October 5, 2010

I missed the class discussion tonight due to illness.

So this is me, in “isolation”…like Ivan, ironically.

I’ve decided to post my paper, my Reflective Wondering on Ivan Ilych here:

This is a personal reflection after reading Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych. My thoughts on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” are all over the place. I felt for Ivan when I read this book. Actually, I had started the reading several weeks ago, and just could not get a grasp to the piece. Finally, the Saturday before last I got up early in the morning, and made myself sit and read it. My cat Abigail joined me, although she kept her comments to herself, perhaps out of spite. When I finished reading it, I wept.

Ivan’s motivations for success

The Russian names, the detailed descriptions, and the story of a man about whom I cared nothing, made this a difficult read. Somewhere around the time he decides to decorate his new apartment, and I find myself laughing aloud because I cannot imagine that my husband would feel so passionately about the type of draperies, or the accoutrement of the parlors; I managed to finally emotionally connect with Ivan! I did not necessarily agree with him, and his attitudes, but I could identify them as the attitudes and thought processes of people I have known over the years. People possessed with the furnishings of their twice-mortgaged Mc Mansions, people in stress over not owning the latest “Vera” or the latest  designer version of “fill-in-the-blank”…people who felt entitled to material success because they played by the rules in the material world. Ivan Ilych spent his entire life following the rules of the game. He internalized the belief that if he did what he was supposed to do, he would be successful. If he was successful, he would be fulfilled. If he were fulfilled, he would be happy.

Like Ivan, I have tried to play by the rules

Spending the last five weeks, culminating each and every Tuesday night, maxing out my wee brain like a dish rag in hot soapy water plunged in the readings before each class, squeezing out my pitiful thoughts and conclusions prior to our class session, and plunging back into the hot water again when asked questions in class, and then trying to pour, not too many, and not too few of my thoughts onto my journal. As my latest words are written in my notebook or typed into a paper, it seems the time for class draws nearer. I have always been “prepared” for class at the very least by lunch time of the day of class, although more typically the night before.

I follow procedures and never arrive at the university parking lot prior to 4 PM; this is in accordance with my official Parking Pass Rules, which are delineated on the university website. Should I accidentally arrive too early for class, I drive up the hill to the bookstore. Dodging the clueless undergrads on my short drive up to the “30-minute flashers-must-be-on” delivery zone, I’ll formulate a short list of snacks   I might purchase to tide me over for my long evening of thinking ahead, although it is imperative that the snack choices must possess quiet, demure wrappers which will not call attention to themselves while others are speaking. I am also trying to think of one or two points that I think Dr. B will make in class. This is so I organize my thinking and it is to alleviate my secret panic of “what if I cannot think of anything in class……?” Being prepared, and having a plan of action is no predictor of success; nor is it protection against  food poisoning.

Other influences

This would be an appropriate time to point out that I am reading other books as well. Edward deBono’s “deBono’s Thinking Course” revised edition 1994 is one such text. deBono cautions against over generalization. He says that the human brain searches for patterns and in doing so searches for “certainty.” I employ this technique of “searching for the patterns” with my math students nearly every day. Havel began his address to the Council of Europe in 1993 with an announcement of presumed agreement, “that the common basis of any effort to integrate Europe should be the wealth of values and ideals we share.”

I would want to whisper into Havel’s ear, “be careful, with the over-generalization here.

I don’t know that I would agree that the European people, the “all of us” to which he speaks, that they DO share common values and ideals! I actually believe it’s a broken system. Therein lays the problem of integration. The ideals of one European faction can and are diametrically opposed to the values and ideals of another “pure” faction; (**pure in the sense of minority/ethnicity) so, in isolation a few nights later, I read and re-read my previous reflection paper. I decided it needed to be rewritten. My isolation from class had been triggered by a combination of a stomach virus, hormones and stress; not the ruptured kidney or whatever that poor Ivan had faced. But, I still found myself pondering the connections Havel was making in terms of Educational Leadership. Missing out on the discussion a few nights before had made me doubt what I had previously written. So, I reflect and wonder some more…

Implications for Educational Institutions

There are many entities, each with its own agenda and special interests. A school district may have several elementary schools, and a few middle schools, as well as an enormous high school. In the high school alone, for instance, there might be multiple units (building zones) for academics, plus music and sports wings. Within academics there would be four “core” content areas of English, math, sciences, and social studies; not to be exclusive of other departments such as Family and Consumer Science, and Business and Technology, Foreign Language, and the Fine Arts exist as well. Students are found grouped by level of achievement, grade, and even this year, targeted by unique AYP (Annual Yearly progress) subgroups for targeted intervention and support in reading and math. All of this diversity poses unique and special challenges for these schools’ administration, department chairs, and coordinators of services. Havel speaks of shared ‘common values and ideals” I would hope that “student learning” rather than ‘delivery or imposition of material’ would be a value that we in the schools share. I’m a skeptic. I have been present at too many teacher-departmental-all faculty meetings; rarely have I heard folks speak on behalf of student learning as a goal. Perhaps it is tacitly implied and I am being arbitrary and deliberate in my thinking that simply because we are not verbalizing it as a goal or shared value, that it isn’t a value of the collective?

I think it is dangerously easy to become entrenched in the day-to-day activities at school and lose sight of the over-arching goal. This is why I believe that purposeful thinking about what we do, or are supposed to be doing, is the best way to keep our goals for student learning at the forefront.

Final thoughts about poor Ivan

It was during a computer training days earlier that my Inner Ivan wanted to scream out. I had played by the rules, I was attending the computer training I was supposed to, I was cooperating, and playing nicely. Although I felt that I was in a special lesser-known level of Dante’s hell where PC people go when they are forced to work in a Mac lab for training, I was still trying to comply with the rules!! Inner Ivan was not happy that fellow teachers were talking during the training, and being disrespectful to the trainer. Nor was my Inner Ivan happy about the trainer’s excuse-making for the program she couldn’t explain, or the statistical information that she was getting incorrect. But I was doing what I was supposed to do! And I was surrounded by rudeness and incompetence. It wasn’t fair.

We all were apparently ‘playing by the rules,’ like Ivan had his entire life, we were that day in the computer lab. Rules which were purported to be guidelines for successful living, or in the case of my computer training nightmare, rules which declare that if you, the district, spend money on a program it will take care of things for you.

The lie which says that teachers can all learn at the same time, our students do not, and neither do we. In the same way; the lie that says if a company is paid to send a trainer then the trainer must, by default have competence in the field in which she trains others. And the lie that says that a roomful of teachers “need” to blather on about the way this program will be used by their particular team and it what specific capacity regardless of the time spent addressing  each issue is time not spent moving the collective toward competence on the computer program.

I don’t mean to sound bitter. The lies abound, and until they leave a bad taste in our mouths we will continue to repeat them, no matter how major or minor they are. The Big Lies are the ones that link a person’s value to his  job,  or equate his worth with his power, as well as the minor, more venial lies that women who dine alone; or women who break with social norm, and  do not get up to use the restroom with other women as some sort of “secret pack-peeing” ritual are potentially subversive whether by nature, or design not to be trusted.

Havel said it, and Tolstoy killed Ivan to prove it. Challenge the lies.

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