Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Talk

A request to present my “favorite book of the year” prompted me to put together a Book Talk for my fellow teachers. I offered it at faculty meeting along with two others presenters.

President Obama’s dependence on his teleprompter was much in the news [I note that Joe Biden made a joke about it today, May 27, 2009] so I began with a bit of a rib, “This may be a little rough without a teleprompter.”

I went on to warn them that they wouldn’t be able to use their ray guns to take the quiz at the end. Some classes at Layton High have recently been fitted with electronic test taking devices which allow students to answer questions from power-point presentations by pushing buttons on a hand held remote. Their scores and other data are stored for displayed and contemplation.

I pointed out that teaching is my second carrier. After seven years as a professional Boy Scout – I admit I have never had a real job – teaching looked very attractive to me. It has proven to be everything I had hoped; I am paid to talk and read books.

I have read several books since last May, including the DC comic book version of the Iliad, and the Truth about Muhammad by Robert Spence. As we have a teacher at our school named Robert Spence I noted that it is rather exciting to find an author avoiding fatwa here at Layton High

I pointed out that books come in different sizes: and I think Einstein would have agreed that the length has nothing to do with the number of pages. Indeed the longest book of the year was Relativity, the Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein.

I read it on the insistence of my son in law; who graduated last year from the U’s college of Engineering with a degree in Computer Science and who started work the next week earning more than any one in public education CAN ever make. He wanted me to read the book so that I would be able to talk with him about something on his level! The page count is 178 – but I was much relieved to find the last 47 pages were appendices; which I felt justified in avoiding. Having “finished” the book we held the long awaited discussion. It ended badly when he discovered I had the audacity to disagree with Einstein. I told him not to feel so bad – when I read the Bible I find myself arguing with God.

I also read a very short 801 page Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Our school Librarian made the mistake of asking me how I liked it. There is half an hour of her life she will never get back. I had attempted to read the book in high school, tantalized by the promise of so much sex. However I found that when ever Tom got a woman in bed, Fielding would sum up the chapter with, “I will leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.” Not much to visualize there at age 16 – so I gave it up. However, now, after thirty years of marriage, I found it far more titillating.

I then explained that these are not the books I want to talk about!

The best book I read this past year was Drawing and Sketching in Pencil by Arthur L. Guptill. (Here I held up my copy for display) One opinion I have gained over the past 30 years is this: those who can – do, those who can’t – teach, and those who can’t teach - teach teachers. In this book I have finally found the exception that proves the rule: a great teacher teaching – and doing it in the best way, by example. Guptill teaches us how to teach by masterfully teaching. I believe that if all the time and treasure poured into grants and programs, accreditations, standardized testing, and “No Child Left Behind,” had been otherwise invested and every teacher in America given a copy of this book and the inclination to read it, American education would have been, in truth, improved.

I directed them to a page of my notes taken while reading Guptill; confessing that I haven’t really gotten the computer thing down; I gave them all copies, pointing out that I am just getting going with the copy machine. I warned them that if they actually read the quotes I supply below they would see that I haven’t gotten the “spell check” down. I explained, if you would look at this last page you’ll see my notes on the detail Guptill went to in explaining how to sharpen a pencil.

I can share only a glimpse of Drawing and Sketching in Pencil with you. But I have attempted to do just that. Please read some quotes. You can grasp the extended impact of this book by substituting any other life activity for drawing; the maxims are equally as true. Please note that most of these quotes are single sentences, Guptill had never heard of Ernest Hemingway.

Pg. XII D – For the beginner needs a teacher and no book or books can take the place of personal instruction. - - in fact, a book of this sort can do little but offer general instructions and suggest a bit of knowledge and a little inspiration; - - if the reader gains a few thoughts that are new or has ideas which were partly forgotten brought back to him or is made to see familiar things from an enlarged viewpoint, this work will have served a useful purpose. (This is what teachers do, we take what books have and enlarge our students.)

Pg. 78 B – It is impossible to over-emphasize the need for constant practice if one is to acquire more than ordinary skill in drawing. Many students with considerable innate ability fail to make the best use of it because of their lack of interest or perseverance, whereas others, who show at first far less natural talent, but who work for it, often gain such skill as to far outshine those students with greater inborn aptitude. It is deplorable that so many persons fail to make the most of their natural abilities, but is, on the other hand, most gratifying to find others who force themselves to the front through their persistency and commendable effort. (Those who work, and can be inspired to work hard, will advance.)

Pg. 184 A&B – There are students, for instance, so imbued with earnestness and enthusiasm, so passionately found of drawing, that they seize with avidity every hint or suggestion which is offered as an aid to the development of their talent, and who at the same time possess enough commonsense to realize their own shortcomings and weaknesses and to direct their own energies to the best advantage in their attempt to over come them, so planning their study and practice that they move on step-by-step up a road of steady progress. (The students we all wish we had; we all wish we were.)

Pg. 184 B – Needless to say men of this type [see the quote above] are scarce, however, the average student falling into one or another of three classes, the first including such as either underrate their own ability or are easily disheartened, the second and largest class consisting of those having a fair amount of ability and confidence coupled with a willingness to work, and with an excellent attitude towards the acceptance of instruction and criticism, the third being made up of a few such vain and self-conceited individuals as hold the egotistical opinion that their work is the acme of perfection ignoring with thinly masked ridicule the suggestions of their instructors and fellow students, seemingly ignorant or careless of the fact that their attitude of antagonism is deterrent to their own progress. (The students we have to deal with. This book was written in 1922; this problem is not new.)

Pg. 184 – So make your choice with care, but once you go to a teacher, put yourself under his direction unreservedly, and even though you sometimes fail to agree with him or his corrections or criticism, try to get his viewpoint, to see from his eyes may be broader than you own. (Find a teacher – be a teacher.)

Pg. 186 B – So in closing let us repeat, then, that each man should study his needs and straightway commence to correct his faults and overcome his weaknesses, seeking instruction, inviting criticism, comparing results with drawing by others and so striving constantly for greater perfection, remembering that one never reach the point were it is not possible for him to advance still further, - - and let it be remembered, too, that even though one fails to acquire exceptional skill, what ever of dexterity is gained will always prove a source of pleasure and satisfaction. (This is the last paragraph of the book; we should find joy in our efforts, and help our students to find joy in doing their best.)

“Now,” I told them, “is the time to applaud.”

Books read from May 2008 through May 2009

Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Wendell Berry, 153 pgs

Drawing and Sketching in Pencil, Arthur L. Guptill, 186 pgs.

Perspective Made Easy, Ernest R. Norling, 203 pgs.

Age of Bronze A thousand Ships, Eric Shanower, 206 pgs.

Age of Bronze Sacrifice, Eric Shanower, 214 pgs.

Age of Bronze Betrayal, Eric Shanower, 162 pgs.

The Truth about Muhammad, Robert Spencer, 195 pgs.

The Never Ending Story, Michael Ende, 377 pgs.

The Iliad of Homer, Marvel Classic Comic, Adapted by Roy Thomas & Miguel Angel Sepulveda, 180 pgs. (I counted)

Relativity, the Special and General Theory, Albert Einstein, 129 pgs.

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding, 801 pgs.

The 10 Big Lies about America, Michael Medved, 262 pgs.

The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, 87 pgs.

Between You and I, James Cachrane, 132 pgs.


Rumpole said...


Their seems to be great insight in the quotes from Guptill . . .

Do you perhaps have a "Great Books" list that you have suggested to your students to read? Would it be easily posted?

Lysis said...

I have posted my book list above. I'd love to talk to you about any of these books.

Taylor and Jodi said...

I know the topic isn't on drawing necessarily, but I can't help but add "The Portrait" by Nicolai V. Gogol. I think it was in Great Books where I first read this, in any case I recently rediscovered it and it is a treasure.

With regards to improving artistic ability with practice... if I can anyone can.