So it’s late at night, the rain woke me up, and instead of going back to bed I’m trying to cull from a bunch of resources to find a way to present information about the culture and religion of the Roman Empire to my students. These are the moments that really test my decision to move away from a textbook. I can’t figure out if the approach I’m taking is an improvement over the textbook or not. I feel like it’s good to have more control over the pacing and sequence of topics, and have the ability to sacrifice a little breadth to get depth. I think I’m presenting materials that are, overall, a better fit for my students than the district-assigned textbooks. But there are times when I feel like I’m exhausting myself to make a slightly better wheel. I’m really looking forward to having the chance this summer to reflect on all the things I’ve put together this year and figure out how to build on it, and feed into some more independent investigation and authorship for the students.
So over the weekend I got a chance to see Star Trek Into Darkness. I don’t want to do a full-fledged review here, but I will say that I felt about this movie much the same as I did about the first rebooted Trek movie in 2009: It looks great, the writers and actors really seem to get the core of the original characters, and a lot of the dialogue and character interactions are sharp. But the plot and the ideas don’t hold together very well, and as soon as you start asking yourself why A happened, you’re very quickly questioning B, C, and D. Now, a movie isn’t a logical argument, so I had a good time watching each movie despite whatever holes I found in the plotting.
But one thing has been bugging me about the new movie. I can’t figure out the basis for the moral or ethical conflicts that underpin a lot of the character conflicts. So I’m going to talk some of them out here. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
The movie opens with the Enterprise on a mission to survey a strange new world. Starfleet’s Prime Directive demands that the crew do nothing to interfere with the planet’s pre-spaceflight civilization, but Spock has figured out that a set of volcanic eruptions is about to wipe out said civilization. So he and Kirk put a complicated plan into motion to lure all of the natives away from the volcano while Spock sneaks in and detonates a device that will render the volcano inert. The plan mostly succeeds, but Spock winds up trapped in the volcano. Due to [insert technobabble here] the only way that the Enterprise can use the transporter to get Spock out of the volcano is to come out of their hiding spot and be seen by the natives. Spock tells Kirk to stay put and follow the Prime Directive, even at the cost of his life. Kirk refuses, saves Spock, and lies about it in his captain’s log. When Spock makes an honest report, Kirk gets demoted and Admiral Pike delivers a lecture about how Kirk is arrogant and unprepared for the captain’s chair.
What I can’t figure out is, where is the grave error in judgment? Was it in trying to save the people in the first place? Are we really supposed to accept the idea that it’s better to let an entire civilization be wiped out rather than take responsibility for interfering with it? Are we supposed to think that Kirk is a hothead because he cares about saving innocent lives?
OK, so maybe the initial interference is OK because they’re going to keep it a secret. But then things go wrong and Kirk has to choose: let his friend and crew member die, or let his ship be seen by people who aren’t yet aware that they’re alone in the universe. Now, Spock thinks he should go for the first option. He’s going to follow the rules, no matter the cost. But Kirk goes for the second option, and then lies about it. Now, he did break a rule, so I guess that’s the sign that he’s not ready to be a captain. And there’s a part of me that sympathizes with that to a point – society has rules for a reason, and if everyone decided to ignore them whenever they felt like it there would be trouble. But sometimes rules come into conflict, and you have to decide your priorities. I know that in the world of Star Trek, the idea of noninterference is called the Prime Directive for a reason. But it seems to me like saving everybody’s life deserves to be a higher priority.
Then again, other characters in the film don’t seem to share that view. The plot moves along with a Starfleet officer accepts an offer from Khan to cure his daughter of a fatal condition. In exchange, the officer mu knowingly set off an explosive that destroys a Starfleet facility. I say knowingly because the officer sends his superior a message right before he causes the explosion explaining his actions. I take it we’re supposed to feel bad for the officer and the impossible situation he was in, and at least understand what he did even if we don’t approve. But the guy knowingly killed dozens of people, if not more, to save his daughter. He did this even after he already had the cure. He did this without trying to find some way to tip people off, or give someone an opportunity to stop him, or even warn someone of what was happening. I just can’t get myself into the head of someone who would say, “Well, this guy just saved my daughter’s life. Guess I’ll go murder a bunch of my coworkers now because he asked me to!”
This attack, and a subsequent attack in which Khan is somehow able to get up close and personal to a meeting of Starfleet’s top officers, provide Kirk an opportunity to get back his command and bring Khan to justice. But through [insert technobabble here], Khan has hidden himself away on the Klingon homeworld. So gung-ho Admiral Marcus tells Kirk to go fire a bunch of super-duper proton torpedoes at the Klingon homeworld and kill Khan. Kirk is willing to do it, but Spock and others urge him not to. So he changes his mind and instead orders a landing party to go to the planet and get Khan themselves.
OK. There seem to be two main objections to firing the torpedoes. The first is that killing Khan without a trial violates his rights. I get that, and I can appreciate that the capture option eliminates that problem. But the other objection is that firing the torpedo is an aggressive action that might lead to war with the Klingons. So instead . . . Kirk violates the treaty with the Klingons, invades their territory, and kills many of them (with Khan’s help). How was that a better option? It seems like the only way that could work better is if Kirk’s team had captured Khan without being detected. And that’s not only a long shot, it implies that the ethical problem isn’t the action of violating the treaty, but instead is the action of getting caught. (Which would seem to justify Kirk’s attempt to hide his violation of the Prime Directive at the start of the film, by the way.)
I could handle some of my confusion here if I felt like it were part of a worthwhile character arc, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what Kirk has learned or what makes him a better captain at the end of the film than at the start. He’s still willing to break rules. He’s still willing to trust his gut instincts. He’s still fiercely loyal to his crew and friends. He’s humbled by circumstances when he meets some enemies he can’t outshoot or outthink, but I don’t see where his attitude changes. So the lack of a clear ethical position seems to contribute to the lack of a clear story, and that’s unfortunate.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I am overthinking this. It would not be the first time. So if you have a take on the movie, especially the ethical problems its characters face, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Three weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a poetry slam organized by one of my colleagues at Parkway Center City High School, a public high school that draws students from all over the city. I doubt that my English-teacher colleagues missed the irony that while dozens of students stayed after school to watch their peers take the microphone and share their stories of love, triumph, and teenage turmoil, the School Reform Commission was preparing to discuss a budget for the next school year that would wipe out funding for extracurricular activities.
I have watched so many of our students find their voice and a sense of accomplishment through extracurricular activities, including our drama club, our robotics team, and our sports teams. Some of our students have literally run marathons, and many others have figuratively done so to program bots, build sets, memorize lines, or organize a prom. They have helped create the glue that binds us together so that our school is more than a building. It is a community.
My fellow teachers have done a lot to contribute to that success, but as teachers we do not do our work alone. We rely on school counselors, who help our seniors navigate the college admissions and financial aid processes and help all of our students when the pressures of their lives become a little (or a lot) too much to bear. They help our students find programs and mentors to build their skills outside of school, and intervene when they see trouble brewing.
Our students also rely on the aides and staff who walk the halls and keep the school running smoothly. They are ready to step in and defuse a situation before it gets out of hand or provide a supportive nudge to a student who needs it. And that is on top of the often-thankless work that they do to keep the proverbial trains running on time.
So many of these vital resources are gone in the budget that the SRC is currently contemplating. The public school students of Philadelphia face the very real possibility of coming back this September to buildings that are mere shells of the schools they left in June.
So two weeks ago high school students from several schools in the city met after school in front of the school district’s headquarters to rally support for their cause. Students at the school where I did my student teaching, Constitution High School, staged a walkout before classes were over for the day, citing their right to peacefully assemble and air their grievances. They found the budget plan for next year to be unacceptable, and they demanded their voices be heard.
Indeed, this should be unacceptable to every citizen of the city and of the commonwealth, and we should all be making our voices heard. We must demand accountability from the SRC, and ask how they are spending the resources that they have. The district has already signaled that it wants large concessions from its employees. While I hope and believe that the district will move beyond its extreme opening offer to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I will be surprised if the next contract maintains the status quo. But it is worth remembering that the District pays its employees less, and provides its students with fewer resources, than many neighboring suburban districts. Unless we believe that districts like Lower Merion and Council Rock are throwing their taxpayers’ money away, we should wonder why Philadelphia is not able to provide its students with a similar level of resources.
We constantly hear that we need to be doing more with less. I realize that necessity is often the mother of invention, but isn’t it just a bit insulting to suggest that Philadelphia educators have been deliberately being inefficient, and now that we’re truly desperate we will somehow find ways to do more of the things we are already trying to do?
Of course, I do not want to sell the creativity and drive of Philadelphia’s students short. One week ago I was once again in the auditorium after school. The officers of Parkway’s student government had taken on the responsibility of organizing our annual multicultural day talent show. As their adviser, I was with them to help out and offer what support I could. But this is their show. It has to be. As I said to the students, I can not carry a tune in a bucket, so it was up to them to organize the tryouts and figure out what they wanted the show to be. It would be nice if we had some music teachers to help out, but the students are getting something done with less.
Today my students have the day off because of election day. I am still wondering how I should vote. The leaders of this city and this commonwealth are entrusted with the responsibility for so many people’s lives, including the students who have worked so hard these past Tuesdays. I am looking for the leaders who are worthy of that responsibility, waiting for them to prove themselves. The clock is ticking; we can not wait until next year to solve these challenges. When another May rolls around, I hope my Tuesdays are just as full as they have been this year.
From the continuing exploits of the board game playing Thomer-Gillett family:
Today we tried out Forbidden Island, another cooperative game. I first heard about the game after the Tabletop episode Pandemic. I like cooperative games where the the players are working together to achieve a common goal, but trying to stop the global spread of disease seemed like too much of a downer of a theme. Wil Wheaton suggested on his blog that Forbidden Island had similar mechanics but might be less grim. After my daughter had a good experience playing the game on Tabletop Day on Saturday, we decided to give it a try.
Considering that the object of the game is to escape from an island before it sinks, I’m not sure it’s substantially less grim than stopping a global disease, but it was fun. We managed to win the game pretty much on our last turn. So we cued up the Raiders March on Pattie’s iPhone as we made the last move to escape the island. It’s definitely a worthwhile game if you’re looking for something that a group can play together.
It’s the last day of a spring break that wasn’t nearly as productive or as restorative as I wanted it to be. I spent a big chunk of it working with my daughter on a science experiment project. It’s a good, ambitious project that unfolds over a long period of time. But it is also a lot of stress because my daughter has to figure out exactly how to design and carry out the experiment, and there’s a lot that can go awry. It was good to experience that from the other side of the classroom; it’s a good reminder that when I design a project I have to provide support structures to help students overcome any concerns about failing or not being sure what to do.
And while we were at it, we got to experiment a little bit with dyeing T-shirts, so in the end I’ll call that a win.
I’ve loved epic stories for as long as I can remember. As a first grader I would race home from school so that I could get to the TV in time for Star Blazers, an English version of a Japanese series that featured a desperate starship crew trying to find a way to rescue Earth from irradiated extinction. I spent hours playing with Star Wars toys even before I got the chance to see the movies. I collected monthly superhero comics for almost twenty years. As television offered more intricate serializations, I threw myself into series like Babylon 5 and Farscape. The grander and more elaborate the storytelling, the happier I tended to be.
I’m writing this paragraph in my local Barnes and Noble, where the amount of epic fiction available boggles my mind. There are shelves full of graphic novels; the children’s book section is teeming with adventure and fantasy series. There are undiscovered movies and TV series over in the DVD section that I will probably never get to because I can’t even keep up with all the old series that I can watch on Netflix, let alone the new series that the service is ramping up. I would have gone out my mind if something like this had existed when I was in grade school.
And yet over the last five or ten years, I’ve mostly been filling my appetite for epic narrative in an entirely different medium. I dropped out of Lost and Battlestar Galactica midway through each series and have never found the motivation to go back, even though both are easily available through Netflix. I still buy several trade paperbacks every year, but it’s not the regular ongoing habit that it was for so many years. I devoured all seven Harry Potter books in about a month several years ago, and that’s been about it for my fiction reading. These days, when I want to visit another world, I tend to turn to my computer and play a game.
The use of narrative in computer games has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and I’ve noticed a lot of the writers I followed in TV or comics also do work on video games. There’s long been some aspect of a story in video games – giving the player a motivation for what they’re trying to accomplish in the game creates more engagement than just saying, “We want to test your eye-hand coordination” or “Here’s a bunch of logic puzzles.” But I’m not going to say I was ever that absorbed in whether or not Mario would find the princess, so “Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle” never hit me the way a really good cliffhanger would. But I feel like the writing and the story of the game world is becoming more important, not just in the amount of tie-in fiction available but in the game itself.
Now to some extent, story is still a dressing on a game that doesn’t really require it. I played LucasArts’s TIE Fighter a lot when I was in college, and there was a single player campaign that tried to put each mission in the context of the player’s growth as a pilot and the Empire’s continued effort to thwart the Rebel Alliance. But you could easily just play the missions without paying any attention to the briefing. When I play Rock Band with my daughter, there’s a veneer of a story about our band playing bigger venues and getting more resources, but you can just as easily just play a random bunch of songs. So as much as I enjoy playing those games, they don’t have the same kind of engagement that a story does.
In other games, there’s no story provided, but the game provides the raw material for me to come up with one in my head. I have spent a lot of time on the Civilization series of strategy/simulation games over the last few years. Each game can form the basis of a story of an empire’s rise (and often fall), but there are no real characters in the game – even the avatars of leaders that the game uses don’t seem to have any real psychological life, and you never have to confront the damage that constant warfare or technological change wreak on the citizens of your towns – those things are represented as numbers and game elements, but there’s nothing personal about them. And yet, I enjoy playing these games because each game is unique, and my curiosity about what happens next is increased because nobody knows what will happen next, and my decisions in the game will help affect the outcome. I am not just an observer, but I am also a participant in a way that I can not be when I watch Babylon 5 or Star Wars, even if the latter give me a richer character experience.
Beyond sim games, there’s a growing genre that tries to combine active participation with character development and emotional engagement. For the last six years I have been a tremendous fan of the games produced by a studio called BioWare. The studio is famous for its version of computer role playing games. I tried a few example of the genre back in the 90s, but I never really got into them because the games I tried focused more on the stat-building part of role playing, and I couldn’t get engaged in the fights I was getting into. BioWare put an emphasis on character and story into its games, surrounding my player character with a group of companions who had their own agendas and who reacted to my choices in the game.
It’s amazing to me how well this worked. My first BioWare game was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which I’ve talked about on the site before. I loved progressing my character and his or her relationships with the companions. The combat parts of the game almost became an afterthought – I enjoyed them well enough, but they were something I did in order to get to the next conversation. Replaying the game was similar to rewatching or rereading my favorite stories, with the added benefit that I could change the outcome if I wanted. And because I had to make those choices, I thought a lot about the characters and what they wanted, and whether they were justified in their actions. Knights of the Old Republic, in particular, explored some of the questions of identity and agency that I’ve enjoyed thinking about in science fiction movies and TV shows. So I was getting a lot of similar narrative stimulation, with the added bonus of being a participant and not an observer. It’s that double-feature that keeps pulling me to the PC instead of the TV.
Since Knights of the Old Republic I have played and replayed a lot of BioWare games, along with similar games from other developers. In particular, BioWare’s Mass Effect series has been at the center of my fandom for the last five years. Mass Effect took its interactive narrative to a whole new level. Across three games, released for the PC between 2008 and 2012, the player controls Commander Shepard as he explores the galaxy and first discovers, then tries to fight, an ancient threat to interstellar civilization. Choices from the first game carry through the first and second, changing the characters that you meet and the opportunities your character has. By the third game, conflicts that date back centuries are brought to a head and Nothing Is the Same Anymore – and in fact, nothing might be the same in my game as in your game, because of the different choices we made. The conversations the characters have between missions make them feel as real as characters in TV and movies, and their triumphs and failures resonate. It’s an amazing accomplishment that I will probably want to talk about in its own post. But the Mass Effect story has absorbed me just as much as Star Wars and B5 have over the years.
Now, don’t get me wrong – this is still a developing storytelling medium. The technical challenges of branching storylines offer a lot of potential for the control that they give to the player to shape the story, but they also impose limitations. You can go to YouTube and watch playthroughs of Mass Effect and other story-driven games, but if you do, I don’t think you’re going to find them on par with the latest Pixar film in terms of character animation or with a TV series like Battlestar Galactica in terms of dialogue and character development. Right now, the personal engagement and control are helping to make up for the shortcomings in those areas. Over the next decade or two, I will be fascinated to see if technological growth and years of practice are able to bring the best of all worlds together.
My daughter and I both enjoy playing board games, and Ticket to Ride is one of our favorites. Recently she got the iPad version, and we play that sometimes because by adding computer opponents, the game actually gets a little easier. The game has a rules tweak when you go from 2 or 3 to 4 players, and Alex in particular likes to play with that tweak. The iPad version is very nicely done – it handles all the bookkeeping and conveys the game’s information well. But there is something a little lacking about the experience. In order to allow each player to maintain secrecy about his or her hand, only one person can look at the iPad at any one time. So you lose that sense of engagement when it’s not your turn – you can’t look at your cards, or look at the board, to plan your next move and try to think about where the other players will go. And I like that part of the tabletop game playing quite a bit. (Pattie posted a picture of me playing the physical version a year or so ago on Facebook. My cousins immediately replied, “I know that face.” So this is a longstanding habit.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have the option to play the game without needing a bunch of cards or setup. But I think this is one of those things where the analog experience still has some value.
Jonathan Chait had a brief post today at New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog, commenting on President Obama’s speech calling on Congress to vote on gun control measures. After citing the institutional roadblocks that are thwarting efforts to enact legislation that polls well, Chait says,
Basically, everything is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.
Chait’s laying it on a little thick, deliberately so I think, but his point remains. We don’t enact laws by public opinion polls. We don’t vote based on party platforms. People saying they support something doesn’t mean a whole lot.
What would matter would be millions of votes demanding change. Would a red-state Democrat who hasn’t endorsed background checks lose a primary challenge to someone who does? Will a suburban Republican Congressperson lose a general election in 2014 for voting against whatever package passes the Senate? Will someone who hasn’t bothered to vote before get up and cast a vote in 2014 for someone who supports stricter gun control? If the answer to that is no, then the millions of voices aren’t really calling for change. At best, they’re offering a tepid interest in the possibility of change, but they’re not willing to act on that wish.
It goes back to Charles Peirce – you can tell the content of someone’s beliefs not through the words they use to express it, but through the actions that they take because of it.
Yesterday I asked the question, “What is it that makes trying to learn about and understand the world so unappealing to so many people?”
While I was writing the post I thought about a lot of things. For example, I thought about what I’ve learned about human beings’ tendency to value the present over the future. The benefits of learning aren’t always obvious. I’ve talked before about how things I learned in high school would come back to me ten or twenty years later when I had had some new experience that gave those things I learned a new relevance. I treasure those moments of rediscovery, but that’s a long time to wait for a payoff. I can understand why someone might not choose to make the effort required to get information into the safe deposit box in hopes that it will become valuable later.
I also thought about our resistance to change and our fear of the risk that comes from entering the unknown and embracing it. When the new things that we learn can not easily be assimilated into the beliefs we had before, we have to make some tough choices. We may have to admit we were wrong or give up beliefs and habits that have provided us security and enjoyment. I know about the links between meat consumption and climate change, for example, but it is really hard for me to incorporate that knowledge into my daily activities. So instead I often get into arguments with myself or expend effort trying to rationalize behavior I don’t complete support. If I didn’t know any better, I could avoid that.
Of all the things I thought about, though, there was one idea that hit me such that I had to write it down, because I don’t think I had ever put the thought quite this way to myself before:
Knowledge requires trust.
I think we all know this, but it can be so obvious that I think sometimes we gloss over it. The pragmatist philosophers like Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey talked about the social nature of human knowledge. No one person personally experiences and verifies everything, so we rely on other people to do it. I have never been outside of the country, so when I talk to my students about Japan’s geographical relationship to Hawaii and China, I am trusting the mapmakers and authors whom I have read. My students have to trust the people who make our educational resources. They have to trust me. We all have to trust ourselves and our ability to make good decisions about where to place that trust.
Well, once again I will state the obvious: trust is hard. And when it comes to knowledge about the world, it is very difficult to establish where to place that trust. There is no one central authority on any subject; instead we are exposed to a cacophony of competing sources and we have to work our way through the noise. I often cite the old adage that you should never ascribe to malice what you can explain by incompetence, but the fact of the matter is that there is plenty of both in the world. And even the people who are competent and well-intentioned make mistakes. If you place the trust that is required to learn, you will get burned. If you try to learn a lot, you will probably get burned more often.
The reason I’ve been going over this in my head is that it opened up a way of thinking about the emotional aspect of learning and knowledge. We don’t just need to be intellectually ready to learn, we need to be emotionally ready. And there are people who, consciously or unconsciously, choose to limit the occasions in which they will make that leap and place their trust in something or someone outside of themselves. Those of us who believe in pragmatism or empiricism or whichever ism you want to call it need to keep that in mind and work on forming the bonds that will help our students and our neighbors go out on that limb with greater confidence and willingness.
At my school we have a couple of senior teachers whose job it is to help guide and direct us to make sure we’re all moving in the right direction. One is a math teacher, the other is an English teacher. I doubt that it is a coincidence that math and reading are the two subjects where standardized test scores substantially affect the way our school is rated and judged. When the time comes to talk about how we’re going to improve test scores, as a social studies teacher my job is pretty much to see where I can line things up with the English department.
Truth be told, this doesn’t bother me a great deal. I like finding ways that the history content that I teach can echo across what students think about in other classes. So if I can break out of the history silo a little bit by bringing in some tools from English (or even math), I’ll take the opportunity. And as much as people like to talk about different ways of learning and technology’s effect on spreading information, it’s hard to argue that you can get very far in understanding either the present or the past if you struggle to understand and interpret the written word. So I have always spent a good chunk of my classroom time on building literacy skills. (The variety and scope of what’s needed for 21st century literacy is a discussion I’m going to hold off on for now.) I spent a lot of time with my students this past marking period on the idea of thesis statements, both recognizing them and writing them. I checked off fewer “content boxes” in terms of the history topics I covered. But I hope that I helped the students think about what we did discuss a little more deeply.
It can be tough tradeoff to make, and it can get tougher all the time. As my English teacher mentor says, people keep writing new books; history keeps adding new events. (And quite frankly that is a problem I would like to continue having.) You kind of have to let go of the idea that you’re going to cover everything. Heck, you have to let go of the idea that you’re going to cover everything important. When I have to make these choices I try to think about the questions the students have asked, and the things that I wish I had known sooner. And I try to help my students prepare for the next leg of the relay, when I hope that they will take what we have done and add it to their base of experience.
I think about this a lot, but the reason I’m thinking about it and writing about it now is because of this Chris Lehmann post that touches on similar themes. Toward the end, he writes:
More than anything else, we need to recognize that too often school fails at the one thing we should endeavor to do more than anything else — instill a love of learning.
With that love of learning in place, the student will be an active and voracious learner even outside the school environment. Even then she will not learn everything that there is to be learned, but she will go far beyond the foundation she built from grades K-12. This is normally the point at which I would point to the Deweyan vision of education, and maybe start thinking about more ways that I could open my classes up to more student direction and more independent work that would allow students to pursue their own interests and their own questions. And all of those are important, and they’re all things that I will continue to strive to do.
But as I come back again and again to that phrase “instill a love of learning,” I pause. I’m going to overanalyze Chris’ words here, not because I’m finding any fault with what he said but because that’s where my own thought process is going. Can a teacher instill a love of anything? Is that something that can be put into someone from the outside? Or is it something that must, somehow, already be in the person, perhaps waiting to be developed or nurtured? If it’s the latter, how do we as teachers build the trust and rapport with our students to find it and fan it, especially if they see us as adversaries piling more chores on them?
Lurking behind these questions is another that poses a threat to the whole Deweyan/pragmatist project of an engaged, learning citizen as part of a democratic culture: What is it that makes trying to learn about and understand the world so unappealing to so many people?
I’m going to be thinking about that over the next day or two and writing more this week, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or elsewhere.