Sunday, November 27, 2011

"What do you need?": Buy Nothing Day 2001 Revisited.

On my facebook page, I just linked to a news article that questions, "How did Black Friday come to this?"--referencing pepper spray, pushing, shoving, etc. that occurred this year (and many other years for that matter).  In 2001--egged on by a president who told us that, in order to get back to normal after the 9/11 attacks, we had to get back to shopping ('cause, um...that's what we do, right?)--I went off the deep end and launched my own attack.  The rationale and lengthy explanation for this protest is found below, but in short, I was sickened to the point of action.  Picking up on the culture jamming ethic I'd been introduced to by a group of high school students I'd worked with in an after-school arts/writing seminar, I armed myself with a series of poems emblazoned with the brilliant logo of our group (see picture above), designed by Jesse Miksic, a wicked smart kid who's an even more intelligent and thoughtful adult (read him at his blog and you won't be sorry), and I sat myself, and my wife of two weeks, outside the King of Prussia Mall "Lord and Taylor" entrance.  The rest?  Well, if you want to read it, it's below.  Suffice it to say that I do not shop on Black Friday. I do not protest any longer.  Not in the way I used to.  Say what you want, question the motive, argue for the bargains...whatever.  I've heard it all.  The more you defend the day and the unquestioned consumption upon which it feeds, the more you feed my argument and motive.  There is a branch of science that has been growing over the past few decades.  Some call it complexity, some chaos, some emergence.  In nature, it's more or less the study of "swarm mentality." (And those of you who will be clamoring that this is all about personal responsibility?  Yeah, go read up on Swarm Mentality and check out Stephen Johnson's Emergence.)  Whatever you call it.  It applies quite clearly to the actions of shoppers on Black Friday.  Sharks in a feeding frenzy or shoppers on Black Friday?  Ain't no difference to me.

Here's what I wrote about my first experience in culture jamming, back in 2001.  I did it one other time, in 2002 in a different fashion.  I'm sorry to say I could do it again...things haven't changed.

(Understand that this e-mail was originally targeted for the teachers in my district, thus the ending paragraphs....  Also, I had to edit out the line breaks because I pulled it from an old e-mail and I don't have a text scrubber, other than myself, handy.)

Last year, on Black Friday, I arrived at the King of Prussia Mall around 6:30 AM and sat on a round concrete object whose purpose was, for allI could tell, to be a round concrete object. But is served well enough as a bench, and so I sat upon it.  In my right hand was a large, two sided sign, some 21X 37''.  The sign asked a simple question, "What do you need?"  All I wanted to do was sit there the whole day and ask this question.  I had heard my president, in a post 9/11 speech tell us that America had to get back to business, and that we shouldn't be afraid to do the things Americans do, like shop.  (That's almost a quote, but not quite.)  That turned my stomach.  Being an American means a hell of a lot more to me than shopping and I'll be damned if I'll let any president, democrat or republican, insinuate that part of my expression of patriotism should be to shop.  So there I sat.  About 15 minutes later four mall security men stood like the famed "four horsemen" in front of me asking me what I was doing.   Well, after no discussion whatsoever, I was told that if I wanted to take up my case with the police, they would be happy to oblige me. ('Seems I was trespassing on private property.)  So I asked if I could talk to someone about what I could do. They directed me to the mall manager.  Well, I took my big sign and, quite happily, walked into the mall, searching for the manager.  When I found him, I asked if I could sit with my sign.  He said I could not, that if they allowed me to do so, they would have to allow everyone who was soliciting to do so.  I pointed out that I was not soliciting.  He still said no.  I said, "What if I just stand outside and ask the question to all the people who walk by?"  He said I couldn't do that.  "What, I'm not allowed to ask a question?" I said.  "No," he replied, "it ruins their shopping mood."

Well, I had no comeback for that, so I walked out, dumbfounded.  The manager of the mall had, quite openly and shockingly, admitted to me the mantra the King of Prussia mall--and, I suspect, all malls--want their shoppers to repeat:  "Don't think, just shop." 

I want to note here that I am not against consuming things...I'm not against buying things.  I fully understand the integral part I play as a consumer in this country.  However, as an American I represent less than 5% of the world's total population (according to 1999 estimates), but I am part of a world minority which consumes over 20% of the world's natural resources.  I have a problem with that.  When we buy simply because we are told to, when we buy because it makes us feel good, when we buy because we are, consciously or not, trying to fulfill some image, then we are blind consumers, and we are robbing wealth from the rest of the world for our own indulgences.  My conscience leads me to believe that there is something wrong with that.  To buy just because I can and because I want/desire to...there's something wrong with that. Even Christmas has been changed by these market forces.  What was once a celebration of the hope and joy represented by Jesus Christ (and you don't have to believe in the Bible to understand the mythic import of hope and joy to a civilization), has been perverted into the hope and joy that buying can bring.  One joy is existential, other worldly, and nourishment for the soul.  The other is ephemeral; it disipates like breath in a chill wind.

What's more is that as educators, we are in a perfect position to get students to question their consumption, to question the cultural forces at work that mold them into the kind of blind consumers whose idea of a good time is a day out at the mall.  Henry A. Giroux, Penn State professor of secondary education, writes that "if democracy is to carry us forward into the next century, surely it will be based on a commitment to improving the lives of children, but not within the degrading logic of a market that treats their bodies as commodities and their futures as trade-offs for capital accumulation. . . . Critical educators . . . need to create a cultural vision and a set of strategies informed by 'the rhetoric of political, civic, and economic citizenship.'"

Monday, September 5, 2011

And so it begins...

The start of every school year finds me the same as every other day of the year...searching for new ways to think about and practice education.

This year finds me prodding my colleagues, entreating them to reconnect with their own passions and the passions of their students for compulsion only leads to coercion which rarely produces any kind of positive, long-term results.

Here's my plea to start the year, sent to all the members of my school e-mail list:

The other day I ran across this quotation:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." -Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author and aviator (1900-1945) 

I've read a lot of books on creativity and creative thinking and about how it helps students develop flexible, adaptable habits of mind--a key component for success in an ever changing world.  Quotations by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fill those books.  

One might argue that they ought to fill the minds of all the adults who work in our schools as well, for we are, in a sense, engaged in building a ship--the ship that will bear us into the future.  If we wish to be successful in that endeavor, we ought to heed Saint-Exupery's words.

I'm not saying that students don't need work and assigned tasks.  We all need those things.  But they must be meaningful.  They must be things that, by knowing, will create in the child the confidence and freedom to explore  the immensity of whatever seas she wishes to navigate.  

Of course, many of our students don't know what seas they wish to explore.  For too long they've been told what seas to explore, how to explore them, and how to report out on the results of their explorations, which, by and large, are the exact same reports that generations of children before them have churned out. 

Let us strive to listen to our students' passions and inspire our students towards the immensity of their future...even if, in such striving, we must (together with our students) fight against currents that seek to bear us ceaselessly into the past.

Bon Voyage!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

WWMD? (What would the Muppets do?)

I'm just positing the question.  I've got nothing else to say on this.  Really...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tragedy, The "Shirt", And Fires of the Mind

Tomorrow, March 25, 2011, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.  The fire killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women.  The horror of the event cannot be understated (see these photos) and the effect of the tragedy on labor rules and workers rights in America ranks the fire among the most important events in the labor movement.

But if you ask most Americans about the fire, they won't know what you are talking about.

Such is history.  Stories can be forgotten, and history is nothing but stories.  And we know what they say about those who forget history....

So here's a tale about my own history with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, poetry, and the magic of connections.

Somewhere in my past I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  I don't know where or when.  But I knew enough that when, in 1996 I heard Robert Pinsky (soon to become the Poet Laureate of the US) read his poem "Shirt" at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I knew exactly what he meant when he referenced the "infamous fire".  Immediately my mind opened and somehow my knowledge of that fire flooded back to me.

My point here has something to do with learning, something to do with poetry, and everything to do with our freakin' awesome brains.  How did I remember this fire and why?  And what's it got to do with poetry?  Everything.  If we are to read poetry well, we must allow ourselves two things.  First, we must allow ourselves to actually hear it out loud.  Robert Pinsky is, perhaps the most vocal proponent of poetry as an art of the body.  I once heard him define poetry as "The art of the sound of the language", and his book, The Sounds of Poetry  is one of the finest, most concise books on the subject.  So to "read poetry"we must hear it aloud.  Pinsky is a master of reading, gifted with a deep, resonant voice.  You will not forget the experience.  You will learn, if you listen to him, the importance of the best words in the best order, and how poetry can teach you in a way nothing else can.

But I said that if we are to read poetry well, we must allow two things...and so to the second.  That to read poetry well, we must open ourselves to connections.  That is, we must allow our minds to reach out to all that we know and have experienced in order to make connections, for the content of poetry is nothing if not an attempt to connect the way words "mean" things with the felt meaning that is our life.

Pinsky's "Shirt" is a masterful example of this act of connecting.  As a whole, "Shirt" is a musing on material culture, on how the objects in our lives have histories.  Pinsky is tracing the history of the shirt in much the same way James Burke (of PBS's "Connections"series and such books as The Pinball Effect ) has done in his wide ranging riffs on the histories of things as varied as a particular shade of green in a woman's dress to the carburetor.  But where Burke is detailing the histories, Pinsky is using the tropes and techniques of the poet, rhythm, alliteration, allusion, to weave a web of connections.  Where Burke's work reveals the incredible coincidences and connections that make our things possible, Pinsky's poem reveals the genius of the human mind at work as it leaps from one word to the next, one association or synaptic connection to the next, pausing to expand on an interesting fact (the Triangle Factory Fire, the kilt) and then listing again until a new association occurs.

While Pinsky's poem is remarkable for the histories he chooses and the manner in which he arrives at those stories, such associative discoveries are not unique to his poetry.  In fact, the way one arrives at meaning in most poems is by following the association, the allusions, the connections (both literal and metaphorical) within the text, its sound as well as its sense.  I think here of Billy Collins' "The Lanyard" in which he makes an overt bow to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (and the infamous madeline that started that cascade of memories) as a way to define his own mind being sent into the past by a word ("lanyard") and the flood of memories the word triggered.

And the examples wouldn't stop there:  Robert Frost's "Birches", Yusef Komunyakaa's "My Father's Love Letters" are just two more that come to mind.

And while, yes, this is a post about a tragic fire and a poem, even more it is about the power of poetry to ignite memory, and the manner in which we recall things.  And finally, as a teacher, this is my philosophical musing (only one of many) on learning and teaching.  It's all poetry, all associations and allusion.  It's all about "the back, the yoke, the yardage...the labor, the color, the shade.  The shirt."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Language and Reality--Taylor Mali and the Word

I've been out of touch with poetry for a while.  I missed last year's Geraldine R. Dodge festival for the first time in over 16 years and I've not patrolled the web for the hip, spoken-word poets as much as I want to.  Three kids, teaching, union responsibilities and all manners of other things that make the world too much with me

But I have been thinking about language, focusing intensely on what my words say and how I say them.  And I realize something.

I'm a lexicographers pornographic partner. I'm so in love with words and their meanings and their histories that I trot out new words as though they're the bling around my pimp-daddy neck.

In more proper terms, I'm a word snob.

I blame William F. Buckley, Jr.,  William Safire, and Mr. Mark Rupple.  The former could have given a rat's ass about you.  He used all the words he knew, and he knew many, and he used them correctly...with authority.  I know some people think he showed off.  But me?  Hell!  If English has more words than any other language, I say you ought to use them, and you ought to use the right ones in the right places.  Buckley impressed me that way.

Safire always intrigued me with his encyclopedic knowledge of the language.  While I never read many of his columns, the fact that such a job even existed fascinated me, made me think of language as a treasure.

Mark Rupple was my 11th grade American Literature teacher.  He impressed me immediately with his intelligence and knowledge of language.  At some point during that year he told us how he carried around a small notepad so that whenever he encountered a word he didn't know, he wrote it down and taught it to himself.

I've done the same for a long time.

And so I use words, lots of them, and I often have disdain for those who refuse to make themselves understood clearly by using the right words, or who criticize others for "using big words." I know that's wrong.  I hear Mark Twain telling me so--"The works of the great masters are like fine wine.  My works are like water.   Everybody drinks water."  And yet, I'm still using "big words", still spelunking in the Latinate depths of the English language for the roots of meaning that go back so far into the past.

And so, to come to it, finally. . .

Taylor Mali's poem, like, resonates with me.  You know?