Saturday, March 24, 2007

the notion of exceptionality: pros and cons

The penultimate lines of Robert Frost's "Directive" read as follows:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.

Frost is referring here to a curious passage in the Gospel according to Mark that reads:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."

Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding'; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"

(Mark 4: 1-12, text from the New International Version)

Scholars in the Jesus Seminar think the parable is probably genuine, although the interpretation Jesus gives to this parable shortly afterwards (the birds are Satan, the thorns are "the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things") probably not.

The focus in this gospel on what most readers would acknowledge to be a bizarre interpretation of this unusual four-episode parable, and the insistence this places on the effect of Jesus's speaking in parables so that "the wrong ones . . . can't get saved," embodies one of the most resonant and memorable examples I know of the notion of exceptionality.

The Jesus Seminar scholars believe the interpretation segment of the gospel was probable written in about 80 AD, when the early Christian church was facing severe persecution by the Romans, and believers who openly prefessed their belief were putting their lives at peril. This makes sense to me. One way to keep the faithful true to their faith is to convince them that they can hear what others were not meant to hear, see what others were not meant to see.

And of course there is tremendous power in this notion of exceptionality. It fairly leaps off the screen in the altogether arresting portrayal of Erin Gruwell by Hilary Swank in the movie "Freedom Writers." For exceptional teachers like 23 year old Erin Gruwell to overcome the barriers that administrators and long-practiced school routines place before them, they are almost required to believe in their own exceptionality: able to "hear" what others cannot hear, "see" what others cannot see. Where else could they derive the strength and peserverance to continue their uphill climb against odds that have crushed so many other initially idealistic and hopeful young teachers?

And yet there is a downside to this understandable and perhaps necessary notion of exceptionality. It's become apparent to me in the last few weeks because of the difficulties our Writing Project has experienced forming a long-term partnership with a charter high school in our area.

The mission of this high school is extremely ambitious: to take students, mostly Latina or Latino, who are scoring in the bottom third of their 8th grade classes and to prepare them, by the time they reach the 12th grade, for entrance into one or another of the campuses of California's "top tier" public universities. To bring them, in other words, from the bottom 33% to the top 10% in four years.

It's no wonder, given such an ambitious and altogether laudable a mission, that this school tends to attract young teachers who are a lot like Erin Gruwell--convinced of their exceptionality, convinced that their personal mission is to do what older and more "veteran" teachers have long given up on, or perhaps never thought possible at any time in their teaching lives.

But such singularity of purpose comes at a price, it seems to me. When we've tried to encourage this young group of teachers to join with us "wisened veterans" in working collaboratively to improve our students' academic writing abilities, they've looked on us with a more-than-skeptical eye. "What would you know," they seem to be saying, "about taking ninth grade students with 2nd to 5th grade reading abilities and whipping them into shape over a four year period for entrance into UC campuses."

And I have to all but bite my tongue to avoid responding that in fact we know very little individually, but quite a bit collectively.

"And you?" I'm tempted to respond. "What about you?"


jonathan said...

I seem to be having trouble adding links to my posts. Here are the links I was trying to add to the entry above;

For "Directive," see

For comments on the Parable of the Sower and its interpreation, see

For the website for the movie "Freedom Writers," see

I'll figure out how to create links eventually.


tia said...

Hi ProLo,

David & I were talking about you after class last Thursday - we think you're a rad teacher, & we hope you're really doing better with your heart issues.

How to Create Links:
- Whenever you write a new post, you write under a tab called "Compose".
- Click on the tab right next to it called "Edit Html".
- Highlight the text that you want to create into a link, click on the globe/chainlink icon, & then type in the web address.
- Go back to "Compose" & resume the rest of your post!

(I hope that helps!)

jonathan said...

Hi Tia and David,

Thanks so much for the info above on creating links. I've added Firefox to my collection of browsers and this seems to have simplified the process of creating links quite a bit. My problem was that my netscape browser did not bring up the "links" icon, so I was trying unsuccessfullly to use the linking "code"--a very cumbersome process.

Do stop by FO 127 to tell me how you're doing this fall. It'll provide a quickening of my heart, which my cardiologist tells me will be a very good thing indeed.

And regarding which, here's what I recently wrote to recent SJSU grad Tommie Goltzer,now teaching at YB:

Hi Tommie,

Well something did happen to me this summer, but it turned out to be less serious than was first supposed.

What happened was that while I was participating in a rock climbing "adventures ashore" in Ketchikan, Alaska in late July as part of an Inland Waterway cruise from Anchorage to Vancouver I had a return of the heart symptoms that led to my heart attack in January of 2004.

So the medical team aboard the cruise ship took a look at me, then the physicians at Vancouver General, and finally the cardiology dept at St Paul's Hosp in Vancouver (the cardiology center for British Columbia). Bottom line was that what was causing the "unstable angina" was an 80% blockage in the "second lateral" off my main artery--the left anterior descending, or LAD artery. It's not as serious as it sounds, since this particular lateral artery services a fairly minor area of the heart, but it would still be better to have it functioning at fuller capacity, so I'm presently seeing if some new medications I'm taking will reduce the partial blockage of this "lateral" artery.

The rather surprising good news I learned from the series of very high tech photos that the St John's team took of my heart during my stay is that it is functioning as if I'd not had a heart attack at all. That is, 55% of the blood in my left ventricle gets squeezed out with each major "beat" of my heart, which is what happens with a normal heart. And this despite the fact that the muscle tissue around my left ventricle is no longer living. So my advice to friends is not to state this "fact" too loudly, since the muscle in this area of my heart has not, after 2 1/2 years, gotten the message! Actually what's happened is that the still living 4/5ths of my heart has learned to compensate for the 1/5th that's no longer pulling it's weight--the sort of thing that often happens in classes where students are working in groups, as you know well.

So that's way more than you need to know, of course, but I felt you deserved some explanation for my long silence.

My very best,

Jonathan Lovell

jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jonathan said...

jonathan said...

Here's a response to this post from my friend Gerald Graff of San Francisco State University:

"Great post, Jonathan. Portrayals of 'exceptional teachers' also add to the cultural expectation that individual teachers should balance societal inequities on their own backs. Those teachers who "merely" want to be good teachers but also have their own lives are left feeling inadequate." (sent 2/9/08 at 8:33 AM)

I had not thought of how essential the notion of teachers' collective knowledge is as a counterweight to that feeling of having to right the injustices of the world by extraordinary individual efforts in the classroom. And I agree with Gerald that the necessity of lonely individual effort is the essential message conveyed by such films as Stand And Deliver, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

Anonymous said...

Very nice and intrestingss story.

Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.