being the second time they wasted an evening for this show, the first show having been cancelled because of the rain. You can watch Dick and Alan duke it out while Elaine grooms one of the "wetters" from her class. And of course there are fireworks. It's China.

What you can't watch in the videos is the part at the end where Santa walks onstage and starts laughing like a schizophrenic and throwing candy. He disperses candy as quickly as he can and in great volumes until it's time to superman away into the restroom and become mild mannered English teacher again. Santa then walks home in the rain, because his sleigh, a 150 cc scooter, recently died because of the lack of funds for necessary sleigh repairs. He thinks of Ms. Claus who is worlds away as he ruminates on a what the experience, as a whole, meant. But you can't watch footage of this. Santa was me.

Alternate titles for this blog : tease the season, just dance, doncha wish your 5 year-old was hot like me?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pedagogy of the depressed

I was recently asked to provide, among other things necessary for a job application, a statement of my "educational philosophy." Being permanently and staunchly in opposition to insincerity, this particular stumbling block has delayed the job application for weeks. What could I say about my "educational philosophy" that won't come across as jaded or hateful, as my often misunderstood expression "I'll give you something to cry about"? Could I possibly quote J.M. Coetzee, as I often do, and say He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing." Would that serve as "enthusiastic" enough to garner a English teaching job?

In preparation for writing what would possibly be the most excruciating single paragraph I'd ever had to write, I decided to research this topic by using the "search mail" function of my old school email address to see if I could cut and paste some enthusiastic phrases which could be creatively strewn together to form the picture of a potential new hire eager for the opportunity at some young new minds for molding. I found some papers that I had earlier written in more inspired times, which now seemed naive and, to use a loaded and pejorative term often scorned by educators, retarded. The files had been corrupted by the ravages of computer time and now looked like this:

> yes">/sPan>In the same sense, and being more realistic, schools> should embrace work experience and offer apprenticeship programs for> jobs of a professional nature, as well as credit for jobs that are not of this “professional”> natureI>We were only a few days upon that mountain when the weather> began to turn. We> had carried equipment to high camp and we were prepared to rest for a> day and acclimate. . sPAN DeFANGED_STYLE-"mso-spacerun:

And I scrolled through there to find little tidbits like the following:

If a student has> decided that he
or she would like to become an auto mechanic,
there> should be a state sponsored program that would enable the student to> pursue this.> this case, if history and English have
become useless to the student,> and that student can meet basic requirements in these areas, he should> be allowed to exclude those from his tailored curriculum.Allowing a student to> choose hi> s own path to learning would not only reduce drop-out rates, but perhaps>
it would also function to foster the mental health of the student, thus> promoting tolerance and reducing violence in> schools. In the same sense as freedom of choice will affect the student’s sPAN DeFANGED_STyLE-"mso-spacerun:

Words once inspired by a deep commitment to beliefs spontaneously generated through my mind's absorption in books and theory now had the ring of the naive beginner teacher. With a few years under my belt, now I wondered how many of my former students would have, had they been given the option, chosen to "exclude [English] from his tailored curriculum." I came to the conclusion that many would have, and this made me even more disillusioned with my profession.

I began drafting my "educational philosophy." "Let's face it," I began, "nowadays there are just too many kids who can't read that good." I sat and pondered the "defanged style" of my sophomoric composition (what does that even mean-- did my style lose its fangs?) Would my college freshman self have been proud of the me who now stands before a kindergarten class drawing a picture of an angry octopus on the chalkboard in front of a bunch of giggling children? Taking copious notes, staying in on a saturday night to write an analysis of a 17th century poem, my college self probably thought that by 29 he would be doing something quite different than this-- telling a room full of babies that if they don't watch out they're going to be "octopus food." My college self would have no way of knowing at the time that any animal, no matter how hastily drawn, can be made to look angry through the use of downward slanting eyebrows.

I read on, groping for inspiration. I have to finish this job application if I expect to eat, even though it was only this morning that I was looking at the laborer balancing a bucket of tools atop the bamboo scaffold outside (who makes about one fifth my salary) and thinking-- "wow, that looks nice." Nonetheless, I read on and I think, with reference to my former self "wow, I would hire me." Towards the endof the essay, I make some outrageous claims, fueled by my idealism and my literary diet, which probably included a lot of Walt Whitman.

I felt> older and more experienced than the rest of the freshmen.The things I learned in> school were insignificant compared to the lessons that that mountain had>
offered.<> it.
“Just do it”,> the billboard reads. My hope is that
through the> system of education that I have set forth, boundaries between
teachers> and students will be challenged and broken down.Through this, it may be> possible for individuals in society to more fully know each other, and> offer to each other the knowledge that has impacted our lives most> significantly. . sPAn DeFANGED STYLE-"mso-spacerun:

"Individuals in society to more fully know each other?" Who IS this person that screams at me from somewhere in the past, with a style so defanged? I remember when I first began my student teaching, I was powerfully enamored of some pretty lofty ideas, and once when I attempted to express them, the veteran teacher who was mentoring me proclaimed "that's sooo Ed-school" meaning that my ideas were dogshit in practice, although beautiful sounding on paper. I vowed I would defeat her. Have I defeated her? I have tried, and if anything keeps me going in this profession it is the idea that things will change. That and, despite everything, I still like kids. They are that voice which asks "why not?" and "hopes" that "boundaries between teachers> and students will be challenged and broken down" and ignores the condescending smile that is directed at them from the ranks of the jaded teachers with the downcast eyebrows, of which I am one.

I hope you, dear reader, find this funny. I know I do; because after all, if you can't laugh at yourself, well, you'll have to let the kids do it.