Sunday, February 12, 2012

Second Conditionals at Settawya Paya, Mingun Burma

I’m happy to skip Chapter Five in the text. I know a lot of teachers jump around. They’ll start with Victorian Era drama then move to novels of Magical Realism then off to Contemporary World Poetry before their favorite unit on the Harlem Renaissance. They compromise effortlessly. Make their curriculum sequences after checking library schedules and conferring with other teachers. I guess that’s the right way, but…
Not me.
No, it’s easier for me to see things chronologically. Start at the beginning and then move to the next era…or backwards. I don’t mix and match. AND… I don’t compromise.
I also don’t teach grammar. Let me be clear. The myriad of complexities and theorems that contrive the English language at its highest brilliance is, like the pursuit of science or math, very sexy… but it’s a waste of my time in a literature class.
Furthermore, if you find yourself teaching literature in a foreign country, it is absolutely a waste of your time to teach nationals grammar. Yes, it is! I know they will beg you to diagram sentences at the board and you feel so powerful because you know when to use the gerund and when count and non-count nouns are needed, but you might as well flush your western education down the toilet because you’re not putting it to use.
The more I stand in classrooms in front of bemused and bewildered nationals, the more I realize it is imperative that they be challenged to engage you in discussion and critical thinking. They must be pushed to demonstrate they can communicate the big picture to their teacher. Because if they can’t, they will remain in this catatonic grammar entranced state the rest of their life.
That’s why I don’t mind skipping Chapter Five. Believe me, the Realism Period after the Civil War is important, but I can put Jack London and Hart Crane on the shelf. Rather, it’s time to move to post World War II and the Modern World.
Finally, something they get. Gone is the self-deprecation of Mark Twain and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln after Reconstruction. To be replaced with Hemmingway and Steinbeck and a generation that is just behind their parents. Topics they understand because they were spoken about around the holiday table with their grandparents. They finally have something to say, and we can begin a discussion of just exactly what is modern culture.
I show them these picture of Burma. I show them the garbage and the horse drawn carts, the decayed colonial architecture and the shining red stupas. Then I show them pictures of Taiwan, the office buildings , the people working, and I ask them to compare. I push them for answers. I ask if they can see the transformation of their country? But most importantly, I ask them if they feel a responsibility to help. Since Burma is their neighbor, do they feel an obligation to go there, to educate, to serve, to reform? I push them to think and to feel, and I tell them this is the mark of the modern person.
It takes time, and I pull out all the stops. There is even this little grammar note in the text that I use, but no… not in the way the Chinese teachers want it employed: through drills and repetition. It is called a “Second Conditional,” which is a statement where two possibilities have to come true like: If it rains, will you still have a picnic? I know, totally silly. But the way I use it is: You wouldn’t have __________ if you didn’t first have __________, and you wouldn’t have __________, if you didn’t first have __________. Then I show them pictures.
I give them Justin Bieber and say he wouldn’t be possible without Michael Jackson, who wouldn’t be possible without James Brown and Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglas. I show them Barack Obama within the context of Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Paine. I show them Kobe Bryant within the context of Bob Cousy and the Greek IMF bailout through pictures of the London Blitz bombings. I ask them to see not just the ONE thing in front of them, but the line of influences that this thing carries. Only then can a person be considered modern. To have that sensibility, to have that big picture inside them. It’s a roll of the dice, I know. But it’s worth the try.
I think back to that day I spent in Mingun for so many reasons, and I carry it with me now in ways I cannot write here. Yes, I am totally compromised in my personal life, but at least in the classroom, I answer only to myself. As I stand before students, I know I have placed myself in a long line of what has come before me and what shall most assuredly come after. I think about all that has influenced and shaped me, and I know, the best is yet to come.
Yes, that was quite long winded. But this was the best moment of my trip to Burma. Sitting here in Mingun after the quiet boat ride, thinking such sweet thoughts. Wondering, if it is true for me, could it be true for someone else as well?

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