The Alhambra Banquet

The Touchstone Common Room has been transformed into a palace courtyard, with twinkling lights, a mylar fountain, and carefully painted scenery.

Alhambra new scenery 4Wearing the loose, richly decorated clothing of long-ago centuries and far away places, kids stand tall and proud, representing people whose achievements still shape our lives, even though their names have been forgotten.  Alhambra Caroline and IsyAfter the presentations, gathering around low tables with their families, kids try foods they wouldn’t usually touch with ten foot poles–because in this case, after all, they helped with the cooking.

It’s all magic, magic we made together.

Audrey ShabbasIn designing our version of the Alhambra Banquet, I found both inspiration and practical help in resources assembled by Audrey Shabbas at AWAIR, Arab World and Islamic Resources. As part of a workshop I attended at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Shabbas described a new approach to the study of medieval Europe, which would include the vital role of Arab Spain, often omitted. To engage students with this hidden history, she had conceived of a banquet in the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

I’m going to quote from a letter I wrote to parents:

[From the Alhambra] we look back to the 700 years of Muslim Spain, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative peace and prosperity; and in which all three religions co-existed comfortably with advances in science, technology, and culture that were largely unknown in the rest of Europe during the same period.

We look out to the world of the Mediterranean, where trade and the common language of Arabic created connections between many cultures; and where the Arab enthusiasm for paper,  an invention brought from China, resulted in an explosion of publishing and translating and an unprecedented exchange of ideas.

Shabbas asked classes like ours to imagine travel through space–the entire Islamic world of the time, around much of the Mediterranean, but also beyond, including the rest of Europe. We also imagined travel through time. Students represented artists, architects, rulers, Sufi mystics, rabbis, Christian nuns, Muslim philosophers, librarians, book collectors, poets, physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers, from across seven centuries of the medieval world.

In our imaginations, in a grand triumph of serious playfulness, all these ancient people came together for a glittering, century-transcending, multicultural, multi-generational dinner party.

Alhambra new wide view of Common Room

When I set out to design the way the AWAIR curriculum would unfold for us, I found inspiration also in the creativity and intellectual ambition of Touchstone students, and in the generosity of their parents’ involvement in the classroom. I knew that we could handle these rich, challenging, unfamiliar worlds and concepts in hands-on ways that would make them real for us.

First, we set our sights high. Literally. Up above the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, I posted Essential Questions for this study:

  • If we could hold an imaginary banquet in about 1400 in Spain, and invite people from past centuries and the whole world known at that time, who could come? What could they talk about?

  • How did life in Al Andalus look and feel and taste?

  • How are we still influenced by the religions and cultures represented at this banquet?

  • What can Al Andalus teach us about the ingredients of successful multicultural societies?

In the light of those questions, we got down to work. During the four or five weeks leading up to the banquet, each student became involved in five different efforts:

Alhambra Nate pointing#1   As a whole group, we learned about the background history and geography. We arranged big file cards into time lines by rearranging our own bodies in a line. We created a giant map of the Mediterranean world in the gym, each person representing an important city. I vividly remember Kate Keller describing the evolution of the mathematical idea of zero, and how that idea found its way from India to northern Europe, by way of Arab Spain. In their classes, our Spanish teachers helped us think about the history of Spain as part of a larger Mediterranean history, and as a hinge between worlds. Taking it slowly and carefully, I found ways to explore Ibn Rushd’s sense of the relationship between revelation and reason–and marveled at the ideas with which these young students could engage.

Alhambra new Don on floor#2   Through a process of choosing from among various professions and roles, each student took on a historical figure to represent. (Adults sometimes filled in gaps. I’m not sure who was being represented by Don Grace in the year of most of these photographs, but the kids did a great job on his clothing!)

Alhambra honored guest listWorking hard to understand challenging sources, students found it exhilarating to take on the identities of people such as Ibn Sinna, known in the West as Avicenna, who brought scientific methods to the study of medicine and healing; or Zubaidah, a queen of Baghdad who set new standards for public works, particularly a series of wells, reservoirs and artificial pools that provided water for Muslim pilgrims along the route from Baghdad to Mecca. It’s driving me crazy not to describe all the people we called back to life. But you can click to enlarge this fairly representative list from 2011.

Alhambra new luke and deanIf a student represented someone well-documented in resources available to us, he or she had to set priorities for what would be included in a two minute presentation. For figures about whom we could find very little, even making careful use of resources on the internet, students branched out to include more information about the person’s areas of work or interest, using resources that would explain monastic life, or Islamic architecture, or the history of mathematics.

Each student checked in with one or two partners, with whom they could share and compare, and stand together in front of the banquet’s assembled audience.

Alhambra new sewing# 3   To help students enter the spirit of these representations, parents worked with them to create special clothing, decorated with magic marker “embroidery” using the motifs and styles of medieval Islamic design.

alhambra matt

#4   Students also prepared scenery and decorations for the Common Room. In our own microcosm of cultural evolution and preservation, we saved some of these murals and columns and window-top decorations from year to year, so any particular class knew that aspects of their work would last, and be built on by future classes.Alhambra new old scenery reused#5  Finally, what’s a banquet without a feast? Some typical foods of Arab Spain could be prepared ahead by the students during projects time, and frozen in home freezers. Other things–vegetarian kufti, chickens roasted with dried fruit, flan–were cooked at home and brought in by parents the night of the banquet–along with pillows to make it easier for all of us to sit on the floor at low tables, and potted plants to help us simulate the lush gardens of the Alhambra.

Alhambra new scenery 2 Alhambra new onion overdoseThrough the weeks before the banquet, kids rotated through projects time groups working with wonderful parent helpers along with teachers and aides, to create clothing, scenery, and food. They read background text related to the clothing, food, and design of medieval Arab Spain. They practiced taking notes, shared what they had understood–and then chopped up tremendous quantities of onion or garlic, or crawled all over the floor collaborating on complex designs.

Alhambra painting sceneryThroughout this entire process, and by the end of the banquet, all the adults involved were captivated and stunned–by the students’ hard work and accomplishments, and by the content they worked to share with us.

What did students get out of it all? I wanted to document this with excerpts from their own reflective writing as we went along, and afterwards–but I’m writing out of a blizzard zone, and can’t find those right now. So I have to try to summarize.

Because these students were so young, almost everything we learned in this study was new. Thinking back, I see faces scrunched up with the effort to grasp strangeness, and glowing with the satisfaction of making sense. Conceptually, they reached far, reached deep, and felt the strength of that reaching.

They also shared my satisfaction in their nitty-gritty skills growth: in note-taking, in handling unfamiliar words and other aspects of challenging texts, in interpreting maps and timelines and other charts, in oral presentation, in giving each other useful feedback.

Alhambra max croppedAbove all, students loved the way most of the learning we shared at the banquet was new to their families–so that their sharing had real focus and purpose. Students felt important, and powerful. I have memories of kids putting on the special clothing they had made (from recycled bed sheets transformed with love and patience)–then straightening up with an amazing light in their eyes.

All of us remember with wonder the physical world of the banquet, so much a product of grand collective effort–but all of us, both students and adults, remember even more the passion in student presentations, the miracles of stepping up, the deeply personal pride.

And, of course, the wild exultation when they were done.

Alhambra cheerI’d be thrilled to hear from past Alhambra Banquet participants, or to help others create their own Alhambra Banquet experience. You can write one of the usual comments, for others to see, or send something directly to me using the contact form below.

Overviews: The World In a Grain of Sand

Think, for a minute, about ways of getting or creating an overview of a bunch of experience or information.

sketching time sample map cropped to squareMaps can do that–geographical maps, but also the very local maps-of things-to-be-built-in-the-future called blueprints, or the webs that some writers like to call concept maps.

Planning curriculum, mulling a big unwieldy thing, I found that it helped me to use charts made on pages with boxes. overviews first weeks edit“Those box things” students called them–and blank versions freely available worked really well as a note-taking strategy for kids who needed to see an overall structure as they took their notes, rather than waiting for that to emerge.

overviews sample outline editI sweated and swore over the classic outline, whenever I had to produce one as a student, especially in the days before computer word processing’s friendliness to second thoughts. Still, the classic outline, with its indented Roman numerals and subcategories, works well as an overview for some minds. (To the left, the sample in the report-writing guidebook for the Voyage of the Mimi animal behavior reports.) I never required a full formal outline, but some students found them helpful and made them voluntarily.

Linnaeus’s biological classification scheme–groups nested inside groups, as in the classic outline–provided an overview of all life that helped biologists begin to grasp the whole of it. Library classification schemes like the Dewey Decimal System reach out to hold a giant organization of the universe, living and non-living: turtles / planets / novels / kinds of dump trucks / religions.

Overviews can constrain or even warp how we see what’s inside them, but they can also help us consider more than we could possibly consider without them.

Now think of synecdoche, the Greek word used to refer to one of the literary devices we use frequently in everyday conversation. An example: Let me give you a hand with that. We never mean, when we say this, just the hand. The hand in that expression stands for so much, including the ways we can stand beside someone, and reach into his or her project, helpfully.

In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. It’s the story told at a memorial service, or the story told in a progress report, that captures a person’s character better than any list of characteristics abstracted. It’s the photograph that can take the place of a thousand words, or images and poems that hold emblematic moments.

tracing watershed pathway croppedRecently Terry Lunt teased me about how many times I’ve used a particular photograph, of some kids working together with her at projects time. “Well,” I said, “it’s a great photograph!” What do I mean? I meant that much of what I want to celebrate–and propagate–shines in that photo. (Not naming those things; just giving you the photograph again.)

Here’s William Blake, on what the human imagination can do with tiny details, giving them the meaning of the whole:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Like Blake, like so many others of my species, I want to hold the world in “a grain of sand.” Still, I also want the classification scheme, the map that can convey directions to some specific neighborhood within a big picture.

When I first began writing this blog, I gave myself huge freedom, both challenging and delicious. I knew I wanted stories, not abstractions; the power of experience, not the power of arguments. I rarely planned ahead what I would write next. I let things sneak up on me, and addressed them helter-skelter, in no rational order, inspired by students’ work as I uncovered it in my sorting, or by the comments of past students, or by curriculum materials. Although I sometimes made rough outlines for individual posts, I absolutely did not have or follow any outline for the blog as a whole.

But then, a month or so ago, I realized that I had come to a lucky difficulty: I had written so much that I couldn’t remember all of what I had written about, or figure out easily what was still waiting for me. I couldn’t see the whole of my year to think it over, in either way, either overview or emblematic glimpse.

sal blue heronA side detour back to the Linnaean classification scheme, the one with families and classes and orders, groups nesting inside groups. It’s still useful much of the time. But sidle up to Steve Gatesy, Touchstone parent and paleontologist, and say, “I just found out that birds are actually reptiles!” and he will answer, “Well, actually those categories aren’t considered very useful any more.” Grin bravely as swaths of patiently constructed curriculum wash into the gutter. (At the left, an amazing photograph my sister took of a blue heron. In certain views, a heron really does look like a snake gifted with flight.)

In any case, my reading supports Steve: most biologists now prefer to think about clades, groups of related species each consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants, a single “branch” on the “tree of life”. (The Wikipedia entry is helpful.) The category of reptiles is not a clade.

I wasn’t thinking about biological classification, but somehow I decided to assemble groups of posts that had something like a common ancestor. Now, over the past few weeks, I’ve created five overview pages to hold together those clumps.

page names under the butterflyIn the world of my WordPress template, the names of pages, acting as links, always show, in a row up toward the top of the blog–in my case, just underneath the butterfly. This stands in contrast to posts, which push each other down a long scroll, so that only one shows on the screen at any given time. (You’ll only see the pages listed below the butterfly if you read the blog on the website, however. They don’t show if you’re reading a post in an email.)

In order to think over what I’d thought over (!) I took the huge unwieldy blob of everything I’d written so far, and I read and reread, and watched myself return again and again to certain themes,

Then I tried to figure out something short and snappy to call each of those recurrent themes. That was its own kind of torture, necessary if all of them were going to fit across the page menu. Like any eleven-year-old, beginning to watch myself learn, I observed the way arbitrary structure had imposed a useful, meaningful limit.

On each of the overviews, I wrote a summary or teaser or even slightly philosophical introduction, and I constructed links to the posts that seemed to me to clump together under a particular theme. I had fun choosing photographs or illustrations–emblematic glimpses for each post.

So now, here are the names and sequence of the five clumps so far:

Even if you’re reading this in an email, it should work to click on the link I’ve just constructed for each clump’s short and snappy formulation. (Short and snappy for me, at least.)

I hope all this will prove useful. Already, for what my high school guy friends called “me, myself, and I,” this process has helped me notice gaps I want to fill.

It has also helped me re-envision my purposes. I do want to be useful to others, to keep serving the educational vision that has motivated me for more than a quarter of a century. So I’m glad to see, from my backstage statistics, that some readers have already used the overview pages to explore the strands / clumps / clades of the life depicted here.

green turtlesFor the time being, though, I’ve had enough of metablogistry. I’m ready to write about turtles, I think.

Or maybe dump trucks.

 

 

 

War and Teaching

Progressive teachers don’t want to tell our students what to think, or to shame either kids or parents who disagree with our personal politics. On the other hand, we’re not willing to teach unchallenged fictions masquerading as history. We’re not willing to say that patriotism requires uncritical acceptance of government policies and actions. In fact, we aim for the reverse, for graduates who can and will think critically, who assume that it’s part of citizenship to seek justice and inclusiveness in our political life. We want everyone touched by our schools to continue to consider the needs of the whole community, when that means the whole world.

All that is easier to say than to live. In my experience, war makes it really hard.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a participant in this year’s writing workshop sponsored by the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences (see my previous post), I listened and responded as both my poet self and my teacher self.

In one session, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges challenged all of the Joiner participants to write the truth of war–including, so importantly, the truth of war for the most vulnerable, for children, the elderly, the disabled, and others who don’t carry weapons, whose experience is one of terror, unmitigated by comradeship or glory.

In session after session, under a dozen different titles, I thought of my childhood with a victim of nameless and untreated Post Traumatic Stress.

On the other hand, in session after session, I thought with enormous gratitude about the literature that’s been available to help me open up at least some of the truth about war’s shadow, the books and poems offering young readers views of war simultaneously honest and accessible.

My Place Bertie croppedI thought of My Place, the extraordinary Australian picture book by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, which portrays war’s impact on ordinary families–on  parents, and younger brothers or sisters; on wounded veterans; on daughters and sons. (To the left, part of the page for 1918.)

I thought of time travel novels like The Root Cellar, by Janet Lunn, in which a young girl arrives in the time of the American Civil War and sees terrible suffering; or Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, in which a time-switch,  via a boarding school bed, sends a girl into the chaos and disruption of World War I.

I remembered the engagement of kids as they worked on understanding historical novels. For example, Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, makes clear the role of prejudicial conscription of Jewish young men, compounded by assignment to the worst, most dangerous military roles–all of this fueling emigration from Russia, among other places.

When Martha Collins and Fred Marchant asked us to think about war’s impacts far from the battlefield, I remembered kids acting out the events in  picture books such as Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, about the Japanese-Americans dispossessed and rounded up into internment camps during World War II, by the United States Government.

When Paul Atwood spoke about the history of only dimly remembered wars of aggression, I thought of Henry Climbs a Mountain, in which Henry David Thoreau, illustrated as a bear, takes his conscientious objection to the Mexican War right into jail, and gives away his shoes to an escaping slave.

Ramadan coverAt the Joiner Institute I watched veterans young and older reaching out to fellow writers from the countries where they were stationed. I was glad to remember that whenever our country was involved in fighting or funding or promoting a war, wonderful children’s literature helped me humanize the other side. I read books about Islam, including a beautiful picture book, Ramadan, by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi and Omar Rayyan, which describes Islam’s commitment to the community and to the poor, and accurately portrays Islam as a religion followed by people all over the world, not only Arabs.

I read aloud I Remember Palestine, a book about one Palestinian family’s flight and heartbreak. I read poems from Naomi Shihab Nye’s deeply moving anthology, The Flag of Childhood, with points of view from every side of the conflicts in the Middle East. I found books about the geography and people of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and read portions of them.

Flag of Childhood cover cropped

Sometimes, these past weeks at the Joiner,  I’ve forgotten that I’m not currently teaching young adolescents, and I’ve thought about things I’d like to try. I wanted to have my school’s brave, respectful students role-play the story of a young vet from Afghanistan, who bravely and generously shared his story of an incident he regretted. I wanted to try out the Forum Theater techniques described by an Iraqi playwright, Amir Al-Azrakii, as ways of exploring different outcomes, different reactions within moments of oppression or conflict.

At 93, my father is still proud to have fought in World War II. But I was very young, and the totality of his experience was never far from my mind, when I became committed to waging peace, which goes beyond opposition to war, and seeks to do everything possible to resolve a conflict by finding ways to meet the needs of all. Paying attention as an adult, I’ve gone further, and I’ve learned to ask, “Who benefits? Who’s making money off this war? Who has reasons to try to convince us that war is just or inescapable, even if that takes manufactured evidence?”

Sometimes those strongly-held positions have put me in an uncomfortable place with my teaching colleagues. (I’m not good at hiding anything I feel, I’ll admit.) In some of my least-resolved memories of teaching life, I struggle with a sense of alienation and deep discouragement, year by year and war by war.

Inevitably, other unresolved memories involve difficult decisions that I still question. One year a large group of boys spent every sketching time, every single morning, drawing scenes of battle and destruction. In desperation, I finally banned war as a topic for sketching, something I’d never had to do before, and never had to do again. Some of the boys were relieved, in fact, and cheerfully set about making other kinds of cartoons. Still I wonder what was going on, what I failed to explore deeply enough, what they might have needed help with, and why that year, or that group, was unique in that way.

Mostly, though, looking back at my teaching while thinking about war, I am grateful for what was possible at my wonderful school. I’m grateful, for example, for the way freedom from standardized testing let me allow a child obsessed with the Holocaust to read novel after novel, sorting out through the novels’ vividness whatever it was she needed to sort out. I’m grateful for the ways I could offer the empowerment in portraits of resistance: in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars; in books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Claudette Colvin. I was glad we could offer our students training for conflict resolution.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we are building peace whenever we encourage students to know the humanity of all their fellow humans. In a different way, we encourage peace when we help our students think about our species as predator primates, who have found and still are finding ways of using culture to become fully human.

I think of all the kinds of teaching described at the Joiner–using the invitation to write as a way to reach out to the homeless, to veterans of war and sex-trafficking, to prisoners. Then I think of my own young students and what writing often meant to them. We are building peace whenever we give students paper and pencils and encourage them to write, or help them build communities in which we encourage them to speak, to give respectful and authentic voice to their own complicated truths–and to listen as others do the same.

As students young or old, we are building peace when we help each other rise to all the many challenges involved in being conscious, and individual, and a part of the group, all at once.

I think of Chris Hedges’ words this past week, and I come finally to this: as teachers, as students, as citizens, we build peace when we choose life.

Being a Student Again Myself, at The Joiner Institute

One night last week, when I wanted to go for a walk, my husband asked, “Have you finished your homework?” I hadn’t. I sat back down at my computer.

For many years I’ve wanted to attend the annual writers’ workshop at UMass Boston, at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences. That title encompasses intense and formative experiences in my life. I’ve wanted to meet the other people gathered there, and wanted to see what I would write within that influence.

Always, though, the first week of the workshop has overlapped with the teachers’ last week at my school–the week we met to debrief the year ended, and cleaned up our classrooms, and began to plan the year ahead.

This year, my year to think it over, is different. And man oh man have I been living up to that title.

A few things I’ve learned so far, in no particular order:

  • How to get to UMass Boston on the Red Line and shuttle bus. I already knew how to take the commuter rail from Southboro to South Station, thanks in part to field trip adventures with students. (I’ve found another reason to be glad about my new senior status: a Senior Charlie Card that gives me a dramatic discount on travel by T and commuter rail.)
  • That the art of collage was born out of fragmented cultural and political experience–and some ways to think about applying a collage process to the writing of poetry.
  • That there are two dozen ways, in Vietnamese, to talk about I and you–and that the speaker’s or writer’s choice conveys information about age and gender which can go otherwise unstated.
Vietnamese writers cropped

The field trip comes to us: Nguyen Ba Chung, second from the left, a research associate at the Joiner Institute, director of the Rockefeller Residency Program, and coordinator of the center’s cultural exchanges with Vietnam, facilitated a panel of visiting Vietnamese writers.

  • That the Vietnam veterans who began the Joiner Center writing workshop 27 years ago have found some peace of their own by reaching out for reconciliation with Vietnamese, leading to the translation of Vietnamese poems and stories into English.
  • That those same Vietnam vets, and others, now feel a special mission to reach out to more recent vets from the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan. The writing and comments and songs of all those vets, all ages, have been my best help for my own mission–partly because I am so moved by their courage in facing their darkest and most perplexing shadows.Richard in his uniform edit

And what’s my mission? I came to the workshop wanting to write about my father’s experiences in World War II, including being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany. I’ve wanted to write also about the impacts of those experiences on both my father’s life and our life as a family.  My childhood began only a few years after my father’s  war ended. He barely talked about it, but it was there in every moment. The phrase “war and social consequences” has very personal meaning for me.

Facing that challenging material, I have to work hard not to close down or slide away–and that turns out to be true even with all the support in the workshop’s environment, from generous peers and amazing teachers.

Still, some seeds have been sown, and in my poetry life I tend to count on a long growing season. I’ve written some drafts of new poems, and worked again on poems still in a years-long process of revision. I have a list of approaches to try, and quick notes on possible personal starting points, from a workshop with the poet Martha Collins. Like every other participant with whom I’ve spoken, I am profoundly grateful for the safety of the writing environment the Joiner Institute provides. I keep taking apart the word encouraged, to be its first meaning. I am given courage by my mentors and fellow students–including those who are roughly a third of my age.

And yes, we have homework. My small group workshop leader, Fred Marchant, whose poetry I’ve been reading for years, and whom I knew already to be extraordinarily kind, proves to be also both mischievous and wise, in ways that sneak up on me again and again. He also states in no uncertain terms his expectation of new work–at least one recent or brand new poem, every class meeting. So I have written drafts of eight new poems and one co-translation in the past week–an unheard-of rate for me.

Some links to my teaching life:

Thanks to Marjorie Weed, I myself have made collage art–not sentimental collections of kitties, but art in which the individual elements are fully repurposed into a new composition with its own meaning. Fred Marchant says, “Consider the liberation you can find in fragments!” and I hear an echo of Mrs. Weed saying to her whole roomful of students, young and older, “Trust in happy accidents!”

(Meanwhile, I remember myself as an earnest and obedient seven year old, who didn’t have Touchstone Community School to help her take herself lightly and fly. I conclude that she is lucky to have grown up, and has followed some fortunate paths.)

Hooray for public transportation! Have I written about our work with that theme? I’m not sure. This is post number 49–and I still haven’t found a good way to index my own output.

I’ve been getting to know a Chinese-American fellow participant. We’ve been sitting near each other, both of us gravitating toward the front of the room in presentations. (In my case that helps me focus on the main show, instead of all that other fascinating stuff going on in the room. After all, I’m used to looking at students, not at a teacher!) In our conversation on Wednesday, Judy told me that her father moved to this country when he was only 12, and that he is one of the speakers in the oral history available at Ellis Island, one of the voices heard by lifting up phones in my favorite exhibit. Actual shivers fizzed down my spine, as I remembered the rapt look on the faces of kids listening to those taped voices.

Circles coming round.

Recently a dear friend asked, “Is it really going to be just a year to think it over?” I know that the post previous to this one may have sounded like I was signing off.  In fact, though, I still have a list of things I want to write about: transportation, projects time, the miracle of parent volunteers, a few more. So no; there’s at least a little more to come. Who makes these rules that say you have to obey your own title?

For right now, though, I’m not thinking about being a teacher. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to be, yet again, at my thrillingly advanced age, with so much to think about, a student.

Here’s one more photo of my dad, 93 this spring, helping to plant jasmine.

Richard planting cropped

 

Time Claps, Part II

The paragraphs go by much faster than the learning did. If you let each paragraph equal a day, or a week, or maybe even five years of our own process, alternately scrambling like mad and sitting back soaking it all in–then you might have just about the right scale.

Kate Keller’s genius invention of the time claps was partly about time, but also about scale: using the small as a window on the huge. Of course, sometimes we make scale models in which something made large is used as a window on the small–much larger models of the DNA helix, for example. But here, we were definitely trying to grasp huge, and the time clap model was a way to compress very long periods of time into periods of time we could experience.

The time claps were also about changing the scale. The 5,000,000 years of hominid evolution we considered for the first time clap (and the previous post) are a drop in the bucket compared to the history of life, or an infinitesimal speck compared to the history of our universe, which we only waved at. Hello, history of universe, we are breaking off a tiny chunk of you, which seems enormous to us.

Five million years is one hundred times as long as the 50,000 years of our own species’ wanderings across the continents. When our class went from the first time clap to the second, we were thinking about one-hundredth as long a stretch of time all together, and each clap was worth one-hundredth as much time as before.

Our species had been around for a while before some of us took the chance of leaving Africa, almost certainly unaware that we were switching continents, but meeting considerable challenges to expand our territory. Following Spencer Wells’s account, based on research with Y chromosome mutations, we tracked our way from continent to continent.

At each stage, through weeks of learning, we investigated some of the remaining indigenous peoples, again following Wells’s lead and using his video, The Journey of Man, in which he visits Aboriginal Australians, people from remote villages on the Indian subcontinent, central Asians, Chukchi people from eastern Siberia, and Navajo in North America.

The time clap itself was a way to summarize what we’d learned: about genetics, about the challenges of human expansion into new environments, about ways the human body had evolved to handle those new places.

Clapping and counting together–clap, two, three, four–we let each four-second interval, each clap, be worth 500 years. Each student, or a pair, was responsible for moving onto the map at the right time, and placing one of our crepe paper streamer lengths. He or she placed one end in the area where that y-chromosome mutation is thought to have arisen, then carried the streamer following a simplified, summarized version of that mutation’s spread.

across the continents time clap croppedWe worked hard to figure out all the logistical problems in showing these things. Here’s a detail from the photo I used in an earlier post, so you can see that Russell is poised to do his job as the time line person, responsible for showing at each clap where we were on the time line. The pieces of brown paper on the floor are continents.

I folded the first section of this time line, so I could show two labels almost in focus.

folded timeclap section

Here’s a detail from a map in The Journey of Man. which we used as our way of timing the spread of groups of Homo sapiens across our own paper continents. Each arrow is a schematic representation of the spread of the  y-chromosome mutations that have let scientists reconstruct this sequence of expansions.

JOM map detail

Here’s the map key that helped us connect mutation numbers with times in our time clap and on our time line:

JOM map key cropped

Because I’m a nearly total failure at throwing things away, I still have some of the crepe paper streamer lengths we cut and used to represent the paths. The photo below shows two rolled-up streamer lengths for M130. These were placed beginning at the northern end of the short length for M168 (the Y chromosome shared by all men not indigenous to Africa.)

One student carried one of the M130 streamers by the coastal route around the Indian subcontinent, and then through southeast Asia to Australia. There was much less water to cross, in the time this happened, because the sea level was so much lower, with lots of water locked up in ice. Much more of southeast Asia and the nearby islands stretched in one long continuous land mass. But still, there were many miles of open ocean to cross, to get to Australia. Somehow people did it, spreading around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean astonishingly quickly.

Another student carried the second M130 streamer northeast to Siberia and then to North America–a very long expansion into harsh conditions, that took a much longer time.

JOM M130 croppedThis whole field of human population genetics is moving fast. M130 is now designated as C-M130, and on Wikipedia you can find an excellent, very technical article about the C-M130 lineage, or haplogroup. I love the labels on these streamers, made by students, full of pride in their own technical knowledge at that point.

JOM multicolored mutation streamerI’m not sure about this streamer with its many colors, mutation group leading to subgroup, leading to further subgroup, but I think it has the earliest journey on the outside: out of Africa leading to the Middle East, to south central Asia, to central Asia, to Siberia.

If you want to start a fight at a meeting of the folks who pay attention to such things, just ask about how we arrived in the Americas. Increasing numbers of  scientists now say that boats must have been involved, small boats made probably out of walrus or other large marine mammal skins stretched over frames, like the ones coastal Chukchi people still make and use. Spreading across the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean west to east, we probably kept fairly close to the coastline or ice pack, and in each new venture moved only far enough to come to an ice-free coastal area that had what we needed. Alice Roberts describes her own take on this in her video called The Incredible Human Journey.

Because of lower sea levels at the time, that ancient coastline is far out to sea now. Boats wouldn’t last to be found, and coastal settlements would currently be under many feet of water–so there’s not much archaeological trail of any kind, so far. The evidence is all circumstantial: somehow we arrived in places that involved crossing wide stretches of water, no matter how low the sea level had dropped.

However they did it, some very small percentage of my own ancestors made that ancient journey into North America. Still, that’s not why I say “we.” I’ve come to feel that all of this story belongs to all of us.

The rest of the ancestors of our class (including most of mine, and Kate’s) came to North America more recently. We wanted to end this thematic study of who we are and how we got here by learning about our recent immigrant ancestors, and the patterns of goodbye and hello that shaped their lives.

So we changed the scale again. In our preparations for the third time clap, we looked at just the last 500 years of immigration to North America, and focused on stories we had gathered, about people related to us and about family friends. Those included Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower, representatives of the huge influx from eastern and southern Europe in the early 20th century, and more recent immigrants from Latin America, some with mixed African heritage.

For this time clap we made a very simplified geographical representation that could fit in our classroom. Simpler props–but we were moved and focused by representing individual real people whose stories we knew. Clapping and counting, holding signs, we showed their individual arrivals decade by decade.

What do Kate and I think about, looking back at all this?

I often recall a memory that is uneasy. A girl who had been adopted from China represented herself in our third time clap, and “traveled” east to North America. She joined us from another class, and we were proud and excited to have her take part. Only afterwards, and with regret, I realized that she was embarrassed, unhappy to have been identified as a recent immigrant.

Kate remembers worrying that we were all focused so intensely on our parts in each time clap’s execution, struggling to move and do the right things at the right moment, that it was hard to pay attention to the whole as it happened around us. At least for us, for Kate and me and the invaluable parent volunteers who helped us pull it off, each of those not-quite-seven-minute stretches went by in a blur. So we might be tempted, doing it again, to change the scale and make each time clap last longer, not in what it represents but in how long it takes in the present. Of course, then we might lose people in the long stretches with not much happening. Trade-offs. Probably we’d let the kids decide.

For sure, the value was not so much in the observed performance, but in the experience from the inside–all the preparation, and that immediate sense of taking part in something huge.

Lucky-and-a-half, both grown-ups and students, we felt like explorers ourselves, opening up new knowledge, sharing that with our families and with each other, imagining eyes focused on new horizons.

 

Time Claps: the first 5 million years

The enigma of time

In a new novel by Kirkpatrick Hill, Bo at Ballard Creek, a gold miner who loves rocks, shiny or not, tries to tell Bo how old they are.

“They’ve been here since the beginning. Before plants or animals. Before the oceans. They’re billions of years old.”

Bo…looked hard at Peter’s kind face to see how old that was. Billions must be terribly old, but she couldn’t even imagine being twelve or fifteen, so how could she think of billions?

Bo is just five, but kids twice her age, or more–adults, even–have the same trouble. Trying to grasp the idea of deep time, billions of years of time, is like thinking of the depth of the universe—something always there, but mostly invisible to us, unreal even when we try hard to get our minds around it.

We need to grasp the depth of time in order to understand the role of evolution in biology, the impact of the speed of light in astronomy, any explanation of rock origins in geology, and the long span of cultural evolution in anthropology–just for starters. How can young adolescents begin to grasp this essential ground for so much learning?

Kate Keller, curriculum genius, on the case

Having grown up with multiple brothers and multiple sisters, Kate is interested in everything. (Even football, I think to myself as I write this.) The daughter of two architects, she is always alert to purpose and design wound together. Planning curriculum, reading everything she can find, Kate becomes a sort of settling pan (notice the gold-mining image) for the most powerful, most fertile, heaviest ideas in a thematic study–from some points of view, the most adult understandings. Then she comes up with active, playful, open-ended, deeply kid-centered ways for students to connect with these ideas.

All of us who work with Kate–colleagues, students, parents–feel smarter when we’re working with her. We try harder things, and try harder while we’re doing them. Not all geniuses have that effect.

We called our thematic study The Journey of Man but wanted it to encompass more than Spencer Wells’s book by the same title. We’d begin with a relatively brief overview of the past 5 million years of hominid evolution in Africa. Then we’d look at the past 50,000 years, focusing on the spread of modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, across the continents, using that as a chance to do a lot of geography work. Finally we’d look at the most recent 500 years of immigration into North America.

In other words, to think about all this, Kate and I wanted our students to imagine millions of years, thousands of years, and hundreds of years. How?

Modeling time and space

Harvey Weiss map of Australia croppedIn order to make maps or scaled blueprints, we model large quantities of space by using smaller quantities of space. We let an inch equal a mile, or a centimeter equal a kilometer, or three, or a thousand. Here’s a very basic example from a favorite book about maps, by Harvey Weiss.

When we’re making time lines, we use small amounts of space to model large amounts of time. If a meter is a century, for example, then each centimeter is a year, and 10 meters can be a thousand years, a millennium. Need more than a thousand years? No room for a timeline 10 meters long? Change your scale. Let every millimeter represent a year, say, so that a whole meter stands for 1000 years. On the sample below, students made each 4 inches equal 100,000 years.

hominid time line detail 2

One way or another, a time line lets space stand for time.

Time lines can be very powerful. Here’s a memory I treasure, from another study. We’d been working on a time line of transportation innovations, and it had gotten so long that the students working on it had to lay it out down the school’s longest hallway. As I helped them carrying it back to our classroom at the end of projects time, some younger students walked by. “What’s that?” one asked. Without missing a beat, one of my students answered, “Ten thousand years of human history.”

On beyond time lines: letting time stand for time

Still, time lines aren’t made of time. Kate asked, “What if we let small quantities of time stand for longer quantities of time?”

Science videos sometimes present this in words. For example, at the beginning of the video The Journey of Man, Spencer Wells represents the evolutionary history of apes as one year, with the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, on December 28. This compression, in which we leave Africa on New Year’s Eve, can give kids some sense of the comparative brevity of human experience. But what could help them really feel it?

Suddenly, Kate came up with an idea so brilliant that the students who were involved still say it with an exclamation point: the time claps!

We would all clap hands, as a group, to represent time ticking away. The interval between claps, a few seconds, would stand for a much longer amount of time–a different amount of time in the time clap for each section of our study. Meanwhile, individual students would stand and move around and hold signs or other props, to represent what was happening within that time. We would all be participants, and all be watchers.

Some overall nuts and bolts

We did three separate time claps, each with a different scale and its own companion paper timeline, for the three parts of our study.

We worked in many ways to prepare for each of the time clap “performances.” We created paper continents and paper timelines and other props. At one point we arranged our desk groups into a very rough representation of the continents and their relation to each other, to help with that part. We made plays about the indigenous people of some of the continents, and investigated some of the requisite technologies for leaving the tropics. (In another post I need to write about the incredible contributions of parent volunteers, in all this hands-on work.)

Although we gave students the responsibility, as usual, for figuring out workable scales for the paper time lines, Kate and I figured out the scales for the time claps behind the scenes.

Here’s a chart I made as we were talking and considering:

time clap notes 4The first time we tried it, we realized that counting 5 seconds again and again was much too awkward. (Try it–you’ll see.) The rhythm of “clap, two, three, four” worked much better, so we refigured:

time clap notesFive million years

For the first time clap, we looked at the past 5 million years of evolution of various hominin species. With everyone clapping together, we clapped and counted four seconds–clap, two, three, four, and repeat. Every eight seconds, or every two claps, counted as one tenth of a million years, 100,000 years. So we represented 5,000,000 years in 8 X 50 or 400 seconds, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Meanwhile, different kids represented different hominin species. When the fossil record indicates the beginning of a species’ time, a student would stand up, holding a sign with that species’ name. He or she would stay standing for as long as that species is thought to have been around, and act out some of the behavior scientists agree we had evolved at that point: creation of stone tools, use of fire, ritual burial of the dead.

So, for example, the student representing Homo erectus stood up around 1.8 million years ago (represented on the time line as 1.8 MYA, and in the clapping as 65 claps in, since we began with a clap.) Then he or she sat back down at roughly 27,000 years ago, two seconds before the end.

On the time line, the kids put the label for Homo erectus about halfway through that species’ time, and used a yellow line to represent the whole Homo genus.

JOM timeclap 1 timeline detail edit

In that first time clap, long stretches went by, during the first few million years,  between the emergence of known hominin species. A lot happened pretty quickly in the last 200,000 years, represented by the last 16 seconds.

Kate wanted students to feel the way a simple list of events doesn’t give a true sense of their relation in time. It takes some way of making the intervals proportional to the actual intervals, to get a real sense of the depth of time we’re talking about when we look back that far.

It takes the passage of time to help us imagine the passage of time.

Speaking of which…

Writing a blog resembles teaching in some ways: everything takes so much longer than you think it will, and personal excitement can make it take even longer. We all loved this work; we felt proud to be doing something we’d never heard of students this age doing. I saved lots of notes and lots of artifacts. I want to share some of them, but I also want room for some thoughts Kate and I had when we talked about all this recently. In other words, this post has become, itself, a time line for which I have no adequate hallway.

So, I’m throwing my hands in the air, and stopping here. Next post: 50,000 years, and 500 years, and what we think, looking back.

I also want to mention that when I searched through those artifacts I found a copy of our picture book about the Chukchi, and added some wonderful samples of that to the previous post. The benefits of boxpile archaeology.

 

 

A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

We came to New England from many places, by many routes, for many reasons.

No humans lived in this part of North America until after the late glacial maximum, what we call the Ice Age. Anthropologists think that as soon as tundra developed in isolated spots, replacing ice and bare rock, small bands of humans moved in, roughly 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

That’s an eyeblink in geological time. No matter what famous names we might cite as forefathers or foremothers, we’re all newcomers.

We’re also all cousins.

The first hunters who entered New England’s gradually recovering ecosystem descended from Native American Indian tribes to the south and west. They walked here, spreading into newly available territories. Compressing the story of thousands of years before that, we can say that their ancestors had come from Africa, by way of Asia.

The Pilgrims and Puritans of early colonial Massachusetts, and all the other groups who came from various parts of Europe, are also not-so-distant descendants of people–in fact, one specific man about 60,000 years ago–in Africa. They arrived in Europe by way of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, or more often by way of Asia. They came to North America much later, by boat, and later by airplane.

African slaves came from Africa more directly, and earlier than most European Americans, transported by boats and brutal force.

Still more recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America and Asia and Africa came to North America and New England by choice, although often out of desperation, as political or economic refugees.

All of us, reunited cousins from all over the world, belong to a very young species that emerged only 200,000 years or so ago. Furthermore, those of us who call ourselves European Americans, Asian Americans, Native American Indians, or Latin Americans all descend from a tiny handful of people who left the African continent about 50,000 years ago, whose descendants spread across the world.

Most modern Africans are descended from the ones who stayed in Africa. They show much greater genetic diversity, not having passed through that tiny genetic gauntlet of the small group who left Africa and survived. But all of us, everywhere in the world, descend from that one man long ago. We’re cousins.

How do scientists know all this? How did I learn it, and how did my classes come to learn it?

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and interested in our species and how it came to be. Like toddlers who’ve just learned to walk (or talk), full of the enthusiasm of new powers of inquiry, scientists are busily synthesizing the discoveries of multiple fields, including physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. In the process they’re coming up with new answers to the questions, ‟How did we get here?” and ‟Who are we?”

Journey of Man videoSpencer Wells, an American geneticist, helped some of this knowledge reach ordinary people like me, by writing a book meant for us, and at the same time working with a British filmmaker to create a video. There’s some pretty complex science in the video, particularly the sections about genetics. I read and reread the book, and some other books, in order to understand it more fully. Still, when I watched the video (and rewatched, and rewatched again) I thought, ‟What else could matter more than this, for 11 and 12 year old students who are trying to understand themselves and the world?”

Knowing the ambition and eagerness of my students, I predicted accurately that they would become deeply engaged in the video, and be able to understand large parts of it–so long as I prepared adequately. I got to know the video very well myself, and thought carefully about how to divide it into digestible portions of no more than 20 minutes or so.

Some bits we watched more than once. We talked about it all a lot, asking questions and helping each other understand, never rushing. The book’s photographic portraits of people from all over the world helped us have a sense of real people behind the science.

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

From the portraits section of The Journey of Man, these are people from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, north central Mexico, Poland, New Mexico, Tanzania, Kenya, and Japan

We also did a lot in class, hands-on, to make it as real as possible for all of us.

For example, one year we made big brown paper continents to spread out on the Common Room floor. With the help of maps in the book, we modeled the migrations of modern humans, complete with colorful party streamers labeled with the designations for the Y chromosome mutations that let geneticists do all this tracking. I will never forget hearing 12-year-olds talk knowledgeably and confidently about those mutation numbers, having mastered them more thoroughly than I had myself.

across the continents time clapWhen Spencer Wells visited rock paintings in Australia, we turned one of our whiteboards into the wall of a cave, covered with symbols of our own identities.

class photos archaeology0001Another year, the class was particularly interested in a section of the video based on Spencer Wells’s visit with the reindeer-herding Chukchi, a people in far northeastern Asia. In the video, Wells sits by a fire, chews on reindeer meat, sleeps in a yaranga through a night when the temperature dips far below zero—all in an effort to help us imagine what it took, or still takes, to live in the tundra.

chukchi family edited

Here, as throughout the video, Wells expresses his respect for the resourcefulness, resilience, and skill humans have shown in the course of settling the globe. We decided to enter that more deeply by doing additional research about the Chukchi, and writing and illustrating our own picture book about them.

VOM chukchi cover crop  VOM chukchi picture book yaranga without textVOM chukchi picture book yaranga text onlyVOM chukchi shamanism

Incredible Human JourneyIn more recent years, we’ve used a BBC video series, The Incredible Human Journey, which follows Alice Roberts, a British medical doctor, anatomist, and anthropologist, as she travels from continent to continent searching for evidence and meeting with scientists from many disciplines, to understand the history of our own species, modern humans.

human journey trackersShe goes stalking with highly skilled San trackers in Namibia, and measures their body temperature as they run for hours in pursuit. She watches Lapp women use sinew to sew clothing from furs, an ancient skill essential for life outside the tropics. She works with Chinese experimental archaeoligists trying out possible early methods for making clay pots.

human journey bamboo raftShe crosses from one Indonesian island to another on a bamboo raft built entirely with technology that would have been available to ancient people.  She considers the evidence of ancient human occupation on an island off California that could only have been reached by boat, providing support for the theory that many of the earliest North Americans paddled here, around the coastline.

It’s a five hour series. Each time I used it with a class I could only show parts. Mostly I used it to support our work on the history of technology–and if you read back through that list I think you’ll see why. Once I’d shown one section, the kids would watch me setting up to show a video and ask hopefully, ‟Is it Alice?”

Alice Roberts now holds a very special appointment at the University of Birmingham, in England, as a professor of Public Engagement in Science. In a recent video interview, she talked about the importance of science to our modern survival as a species, and the importance of scientists reaching out to the general public—as she herself has done. She also writes unusually readable pieces about human evolution for the Guardian, including a fascinating piece about recent evidence that modern Europeans carry traces of Neanderthal DNA.

In The Incredible Human Journey, Alice Roberts talks about ‟bones, stones, and genes”—her way of summarizing the diverse sources of evidence on which she most focuses. Throughout the video, she shares her own point of view as an anatomist and physical anthropologist, speculating, reflecting, celebrating.

At the end of the series, though, Roberts speaks as an ordinary human heart, sharing the sorrow I feel myself, about the terrible calamity of what happened when European Americans traveled to Africa and North and South America. ‟We didn’t recognize each other,” she says, in poignant understatement.

Europeans saw dark skin as a sign of savagery, not as a functional natural sunscreen that pale Europeans suffer without. (But the ancestors of northern Europeans had to lose that melanin protection in order to get enough sunlight for the manufacture of vitamin D, in places where it’s rarely okay to be mostly bare.)

All unaware, we were cousins, which makes the devastating cruelty and loss of life that attended our reunion even more heartbreaking.

Like Alice Roberts, Spencer Wells also hoped that his video would change us, modern humans, by showing us how closely we are all connected. He hoped that it would be illuminating for us to know that we are all Africans, and to know how close we may have come, as a species, to dying out, as other hominid species did.

For both Wells and Roberts, our species’ past is sobering but also inspiring. Exploring their story with kids, I’ve known both emotions.

So I’d like to know: For past students who explored the history of our species with me and with other teachers, how has that touched you? Were we right in thinking that few ways of looking at the world could be more important to share?

And for other adults who’ve been like me, spellbound amateur riders on this pretty amazing scientific train, how has it changed you?

 

New England Change-Makers

So many teachers wind up disillusioned and discouraged by their students. I’ve said before that I was lucky, and this is one way. The longer I taught, the more I was impressed and moved by my students’ willingness to tackle big pictures and complicated topics. They weren’t just willing; they were eager, sometimes hauling their teacher along for the ride.

In particular, I found that wonderful things could happen when I asked students to communicate the significance of lives distant from their own, particularly lives that are over.

Stepping back: so far, this is the third in a series of posts. Two posts ago, I shared some resources for studying African-American history and the challenge of race in American culture. Last time, I focused on learning by writing, role-playing, or acting, particularly about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In this post, I want to focus on student presentations about individual change-makers, within a thematic study of New England.

New England is edited

The overall study was almost ridiculously big picture. After an introduction to the geography of New England, we considered plate tectonics and continental drift, along with other geological forces and climatological events that have shaped the New England landscape: mountains raised and ground to their roots, the whole region carved by ice and by abundant rainfall, a process we can watch in the present. In fact, we’re surrounded by souvenirs: unlike people living in Kansas, we can’t walk very far without tripping over rocks (a fact abundantly evident on Touchstone’s own property.)

Then we looked at the routes and ways by which humans have arrived in this landscape, populating and changing it. Eventually, that led us to look at a New England tradition as powerful as the Red Sox: big new ideas about public life.

When I designed this thematic unit, I felt that it made sense to look at the struggle to abolish slavery in the context of other efforts toward the inclusion of groups held apart, out on the periphery of decision making: women, people who don’t own property, Native American Indians, immigrants from beyond northern Europe.

These were our essential questions for this part of the New England study: Who gets to make decisions? Who do we mean by “us”? How does that political reality impact our social and economic lives? How has all this changed over time, and how is it still changing?

Teaching this unit in the fall of 2008, and then 2010 and 2012, I found–as I have so often–that time lines and maps are great tools for big picture thinking. But I also found that looking at individual stories could help kids travel through time and revise their understanding more successfully than anything else.

We focused mostly on biographies of people never famous–or no longer famous. I wanted each student to be the authority in the room when he or she presented to the assembled class community, including parents and grandparents. I wanted them to sense the contributions of people we don’t often thank by name.

New England biographies 2From my work with the Alhambra Banquet curriculum, I had learned the value of asking students to choose from a menu of ideas or occupations, not a list of individual people. (They just didn’t know enough yet about the people.) I asked them to choose several categories, so I would have some flexibility in achieving a good match for every student.

Once the match-ups were made, I had learned (again, from the Alhambra Banquet work) to provide a short, basic biography of just a few paragraphs. In 2008, our first year with this thematic study, Mary Brochu was working with me, and wrote many of the biographies in the initial set. Obviously, these short introductory biographies were particularly important for people about whom no biography had yet been written with a view to young readers.

New England biographies 1For most historical figures, a student who went looking could find more. We provided links to online sources, and talked in class about things to watch out for when using websites.  I was thrilled to discover a gradual expansion of picture book and other accessible biographical resources, as Mary Brochu worked her usual wizardry turning up books I’d thought unlikely to exist.

In any case, we encouraged all the students to research–and then share–not just the person but also the key concepts crucial to understanding the person’s story. What shape did slavery take in New England? How did abolitionists communicate with their allies and adversaries? How did the various movements for greater democracy intersect, in the life of a figure such as Abby Kelley Foster? When Frederick Law Olmsted advocated public parks, who needed them most?

To help students identify with their assigned historical figures, our amazing integrated arts teacher, Emily Miller Mlcak, guided them through the process of painting portraits, using as their sources photographs, drawings or paintings from the time, or portrayals of similar people if we had nothing else. In the photograph below, of students relaxing and eating with their families after the presentations, you can see some of that year’s portraits on the closet doors at the left.

New England potluck edited

One year, I followed a sudden inspiration and asked kids to think and write about their historical figures as animals. One girl, who had struggled with Mum Bett’s conventional unattractiveness in the only available source portrait, wrote a breathtaking piece about Mum Bett as an owl–for wisdom, but also for flying to freedom.

mum bettIn all the ways we supported kids for the challenge of even very brief public speaking, nothing was more important than the support they gave each other. Student partners helped each other write functional note cards that could be glanced at quickly; they rehearsed together; on the night of the potluck, they stood up together, silently reinforcing each other.

The audience of parents also played tremendously important roles, making it a point to chat, after the presentations, with all the children, focusing on the content they had learned, not just the performance. It helped that those parents, and the rest of the class, would typically have only a slight acquaintance with the information being presented. That boosted kids’ confidence, and also gave them a real sense of responsibility and mission.

Some kids wanted to speak as their people, in the first person. Others wanted to speak about their people, in the third person. I couldn’t see any reason not to just give them the choice. Either way, the past of that person became a part of their present, and their audience’s.

My memories of how all this worked are very vivid and personal. I think of one of my youngest students, pretty much terrified to stand up, looking at his partner and moving forward. I think of girls absorbing, for the first time, the idea that their grandmothers or great-grandmothers were blocked from getting the kinds of education they wanted. I think of Josh, explaining to me the reasoning Thaddeus Stephens used to convince fellow congressional representatives, and Lincoln, that continued slavery would cause the north to lose the war.

I think of these people called into the present to be a part of our community in some way.

Ifeanyi Menkiti, Nigerian Ibo poet and Wellesley College philosophy professor, once explained to me how, among some African tribal cultures, the circle of minds invited to the deliberations of the community includes past and departed members of the community, as long as people still sense their presence–a concept of immortality astonishingly pragmatic, true to our almost universal human experience of felt presence.

Thinking this through over the past week, I’ve thought how, at the other end of our timeline, some Native American Indian cultures have committed themselves to considering the needs of generations to come, not just the grandchildren they might hold and know as inspiration, but many generations beyond, unknowable. Again pragmatic; again, a function of the imagination in public life.

One way or another, we live in our highest purposes, and serve them most truly, whenever we reach to broaden what we mean when we say “us.” And that seems to be true at any age.

Learning by Shape-shifting

It’s not just children who organize their lives and experiences, and transcend them, through storytelling. It’s definitely not just for fun. The ability to feel empathy, informed empathy–an understanding of another that begins in earned, respectful knowledge of the other–lies at the heart of our moral understanding. We practice that, in so many ways, through storytelling.

We use storytelling to hold onto memories of people we are heartbroken to have lost, and begin to heal our hearts in the process. We work to cross barriers of time and distance and race and class and gender. We hold our own selves coherent in our minds—all with the help of storytelling.

Storytelling can also go wrong. We can tell a child a story about how he is wrong and bound to be wrong, and that story gathers power with every retelling. We can do that same thing, each of us, to ourselves. We can construct stories that hold an entire group accountable for the acts of a few, or revisions of history that scapegoat the blameless. We can cling tenaciously to old stories about the world around us, rather than let new evidence start us spinning new versions.

Storytelling is like fire. We have to carry it and keep it alive, or we lose something essential–but we also have to carry it, and use it, very carefully.

arthur and C.T. editedStorytelling gave power to our classroom learning at Touchstone in so many ways. For example, after my class had watched each video episode of The Voyage of the Mimi, kids wrote journal entries in the voices of the characters. At first, I asked all the students to write as C.T., the young character who is our surrogate within the video story. The second year, when I broadened the choices, I saw how much it could mean to a kid to write as the chief scientist on the expedition, responsible for both thorough data and respectful treatment of the whales they were tracking and observing. Some chose to write as the captain of Mimi, responsible for everyone’s safety and for the boat itself, but also committed to the success of the scientists who had chartered Mimi for their work. Many chose to write as the young black student intern from New York City, initially clueless about everything nautical, but an expedition-saving whiz at electronics–above all, willing to step out of his city-smarts for a new experience.

Taking on these roles and perspectives gave students broader understanding of the trade-offs and decisions in real work. At the same time, creating that shape-shifting experience for themselves, they could feel their own imaginative power.

Our first storytelling connected directly to black studies built on one of the accounts in Freedom’s Children, one of the resources I mentioned in the preceding post. In 1955, Claudette Colvin was just 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on an internally segregated Montgomery city bus, nine months before a similar action by Rosa Parks drew national attention. Claudette’s learning, as a high school student in a segregated high school, contributed to her bravery. Years later, when she was interviewed by Newsweek, Colvin said, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,”

Using her account in Freedom’s Children, my students improvised and discussed and revised dramatizations of Claudette’s story. Several different classes did this over the years, often sharing that year’s version of the skit as our contribution to the annual community meeting honoring the concerns of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, I have vivid memories of various completely plausible Claudettes hollering out, “But it’s my right! It’s my constitutional right!”

colvincoverThe day I saw, in a Cambridge bookstore, a whole book devoted to Claudette, I hollered out myself, just thrilled. Seriously, find the book or at least read the Wikipedia entry linked above: you’ll be fascinated by all the reasons she wound up a mostly unsung heroine, and I hope you’ll feel as grateful as I do for the example of her Mighty Girl spirit.

One year we had a little more time for this kind of work. I copied several accounts from Freedom’s Children, which described a variety of situations including a lunch counter confrontation. Then small groups of kids worked with the different stories.

Before we shared with the class as a whole, we took time to have the participants in each group switch roles, and then run through the skit again. How did it feel different to be the white store manager? How did it feel to be the kid who took part but never spoke? How did it feel to be the one who stood up–or sat down and stayed sitting?

A memory of a pivotal point in my own learning: a child started playing an elderly character in a stereotypical old guy way, shaky hand on cane, croaky voice–playing it for laughs. I can’t remember whether I just intervened briefly, and reminded kids of our purposes, or whether I conducted the kind of group discussion that often serves those purposes best. Sometimes quick and light is good; sometimes taking time to go deeper is good.

Either way, over time, I realized that I wanted kids to carry themselves, collectively and consciously, the responsibility for real empathy in our role-playing. Informed empathy, considered empathy. Such a challenging thing, for them and for me: to enlist the playfulness and inventiveness of the imagination, and give it a sense of responsibility, all at the same time.

To carry and use the fire of storytelling carefully.

We do that best when we’re open with kids about the power we’re giving them, and its risks. Can people who’ve grown up in the invisible insulation of white privilege really understand what it’s like to be looked at askance every time you walk into a store, or to be pulled over every time you drive through a white neighborhood? I don’t think so, actually–not fully, although each of us has experiences on which we can draw, to move towards partial understanding of someone else’s story, and we have the power of transmitted language, stories others have told, to guide us.

Still, I’ll stake my soul on the conviction that it’s worth trying; that what we gain from role-playing or from writing in persona is worth the risk–no, in fact the guarantee–that we won’t get it all right.

Welty, Sunday School, Holiness Church, Jackson, 1935-1936Working with high school students as creative writers, I’ve use photographs (like the one to the right by Eudora Welty), other people’s poems, artist’s manikins, all sorts of prompts to encourage writing in persona, writing out of what we’ve learned but not consciously owned about what it’s like to be someone else. Again and again, I’ve been floored by the results–just as with my younger students. It’s never felt anything but risky, or anything but essential.

Ultimately, because it’s right at the heart of human experience, we want students to understand both the power of storytelling and the risks. We want it to be not just the teacher who asks, “Wait, should we be playing this for laughs?” We want a kid voice to be ready to challenge a quick and stereotyped version: “Wait, what evidence do we have for the way we’re representing this?” We want them to grow up to say, “Wait, it just doesn’t make sense to say that all Arabs are terrorists.”

The questions are part of the learning, and the caution is part of the imagination’s voyage–for all of us.

Black Studies

Whenever I imagined no longer teaching at Touchstone, I knew that I would leave some thematic explorations without ever having arrived at the level of understanding I wanted, for the kids, or for me. Here’s one topic like that–really a set of topics: the economic expediency and cruelty of the slave trade; the Civil War and its complicated relationship with the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States; the Civil Rights Movement and the long, unfinished struggle to translate that legal abolition into true equality of rights and opportunities, a truly inclusive democracy.

I do feel good about some of what we did, and particularly about my students’ wholehearted openness to every attempt. Beginnings can be seeds for growth–so in the next post, I’ll describe some of what we tried, for whatever help it can provide to learners and teachers continuing to think about these things.

In this post, I’ll share a few of the sources for our initiatives.

First, though, why did this matter so much to me? Why was it hard to feel satisfied? In trying to figure out engaging and faithful ways to teach about these aspects of United States history and our present, I wasn’t just being conscientious. The drive to do justice to these topics has deep emotional roots in my own childhood experience, which included, among other things, some integrated schools at a time when they were unusual.

Not that everything was working well there. For part of elementary school I attended a tiny two-room rural school along with the children of black farm workers, many of whom had only recently stopped being migrant laborers, and had settled in our potato country year-round. I could tell much more than a post’s worth of stories about how my parents’ relatively liberal attitudes framed my child’s-eye-view, and left me perplexed. When I was still very young I learned, from an unofficial part of the curriculum, that the world was not fair, and was less fair for some people than for me. I also got to know those kids, at least a little.

My high school was integrated in the way many high schools are now: everybody going through the same big doors, but minimal mixing in most classes. Only some of the white kids took the college prep classes, and a few black kids did, too—so the segregation I observed was not absolute, but complicated, with white privilege everywhere visible and nowhere acknowledged.

Chorus, open to everyone, I loved. But the select group that sang at Rotary was almost entirely white. Most of the people who post on the ‟Remembering…” page on Facebook are white. A little informal reunion a few years back was entirely white. Something that almost didn’t happen–but did happen, also–feels lost.

I haven’t lived in that place since I was twenty, and I’ve been storing up questions ever since–including questions about the things I worried about but never challenged–or took part in and never challenged. And of course I’m leaving out the hardest things to tell.

That kind of unresolved partial knowledge can be a good place to start a careful poem—or a really careful curriculum exploration.

I hope it’s obvious what I mean by careful. I never told my students about the details of my experiences at any of those ages, because I knew how much emotional whammy they packed for me. I sought out sources for us to share that would be as inclusive as possible in their views. I treated myself as another learner who had been at it a little longer—with no other authority than that.

I did have some great help, starting with wonderful literature for children and young adults written by African American authors–with the beginnings of a good collection of these left in my classroom library by the previous teacher at my level, Christine Lindeman. There are so many places online and elsewhere to get help finding these books, if you need it; I’m not going to try to duplicate that, beyond sharing a link or two. (Here’s another link, to an online bookstore specializing in books that show people of color from the whole world, but especially African Americans.)

Freedom-s-Children-Levine-Ellen-9780380721146I made frequent use of a collection of oral histories called Freedom’s Children, in which African-American adults looked back on their involvement, as young black Southerners, in the desegregation struggles of the late 50’s and 60’s. Kids the ages of my students (average age, 11) or only slightly older–or in some cases even younger–played important roles in history, sometimes choosing that, sometimes thrown into it. My students were fascinated.

Many people who live in Massachusetts don’t seem to know about the Mass Moments published by MassHumanities, but they are a gold mine for teachers, and for anyone who wants to know more about the political, social, and cultural history of the state and our country. You can get the eMoment links delivered in your email, daily, and I know several people who live outside Massachusetts who nonetheless read them all.

Here’s a link to a recent eMoment about the first arrival of slaves in Massachusetts. Here’s another about Malcolm X’s years in Massachusetts. Almost all the eMoments have further links to online sources, and/or information about other published sources. Some, including the eMoments about African-American history, are supported with special materials for teachers.

Beginning with the Mass Moments and working out into materials linked to or cited by them, I learned more than I’d ever been taught, or even read on my own, about slavery in the north. I learned about Mum Bett, who got help from a white lawyer to sue for her own freedom, and won, in one of several cases that led to the abolition of slavery within Massachusetts. I learned about the ways the northern colonies (and then states) continued to profit (hugely) from slavery, even after we had outlawed it within our own borders.

I learned more about the high-profile abolitionists whose names I already knew, but also about other people prominent at the time and completely unknown to me, such as David Walker, an important black abolitionist and writer. I learned about slaves who fled to the part of North Carolina liberated by northern troops, including troops from Worcester. Some of those emancipated slaves came north to join Worcester’s small black community, with support from the parishioners of several abolitionist Worcester churches.

The history I learned in school was dominated by big names and dates and too much to memorize; as a result I took a pass on history in college, and may never stop regretting that. But the history I have explored on my own–with the help of resources like MassHumanities–has led me more and more into imagining the lives of ordinary people, and I have found that deeply rewarding.

First FruitsBecause all this matters to me in a way beyond teaching, I’m now reading First Fruits of Freedom, by Janette Thomas Greenwood, a Clark University professor whose research helped open up that Worcester abolitionist history. That led me to a great blog, rich with primary sources, called After Slavery.

Turning in a different direction, I decided to reread Virginia Hamilton’s YA novels about the Underground Railroad in Ohio, beginning with The House of Dies Drear.

Last year I heard the poet Martha Collins read from her book White Papers, an exploration of white privilege triggered in part by her father’s memory of a lynching in the town in which she grew up. Meanwhile, a Touchstone colleague got me started reading a blog by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a young black sociologist, and I’m linking here her recent post about historically black colleges and universities.

I’m not planning curriculum for young adolescents right now, and not sure that I will again. So where am I heading with all this? It’s possible that I am just trying to grow into the kind of better-informed citizen we need, in order to build that truly inclusive democracy I dream of. I’m not done with my own education.

Teaching—including the teaching of oneself—is a relay race. Except it’s not a race. Just a relay. Anyway: here, pass it on.