Archive for the Teaching Category

A complex problem, a multi-faceted solution

Posted in People, Teaching, Uncategorized on December 22, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve read the NRA press conference transcript, nearly 2500 words of what Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s Executive Vice President, deems a call for “decisive action” toward securing our schools.

The NRA’s plan of action – to be pursued immediately in order to be in place in January when our kids return from their holiday vacation – is called the National Model School Shield Program.  At the heart of the plan is for an armed police officer to be situated in every school in America.  LaPierre’s plan is to ensure that a “good guy with a gun” is a short minute away from any intrusion from a “bad guy with a gun.”  He argues that despite the strained resources on police departments nationwide – and, I would add, school budgets – Congress should appropriate resources now to ensure that this School Shield Program is in place.  He argues that despite these limited resources, trained and courageous police officers and retired police officers (along with a long list of others) are willing to be “deployed” right now.  In essence, he is calling for an armed peace-keeping force in our nation’s schools.

The NRA’s proposal attacks “the media” as immoral and refusing to look closely at its own contributions to the current social crisis.  The media, he argues, refuse to look at its violent movies, offensive music, blood-spattering video games as causes to our mass murders in public schools.   He argues that “[r]ather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize gun owners.”

He situates the NRA position to be one of taking the moral higher ground – with the cause being to protect our children.  But not once in the nearly 2500 words of his argument does he make one concession that perhaps we should revisit and seriously look at current gun control legislation, or the availability of assault rifles (in fact, he criticizes “the media” for not even getting the terminology correct — but what does it matter what the correct name of the weapon is?), or the availability of ammunition of the weapons. In short, he blasts “the media” for its continued glorification and glamorization of killing through video, song, and games.

No doubt, any single-sighted approach to solving the current social situation is going to be insufficient.  A complex problem requires a multi-faceted solution.  No single condition is sufficient to produce the crisis; no single-pronged solution is going to solve this epidemic of mass killings.

No single party is going to concede or compromise its position if it appears that no other party is willing to compromise its position.  We have created a culture right now of “either/or” rather than “both/and” for working toward any meaningful compromise.  We see the dichotomy as we approach the fiscal cliff; we see it in our rhetoric about gay marriage, religious and spiritual beliefs, gender equity.

So, what might it look like to truly engage in meaningful dialogue in a society which values individual freedoms?  What might it look like to pursue a solution to a complex social crisis – mass murders — in which there are several contributing factors none sufficient in itself to produce a culture in which young males can strafe movie theatres, malls, college campuses and first-grade classrooms?

Our national dialogue must:

  • Revisit gun ownership laws Yes, let’s protect the Second Amendment.  And let’s not generalize and stereotype all gun-owners of being capable of mass murder.  However, let’s make meaningful laws about ownership and production of assault rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, that are available.  Let’s even look at the term “sport shooting” which seems to be part of the rationale for the availability of these weapons.  The NRA, in its assault on “the media,” should take a reflective look at its own moral and ethical landscape.  Does “sport shooting” with assault rifles do anything but glamorize the ownership of these weapons?
  • Renew the conversation about mental health policy and care in our nation:  This conversation should also include education policy and practices in our schools.  The recent mass murder shooters have been described as intelligent, brilliant even, and with mental health issues.  And, again, let’s not generalize these individuals’ behaviors to the whole population of others with mental health issues.  I do think that as we discuss mental health care in the United States, we also need to revisit the legislation for providing education to students with special needs.  Do our public school environments, facilities, and resources effectively meet the needs of our students?  I am sure that my education colleagues who closely serve our special needs population may take issue with this concern.  However, if we are going to have a serious dialogue about a multi-faceted, complex issue, then we need to consider all sides of the issue.  If we are going to look closely at mental health policy in the United States, then we need to consider those policies within our educational system, as well.
  • Revitalize our dialogue about being male in our society:  One look at the profile of the mass murderers reveals a police line-up, if you will, of white males in their late teens or early twenties.  As we look at other statistics concerning gender, we see that enrollment of males in our colleges and universities is on the decline.  We see that males are medicated more for such conditions as ADHD and ADD.  This, alone, is a complex issue within a complex issue.  As a society, we have done much in the past 40 years to redefine responsibilities, ambitions, and opportunities for girls, young women, and women in our society.  Have we done enough to support boys, young men, and men in that transformation.  Regardless of how slow this progress may seem for women’s rights and progress, the transformation of our cultural expectations on young men may be revealing itself in unhealthy mental and physical health of our males.  Again, we may be in a position of “either/or” rather than “both/and” thinking for our young males – and females, as a matter of fact – as we look to broaden the ambitions and opportunities for them.  That is, just as young women entering the professional world battle between “either” being a professional woman “or” a mother, we need to become a culture where we can be “both” a professional woman “and” a mother.  Have we effectively addressed a similar dichotomy in the world of masculinity?  We may have made strides for males that it is rewarding to be a “stay at home dad” or for a father to be much more involved in his child’s life than in a generation ago.  But do we do enough to help adolescent males negotiate that emotional and psychological terrain as they are growing into young men?  Do we help them address the competing demands on their lives – as we watch them dropout of high school, fail to attend college, or not enlarge and enrich their late-adolescent lives?
  • Address meaningful reform movement in public education:  Has a focus on standardized assessment and achievement in our public schools diminished the most meaningful role that our schools may play in a child’s life?  Have we become a test-prep nation rather a life-prep educational system?  In our efforts to become competitive in the global economy, have we diminished our capacity to be compassionate, empathetic, collaborative in our human economy?
  • Rejuvenate our voices toward spiritual health:  We saw a glimmer of what the conversation could be like during the Sunday night, December 16, vigil following the Newtown massacre.  Regardless of the path toward spiritual health – Christian, Muslim, secular humanism, Jewish, New Age – we need to foster the health of our soul regardless of individual belief.  We need a collective consciousness toward a spiritual health in our nation.  Regardless of whether we are a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl,” we need as much attention to our First Amendment rights as we do to our Second Amendment.  What we need are voices in our country to continue to foster a larger Self, a wholeness to our individual lives and our collective lives.  I was moved not only by the spiritual and religious voices at that Sunday night vigil but also by the juxtaposition of the religious and the political.  The religious voices preceded the political voice of President Obama.  What if that were always the case?  How can we meaningfully change the context in which our conversations take place?  How do we change the language to inclusivity, to multiple avenues for a solution, to the handshake of “both/and” rather than the finger-pointing of “either/or” and dichotomous polarization?
  • Heal.  Something is wounded in our nation.  Rather than merely call for policy change and a single-sighted solution for complex problems, mournful cries to “fix something” – we need to heal.  But to heal, we need to acknowledge the wound.

At the heart of the issue is not the gun policy, nor the mental health issue, nor the gender issue; those are contributing causes.  Those are factors but they are not, in themselves alone, sufficient causes for the epidemic of mass murders we suffer today. We voice our sorrow but do not change our collective behavior.  Rather than purposeful actions toward deep-rooted, meaningful change, our response is a short-lived emotional sorrow.

Each of us cannot do everything.  But we all can do something.  Let the change begin with me.


The Day After

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Uncategorized on December 17, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

I remember preparing for class my English class of April 21st, 1999.  It was a Wednesday, the day after Columbine.  First period would be the most challenging in some ways — the students’ first chance to be in class together after a night that was too long, too draining.  Of course, many had talked to each other on the phone the night before.  They had talked, hugged, probably cried in the halls in the morning before class.  Class time, though, would be the first time that we came together as a tiny little community — a community of learners, a community of people who truly cared for one another — and I felt inadequately qualified for what those first 50 minutes of the school day might hold for us all.

How do you prepare at all for the kind of conversation — or  no conversation? — that was about to unfold?  I decided that I needed three plans … and would have to just rely on my own gut instinct to read the class that I had come to know so well over the prior months.  I would need to take their lead:  were they needing to talk as a group?  were they needing to just return to the normalcy of the class and continue with the lessons we had been working on since Monday?  or would it need to be some blend of those two?

I went into class prepared for all three scenarios.

What I knew I would get from this class was unfiltered, raw emotions and probably some deep reflection on the events of the previous 15 or 16 hours.  They were my IB sophomores — smart, insightful, lively…and only 14, 15 or 16 years old.  Littleton is 60 miles away from us.  I did not think that the students would have personal connections with any students from Columbine High School.

I was wrong.  Jesse knew guys from their football team because of summer leagues and football camps.  Other kids had friends either from the school or friends of friends from Littleton.  It was closer to home than I thought.

I let them talk.  And talk some more.  And get quiet in a reflective moment when they knew — but could not articulate — the feelings that a classmate was either expressing or trying to express.  They looked to me not so much to lead a conversation but to provide a safe place to have the conversation.  And we did.  What they needed — what we needed — was genuine connection, honest and safe dialogue.

When the energy was almost exhausted from the room, when they had connected to each other’s lives in ways that made the world safe and ok again for them right there and then, I shared the only piece of literature I brought to class that day,  an excerpt from Donne:  “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

I shared that the deaths of the teens 60 miles to the north of us diminished me.  We all feel, grieve, cry, and mourn people with whom we have distant connections because we are involved in mankind.  We cannot lose that.

Assault Art

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching on December 15, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

Sandy Hook Elementary. Aurora movie theatre. Virginia Tech. … Columbine.

Such horrendous acts are too complex to reduce to simple cause-effect relationships, to reduce to simple answers answering a complex and bewildering “why.” I want to offer this thought, though, knowing it is probably inadequate and insufficient.

One of the reasons I love being an English teacher and a student of literature — being brought to tears by poetry, being moved to consider my own tiny existence in the aftermath of a performance of a Shakespeare play or an O’Neill drama — is that, as has been said so often, literature conveys the human experience. Literature, a window into another’s experience and a mirror of my own, serves to nurture my vulnerable soul. It’s why I go to art galleries, why I “bother” to take time out during my summer or during a vacation to go to a museum, a concert, or a gallery. The arts — dramatic, literary, visual, musical — touch, move, inspire, awe me.

And I wonder about the effects of decreasing attention to these arts in our schools today. English classes should serve up heaping spoonfuls of Mary Oliver like metaphorical meringue. We should feast on Hemingway. We should have mounds of Morrison. All kids should receive a birth certificate and a library card when they enter the world. They should — we should — celebrate the human experience with a mandated trip to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and a summer performance by Theatreworks. Immediately after immunizations, children should be prescribed one story read to them. Two if they are feverish. Daily doses for a lifetime.

My point is this: In a world growing more complex with interdependent relationships across the room, across town, across zip codes, across area codes and time zones, we need the window of literature even more. We need the glimpse into our shared experience.

Maybe the solution is not so much in controlling guns or threatening to snatch away what people argue is their Constitutional right. Don’t get me wrong; I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why a person needs an assault rifle for any sort of “sport” shooting; their sole purpose is to inflict as much damage in as little time with as little effort as possible. The very name — assault rifle — is an assault on reason and civility.

But maybe we need to think and act differently to find a solution. Maybe the solution is not just in limitation and restriction. Maybe it is to be found in expansion and inclusion. Maybe white males (it’s always white males, isn’t it, behind the mask, under the body armor, firing the weapon?) would be less likely to pull the trigger if they recognized the humanity in “the other,” and perhaps if they were in touch with their own.

Maybe part of the solution is thinking bigger — where we recognize each other’s humanity, where we peer through the window of literature into the lives of others and into our own reflection.

The Cat and the Hat and I are the same age

Posted in Observations, Teaching, Writing on April 10, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

One recent morning, in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday earlier in the month, I was privileged to read to students at Carver Elementary School in Colorado Springs. I could have chosen any appropriate book, really, to read to the students, but I wasn’t sure which grades would be my audience. As I looked at the choices in the media center, my eyes were drawn to an old favorite: The Cat in the Hat. Even though before I chose the book I was told that I would be reading to a 2nd grade class, then a 4th grade class and I would wrap up with a class of kindergarteners, I stayed with my gut decision. How could the good Dr. let me down with The Cat?

I was proven right. The experience was different for each class, and it was a valuable experience for us all. I was remind — and reminded the 2nd and 4th graders — that you cannot get tired of a book you love. We had all had experiences with the book…but we are older and different now, I told them. I love to re-read a favorite book. They all things to share, too about the book: new insights and favorite memories.

The kindergarteners were wide-eyed and a bit in awe of a 6’4″ man whom they had never met before read them an unfamiliar book. But they loved it..this mischievous cat, a talking fish, two kids flying kites in the house, and waiting for mother to get home.

The book has withstood the test of time, of course, and reminds us the power of language, the appeal of rhyme and of illustrations, and, as evidenced by the engaged look of the 4th graders and the thoughtful comments they had about a well-known story, being read to never grows old.

Here’s to another 54 years, Cat.

The Text, The Tweet, and Ernest Hemingway

Posted in Teaching, Writing on March 25, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

I suppose my passion for Hemingway first surfaced in college when Dr. Zoellner (about whom I have written earlier on this blog) taught several of Hemingway’s short stories in freshman English. Of course, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was on the list, and we may have read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Later it was For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Despite all the criticism leveled at Hemingway, I was intrigued by his writing; what male wouldn’t be: bull fights, fist fights, African safaris, fishing the banks of the Two Hearted River. Growing up in the midst of the feminist movement impacted perspective, naturally, and probably for the good.

When I went on to actually teach some Hemingway, I found a text called The Hemingway Review published by Ohio Northern University. The only edition I have is the Spanish Civil War Issue which includes Hemingway’s 30 NANA Dispatches. I don’t know how else to say it…the book is pretty cool and has become sort of a prized treasure of mine. In it, the editors explore Hemingway’s cable dispatches as he covered the Spanish Civil War. The discuss The Field Notes that led up to the dispatch: “The writing of a dispatch usually began with field notes of some sort. Either in a notebook or on quarter-folded pieces of paper , Hemingway jotted down his observations as he went along” (93). Later, he drafted his story “sometimes in a cablese style adopted by correspondents to cut down on cable costs by reducing the word count” (93). One set of his notes turned into the short story “Old Man at the Bridge.” Other observations that he made were notes used in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (In fact, in creative writing classes, I used to hand students a piece of paper folded into quarters and then take them on a walk around the building to make notes. Homework that weekend was to take more quarter-folded sheets and head to the mall, a restaurant, the street corner and take notes. We’d draft some into poems or stories later.)

I had been thinking for the past several months how Hemingway would have used platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Instead of his notes on folded paper, he may have sent Tweets from his phone directly from his location. Give him 160 characters (to type — not to develop) and see what sparse prose Hemingway would craft. Then I read the NY Times Op-Ed piece posted by Jim Burke on Facebook: Teaching to the Text Message. Andy Selsberg makes terrific points about precision and eloquence. His examples of what types of shorter writings can be valuable for our students to try are authentic types of writing that students encounter every day and probably produce every day as well. I see a plethora of opportunities for students produce concise writings that are rich, eloquent, and demonstrate a command of language to express a sharp insight or make a precise observation of the world around them.

Instead of saying “put your cell phone away,” I may be asking students to take them out and text me their responses.

Young America League Football

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Uncategorized on January 25, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

Like millions of American boys growing up, I played pee-wee football in the fall. Here, it was called Young America League (YAL) football and was sponsored by the Colorado Springs’ Park and Recreation department. I played a couple of positions from the time I was 8 until 8th grade.

I was a Packer fan, then, and my idol was #15, the quarterback, Bart Starr. First of all, and incidentally, I enjoyed the almost poetic consonance of his name: Bart Starr. (An aside: perhaps it was this fascination with linguistic features of the athletes that caused my football career to end so soon.)

In 6th Grade, I bought a book by Bart Starr that was a primer on quarterbacking technique. I read that book. And I studied that book. I’d go out in the small side yard at our house on Nevada Avenue or across the street in the medical center parking lot and practice every lesson in it. I had the techniques down for fall practice. I was especially proud of my ability to lateral the ball to a running back just like it was described and pictured in the book.

A few practices into the 1969 season, we were ready to run-through a more full-blown offensive practice. I was trading off at the QB position with some short dude who was fast and pretty smart — but I don’t think he had read the Bart Starr “Playing Quarterback for Dummies” book (I don’t think that was the actual title). I knew that I had that advantage.

So we were running this sweep where the QB would turn, take a few steps parallel to the offensive line, and then lateral the ball to the running back who would, no doubt, take off around the end of the line for a touchdown. I took the snap, took my steps, and in Bart Starr-esque form (see picture 3), lateraled perfectly to Rocco Villani, our running back. The ball slid through his hands and to the ground.

“He’s spiraling the pitch!”
“Puzick, pitch the ball the RIGHT way,” barked the coach.

Next snap, I took my two steps, and sent another perfectly spiraled lateral to Villani.

“Puzick! Quit spiralling the gosh-dang ball and pitch it right.” Evidently the coach had not read THE Book either. I’m sure he saw me as either uncoachable, stupid, or something other than very well-read on quarterbacking technique.

Another snap. Another spiraled pitch to the running back. Another tongue-lashing.

It was that autumn evening, the sun setting behind Pikes Peak and the chill of dusk spreading over the grass at Bonny Park, that I took my last snap at Quarterback. Damn you Bart Starr. Damn you reading. Damn you Coach “Gosh-Dang.”

In Memoriam: Dr. Zoellner

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Writing on March 21, 2010 by Vince.Puzick

I was a late bloomer when it came to academics.  I didn’t go to college right out of high school, and when I did enter Colorado State University in the spring semester of 1976, I was enrolled in Dr. Robert Zoellner’s Intro to Literature class.  It was the first of four semesters I would have with him during my college career.

During that first semester, we read what could be deemed pretty typical fare in college freshman literature classes:  a novel or two, a handful of short stories, some poetry, a play.  Grades were based on a mid-term and a final essay, written in class, in blue books.  I’ll never forget Dr. Zoellner’s comment scrawled across the last page of my exam:  “Mr. Puzick, You have a fine mind for literature. Your analysis of Rich‘s “Orion” is by far one of the best in the class (I am at the bottom of the stack), but your discussion of Hamlet, on the other hand, is weak and perfunctory.  You were clearly rushed for time.”  I remember going to the dictionary, first, and looking up the word “perfunctory” — a word not used by many of my high school friends or college dorm peers!  His words stick with me today because they set the tone and expectations for my own study of literature for the next 3.5 years (and beyond — into my own classroom teaching):  commit to your interpretation, be passionate in your expression of that interpretation, and watch the clock.

At this year’s Colorado Language Arts Society’s Spring Conference, I learned from Dr. Bill McBride that Dr. Zoellner had died.  I didn’t catch the date of his death, but Dr. McBride said that there were no funeral services, no obituary, no notice except for a few phone calls from the office secretary to a handful of his colleagues.  He said Dr. Zoellner’s last few years were painful — hunched over from physical conditions, a painfully slow gait, isolated from others.  I think Dr. Zoellner was a troubled soul — and it saddens me because of the impact he had on my life.

Dr. Zoellner was either loved or hated by his students.  I doubt any students could have had either a “neutral” or “moderate”opinion of him.  He was old-school in his approach to literature but taught me the power in close reading and explication de texte.  All that mattered to Zoellner was what was on the page, between the covers, in the body of the work.  And he was, no doubt, a chauvinist.  In 1976 and beyond, many of the female students in my classes found him coarse, crude, offensive.  I do not question nor doubt their feelings and perceptions of him.  While he could certainly teach the likes of Rich, he was at his best with Melville (see Zoellner’s “The Salt-sea Mastodon“), Hemingway and Robert Penn Warren.  And Faulkner.  The man could teach Faulkner.

If my memory is correct, each course I took from Zoellner was at 8:00 a.m. MWF.  He was usually on time, walking in either right at 8:00 or maybe a minute or two late.  If he came in late, as soon as he crossed the threshold, he would offer an apology — or mutter it might more accurately express his tone.  If he had not put out his cigarette before coming in the building, he disposed of it right when he came in the class.  At times, his eyes were a little bloodshot, weary, but intense.  He stood about 5’8″, maybe a little taller, and had short cropped light brown hair.  He was old school. He was blue-collar in his approach to life and to work. He could have just walked out of the Gates Rubber Plant in Denver.  He’d plop his book down on the table, turn to wherever we last left off or wherever he might want to start that day, and begin working his way through the text.  Discussion was minimal — usually non-existent.  Perhaps a question or two to the class and then back into the text.  Classroom relationships were not his forte.

The other three courses I had with Zoellner were Survey of American Literature (from 1917 – 1945 and then 1945 to the present) and English 505: Major Authors: Faulkner.  We studied something like nine novels that semester.  I was the only senior in the course; the rest were graduate students.  On the Friday before spring break, Dr. Zoellner asked the class what we should read over the break.  Nobody had a response.  “What would you like to devote your time to over the next nine days,” he asked again.  Leaning back in my chair, I blurted out “The Hamlet.”  Heads turned and eyes glared.  Coming in at about 450 pages, it wasn’t a popular choice among my classmates.  “Great choice, Vincent.  The Hamlet it is.”

I  had gone to Dr. Zoellner at the beginning of that last semester, the Major Authors’ semester, and for some reason felt it necessary to tell him that I had taken his courses four semesters and not once had he called me by name. When he actually said my name in the last semester of my undergraduate career, I felt somehow acknowledged. I suppose I looked to him as a mentor, certainly in his handling and negotiating of challenging texts, and felt somehow I had arrived (even if I had to ask!).

I had gone to him earlier, too, in the beginning of my senior year, and asked his advice as to whether I should enter the professional semester for secondary education.  He suggested that I graduate and then head out of Colorado.  Head to LA, he said, or Chicago, or New York — somewhere there were home offices for large corporations.  See what it was like in the business world or the world outside of education.  “Schools will always be around.  See what else your liberal arts degree will bring you.”

I took his advice.  Graduated from CSU in May of 1981, travelled west to the Silicon Valley, worked for five years in the private industry, and then recognized my own need to work in the world of education.  I contacted Dr. Zoellner to see if he would write a letter of recommendation for graduate school.  “Certainly, I will,” he said, “sure thing, Vincent.”

When I entered CSU in January of 1976, I was a confused 18-year old.  I didn’t know my place — shifting course from factory work to college campuses more than once — and didn’t really have a destination in mind.  Dr. Zoellner helped shape the direction my life was to take.  To think of his last days and years as disconnected, pained, and isolated hurts my own soul.  Thank you, Dr. Zoellner, for the literature you taught but more importantly for the guidance you gave when you least suspected it.

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