Teaching John Steinbeck, Part 1

Lois blogsBefore I knew I was going to blog, I wrote a blog. Last October I travelled out West to teach John Steinbeck. I’m going to give you the story as it happened, step by step.

I have been on the road as a teaching artist for many years; many days, many weeks teaching, reaching out, trying to inspire, often to the uninspired, in classrooms across America.  When I began my journey, some fourteen years ago, our country and its classrooms functioned in a more cohesive manner.  Students attended high school because they wanted to learn, they wanted to go to college, they wanted to get the hell out of whatever town they came from so they could fulfill their dreams.  Students still have those same dreams, but those dreams are harder to come by in 2012 than they were in 1998.  Dreams for students, for most of us, seem harder to come by because of a shift in our economy, which has shifted the economics of learning, shifted the national mindset about the importance of true learning in our schools, and in our country.

Most students no longer learn the content, the meaning of a book.  Instead, they take tests, and then, as if those tests weren’t enough, they take more tests. Most teachers teach students how to take tests.  Content, context is not important, but learning how to take the test is important.  Understand the material, look for the deeper meaning in life or literature?  Why bother?  Teenagers have to figure out how to choose the right answer to an inane question by acquiring useless tools that will help them memorize, visualize, and finally pick the right answer to the dumbest question, that guaranteed, will not help them in their quest for any future.  More than likely theses tools will discourage them from dreaming altogether.

George could have figured out how to beat the system, but why would he have wasted his time on such nonsense?  He had to survive the dust bowl, overcome great hardship.  He had to take care of Lenny.  Lenny, on the other hand, would have been so confused he would have become violent, broken his multi-task work table over somebody’s head, ripped  the test paper into tiny shreds, then stroked some poor young girl’s velvet dress to calm himself down, after which George would have been forced into one more hide in a ditch, get the hell out of town situation.  How could either one of these two perfectly written characters survive the linear world of moronic memorization without imploding into bad characterization.  Steinbeck himself would have died.  Thank God he survived to inspire us all.  Thank God George and Lenny survived in spite of their fictional circumstance.

We have lost sight of the genius in pure learning.  Fortunately, some teachers have not lost sight of the importance in teaching about the world and its mysteries.  These extraordinary teachers inspire students to reach for the stars, to reach beyond the mundane, while other less inspired  teachers phone it in, pick up a pay check.  Those lackadaisical instructors, and that is what they are… instructors, are thieves of the mind; too busy teaching to the test to teach the wonders of the world, the joys of creativity, the magic of learning, and the dreams, the hopes that have inspired millions of teenagers and adults for many years, and many civilizations. Imagine the Greeks; imagine the Socratic Method of learning, that brilliant method of doubt and question that brought forth all truth knowable to any rational human being.

Imagine elders around a campfire telling stories about ancestors who lived throughout the ages to enraptured children of all ages.  Imagine the indigenous tribes, who studied the stars,who understood the importance of understanding that which they could see, but would never reach. They were astronomers long before Galileo invented the telescope.

John Steinbeck wrote about man’s dream, about man’s inextricable relationship with nature, about man’s desire to achieve his dreams, to reach for the stars, to find his little piece of heaven, even if that heaven was far beyond his puny reach.  Hopefully, this piece describes how Steinbeck’s writing “Of Mice and Men” captured the human spirit during the Great Depression of the thirties, and still captures the human spirit during the Great Recession of today.  Possibly, this  piece will paint an accurate picture of four eventful weeks on the road; four weeks during which time I had the privilege to teach Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in varied classrooms out west, while exploring the unbelievable, and the oh so believable world at large.  During my time on the road I took a personal refresher course in learning how to be alive.

I am a sixty six year old gay woman.  I am a democrat.  I am a New Yorker, and I am Jewish.  I am alone, out west, in a god fearing red state during a presidential election, routing for the black guy, routing for the unfortunate people who have suffered horrific loss from Hurricane Sandy. Much of the east coast looks like the end of the world.  The world at large looks like it is being mismanaged by seven, maybe eight old men who could care less if it is the end of the world.  They have their stockpile of gold in some swiss bank.  Ironically, it is nearly the end of the Mayan calendar.  The end of the Piscean age is in sight.  All bets of tomorrow are off the table.  If that is the case, what the hell am I doing in Idaho, on election eve, with tobacco chewing cowboys swigging beer in in the lobby of the motel, perverse preachers preaching the gospel on bad television, and rabid Republicans wherever I turn?  If only I could ask John Steinbeck.

I will try my best to describe some of the process based exercises I use with teenagers so they can better understand Steinbeck’s themes, reach for their dreams, and most important of all, tap into and embrace their imagination.  I could say this is a follow up to my first book, “One More Stop,” but this book is non fiction, that book was fiction; fiction influenced by facts that haunted me for years.  When I was young, I had dreams, just like the students I meet in classrooms across America.  I had big dreams.  Some of my dreams have come true, others have escaped my grasp, and other unimaginable dreams have surprised me beyond my wildest self deluded fantasy.  I have been blessed.  Teaching John Steinbeck is one of the greatest gifts of my life.


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