Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.

Meeting one of the Little Rock Nine

Too often students can’t relate to literary or historical figures they read about in books.  If only such a figure could come to a school and speak directly to the students.

Well, Terrence Roberts did just that at Hoover High School’s Human Rights Assembly this week.  Who is Terrence Roberts?

He is one of the famous Little Rock Nine, the group of teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas who attended the all-white Central High School in September of 1957 as a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that abolished segregation in public schools.

When Governor Orval Faubus had the Arkansas National Guard prevent the students from entering the school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine students from classroom to classroom.  That action continued into October.

Hundreds of adults shouted racial epithets and insults at the students who stoically ignored the abuse though Roberts said that it was “one year of sheer hell.”

One year because in 1958, Gov. Faubus supported a voter-approved referendum that closed all Little Rock high schools.  If he was going to be forced to integrate, he would rather not have even whites attend school.  Imagine an elected official depriving all young people of an education.  Yet, that is what Arkansas voters wanted as they re-elected him to an unprecedented six terms.

Since then, Dr. Roberts has earned three college degrees including a Ph.D. in psychology.

At 77, he exudes more vigor than some students.

President Bill Clinton awarded all members of the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

Along with Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, and Carlotta Walls are still living; Jefferson Thomas died in 2010.

In preparing for his visit, I tried to paint a picture to my kids about what it must have been like to be a 15-year-old barred from school, then to have federal troops serve as escorts just to get to class.

I think about the students who loiter around campus, in no rush to get to class, taking their education for granted, and comparing it to the experience of the Little Rock Nine.  Remarkable, the courage it took those unintentional civil right warriors just to go to school.  That’s how much they wanted to learn.

Roberts told the audience that when his first grade teacher said that kids have to take responsibility of they own learning, that’s when he “established the Terry Roberts Learning Academy in 1947,” dedicating his life to shrinking what he calls the “storehouse of ignorance” all people have.

“If you know what happened in the past, you can understand what’s going on today.”

He closed his speech by encouraging students to read “one book a week from now on.”

It can be frustrating when young people are, well, young and you struggle getting them to absorb the magnitude that Dr. Roberts visited their school, a real civil rights pioneer, not an entry from Wikipedia.

I know I will remember his visit.  I felt privileged to shake his hand, honored to meet him.

He was someone who I studied about in my U.S. history class, and he is someone who I teach about when we cover civil rights issues when studying Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Right behind my desk on a book shelf is Don’t Know Much About History with an entry on the Little Rock Nine.

Now, right in front of me, was Terrence Roberts himself.

I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew that I had met him.   Here’s hoping a few students did the same.

 

 

Life Begins After 60

“Put another candle on my birthday cake, I’m another year old today.”

For those of you old enough to remember Sheriff John, that was the song he sang on his children’s TV show that aired from 1952 to 1970.

It’s a song I think of every time I have a birthday as I did on April 1.

In my family, the biggest April Fools’ joke was me being born.  The story my mother always related was that her doctor told her I was to arrive on April 4th.   When I came early, he told her, “April Fools!”

Actually, I always liked that I was born on a special day of any kind since my father was born on Christmas.

I was lucky to have a few memorable birthday celebrations.

There was my sixth birthday held at a themed restaurant with a live “damsel in distress”-type of revue with food delivered via a model train.   After the show, all children celebrating a birthday were invited on stage to shake the hands of the actors.  The man playing the villain hid popcorn in his hand so when he shook mine I felt the crunched corn.

At age 11, my party took place at a miniature golf course on Magnolia Boulevard near Catalina Street in Burbank.  I didn’t enjoy myself though because I had the worst score of all my buddies.

The most unusual birthday was my 16th which wasn’t a party at all since I was hospitalized with a skin condition at UCLA Medical Center.

For my 50th, my family arranged an overnight trip in Palm Springs where we ate dinner at the Bing Crosby restaurant (no longer there).

Then last year, we went to the horse races at Santa Anita.  (Good thing we didn’t do it this year, right?)

I feel lucky that my health is good despite how old I may appear.  Just last weekend a man thought I was my 15-year-old’s grandfather.  Look, I know I’m no spring chicken, but I’m not Larry King either.

What’s weird is that I have now outlived my father.  It made me wonder about famous people who I have outlived as well.

Here is a partial list:  Joan of Arc (19), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (35), Marilyn Monroe (36), Vincent Van Gogh (37), George Gershwin (38), Martin Luther King, Jr. (39), Edgar Allan Poe (40), Elvis Presley (42), Nat King Cole (45), Judy Garland (47), William Shakespeare (52), Jackie Robinson (53), Abraham Lincoln (56), and Virginia Wolfe (59).

When thinking about their contributions, I feel quite inadequate.  However, there is still hope for those of us over 60.

Dame Judi Dench has received seven Oscar nominations since she was over 60.

Mahatma Gandhi was 61 when he did his famous Salt March protesting British rule in India.

Colonel Harland Sanders was 62 when he began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 years old when she published her first book which inspired the popular TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Noah Webster took 26 years to finish his dictionary when he was 66 years old.

Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Nelson Mandela was 75 when he was elected president of South Africa.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses began painting at age 76.

Astronaut and Senator John Glenn at age 77 was the oldest person to travel in space.

Also at 77, Frank Sinatra’s “Duets” was the second best-selling album in the country behind Pearl Jam’s latest release.

So, to those of you in my age range, to quote from one of his songs, the best is yet to come.  And that’s no joke.

Innocence Lost

The tragedy last week in New Zealand where a maniac murdered 50 people was doubly despicable due to the killer live streaming his deed on Facebook using a GoPro helmet camera.

It took a half hour before anybody reported this to Facebook, 12 minutes after the shooting ended.  In other words, those watching online did not report it while it was happening.  In fact, many were cheering him on.

What happened was not a video game yet there exists people in the world who derive entertainment from the killing of innocent people.  It’s disturbing to realize that hate has a worldwide audience.

How does a parent explain this to a child?

The internet offers wonderful opportunities.  But whatever good people get from using social media is negated if it means that just one child intentionally or not may come across a video of a person actually getting killed.

Ever since the birth of the internet, dutiful parents have had to carefully monitor content, pornography being an obvious problem.  However, no matter how one closely scrutinizes or how many filters are in place, something horrible is bound to suddenly appear on a screen.

Each generation comes to grips with changes in technology.  When television came on the scene, some thought it would corrupt children’s minds.

However, this occurred when there was one screen per household.  All one had to do was to turn off the TV.

Today, each person has a screen.  Internet accessibility and control rests in the palms of a child’s hands.  It’s impossible for a parent to continuously watch what appears on the screen.

Surely, social media companies such as Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube have the ability  to shut down hate-related content.

Some advertisers plan on boycotting these businesses.  The Association of New Zealand Advertisers and the Commercial Communications Council posed the following question in their statement released earlier in the week:

“If the site owners can target consumers with advertising in microseconds, why can’t the same technology be applied to prevent this kind of content being streamed live?”

If the internet was available during Hitler’s reign, he might have installed cameras in the showers where Jewish prisoners were gassed, available for everybody to enjoy.

Just because we have the capability to access every repulsive act a person can perpetrate on another human being does not mean we should see it.

One of the main problems I have with the internet is that it offers legitimacy to the most illegitimate anti-social outcasts among us, giving each voice an audience.  Yet not every voice should be heard.

Unimaginable horrors abound online where anyone of any age can access hateful ideologies, suicide instructions, and an online forum entitled “watch people die.”

Is that really what we are all about?

The world shouldn’t be a nightmare.  If so, why would people bring up children in such a toxic environment?

It used to be that children had a childhood.  Unsuitable material could be delayed until later.  Not now.  Innocence is a nostalgic notion.

There’s a favorite line of mine from the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” that was not in Harper Lee’s novel.  Screenwriter Horton Foote who won an Oscar for the screenplay wrote a scene where Atticus Finch turns to his son and says, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son.  I wish I could keep them all away from you.  That’s never possible.”

How truer that is today than ever before.

 

 

Diverse Students United in Bowl Goal

For the 29th straight year, Glendale Unified will host the Scholastic Bowl at Glendale High School on Monday night.  Televised locally, this is the biggest academic competition among the district’s four high schools:  Clark Magnet, Crescenta Valley, Glendale, and Hoover.

Having a night that showcases the talents of bright students is welcoming.  Smart kids often get the short end of the education stick; gifted education receives the least funding of any ability-level group.  Yet these high-achieving students are the ones who make their schools shine.  Most aspects of a school that principals brag about have a large amount to do with the contributions of these fine young people.

The first part of the competition takes place a week before the main event when all five-member teams write a one-hour timed essay.  Points earned from this writing are added to each school’s score the following week when the teams converge on stage to answer 25 questions in a group round where collaboration is allowed, then another 50 questions in a buzzer round when only individuals answer.  Two points are awarded for correct answers; one point deduction for incorrect responses.

Each member of the winning team wins $500, second place $250, third place $150, and fourth place $100.  Knapp, Peterson & Clarke, Oakmont League, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Dan Levin Trust, Parker Anderson Enrichment, and Sylvan Learning Center contribute to the awards.

Most years Channel 4 weathercaster Fritz Coleman has served as quizmaster.  This year the emcee will be Channel 7’s weekday anchor Phillip Palmer.

When I was asked by the principal to coach the Hoover’s team back in 2008, I had no idea that I would still be doing it 11 years later.

While I have had the good fortune of having two teams win the competition, for me the joy of being involved with this program is the opportunity to work with some of the brightest young people.  They enjoy each other’s company and have fun showing off their knowledge.

The lowest point occurred two years ago when one of my students forgot to save the essay on the computer which ended up costing us another championship.  This was especially bitter since I was the coach who championed transitioning from handwritten papers to using laptops.

As coach, my main job is selecting the team.  I hold tryouts where I seek five students who collectively are able to answer questions in the five main categories of art, literature, history, science, and math.

For months, we hold after-school practices twice a week where the team watches past Scholastic Bowls, answering the questions “live.”  One team member tracks correct and incorrect answers for each category so we can figure out which students will be stronger in the group round versus the buzzer round (only four students are allowed on stage at any one time).

We even practice using buzzers.  I also give them practice essays which we later evaluate according to the Bowl’s writing rubric.

This year’s team happens to be all-male, comprised of three seniors and two sophomores, each student a different ethnicity—a delightful coincidence.  Their collegiality proves that students from various backgrounds can work well together pursuing a common goal:  to win the Bowl.

It is an important reminder to those who only know Hoover from recent negative headlines that positive experiences also happen on campus.

If you want to see another side of Hoover, come to the Scholastic Bowl this Monday at Glendale High School at 7:00 p.m.  The future will be present on stage representing all 1,600 of their fellow students.

 

Reflecting on Joys of Teaching

Sometimes one has to admit that life’s glass is half-full not half-empty.

This week I was asked to participate in a promotional video for Hoover High School.  I reluctantly agreed to do it, reluctant because for years I have been an outspoken critic of my own profession.

Playing the cheerleader role is not typecasting for me.

However, the more I thought about being on camera to talk about the place where I have worked since 1989, the more I realized how proud I would be to talk about what makes my job meaningful.

When I first became a teacher, I never thought I would be in the classroom this long.  After doing computer work for 12 years, I figured I would teach for about 10 years, then go on to do something else.  I assumed that was going to be my life’s pattern—changing careers every decade.  Never did it cross my mind that I would devote the bulk of my adult life working with children.

In the blink of an eye, here I am, one of the oldest teachers on campus, not knowing what happened to the past 30 years.

I did not recognize it much back then, but as I approach the sunset of my career, I can see how blessed I have been to work with young people and have the opportunity to help them in their life’s journey.

To prepare for the video interview, I was given a couple of questions to think about.

“If you were a parent of a student, why would you be excited to send your child to Hoover?”

For the non-academic classes.

While there’s nothing wrong with our English, math or science classes, taking marching band, culinary arts or journalism enriches the day for students where instead of sitting in a chair passively, they have the opportunity to do, to get involved, to make learning come alive through playing an alto saxophone, baking a bundt cake or posting a video to Instagram called Humans of Hoover

In my journalism class, I give students the responsibility of running a business.  They create the work, manage the work, publish the work.  They teach each other desktop publishing and editing programs that enable them to do their jobs.  Such independence reveals what matters most to them and their peers.

Being self-reliant is something all parents desire, and being self-learning is something all teachers desire—both happen at Hoover.

“What do you love most about coming to school every day to teach these students?”

In short, not knowing what questions or comments students will have.  Some may view such unknown variables as nerve-wracking; I find them stimulating.

There is a duality to teaching:  spending hours developing lesson plans timed to the minute, but being prepared for the spontaneous reaction of students.

You never know what provocative question or profound connection a student may formulate.

Then there is the student work—the writing, the speech, the video—that reveals their thinking and learning.

Yes, some students fall short demonstrating their knowledge, but many succeed.  Especially gratifying are the non-A students who hit a home run once in a while.

Just the other day, a boy who has struggled most of the year gave a moving speech, better than everyone else in the class.  I was so proud of him knowing that he was the same young man who had tears in his eyes last semester when he botched his first oral.

Doing this interview gave me pause to reflect.  When you work day after day, year after year, you lose track of the big picture.  Stepping back to look at the large mosaic built over time is quite illuminating.

Once in a while it is okay to view life’s glass as half-full; in fact, right now, the cup runneth over.

GUSD Supers Not So Super

Ask any student to name the most influential person in their education experience and most likely the student would name a teacher.   Rarely a principal.  Never a superintendent.

Which is why when GUSD announced that Dr. Winfred B. Roberson, Jr. would no longer be in charge of the district, the news generated more of a ripple than a tsunami.

Roberson now joins the ranks of recent GUSD supers who seem intent on not staying very long.

Since I began my career in GUSD, there have been 9 superintendents including 4 interim appointees.  That averages out to a new one every 3 years.

Looking at the past three decades, each successive superintendent leaves Glendale earlier than his predecessor.

Robert A. Sanchis’s term ran 14 years, James R. Brown lasted 8, Michael F. Escalante 6, Richard M. Sheehan 5, and Roberson 3.  It is getting to the point where whoever becomes the next superintendent might as well hold the title of “interim.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that the average tenure of a superintendent is between three and four years, concluding that “hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.”

With changes in superintendents comes shake-ups in other upper management positions.  The instability is alarming.  If a school had as many teachers coming and going, the education of children would be negatively impacted.

This begs the question:  how important is a superintendent, the highest paid employee in the district at a quarter of a million dollars?

New superintendents tend to establish their authority via some new cockamamie education program that is mandated for implementation in all classrooms without teacher input.  Veteran teachers know to ride such fads out and don’t get too riled up about it because it will last as long as the superintendent remains in office.

When Sheehan was here, he persuaded GUSD to sign a five-year contract worth $3.4 million with Massachusetts-based Curriculum Associates to use their i-Ready diagnostic testing program.  The edict:  evaluate each kindergartner through 12th grader three times a year. One year later, Sheehan left.  Not soon thereafter, the massive endeavor was quickly downsized.

In its hunt for the next super, GUSD has a list of seven employee search firms expected to submit proposals.  Often the cost is around $25,000.  One of those is McPherson & Jacobson, hired by GUSD in 2016 who found Roberson.  Since he did not work out, why is this firm even in the running?

And with the high turnover rate, one wonders if it might dissuade a quality candidate from coming here.

I understand the importance of hiring an experienced superintendent, but since the recent ones came outside of the district and didn’t have a prior stake in the community, the school board should consider hiring a fresh face from those who currently work at district headquarters, especially those who taught in Glendale schools.  They would be less likely to leave thus offering stability, something this district desperately needs.

Meanwhile, the portraits of GUSD’s superintendents keep decorating the wall in the Board Room.  Roberson, Sheehan, Escalante and company (including the 10-month legacy of 1937’s Norman B. Whytock) will forever remain memorialized, while the faces of teachers who have devoted 25, 35, 45 years of service are nowhere around.

But here’s the thing—despite the maneuvers of the school board and the high turnover rate of upper management, Glendale students still receive a quality free education.  Unfortunately, the people responsible for it remain invisible in the halls of district headquarters.

New Year’s Resolutions for Inconsiderate People

The new year is typically a time when people make resolutions.   Here is a list of my resolutions, not for me, but for those among us who never learned about showing consideration for others.

As a teacher, I have a front row seat to bad manners.  Students regularly yawn uttering a large roar, never covering their mouths.  I’ve lost track of how often a student walks in the middle of two people having a conversation without saying, “Excuse me.”

When teens talk to one another in person, they should remove all ear buds; otherwise, it looks like the person is not giving his full attention to the speaker.

I wish people would resurrect the saying “you’re welcome” instead of “no problem” when someone says “thank you.”  “No problem” gives the wrong impression that whatever act was performed was a difficulty—not a pleasure.

Sometimes I feel I must be the last man on earth who feels that swearing in public is not okay especially when children are present.

I still recall a family vacation a decade ago when my wife and two young boys were strolling the streets of Golden, Colorado past a group of men sitting at an outside table, their discussion peppered with vulgarities.  As we passed, one of them said, “Pardon us.”  The reason this has remained in my memory is because it is the only time I have ever heard such an apology coming from another human being.

After unloading groceries, return the shopping cart to the proper corral; the parking lots have several.  Think about the next driver who won’t be able to park in the space without hitting the cart left behind. Is it that much effort to walk it back?

Try not going to See’s Candies for a free sample without any intention of buying anything.  Too many selfish people take advantage of a kind gesture.

During the holidays, I saw an elderly man get free candy for himself, his wife, and granddaughter.  Then when his granddaughter said she did not like chocolate, he went ahead and asked the employee for another choice of candy.  Loyal customers end up footing the bill for these freeloaders.  Plus, what lesson is the grandfather teaching?

At the gym, wipe down the machines after using them.  Most members don’t even wipe them before using them.  I’m stunned watching people put their bare hands on equipment not knowing whose hands were previously there and what bacteria was on those hands.

Enough with people taking their dogs everywhere they go.  Latest crazy sighting?  At a Starbucks.  No, not at an outside patio, but inside . . . with the cocker spaniel sitting on a stool.

People in recent years have been sensitive about nut allergies which affect about 7% of the population, yet allergies to dogs and cats are nearly doubled that at 15%.  So why aren’t more merchants and customers complaining about the dogs?

I wish bicyclists would at least slow down at stop signs. Why someone riding a bike feels emboldened to run through stop signs at the risk of being hit by a 2-ton motor vehicle is beyond me.  Too often people count on the consideration of other people without exhibiting that behavior themselves.

People think nothing of using their hands to text or talk using a cell phone while driving, yet for some reason using their turn signal requires too much effort for their fellow drivers.  With everything automatic in cars these days, surely car companies can program signals to automatically go on as soon as the driver turns the steering wheel a specified number of degrees.

Funny how drivers blow through stop signs and red lights, but delay going on green lights due to using their cell phones.

For 2019, let us keep in mind that we live in communities.  Showing consideration for others makes us all safer . . . and nicer.