Monday, May 2, 2011

Teaching and Parenting Lessons from Peter Jackson and Martin Luther

Recently, I had one of those times where I had to prepare to teach a class on a topic that I knew I could find an already-written lesson plan on the Internet, download it, read it, and be done in 15 minute, 30 minutes tops.  But that's not what I did.  I looked at a couple of existing lesson plans, but then I started to research the topic myself.  I found some interesting leads, and followed them for a while, and then got an idea for something I thought would be a great way to present it.  But that idea required props, which required a trip to a couple of different stores the next day.  Props, alas, don't make themselves, so once I got my materials, I started downloading graphics and such, but I didn't like the first set, nor the second set....let's try a different search term...oooh, that's better....needs a little manipulation...then printing and cutting out, then some crafting, and of course I have to make enough for the entire class.....  Needless to say, several hours later, when everyone else in the house had gone to bed and I'm still working on this project, I think to myself, "Is it worth it?"

I know that every teacher and every parent has been there.  Whether it is staying up late preparing a lesson for the next day, or driving our children here and there to lessons and sports and scouts and theater, or even if it is a single parent working two jobs who is up at midnight debating whether to spend the time to prepare the children's school lunches for tomorrow or just let them buy them at the cafeteria, we all wonder if we need to be spending this time on our children or students or if it matter if we just give it up and take the easier, less time consuming path.

In my case, at least in this example, the answer popped into my head from an unusual education source:  Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings movies.   Everyone in our house LOVES those movies, so we have the super-extended-Directors-special editions of the DVDs that not only have the movies in their 4 or 5 hour forms with all the stuff Peter Jackson REALLY didn't want to cut, but an additional 24 hours or so of special features, Director's comments, actors' comments, background videos, etc. etc. etc.

I remembered one of those background videos we watched when we first got the movie (which was a while ago, so the following specifics may be wrong, but it is the gist that matters).  Anyway, there was one bit about some of the music that was playing behind a fight scene or something like that.  It turns out that it was an original song composed for a poem that Tolkien had written in the original books.  However, before writing the music, someone with the movies translated into Elvish or Dwarf language or something...which took some doing, since I'm not sure how much of that language has ever been, well, let's call it "discovered."  Then Peter Jackson had this notion that he wanted it sung by a big, all make, all Polynesian choir.  Nothing like that existed, so they had to advertise, audience, choose, teach, rehearse, and record this big group of Polynesian men singing this song.  All for something like 30 seconds of background music for one scene in this multi-hour epic.

Did that matter?  Was it worth all that effort for just that one little addition to that scene?  Maybe, maybe not.  What does matter, though, is having that level of commitment and attention to detail and creativity and--here's my big word--PASSION for this project.  Someone who cares that much--someone who would do all that for just one blip in his entire project--is someone who is going to make a fantastic rendition of this beloved tale.  So while that one detail may not have been "worth it," that level of passion elevates the film from the ordinary to an exemplary piece of movie-making.

The same is true for me.  I could have taken an existing lesson plan and the class I taught would certainly have been fine, and probably would even have been good (given the years of experience I have in teaching).  But I would never have had the passion for that lesson than I have for the one I developed.  Would the students tell the difference?  Again, maybe, maybe not.  But over the long haul, I know that having a teacher (or a parent) that is passionate enough to spend the time doing things that outsiders might consider excessive or rediculous or "a waste of time" is going to make more of an impact on children that one who always takes the path of least effort.

Now, before parents and teachers start freaking out about the incredible bar I've set--I'm not saying we ALWAYS have to make this choice or expend this level of time, energy, or commitment.  There are times when that just isn't possible.  Earlier in the semester, when I was teaching more classes simultaneously and had writing commitments and all this stuff going on, I had to be better at budgeting my time.  And there were times in my life, such as the last year of my mother's life when she was going downhill rapidly and we were spending lots of time just taking care of her, when my teaching has been bare bones.  So I'm not saying AT ALL that our students or children have a RIGHT to expect this level of work on each and every lesson, activity, celebration, sports event, or whatever.

So here is my balancing mentor--a Reformation era priest by the name of Martin Luther (at least I seek guidance from all sorts of sources!).  My favorite Martin Luther quote (at least as it was taught to me--researching it, there seems to be all sorts of divergent translations, since I guess he was writing in German at the time) is "Sin and Sin Boldly."  I think Luther's point was no matter how bad we were, God would forgive us and redeem us, but I don't bring it up as a religious statement.  

I think Luther's thrust was that we are human, so we aren't always perfect.  My interpretation is that whatever we do, we should embrace it.  If we are going to spend time and energy and money to do something that other people think is an incredible waste of time like...well, I'm not going to specify the many examples I have in my own life, but I'm sure you've got your own....don't worry about, just do it and be proud of your passion.  But if you are going to do something that you think is "wrong" or not-good or sub-par, well, embrace that as well.  If you are going to do it, do it with verve and PASSION!

So, for example, every now and then when I can't seem to deal with normal life, my son and I may have ice cream for lunch (ONLY ice cream, I mean) or spend the entire day in our pajamas reading.  Or, as I said, we had a year where our focus was on my mother's care and not our educational achievements.   But when we have these events, we make them special and kind of celebrate them as a departure from our routine.  What is the point of doing what we know we shouldn't do--whether it is is eating what we shouldn't eat, or slacking off from our work, or teaching a class without being prepared, or taking the easy way out in a class when we know there is a better way--if we are just going to feel guilty about it?  I believe in being passionate about what we are doing--hopefully, most of the time for positive things, but those few times when we are "breaking the rules,"well, let's enjoy them as well.  (Of course, I'm just referring to those things that can seem like a BIG DEAL to us at the time, but are not huge issues in the long run--I'm not advocating abandoning our moral or breaking civic and moral laws or anything along those lines.)  Likewise, we shouldn't spend lots of time working on a lesson or project for our children if, instead of feeling proud and excited, all we feel is tired and resentful.

So tonight I give my thanks to two very diverse men--Peter Jackson and Martin Luther.  The lesson I have gotten from them is that it doesn't matter whether I stay up half the night working on some obscure aspect of a class or activity I'm doing for my students or child, or whether I spend 15 minutes on someone else's lesson plan and go to bed early.  What really matters is the kind of energy I get from my choice and the energy I then convey to my students or children.  If it depletes my psychic energy (not necessarily my physical energy), then don't do it.  But if it makes a difference to the passion I bring to the subject, even if nobody else seems to notice or to care--well, then, indeed, to me at least, it is "worth it."

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