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How Do You Start This Thing?

November 14, 2010

It’s a fair question.

Let me begin my explaining the title.  I have no pretense that the writing life is truly dangerous–although many authors have spent thousands of words trying to persuade their readers of that very thing.  Sure, there is danger in becoming so focused on your writing that you  a) ignore your family to the extent that your wife leaves you and it took several years for you  to notice or b) your family believes you have developed schizophrenia because you walk around speaking dialogue in vastly different emotional states and, occasionally, bizarre accents.  So, yes there is some danger there, I suppose, but I still wouldn’t call writing a dangerous profession.  Not in the United States.  So the title is partly ironic.

Nor am I attempting to perpetuate the media stereotype that schools are fundamentally dangerous places.  Yes, we do hear about events like Columbine from time to time, but statistically, schools are some of the safest places to be in any community.  You are far more likely to be assaulted by a family member in your own home than be harmed by someone in a school (think about that at Thanksgiving).  The real danger in education is not the occasional incident of violence perpetuated by students.  It is the direction that the institution is currently being steered by anxious communities, foolhardy politicians, and ineffectual leaders.  Imagine running to the bridge of a ship during a hurricane only to discover a large committee of people not forming a plan to cope with the storm, but are instead angrily shouting over each other about the nature of weather.  This is what it feels like to be a public school teacher in  this day and age.  So in this sense, the title is accurate.

The title is also a private joke, part of the Brodie family lore, which I will now share with you.  When I was about four years old, I used to visit two of my adult neighbors:  Mr. Underwood, a kind carpenter whom I’d hang out with and who encouraged me to pursue carpentry as a vocation (given this is a blog about teaching and writing, I need not explain how that turned out) and Mrs. Hunter, a close family friend who always had fresh-baked goods to sample.  After my tour, I’d head back to my house down the block, but this day I was heading somewhere that involved me crossing the street.  As I was leaving Mrs. Hunter’s ginger-scented kitchen, she kindly reminded me to “Be careful crossing the street–it’s dangerous!”

And to this I replied: “Danger is my business!”

A uncharacteristic show of bravado, given at the time I was a nervous, hydrophobic kid terrified of his own shadow.  It was for this reason that this phrase has become something of a quiet mantra that will play in my head whenever I try to muster the courage needed to face any new challenge.  It hasn’t always worked, but I have never forgotten it.  It’s always been a part of me. 

Thus, my blog will contain observations about the writing life,  along with sharing some triumphs, and lamenting any failures.  It will also be a discussion on the teacher’s life, what I love about it, what infuriates me about it, and the occasional rant about what’s being done to it.  In between, I’ll have anecdotes and stories that are serious, thoughtful, and funny– because this is still about life.

So thank you for coming along with me. I will do my best to make it worth your while.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Chloe Duhaime permalink
    November 16, 2010 1:53 am

    I love your analogy of public school as a ship during a hurricane! I literally giggled over the committee’s lack of strategy. Also, I saw your “tweet” about BBC’s Sherlock: I enjoyed Robert Downey Jr’s take but you are right, Benedict Cumberbatch’s blew it out of the water.

    • Melissa permalink
      November 16, 2010 2:14 pm

      -gasp- I loved RDJr’s Holmes. Though my mom said she started watching Sherlock, and loves it. So maybe I’ll give it a try. 🙂

      • November 16, 2010 4:06 pm

        Yes, I think I saw them too close to each other. Maybe I’ll give RDJr another try in a few months. But don’t miss PBS’ “Sherlock!”

    • November 16, 2010 4:09 pm

      Thanks Chloe. I’m glad you like the blog–and that you’re an unoffocial member of the BCFC!

  2. November 16, 2010 3:06 am

    I like the origins of your “Danger is My Business” title. 🙂

  3. Mike Barnett permalink
    November 19, 2010 3:20 am

    I like it already! definitely going to follow your blog!

  4. Valerie Brodie permalink
    November 19, 2010 11:48 pm

    I think you’re brilliant and kind of cute too. Wink-wink.

  5. November 20, 2010 12:23 am

    Just kind of cute? Nudge-nudge.

  6. November 20, 2010 12:40 am

    The following can be found on my blog through the link on my website,, but we are barking up the same tree, I suspect :o)

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Horatius at the Bridge, Canaries in the Coal Mines, and the Assault on American Education

    Among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the US High School graduation rate is near the bottom. Assessment of academic proficiency American secondary student’s performance varies from mediocre to poor. If you read the newspapers or watch television, you may be getting the impression that American education is sliding into the toilet and that bad teachers are the primary reason for slippage.

    News flash #1. Bad teachers are not a 21st century invention. We likely had as many bad teachers way back when the US was still number one in education. Teachers, like everything else, are distributed on the bell curve. Some are inspirational, some are competent, some are adequate, and some are just using up oxygen. Before we hold bad teachers responsible for the decline of American intellectual achievement, someone has to prove that our nation currently has a higher percentage of incompetent teachers than during previous decades. A thoughtful investigation might actually demonstrate that, on the average, teachers are better these days than ever. While bad teachers may impede the cure for our educational achievement decline, no clear evidence exists that they are the cause of our current educational decline.

    Think for a minute:

    Are teachers responsible for the current mindless approach to political campaigns, where ads filled with emotionally driven slander replace thoughtful discussion of issues?

    Are teachers responsible for the mindless content of most TV programs, movies, and video games?

    Are teachers responsible for the chronic substance abuse by middle and high school students which undermines their education?

    Are teachers responsible for . . . well, you get the idea. Could the decline in education be the reflection rather than the cause of our societal slippage

    One thing teachers teach is that if we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it, so I will start with historical example #1:

    Horatius Cocles was in command of the Pons Sublicius, the principal bridge across the Tiber River to Rome, when the Etruscan army routed the Roman forces outside the city. Horatius and two comrades stood firm as the rest of the Roman army retreated across the bridge. Horatius ordered the bridge destroyed behind him and held off the onrushing Etruscan army until the bridge was destroyed. Horatius held, the bridge across the river razed, the Etruscan army held at bay, and Rome saved. As for Horatius, he received an Etruscan spear in the buttocks and had to swim back across the Tiber, wounded, in full armor, and without assistance. Meanwhile, with the bridge demolished and the Etruscan army blocked by the river, the population of Rome sat snug behind the walls of the city.

    I would like you to consider that teachers are not the villain in today’s societal slippage. Rather they are Horatius at the bridge, trying to fend off the damaging onrush of a self-absorbed, materially obsessed society, which appears to have minimal interest in critical thinking. Dispassionate observation would seem to indicate that, on the average, teachers appear to be performing far better than your average congressman or congresswoman. Perhaps unions do keep some bad teachers from being fired, but we have nothing but our own collective idiocy to blame for the current crop in congress.

    Historical example #2:

    Early coal mines lacked ventilation systems, making the miners particularly vulnerable to the build-up of methane gas and carbon monoxide. Canaries had the unfortunate (for them) heightened sensitivity to these gasses, making them ideal early warning systems. As long as the canary was singing, the mine was safe. A dead canary was cause for immediate evacuation.

    I would submit that public education is American society’s current canary. Unfortunately, the chosen solution for the problem of the dying educational canary seems to be an intense program focused on developing bigger, stronger canaries, rather than worrying about improving mine safety.

    News flash #2. The problem in the coal mines was not the canary.

    So, what’s the answer? I lack the hubris to believe I have special insights, but I do have a suggestion. Perhaps the answer lies, at least in part, in establishing a society in which intelligent thought is both demanded and rewarded. Where does math and science achievement fit in with TV’s “Jersey Shore”? Our entertainment and our political campaigns are clearly based upon the premise that most people are idiots. Do we live in a society that refuses to take responsibility for its excesses and is searching madly for a whipping boy to punish for its misdeeds? I fear the answer is yes, and that teachers, at least for now, have become America’s whipping boy.

    America is not failing because of the lack of good teachers. We are failing because of, among other things, rampant drug abuse, dissolving families, the corrupting influence of special interest money on politicians, a decline is real wages for the majority of Americans, an increasing imbalance in the distribution of wealth, global warming, the national debt, and the globalization of a life style that the resources of our planet cannot support. I suspect that you may have your own additions to this list.

    Old Joke #1

    A guy comes across a drunk crawling around on his hands and knees on the sidewalk underneath a street light.
    “What’s the matter, buddy?” he asks.
    “I lost my keys,” the drunk responds.
    “Well, let me help.”
    The guy looks around for a few minutes and, finding nothing, asks, “Are you sure you dropped them here?”
    “No,” says the drunk. “I dropped them down the block.”
    “Then,” questions the helpful but puzzled fellow, “Why are we looking here?”
    “Well,” says the drunk, “the light is better under the street lamp.”

    Right now the street light is pointed at teachers, but—sorry to disappoint you—the light may be brighter and teachers may make an easier target, but they don’t have the keys. They can, however, teach you to read the manual.

    So, what’s a teacher supposed to do? The true task of a teacher, in my humble opinion, is to engage the students and make them curious. The children do not need to be driven, they do not need to be entertained—they need to be engaged and involved. William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” The focus upon standardized student testing as a measure of teacher proficiency is an attempt to turn American teachers into a dutiful educational bucket brigade, making sure that kids learn what someone at a desk somewhere says they “need to know.”

    What the path to excellence? Are hard skills like science and math important? Of course. An artist must have knowledge of the use of brushes in order to paint. Are soft skills, like creativity and independence important? Of course. Will a standardized, paint by numbers curriculum and frequent standardized testing result in more proficient and creative painters? I doubt it. We need a society that both values and demands intelligent thought and well developed skills. We need to recognize that only a small part of education occurs within public school walls. Yes, we need to demand more from our schools and teachers, but we also need to demand more from parents, from the media, from politicians, and from corporations. All are to blame, and those who are not part of the solution are part of the problem.

    While teachers, even the bad ones, are not to blame for American society’s declining interest in intelligent discourse and thoughtful action, can teachers be a major part of the solution for declining achievement? Absolutely, but I suspect that we are unlikely to gain their full and enthusiastic cooperation by sticking spears in their butts.

    Curtis Brand, Ph.D.
    Storrs, Connecticut

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