#walkmyworld: Hero

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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. 

One of the distinctions between the heroes of myth and the heroes of the modern era is perception. Mythological heroes are revered, recognized, and celebrated by the people, and while they revel in the adoration, there is still a humility about them. Today, people recognized and revere celebrity, which is a false form of heroism. Celebrities generally do not serve the people, as a true hero does.  They may rise above difficult circumstances and accomplished great things, but for the most part, they keep the rewards of their ascent, which is antithetical to the true hero of old. True heroes may find wealth and prestige, but they are quick to share in order that the people benefit.
This fact requires a new view of the hero. Modern fictional heroes, like Batman and Superman, maintain a sense of anonymity when they do their good works, and there is a magnified dark side to each of them. On the other hand, the common man is able to become a hero without having great power over the masses, but rather be heroic on individual levels.
This is where teachers can be heroes. In this world, teachers do not have great wealth or power. Nor do they have widespread influence. They do not direct policy, curriculum, or even the standards by which they and their students are judged. Even still, teachers do take that hero’s journey from the call to adventure (and make no mistake, teaching is a calling), to the obstacles and abyss of preparation (grad school is often a desolate experience), to the gift to the people from that experience. Students in the classrooms of teachers who are called through difficulty to that role find they learn, not because there is a test at the end of the material, but because learning is a wonderful and exciting and even magical thing.
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#walkmyworld: Reflection

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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.

 

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Putting my foot down for personal change.

 

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

#walkmyworld: Dreamscape

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 “To sleep, perchance to dream…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)

When I dream

When I dream

How do dreams reflect identity? How does the unconscious mind become the conscious decisions of daily life or long term plans? Who am I in my dreams and can that become reality if I so desire?

This week’s learning event afforded an opportunity to consider the power of dreams, but also reflect on which dreams are worthy of pursuit.

Dreams release us from all limitations, but also bring our fears to life. Patrick Ness’ book, A Monster Calls, brings to life an old yew tree in the dreams of a boy who must find a way to cope with his dying mother. The fear of monsters parallels the fear of the disease and how it has and will continue to affect his life.  As the protagonist faces the dual monsters (the tree and the cancer), he finds himself able to do things he never imagined.

Of course, it is a work of fiction, but in many ways, dreams can help us discern new ways to manage life’s stress because in dreams we are not limited to what is practical.  As a teacher, some of the best lessons I’ve ever written have come either in dreams or in that twilight between waking and sleeping. Once the idea is discovered, the analytical daytime mind can begin to work out the logistics of overcoming the limitations of practicality.

Some dreams can take on a real life, as Ryan Neil demonstrates as an American ShokuninHis artistic dreams manifest in Bonsai, where he has learned to balance life and design to create living sculptures that will live for hundreds of years. This is the beauty of art, no matter what the medium. I have some skills with photography and digital manipulation, and if I were to describe an impossible dream, it would include being discovered as an artist and making a living with this kind of creativity. My logical mind, however, sees the limitations (including my inability in sales and marketing), and puts my art into the category of hobbyist.

Relax and dream

Relax and dream

Still, the creativity of my dreams does find its way into the classroom. I never teach the same lesson twice–even on the same day. Every class has its own personality and requires a unique approach, a certain kind of humor, and a personal touch. I use the analysis to create goals and objectives and outlines, but once class begins, I shape my lessons in much the same way Neil shapes his Bonsai art.

One element of pursuing dreams is the freedom to do so. The arts offer that kind of freedom. Today’s educational system does not. The current obsession with standardized tests, single stream learning, and strict analysis places nearly insurmountable limits on teachers. The standards themselves are not the issue, for the most part. The application of those standards, however, puts many teachers in a bureaucratic maze with only one escape route. This devalues the creative passions of the teacher as well as minimizes the students’ ability to innovate, create, and think beyond multiple choice. What will happen to the dreamers and the visionaries if they are forced to conform to a false norm? Is there a place for the Einsteins and Edisons in our elementary schools today?

Nightmare

Nightmare

Teachers must dream bigger than ever in this day of sameness. We must find new ways to talk about literature and culture and society. We must create new ways to connect content with life in relevant ways all while ensuring our students are able to perform on state test day. It is a challenge that for me has inspired a new dream. While I once dreamed of leaving a legacy in the world of visual art, I now dream of leaving a legacy in adults who, having walked into my world classroom, are not afraid to push back, who value creative problem solving, and who are able to meet ridiculous regulations with style, panache, and enough humor to know that in the long run, life is a better teacher than textbooks anyway.

 

#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.

Pearson: a Rant

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For all the research to the contrary, US public education continues to bow down at the feet of the mighty monopoly that is Pearson publishing. Although study after study demonstrates the need for education to be interested driven and project based in order to develop critical thinking skills, states, districts, and administrators turn to the easy solution, a one-size-fits-none approach provided by a single company.

Pearson has aggressive lobbyists, top-notch marketing and a highly skilled sales team. Until the New York attorney general cracked down in late 2013, Pearson’s charitable foundation made a practice of treating school officials from across the nation to trips abroad, to conferences where the only education company represented was Pearson….

The story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades.

Ever since a federal commission published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 — warning that public education was being eroded by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people” — American schools have been enveloped in a sense of crisis. Politicians have raced to tout one fix after the next: new tests, new standards, new classroom technology, new partnerships with the private sector.

K-12 superintendents and college administrators alike struggle to boost enrollment, raise graduation rates, improve academic outcomes — and to do it all while cutting costs.

In this atmosphere of crisis, Pearson promises solutions. It sells the latest and greatest, and it’s no fly-by-night startup; it calls itself the world’s leading learning company. Public officials have seized it as a lifeline.

How can a company meet the individual needs of students in a diverse nation such as the US? The short answer: it can’t. Yet every year, more schools turn to Pearson for a quick solution to a political problem. Teachers in the classroom are painfully aware that with every additional test from Pearson students fall further behind. They lose interest in the learning process as creativity is discouraged and interest-driven study is relegated to after school activities. Is it any wonder the home school movement is gaining steam? Critical thinking is developed by problem solving, collaboration, and desire to progress. Pearson’s single strategy does nothing but develop excellent test-takers who do not retain information because there is no context or relevance for any of it once the test is over.

Parents and teachers and voters need to insist that education is customized for the students in their districts. Student needs change from urban areas to rural, and geographical variances.  There are some common elements required, but once the basics of reading and mathematics  is established, education must offer flexibility if US students are to be competitive on a world market. Until the system values innovation, creativity, and self-driven learning, US students will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026.html#ixzz3S3UhOYVk

#walkmyworld: Dawn

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Amicalola Morning

Amicalola Morning

http://bit.ly/walk2015LE4

Dawn? A prompt about dawn? I am a certified night owl. Dawn, in my opinion, is a myth. However, there are days that I am forced from my cozy bed before the sun peeks over the horizon, and I must admit, it is a magical time. Dorothea MacKellar calls it a “daily miracle” in her poem, and she is right in many ways. If I must do dawn, I prefer the summer, when the air is fresh and warm, the trees green and lush, and the Chattahoochee River runs full. It is the best time of day because the heavy moist air is still a promise, like an anticipated hug. The Southern heat is hours away, and the day beckons, unscheduled and full of possibilities. Winter dawns are barren and cold without the reflective sparkle of ice or snow. Spring dawns are unpredictable: cold this day, rainy this day, and always filled with some pollen or other. Autumn dawn is nearly as magical as summer. The sun hangs lower in the Southern sky. Deer still watch from their hiding places in the trees. The colors of the leaves reflect a sunset that comes earlier every day. But for me, Autumn means an end to summer adventure, a return to routine, and a reminder that Winter, barren and dreary is soon returning.