Archive for January, 2009

Martin Luther King and Barrack Obama

January 20, 2009

To Dream Like an American

Tonight I sit here proud to be an American. In the recent history of this great nation we have had some difficult times to endure in the last few years.

An innocence was lost on 9/11. I was running out of Pt. Fermin in San Pedro that morning.

Two years earlier I had made a decision to no longer be a victim of fast food, obesity, and laziness. Two years earlier I had made the decision to run a marathon. So sacrifices had to be made. Sloth and fatty food cravings were exchanged for the discipline of running and nutrition.

And while our the world was shocked and terrified over the tragedies of that fateful morning…while the world was waiting for us to take a meaningful symbolic speech and stand on the horrors and immorality of violence…

America took a different stand. America resorted back to its violent roots. America resorted back to it’s days of might makes right…where decisions were made not with the people but at the cost of the people…for the economic gains of the few.

The United States as a nation was built raping and pillaging its way across this beautiful landscape destroying all the native people’s it came across. The United States was built on the backs of African slaves imported for three hundred years. The United States was built on the economic exploitations of poor Europeans indentured by industries that cared little about their workers.

And yet despite these great injustices…Americans of all backgrounds…Americans of all religions…Americans of all origins…would come together to fight for their vision of a better place…a better country…a place safer and more just from where we came. Oh these battles were hard fought and many died in these struggles. The right to vote, the civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, the eight hour workday, economic opportunities…all these very things we often take for the granted…were fought and sacrificed by many generations before us.

And on those days post 9/11 we had big decisions to make. What kind of America would we be? Would we be the kind of country that used its best minds and resources for war and violence? Or would we be a country that found a way of peace and dialogue…in the Christian tradition…in the tradition of the great leaders like Martin Luther King?

Well America took the brutal route. And whether we thought this war was right or wrong we are deep in that decision now. We have the death of thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians on our hands. We invaded a country without provocation. This has cost us thousands of our finest men and women. We have 150,000 armed forces still in Iraq today.

This war has cost America. It has cost us in lives. It has cost us in wounds both physical and psychological. It has cost us in our reputation as a peace loving nation. No longer does the world believe those precious few words. We are a nation that brought our full force against a small third world nation out of vicious need for revenge and retribution.

This war has cost us a trillion dollars. Billions of dollars that could now be used for building of schools or saving state economies or sending a whole generation to universities to keep the American tradition of scientific innovations and greatness alive.

But instead our schools have now run out of money. Our economy is on the borderline of an economic depression. Major industries that were the very bread and butter of our country are on life support.

And the real tragedy over the last eight years was in our American spirit. We are a country of “can do”…a country of innovation…a country of entrepreneurs…a country that will always find a way…a country where it matters not the color of your skin but what it is you can contribute to the work at hand. There is no country in the world where such diversity works together day by day, hour by hour, in the pursuit of a shared vision of freedom and prosperity and justice.

But instead over the last eight years we’ve had a country of utter cynicism. A country where we actually began to believe we could not change things. A country where we were afraid to speak our minds in fear of a religious retribution or patriotic tongue lashing because you were not behind our leaders.

And when our country falls into this bitter violent apathetic mood of indifference…we must not lose our hope…when our country falls into a rat race where our shared vision is hijacked by fantasies of roman luxuries million dollar investments and million dollar homes and cars that could care less about our the very health of the very environment that gives us life every day…we must not lose our hope.

When we fall into this funk these dark ages of materialism that we are apt to do in this country of such deep and abundant wealth and resources…it is easy to give up our nation’s vision…

We forget about the very moral purpose that has driven the American dream for so long. A dream where there is shared opportunity for all people in this nation. A place where “certain truths were considered as self evident”…a place that was designed to be very different from the shackles of tradition and history that had kept so many us down for so long in our countries of origin.

This life of meaningless materialism is not the the American Dream.

And we have courageous leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to remind us of the real American Dream. That the fight for justice and equality and opportunity is the very heart of the real American Dream. And when he gave that magnificent speech in front echoing the words and cadences of Lincoln’s Gettysburg in front of the Lincoln memorial to the applause of a million Americans who had sacrificed so much to march to Washington…King reminded us again that the real American Dream is so much more than the pursuit of the dollar….King reminded us that the real American dream is not to destroy in the anger of vengence…King reminded us that to dream to build a better kinder more just country is the very essence of what this country is about.

And as long as we trample on the rights and freedoms of a few we do injustice to all Americans.

This dream this vision is repeated in the great speeches through our history. It is in the very basic documents on which this country has made a contract with its citizens…the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

In Chicago, a young man, a man of books and words, who reads Martin Luther King and Ghandi and Emerson and Lincoln rises to the top of his classes and even becomes a professor of our Constitution. This young man, Barrack Obama, believes this American Dream that despite being black that yes he could become President of this great Nation. This young man chooses not to follow the luxuries of material wealth but instead chooses to build social and moral wealth by serving his community and city of Chicago. And like all great men of antiquity, he spends great swaths of his time reading, reflecting, and writing, and envisioning a better America.

So when he speaks at the national stage four years ago at the Democratic National Convention and speaks of ” Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope.

In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.” It resonates deeply with our American Experience.

When he speaks that it is time to “reclaim America’s promise” we know of what he speaks. It is the current that washes under our feet every day in our workplaces, our schools, our churches. And when he stands up there as a black man from the land of Lincoln we know of what he speaks. The echoes of the past are unmistakable.

And when he runs for President reminding us all that yes, we can make a difference. That yes, the impossible is possible in this country. That yes, Martin Luther King Jr. did change the country so that yes he can run for and win the Presidency. Barrack chose to avoid the political trappings of big campaign money and asked American People for help, support, and contributions.

And they did. In record numbers. And he did what many would consider to be impossible. He won the Presidency of the United States.

So when he speaks tomorrow…when he stands on that same spot that Martin Luther King, Jr. did and spoke of a his dream of a country where “children will one day live in a nation where they not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character”.

I hope that he puts forth a new American dream with all the grandeurs and hope and faith and historical significance of Dr. King’s.

And I’ll be watching it with my students at college and talking about America and dreams all day.

And will feel proud to be part of this great nation where such crazy and powerful dreams can come true.

God Bless America.

Gary Dawson Smith


Will There Be No More Literature Classes?

January 19, 2009

Here’s an interesting article about how and why we are seeing the demise of literature classes in our colleges.

In fact, my guess is that in a few more years there will hardly be literature around as a field of study.

The reasons for this are profound and worthy of a lot of exploration which I will be doing more of in this blog.

The Last Professor – Stanley Fish Blog –

healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past

This is a subject that interests me a lot. This theme will be a big big part of The Reading Transformation Project.

At Santa Monica college where I work, the size and number of our Literature classes has fallen over the years while the developmental English classes (Reading Writing) where I work has continued to grow.

In developmental English classes there is a focus on skills over content. This lends itself to a factory model of education also called Taylorism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, you may recall, was “the father of scientific management. Born in 1856, he pioneered the study of industrial efficiency, measuring (say) the movements of workers as they shoveled gravel, with the intention of shaving a half-second off each shovelful and thereby increasing productivity. Twentieth-century industrial bureaucracy—not to mention twentieth-century technowar—was Taylorism made real, with human beings functioning as machine-parts in an ideal factory universe.”

If you see a Reading textbook like the one that I am using this semester in my reading classes (Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills by John Langan)…you will see Taylorism at its best.

The book is neatly divided into digestable sections. There are pretests, review tests, and mastery tests. There are tests online. Answers are at the end of the book so students do not have to rely on the teacher in order to learn the skills.

Perfect textbook right? It’s even affordable (only $32 new).

The problem? There is no meaningful literature in John Langan. No mention of the rich literary heritage that has shaped the western mind. No Homer, Shakespeare, no poetry, not even any modern literature like Toni Morrison or Jack Kerouac. It is the factory model of education at its best. In other words, all skills and no content.

I wish that I had an answer to all of this and some direction for you but I don’t.

I’m caught up in the matrix of thought that characterizes the modern university/college just like anyone else.

It simply seems easier to just shut down my mind…give the students some WORK to do out of the textbook…then get out of the way.

This is what they’ve been trained to do coming out of the K-12. And isn’t this what I’m training them to do for the workplace anyway?

Or is there a meaningful alternative? Your thoughts?

Gary Dawson Smith

First Day of Teaching College (This Semester)

January 6, 2009

Here are my thoughts from my first day of teaching today.

First of all, spent some good time planning out a lecture this morning. Had some coffee. Used a moleskin and got off the grid. This has some really beneficial effects for deepening my thoughts and I’ve seen some other public intellectuals suggest the same thing. Let’s face it…the computer…and more specifically the Internet is the biggest time suck on the planet. It doesn’t help that deep thought necessary for a new idea.

You’ll hear me write about the process of developing a new idea over and over again in this blog. It is, in my opinion, one of the key elements of the kind of thinking that is necessary in this new digital age.ᅠ

But back to my day teaching.

I’m teaching two classes. One is 83B, a C level reading and vocabulary class at Santa Monica College. This class usually has very low level readers. Students that found English 83A which is practically our lowest reading class quite difficult end up in English 83B.

The other class is 84R. This is the next step up from English 83A, which I usually teach. You’ll also learn more about these types of classes and students more in future blog posts.

I’m writing this blog because I just have too many educational ideas floating around in my head and I need to get them out in one way or another.

Also I have found two new colleagues, Kevin Menton and Daniel Cano, whom I having fantastic dialogue with. But it has been kinda limited to email exchange so I thought…well maybe I’ll just put my thoughts on a blog then they can comment on it. And then maybe in fifty years someone will find these words and go wow…look that guy was struggling with the exact same thing that we’re struggling with.

History has a way of repeating itself like that. Or so I like to think.

This blog just might turn into a video blog real soon. Or I’ll add videos to it. Not sure exactly yet.

Okay back to first day.

Here’s my old school teaching style.

Okay class…tell them a couple of stories. Told first class a few Zen stories. Told second class the story of Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick…for some reason I am fixated on stories of young men that have tasted success but then it all fell apart on them. One of these days I’ll connect it to the Greek Tragedies and hubris and it will be one hell of a lesson but until then…this somehow connected to my lesson about my theme of the day…LEARNING.

Now I’m reading this amazing amazing book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. This book is a study of America’s best college professors and a breakdown of what they believe, what they do, and how they relate to students.

One lesson that struck me reading it this morning was that the best college teachers focus on their student’s learning. Simple enough.

I’ll teach my students how to learn something.

So I came up with a ten step process for learning just about anything.

Told the students (actually in the spirit of this blog post I’ll call them learners)…okay told the learners that they need to pull out a piece of paper and write down these ten concepts/ideas.

1. Beginners Mind
2. Energized Mind
3. Purposeful Learning
4. Notation
5. Visualization
6. Mnemonics
7. Recitation
8. Rewiring
9. Evaluation
10. Meta Learning

I gave definitions of each. Demonstrated examples of each concept. And had students practice. I basically explained that this is what you have to do in college. The teacher will be in front of the class giving you a bunch of new words/ideas so it is your job to learn them…so…here’s how you do it.

We took a little quiz on how well they remembered these ideas. Let’s just say my first class did not quite as well as my second class.

Then the fun part began. One of my goals this year was to learn every student’s name the FIRST DAY of class. So why not have all my learners (whew that will take some practice) learn everyone’s name also.

So we used all the techniques listed above. Especially a lot of VISUALIZATION (which you’ll learn a lot more about on this blog). I got the learners using their IMAGINATION from day one. For example we had problems remembering Alana’s name. So someone mentioned think of “a lawn”…of course, why didn’t I think of that?

So we went around the room…learning each person’s name…then we took a little practice quiz. Scores were very high. I even asked when someone got 17/20 why they missed three names…told them that they should shoot for 100%.

Then I went through the syllabus quickly introduced the books. It was enough for the day. Everyone learned a bunch of new things and names.

Three side notes…

Zach came up to me after class and said his dad was buying a video camera (a Flip which I recommended) so he could start his video blog about 1900-1910 baseball.

Another girl came up to me and said that she was dyslexic. I asked her to read for me privately after class. Clear decoding problems…those I can help correct after years of specialized reading intervention experience…she asked if there was any special help for her on campus. I said I don’t know. I sense no. But I will begin to inquire about it this week.

She then began to cry. Saying it has been hard for her all her life. She had failed this class before and had it taken her two times to pass the previous reading class. This is life with low reading skills. This is life with low reading skills and without trained intervention by a reading specialist. In some way, somehow, I will begin to help dyslexics at Santa Monica College. I know what to do. It really is just a limitation of time on my behalf as I drive around teaching at three campuses trying to make a living. But that’s just an excuse.

Here I was standing in front of someone crying for help…and I know how to help…I’ve got the medicine. But reading intervention takes some serious time and training to help. I will have to pray for guidance on this one.

The third interesting note was that one of the young men in the class, Alan, came up to me and said he might have problems reading our book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell because he is an Iraqi war veteran. His doctor has purposely told him to stay away from places, people, thing that remind him of the war. He tells me he has won two purple stars. I ask him to briefly look at the book tonight and get back to me. I promise to get him in another class if it is too much.

The irony of this situation is well, ironic. That the very marginalized voices of contemporary youth when it comes into a classroom can be so upsetting that we have to avoid it.

Then my car dies on the freeway on the way home. Time for a new car. Might not make it to school tomorrow as I have to take the car into the shop first thing. It has reached that point of diminishing returns. I have to say…I am very tired of being a poor ass English teacher. It is moments like this on the side of the road with a broken down old truck that I wonder why put myself through all this poverty and driving…

Yet my belief that reading and writing is a transformative and powerful journey for both my students and I guides me forward.

Overall great day…glad to be teaching again…I love it.