Tales from outer turnip head...

Tales from outer turnip head...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Doodles of 2013...

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." The first line of William Gibson's 1984 novel, Neuromancer, brilliantly describes the environment of his futuristic landscape with an image of now-deceased technology. He writes in his forward, "The reader never stopped to think that I might have been thinking, however unconsciously of the texture and color of a signal-free channel on a wooden-cabinet Motorola with fabric-covered speakers. Readers compensated for me, shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden, and allowed whatever they assumed was the color of static to take on the melancholy of the phrase 'dead channel.'" Gibson's Neuromancer helped establish the foundation of cyberpunk: that genre tied to Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex, and the Matrix. As I have come to figure out my own influences, the things that tweak my way of looking at the world, it seems that Gibsons's work has affected me quite dramatically. I am drawn to and repulsed by the world he creates in his novel. It's like my relationship with Facebook these days; I hate it and can't lay off it at the same time. The works and allusions defined by Gilson's extension of the northeastern Megalopolis, "The Sprawl," in part led me away from my Baltimore and Boston roots to seek more mountainous landscapes. Intrigued by the creative and often disruptive uses of technology in the hands of the young and brilliant has also made me hunger for things mechanical and analog. I play on computers all day long, but find that my creations that are most pleasing to me are often pencil and ink. I know there is balance, that I need a balanced environment, that technology and nature can have a healthy relationship; the fun of his story is that it offers none. It is out of control and on the edge. Jacking in to the net, careening through a digital landscape, and breaking though to the other side... it's a rush! Recovery—is a cup of green tea at sunset under the aspens in autumn.

The doodles below are some of what came out of me during trainings and meetings soon after my most recent reading of Neuromancer. I can only assume they are my brain working through some of the images that Gibson conjured up in my subconscious as I tried to share in shouldering some of the imaginative burden...

The skyline disrupted the natural chaos of the union between earth and air. Order and purpose marred the jagged edge, cutting smooth curves and precise angles where organic geological lines formerly existed. Their presence spoke of effort, planning, diction. Deep roots leeched from below disproportionately, allowing growth beyond what would have been in a natural state. And yet this was their nature, to do what their will willed them to do. The planning looked forward, never to what used to be... what should be.

Their monitors, like eyes wide in the darkness, searched for the irregular movement of pinpoints of light in the vast field of heavenly objects... searched for evidence of a return on their efforts... searched for the proof to warrant their long held faith that they could not be so alone in such a creation. They yearned for contact beyond themselves, forgetting that they already were in communication...

Their awareness of the transformed nature of the source awakened as the mist lifted out of the tucked in areas of the hollows and of the ravines. Shafts of understanding reached pockets of upturned minds while the subtle glow was perceived by the rest in varying increments. But over time only the psychically blind souls remained tuned to the obscurity rather than the illumination seen by the masses.
The frameworks from which they were operating had foundations in a singular directional orientation, that being time-based-forward. The existence of, the presence of, the awareness of the other forced some to accept a multi-directional, nay, an a-directional reality allowing for the unlimited potentials within "union".

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Life lived equals wisdom only if it provides us with perspective...

Like many of my colleagues in the arena of history teaching, I ask my students why we should study events of the past. I encourage them to ask others, and think for themselves. I know that many of them do not really care (yet). I know that they will ask their moms and dads, or a brother, or uncle Bob and jot down the first answers they get without asking "but why?". I know they will arrive with at least half their answers: "So that we do not repeat the events of the past."

BLECH! It's too cute an answer. It is also a little different and less helpful than Geroge Santayana's oft referenced answer: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." [I am still not a fan of this answer, either. I think it confuses the impact of the average individual and the vastness of global events.]

For most of us, the macro events of world history are not in our span of control: I will not stop the next terrorist attack on the US, let alone half way around the world; I will not be able to stop the early stages of the next genocide; I will not be able to stop child labor abuses in developing nations as they try to satiate my desire to own inexpensive "cool stuff". [Please don't misunderstand me here. Individuals matter! Some matter such that they affect the path of millions, directly and dramatically. But for most of us, the effects of our presence are much more subtle and indirect.]

So why do I study the events of the past? If I study history, I might glean some patterns in our collective behavior. I might learn how others successfully navigated the hope crushing aspects of tragedy. I might learn for how others celebrated great moments in order to improve my own dance. I might change my own behavior to help respond to such moments in micro actions. The great and terrible will continue to happen in the flow of human events, but HOW we respond to them may change. So maybe the cute answer is on to something... We cannot necessarily change the course of events that have happened (duh!), but we can learn how we might respond to these moments. History provides us with the perspective to become better people! And we need good guides who can help offer the wisdom that perspective observed can provide.

"I knew a teacher who taught fifth grade for 38 years. She was absolutely phenomenal—the teacher you wish your own children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews could have. Her spark and energy never gave out. One day I asked her how she managed to stay inspired. She replied, "This is my 38th years teaching fifth grade, but for these students, it's the first time around." -- Todd Whitaker in What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most

Each new lot needs to be given the time to learn the lessons that might seem obvious to those who have been around a while. Each veteran needs to remember that each new lot is there for the first time. The young ones provide raw energy and openable minds. The veteran can offer perspective. Perspective is a tool, a blessing, an eye-opener, a gift offered to those who see it for what it sheds light on. Perspective can be a game changer leading to innovation, compassion, insight. It might, in the right moments, help unlock those individuals who are global game changers. But it can, for everyone, help allow all of us to become better people.

Here is a relevant scene that I have loved since the day I first saw it. It is a scene that I would copy in each class if I could script my moments as well as Hollywood and My Captain. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Telling a story...

A Story about a Teacher:

Once upon a time in a small town at the edge of the northern wilderness there was a teacher who was eagerly looking for answers to the many questions that had been piling up as the years past by. Years ago—when this teacher was taller, stronger, and more handsome—he had answers to most every question he heard. When he did not have good answers for the hardest ones he made up responses in order to buy time for his further cleverness. But cleverness didn't help him much...

"Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."

"And he has Brain."

"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain." 

There was a long silence. 

"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything."1

The teacher had good intentions and a compassionate heart (which some say is still the case), working hard to have answers for all his students' questions, and even answers for the questions they were not asking.  But we all know what road is paved with those intentions, and a compassionate heart does not prepare young men and women for the ways of the world. So one day the teacher grew tired of trying to be Rabbit, and began trying to act a little more like Pooh.  (He-he, that guy said "Poo"). [Sometimes Tigger gets in the way, sorry.] Little innocent ones thirsting for story and attention showed the teacher the need for a better way and he began reading from the beginning again. 

The Beginning.

Pooh somehow stumbles upon the right answers that validate the questions that Piglet is often asking. I am not sure I will go as far as to say that Pooh has "skillful means" like a Zen Master's penetrating koans, or the cutting commentaries offered in something like Samuel Clemens' "simple" story telling, but Pooh stands out, nonetheless, as a greatly quotable sage of the 100 Aker Wood.

Later on, when they had all said "Good-bye" and "Thank-you" to Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.” 2

So... here I am being silly, looking for wisdom, quoting Pooh, and looking for the history connect to "today". I know it has something to to do with balance; the silly, knowledge, innocence, relevance, what I teach, and how I teach it. The new part of the script for me is to stop relying just on good intentions and a compassionate heart, and to really search for a "purposeful how." 

Rudyard Kipling and Graham Greene have written some things that help to anchor my perspective in how to connect my desire for story with how I am a teacher. Kipling wrote, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." 3 Graham Greene wrote, "A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." 4 My colleague, Drew Gibson—an excellent story teller of his own right, who might be pleased to share company with Kipling and Greene—tells me that you need to know where you want to end up with your story in order to know how to tell it.

Lesson 1. In order to tell history as a good story (I can jump in anywhere, mind you), I need to know where I want to end up before I can tell it correctly.

Thanks, few readers, for allowing me to think out loud in front of you all. Your opinions are always welcome. :)

1. A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
2. Ibid.
3. The Collected Works
4. The End of the Affair

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Arrival...

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan

A few years back I succumbed to an impulse that had been itching me since I was in college; I began looking at graphic novels. Perhaps it was a combination of a college friend who implored me to read Sandman, a boss who was obsessed with Batman, countless hours of reading and listening to children's stories as my kids devoured books of all kinds, and/or a colleague who began teaching the graphic novel in high school ELA. But at some point I became less ashamed to admit that a great graphic novel was on my list of what-I-did-over-summer-vacation conversations with my students in 9th and 10th grade.

The turning point for me was when I "read" the wordless book The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I was floored by how this book sucked me in, resulting in multiple quick-succession reads. My son and I spend hours talking about the drawings (while I felt an intense jealousy of Mr. Tan's abilities). I had a light bulb moment when I asked my very young (maybe four year's old?) daughter to tell me the story she saw in the panels. Her rendering of the tale was so full of insight I had to credit the author with presenting us with something unique and wondrous while simultaneously accessible and familiar. I have yet to use the book in my 10th grade class as a fiction of the immigration story, but I have turned many of my charges on to Mr. Tan's body of work.

I started this blog years ago in an attempt to learn something new in the world of "tools for communication". Three of us jumped in one afternoon and crafted the first run of blogs that would eventually develop into:
  • Murder Ballad Monday: Reflections on the tougher side of old, weird America (and the British Isles) 
  • Greylock Snow Day: The expert weather predictors at Greylocksnowday have been forecasting the likelihood of snow days since the Blizzard of 1978. In that time, we have correctly predicted delays, early dismissals, and full snow days at an amazing 97.65% rate.
From The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The first two are quite successful in having developed avid followings, and each in their own way are excellent examples of quality story telling. Referencing The Arrival as a comeback post for my defunct blog seems appropriate. It is both random and purposeful, which sums up precisely what I strive to be daily. It is about a man who "is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope."

Good story telling is an art. Story is at the heart of what I do, teaching social studies, and I have been thinking about how to improve my story telling lately, learning from my talented story telling colleagues. There is a lot of study, debate, and reaction to an education system that has yet to agree on what, how, and why we do what we do. What I have come to understand is that as we have strived for increasing coverage, we have sacrificed story. My professional work is to find balance, but on my summer vacation, reading work like The Arrival is gloriously delightful and meaningful.

Here is Wikipedia's entry:

The Arrival (graphic novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a wordless "graphic novel" published by Hodder's Children's books in 2006. The book is 128 pages long and divided into six chapters; it is composed of small, medium, and large panels, and often features pages of full artwork. It features an immigrant’s life in an imaginary world that sometimes vaguely resembles our own. Without the use of dialogue or text, Tan portrays the experience of a father immigrating to a new land.[1] Tan differentiates The Arrival from children's picture books, explaining that there's more emphasis on continuity in texts with multiple frames and panels, and that a "graphic novel" text like his more closely resembles a film making process.[2] Shaun Tan has said he wanted his book to build a kind of empathy in readers: "In Australia, people don’t stop to imagine what it’s like for some of these refugees. They just see them as a problem once they’re here, without thinking about the bigger picture. I don’t expect the book to change anybody’s opinion about things, but if it at least makes them pause to think, I’ll feel as if I’ve succeeded in something."[3]


The Arrival tells a universal story of immigration. The protagonist, a young man, leaves his troubled homeland in search of a new home for his wife and daughter. His homeland is haunted by shadowy, spiky tails that weave in and out of the city, giving the sense that he is trying to help his family escape a malevolent force. In subsequent parts of the book, the man encounters cultural and language barriers characterized by strange creatures and unrecognizable objects, making it a struggle for him to find work and room and board. The man also encounters friendly strangers that share their accounts of immigrating from troubled homelands. The "graphic novel" conveys messages of solitude, alienation, and hope in a foreign land.[4]


Tan sets the mood of each scene with sepia-tone color schemes, ranging from grayscale to bright gold. The illustrations are reminiscent of aged photos, and often feature realistic looking humans in abstract and bizarre environments. The environments resemble a combination of futuristic and old fashioned aesthetics.[4] Tan's process was one that used real-life models to create a storyboard. He also shot pictures in his garage, using a video camera and empty boxes to create lighting.[5] Shaun Tan has commented on the reason for this process: “I was very dependent on photography for a lot of the drawings, because they’re photo-realistic. It’s not my favorite style of working, and I didn’t feel very confident. The other thing was continuity. When I started, I was drawing everything out of my head by hand, and I was finding that there were accumulating continuity problems--just little things that you notice subconsciously, like the length of a sleeve, how a lapel falls, where the rim of a hat is. The only way to register all of that properly was to photograph a lot of the stuff"[3] Shaun Tan has commented that he was influenced by The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.[6]