Monday, December 30, 2013

do your homework

O.K. I'll bite. A digitally dynamic educator from Penticton, Naryn Searcy (@ncearcy17) dropped a "getting to know you" meme-thingy on me and a few others:
  • 11 Random facts about yourself
  • 11 questions asked by another
  • 11 questions that you ask to another 11 people in your PLN (professional learning network)
11 Random Facts about me:
  1. I can exhale through my right eye. Busted tear duct valve or something -- makes a sound like letting air out of a balloon.
  2. Although I consider myself outgoing, humorous, loud, and prominent in a crowd (big guy, after all), I consistently place in the Introvert camp when I do a Myers Briggs test.
  3. Huge Tolkien fan, have a big bookshelf just for JRR. Named my kids after Tolkien characters... Luthien (Lu) and FĂ«anor (Finn).
  4. Snapped my ACL while boxing with oversized gloves in a bouncy castle in the gym with hundreds of students watching... too much pain to be embarrassed.
  5. Met my wife while treeplanting in 1991... at the time she was the camp cook and I knew it was love when she served me a up a whole chicken. Still, took us 6 years before our first date.
  6. During my teacher training studies at SFU, I lived in a tent in the woods near where I parked my car. Both G-lot and those woods are now developed into something called UniverCity (how original is that?).
  7. For my final project in my Masters of Ed degree, I wrote about the Epic of Gilgamesh, explored ecosystem theory in education, and made a film about a Sasquatch where I got to strip down, get covered in mud, and run madly through the woods.
  8. My first real job, and one I almost carried through to a career, was that of forest ecosystem geographer. While I loved the wilderness, map-making, and the study of plants, I grew weary of isolation and being chased by bears.
  9. I've had three concussions, had stitches 7 times, and been struck by lightning once. The latter happened in the woods of northern Alberta -- didn't really hurt, but the crackling waves of blue made me wretch.
  10. My favorite go-to lesson involves a spatial history of the English language, one I borrowed from a beloved prof (now deceased) from UBC... Fred Bowers
  11. I sometimes embark on endless bizarre undertakings because someone dares me to in a round-about way... intensive study of anarchism, massive genealogy project, building a web empire, challenging local school district decisions, creating a "Middle Earth 12 course," etc.
Answering Naryn Searcy's questions:
  1. How do you balance time spent on face to face relationships in your own district vs online relationships? My online "PLN" is really just a list of tweeps that amuse and/or challenge me... I'm not sure I would call them "relationships" although I do learn from them. I send/receive a hecka lotta emails, but am making headway trying to squeeze my screen time into smaller and smaller daily windows. I reserve as much of my professional face time as I can for get-togethers with teacher friends -- fellow Social Studies teachers aka @pacificslope.
  2. Where do you want to go in the world that you haven't been yet? Pretty much anywhere in Great Britain... I've started a list of things to do and see, and it already looks like more than can happen in one trip.
  3. Are you a morning or night person? Usually morning, although if there is some stress or pressure I often put in late nights, too. I'm usually awake by 5:30, and have slept in past 9:30 only a handful of times in my life.
  4. What was the last book you read/movie you watched or song you listened to? Reading: Fall of Arthur by Tolkien (posthumous publication), listening to Graceland today (introduced the album to my daughter), saw The Hobbit DOS a couple of weeks ago.
  5. In what school/position do you think you "grew up" as an educator? My current school.  In keeping with William Blake, my Innocence as an educator was College Heights (1996-2003) and my Experience is D.P. Todd (2004-present)
  6. What is one thing you would miss if you had to leave the community you currently live in? Friends, family, my street, the Knowing that comes from living in a place for 40ish years.
  7. What is the source you rely on most for news about what's going on in the world? CBC web/radio, twitter articles, some alternate media.
  8. What is your favourite movie and why? Groundhog Day, for reasons I don't fully understand.
  9. Who will win the SuperBowl and Stanley Cup this year? I don't watch sports so I have no idea about NFL or NHL... it would be nice for the Canucks to win once, but only if they don't get drunk, tip cars, loot and burn.
  10. If your son/daughter wanted to enter the field of education right now, would you encourage them? BC K-12??? Probably not, unless wages, respect for teachers, and relationship with management improved drastically. There are parts of the job that are unrivalled, absoutely fulfilling, but there are also parts that are mind-numbing and unduly stressful.  If my kid is going to be poor and misunderstood, I'd rather they be an artist or musician!
  11. What is a good moment from 2013? Watching my kids at a recent swim club meet -- progress and confidence. Taking a moment recently to be in awe over my wife as she holds 2 part-time jobs (including elected school trustee) plus amazing mom and potter. For me, having the local university recognize a "Tolkien-themed" course I developed as an academic credit for admissions.
My questions for 11 others in my PLN:
  1. If you morphed into an all-round Olympic athlete, what would be your Winter Sport and your Summer Sport?
  2. What was the most interesting book or written work you read in 2013 (and was it paper or digital)?
  3. What is a major change you would make to the BC Education system?
  4. What is a work of art (any genre or form) that inspires or challenges you?
  5. Considering the wealth of oil in northern Alberta that we seem anxious to liquidate in a single generation, are you in favour of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline?
  6. What is a food experience that you wish on your children (or nieces/nephews)?
  7. If your house was burning, but insurance would cover the obvious expensive items and your family & pets were safe, what meaningful artifact would you rescue from your home?
  8. If you had to pick a different career than the one you're in, what would it be?
  9. If you were to ever publish a book, what would you like it to be about?
  10. What was a great event or experience in your work life from 2013 (e.g. teacher experience for many of you)?
  11. What was a great family moment from 2013?
Here are the 11 people I'm inviting to do their homework, in alphabetical order... there are others in my "PLN" but they seem to have done this thing already, or they don't blog so they will find this activity frustrating. Some of these folks I just want to hear more from, others I have included because it will annoy them (Rob, Kate) and if they do this they can totally skip the last step of passing this on... but all of them excellent folks to follow on twitter for a variety of reasons:
Added challenge... optional: if you post your response on a blog or such, include a random childhood pic of yourself. The one I placed at the top shows my first bike in 1973 -- 4th birthday.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Crying Tree

A gnarled tolkien-like box elder (or manitoba maple) used to live on our front lawn right beside the curb. It was a delight to our children - the perfect climbing tree, filled with dozens of burls and natural places to sit or stand, half sheltered from the street below. When one of our kids was really upset or angry, and we had used up our meagre bag of parenting tricks, we would take them out to sit up in the tree until they had calmed down. As they got older, we could sometimes just send them out to the Crying Tree when they needed a break from whatever was brewing inside the house.

Lu was just a baby when we first used the tree for Comfort. I set her down, wrapped in a blanket and screaming, on the first burl-ledge and stood there thinking about why I got so upset she got upset. The twilight and fresh air, the play of fall leaves above her, seemed to work almost instantly, and when we came inside we had a name for the tree.

The last formal visit to the tree belonged to Kate and Finn, who climbed up to the big fork to have a deep conversation about something, now forgotten, that was very important at the time. In between these mileposts, it was a fort, hiding spot, guardpost, cat-perch, and tower in a castle. In addition to children, it was host to many woodpeckers, especially in the last few years, and was part of the squirrel highway that allowed safe passage along the street, out of reach by cats.

The tree has been dying for few years, a victim of whatever had caused the teeming burls, and it became clear that we had to do something with it before the rot set in. The City of Prince George made our decision for us, and came with chainsaws and a woodchipper to take it down last summer. We salvaged as many burls as we could, and handed them over to a local woodturner (Greg Clarke) to dry the wood and work them into something we could keep. He fashioned 20 or more objects from the tree, most of which we received today.

The Crying Tree bore witness to our laughter and tears, to our street barbecues, to our comings and goings, and our attempts to make a Hobbit-home out of our house. It had the power to calm, and was a source of fascination for neighbours and strangers alike. They gave it names like the Booby Tree, the Gnarly Tree, and the Schmoo Tree. On account of the low growths and step-like architecture, many of the kids nearby had their first solo tree-climbing experience here. I can remember at least three conversations when we were all talking out on the street and some kid asks a parent "can I climb this tree?" and the parent looks at it for a bit and says "yeah, of course, why wouldn't you."

The Crying Tree was a staging area for many games and role-plays that I was never privy to, a source of secrets and schemes, but it was the Comfort it gave to my kids when they were sad that makes me most thankful. The tree will have to continue this important work now as the Crying Bowls; maybe there is still some role they will play in the emotional health of our family.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Domination of Black

My class is having a Week of Poetry right now, and I've asked them to both find, share, and explain some poetry with us for our Friday Seminar. This is our weekly conversation where half the class circles around some core ideas from recent lessons for an hour, the other half works on independent projects, then we switch for the second hour. I'm not sure I'll have time to present "my poem" so I've flipped it over here for the students, and also as an exercise for myself.

Here's a reading of the poem I put together a couple of years ago:

I came across the poem Domination of Black by Wallace Stevens in two ways. First, it was in a book of poems that belonged to my dad (the book now belongs to me!).  My dad connected with a number of poets while in university in the 1960s, including Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and the Romantics.  Books of these poets dwelt in our house when I as young, at first collecting dust in the basement, but slowly making their way onto my bookshelf. Thought the lens of these books, the smell and sparse artwork on the book, the poems and marginalia inside, I developed a sense that they were keys to unlock a portrait of my dad as a young man. And, as this kind of work goes, they were small signs of what I might be, pointing towards questions that I might ask about life, faith, love, purpose, and truth.  That's what poems should do... kick you in the existential ass and beg questions. I also prefer that they tell some kind of story. I can't remember if Domination of Black was one of the poems I stumbled across during this time of discovery, but other poems from Wallace Stevens stand out in my memory, particularly "The Man With The Blue Guitar." I wish I would have known more about jazz back then... the poetry would have made much more sense.

My second, more deliberate introduction to the poem occurred in university. My good friend Derk had heard his prof, Grove Powell, recite the poem in class and was particularly stirred by the experience. I planned to take Dr. Powell's class one day, but in the mean time we read the poem together and talked about a central idea: proliferation of resemblances, the notion that under examination, under poetic scrutiny, many things in life come together as one and it is possible to derive similar meaning from any subject if it is turned the right way. This was so important to us in our early 20s -- what did the world want from us, what did it all mean? Our close and intense observations of nature -- what was this telling us, what were we to believe if everything could be made into anything? The poem was a touchstone for memorable conversations over a number of years. Eventually the use of the word "turn" and the title itself became keys to the questions we were asking. The "turning" that occurs was a comment on poetic craft, on the act of using language to carefully consider separate images, like turning them over in one's hand, but also turning them into something, into each other, or something new (like a woodturner makes a bowl out of a burl).  Of course this led me back to the original dilemma, if "this" is like "that," and "that" is like" this," what has meaning?  Is the grand connection of all things, the ecology of meanings, the point of life? Or is the act of turning, of crafting images, or making poetic leaps, a necessary step for an "aware" person to make sense of the world?  This is where the title helped.  If all things can be made to seem like all others (through a proliferation of resemblances), what stands out?  In art, this would be the negative space, sometimes called the black space. Imagine a swirling jazz song, at times simple and melodious, at times raucous and doubling back on itself. How do we make sense of something complex. It is the small breaks in the music, or the line turns in poetry, or the background on an artwork, the things left out, the ideas we have yet to encounter or recoil from, the domination of black, that give shape and meaning to the main subject or set of images, to the part of life that is currently in focus. This still leaves me with many questions about the poem and also the topic of "resemblances," but that's where my thinking left off last time I delved into it.

I have deliberately avoided much on the topic of Domination of Black, i,e, literary criticism and interpretations.  I have such clear and meaningful connections with this poem and its meaning that I don't want to cloud it with what the experts have to say.  Not forever, mind you... I don't think my understanding of this poem is complete, nor am I satisfied with what I know now.

So that's the long way of saying that this poem has left a mark on my identity. To be a person that takes things seriously, that brings everything they know to almost everything that happens, is to be a person that is haunted by unturned stones from the past, present, and future, a person who is dominated by black.  I find respite in a poem that allows me to know this about myself, and at the same time gives me a sense of calm in making lyrically, emotionally, and intellectually elegant connections between the phenomena in my life.

I did end up taking Grosvenor Powell's English class in 1990 or 1991, but he did not read Domination of Black. He read a great deal many other things, though, and I think I still lean back on my chair and speak slowly with a deep register when reading poetry largely because he did. O to be that impressionable again!

Here's the text of the poem: