Sunday, August 26, 2007

Everlasting Life: To Sekou Sundiata

Some eight years ago I took a rag-tag group of brilliant, rebellious, artistic, marvelous students to the Geraldine R. Dodge poetry festival at Waterloo Village, NJ. It was my third trip to the biennial event, but my first with students. In preparing the agenda for the day, some of my students noted the presence of a poet, muscian, and all around performer named Sekou Sundiata. (He was also a teacher at the New School for Social Research--students included Mark Doughty of Soul Coughing and Ani DiFranco). While we didn't get to see Sekou Sundiata that day, I soon after purchased a copy of his recording longstoryshort. I was hooked. His ear for the musicality of language, his rhythm and timing (is that "flow?") . . . if Jazz were words, this is what it sounded like. In his theater pieces, he mixed poetry, music, drama, and image into a carnival of histories, both personal and national. Indeed, his most recent theatrical work, The 51st Dream State was exactly that. (You may need to sign up for NYTimes website in order to read that article.) You can see a sample at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The last time I heard Sekou Sundiata was in September of 2006 during his appearances at that year's Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In what was the most remarkable event I've ever seen at the poetry festival, Sekou teamed up with fellow poet and Kora player Kurtis Lamkin in an improvisational celebration called "Everlasting Life." To Kurtis's Kora playing, these men wove a tapestry of lines from their poems and improvisations. The atmosphere itself became a liquor of poetry, intoxicating all of us in the tent. What flavor it was only we knew. You had to be there because it was, as all things of supreme beauty, ephemeral. It is gone, and sadly, so is Sekou.

Sekou Sundiata died on July 18, 2007. He left behind him a body of challenging work in a myriad of media, and a voice that sounded of lazy city streets on humid summer afternoons . . . a voice that just won't leave my head.

In addition to those links above, check out:

The Blue Oneness of Dreams

Audio Clip

In Memorium

Sekou on Fresh Air--interview or Remembrance


And then, these incantations from You Tube:

And this one...

You'll also find him in Bill Moyers' book based about poetry at the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival, The Language of Life, which seems to be where most people found out about him.


New American Theater

Come on and Bring on the Reparations

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gogol Bordello

Ok, so only a few words here. Gogol Bordello rocks with the kind of smart, witty, punk sensibility that used to warrant the best of The Dead Kennedys, sans all the self-important political posturing of Jello Biafra. That's not to say that GB's front man Eugene Hutz doesn't have anything important to say. It's simply to note that he lets the music and his manic presence on stage speak. This is punk at its best. No didacticism, just ragged licks, wicked beats, and passionate performance...No! It's even better than that, 'cause it has accordion and gypsy sensibility. If you start to listen, you should listen all the way through, otherwise they might just curse you and your first born child.

NPR has a great interview with Eugene Hutz and you can download a GB concert at their "all songs considered" podcast. (There's a link off the NPR Summer Concert series story under the link to the Fresh Air interview.

NPR and Gogol Bordello.

Teaching, Learning and Jazzing on the Standards Movement

(Here's another manifestino from my classroom blog. "Stop me, oh ho ho stop me/Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before." My apologies to The Smiths.)

I’ve chosen a title here that I’ve used before, and I’ll admit, it’s not original. I first encountered the analogy between teaching and jazz in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer several years ago. I had just begun to sound the depths of Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Ella, Lady Day . . . all the jazz greats, and the analogy sounded so apt to me. In the years since, I’ve found nothing that can touch the appropriateness of that analogy, especially with the advent of NCLB and the standards movement. Jazz music has standards, too, but no one interpretation of a standard is the same as another. Jazz is rhythm--lively, original, pulsing, moving rhythm. Oh! if only the masters of the standards movement understood such a thing. But they don’t, and so instead of classrooms with teachers who devise themes, set tempos and then guide the students through improvisations on vital rhythms, we get monotone, mechanical, classrooms filled with the sounds and voices of neutered storm troopers--stillborn music, dumb, mute, ordinary. It’s the perfect tune for an outdated metaphor of education. This is the music of the assembly line model of education. I had hoped it had died after the revolutionary work of the 60’s, but it’s back. Now conducted by the maestros of capitalist conformity, education becomes the factory for standardized groupthink, churning out production-line models of a proletariat weaned on “proficiency." When we allow business and its drive for accountability to become the impetus for education, when success is measured in dollar signs, when we go to school to get a job and not an education...when we do those things, we bury our humanity, our opportunity to transmit what is good and right about our civilization. Certainly there is an economic purpose to education in a capitalist democracy. But economies are selfish, wanting only to feed themselves, and they are ignorant of the socializing, democratizing, humanizing functions of education. Fear of a US decline as a world economic power has given rise to a system of education driven by accountability, standardization, and false promises of wealth and independence for those wiling to play by the rules of a game whose goals they can’t even begin to divine. (Explanation for that statement would take too long. Understand it as yet another riff on the ulterior motives of the standardized test movement. If you want more, however, read Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. It's a brilliant synthesis of just what the looming "conceptual age" has in store for us and why standardization and testing is, for the most part, wrong.)

I’ve been here before, and if you’ve read things I’ve written, you’ve been here with me, but few things need such a pounding as this. What we’re perpetrating upon students is the ruin of imagination, curiosity, wonder, and joy. There is a pleasure to finding things out, to discovering. Why else would we leave our homes in search of better lives, new lands, adventures, opportunities? ‘Makes me think of Miles Davis’ classic album, Kind of Blue. Miles and his band walk into a studio and start improvising, discovering, riffing, playing off each other, learning from each other, discovering where the music can take them. It is pure, unadulterated discovery. It is life. Where in school is there room for such opportunities when we are driven by standards, when joy takes a back seat to mandates, when the motivational drive of new discovery is stalled by the weight of what’s been discovered? (I’m mixing metaphors and catapulting new conceits--jazz, assembly lines, cars??? Forgive me...I’m improvising here.)

And what of us, the teachers? Where do we get off leading our students to the drudgery of the days spent advancing towards the ends already defined for them? Forget for a moment the crimes against humanity committed upon the future of this country. Why is there not an uproar from our ranks for the crimes committed against us? When teaching becomes standardized, we become automatons, our professional certificates worth no more than the paper on which they are printed. Wither our creative drive? We demean ourselves when we accept that we are merely robots who run programmed curricula. At that point, our presence, our knowledge is reduced to admonishing those who won’t “Buckle Down,” and to coercing compliance through fear of failure. Would that we had taken our own Hippocratic oath to do no harm, because I can’t find any good in the medicine we’re making these kids swallow. How many times have I heard, “Study Island? That’s just one less lesson for me to worry about teaching.” (Study Island is a test prep "drill and kill" computer program mandated for all students in my school.) I’ve said it myself, and now, in retrospect, I wish I’d been shot for it. Such abdication of my roll is treasonous to the cause of education.

I might be off the deep end in my thoughts, I know, and perhaps I’m spending quite a bit of time in left field. But the deep waters hold mysteries, and what emptiness and idle times left field affords in this age where all policy makers push the ball to right field brings a peace and clarity to my understanding which my vitriol belies. Still, shouting, screaming, why aren’t more of us doing it? NCLB, standardized testing...we are witnessing the murder of the art of teaching at the hands of these, their knives slipped slowly into the heart of each and every one of us...and no one screams. What horror when we assist our own murders? What horror when we ourselves silence the music of discovery?

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’ll tackle this article.

The author delves deeper into the analogy between teaching & learning and Jazz. His insights should inform us all.

And finally, if you’ve not read it, get yourself a copy of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s seminal text, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. We need more voices like their’s today. I’ll be writing more on that book in a later post. (Maybe)

As Sylvester used to say, "That's Dissssthpicabble": On Ann Coulter and Crititainment.

Here's something I posted back around the beginning of August on the blog for my classroom. I'm moving it here 'cause I don't really think kids give a hoot about Ann it should be.

Now I hope you’ve had your breakfast a long time ago, ‘cause this piece by Ann Coulter is enough to make you chuck your Cheerios.

So let me first say that as a teacher of English and as a coach of debate, Ann Coulter has a distinct voice. That’s something I look for in good writing and something a debater has to have in order to sway judges sentiment. But let me also say that Ann’s writing is technically unsound, filled with unwarranted assertions and given to easy barbs and just outright mean-spirited attempts at humor. Some of her ilk might call that “satire”, but if that’s satire, then I know plenty of high school students who can easily sling the muck with more verve and panache than this tired and worn harpy. She stereotypes, generalizes, and otherwise uses a broad brush to paint her skewed picture of the world. You want satire, then go to Johnathan Swift. At least his barbs are secured to the polychromatic real world rather than the monochrome visage of an ideologue. I could go on, but it just gets ridiculous and I’ve not the energy nor the time to waste. Suffice it to say that I’m damned scared that there are people out there who say that Ann “speaks the truth."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Remembering is just a great trick of the mind..."

The title of this post comes from a great book for young teens called Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. In the book, two misfits find each other, go on quests, encounter danger . . . basically all the motifs of American fiction you'd find in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . But it's new, and fresh, and, at least for boys, it's a great read.

Anyway, one of the main characters, Freak, tells his friend, Max, that "Remembering is just a great trick of the mind, and if you try hard enough, you can remember just about anything." I've always found that interesting, especially given that eyewitness testimony can sometimes be unreliable for just this very reason.

So here's the hard segue into today's topic--human memory. In terms of science, you really can't beat the lab of the modern neuroscientist for a place to find people searching for the holy grail of human existence, at least in a biological sense. What is consciousness? How do we recognize faces? Why do we react to music so profoundly? Such marvelous questions and all the study focused on this grapefruit sized organ encased in our skulls. You'll do yourself a world of good if you read this series of four articles from the LA Times.

Monday, August 20, 2007


I like them...a lot. This one is about a half mile off the eastern bank of the Hudson river, about 2 miles south of Bard College.

I'm working on a book about them.

I'm working on a lot of things.

Aren't we all?

Another Blog O'mine

About a year ago I started cooking up a website with iWeb on my powerbook. While I wish I could code html, it's been way too long since I took a course in html and I figured I'd avail myself of the wonderful products Apple has made available to make me a more productive person.

So here's my other website. It's specific for my class at Perkiomen Valley Middle School East and requires a user id and password. The blog is also specific, mostly to the arts, education, and the convergence of the two.

Creative Expressions

You'll need a username and password to access it. If you'd like that, just e-mail me. However, please be aware that any of the artwork on the site, especially that work contained in pictures of students at the Berman Museum of Art is covered by all appropriate intellectual property law and copywrites. No one may appropriate those images for their own use.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Big Styrofoam Things?

So welcome to the first post in what I hope to be a blog that examines the small things in life as well as those things that just irk me. Just like big styrofoam things.

So you may be asking, "Big styrofoam things?" The explanation is simple. Purchase a new stereo, a computer, anything really that is in someway fragile and along with your purchase you'll receive big styrofoam things. On one hand, they're so important. Their purpose is obvious, and for the most part they perform their jobs admirably. On the other hand, they irk me. What do I do with them afterwards? If I give them to my kids, I find polystyrene fragments all over the place. Recycling them in my area is difficult (though not impossible). And then there's the fact that Dow Chemical has the trademark on the "Styrofoam" brand name of polystyrene. That irks me.

"Big Styrofoam Things" is also the name of the fictional band my college buddy and former roomate, David Wannop (aka "Dave Gold"), and I decided to form during a late night radio show we hosted at Temple University's Ambler Campus. The band remains imaginary, but if it were ever to come to fruition, it would probably look something like Hurra Torpedo.

And that should be enough to give you some idea of what I'm talking about here. If not, then check back. Something else is bound to show up.

Topics for this site include but would never be limited to:

Education (I am a teacher).
HS Lincoln Douglas debate
Art of all types
Information about the human brain

and so....