8 Things I Learned in 5 Years as an Instructional Coach

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I should begin by stating clearly that these are in no way the ONLY eight things I learned as an Instructional Coach. In fact, I’ve learned so much in the past five years about the art of teaching and the artists who take it up as an avocation, that I would need far more than a blog to give it the depth it deserved. Below are some of the more general impressions that I’ll take with me as I venture back to the classroom to take up the practice again. Why eight? Because nine and ten couldn’t be supported by data.

I should also clarify that these are only my thoughts and feelings and in no way reflect or express the ideas or attitudes of anyone else I’ve worked with or for. Reflection is the cornerstone of good practice and the words below are completely mine and entirely for the purpose of sharing one experience.

So here is what I learned:

1. Change is hard…really hard

Veteran teachers – and by “veteran” I mean anyone who’s been in it for at least seven years – have spent thousands of hours engaged in an endless internal argument over whether or not what they’re doing is effective, impactful, and meaningful. Nearly every teacher I’ve ever known talks about spending their first three years in the profession living with the fear that they’ll be discovered as a fraud and banished from the building. Around year four, they’ve got it more or less figured out and by their fifth year they feel fairly confident that what they’re doing is working. And that’s why change is hard. To ask a teacher to abandon what they’ve spent so many hours shaping and reshaping in order to embrace an untested practice or method is to ask them to voluntarily re-enter the old uncertainty. And who in their right mind would do that?

ANSWER: Anyone who understands that “success” breeds complacency and that complacency is the enemy of excellence.

2. “Success” breeds complacency and complacency is the enemy of excellence

When I was asked to be an Instructional Coach, I believed it was, at least in part, because I was seen as a “successful” teacher. My students passed the tests. They did cool projects that hung in the halls. They said nice things about me to other teachers and principals. Most importantly, I went to all the professional development sessions the school division offered and at least tried to do the things I learned about. I FQL’d and CAI’d and CRT’d until I pulled a muscle. But I know now – now that I’ve observed so many truly successful teachers – that what made me successful was that I was never entirely satisfied with the work that I was doing or the results that I was getting from my kids. I never really felt completely successful.

A teacher who is entirely satisfied with the work they do is one who is finished as a teacher. This is not to say they won’t continue to deliver decent instruction. Their kids may still pass the tests, their outlines and essays may still get turned back in, but they won’t inspire their kids to question and, what’s worse, they won’t be inspired to seek better answers.

3. Expectations placed upon teachers are unrealistic and unsustainable

This is probably obvious to any teachers or administrators who might read this, but the amount of work that teachers are expected to complete in a given work day is absurd. Class sizes keep growing, certification requirements expend, more technology is thrust upon them. And then on top of all that, we want them to be reflective. How much time did Sisyphus spend thinking deeply about that stupid boulder and that damned hill, do you think?

The structure of the teacher workday MUST be rearranged to allow the time necessary for planning to be thoughtful, for feedback to be meaningful, and for their teaching to improve from an intrinsic desire to be better. Asking teachers to “Plan, Do, Study, and Act” when they’ve barely enough time to scarf down a Lean Cuisine and half an apple between a conference with a student and an email to a parent would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

4. Principals and Instructional Leaders are not always the same thing (and they shouldn’t be)

This is in no way meant to diminish the work of building administrators. My respect for the work of Principals and Assistant Principals has doubled and tripled in the past five years as an Instructional Coach. But what I’ve observed is that the demands of running a building, balancing budgets, chasing truants, scheduling classes, mediating differences, checking for compliance, and all the other stuff that goes into ensuring the success and safety of hundreds of teachers and students leaves very little time or energy for being an instructional leader.

All of the rubrics, metrics, and checklists in the world will never allow a principal to observe “effective teaching” in a five minute walk-through. Neither will they give the over-burdened administrator the right words to say to a teacher who is struggling or one who is absolutely reinventing the practice of teaching.

Would we not be better served by placing instructional accountability in the hands of professional teachers who are unencumbered with the difficult work of running a school?

5. Data-driven decision making is the best and worst thing that ever happened to education

I used to think “data” was a four-letter word. I no longer believe, as I once did, that teaching and learning are far too nuanced and subjective to be quantified with data. I see now that carefully collecting and considering a variety of data is an important tool for recognizing trends and patterns and adjusting our practice. Having admitted that, I also believe that it’s becomes far too easy for over-burdened teachers to rely on a cursory examination of assessment scores to declare that a lesson (or a student) is (or isn’t) working.

Balance is everything and cold hard data does not provide balance. The truly nuanced and intangible factors that experienced teachers know but cannot empirically prove are as important now as they’ve ever been. Decision-making, when it comes to the success of a child in a classroom, can never be left solely to numbers. We have to remember who they are, who we are, and how few of our human actions are truly quantifiable or predictable.

6. Kids will always work when they find the work meaningful

Observing students at work has been one of my favorite duties as an Instructional Coach. Being less directly invested in the workings of classroom culture and the success or failure of a given project, it becomes possible to see the child separate from the intended result. And I’ve learned that if kids are provided a clearly articulated reason for the work they do, and if they can be made to see the importance – both the immediate and the delayed – they will work diligently for hours to not only complete the task, but to exceed a teacher’s expectation.

I’ve spent mornings at our vocational tech school watching students sand and prime auto body parts and afternoons in an advanced engineering class where kids designed suspension bridges and computer apps. I’ve gone from middle school strings classes to cooking classes for high school students with special needs. And in the classes where teachers are teaching the meaning, the looks on the student’s faces is almost always the same. It’s a look of focused concentration, of satisfaction, and of contentment. It’s the look of the worker who is enjoying their work.

7. PLCs concerned primarily with “common pacing” and “common assessment” are a waste of everyone’s time

A Professional Learning Community is only as good as the level of support and stimulation it provides for its members. I’ve seen PLCs that were dedicated to nothing more than the dissemination of information – what lesson to teach when, what day to give the assessment, what shared TPA goal to finesse into something that looks meaningful – and the work of those meetings could almost always have been accomplished in less time via e-mail.

Conversely, I’ve seen PLC meetings – though too few – where the members had deep and meaningful conversations about the kids they share in common and how they’re growing or struggling. Together they study their lessons and projects and evaluate student work. They brainstorm alternatives to things that aren’t working or things that are stale. They support each other’s individual goals for the improvement of the learning community. These are, I think, what PLCs were created to do and hopefully, in time, it’s what all of them will become.

8. The most essential qualities of effective teaching can’t really be taught…but they can be shared

I enjoy the company of kids. I find them endlessly fascinating and even when they test my patience to its limit I want to help them. I want to help them figure out the problem, whatever it may be, and get on toward being a happy, thoughtful person. I don’t know that I ever “learned” how to be this way. It just is. I suppose it’s something I inherited from my mother. So it’s been a source of frustration coming to terms with the fact that I can’t really teach another person what it is that made me an effective teacher. I can’t instruct someone how to trust teenagers who don’t entirely trust themselves. I can’t teach another teacher how to surrender control of the classroom when they truly believe it would lead to anarchy and the demise of civilization. I can’t show someone else how to genuinely care about someone who may not always care for them in return.

But here’s what I can do. I can live it, model it, write about it, share it in words and pictures and videos. I can find other teachers who share the same passion for kids and connect them with one another through technology or in person. I can tell stories about the amazing things I see teachers doing in their classrooms and the things their students are learning and producing. This has been the best part of being an Instructional Coach – the sharing. Coming in contact with so many gifted people who have dedicated themselves to being guardians, guides, facilitators, mentors, explainers, and motivators has made me a better teacher and, with any luck, has inspired some of the folks I’ve worked with as a coach.

Through the sharing I’ve learned so much more than I’ve taught and I’m truly grateful. As I come to the end of my coaching tenure and look forward to returning the classroom, I also look forward to inviting Instructional Coaches in to share some more and to help me continue growing toward the teacher I want to be.

The Need for Foundational Innovation (or Why Change is Hard for Teachers)

IMG_7203“Innovation can only be ‘top-down’ if the top innovates first.”

-Me- (about 20 minutes ago)

“Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education these days. Since the turn of the millenium it seems to have been agreed upon by everyone that change is essential to the continued success of public education. Teachers have been asked to be innovative in their teaching. We assess the capacity for innovation in our students as though it were a State Standard. We invest millions of dollars in technology hardware and software to assist us in speeding the evolution of teaching and learning into the 21st Century. We’ve begun to see every child as a potential Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elroy Jetson. And it’s good…for the most part.

Beyond the abstract, however, there lies a fundamental problem with the “innovation movement.” Beneath the drop ceilings where miles of ethernet cables and wireless routers connect our kids to the technological matrix, there is a tradition-bound, 19th Century foundation that hinders whatever intention teachers and administrators may hold. We are currently trying to rebuild an engine that is too powerful for the chassis it rests upon. Until we examine those seemingly unshakable ties to the past and begin innovating at a foundational level, our teachers and students are destined for half-measures, misguided initiatives, and missed opportunities to truly alter teaching and learning in meaningful ways.

Nowhere is this disconnect more obvious than in the basic structure of the school schedule and teacher planning time.  Just a few decades ago, planning a lesson or unit was simpler. Teachers were confined somewhat to the chosen textbook or canon of literature provided. Students had pens and paper, a thesaurus, a compass or a graphing calculator. Innovation was limited to plugging in an elmo or maybe building a Powerpoint presentation for your lecture.  In Google-time, that was a century ago. Now here’s the new math: Student-per-teacher ratios are up. Demands on teacher time for PLC meeting, parent conferencing, test proctoring and remediation are up.  Requirements for goal setting and performance evaluation have increased. Add to this the amount of time it takes to find tech resources, learn new applications and software, create new lessons using the proper technology and then find ways to assess projects that can’t be fed through a scan tron machine. Subtract the time teachers actually spend with students and you can see a clear deficit. There is no easy way to add a 25th hour to the day or an 8th day to a week. The simple fact is that asking teachers to be innovative and creative under this current schedule is unrealistic and maybe even a little unfair.

If innovation is to take hold, it needs to be foundational innovation. We need to begin rebuilding our vision and attitude about what a school day looks like and what it’s purpose really is.  We must begin with questions about why teachers spend 30 hours per week in front of students, but are given just 7 or 8 hours to plan for them, assess their work, provide feedback, and address their remaining needs with new approaches.  We need to ask ourselves why teachers aren’t given more opportunity to meet with peers or with parents and students during the school day. For that matter, we have to wonder why we’re still making 15-year-olds memorize grammar rules and why kids who hate math and clearly have no aptitude for it are forced to endure it for four full years of high school (that’s a whole other rant, I suppose). We do a lot of things in our schools that few people can really explain the reasoning behind.

We must innovate from the top.

We need to find a way to restructure the school day, stretching teacher learning time without sacrificing student learning. There seem to be a fair number of working models from which we can choose. We need to make professional development something that happens every day for every teacher as a part of their assigned duties and not as an “add-on.” Our teacher-training programs and education schools have to take the lead in re-envisioning classroom and curriculum design. Most importantly, school administrators and policy makers need to learn to let go of last century’s structures and create new ones that fit the times and needs of teachers and students. This, of course, starts with listening and responding in real and meaningful ways to the teachers in the classrooms.

Innovation can happen. It usually does, even without making it a requirement. But change doesn’t happen in the absence of trial and error, of studying and planning, of taking the time to learn new ways and practice them. I suppose it’s possible that this can happen in the course of a sixty or ninety minute planning period, but it seems unlikely. If we want a faster, more powerful engine, we have to start with a stronger and more stable frame.

Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor in the Digital Classroom

EdSomewhere between the fuzzy hum of kids connected to a digital reservoir of information and the serene silence of kids contemplating natural wonders, there is a rising chant. The chant began with a few bold teachers and instructional leaders realizing, just a decade or so ago, that the old mode of teaching and learning was becoming less and less effective.  Now, just eighteen years after the first student accessible computer was plugged into a classroom wall, the chant is being picked up by teachers and their students all over the country, all over the world. The chant is a repeated chorus of a handful of words – words like inquire, create, build, adapt, produce, innovate – and because they’re the words at the root of all real learning, the chant can’t be denied.

At the National Digital Learning Day event held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that chant picked up considerable volume as experts from all fields of education made the case for a new curriculum, a new way to build understanding and skills in kids who are natives of the digital world. Superintendents, Congressmen, FCC Commissioners and business leaders, joined with teachers and administrators around the country to explain, to illustrate and to urge.  But the chorus that resounded was clear – we need to change how we do school and we need to change it now.

Digital Relationships

A young lady from Talladaga, Alabama shared the stage with her school division’s Superintendent and her school’s tech specialist. The group shared the story of how their once failing high school with a 63% dropout rate was transformed, almost overnight, to cutting edge learning environment where kids looked forward to school. They reduced their dropout rate by 19% in just two years. The young lady was asked what she thought about her school’s new approach. After a very brief pause she smiled and said of her teachers, “I’m just glad they decided to trust us.” Pressed to explain she added, “At first, the teachers didn’t know much. They were…well, not too tech savy. But they trusted that we could bring information to them while they were bringing stuff to us and we would all learn together.” And learn they did.

Her remarks nailed the aspect of digital and product-based learning that teachers seem most leary of. The transformation from “teacher as provider of knowledge” to “student as center of production” requires a fair amount of trust, a good deal of letting go of control, and a willingness to partner with students in learning – theirs and ours. This is an uncomfortable place to be for one who is accustomed to setting the pace and creating the parameters of what and how students gain understanding.

Several years ago, when I designed and taught an African American Studies curriculum at Albemarle High School, it occurred to me that I was not going to be the content expert. I decided out of necessity that the students would be charged with becoming content experts and graded on how much they could teach me about African American history, literature, art, and culture. To reciprocate, I taught them how to make documentary film, how to record a podcast, how to create a multi-media presentation with Prezi, how to search the internet for primary source documents. It was one of those light bulb moments that altered the way I taught everything after that. The relationships that were formed by taking on the role of co-learner and by giving students the spot behind the lectern was transformative. For them and for me. And all I had to do was trust them. To trust that given the opportunity, they would use the tools provided and learn. And learn we did.

IMG_0392Digital Relevance

 Tom Wheeler, Chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, said in his closing remarks (and I paraphrase), “We can’t predict what the future will be like for our students, but we can make a pathway to that future and we can start today.” Many districts, like the one in Talladaga, like Albemarle County, have already been at it for a while. That pathway will be paved with opportunities for students to have authentic, real world, real time experiences that will give them insight into the possibilities that lie ahead. It will lead immediately to the acquisition of skills and habits of mind, to adaptability, mental agility, and intellectual risk taking. And we as teachers and instructional leaders have to task of designing those opportunities and facilitating a classroom that’s relevant to 21st Century kids.

This idea of digital relevance extends to teacher as much as to students. Every teacher who has ever taught content divorced from its practical application has been asked the question by some kid at some time, “Why do we have to know this?” Using digital resources to create relevant and authentic projects for students provides both the question and the answer. No one asks “Why do we have to build suspension bridges?” Or “Why do we need to make weather predictions?” And teachers need to find relevance and authenticity in their work as much as students do. How many teachers have already been driven from the profession due to the soul crushing effects of test prep curriculum?

There is, however, one great obstacle that cannot be ignored. If teachers are asked to innovate, to create project-based challenges for students and invent rubrics for assessing them, if they’re to be expected to collaborate and cross disciplines, they’re going to have to be given the time to do it. And 45 or 90 minutes of planning each day will not be sufficient.  Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality pointed out during a morning panel discussion that curriculum redesign must begin with redesigning the teacher workday to provide adequate time for creating and evaluating the work we give students. There are plenty of models from which we can borrow and a lot of creative people in our buildings. Surely we can create a work environment that provides teachers with the time and support they need.

 Digital Rigor

 Rigor is defined by some as the difference between a test with twenty multiple questions and a test with one hundred. We know better by now I think. But there is a prevailing belief that activities like game design and creating computer animation aren’t academic enough. That they don’t have a content basis outside of the computer science class.  It may be hard for the uninitiated to see rigor in activities that kids actually want to do. To dispel that myth, I suggest every one go to their computer immediately and try to create five minutes of scratch animation. See how long it takes. Keep track of how many decisions, calculations, and adjustments you have to make before you’re finished. I think many will find it’s the hardest mental work they’ve done in a while.

Watch the students at Sutherland Middle School go through the processes of making a short film and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s rigorous. The negotiation, the scheduling, the technical problems that inevitably occur, all of these require a great deal of critical thinking, backward mapping, and problem solving. Or check out the kids at Monticello High School writing and recording original music in the digital studio and you’ll see a dozen Virginia State learning standards being conquered every day. What’s fascinating though is how focused, intent, and purposeful students are in completing this work. They’re operating at such a high level of congnition that it actually feels good to them. They’re challenged and they’re responding with energy and enthusiasm.

In Albemarle County, our Academy programs for Engineering and Health and Medical Science are founded on the notion that content married with practical application and the right resources will enable students to acheive at extremely high levels. No one would accuse these programs of lacking rigor. Seeing students huddled around computers with CAD software or on-line simulators performing tasks similar to those performed by the professionals they hope to become is the norm in these centers. So why shouldn’t it be the norm in all our schools? In all of our classrooms?

AllianceExcellentEducationSo What Shall We Do?

The Alliance for Excellent Education, who sponsored the Digital Learning Day events in DC, state it as their mission to “promote high school transformation to make it possible for every child to graduate prepared for postsecondary learning and success in life.” Their efforts include work on the FCC’s E-Rate program to provide affordable resources and technology to all schools and President Obama’s EdConnect initiative that will endeavor to bring high-speed broadband access to 99 percent of our schools within the next five years.

Perhaps the most useful thing they provide for teachers in the classroom is an initiative titled Project 24. This program provides on-line resources, professional development MOOCs, webinars with leading tech educators, and individualized attention to the needs of teachers who desire to expand digital learing opportunities for their students.

http://all4ed.org/issues/project-24/

We can also help each other. No one teacher can possibly stay on top of the rapidly changing, ever growing list of digital resources available. By cultivating collaborative relationships with Librarians, Instructional Coaches, PLC members,and other teachers, a culture of relevance and rigor will grow and the pathway to the future that Mr. Wheeler spoke of will be wide enough for all of us to walk up together.

Lloyd Dobler and the Art of Teaching with a Camera

LloydI remember the exact moment when it occurred to me that moving pictures could tell stories with such power and precision that words weren’t always necessary. I have to credit late director Cameron Crowe for putting that boom box in Loyd Dobbler’s hands as he stood below his true love’s window in that iconic scene from the 1980s. I remember thinking how nothing that character could have said would have better expressed what we the audience knew was in his wounded heart. It would be decades later before I would pick up a camera myself and attempt to tell a story, but the impression was deep and lasting.

Today’s adoloscents came out of the womb watching Youtube videos, playing with interactive video games, and using complex programs to create animation, alter photographs and record hip-hop beats. But to throw the blanket term of “visual learner” upon them is to assume too much about how much they’re actually learning and what the visual component has to do with it. What I value most about teaching kids how to make movies or record music is the thought process that happens before any of them ever touch a camera or plug in a microphone. This process has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with leading them to discovering the story they want to tell, the idea they want to convey, and the experience of living that they wish to share.

What video and audio technology offers us is a way to engage our students in the less flashy “thinking part” of creation by dangling the alluring product before them. Kids know a good movie or a tight hook when they see or hear one. What they’re less sure of is how that movie got so good or why that lyric is so effective. By guiding them step by step through a process of conceptualization, visualization, graphic organization, planning and execution, they come to an understanding of how quality “happens.” The best part is that this understanding transfers to essay writing, algebric processes, chemistry experiments, and the analysis of political policy.

Perhaps more importantly, video and music production allow for the transfer from exterally perceived reality to internalized understanding and back to an external expression more fluidly and more concretely than almost any other medium. To “see the movie in your head,” as I suggest to students, and then make real what you see, is the most fundamental process of learning and doing. Along the way, kids encounter every conceivable obstacle in finding the right answer, but I have yet to see a student from any demographic throw up their hands and quit because it’s too hard. They nearly always dig deep into their own natural resources and find a workable solution that often surprises even me. And the reason for this is that they want to produce quality work and they have a million models of what that work should look or sound like.

IMG_0398Not every kid I teach is going to being a future filmmaker or record producer. Some will likely never make another movie or write another song again. But I’m fairly certain that the experience of “making” and the pleasure of “creating” will follow them out of my class and into the next one they enter. And all of the core skills – writing, reading for comprehension, drawing, measuring, calculating, budgeting, collaborating, trying, failing, and trying again – have been used for all the most authentic purposes imaginable. And while there may be no State Standards test for creativty (yet), I like to imagine that these kids would ace it every single time.

Coach Dad: Lessons from Little League (Episode 1)

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I stood next to the other team’s manager by the third base dugout thinking of something to say that would show I had a sense of humor despite being handed a lopsided shellacking in our only pre-season scrimmage game before the start of the season. Before I could come up with some self-effacing witticism about how much I hate losing, he said, “Man, this is really hard for me.”

“Really?” Hard for him?

He was a coach with a kid on his team, just like me. Like me it was his first year of managing a “Majors” team in our local little league. His son, like mine, was one of the youngest on his squad and, like me, he was roped into doing this due to the ever-shrinking pool of men our age who actually played the game beyond little league and hold enough knowledge of the game to actually teach it. With his next words, I found where our similarities ended.

“I really have to fight the urge to yell at them,” he said. “I know they’re just little boys, and they’re out here to have fun. But when I was a kid, if I didn’t do things right, my dad went off on me and let me know it.” Then he looked at me with an uncertain half smile and added, “You know what I mean. I’m sure it was probably the same for you.”

It wasn’t. I have a vague recollection of my father being at a few of my games. He didn’t coach me, ever. He asked about my games and how I did, but he wasn’t involved in them, wasn’t interested in the outcome. He never pushed me to play or urged me not to quit. He was too tired for that. So unlike my fellow first-year manager, I have no real model to follow or to fight.

What I know is this:

I love baseball and I always have. My father loved it, too. I love my son, more than I usually know how to say or show. I want him to share my love of baseball and so I want to teach him everything I’ve learned about it and gained from it. But I also know that fathering and coaching are two of the most difficult things a man can sign on for and trying to do them together is a staggering combination of joy and pain. And if I want my son to love this game, to continue loving it years after his little league days are done, I can’t yell at him.

You see, he’s just like me in so many ways that my instinct to pull him up, to shake my finger at him, to tell him he’s dogging it, or not hustling, or daydreaming when he should be paying attention, is a self-rebuke first and foremost. It’s hard to see this in the heat of the moment and harder to avoid doing it anyway. It’s not his indifference to the moment that I’m really angry about, it’s the indifference that he inherited from me that puts that knot in my stomach. I want him to change so that I don’t have to be reminded of the things I wish I could change in myself.

And what will he really make of my tirade anyway? Is this supposed to mean more to me than to him? I’ll only look like what I am – a confused old man who doesn’t really know how to instill in his son what was never really instilled in him in the first place. It’s a conundrum, ain’t it? So, I bite my tongue. Try to say something positive, encouraging, even while I’m fuming inside because I know he knows he’s suppose to cut off that throw to second.

This is not to say that I’ll never let my son know when I think he’s making bad choices. That’s the fathering part that’s so essential. The only reason to play baseball for 99% of us mere mortals is to have some fun, get some sun, and maybe learn a few lessons about how to be part of something bigger than ourselves. When his choices affect his teammates or his coaches negatively, he’ll need to have it pointed out. When he’s letting fear or anger get the best of him, I have to let him know. It’s my job. It’s both my jobs – coach and father. But I’ll always try to separate those lessons from the outcome of the game. I’ll try to put some time and distance between the event and the lesson that follows. He’ll need to know that it’s not the game I care about when I point out the mistakes he’s made. He’ll need to know, as I’m showing him a better way to respond, that it’s not about winning the next game or even making him a better baseball player. It’s about guiding him toward being a better him.

I’m not a yeller. Never have been. I wasn’t yelled at, so I never learned how. My fellow first-year manager will learn, one way or another, how to share his passion more gently. He’ll learn to not let his emotions and his love for the game interfere with his duty to teach his players with love and respect. He’ll learn how because he’s already recognized that it’s important. Even though it’s hard. And I’ll learn in time, I hope, how to balance my love for son, my love for this game, and my desire to be a good dad. And maybe I’ll realize my greatest hope – to be able to look back on these days with him and laugh about them into many long seasons ahead.

They Call Me Ishmael: They Call Him Mr. President


I was kidding when I said that I would demonstrate how Moby Dick and his maniacal hunter, Captain Ahab, were a metaphor for President Obama and the Democratic Party. I mean, c’mon. Nobody knows what Moby Dick is about, so how would I even start to draw a comparison. But then, naturally, I started to think about it. And the someone dared me to try.

Ahab, as we all know, is the obsessed whaling captain who risks the life of an entire crew to have his revenge against the giant white whale that took his leg and, presumably, his pride, in an earlier excursion. It helps the metaphor that our whale is in fact white. White privilege? White America? Obesity? Too easy.

The whale that our Captain Ahab/Obama seeks is no less than the elusive promise of the non-violent political revolution that took not only his metaphorical leg, but the entire foundation on which his political paradigm stands. This whale was first spotted by Frederick Douglass around the time that Moby dick was penned, and in the century-and-a-half that’s followed it has swallowed up Douglass, DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, MLK Jr. and hundreds upon hundreds who bravely sought to subdue the beast. The whale is equality. The whale is justice. The whale is freedom from a history of being loathed.

Alright, maybe that’s too obvious. So let’s extend the metaphor. The American Democratic Party is a group of naive seekers, brought together by the idealistic pursuit of a future in which our collective humanity brings us to the promised land of safety and security for all. Much like the crew of the doomed Pequod, the crew of the Democratic ship is a diverse group whose only commonality is the refuge they find in their travels together. Even Ishmael, a burned out teacher, signs on for the trip with almost no real understand of what he’s getting himself into. What he finds on the boat is a strangely diverse lot of characters who seem pretty self-sufficient and easily contented with their work and their general non-conformity. I mean, where else in America but a liberal political metaphor would we find a guy like Queequeg, a hard-working immigrant who’s valued by his mates for his contribution to society while simultaneously mistrusted because of his exotic differences?

And then he shows up.

Ahab/Obama. He’s passionate. He’s charismatic. He’s completely in control. He thinks he knows what it’s all about. Everything in his life – hell, everything before his life – has been leading to this chase, this hunt, this quest for the consummation of the dream deferred. It’s his destiny to finally catch that damned whale. And nothing is going to stop him. Nothing. Not even if it means laying waste to the whole crew, the whole party, even the burned out teacher who’s been telling this whole tale. Because the alternative is another generation of people like him being hobbled or swallowed by the mythical creature called American bigotry.

Now, Moby Dick is a tragedy. Ahab is dragged to his death by the prize he seeks, destroyed by his own blind ambition. I truly hope that my comparison is as half-assed as it seems. I want our modern Ahab to win, it’s no secret. I’m pretty sick of that whale myself. But I can’t help but wonder what happens to all of us earnest progressive bleeding hearts if the man we follow comes up short, if he’s somehow destroyed by his own obsessive pursuits. If the dream gets deferred for another century.

Ismael, the burned-out teacher, lived to tell the story, floating to safety on the empty coffin of his now-dead best friend.

It gives one pause. But not for long. Somebody has to catch that fucking whale.

Clint Eastwood, King Lear, and the GOP

OK. So watching Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention reminded me of King Lear. The initial similarity is pretty obvious – “Hey, there’s an old guy yelling at nobody. Reminds me of King Lear.” But when I started to think about, I realized that this metaphor extends beyond Dirty Harry. The entire Republican Party is King Lear. And it’s a tragedy.

Alright, see if you can follow this.

King Lear is a ruler of considerable power and wisdom. He’s Reagan in the 80s. He’s admired, revered, and respected – even by those who don’t necessarily love him. And then one day he (The Republican Party leadership) decides to divest his wealth and power to his daughters. For the purpose of this tirade, we’ll call them “Christian Right,” “Wall Street,” and “Middle Class.” The only daughter from Shakespeare’s play whose name I remember is Regan and that would just confuse things.

Lear devises this sick little game in which he asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him and the one who loves him the most, of course, will get the most stuff. Naturally Christian Right and Wall Street go all crazy on dad and drown him in platitudes and it’s all bullshit.  His youngest daughter, Middle Class, the one who really values him and cherishes him most, knows that there are no words to adequately describe his importance and rather than join in the goofiness of a fake love-fest, she says nothing.

You know the story. Lear gives all his power to Christian Right and Wall Street while banishing his once-beloved Middle Class to the nether regions of the kingdom. Naturally Christian Right and Wall Street squander their father’s wealth and power on self-serving, greedy, and power-hungry quests, starting a few wars, turning allies into enemies, and generally screwing up the entire kingdom. Meanwhile, the banished Middle Class goes on serving her father by working hard, paying her taxes and waiting for the crazy old bastard to come to his senses and reign in her twisted sisters.

Tragically, it doesn’t happen. By the time old GOP realizes the error of his ways, Christian Right and Wall Street have thrown Middle Class into a dungeon and rendered their father completely powerless and bereft of his senses. In the last scene, we find a once-great old man raging in the wilderness at the injustice of the universe while an empty chair sits stage left and shakes its head sadly at how such a powerful body could be turned so inside-out by a couple of greedy daughters.

It’s kind of sad.

Next up: How Barack Obama is Captain Ahab.Image