Monday, September 23, 2013

Of Murals and Libraries

As a teacher of (mostly) college freshmen, I constantly find myself fighting against, and trying to reform bad ideas about education that my students picked up in high school.  One of the worst things we in America teach our students is that learning can be standardized, and that success is the ability to pass a test.  This is bullshit.

What I try to instill in my students is the joy, exhilaration, and tremendous importance of learning--how it can empower us, how it can cause us to see ourselves and our world differently, how learning is not a pointless, abstract exercise, but a vital part of being a fully realized human being in the world.  There is so much ignorance, intolerance, and cruelty in the world, and education is one of our best weapons against these things.

So how could I dare let my classes be boring, given all that's at stake here?  My rule is that if I'm not personally "pumped" about a lesson plan or activity, I don't do it.  If I don't really give a shit, if I'm just going through the motions, how can I expect my students to do any differently?  What's at stake here ultimately has nothing to do with grades, and everything to do with how the next generation understands and shapes their world.  If we, as teachers, are doing anything less than inspiring our students to learn, then we are little more than a finishing school.

Given this great privilege and responsibility, I am constantly thinking of creative ways to take my students out of the classroom, to see the world around them with new eyes…eyes of curiosity.  Today, I took them to see a giant mural in University Hall at Cal State Fullerton.  The mural was painted by the celebrated, local Chicano artist Emigdio Vasquez.  It depicts several important civil rights figures, many of whom are local, and many of whom we don't learn about in school.  People like Corky Gonzalez, Dennis Banks, Dolores Huerta, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez.

My students are writing about local issues, so looking at a mural, and training ourselves to pay closer attention to things like murals, helps us to see our communities in richer and more informed ways.  I assigned each student a civil rights figure from the mural, then took them to the library.  Their task was to find an actual, physical book which talked about their civil rights hero.   Another battle I constantly find myself fighting is the battle to get my students to read books.  There is a popular myth that the best way to do research is just to Google things.  There is nothing wrong with Google, but most of the important things I learn still come from books.  With Google, you have to sift through so many advertisements and endless bullshit.  A library, especially a college library, is an advertisement-free zone.  Just rows and rows of knowledge, waiting to be read.

To emphasize the point that not all information is on the internet, I showed my students the Center for Oral and Public History, on the third floor of the library, which contains literally thousands of interviews with local residents, compiled over 45 years.  It is the best resource of researching local history I'm aware of.  Most of the interviews in the Center do not exist on the internet.  You have to read them in their typed, bound, physical form.  Our final essays will be about local history.

"This," I told my students, indicating the thousands of carefully bound volumes of physical books, "Is the goldmine of local history."

Some students may not like my method of teaching, and that is fine.  Whether or not they like me or don't like me, my goal is to not give students the option of saying, "He didn't care" or "He didn't try."  my goal is to care, and to try, and to never give up.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for showing us how to use the library!