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School Reunions

My sister forwarded me an email that West Prep is having a 75th reunion.
For those not living in Toronto, there were three “ preps” in Toronto: North, South and West Preps. They were public schools, but someone back when, must have thought they were making the local elementary schools elite by calling them preps. Many years ago, Forest Hill was its own entity, even requiring garbage men to trek to the backdoor to remove that distasteful trash from the view of the neighbours. So surrounding this predominantly upper middle class neighbourhood was an aura of entitlement and not surprisingly, resentment by the plebs in Leaside or North York who had to drag their garbage to the curb, and not to mention, their unfortunate offspring who were required to attend TDSB’s ordinary- sounding public schools. 
Although we lived on the edge of Forest Hill behind our store on a main street, my parents had chosen the location for our store on the basis of the schools’ reputation. So we attended West Prep with the usual load of teachers, some great, some awful such  as my Grade one teacher with her tie up oxfords who raked my scalp with her nails, and made me shiver at her approach. But as well, the librarian was lovely and introduced me to Ramona and Beezus and B is for Betsy books . 
Those  were the formative years of my child’s life, whooping it up at recess as we ran up and down the hills in the school yard and lining up our purée biggees in games of marbles. There we were introduced to Sex- Ed in Grade 5( I think) with a movie called Personally Yours along with square dances and rainy day movies in the auditorium where no one seemed to care if a film ( shown on rainy days) was equally appropriate for grade ones or grade sevens. I recall being kept in to redo arithmetic in Grade five when I wanted to be out screaming and skipping with my friends on the playground. My reflections of those days are filled with childish bounding, skipping, hopping and nasty tangles of little girls bickering or choosing who will be their friend and who not.. Of course, my mother always provided a nickel or dime to stop at Louis on the way so as to buy candy. I would meander slowly on my way to school, often picking flowers from the front lawns en route : to offer to my teachers.
Perhaps my favourite moment was a Friday gathering for all classes in that auditorium devoid of any furniture so that the kids sat cross- legged on the wooden floor. In our weekly assemblies I read my story that described a monkey’s confusion when he nibbled the cherries on a lady’s chapeau , believing they were the real thing. I read loudly and strongly to the assembled hoards, unlike the presentations I gave later in high school : one in which my grade 12 teacher admonished my shaking voice for actually ruined my beautifully written work, or at least that’s how I recall the excitement of being chosen being dashed by my performance.

When I reflect back on those early years at West Prep, no one name, save my next door neighbour’s, comes to mind. There was, however, one girl named Beverley. I recall her because she was different, very different. She had a funny crooked smile, was taller, more awkward with a pyramid of unruly dark hair. In the years before Special Education, Beverley was always there, moving on the playground, always by herself, not included in games or chatting groups, usually mocked or ignored. I think her parents had insisted her inclusion at West Prep, but she was anything but included. Not a bad child, not a mean child, but one who moved like a friendly ghost, circling the clots of kids playing on that barren playground, hoping for acceptance or acknowledgment, but never ever part of the numerous cliques or circles of squabbling girls who spied or lied or cheated on you. Was she delayed or just different? Why did no one, not a supervising adult or kind child, ever try and include her in our hopscotch or singing circles. And besides a “ hi” or disinterested glance, why did not one of us engage her in some form of interaction?
In grade 4 all ready, we were being divided, judged as smart and stupid.To ascertain our suitability for a musical education, which meant selecting an instrument to lug back and forth to school, we were arranged in our desks and told to differentiate high, middle and low sounds played by trumpets, violins or on piano. Unable to properly perform this task, I was separated with the group of other musically illiterate children. Besides the humiliation of floundering, unable to parse the sounds that came to me, I was now corralled, publicly scorned and made to stand at the edge of the classroom while the welcoming smiles of the adjudicator gathered the successful towards her. These small seemingly superficially tests yield a huge impact on a child’s sense of self- concept. One quickly learns discrimination as the large homogeneous association of children is now divided into smarter and stupider kids and you definitely do not belong to the first group. Later, there will be The Prefects and the German class and you will always be designated as not fitting the definition and offered the key to the best teachers and the preferred classes. Eventually you will offer sarcastic quips to announce that you really do not care. But of course, you do. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you have all ready been marked as low or under – achiever and identified as lacking.
I think of my student at Westview Centennial and her insightful comment, and she only in Grade 12, not a graduate from a teachers education program, who considering Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty expressed her contention that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature. Sometimes simple thoughts can be the most profound.And I wonder about the educational environment that does not tie kids to their chairs but still makes it clear they are unteachable. Several years ago, my brilliant grandson was downcast that he was not identified as “ the star” of the week. I explained to him that he was my star, and that every child in his class was also a star, for I believe each one is so- called gifted in some way. What is required is teaching that meets the needs of individual minds and multiple intelligences( see Howard Gardner for more). So the philosophy goes today supported by multiple choice tests or those standardized ones that do not allow for one extra word to explain your thoughts.

I never wanted to be a teacher or teacher educator, but that was where my path took me and as I sift through my own memories I contemplate that my own experiences as “the average child” most often disinterested or  bored lead me to my profession. I poured over ASNeill’s Summerhill in Britain, The Hurried Child, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and so many more as I endeavoured to arrive at my own concept of good education. Eventually I decanted it to one sentence, “ If you can read and possess a curious, open mind, you have the keys to an amazing education. Perhaps, again,  overly simplistic, but research does substantiate that a “ bad” educational experience may shut you down for three years at school, so traumatizing is an event that impacts on your ability to learn. 

School reunions dredge up memories of oneself as a child, the struggles, the delights, the friends and the school yards of socializing.The crib of West Prep was overall for me a good place to begin my adventures. In spite of being shut down by my Grade one teacher, there was much else to propel me on. Most of the early bright lights did continue to  soar on at high school and into professions, however, there were the others like me who might have surprised anyone reading the roster , all those weeds that somehow were not identified as the blooming flowers.

The Great Upheaval

Yesterday* I went to see The Great Upheaval at the AGO. Before even entering the exhibit, I reflected: what a great name. Images of mountains overturning, the earth being wrenched apart, deep chasms and I snickered at how appropriate the name of the exhibit was.

In a sense, however, rather than a great upheaval, the show begins to slowly chronicle from 1910-1918 the changes of what people had viewed as appropriate in art. The idea that the canvas was a window through which one could capture landscapes and recognizable moments marked the beginning of the end of traditional painting. However, great art does not exist in a vacuum and just as Flanders stood as the outpost for import of mercantile goods and was reflected in the lush paintings by Franz Hals, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-Chardin, Pieter Claesz, Anthony van Dyck and others in the 17th Century, so the paintings of the early 20th Century would capture the tumult and unrest that was seething across Europe, feeling the rumble of revolt as it rolled towards war.

The breakdown of conventional ideas and mores was exploding all over Europe almost simultaneously from the Surrealist painters such as Man Ray to musicians such as Stravinsky to scientific discoveries regarding atoms and psychoanalysis to actual peasant revolts in Russia. Zurich during the war was magnet for refugees, exiles, anarchists, artist and radicals of all kinds ( Stoppard in Travesties, 1975, 69); it is not surprising that parallel art works emerged. Picasso and Stravinsky knew one another,and Freud and Einstein having a casual acquaintance.

Howard Gardner speaks to a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time that infuses and energizes the culture of communities. Yet the question arises, whether the brilliant minds that appeared in small European communities at approximately the same time actually changed history, or did they reflect and deepen the significance of the events all ready occurring around them. Or perhaps much like the medieval or Renaissance artist, was the artist merely providing a window on the world?

In my doctoral thesis, I wrote about artists from the time of Goya to Kathe Kollwitz who used their art to comment and attack the leaders of their times. Van Gogh too depicted the life of the poor and Georges Seurat worried about the machine’s domination over people and the achievement of democratic rights for all workers. And anyone who has ever stood before Picasso’s “Guernica” will forever have the image of the mother, head flung backwards, holding her dead baby, etched in their consciousness. You can feel her screams that pierce the air.

I paused for a moment at the entrance of the art exhibit at the AGO, deciding whether to purchase the audio guide or not. For ages I have been shunning those annoying pieces of technology because they mess with my hearing aids and, more importantly, encourage listening as opposed to looking. However, as it has been years since I’ve sat in art history class, I decided on the guide and wound up hearing more and visually focusing less- except when I allowed myself to really examine the wonderful paintings.

The show opens with a Cezanne “Still life” (1879) and the guide points out the split in the picture-almost cutting the design in two. On one side, Cezanne’s gorgeous ( there are no lines in nature) fruits sit nicely on the tablecloth; on the other, the tablecloth might take flight as there is no stabilizing support for the fruit. If the listener wonders why, the audio guide speaks to the metaphorical nature of the surface being destabilized. Cezanne’s piece is prophetic, subtly but boldly ushering in a future which foresees the ends of tranquility and balance as war is not far, and life will be shattered- not quite into the precise cubes Picasso will herald but into blocks and bits of reality that will stand in for the solid ground rules that once directed artists.

It is an apt introductory piece as a painted metaphor for Cezanne heralds the 50’s Abstract Expressionism: the treatment of paint as paint; canvas as two dimensional ( Notice in this show, Gauguin’s paint applied to the very recognizable surface of burlap in “Haere Mai “(1891); colour for its own sake; the merging of fore and background as the structures of recognizable painting are folded into dust and a new sensibility rises from the ashes.

As a commentary piece to Cezanne’s table of shifting still life, Picasso’s “Moulin de Galette (1900) reminds us of Ensor, Nolde, Toulouse Lautrec and even Picasso’s well known “Le Gogule” and “Absinthe Drinkers” who blankly stare out of the frame, but ignore us, the voyeurs. There is a ghoulish feeling to this dance and bar scene of scary inhabitants who leer out. It is the scorn of the bohemians who go their own way, find their own inebriation and search their own souls, disdaining the public who like us, peer in, a mere audience to their actions. The seeds of rebellion have begun to sprout.

I wonder if the curator of this show held the same notions as I in this arrangement.

A quiet Seurat, “Peasant Woman on Grass” painted in his pointillist style provides insight into how background and foreground will merge as the green shadow of the background is intrinsically linked to the meditating woman in the fore. Although a traditional separation of forms can still be discerned, both parts of the painting are united by the mood, shape and technique.

Similarly Kandinsky’s “Winterscape with Church”( 1910) celebrates the flatness of the canvas. Shapes lose their prescribed forms, the boldness of the primaries, strong blues and reds, the tipping of the perspective meshes the front and back again in an almost kaleidoscopic whirr. While we still can recognize remnants of the familiar buildings and clouds, now they are interlocked, avoiding the perspectival view that people had come to expect in portraying buildings and landscapes: as if seeing through a window. Beneath our feet, the earth begins to shake and we feel uncertain about the solid ground that had once supported traditional and expected interpretations.

We see this convergence of back and foreground in painting over and over again: in Delaunay’s “Red Eiffel” tower, a recognizable symbol of modernity, a manmade construction of steel that the Futurists will laud. Umberto Boccioni, will announce in his party’s manifestos that traditional subject matter must go and be replaced by the essence of pure motion and movement, building processes and materials of a fast approaching future. Leger as well in his “Smokers” presents colors dulled in puffs of smoke, cubist forms that are obscured, but ascend upwards and out of the picture space. Modernity eclipses the past.

Ironically exhibited is a small painting by Marcel Duchamp, usually celebrated for his penchant for motion in “Woman Descending the Stairs.” Here, we view a tranquil moment ,“ Apropos of Little Sister (1911)”, where a slouching woman reminiscent of Lautrec’s red-headed model with a drooped head in long black stockings bends forward. The strong linearity of the pose, the occluding/obfuscation of back and foregrounds, a feeling of a sketch for a moment of repose and quiet reminds us of the complexity of the artist’s search.

Similarly, Chagall halts the headlong onslaught into the future with his disarming colours both in his “ Soldier Drinks” and “Paris through Windows.” His luminescent primary colours, his surreal upside down people, animals with human heads, steeples and samovars from Russia ensure we recognize his signature motifs. They literally stop us in our tracks and envelop us in his interior world where the viewer feels safe, dreamily ensconced in broad areas of exuberant jewel tones. In Chagall’s upheaval, he showcases an inner egotistical expression that focuses on the artist’s right to paint what he wants, how he wants, where he wants, perhaps obliterating the outside world for the security within.

However not unaware of the trends and realities that surround, for his studio in Paris witnessed the visits and influences of Matisse, Picasso and others and he himself had experienced pogroms in Russia, and anti-Semitism in Europe, Chagall flamboyantly creates his own dramatic spaces, outside of the real world, elevating his private landscapes to a realms of magical dominance.

In a way, the Modigliani “Nude” (1917) is like that as well. The strong diagonal of the nude pushes the figure into our space, even cutting off her legs. In spite of the force of the composition, the model sleeps blissfully, uncaring of the stir she causes through the boldness of her pose that recalls the odalisques and harems of Delacroix that also caused a commotion in their day. Paradox always, the tumult of the interior world of the painting obscures the exterior insecurity of the world posed or all ready engaged in battles. Yet the boldness of the attack on space and colour in these works mirror those larger wars: posed in their destructive forces on how reality was once constructed.

This exposure of an inner world as opposed to the presentation of the external world likewise was championed by the group Dir Bleue Reider, inaugurated by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Russia who sought to represent the spiritual in their paintings. The luscious “Yellow Cow” that celebrated Marc’s wedding is a joy in the joy it exudes. Marc has written that he envisaged the horse and the rider as the artist moving forward into a new world. And his compatriot Kandinsky a believer in the apocalypse and devotee of Anton Strindberg appropriated musical terminology to express those contentions. Both artists were transfixed by Swedenborg’s mysticism.

As well, Kokoschka’s “Errant Knight” expresses his emotional distress at his lover Alma Mahler’s actions as this landscape washed in waves of blue projects his personal despair on to the viewer: certainly a new mode of expression for the artist.

The Great Upheaval is a thoughtful, well curated show. Many of these paintings are not the ones you have studied in art books. They provide a fresh look at the upheaval that changed the history of art forever. It provokes reflections on the role of the artist in society and reinforces to the public the necessity of art as talking points and a reminder that art must live openly, provide commentary and solace from the horrors of repression and oppression : beyond private galleries and museums into real living places- schools, malls, city centres, office buildings wherever people gather.

* Please remember I write these, stock pile them, revise and edit them at a later date. So “ yesterday” was not Thursday, September 25, 2014.

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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