This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.
I spent my time dreaming in dictionaries, but opening the book in the middle. I can not start with the beginning of a story. From A to Z, for me it’s impossible. This order is an idea of life and death that terrifies me. When I write, I do not start at the beginning. When I draw no more. I mix everything. Bernard Yslaire
I as INTUITION: It’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing left. With the years, with fashion, the beautiful theories fly away. Intuitions help us make choices, direct us and allow us to tell the difference between a promise and a future.
“When [teachers] organize the tasks students address so that students learn to connect what they have learned in school to the world beyond it they are developing their students’ ability to extend and apply what they have learned to other domains” (Eisner, 2002, p. 13)
When students connected printed text to their image definitions, the abstract notion of alienation became concrete. The concept became real enough that they could wrap their minds around the idea and begin to apply the new term to other scenarios.
This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.
Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire
I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.
Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.
|And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,|
|And the dry stone no sound of water. Only|
|There is shadow under this red rock,|
We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.
This week’s make left me reeling with possibilities. I struggled with games and systems, but spaces and stories are where I breathe freely.The problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather, choosing which one to follow.
My first instinct was to keep the space simple and literal. There is so much beauty in the natural world that it is difficult to imagine my world without access to the river and trails along the Chattahoochee River as it winds its way through Georgia. I am grateful for a cell phone with a good camera so I can capture moments like this one. The outdoor space reminds me that my life is more than classrooms and grades and lesson plans. I am an educator, but I am made up of more than that. I am part of the world around me, something I keenly feel as I run through misty mornings.
Growing up in California I was never more than three hours from the Pacific ocean. The is a power in the crashing of the waves across the jagged rocks that cannot be duplicated. For me, the ocean is a metaphor for God: strong, unending, ever present, soothing, and unsafe.
Since moving across country, I have missed that easy connection to the Eternal. The sea is where my soul finds rest. I am grateful for friends who, several years ago, introduced me to a little blue house in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we now spend a week of every summer. The Gulf of Mexico is a far cry from the wild Pacific, but the waves still beat a soothing rhythm that slows the frenetic pace of my mind. I breathe deeply, taking in the warm air and expelling the stresses and struggles that I always seem to carry with me. Gulf Shores has become my happy place, where there are no expectations, no demands, and no need to accomplish anything more than a few watercolors, some photography, and some light reading – and then only if I want to. I have the blissful freedom there to sit for hours and just watch the water and the gulls if that is my heart’s desire.
But spaces are not always real, physical places. And there are times when the natural world is beyond reach. At those moments, the most important space is the mind. Imagination is available to everyone, no matter the circumstance. There is no constraint on what the mind can create. Imagination turns ballerinas into fairies, mirrors into passageways to strange lands, and ordinary men to superheroes. Imagination is free, accessible, and user friendly. It is imagination that creates artists and poets and inventors and explorers. It is imagination that makes good teachers great. Connected learning requires imagination. Imagination allows current events to mix freely with classical literature and mid-century music. Imagination connects art to books, allowing students who struggle to write to find a voice. Imagination looks beyond standards to the individual students and finds ways for each to succeed.
Related to imagination is another space called reflection. This space is more challenging to access than pure imagination, but it affords an opportunity to analyze reality through an imaginative lens. Reflection requires brutal honesty, a willingness to admit wrong, and a commitment to changing course when it it necessary.
As educators, reflection is important, both in personal practice and pedagogy. When we practice reflection, we envision improved ways to connect with our students and make the content relevant to their lives. When we teach reflection, we empower our students to really own their work rather than do what they think we expect from them. It is in reflection that we remember why we became educators in the first place: to expose teens and young adults to the beauty and satisfaction of critical thinking, creative analysis, and a world beyond the textbook or standardized test. And it is in reflection that we reaffirm our commitment to pushing back against the status quo and reaching for what is best for our students and ourselves.
I tried to create an image that reflects my concept of reading to art to writing. I have one unit in my World Lit course that covers Eastern philosophy based on a book, Watching the Tree by Adeleine Yen Mah. I tend to stay true to Socratic dialogue in my classes, so my lessons are based on questions. This particular book lends itself to an art project, and I introduced students to the art of altered books. I cover the first chapters, but then I set students free to explore the rest. They choose a chapter and take themselves on a systematic journey to discover and share the lessons they learn. The final projects are often brilliant and imaginative, even from students who didn’t consider themselves at all artistic before the project began. Although they complain, at the end of the year, most students consider this their favorite unit of the year.
As a mixed media artist, I was able to participate in Reversing Vandalism, a project with the San Francisco Public Library after a number of books were vandalized. Instead of throwing the books away, the library chose to send the destroyed property to artists around the world who transformed the books into art for display. That experience inspired me to incorporate altered books into my teaching of high school students.
Along the lines of the #clmooc “untroduction”, KQED posited a unique way for students to self-identify through a #donow project. Not only does it deal with identity, but it can also introduce the ideas of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.
Select an everyday object or material as your personal symbol. What object or material did you choose, and what might it signify about you?
I had to give this some thought. I am not easily classified (which I like). Many objects have a singular purpose, so that character trait eliminates a fair number of objects. So I thought, “What one thing best summarizes my multiple interests and abilities?” Because I’m always on the go in a multitude of directions, I settled on the wheel as the object that best serves as a personal symbol.
Why the wheel? It is always in motion, often productive, useful in multiple situations, and able to cover vast distances, revealing new vistas at every turn.
I admit it. I get bored easily. I like new adventures and new challenges. What more evidence is needed when I join #clmooc when I should be enjoying a short respite from school between M.Ed. completion and Ph.D commencement? Learning new things keeps my mind busy and gives me new ideas for being even more unorthodox in my pedagogy than I was a year or five or ten years ago. That keeps me fresh and relevant and frankly, effective. No stale lesson plans for me; every corner I turn reveals new ideas to test and tweak.
Always spinning, always thinking, always looking for the next adventure. What better personal symbol than the wheel?
Heroes among us
This week’s learning event caused me a little angst. I understand the hero’s journey in a literary sense, but we live in an age where true heroes come in unique forms.
Learning Event #9 connects the previous events into a story and a reflection. From the opening of the first door through the connections of high five, the reflections of dreams and totems, and an exploration of heroics, #walkmyworld is a journey of identity, discovery, and connection. The Story of Us is that, underneath the trappings of culture and training, we are all the same, reaching for the bright lights of a future yet unseen, pressing on toward a world that is better and brighter than the one we leave behind.
“Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, “It’s my own business.”
— Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)
Back in late 1988, Michael Jackson released his album, Bad. I was student teaching 7th grade in Arroyo Grande, CA at the time, and decided to create a unit about taking personal responsibility for making the world around them better. Jackson was near the height of his popularity, so I used his song, “Man in the Mirror” as my central theme. Of course, the internet didn’t exist, and even MTV was so new that it actually played music videos, but Jackson being who he was, every student knew the song. I recorded the song from the radio for reference and as a class we decoded the lyrics and analyzed them (I was cutting edge even then!) We created “mirrors” of tinfoil and constructed paper frames, writing poems on the silver about personal change. We discussed current events: the Cold War just ending, human rights issues in the Soviet Union, uncertainty over China’s policies, economic challenges in the US, drugs, drought, and increasing Anti-Semitism. The bulletin board reflected light from the foil, while the students reflected for a moment the power of attitude. I discovered the role of relevance in the classroom.
Skip ahead a whole bunch of years, and #walkmyworld again considers self reflection, addressing the man in the mirror. Looking back at the headlines from 1988 and comparing them to headlines in 2015, and the stories are largely the same: wars and rumors of wars, human rights issues around the world, uncertainty over foreign policies, economic challenges, drugs, drought, and a rise in violence in the Middle East, a symbol of increasing (again) anti-Semitism. The old aphorism, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” sings true. In his poem, “Two Fusiliers,” Robert Graves wonders, “And have we done with War at last?” The 2014 movie American Sniper was a huge box office success that told the story of the bond between war veterans because of the “wet bond of blood” they share. We have not done with war, as Graves had hoped. If anything, war is a constant in the 21st century.
So this brings me to the reflection of this week. Jackson’s song is a call to take responsibility for making the world better, not on a global scale, but by reaching out to the needy nearest us first. While we wait for governments to “fix” society, it continues its decline. The best of times are when individuals come together. We saw this as a nation in the weeks following 9/11. Jackson calls our normal state a “selfish kind of love” that needs to be replaced with personal change that makes a way to improve life for someone ELSE. It doesn’t take wealth or fame or influence to give of oneself. The smallest things matter. I have given countless hats and scarves from my own head and neck to individuals who needed them more than I. It takes just a few seconds. I have sorted shoes for donations, served lunch in rescue missions, sung in nursing homes on Christmas day, and photographed memories for strangers who couldn’t afford a photographer for their events. I’m nothing special, but I did look in the mirror back in the 1980s and vowed to make a change that makes me see others in a different way.
To take this concept to the classroom would be such a easy thing: trash collection, scrubbing dirty and graffiti tagged walls, food drives or clothing drives to replenish the stores of the local rescue mission, and any number of other things that students can imagine. Let students brainstorm ideas. Give them ownership of the new vision and give them power to make it happen. Connect the service to poetry or song lyrics and biographies of people who have given of themselves (Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eric Liddell come immediately to mind). This particular learning event can serve as a springboard to all sorts of positive changes, one student looking in the mirror at a time.
Graves, R. (1918). “Two Fusillers”. Fairies and Fusillers. Retrived from http://www.bartleby.com/120/4.html