A post to the Council of Teachers of English 21st Century Literacies discussion: Dirty English
I haven’t written to this spot in a while, probably because I have come to think that issues concerning English language arts instruction are issues of the world and not just a discipline and that English, to get to be what it needs to be needs to look beyond English curriculum for answers to what a good English curriculum should look like. I am not talking here about the Common Core notion that English teach reading for reading in the content areas. Rather, I think English needs to ground itself in the stuff of life that sometimes leads to literature but, that, is a literature of its own when literature is writ big and situated where it belongs, with the life experiences of real human beings living real human lives, these always meaningful in the most profound ways but, most of this life lived too regularly ignored as the base stuff of the kinds of thought and communications with which we should be concerned and with which we should be helping our students to be concerned, the house around the corner and the junk pile on the side of the house, the children playing in the junk, the junk that the children carry in their minds and their parents junk that influences the thinking of the children, for example. Or the life of Rosemary Clooney of whom I had forgotten but who I instantly recalled as a nice TV lady we used to watch in our part of the fourplex at 6081 Alcott Street, Los Angeles, 35, Calif. She disappeared from TV at some point, went into a breakdown state for a while, I had heard, but found out on Jazz Profiles that she was broken by the experience of having witnessed close hand the shooting of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel when he was running for President. I take in the story, am stunned, empathize, try to grasp the magnitude and the later reality I had missed when she rebounded and started singing the song of the jazz singer and singing so well that a listen to just of bit of the stuff knocked me to the floor, that voice, the phrasing, the precision of the timing of the interplay with orchestra and instruments.
I picked up that story because I once met Rosemary, at here house in Beverly Hills moments after I crashed into her son’s car on Olympic Blvd. and followed him home to get some Rosemary sympathy and sign the necessary papers. And I picked it because that wonderful story telling technique they use on Jazz Profiles is something worth telling my students who will be English teachers should know of and come to appreciate, the music, the interviews, the news clips, the narration woven together to get at the being who is the subject of the biography.
What I really have come to hate about too much of what I see to be the typical English classroom is that it is not alive and that it does little or nothing to bring life into the study of English. It remains sanitized and it feels rather sterile. Why? Probably fear of many fearful things, the sanctioning of teachers (much like the kind of sanctioning cutting edge artists experience?) and the need or the desire or the willingness to stick to the “program,” the choice here being a “safe” one for a course of study that should constantly be taking teacher and students out of their safe zones. My god! How can a course about human magnificence and human slime and plain old human encounters with the world and with one another even begin to make itself safe without killing off all the good germs that make its subject matter infectious!!!
The recommendation I want to make is that we follow Bob Marley’s advise and lively up our selves and sus it out, the meanings, the marrow, the good and tragic stuff that is communicated through literature of all and every type. Yes, man! Do talk about sex and violence and real love too and terrible love and nice love and generous love and spiteful and jealous love, about hatred too, and tarnished lives and regal lives lived where ever hand however they might live, lives like that of Rosemary and of Hemingway (the real “guy”) and those true crazies like Whitman and Shelly and Byron and Shakespeare, the bard and the bawdy. Give a glance at the poets like that guy Rodriguez whose amazing story is found in the film “Searching for Sugarman” or in the story of the life of Miles Davis, a story with tones of the life portrayed by James Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues,” or how about a little of the real history behind To Kill a Mocking Bird? Too ugly to tell of? Then perhaps we should think about why, about why we are afraid to deal with the real Bob Ewell story, or even with what Romeo and Juliet may have been doing together in bed with the help of the good Friar! The Friar, a Catholic priest! I won’t go down the path this moment seems to be wanting to take me, but I am taken by it and its implications and I am conjuring “impure” thoughts that are sparked by stories that come from terrible books and terrible news reports that will color the nature I will encounter as I take my dogs for a walk on a wilderness path.
I want to say; I have to say that I want to teach the meanings I live with, lived meanings. And I want students to experience the meanings and the lives of those who are compelled to pour out that life and the meanings found in living life through the stories they tell, where ever they are told. I want my students to know that it is I who make meanings and the meanings I share with them are of me but also of experiences that are of me and things other than me and that it is this mixing that produces the mixture that is the Praxis I share with them as a thinking human being who delivers more than information but, rather, meanings made from my encounters with life.