Partially Raised by Mark Twain: Thoughts the Night Before Intersession

My grandfather was a powerful man.

He wasn’t strong in a brash, bruising or bullish way, but he was the kind of guy that people listened to. He was sharp, empathetic and encouraging. He was interested, baritone-voiced and familiar. He was learned, read and he loved loved Mark Twain. Rarely a family get-together would go on without Twain quotes booming from his deep Kentucky voice box.

“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.”

“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals — apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.”

I think he loved Twain’s cavalier demeanor. My grandfather had strong opinions and quick wit, but his kindness always kept him from being crass. Sort of like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain gave him a chance to adventure out of his properness. This tension between gentility and adventure was the paintbrush and palette of my childhood. A paraphrase of Twain’s thoughts echoes through our family’s history.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Though I grew up in a family full of teachers, many of the most significant learning experiences of my life happened outside-of or even in-spite-of the traditional school setting I was enrolled in. I found immense joy in playing outside. Growing up on a small farm afforded me the luxury of space and simplicity. Throughout the open range of my “backyard” I built forts and skate ramps. I caught fish and learned to drive a tractor.

Since I began teaching at High Tech High I have cherished our tension. In many ways, the wildness of our school reminds me of home. The qualities that made my grandfather great are abundant in the work and people I see around me. I see kindness and thoughtfulness, wit and clarity. I also see the edge and wildness that he loved about Twain.

Tomorrow morning High Tech High begins our annual intersession. Throughout the school students will participate in two-week intensive courses ranging from cycling, building furniture, painting, sculpting and baking, to yoga, film critiquing, cooking and learning to swim. Teachers have designed courses based on their personal passions and fields where they might be pursuing their own learning.

For the second year in a row, my students will be exploring buoyancy before designing and building rafts that will be used to float down the lower section of the Colorado River. Floatopia! 2016 was a thrill. Much like Twain’s characters floating down the Mississippi River, our students were given a chance to be adventurers; to learn on the fly…or float. I am excited to further develop our rafting adventure with a new group of students this year. Floatopia! 2.0 is an homage to Twain’s famous comment about education being stifled by schooling and its also a celebration of the awesomeness that exists in “figuring something out.”

I feel blessed to have had people like my grandfather to guide me as I grew up. His character is still a model I hopefully strive toward. I also feel grateful to have had an upbringing that allowed and encouraged me to do wild and creative things. The little piece of me that was raised by Mark Twain is stoked about this project.

Track our progress!

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The Good Neighbors: Humanity at the Core

In 1936 the San Francisco News commissioned John Steinbeck to write a series of short essays recording the working and living conditions of the migrant labor force that had moved into California in the wake of the dust bowl. Through The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck guided urban and political California on a painful and irrefutable tour of squatter camps, labor disputes and the beauty of people helping each other. As is always his strength, Steinbeck delivered humanity. He went into the environment, met people and wrote with incredible truth and empathy.

From Article 1

They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain.

And then they have made the crossing and have seen often the death of their children on the way. Their cars have been broken down and been repaired with the ingenuity of the land man.

Often they patched the worn-out tires every few miles. They have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong.

They are descendants of men who crossed into the middle west, who won their lands by fighting, who cultivated the prairies and stayed with them until they went back to desert.

And because of their tradition and their training, they are not migrants by nature. They are gypsies by force of circumstances.

In their heads, as they move wearily from harvest to harvest, there is one urge and one overwhelming need, to acquire a little land again, and to settle on it and stop their wandering. One has only to go into the squatters’ camps where the families live on the ground and have no homes, no beds and no equipment; and one has only to look at the strong purposeful faces, often filled with pain and more often, when they see the corporation-held idle lands, filled with anger, to know that this new race is here to stay and that heed must be taken of it.

It should be understood that with this new race the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating and intimidation are not going to work; these are American people. Consequently we must meet them with understanding and attempt to work out the problem to their benefit as well as ours.

I grew up in a world only partially removed from Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley. The Imperial County is the poorest in the state of California. With a per capita income of $16,409, an unemployment rate of 22% and a dependence on migrant labor, the similarities are real. Even though I have been gone for over 15 years, my move to the big shiny city (San Diego), catches me feeling the tug of my hometown. I care about my people more now than I ever have before. Even sitting with my family at the dinner table tonight was pressing. My wife and I led our five and six year olds into a conversation about their great-grandparents coming to this country from far away places like India, Mexico and Poland. We crafted (on-the-fly) questions and stories about our parents growing up in Holtville, CA and Toledo, OH. Fields and factories. We both want them to care about where they come from and, in turn, care about where other people come from.

This is the heart of The Harvest Gypsies undertaking. I teach the humanities and through my 12 years in the classroom I have repeatedly encountered a defining truth for our set of disciplines: We really do need each other. We need to know the stories that produce our culture. We need to understand the paths we are on and how far along them we are. We need to realize our role as part of the whole.

Steinbeck nails this midway through his series of stories as he talks about a grassroots organization of migrant laborers in a work camp. They were called The Good Neighbors Committee. They were heroes.

Article 4

These Good Neighbors are not trained social workers, but they have what is perhaps more important, an understanding which grows from a likeness of experience. Nothing has happened to the newcomer that has not happened to the committee.

A typical manager’s report is as follows: “New arrivals. Low in foodstuffs. Most of the personal belongings were tied up in sacks and were in a filthy condition. The Good Neighbors at once took the family in hand, and by 10 o’clock they were fed, washed, camped, settled and asleep.”

Like Steinbeck, artists and professionals throughout history have found their skills flourished most when applied to a human dilemma. No matter the era, we have always needed writers, thinkers, inventors, politicians, business owners and educators to meet their market with an ear first and an offer second. Our system is as broken as ever. What may be worse is that our solutions are decreasingly passionate, personal and human-centered.

We need to join The Good Neighbors Committee and we need to spread word about other Good Neighbors when we meet them.

If you are a teacher like me or an “anything else” join me in listening longer, facilitating more intentional sharing of our heritages and histories and designing work that makes life better for everyone. With attention and intention we can change things. Many movements are happening. Worldwide, industries and their think-tanks have developed methods for reaching and affecting the human element. Initiatives like IDEO‘s Human-Centered Design are attempting to match technology, innovation and social need. Let’s all be a part of the solution.


Some Links:

 

 

Drowning the Puppies

“She slang her pups last night,” said Slim. “Nine of ‘em. I drowned four of ‘em right off. She couldn’t feed that many.” -Of Mice and Men 

Every year its one of the most difficult and exciting days in my classroom. My students have been reading and wresting with John Steinbeck for weeks and have finally arrived at the dark and foreshadowing moment that turns our ongoing conversation into an argument.

Slim drowned the puppies.

Utility is a new and rich theme for high school freshman to consider. In my class we often use Socratic Seminars as a means of organizing our conversations. My protocol looks like this:

  • Students are given a specific selection of reading to cover and annotate (1-3 days)
  • Students are asked to prepare a “launchpad”, a question or comment meant to accelerate or redirect the conversation
  • Students are paired with a partner that is going to observe their participation during the seminar
  • We create a large table in the center of the classroom
  • One partner sits at the table and the other sits in an outer circle
  • The conversation begins with a volunteer sharing their launchpad
  • Once the conversation has slowed we switch partners and repeat

Our seminar for this section of Of Mice and Men was deep. Students politely argued the value of animals as companions and as free/living creatures and we discussed at length the rights of a person to take the life of another creature because of perceived value. The conversations eventually led to humanity.

Steinbeck uses the dirty, sickly and seemingly useless dogs as a tool to show us how insignificant we can sometimes make other people. This scene from the film adaptation of the novella shows the same struggle with Candy’s dog:

 

The utter frailty and simplicity of his characters’ lives are what make Steinbeck my favorite. They all come from a mess, are living a mess or are headed for a mess. They aren’t villains or heroes. They are real, and sometimes real people might not have utility; might not have a whole lot of “worth” beyond their human rights, but we can’t simply say they have no value.

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