Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Tale of Two Schools

In the movie Tin Cup, a down-on-his-luck driving range operator (Kevin Costner) instructs a psychiatrist (Rene Russo) to hit a golf ball.  He waxes a bit poetic as he models the swing while describing it.  "I think of the golf swing as a poem," says Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy.  "The opening phrase of this poem will always be the grip.  The hands unite to form a single unit by the simple overlap of the little finger.  Lowly and slowly the club head is led back, pulled into position not by the hands but the body, which turns away from the target, shifting weight to the right side without shifting balance.  Tempo is everything, perfection unattainable, as at the top of the swing there's a hesitation, a little nod to the gods...that he is fallible, that perfection is unattainable.  Weight shifts to the left pulled by the powers in the earth.  It's alive, this swing, a living sculpture, and down through contact, striking the ball crisply, with character."

Anyone who has ever attempted to play golf has probably heard the litany of things that must be done to launch a tiny, white ball away from you just so you can walk to find it and hit it again.  Overlap your fingers.  The V formed by the thumb and forefinger should be pointed over your shoulder.  Keep your left arm straight.  Don't break your wrists.  Keep the club parallel to the ground on the takeaway.  Turn your torso and shift your weight, but do not move laterally.  Keep your head still.  Swing down and through the ball.  And of course, the cardinal rule, keep your eye on the ball.

With these and countless other tips running through your head as you stand on the tee box preparing to expose yourself as never before in front of God and all the world, it is a wonder we don't all fall into a fetal position, tearfully sucking our thumbs.  I have no doubt that some have.

How close is this to a teacher's daily life?  Align your lessons to state standards.  Adhere to the school grading policy.  Follow best practices.  Prepare for the test.  Don't teach to the test.  Incorporate technology.  Know the learning styles of each student.  Incorporate the learning styles of each student.  Be familiar with educational acronyms and abbreviations.  Utilize the concepts the acronyms and abbreviations stand for.   Continue professional development.  Stay on top of content.

As with the received wisdom on how to swing a golf club, the thoughts that crowd a teacher's mind are not all bad.  Some may even be good.  Yet when the mind is thus inundated as teachers stand before their classes preparing to expose themselves in front of God and all the world, it is a wonder they don't run screaming from the profession.  I know for a fact that some have.

Kevin Costner does offer one other approach.  He tells Rene Russo, clearly overwhelmed by the poetic physics of it all, "There's only one other acceptable theory about how to hit the ball.  Grip it and rip it."

I am certainly not suggesting that teachers can enter a classroom with no thought or preparation for how to lead students and guide them toward understanding.  I am saying that there is simply too much in education right now.  There are too many mandates, requirements, suggestions, theories, ideas, tips, strategies, rules, procedures.  There is too much riding on what does not matter and too little riding on what does.  Any sane person, out of sheer necessity, has learned to ignore much of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  We must step back from it all, at least every once in a while, and just grip it and rip it.  We must ignore the clamor and do what we know, deep in our souls, to do.  Will we make mistakes?  Of course we will.  Is it possible a student will not learn something he or she should because of a mistake we have made?  Yes, and it is not the end of the world.  If we can work with each other in genuine collegiality and not through a forced meeting or structure imposed upon us from above, we can recover from our mistakes and become even better.

Later in the movie, Kevin Costner's swing falls apart.  He loses his touch.  His friend, Cheech Marin, spends hours on the driving range analyzing his swing, but all the theories and rules fail to restore Costner's ability.  Eventually, Marin changes tactics.

"Take all your change and put in your left hand pocket.  All right, now tie your left shoe in a double knot.  Turn your hat around backwards.  Now take this tee and stick it behind your left ear."

Costner takes a sweet swing and sends the ball far down range.  Stunned, he asks Marin how he had been able to hit such a great shot."

"Because you're not thinking about shanking.  You're not thinking period.  You're just lookin' like a fool and hittin' the ball pure and simple.  Your brain was getting in the way."

My ideas for education reform will not draw big bucks.  They are not data driven.  I am simply suggesting that from time to time we get back to the human aspect of this most human enterprise called education.  Sometimes we need to risk looking like fools.  We need to turn off the sound and fury of the educational world and, pedagogically speaking, grip it and rip it.

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