Sunday, July 24, 2005

My genealogy of instruction

My resume says very little about the most powerful influences in my thoughts about teaching and learning. I have loved graduate school, my program in philosophy and education has been enlightening and broadening, and I have loved my association with excellent colleagues and professors. I feel blessed to have studied with some of the most thoughtful, dedicated and renowned contemporary educational scholars. (I say this both to brag and to make the case for what I have learned through formal education strong.) But graduate school pales in comparison to the influence of my family upbringing, and my Dad in particular in how I think about teaching and learning.

My father, Robert Blair, is a linguist. He has spent his career learning languages and teaching languages. His approach was always results oriented. The results he sought were usually more broad than most: does the method give a student a meaningful "in" to the language community? Does it help a student become a robust language learner (i.e. not strictly dependent on the teacher) ? Is it based on a workable understanding of how humans learn? Our home was always somewhat of a laboratory, and all my brothers and sisters (8 in all) were taught at least some basics in several different languages and cultures.

We are probably not the most desirable students in most language classes. Our Dad raised us with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to language teaching. I remember being in a class with my brother, (I think it was my oldest brother, Dell). The teacher was basically reciting phrases and motioning the class to repeat. Most of the class seemed to be excited, as if to say, "Can you believe this? We're really learning Russian!". My brother and I looked at each other as if to say, "kak skazat: Are you kidding me?"

On the other hand, if a language teacher is doing something that appreciates that people are more capable than say, parrots, I can be a devoted if not enthusiastic student. Our upbringing (in the realm of language learning) was both skeptical about "traditional" language teaching, and optimistic--even perhaps overly excited about the possibility of transcending such efforts. One mantra infused in us (seemingly from birth) is that people were built to learn languages. Given good methods, success is all but inevitable.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Steve Urquhart for Senate!

I'm no political junkie, but I'm excited that Steve Urquhart is running for Senate against Orrin Hatch. I think Steve will win. I say this because he is a careful, thorough, straightforward politician, and because he has consistently performed well in the Stanley Cup. More on the latter at a future date.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Small Time Bluegrass

I just finished watching Geoff Groberg's documentary, Small Time Bluegrass. It is a great documentary, if you can get your hands on a copy, you won't be disappointed. It made me laugh with delight to know that Geoff produced this.

Geoff is my closest cousin, we even made a movie or two together back in the day. Geoff is as close as I can come to a living example of how I want my kids to approach life: He makes stuff. He made this movie. He made most of the music for the movie. He has made a few CDs--for which he made some of the instruments. And he has made some great websites. Here's another website.

In one of my ideal schools, I would have kids just gather around Geoff and participate in making relics--movies, CDs, websites, CD-Roms, books, etc.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Oon ah svers

It took some intense persuading by my friends to convince me that the song "We are spirits in a material world" by The Police did not actually say: "Oon ah svers, oon a mazerio..." (I think I sang 'Oon ah svers' for probably 7 years?) This morning I was listening to that great song by Macy Grey: "Try to walk away and I stumble, though I try to hide it, it's clear..." I was singing along, and I couldn't figure out what it said next, until finally it dawned on me: "...though I try to hide it, it's clear, I wore covers when you are not near!" It didn't make much sense at the time (and the tenses didn't match), but it made at least as much sense as "Oon ah svers..." So I stuck with that for a while.

I asked Gabby what it said, and she told me it said "My world crumbles when you are not near." Now THAT makes sense! Wow! what awesome lyrics! Macy Grey didn't give up during the chorus and throw in some obscure bed reference!

Gabby must find me both puzzling and embarassing. I imagine she greatly underestimated the number of lyrical corrections she would need to make for her husband. I shudder when I imagine what people would think of me if I didn't have her as a filter? Wisely, I try not to sing along with songs in front of others, unless I have first conferred on lyrics with Gabby. She is great at interpretive listening. I know I ought to just assume that songs make sense, that rarely does a song throw in a random phrase like "I wore covers..." or "oon ah svers" (unless it is introducing a new term for pop culture e.g. 'jiggy'). But I don't. I assume it's a mystery--covered, hidden, protected, eternally awaiting further revelation.

My analysis: I guess I assume first that every song is in a foreign language. When I start to hear English and a puzzling phrase comes up, I assume it is an inside joke the songwriter has with his or her long lost lover, or his or herself. There are some advantages to this approach. For example, I am blown away by lyrics that make sense the whole way through a song. Also, I can enjoy good music even in the midst of awful lyrics. I am in general a very generous judge of lyrics: "Well, it doesn't make much sense to me, but I don't assume it should. For all I know, it is the makings of a fantastic song."