Friday, September 28, 2012

Do something with that anger!

Exclamation points seem to be the mood of the day these days, and the command from organizers to

Do something with that anger!

rang in my ears, as tears welled, thinking of what drives me to continue scheming and dreaming about how to bring real learning into the public school system. It was inspiring and touching to hear the tears in Greg Palast's voice, when he answered Dennis Bernstein's question yesterday:

What drives you to do what you do? He told some stories about people he knew, family, who had been harmed by reckless and greedy businesses, but what I remember is not his stories but the feeling in his voice, the tears that I could sense just from that combination of a certain timbre and intensity when one speaks through great upsurges of emotion. My friend Susan called it "puddling up" –– I'd not heard that term for the edge of tears before, and it's stuck with me. I do it almost every day, often more than once, and the triggers can be bizarre, but I think it's important to do. I want more men to cry in public, to break that macho myth that crying, grieving, lamenting, sobbing, weeping, and even the occasional bit of moaning in pain, are all verboten to the real man.

Men who wear scarves and cry in public!

Men who know nothing of football and could care less!

Part of why I so enjoy continuing to teach in the public schools as a substitute is that I get to be a role model for kids of other ways that men can be that differ a lot from the men they usually see. It feels good to be complimented on my scarves, and it's interesting that it's almost always done semi-anonymously, while I have my back to a group and will likely never know just who it was who said, "Nice scarf," or "I like your scarf." Carrying around jars of tea is also a strange, Russian Jewish/hippie thing to do, but the question is usually only "What's that?"

But we move together, doing our finger calisthenics, learning to switch hands, put the energy of the mind into parts of the body that the kids often don't even know the names of:

El meñique


The original impetus for teaching string games was that the names of the fingers, needed to teach keyboarding, were not common vocabulary even among educated Spanish-speakers, I discovered, so I used 'juegos con cuerda' to teach the finger names, and to develop the and strength dexterity to keyboard properly. It's still necessary, on both counts, more than twenty years later!

So every chance I get, I teach a string game or two, and some finger calisthenics, and the fist-pointing game, to embed the bilaterality in the body. Kids have so little chance to be ambidextrous these days, with music classes gone.

And we're back to the anger. Why do these kids not deserve the same kind of wonderful elementary school experience I had? Of course they deserve it and can handle it with ease, given the opportunity and some coaching and mentoring in pro-social behavior. That's why I keep trying...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'm Telling!!

Encouraging voluntary rather than assigned participation from the students in the Third Space workshop I'm doing with Ed Martinez at the MAH, I was toying with the word "telling" as one of the ways to ask for a submission without making it requisite. What can you tell me about...? And then the reflection of all the connections and resonances of the word, from storyteller to tattle tale, from retelling to tall tales, and so of course I went to the Visual Thesaurus:

The Visual Thesaurus array for "telling"
"Telltale" and "tattle" were the most intriguing connections. What is the impulse to "tell on" the sibling about? Obviously an effort at understanding something about rules and consequences, as well as an exploration of the variations of truth in a recounting. But it's the breaking of a co-equal bond with a or friend sibling, by invoking the authority of an older other, that makes the cultural denigration of the snitch make sense. 

So the "Teacher's Pet" syndrome also enters here somewhere, I think, but I'm not going there right now. The upshot of the reflection is that questions are the key, and learning how to facilitate asking the right questions is the core of this work.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Learning vs. studying

At Harry's birthday party, which Zoë, whose birthday is also today, crashed, so they had 127 years to celebrate, together, Zoë told a story about her daughter saying to her, "Oh, I didn't know you were studying painting," to which she responded, "When I'm in Sefla's painting class, I'm just playing--I never thought of it as studying."

That's the kind of teacher Sefla is--she lets people paint, and then interacts with each person around their painting in the way that feels appropriate for that person, that painting, and that particular moment--there couldn't be a scripted curriculum for her art "Teaching," because she's not expounding from some pre-planned set of Standards that her students must master by the time they move on from her class. She's engaging each student, individually, in their particular journey along the way to becoming the painter they want to become. Many of her students come from years of academic art school experience, training, classes, workshops--many have advanced degrees. Almost all of them say that no one else until Sefla had ever really helped them paint.

Sefla Joseph teaching art class, big grin on her face

Sefla doesn't teach painting, and her students aren't studying it. They're learning painting, and she's helping each of them figure out how best they learn. They learn by doing, they play, they practice, sometimes they do exercises together to discover something unexpected, sometimes they talk about color or shape, emotion or expression, line or figure or ground--and sometimes there are no words in an exchange. Sometimes she guides a hand, touches a brush, even touches their canvas with her brush, but mostly they are exchanging energies. What they share is attention to a project that the student has chosen, a painting the student has composed of her own choosing, and is executing almost entirely on her own. Sefla's role as teacher is a unique creation for each student, a relationship they agree to maintain and nurture together, focusing their mutual attention on a work in progress.

Obviously small group classes of adults are of a very different character from any public school setting, yet I still want to find some lens there to use to ask better questions of K-12 educators: How do we focus on each learner, on their learning and their sense of ownership in that learning, rather than on ourselves as teachers? I wrote a short piece on Seymour Papert's reinvigoration of "mathetics" (to contrast with didactics) as part of our Third Space work this summer, and I mean to find it and link it here... That's one of the essentials of real education reform, a return to honoring the learner and making the learner's experience central, rather than this bizarre obsession we've developed with the teacher and the curriculum. For educated citizens who are life-long learners to emerge from schools, they must each be greeted on school entry as individual learners who each have as their primary responsibility to learn how to take charge of their own learning, and to master the skills they will need to learn what they want to learn. Each one of us....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The postures of language

An image came to me while I was sitting this morning, of a sort of diamond array, with a shiny point near the top of the figure – this array represented the energies of language we use around each of these body centers – right where the third eye would be, which sparkled and danced, but didn't extend very far at all. These were the highfalutin words, the $2 or $100 words, depending on the era, words not well understood by most, but used to claim membership in the elite group which owns the vocabulary of intellect and power. Then just below, circling the mouth, a much broader ring, the first facet of the diamond, where the proper words for ordinary discourse swim around, occasionally flashing a bit of color or nuance here and there, but most reserved. Then around the belly, the widest circle of all, the words of emotion and feeling, of bodily functions and messy lives, understood and used by all from time to time, but vastly underrepresented in the speech of those who use the sparkly head-trip words. Just below that largest ring, starting the taper towards the bottom, the girdle of the loins, the crude and soft, or cruder and sharper words of the impolite, words never spoken in public by those who hope to rise above the solar plexus of word circles. And below the loins, the unnoticed incidentals, the fillers and helpers completely ignored most of the time, but essential to keeping the diamond properly proportioned. Then I began to imagine the bodily stances that went with each constellation of words – the still "talking head" of the intellectual, the false smiles and dissimulations of the media commentators using most of the mouthy words, the simple straightforward posture of the heart-speakers, and then I saw the parallel between the hands-on-hips tellin' off a no-good with just the right cuss words of the belly-belt words, the slow swivel back in of the hips for the really dirty words, and the nimble footwork being done constantly by those stalwart little words at the bottom.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Earth Commune

I wrote this piece for Cowbird, a storytelling collective and network which grew out of the Occupy movement. It started in the NWP iAnthology, with one of our weekly prompts. I'm cross-posting here: One of the original participants in Occupy Oakland was speaking on KPFA several months ago, and she said how she prefers to use the term "the Oakland Commune" for their movement. Without saying so, explicitly, she's obviously harkening back to the Paris Commune, the shining moment of Utopian communalism. When a writing group of teachers recently had the prompt "Design your own Reality TV Show," I flashed on the notion of the whole Earth as a Commune, and wrote a blurb for the show that I think worthy of a pretty slick Hollywood pitch-person. Earth Commune: the ultimate global deimplosion of the simultaneous online presence of everyone on the planet, as the "Occupy Everywhere" movement succeeds in trans-manifesting all means and modes of communication into a single instantaneous realization that we are our own TV show. This is reality, and we might as well live it together, peacefully. Once everyone could see, hear, feel, and understand everyone else all at once, it became obvious that "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" was a clear, easily understood, and easily implemented way to organize not only human life, but all life, and disagreements about the allocation, distribution, and enjoyment of the earth's resources ceased instantly. The only tasks that remained all revolved around healing the grievous harms inflicted before the "Communal Realization," as it came to be known. We never had to turn any of the TVs on again. We just looked at each other every once in a while, as we worked, and smiled.