Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Philip Pullman as teacher

A number of the pieces in Pullman's collection Daemon Voices touch on education in various ways. In fact, most of the arguments he makes in his essays come back to his deep love for language, and thus concern for the teaching of language. A teacher himself for many years, he wrote plays for the students to put on, which were later adapted into his first books for children. His feelings about national testing and slavish curricula will be familiar to anyone with common sense. Who, even if they bow to the necessity of testing, can help but at least see the appeal of the old days, when people were allowed to teach without it? Who can help but recognize that we need to recover something of that freedom and spontaneity? 

His autobiographical sketch, I have a feeling this all belongs to me, recounts considerably more about his actual memories of teaching. He speaks there of teaching mythology; there and elsewhere, of teaching writing as a fellow-worker (Isis lecture). In other places, he expounds upon ways in which he comes to see the teaching system as one symptom of a larger problem (Miss Goddard's Grave, and perhaps even in his fiction). 

In this short autobiography I haven't got the space to write about the thousand things that interest, delight, amaze, sadden, baffle, infuriate, or anger me. If I had the space I'd say something about the wholesale and vicious destruction of the public services in this country that's taken place over the past few years: especially that of education. If I were still a teacher and tried to do now the work I did for twelve years or so-and did well, I think-not only would I be discouraged, I would be forbidden. We now have a National Curriculum that lays down exactly what all children should be taught, and when they should be taught it, and insists on regular pencil-and-paper tests which seem to be checking on the pupils, but whose real purpose is to check on the teachers. When I was teaching, I was free to decide what I should do and how I should do it, and one of the things I decided was that the pupils in my classes should learn about Greek mythology. So I began to tell them stories about the gods and heroes. I had to find good versions to work from, because I wanted to get the stories right; I didn't want to simply read to my pupils, I wanted to stand up and tell them the stories face-to-face. So I used Robert Graves's two-volume version of the Greek myths, which was the fullest I could find; and the Iliad and the Odyssey in the Penguin prose translation. I worked out a course that lasted a year. In the first term I'd deal with the births and origins of the gods and goddesses, and their natures and deeds, to use Graves's phrase, and tell some of the stories about Theseus, Jason, Oedipus, Perseus, Heracles, and the other heroes; in the second term I'd start with the origins of the Trojan War and then do Homer's Iliad from start to finish; and in the third term I'd tell the Odyssey. It was important to tell, not read, so I had to prepare the stories thoroughly. I taught three separate classes of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, so I'd tell each story three times in a week; and I taught for twelve years, so I must have told each story thirty-six times. The result is that now I have all those stories entirely clear in my head, from beginning to end, and I can call them up whenever I want to.(I did this once on holiday. We ate our evening meal in a restaurant, and my younger son, Tom, was finding it hard to sit still while we waited for the waitress to bring us the food, so I told him the Odyssey as a serial to keep him quiet. On the last night, when I got to that wonderful climax where Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, finally reaches his palace after twenty years away, to find it infested with rivals all seeking to marry his wife Penelope; and is recognised by his old nurse because of the scar on his leg; and gets Penelope to offer to marry any of the rivals who can string the bow of her husband, but no one can; and then Odysseus himself asks to try, and they all jeer at the ragged old beggar, but he picks up the bow and flexes it and with one easy movement slips the string into the notch and then plucks it like a harp, sending a clear note into the shocked silence of the hall. . . . Well, when I got to that, Tom, who'd been holding a drink in both hands, suddenly bit a large piece out of the glass in his excitement, shocking the waitress so much that she dropped the tray with our meal on it, and causing a sensation throughout the restaurant. And I sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Homer.) Now as with my brother in Australia, the real beneficiary of all that storytelling wasn't so much the audience as the storyteller. I'd chosen-for what I thought, and think still, were good educational reasons-to do something that, by a lucky chance, was the best possible training for me as a writer. To tell great stories over and over and over again, testing and refining the language and observing the reactions of the listeners and gradually improving the timing and the rhythm and the pace, was to undergo an apprenticeship that probably wasn't very different, essentially, from the one Homer himself underwent three thousand years ago. And the more I think about it the more grateful I am for the freedom that allowed me to think about what would be best for my pupils and to design a course that provided it. I wouldn't be allowed to do it now. And meanwhile, of course, I was writing my three pages every day. ...

But for whatever reason, the autobiographical sketch and Isis lecture were not included in the essay collection. I hope that an anthology or even a fresh monograph dedicated to education will come to light at some point. I made a copy of the version of the former piece, which used to be available on Pullman's website along with the Isis lecture; possibly it's archived somewhere more official; and it can still be found in Vol 71 of Something About the Author, which he wrote it for in the first place.

I would love to hear from people who had him as a teacher, whether at school or university, for more anecdotes. At a wonderful recent interview at the London Literature Festival, the question came up, organically it seemed, of what kind of teacher he was, but I wonder if a more painstaking investigation and research into the material wouldn't be worthwhile. 

In that same interview, reaffirming what he's said before and in writing, he called for books of folklore, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes to be bound in gold and given to parents. 

Some of the people I've talked to have taught his books. What about his teaching? 

(this is another element of Tolkien-Pullman connection. Is there a study out there yet about Tolkien as teacher?)

And supposing we could get recordings of him telling stories--would it be anything like as effective as having the classroom teacher telling the stories aloud? Recall, he didn't read, he told them. The analogy is to physical books and conversations and screen-texts and online discussions. In gaining something with our access to the latter, we're giving something up--but we need not make this an either/or. We can focus on learning how to use online resources, not being captured by them; and can retain in-person interaction, for teachers and students have to have somewhere to be, transforming lost time into learning. Not every teacher a storyteller, but those who aren't can show their kids what storytelling looks like through such videos. Not every kid needing that, but those who don't wouldn't be forced, they'd have other options, like writing stories or making videos of their own...

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Letting Go of the Old School: On Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

In preparing to launch into my own study of Xenogears, I've been reading around in this awesome Xenogears Study Guide and came across a section about works which were influential in the history of the game's development:

Takahashi was a pretty small kid, so he was better at study than sports. Chemistry and physics were his favorites, "but I was awful at math" he recalls in an interview on Sony's Website in 2002. For art he would sometimes get good grades, sometimes bad, depending on teacher. "I used to read a lot of manga and those science fiction novels with the blue spines from Hayakawa Publishing" he says, referring to the publishers of Japanese translations of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, which have clearly influenced Takahashi.

In fact, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke was directly referenced in Xenogears in the naming of the character "Karellen" (localized as "Krelian" for U.S. audience) who, according to Soraya Saga on Yggdrasil's Periscope Club BBS back in 1999, was the name of Takahashi's favorite character in Childhood's End. The title of "Guardian Angel," given to the character Citan Uzuki, was another reference. Clarke's idea for Childhood's End began with his short story "Guardian Angel" (1946). 2001: A Space Odyssey is referenced with the "SOL-9000" computer that houses the Ministry, and also in Xenogears: Perfect Works with the discovery of Zohar - a monolithic artifact - on Earth in 2001. This event, with some rewrites, was later used as the opening cinematic in Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht...

(So I guess I'll need to brush up on my Nietzsche and Kubrick soon, too). Naturally, I made a visit to the library at once and got a copy of Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke. Somehow, I'd made it this far never having read anything of the SF master, and while I am in awe of Karellen/ Krelian, I don't know that I would have found the book as interesting if I weren't already fascinated by the game. This could just be me, but it poses an interesting problem for this whole project of mine, in which I'm attempting to bridge the worlds of reading books and playing video games in the hopes that learning itself will continue to flourish by the exchange.

Related image

I can well understand the appeal of Karellen for the young man who, in partnership with his wife, would create Xenogears, writing the alien into the game as Krelian. Clarke's Karellen is brilliantly mysterious and intriguing as the spokesman for the Overlords, the benign, seemingly all-powerful race which makes contact with Earth in Clarke's novel. The most interesting thing about him, though, is his secretiveness, hinting at some purpose which, until it is revealed, keeps us turning the pages. Once it is out, though, even more than once we've finally seen Karellen's physical form, he really diminishes in impressiveness. Perhaps, as we learn more about the Overlords' true place in the cosmos, Karellen also gains in pathos, but I would have needed a little more, I think, some hint that he feels the insufficiency of, and wants to do something about, this purpose, to really have Karellen keep my sympathy.

As we're told, though, the Overlords are inscrutable to our sensibilities as we, with our uncanny potential, are to them.

So ultimately what left me unimpressed with the book was the absence of a party corresponding to Fei and his compatriots in Xenogears. There isn't much of an arc for any of the other characters besides Karellen; they all seem like ciphers more than fully realized personalities. There are flashes of something great here, but it never feels like a great novel: the whole paranormal thing is grandiose, if a little stilted; the recapitulation of Jonah is clever, but what message does it convey, really? The rewriting of the past through the future, in the underlying myth of the Garden of Eden, is too pat, delivered as a punchline rather than developed as it would deserve, thematically, through, say, a more engaging Jeff, admirably sketched but too late and too underdeveloped as a young protagonist, or Jean, his mother, who gets so little breathing room as a character beside her cad of a husband.

I guess my question, then, is what it tells us about the creators of Xenogears, that they were so into this book? Of course, they're hardly unique in that, and their borrowings from all sorts of places are well-documented, but still, it might provide a helpful lens into the problems with characterization which the game, too, suffers from at times.

To pivot to the overarching project here again, though: it really seems to me that Clarke is onto something, metaphorically if not literally, with his Chestertonian/Lindsayan interest in the paranormal playing such a critical part in his story. That is, we might be profoundly limiting ourselves in unthinking acceptance of our traditional notions of human potential, and how best it might be nurtured. I deeply disagree with the loss of individual personality and emotional relationship Clarke imagines as prerequisite for some incomprehensible telepathic advance, but from his foreword to the 2000 reprint he seems to disavow some of that, too, later on. Nevertheless, if a school is conceived solely as an incubator for social-emotional comfort, a place where the state provides not only meals and shelter but psychological care as well--and all signs are that this is where we're heading, rapidly--then the utopian experiment Clarke trots out in his island Athens (and Sparta) seems like a good corrective, or at least worth a try. The way I see this actually playing out, however, is more as an add-on rather than an alternative to the social school status quo. That within the parameters of the home-surrogate environment our benign caretakers seem to be establishing in law and practice, there is actually an opportunity to find all sorts of unsuspected breakthroughs, if kids on their phones or devices are allowed to play and learn largely at their own pace. They need not go to some elite artistic colony; they will be there already, if it exists, and if they want to. It will just be a matter of making sure that there is material out there worth their while, and likely to challenge them to reach the full and free deployment of their talents. Something like that, anyway, it is the aim of the new school/Night School to provide.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Bookwarm Games: Xenogears

Delve into Xenogears in the follow-up to the EarthBound series (episodes 1-33) of Bookwarm Games discussions. This page will be updated weekly as new episodes are released, alternating with its sister project, Gamecool Books: The Subtle Knife.

For the list of chapter titles and links to the script, thanks to StarcraftSquall at the Xenogears: God and Mind Script page.

For many of the reading recommendations, and for more on historical contexts and sources, recognition goes out to the remarkable Xenogears and Xenosaga Study Guide pages, by A.C.

Errors (egregious as Dan's forehead, I don't doubt) are entirely my own!

Project overview
Chapter 00:  The Prologue
Recommended supplementary reading: Gen 1-3, Rev 1 (KJV)

Chapter 01:  Lahan Village
Chapter 02:  Mountain Path

Ep 36
Chapter 04:  Into The Woods
Chapter 05:  Girl In Forest
Chapter 06:  Dazil

Ep 37
Conversation with A.C. of the Xenogears Study Guide

Chapter 07:  Desert Attack!
Chapter 08:  Stalactite Cave
Chapter 09:  Pirate's Lair

Chapter 10:  Operation Aveh
Chapter 11:  The Tournament
Chapter 12:  Margie's Rescue

Chapter 13:  Road To Nisan
Chapter 14:  City Of Peace
Chapter 15:  Recapture Aveh
Chapter 16:  Desert Despair


Ep 8
Chapter 17:  Kislev Capital
Chapter 18:  Brave Battlers
Chapter 19:  Sewer Horror
Chapter 20:  Battling Champ

Ep 9
Chapter 21:  Gear Dock Raid
Chapter 22:  Night Purge

Ep 10
Chapter 23:  Secret Weapon
Chapter 24:  Escape Ignas

Ep 11
Chapter 25:  Adrift At Sea
Chapter 26:  Men Of The Sea

Ep 12
Chapter 27:  Friends Again
Chapter 28:  Betrayal
Chapter 29:  Ramsus' Attack

Ep 13
Chapter 30:  A Young Priest
Chapter 31:  The Orphanage
Chapter 32:  Reaper's Ship
Chapter 33:  Burning Souls

Ep 14
Chapter 34:  Ocean Floor
Chapter 35:  Deep Sea Girl

Ep 15
Chapter 36:  Babel Tower
Chapter 37:  Sky City Shevat
Chapter 38:  Intruder Alert!
Chapter 39:  Raid Of Shevat!

Ep 16
Chapter 40:  Protect Nisan!
Chapter 41:  Gate 1 -Margie
Chapter 42:  Gate 2 -Babel
Chapter 43:  Gate 3 -The Deep

Ep 17
Chapter 44:  Into Solaris
Chapter 45:  Escape Solaris
Chapter 46:  Lone Wolf

Ep 18
Chapter 47:  Krelian's Lab
Chapter 48:  Tears For Fears

Ep 19
Disc 2 overview
Chapter 49:  Shot Down!
Chapter 50:  Break The Seal

Ep 20
Chapter 51:  Soul Vessel
Chapter 52:  The Stars Know

Ep 21
Chapter 53:  Above Mahanon
Chapter 54:  Paradise
Chapter 55:  Promised Land

Ep 22
Chapter 56:  Merkava Calls
Chapter 57:  Dreams…

Ep 23
Chapter 58:  Fallen Star
Chapter 59:  First And Last

Ep 24
Chapter 60:  Epilogue and conclusion q and a

See the rough transcript of each episode here.

Gamecool Books: The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

The continuation of His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman, and with it, the Gamecool Books project of serious play, commentary, and interpretation. This page will be updated weekly as new episodes are released, alternating with Bookwarm Games: Xenogears.

Ch 1 The Cat and the Hornbeam Trees

Ep 35
Ch 2 Among the Witches

Ep 36
Conversation with Tony Watkins?

Ch 3 A Children’s World

Ch 4 Trepanning

Conversation with Gabriel Schenk?

Ch 5 Airmail Paper

Ch 6 Lighted Fliers


Ch 7 The Rolls-Royce

Ch 8 The Tower of Angels


Ch 9 Theft

Ch 10 The Shaman


Ch 11 The Belvedere

Ch 12 Screen Language

Ch 13 Aesahaettr

Ch 14 Alamo Gulch

Ch 15 Bloodmoss

Interlude: review of The Secret Commonwealth?

See the draft transcript here.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Approaches to Librarianlessness

A couple of ways of handling these layoffs: 

Well first, the word is going around that Cheney anyhow is hiring. So maybe people just drive a little further, depending on where they live. 

The opinion of the Spokesman columnist is that an unconstitutional levy is bound to be floated as a solution, whereas that was precisely the problem the court ruling was supposed to have solved. 

Further ironies: in one building, where the teaching staff is relatively senior, no one is being let go, but a few will probably have to take their work across the way to a school that's losing 15 teachers--because they're all new, because of the rapid turnover there. And who knows, perhaps they'll bring some stability, but perhaps they'll just be resented and in turn resent having to adjust to a very different school culture there, much better than it used to be, but still a rough place. 

For instance, subbing there the other day, there was the kid who really thought he should try to mock me over the layoffs. I asked him if could do his book work on the computer he had open in front of him instead of a book. He insisted that what he was doing was much more important than reading the history book--and fair enough, it was going to get him a job, he said proudly, that paid $18-20/hr, and how was that history teaching job going for me with all the layoffs? I responded that I wasn't a history teacher, but a sub, and so the layoffs did not pertain to me, but that it was a good burn all the same, and I'd leave a note for his teacher to that effect so he could follow up and let him know his answer.

Meanwhile, a day or two earlier, over at the high school which hadn't had a single teacher laid off, I'd sat through another class in the room where I was subbing during a prep period. The teacher of that class spent the first half of the period discussing the layoffs with such an air of well-intentionedness and leveling with her class, asking them to be extra kind to their teachers who might be getting the news that they'd have to be picking up slack around the district next year. To the point that kids kept circling back to--why the pay structure was such that, given the enormous budget, positions were being let go, and new buildings constructed--she told a story about her colleagues who'd used thousands of dollars on a pointless training--they were retiring the next year, but traveled down to Texas anyhow because if they didn't use the money, it would be folded back into the administrative operating budget and would not be there for the school to use the next year anyway. Or, to the plan that certain classes, like the one she taught, be combined to save funds, she replied airily, saying that they [the district admin] don't know what we do here. Then, when fully half the class period was gone, with kids just as ignorant about the cuts as before, only now thinking they understood and so could discourse knowledgeably about them, and virtuously support their teachers in this trying time--she turned to the lesson, which consisted in  doodling on their folders for decoration. 

I would report this sort of thing if anyone asked. But I suspect that the admin already have a pretty accurate idea what goes on in that class.

For the most part, I include myself in all this, a superfluous observer of the trainwreck. But what about this: planting trees for the lost librarians. As a memorial slightly more permanent than doodled-on folders or stray reflections.