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Thoughts on books, war, retirement : my week ( early winter 2014)

Why would anyone be interested in my week?

After all it is my week, a week of a boomer now retired and finally accustomed to a life that differs greatly to the hectic, crazy and wonderful workplaces I once inhabited. In teaching, there was always nightly preparation, on-going relationships and building community with the most volatile of humans, students; at OCT, it was the thrill of creating new policy, determining pathways for the more than 300,000 teachers in the province. And now instead of dashing off in traffic to be bright and perky in my office by 8:30, I sit by my window in the kitchen, watching the dark and cold day hopefully brighten.

This has been a hard winter, too early begun with a crippling ice storm during the Christmas break and temperatures that have made me feel much like the bear who wants only to sleep or find comfort food in order to wrap herself deeper and burrow
away from the chill of venturing out of my doors. Brrrr.

Yet, my spirits preternaturally down have found some solace. I returned to a painting class with Martha. She is a somewhat wacky teacher whose lunch, by the way, consists of those baked orange goldfish used to augment a salad and a cup of tea. Recently she exhibited her wire installations of an albatross across Canada. Why I continue to return every few years to Martha’s class is her attitude. She is not a bouncy, over the top kind of woman; however, she can bring together any group. She makes collaboration a reality in a way few can manage. When we practice critique of our artworks at the end of three hours, she will find something insightful to say about absolutely everyone’s work. She is able to create a coterie of like minded but also wildly diverse people and make them feel comfortable- at least that’s what she does for me. None of us will be great artists but the time spent exercising our paintbrushes feels relaxing and fulfilling. The rest of the world disappears.

More than that, if I have a comment, Martha listens. Really listens. In many classes, although I may contribute analysis based on my art history background, I can easily spot, the ho-hum, ignore this one and move on attitude of the instructor. Martha uses my words as springboards to engage others and deepen understandings of the work that is evolving in class. It feels good to have someone value and really hear me. People used to in my professional life. Really.

Thinking of books, I find a correlation – as always- in art. In The Goldfinch, the protagonist finds a resting place for his soul away from life in his pursuit of art and; likewise I hear a comment in a little interview on Q with Viggo Mortensen yesterday. Mortensen addressed art as keeping us from pondering the big questions, for example: when will I die? He reflected that art is the diversion, the distraction that keeps us moving forward. His conversation with Jian Ghomeshi made me think of having studied Pascal in university and the need for the chase. Art is the good chase, an important one to enliven our souls and make the world more beautiful, less corrupt and less broken by self-serving politics. It turns us away from the ugliness of daily events by people whose ethics, although they use them as a shield, are weak, wrong– and our fear of our own mortality. During the interview Mortensen disclosed, “When I was a little boy, my first question every morning was “ ‘When will I die?’”. I am reminded of my little girl whose life’s work has been to watch and comprehend the dying: listening, observing, unraveling their stories to allow an opening between the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Punctuating the week was a lecture by Cathy Tile at her Living Literature class. Yesterday it was The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I had gobbled up the book too quickly as the story dealt with a legless woman in Afghanistan, the story echoing Antigone’s plea to bury her brother. And although I immediately found the writing good, not boring or pedantic, I really did not want to engage with the subject matter: too dark. Tile has covered quite a number of war-themed books. I did respond positively to Toby Room’s by Pat Barker as the protagonists were artists, so an easy connection for me. And many years ago, Barker’s Regeneration Trio opened up an understanding of war on a personal level that rendered it less heroic and more devastatingly human with the depravations of a plethora of portrayals. However, The Watch, besides the centerpiece of a stranded woman who is determined to bury her brother’s body did not really attract me.

Yes, I was drawn in by the multiple perspectives of the soldiers from various places across the US whose experiences and attitudes differed towards the plight of the woman, but rather than being able to escape from the hardships and major conflicts in life, this book threw me deeper into the mire of this terrible world, preventing an escape into my thoughts, fantasies, whatever. I admit that I finished the book in an a detached witness-kind of manner, not allowing myself to be yoked to the events.

My rational mind attempted to keep me apart so that Tile’s lecture and its detailing would make sense- all in an intellectual vein. Superficially I could comprehend and process her comments as she deepened my understanding of Roy-Bhattacharya and his thorough research of visiting American service men after writing his first draft. His first hand exposure to the real feelings and thoughts of military people humanized the story, riddling with holes the entire propaganda of why America engagesin wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq. Tile’s book talk provided context, thoughtfulness concerning his approach to developing his art.

Usually I seek out historical or contemporary fiction as a springboard to hide from the big questions or confront the major issues that plaque us: the paradox of learning more but being shielded by the words that do open our eyes to new realities; and if they are well told, will reach into our times and troubles, intensifying how and why we comprehend. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony: that being shielded by language, we gain experience and pierce the theory-practice divide by empathizing with the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. Often literature removes us from or softens the edges, romanticizing, making more distant or punctuating stories with dreamscapes. The Watch is not like that. You feel the woman’s anguish. The strong, tough, enduring hard little pit of a protagonist that refuses to move or be moved.

This adamant act of courage by Nasim in the book is giant. Placed literally in the centre of the yard, she maintains her stance in spite of pain, danger, anger and wins the compassion of the soldiers surrounding her. It is a great story, Sophocles’story, that has endured even into present times. It made me remember why we must study the classics; as they truly form the back story for all significant writing.

The Watch provided a perfect teaching moment. By grounding the story in Antigone, the author reinforces the importance of the Greek myths and Joseph Campbell’s studies that underline the importance of trying, trying even as we know it will end in failure: because we are not gods, only fragile humans with limited abilities and possibilities. That the old stories, the myths have so much to give us for contemplating who we are, what we do and what we value is a triumph in writing.

As well, Tile engaged me personally regarding a few comments I had offered on Shani Boijanii’s The People of Forever are Not Afraid, a coming of age story of three young women in the Israeli army. (I think I described having heard Boijanii being interviewed by David Bezmozgis in an earlier blog.)She enquired, “Did you like the book?” Caught off guard, I did not really think when I responded, so I later shot off an email, relating the book to Coetzee’s questions of where is home and how do I get there, connecting this underlying theme to Boijanii’s ordinary Israeli girls in extraordinary times.

It took me almost 5 years to feel ok about not working. I always loved art and writing and reading, but it is very different when they are the borders not the substance of your life, when you must find time to push them from the edges to the core of your life. When you work, you fly- you are mother, teacher, daughter,wife, employee, housekeeper, driver, all powerful, crunching so much together. You command, you are powerful and at the end of your day, as you drop into the couch, you proudly, while eyes drooping, exclaim, wow! how did I do so much. There is exhausted pride in accomplishments of so much squeezed into so few hours. Retired people are the powerful Oz reduced to a squeak.

But once retired, the opposite is true. The hours are long and you eventually discover events, classes, friends to fill the day along with the reacquaintance of things you once loved and hope to rediscover meaning in. The reversal is hard, particularly when your partner still dashes and smashes about with important matters that, as you once did, effects many.

However, life whether you want it to or not, changes. Lingering over a newspaper, lunch with a friend, little things become bigger. Life just changes and events expand to fill the hours that once contained multitudes of responsibilities.

Yet this week and particularly Tile’s lecture revived my soul- a bit. It reminded me of larger matters than just cramming a day full of activities: the important questions we minimize when we work, the bigger issues that underpin and mobilize our society. Like many good moments, her lecture was a surprise, to peer through the fog, the bad weather, the noise of times gone by, and reflect on what is germane.

As I edit this last year’s blog, I am sad to link it to this week’s attack on Parliament Hill and the murder of Nathan Cirillo at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here it is a real war story on our own land. No words. Just grief. Sadly, another war story from which we cannot turn.

Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

From letter to blog: a rant on MI in education

Weekends are lazy times to sort through newspapers and just enjoy perusing the columns. Yet barely into my ritual, I find an article that makes me burst into flames. It prompted a response to the editor.

 Sunday’s Star “Educational fads not helpful” should have made me toss the page when I read that the so-called education writer, Sacherin Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. My thesis, “The usefulness of art in education: in and out of the classroom” called on John Dewey, Elliot Eisner and Howard Gardner as support for the importance of the visual in education. During my doctoral defence at OISE, one of the examiners referred to these three theoreticians as my educational gurus. They were and still are. Dewey’s understanding of experience, both in life and in education, is incredibly applicable and as fresh today as it was in the early 20th Century; Elliot Eisner associated with the Getty Institute and his approach to art-based (DBAE) education continues to resonate; and Howard Gardner’s research into seven multiple intelligences has provided a needed focus on individual differences. He has identified the intelligences as Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical –Mathematical.

Initially outraged by Maraharaj’s statements and conjectures that Gardner’s “ multiple intelligences “ were a fad, an unsubstantiated method with little research and that all children could benefit from the same pedagogy,” I wrote in my email to the editor,

“I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows, all heads turned towards their teacher in a suit?”

Maraharaj maintains that Gardner himself was backtracking on his research and recanting his numerous journal studies. Incredulous, I went to The Washington Post to read for myself what Gardner was querying.

Not surprisingly, Gardner addressed the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  Gardner was actually encouraging teachers  “ (to) (i)ndividualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead (my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively”(The Washington Post, October 16, 2013).

Some “backtrack”!

 I can recall my best classes, particularly in Post-colonial Literature ( see earlier blogs), where I provided a topic and the students found their own touchstones to make the subject come alive. I cherish from those teaching days several three- dimensional books carefully and beautifully crafted that document the pivotal moments of South America’s history: as a back story for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, given to me as gifts from delighted students. As well, I treasure the memory of students who wrote their own dialogues, assuming the personas of characters in Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, and walked in their shoes, no longer  “others” looking in on the lives of people from India.

 I remember thinking how wonderful: that one young man had translated in a chemistry chart the frequencies of the rise and fall of a displaced family from a novel we were studying, comprehending in his own way the trajectories of fate and fortune. And I recall the brilliance of the group who decided to use the metaphor of a poker game to dramatize the Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, English and French’s use of the countries of Africa as chips in a bidding war. And with feelings of pride for student insight, even 20 years later, I reflect on a collaborative project that investigated female mutilation in Somalia and its connections in Toronto. Wow.

 Although I did teach, prepare and provide students with subject information and required assignments to satisfy curriculum expectations, each student played a part in his/her own deepening of the topic. That is the beauty of multiple intelligences: it honours that we are all unique and learn in a plethora of ways that makes sense to us. In classrooms where the mantra is collaboration, a varied approach to absorbing knowledge ensures that students enrich their understanding by looking from new eyes and respecting that diversity in perspectives can enhance learning. The openness of Bahtkin’s building dialectics ( in the previous blog) requires that people really hear their colleagues’ voices so that they can critic, contemplate and make  conversations/learning grow in interesting and unexpected ways. Those new revelations precipitate those “ ah-ha” moments when epiphanies erupt.

 Perhaps that is what I also love about art. If you stand in front of a painting and really look, the art begins to act on you. You will see a colour, a form, something that will begin to pique or resonate with you. Stand there longer and your conversation with the piece continues to grow. Voices in your head, your own and others, suggest a memory, a thought, a response that you did not know you had. Even the so-called polar bear in the snowstorm may make you shiver and you will imagine snowflakes conglomerating to cover the snarly bear. Or…  

 I will always regret the study during my Masters days of a museum-related class. Mini- exams were administered every Friday for 8 weeks, each in an identical format. A roister of professors presented lectures that concentrated on the decorative arts in silver, wood, glass, metal, glass and pottery, etc. What followed was a test based on 10 broken bits or shards. Our task was to identify the provenance, explain the composition of components, why they had broken, and the shattered artifacts’ usage.

 One professor thought it fair to trick us- as in presenting a replica of a 14th Century rural chair from Quebec and expecting that we neophytes would know it was an impostor. So we studied hard, or at least I did, got my A and to this day do not remember a morsel of what I had learned. 

In contrast, I have stored in my head and can recall the research I did in the same class on Cast Iron Toys ( banks, stove samples and Noah’s arks) in the early 20th century in Ontario. Maybe some of my fellow students can still identify pottery from Orange county in Ontario, its clay composition, the method of its production and why its colour distinguishes it as a breakfast bowl. I sure can’t.

 Cramming for the test obviously did not appeal to my particular “ style” of absorbing and retaining information. Fortunately I can still compare banks (some: replicas of buildings) in Ontario to those in America’s Golden Age of Toys ( some: racism in the form of animation) and even offer a few insights from my visits to a collector in Ottawa who kindly shared his information on his stash of toys with me.

 Sacharin Maraharaj considers himself an educational critic. How embarrassing he makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They extract one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.

Not surprisingly my letter(see below) that pointed out the flaws in Maraharaj’s analysis was not published. How ironic in the continuing wake of the Rob Ford scandal, and The Star’s constant attack, that simply misleading is allowed to persist by a newspaper high-handedly championing investigative journalism. Moral hogwash. Talk about hypocrisy-and believe me, I cannot tolerate even hearing the name of the buffoon who was voted mayor.

 Daily, we read about the efficacy of early kindergarten and the loss of its intellectual impacts by Grade 3.  I wonder if Maraharaj’s real topic was a political one to align himself or garner favour with those who support tests, scream about needless costs and lampoon creativity in education? Whether multiple choice tests reveal or substantiate “knowledge” or not, MI offers benefits for children. People who decry the expense only put the cost somewhere else- remedial and societal support programs because those who cannot read, or feel unaccepted in society may act out or on the society that has failed to educate or prepare them properly for life…I am not suggesting that early full day kindergarten will repair all of society’s issues: however, it damn well provides an excellent start upon which to build a healthier society.

We see MI theory at work in every kindergarten across the province in play centers and the play-based learning as the framework for early learning in our schools. This approach encourages children to stick their muddy little fingers into a variety of learning methods, They are engaged in an “experience” in Deweyian terms (for sure) through a multiplicity of sensual responses and intellectual stimulations in positive, practical environments supported by well trained professionals. Perhaps Maraharaj might scorn this as merely first rate daycare for people who otherwise might have dropped the kid at the neighbours. I’ld rather my kid interact than stare at the television or be tossed a video game. But again that’s me. Or forgive me if I am taking his argument out of its original context. 😉

I  truly don’t know where his argument comes from or why he more than tinkered with the meaning of The Washington Post’s meaning. As an educator, he does not do service to his readers. As a writer myself, I consider how twisting facts might grow into plagiarism or a total disregard for the validity of the work of others. For me, it’s a moral question: of how we use the ideas of others.

 When I taught, I always felt it was not so much what you taught but how you taught: that stimulating children so they want to learn and excite their interest and desire would enable them to stay curious, continue on and eventually discover what they were passionate about. Knowing the basics of reading and counting opens the doors of lifelong learning and a thirst for education. With these tools, children could go anywhere.

My grandson has been in English and French kindergartens and I have picked him up in both classrooms where at 5 o’clock there is still so much going on, that kids do not want to leave. Yesterday I walked in on pancake making for Channukah, noted kids constructing with enormous blocks, observed windows decorated with all the holidays, heard laughter, and witnessed engagement: the feel that any teacher will recognize of an excellent environment for children. I was literally knee deep in learning through play: new skills, collaboration, social adjustment, co-operation, respect for teachers and environment. What I saw, at least superficially, were well-adjusted children from diverse cultures, playing and learning.

This moment brought to mind a story that Stephen Lewis tells of his visits to Africa and how every single child he encountered has a desperate dream to go to school. This is the school I would envisage for all children, one that instigates the beginning of a lifelong process that fortifies the young and strengthens communities. We want all of our children to know they are the threads in our social tapestry, and that school is good, safe and rewarding.

If you look carefully at schools in Ontario, you will see these programs are built on Gardner’s MI theories; and truly- theory that lives in practice.

 

 

The Letter to the Editor at The Star

 

 

Sunday’s Star Educational fads not helpful should have made me toss the page when I read that Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows turned towards their teacher in a suit?

 

 Incredulous that Gardner would backtrack on his research and recant from his numerous journal studies, I went to The Washing Post to read for myself what Gardner was actually querying.

 

 Not surprisingly, Gardner speaks to the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  What Gardner actually says to teachers is “Individualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead ( my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively.”(October 16, 2013)

 

Anyone who has taught knows this to be true.

 

Sacharin Maharaj makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They give you only one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.

 

To call MI an educational fad is a disservice to The Star’s readers.

 

 

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