As you stroll from one end of the main strip to the other, which requires about an hour because of the maddening array of escalators and crosswalks, here’s what you might see:
(1) people dressed in shabby costumes, such as Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert, for no apparent reason. They’re not collecting money or promoting a show or posing for a photo. They’re just standing there. Sometimes they talk to friends, which I’m pretty sure is against union rules for this kind of job. I was a little disappointed by the unprofessionalism. And I’m still wondering about their purpose. (An aging and bloated Elvis and Marilyn were particularly distressing.)
(2) Short, tee-shirted Mexican men, sometimes women, flicking nudie cards with phone numbers at you. If you tried to straddle the curb to avoid them, they’d reach behind and still flick away. The premise, I think, is that you’d call the number, and the woman on the card would show up in your hotel room. With a burly guard in tow, I’m sure. Actually, I’m not sure because I can’t begin to imagine the transaction, the precautions, the niceties (So, how you doin’? Been doing this long?). With each flick of these cards, I thought, Really?
(3) Cashmere-coat-wearing, slick-haired men with their own upscale nudie cards, promising limo pickups to and from strips clubs where the same transactions would presumably occur. Really?
(4) Young girls with skin-tight dresses balancing on 8-inch heels, usually on the arm of some man. Going clubbing, I presume, whatever that entails. Is there some sort of height restriction at these clubs, which would explain the stilettos?
(5) Older women with skin tight dresses and tight faces balancing on their high heels.
(6) Homeless men sleeping on sidewalks or sitting with cardboard signs begging for help.
(7) Street performers, some of them quite good (an electric cello duo playing Beatles medleys), others embarrassingly bad (an accordion-playing girl with a scratchy voice who was actually sweet and who appeared lonely and who would later make you feel awful for not placing a buck in her case that held about 75 cents).
(8) Spray-paint artists, one guy with about 25 cans mesmerizing the crowd with his rushed spraying, followed by meticulous scratches with his metal scraper.
(9) Babies in strollers at midnight, pushed along by parents…going where?
(10) Magnificent hotels, reminding you of rat pack days and those guys strolling this same strip when what they saw must have seemed more glamorous than crass.
Inside, slot machines with too many windows had catchy names like Cougar-Licious, Mystical Unicorn, Jumping Jalapenos, Gold Fish, Jaguar Princess, and Renoir Riches (for the visiting French artist gambler?). Here’s an amusing thought: someone had to sit at some desk and think up these names and build a theme around them. When I was younger, I imagined players with arms outstretched in celebration over three lemons in a row, which seems quaint now and complex enough, but the faces playing the slots were grim and weary and bored. They didn’t even get to pull a lever; they pressed a button, which doesn’t take as long to bet. I put a $10 bill in a Superman machine, hoping the gambling gods would reward my obsession with DC comics, but the money disappeared in a short leap. I did consider playing a live game with a real dealer or with that guy with the wooden hockey-like stick who raked in chips, but I couldn’t figure out how to play and shuffled away feeling stupid.
I did go see Love, the show featuring Beatles music, which was weird and wonderful and amazing. It felt like a 90-minute dream.
After each NCTE, I travel home with two overwhelming impulses. One, I feel inspired, but since I now have no classroom to return to, I’m not sure what to do with this feeling. Two, I feel radical, because as keynote presenter Sir Ken Robinson argued, education requires not evolution (because it’s a broken system) but revolution. At each session, heads nod and teachers mutter, Yes, this is how to get kids excited, this is how schools should be run. They will return to their schools and implement what they can, but much of their energy will be splintered by the demands of a school system that values data over true learning, which can’t always be measured of course by a test score. And the demands become harder and harder to ignore (I spent a career ignoring them) and more and more deadening.
I was fortunate enough to present at two sessions with buddy Gary Anderson and several other talented teachers from around the country, and I hope something we said will be useful on Monday. That’s a pretty good yardstick, I think. If you can (and want to) implement an idea the next day, the idea probably has merit.
Nothing I write here will do Robinson justice, so I will include a Ted talk link below, and I’ll list a few ideas I remember.
1. Education today (and for the last 150 years, which in itself is quite revealing) values CONFORMITY, COMPLIANCE, and LINEARITY.
2. We have to move away from the idea that all children are the same. Every child in front of you is on a unique journey.
3. ADHD is a subjective diagnosis. Forty years ago, no one was ADHD because the diagnosis didn’t exist. Maybe kids today are bored or are suffering from the condition called childhood.
4. You can teach people to be creative. (For more on this, read his book, The Element, which I devoured on the plane.)
5. Math and science are necessary but not sufficient.
6. CEOs prize people who can adapt, but schools don’t teach or encourage this.
7. More money is being spent on prisons than on education. (I may be off on this one. He may have said within a given span of years. I’m not sure.)
8. Teaching is an art form, not a delivery system.
9. Teaching needs to be less like an engineering model and more like an agricultural one. Teachers provide climate control. They provide a nurturing climate in which everyone has a chance to thrive in his or her own way.
I’d like to believe that I was one of those teachers who provided a nurturing climate (though I can think of examples to the contrary). One year I had a talented singer / guitar player, who wasn’t shy about playing for class. He wasn’t the most diligent student, so I made a deal one time. Instead of writing an essay about Huck Finn, maybe he could write a song and sing it for the class. He did, and everyone loved it, and I was able to manufacture some grade for his efforts. The next year, when assigned an essay by his English teacher, he asked if he could write a song instead, and the teacher laughed at him. We all had a good laugh over it, in fact. I didn’t fault the teacher for demanding an actual essay. He needed that skill as well. And I don’t think he fell behind because he didn’t write the essay for me. Kids are resilient and adaptive, and they need to learn to adjust to the demands of different teachers and bosses. It was a good lesson for him. Years later though, I was sad to learn that he wasn’t playing much or singing. He was trying to earn a living selling real estate, not a job he was passionate about. Which makes me speculate, as Sir Ken Robinson does: what would happen if schools began to value diversity more than conformity, compliance and linearity? Good teachers of course value this diversity. If only they didn’t have to battle with a system that vaunts test scores above all else, at the expense of curiosity and wonder.