21 January 2011

Alan Shapiro

I am having a really hard time tonight. So are many, many of my oldest friends. We may be on the verge of losing someone incredibly important to our lives.

I think the greatest compliment which can be paid to any human's life is that he or she made life better for real people.

Alan, just a few weeks ago, with family
And because Alan Shapiro made life better for so many, I wanted to write a thank you, and not a eulogy.

I've written of Alan before. He was not just my best teacher ever, but the inspiration for the incredible high school I was so lucky to attend. But tonight I want to talk about his words, and the legacy they will leave for all in education.

I'll start by saying that above all, Alan Shapiro believes in the dignity, rights, and potential of all people. Children every bit as much as adults. He has lived through a remarkable life, from being an infantryman in World War II Europe, to holding Anne Schwerner's hands in the kitchen on Albert Place as she wondered what had become of her son - Michael, to beginning the AFT local in New Rochelle, NY, and not just getting teachers above the minimum wage level, but liberating students in a deeply troubled city school system. He sat in that same kitchen and wondered about the future of education with his buddies, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.

An urban school district in search of answers - Life Magazine (1966)
This engagement in the world, in the entire world of education, is what makes his voice so remarkable.

And it is a voice which has remained strong all these years. It is a voice which allowed me, and so many of my friends, to rescue ourselves when life seemed too difficult. It was also a voice which altered the practice of teachers who knew him. He is why my mother literally began tearing down walls in her elementary school to create big multi-teacher multiage classrooms. Deskless classrooms in the 1970s.

So please, take some time this weekend and read...

On the essential skill of "Crap Detecting"

On politics and education.

Thinking is Questioning.

On Plagiarism.

Teaching Controversial Issues.

Teaching Social Responsibility.

Wikileaks: Terrorists or Journalists?.

Interpreting and Verifying News in the Age of Information Overload.

Teaching Howard Zinn.

On "No Child Left Behind".

On Racism and Police Violence. (Alan and I talked via email a great deal as he wrote this.)

Encouraging your class through group work.

Studying a poem.

and his 1970 proposal for a new kind of Alternative Education along with a 1974 "review" written for students.

There is so much more, but this might be a start on seeing education as I think I do, through a lens of possibility for all which Alan showed me.

I'll end by just bringing up two scenes which I'll always remember. First, during my senior year in high school, he "quit" as advisor to our weekly newspaper (which was our English course). He was angry at our anger about his editing as he typed our stories up on mimeograph stencils each Thursday night. "Do it yourselves," he told us, "I'll give you three weeks, maybe two."

Well, we made it six months, never missing a week. On Thursday afternoons ten of us would pile into an empty business school classroom and type, John Rosenthal turning my bizarre dictations into printable text. We wouldn't give up, because we knew we couldn't fail Alan, or ourselves, by not getting it out week after week. He laughed at us, but we knew we'd done just what he wanted us to do.

The other moment, in ninth grade. Well, he was explaining to us that as we wrote poetry, we needed to consider not just the words but the rhythm and the structure. This was before the alternative school. This was in "dumb English" in an old urban Junior High. Our class of misfits weren't getting it. He had just brought Gregory Corso to us, and we were confused. So Alan climbed up on the desks, and skipped around the room, kicking books and papers around and singing, "Death is here, death is there, death is around us everywhere." A lesson never to be forgotten.

Thank you Alan Shapiro, my friend, my mentor, the teacher who saved my life. A man who made the lives of many better.

- Ira Socol


Elle said...

Ira, I'm praying for you, your friends, and especially Alan. He was a great writer and sounds like an amazing teacher and inspiration.

Stephanie Greer said...

Thank you for sharing this loving post. It is both inspiring and informative. The teachablemoment.org site is a definite treasure. I'm so glad I clicked your link and read your post.