Category Archives: Symbolism

#walkmyworld: Totem-style

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#walkmyworld: Totem-style

Totems are not things I generally consider often. I associate them with trips to Seattle and thoughts about Alaska, but as a general rule, they’re just not on my personal radar. And then came learning event 5:  http://bit.ly/walk2015le5.

By definition, a totem is a sacred object that represents a group of people connected by lineage, family, or tribe. When families are fractured, however, the ideal symbol is elusive. One side of my family may be best symbolized by wheels: trucks, race cars, go carts, and gears. The other side is less connected, some sharing a similar faith, some a love for words or music, and others deeply patriotic. There isn’t a real shared tradition or history; in fact, it is difficult to trace back even names more than two generations removed.

2014WEB02So the idea of a totem has to be rethought. My last 30 years have been spent creating a family with the guy I married at 22. On our 25th wedding anniversary I created a book that contained some of the best memories. It’s certainly not sacred, but it is a symbol of our life together.

 

 

 

 

“Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it’s always there.” Jonathan Levitt

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Feelings often do come and go, but the commitment represented by any totemic symbolism is always present as underscore and foundation upon which the rest is built. The challenges of mortgages, moves, career changes, and loss are balanced with the satisfaction of raising three independent young women and still actually liking each other at the end of each day.

 

 

 

And so, more than 30 years since our first date, our totem rises higher and higher, represented in thousands of photographs, lived out by the real people who make up our family.

Thanksgiving 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

For the full book, click here.

#walkmyworld: Identity Non-Crisis

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As a teacher of young adults, I am intensely aware of the search for identity and significance most young people face. My texts are often selected partly because they afford an opportunity to discuss and reflect about how one transforms from a child whose parents must be right to teens who are certain their parents know nothing to young adults who take the best of what they were taught and blend it with what they learn to become independent adult thinkers. However, the more I consider the concept of identity, I recognize the transitory nature of knowing the self.

This particular learning event coordinates with my focus word for 2015, chosen because my own life is in  a transition not unlike the one from child to adult. This is the year I turn 50, an age once upon a time I considered old (and I am certain most high schools students think of 50 as one step from the grave). This is the year I complete my M.Ed., officially become an empty-nester, and embark on a career path still uncertain. So, I reflect: Who am I? Am I the sum of my beliefs? My experiences? My surroundings? All of these? None of these?

This week #walkmyworld encouraged my to consider my own identity, apart from the roles I play as woman of faith, wife, mother, daughter, educator, artist, writer, runner, coach, musician, photographer, student, blogger, and friend. I have always considered myself a modern Renaissance woman because my interests and skills are diverse. On the worst of days, I call myself a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” On the best days, I manage to do some pondering, some crafting, some writing, and some exercise, feeling very accomplished in the process. Either way, these are things I DO, not necessarily who I AM.

Pardon me for a moment while I consider the importance of understanding the changing nature of identity as taught by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in the mid 50s CE: 11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  Paul here sets up his argument that identity as a believer requires change over time. He uses familiar language to make his point, comparing physical change to spiritual change. The fluidity of identity must be addressed periodically throughout life in order to truly know the self beyond the activities of life.

This is the reason I chose “identity” as my word for the year. And this is what makes this particular learning event important for both students and educators. We are ever evolving as we learn and think. Projects like #walkmyworld expand our horizons and expose the participants to cultures and ideas that may not be otherwise known. For teachers, it can form an unexpected Professional Learning Network (PLN) wherein ideas from one side of the world can find a place in the other. Students who participate may develop friendships in unexpected ways. In sharing bits of our worlds, we begin to see our individual identities as they stand at the moment. When we open our worlds to others, we also enter the worlds of others, and this new information may well alter our identity, affording us the opportunity to change and grow and morph into the next “version” of self.

It’s a mind-expanding idea: identity is fluid, changed by time, experience, relationship, and ideas. Understanding that, however, eliminates the identity-confused “mid-life crisis,” because instead of fearing great life change, one may anticipate with excitement whatever is next. Who I was at 18 is certainly not who I am at (nearly) 50. The things that I do influence the way that I think. The relationships I form in person or via digital means add to the depth of how I understand the world. Every day that I learn, I grow up a little bit more. Growing up, but never getting old.

Renaissance Woman

Renaissance Woman

References

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Opening Doors #walkmyworld

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When I first considered the first learning event of #WalkMyWorld 2015  (http://bit.ly/walk2015LE1), I considered the physical doors of my world. I thought about my front door, both the view from it and my canine companion who insists I don’t actually step though it. But my front door isn’t really about me or my world. It’s a lovely double door with leaded glass that brings in prisms and light, but in my world, it serves more of a decorative than an practical purpose.

#walkmyworld My Front Door

The view from my front door.

WalkMyWorld-My Canine Companion

My canine companion, an Italian Greyhound who is always alert and somewhat pampered.

As much as I like my front door, it is not the real open door to my world.  My real world is much less formal than a “front door life” and those who walk with me learn quickly that my reality is often messy with things out of place, and generally things that don’t work as they should.

This gate is the door I use daily when I leave my home whether I’m heading out on foot or by car. Most days I don’t really “see” the gate as I’m focused on whatever takes me through it. The back yard is far from an inviting garden, especially in the winter, although the dogs and the birds seem to enjoy it. The distance through from the gate is simply a transition from my world to something other.

#walkmyworld: The gate to my world outside

#walkmyworld: The gate to my world outside

The gate is a little crooked, and the latch sticks to that it takes an effort to ensure it stays closed so the greyhounds don’t escape. The jasmine tries to take over every summer, but the sweet fragrance makes the inconvenience of pushing it aside worthwhile. Going out the gate represents a new adventure or the promise of something about to happen. Sometimes it’s a trip to the gym or the grocery store, but other times is it the gate to something greater.

Coming home, the gate has another meaning. Usually coming in through the gate is the final step at the end of the day or the workout or the errands. Very often coming through the gate includes juggling bags and boxes and books, so that the sticky latch is more of a nuisance. The emotions associated with this side of the gate are some blend of fatigue and relief at being home.

I can see the gate from my computer station in the kitchen. I see when family arrives home or good friends come for tea. (Good friends never use the front door!) The latch is loud, so it alerts me to people coming in so that I can disengage from whatever work I’m doing and put on the kettle (usually.) This is the gate that welcomes people into my world.

Literature or Art Class?

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Why not both?

One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.

I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson?  The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.

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Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.

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I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

Altered Books (blasphemy!)

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Before anyone panics, altered book are not purposefully destroyed! The Altered Book art form rescues books from the dumpster and upcycles them into masterpieces. It’s a beautiful combination of expression and repurposing what some might consider trash.

There are dozens of web sites and books about Altered Art and how to create it, so my intent here is to simply share how I use it in the classroom.

One of the books I use in my World Lit class is Adeline Yen Mah’s Watching the Tree. I know of schools that use her Chinese Cinderella , but I wanted a book that would illumine the Chinese culture and mind. What better than a book of philosophy as a woman searches for her spirituality? There are too many chapters in the book to teach them all, so I teach–and we discuss–the fundamentals of Tao, I Ching, Buddha, Confucius, Zen, and Silence. Other chapters in the book incorporate elements of these: food as medicine, yin/yang, fung shui, etc. Those are the inspirations for the altered books.

Each student is responsible to read one of the chapters we do not discuss together and create a two page spread in a book destined for the incinerator. The size of the book is unimportant. Students may use any other materials. The goal is to create a symbolic representation of the most important element in the chapter. This, of course, varies, so grading is based solely on thoughtfulness and effort.  When the projects are due, students give a short (as in 2-3 minutes) informal presentation about the chapter, their interpretation, and the methods they chose to symbolize it.

Some of the pages are simple, but some students allow their creativity to take over, and the work is spectacular. Some are funny, some profound, and most are ideas I never could have imagined. Unorthodox teaching allows for surprise and growth for both teacher AND student.

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Gothic Poetry, Mary Shelley, and S’more

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Frankenstein is just one of the most fun books to teach, particularly for me. As we finished the book this year, I decided that we would do two fun projects that would make the Gothic study a lasting memory for the students. It also gave the students time to complete their essays before launching into the next book.

The first project was to create an image of any scene, event, character, or quote from the book. Since they had to use the book for essay quotes, they were already looking at specific areas, so it was a natural extension. Most chose to draw a scene, and to their credit, they opted for obscure selections or unusual perspective rather than try to imitate an actual word picture. Then I showed them my picture, with the quote, ” I shall be with you on your wedding night” from chapter 20.

I shall be with you on your wedding night

Macabre? Yes. Out of the box? Naturally? Effective? Absolutely. Students saw that an image can be as simple as paint on wallpaper to create an emotion, especially in context with the reading. It’s a fresh way to look at artistic representation of classic literature.  It fit the gothic genre by appealing to emotion rather than reason, and referencing the “otherworldliness” of Shelley’s book.

The second project was a poetry unit in disguise. Teaching poetry as a unit make no more sense to me than vocabulary lists. Context gives both meaning that lasts long after the class is over.  I prefer to slip poetry (and vocab) into literature as I teach. For this particular class, I gave each student a poem that met the standard for Romantic/Gothic poetry. Each student had 15 minutes to analyze the poem before reading it to the class and explain what elements made it Romantic/Gothic. In one class period students heard a number of poems and reinforced the definitions of the genre.

Students then had until the next class period (our school has classes two days a week) to learn the poem in order to present it as a campfire “ghost story.” Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge to tell the best ghost story in a small group during a stormy night in Vienna. If it was good enough for Shelley, it is certainly good enough for me.

On class day, I brought in tealight candles, skewers, miniature marshmallows, jumbo chocolate chips, and animal crackers. I had a tin with water prepared for our “campfire.” After all, what is a campfire without s’mores?  As we toasted marshmallows over tealights (with the overhead lights off, of course), students told their poems, with as much drama as they could muster.

Ghost stories and Gothic poetry

My class is small, so we finished the day with a serial ghost story. I began the story and we took turns adding bits until time was up. The only stipulations were that the story had to make some kind of sense and each person had to use the word “foul.” (I used the word “fowl” at one point, just for fun.)  The class was memorable, and one student posted on his Facebook status that it was the best literature class ever.

Literature never has to be boring. I have some advantages in having a small (okay, tiny) class, but the ideas are easily adapted for larger groups. It just takes the willingness to be a little unorthodox.

Frankenstein

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I love finding new ways to approach classic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those books I knew about but was never required to read. I finally read it over the summer thanks to my Nook and free classics. Was I ever dumbfounded! Every conception I had about the book was completely off base, as it was tainted by pop culture and cinema. Here was a book written by a 19 year old girl in 1818 with a multitude of 21st century conflicts. I won’t teach a book that is no longer culturally relevant because I want ALL my students to love reading. Classics that are restricted by time period are often wonderful, but I prefer to recommend those to my students who want to read everything–twice.

Frankenstein, however,may be more culturally relevant now than in 1818.  One of the key elements for current readers is the question, “Just because we are able to do something, does it mean we should do it?”  In 1818 electricity was a new concept, and the practical and cheap applications were years away. That Frankenstein was able to infuse life into something he assembled from multiple parts (particularly grotesque when envisioned) was purely fantasy. Today, however, that idea has plausible elements to it. Cloning, transplants, and stem cell research open that Pandora’s Box of possibilities heretofore unimaginable.

The geneticist Barbara McClintock once said of her research, “I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4917&page=1)  McClintock explains the passion of research and experimentation in the same way Frankenstein might have as he created his new “species.” He was so caught up in his idea and the potential glory he could receive that, like a child, he didn’t think through the consequences.

Whether it is practical science, economics, politics, or any other science, modern practitioners often lunge forward into experiments without fully thinking through the consequences.  Students entering the college and work world need to understand the long term ramifications of their decisions and discoveries. Running with new concept may seem like a great plan, but the ultimate outcomes may be contrary to the vision.

Of course, Frankenstein contains more timeless lessons than the conflict of science and ethics. The importance of companionship, the danger of isolation, and the tragedy of hubris are all themes appropriate for the contemporary teenager.  The focus will vary depending on the interests of the particular students in the class. The primary idea is to make the literature relevant.

Science, ethics, and literature: they are connected.

Transcendentalists 1

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I’m developing a new approach to teaching literature by making photography/digital design an essential element. The last few sessions we’ve studied the Transcendentalists with an emphasis on Whitman and Thoreau. Emerson became the source for journaling.

The students had to choose a selection from either Thoreau’s Walden or a selection of Whitman’s poetry (Dover has a little book of them, which oddly, leaves out some of my favorites.)
I pulled a section of Thoreau called “Solitude.” It reads, in part:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues”; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
Thoreau was, of course, talking about the benefits of solitude. As an introvert, I identify with the idea that society can be exhausting and that a respite is refreshing. However, I also identify the idea that it is possible to be lonely in a crowd, and so I used that idea in my piece. I used a student from another class as my model and took a timed exposure (without a tripod, by the way), having her hold still while other class members walked around her. I desaturated her image and increased saturation on the background students. The digital papers are from my collection (mostly Faith Sisters and DigiDesignResort). I decided to add some word art, play with blending modes, and call it done. It captures the essence of being lonely and I think illustrates Thoreau’s concept of social fatigue.

My students have done some fantastic work with this challenge; I’ll share some eventually.