Teaching, Trust and Testing

The aspirational arithmetic behind that whole “study an hour a day to become an international expert in your field” thing goes something like this:

  1. Studying/reading an hour a day adds up to you reading/absorbing about a book a week;
  2. Which adds up to about 50 books over the year;
  3. Which adds up to a whole lot of learning.

Now, obviously, by setting more moderate goals about how much “ed-reading” I’m trying to do each day, I have ensured that my own personal arithmetic will be adding up a bit more modestly. Still, I’m pleased to say I’ve finished the first book I started when I set this plan for myself. Two-and-a-half weeks ain’t so bad, all things considered.

SchoolsWeTrustCoverEven though it’s a complete non-sequiteur, the first thing I noticed about Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust was that it was published by Beacon Press. I know of Beacon as the UUA‘s publishing house, but I’d not noticed till today what a vast array of non-UU books is in Beacon’s catalog. Upon reflection, this only makes sense, or else I fear Beacon might have what they call an “unsustainable business model.” Still, I hadn’t even remotely thought of Beacon as publishing education books till I picked this one up. Now I might as well export their entire catalog over to my reading wish list as I continue my ed-reading self-study project.

But on to more substantive matters…

Meier’s book is subtitled Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, and although it was published in 2002, it still senses, to my readerly eyes, as speaking to the current state of schools and schooling. After all, who could read the following passage —

[S]ocial distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to “restore accountability” through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust thy are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. (2)

— and not feel its contemporaneousness?

In case you’re interested, here’s a few other reviews:

Meier arranges her book into three sections. Part One discusses different aspects of building a culture of trust within schools: teacher collaboration, parent engagement, being aware of the powerful impacts and implications of race and class differences within the members of a school community (teachers, children, educators). Meier also discusses the importance of creating an environment where children feel safe taking learning risks:

Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb. Learning works best, in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids. . . . No one is sorting or ranking us. . . . We’re in the company of people who are most firmly on our side, no matter what. (18)

Throughout these chapters, Meier offers concrete suggestions drawn from her own experience founding small, innovative public schools in NYC and Boston. Meier outlines 7 key qualities for such schools on pages 20-22. To paraphrase:

  1. Safety, both physical safety from violence and also safety from ridicule and safety to learn and make mistakes.
  2. A supportive “expert-to-learner” ratio, achieved by understanding that school communities can draw on other adults and older peers to create a more vibrant & effective learning community.
  3. Opportunities for students to show their own expertise and passion for a topic/subject.
  4. Flexibility in how learners can experience, explore and assimilate new content knowledge.
  5. Setting aside rigid timetables to allow “time for ideas to grow” (21).
  6. Learning that is engaging and enjoyable.
  7. A commitment to connecting school/curricular content to students’  authentic, lived experiences.

Part Three of the book addresses some customary fallacies and misconceptions about the small-school movement, arguing against the common belief that small, successful urban schools are so rare, the products of such exceptional circumstances (a superstar principal, a deep-pocketed foundation, etc.) that their  models of success could never be replicated to serve all the U.S. children in need of better, safer, more engaging schools. In fact, Meier argues, the “failures” often seen in attempts to scale up successful small schools are most often caused by city and state bureaucracies making choices that impose standardization at the cost of standards — at the cost of actual success in teaching and learning.

There’s no way to guarantee that any particular system will work, or will work forever, or will not need endless revising. But until we get over the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to schools, above all for schools that are trustworthy enough to do the job well, we won’t allow ourselves to do the difficult long-term work of redesigning the system, not just the schools. What we need is a new kind of system whose central task is to protect the public space needed for innovation. We need a lean, mean system, with a limited but critical accountability function, to be the guardian of our common public interest, but one that respects the fact that schools must be first and foremost responsive to their own constituents — the members of their community — not to the system. That’s the rub. (172-3, emphasis added)


You may have notched I skipped passed Part Two of Meier’s book. I did so because its contents — a devastating critique of standardized testing and its primacy in the U.S. educational system — seemed to me not-entirely connected to the book-ended discussion in Parts One and Three about what successful school models could look like and how to achieve them.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Meier’s critique of big testing is powerfully on point. When I called it a “devastating critique,” up above, that was not empty praise on my part.

Quite frankly, I’m afraid to start a more detailed summary with pull-quotes, for fear I will instead try to type out all 70 pages of this verbatim. And I just don’t have that kind of time.* Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meier has added immensely to the depth of my understanding of standardized testing, as well as to the depth of my contempt for its current use in schools. Even if you’re not interested in Meier’s thoughts about school design, Part Two of her book is eminently worth reading as its own little “capsule volume.”

So, a valuable first book in my new Earl-Nightengale-inspired ed-reading project. With any luck, I’ll finish book #2 at a similar fortnightly pace and circle back here.

Now all I need to do is figure out if there’s any sort of note-taking system I want to use to capture what I’m learning and any connections I start to make. Are these “21st century book reports” enough for that purpose, or is there something else that’s worth the doing?

* Or that level of disregard for copyright and the limits of “fair use” conventions.


Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Schools_We_Trust

Hashtag Feminism

#wecandoitI had so much else to say last night about that damn George Will op-ed that I didn’t have time to touch on one thread of the counter-discourse against his misinformed and misogynist rant: the hashtag conversation about #SurvivorPrivilege.

Feminist writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki states in an interview on Buzzfeed:

I honestly started the hashtag as a way to share my frustration with the notion that survivors have privilege. It’s one of those situations where I felt like I should laugh so I don’t cry, so I used my sarcasm to start a conversation about how difficult it is to be a survivor. I hope the hashtag will help highlight the absurdity of George Will’s column and that survivors are struggling in the aftermath of sexual violence. No one wants to be the victim of a violent crime.

If you peruse the tweets reproduced in that article, or in similar articles at DCist, Feministing, Ms., and PolicyMic — or, for the moment, if you follow the live twitter feed, though batten down the hatches for the inevitable MRA backlash in 3, 2, 1… — you will see an array of experiences that is likely every bit as heart-breaking and outrage-inducing as you would expect it to be.

For example:

Meanwhile, in another corner of the galaxy, Shonda Rhimes gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth this past Sunday. (Transcript here.) Among the customary mixture of self-revelation (“Shonda, how do you do it all? The answer is this: I don’t”) and platitudes (“Don’t be a dreamer, be a do-er”) is a passage about the importance of activism in the world:

And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

Hashtags are very pretty on twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.

Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.

(Emphases added by HuffPo.)

As part of an ongoing work project, I’ve been having some conversations with colleagues about the nature of societal and systems change.* We’ve been talking about this topic within the context of educational reform, but the core principles around creating change carry across contexts and topics — including misogyny, patriarchal structures and rape culture.

Let me distill these conversations down to a kindergarten level.  The research suggests that in order for real change to occur, real, lasting, sustained change, three pillars all need to be in place:

  1. People need to know the truth about something (especially when evidentiary truth goes against your assumptions or beyond the limitations of your personal experience)
  2. People need to care, to think that a particular issue matters and that the effort of making change is worth something
  3. People need do-able, impactful actions they can take to make individual change or influence systemic/societal change

So in one way, Shonda’s right: talk alone is not enough to “make the world suck a little less every week.” But I think she goes too far when she says “A hashtag is not helping.” Because action alone isn’t enough — or maybe action would be enough on its own if we lived in a miraculous utopia where everyone was instinctively knowledgeable about and motivated towards right action.

But we don’t live in that magical utopia, so unless people are given information to help them drop their privilege blinders, and unless they are inspired to give a shit, then nothing is gonna evolve.

In other words: hashtags help.

* There are moments my job sucks, and then there are moments when it is really-super-cool.


Image credit: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/12/can-feminist-hashtags-dismantle-the-state.html


A Bad Beginning

The Day 4 prompt for Writing 101 is loss. Any kind of loss, from heart-wrenching to flippant. The extra twist: write so that this piece can be the first installment in a 3-part series, as opposed to the “one-off” posts that populate so many blogs. (Now that piece of advice amused me especially, considering the endless ways my posts speak in interwoven dialogue to one another. I think the comments field on JALC have more ping-backs connecting my different posts in conversation with one another than I have actual comments from people!)

During the hours between seeing the prompt and sitting down to write, I wondered whether I’d talk about my father’s death. After all, JALC was birthed during those first months of shock and grief, and we have just recently marked (or not marked, as the case may be) the fifth anniversary of his passing.* Ultimately, that didn’t sense as the way to go.

Instead, a meditation on how I parted ways with graduate school and the ivory tower.


Sometimes a good ending is prefigured by a bad beginning.

2011LinkAsTarotFoolNot that it seemed like anything bad at the time. Indeed, when I was on the verge of beginning my Ph.D. program, it looked as if — to quote a piece of adolescent dystopia — the odds were ever in my favor.

What’s not to be happy about? An Ivy League program, full graduate fellowship, and I received the offer letter so early in February that even my professors were shocked.  Even while waiting for and weighing the other offers that came, having that one letter in my hands meant that, even if the details hadn’t quite been settled yet, I had my life all wrapped up and figured out.

And there, I believe, lies the root of the problem. I had set myself on a course without enough self-knowledge to know whether it was a path that would truly suit me.


Did I set myself on this path so much as drifting there? After all, school and academics had been the only thing in my life at which I had truly excelled. During the public school years, the fruits of that natural talent were made bitter by the shames and embarrassments of not being talented at the right sorts of things — the prettiness, social, and popularity scales. Once I was at college, the environment was one that more fully valued my intellectual gifts. Why wouldn’t I think that it was the environment where I was meant to stay for the rest of my lifetime?

And so, whether by aimless drift or by self-deluded intention, I was going to become a professor.

Never mind the amazing naïveté of the choice. My complete lack of understanding about what a professor’s life and work actually are like. My false sense of limitation around how school and classes were the only environment where I could be successful. My immaturity in thinking that I would perceive the cloistered nature of academia as a safe cocoon rather than a strait jacket.

I was going to be a professor. Until I realized that no, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t.

* And there’s two more ping-backs!


Image credit: http://jennysrp.blogspot.com/2011/04/you-fool.html

A Place to Call Home

[Bookend] The Day 2 prompt for Writing 101 is about place: “Today, choose a place to which you’d like to be transported if you could — and tell us the backstory. How does this specific location affect you? Is it somewhere you’ve been, luring you with the power of nostalgia, or a place you’re aching to explore for the first time?” [/Bookend]

Let me tell you why I love our house.

It’s not all that easy to find a place with contemporary architecture up here in Boston: that heritage of the “center-entrance colonial” runs deep. So, even though I’ve been in love with that style since I was 13 and first visited the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met, I made peace with myself when we started looking at listings 15 months ago. If I held to that particular fantasy too tightly, we might never find a roof to place over our heads, so I was going to have to show some flexibility.

(And yes, I know there’s officially a difference between Frank Lloyd Wright’s style of architecture and what we usually call “contemporary” architecture. Still, something about them both — the cleanness of line, the use of natural textures, the big windows that elide the boundary between the natural and the lived environment — have always felt deeply resonant with one another. And they make my heart sing.)

houseThis is why it feels a little bit like a miracle every time I come up the driveway to see our house on the hill, beautifully asymmetrical and nestled in the woods. There, to the left of the front door, is the rock garden. It’s weathered two tough winters and a summer’s neglect during the 2013 house-selling season: I’m still trying to figure out what’s plant and what’s weed, but it’s lovely to see things coming in, green and pink and purple. The bird feeder outside Mr. Mezzo’s office window is a new addition this spring: we’re pretty sure word is getting out, because the time between “full” and “empty” keeps getting shorter and shorter.

Once inside the door, you want to head left to see most of the place. First up are the two extra “bedrooms” outfitted as relics of the 21st century, two-career family: his and her offices. Mr. Mezzo’s is office-only — he telecommutes every single day, and the gorgeous built-in desk here was one of the ninety-eleven things that made us knew we were home as soon as we toured the place. I commute to an office office most days, so my home “office” is more of a reading & writing nook that can do double duty as a guest room. My little desk is flanked by two tall bookshelves — which I heard once somewhere is horrifically bad feng shui, but I don’t care. They make me happy. In everyday usage, the daybed and trundle can be a place to sit and read, and they’re also ready to serve as a place for a sleepover guest to lay their tired head.

After these two doors is a small spiral staircase going up — we’ll come back to that soon — and then the heart of the house: the living room, kitchen and dining room.

The living room is open to the roofline, with high transom windows on one wall, and then a bank of (almost) floor to ceiling windows where the room juts out just a little farther than the rest of the house. The carpet is soft and plush and blue, and the sense of light and air, sun and shade is a treasure to me. This room is sunk a few steps down from the main hallway and separated from that hallway by these stairs and a wood railing.

The hallway opens to and ends in the big room that is kitchen and dining room. Tile and hard wood floors mark a clear distinction between the two rooms, but they open directly one to the other without wall or barrier. Again: light and air and an elision of boundaries. The tile patterning on our table reminds me of the designs Wright would design into stained glass, and Wright also comes to mind with the way you can sit at the table and have windows always in view. Whether it’s the kitchen windows and the back door to the vegetable patch, the living room windows (which are still in eye-line from the dining room), or the sliding doors that lead out to an enormous deck overlooking the lawn and the trees, the sense of living in beauty and comfort and nature are very present.

loftAs a final stop on this abbreviated tour, let’s backtrack to that spiral staircase and head upstairs. Here, our “meditation loft,” is another gem that led to the instant recognition of house-on-the-market as home. If I’d been more alert, I would have taken a picture during daylight hours so you could see how this room rests in tree and sky, green and blue. (And I might just come back tomorrow and do an image swap.) No matter what other tendencies towards entropy crop up throughout the rest of the house, this room has been something we’ve held sacred. It’s the seed of how I imagine the rest of our home can be, as we continue to unpack and declutter and settle in.

Now, I’ll admit: there’s lots of the messier details of life and home that I’ve been glossing over in this tour. You’ll notice, for example, that we didn’t head down to the basement and “unpacking central.” Some other night, another visit.

Nevertheless, a core fact remains: however much I would enjoy the opportunity to travel the world and see new places, what I most treasure is the nesting sense of having a home I love coming back to.


Clap Along: Happy or Complacent?

[Bookend] So the first prompt for Writing 101 is a simple one: free-write about anything you want to for 20 minutes, and then copy that free-writing into a blog post. Here’s where the synergy between pen & paper journalings and blogging work to my advantage. I was thinking today as I wrote my morning pages that there was blog-post fodder in there. Little did I know how quickly that blog-post would be taking shape, and how (mostly) un-edited an exploration of the topic it’d be…* [/Bookend]

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.

~~ Pharrell Williams, “Happy”

happyOkay, I am wrestling a bit with the happy/complacent thing. I definitely appreciate how in the last couple of retreat weekends there’s been an emphasis on reminding us to claim our love of life. More specifically: claim the way I love my life (not just life in general). I feel the importance of that, the way it’s something that moves beyond the victim identity. (And I’m realizing this happy/complacent thing could turn into a blog-post, and Connor’s language about victim mentality gives me an easy entree that doesn’t require me to give up all the secrets and intricacies of the center’s teachings.) And I’m conscious of the ways my classmate noticed my habit of deflecting happiness around the current state of things — always saying something like “There’s still more to study,” or “I’m still me in it, so I have a lot to keep learning.” So it’s interesting to me. I can feel a little bit about how that niggling piece of dissatisfaction, the eternal questioning, could be an expression of the victim-self. Always looking at my life and finding it wanting, rather than appreciating it fully today, exactly as it is. So I’m wondering how to have a fuller appreciation for all of the ways I have been given (have helped build?) a really good life. Really feel the gratitude of that, a certain peace of mind.

And yet. I don’t want to sink into complacency. I don’t want loving my life to take me to the place where I think I’ve arrived. Where I allow myself to fall asleep in my privileges, to play princess in the castle. To believe that because I’ve been gifted with a good life, I can just enjoy these comforts and stop studying, stop growing. Wallow in my privilege and to hell with anyone else and their challenges. So that’s part of what i fear will occur if I were to permit myself full-on happiness with my life, rather than the milder happiness-with-a-question-mark (or happiness-with-a-caveat) that I usually permit myself.

It’s an interesting level of self-distrust that fear conveys. If I’m “too happy,” I’ll get lazy. But if the study, the writing, if this all comes so naturally to me — then is the fear even remotely on target? It feels rather way off the Soul’s Truth of things. Like if I can more fully trust and honor the ways I love the learning, the ways I love awakening (both on an individual and a collective level), the way my Soul Ph.D. is connected (at least in part) to the gathering of knowledge and the synthesis of all these facts and articles and insights that come my way. If I can more fully trust that, then there’s a space to trust that if I were to be fully happy in my life, then I would move more fully into my soul’s natural expression. So allowing myself more happiness with loving my life could create space for more gathering, more learning, more awareness. Possibly see the potential here as loving my life being an awakening movement, rather than an anesthetizing one. Wow. Definitely a new angle on the proposition.

[Bookend] Thus endeth the free-write. More than 20 minutes’ worth and without the super-messy on-ramp of my opening paragraphs. Not quite as coherent and well-transitioned as the posts I normally try to write, but as a kernel of an idea, not all that off-the-mark from other things I’ve written here. Cool! [/Bookend]

* I did make a few silent edits, to protect the privacy of a couple individuals and fill in an extra clarifying word here or there when I had drifted too far into speaking my own private language. I definitely worked to keep those edits to a minimum.


Image credit. http://treesflowersbirds.com/2012/06/05/a-happy-little-tale-that-almost-wasnt/


For Neither Fame nor Money

Five years ago,* I started this blog to create a space for my self-education about fat acceptance, within the larger of context of my ongoing work to increase my capacity for self-acceptance and self-love.

Three months ago,** I came back here to continue that project, but with the more specific goal of using the structure of blogging to remain awake and in the study of my HCG experience as a detox journey, providing a quiet counter-narrative to the usual emphasis on HCG as a weight loss tool.

With the end of my HCG protocol, I’ve been a little bit wondering where to focus my blogging. The Isla Vista killings have provided a temporary focus in the 10 days since I completed my HCG experience, but I know I won’t be spending the rest of my writing life unpacking that one incident and its ramifications.***

So, once again, I’m grappling a bit with the question of “What am I doing here and what is it that I have/want to write about?”

I’m glad to say there’s been no pull towards stopping. I know to my bones that there something in the structure of writing here that has been beneficial for me. But a lot of the the conventional wisdom around blogging — find your niche, stay on target, use it to pitch yourself/your company/your products — just doesn’t mesh with where I’m at.

You see, I have no plans to be monetizing my blog in the foreseeable future. This is perhaps a self-evident statement considering my low reader count, my merely-half-hearted efforts at amplifying posts via social media, and my only-just-beginning level of effort to read all the other great writing out in the blogosphere and participate via follows and comments.

So, aside from the quirkiness that is me, I don’t entirely know what my niche is. And my interests are potentially wide-ranging enough to completely obliterate any hope of “niche” or “focus” or “staying on target.”

Challenge-AcceptedI’ve decided to take part in The Daily Post’s Writing 101 blogging challenge, in hopes that that structure might give a playground to help explore some of this territory. I’ve been looking over some of the archived prompts from recent Blogging 101 and Blogging 201 challenges, and I’m thinking some of those topics might also be fruitful tools for this exploration. (Even if I remain quite fuzzy around what it means to think about establishing a “brand” in this non-business non-monetizing headspace I’m in around my writing.)

I haven’t seen the first Writing 101 prompt, so I’m not sure how easily they’ll mesh with the other sorts of topics I want to be exploring. I do still have more ruminations sparked by Isla Vista, and then there’s events elsewhere in the world that also have me Thinking and Feeling things. If the prompts don’t interweave readily with the ongoing threads of my writing, I’m not quite sure how I’ll handle the time management required by “doubling up” on my posting.**** (And let’s not even get into the fact that I’ve also started re-establishing the daily ritual of morning pages/soul writing.)

I’ll figure all this writing out, one way or another. If nothing else, I can cut back on TV or embrace a little bit of sleep deprivation in my June….

* Give or take a month or so.

** Give or take a week or so.

*** Although there are legitimately a LOT of ramifications that could productively bear some examination.

**** Luckily, WordPress’s scheduling functionality allows me to stagger when things go online — like this very post, which was written in fits and starts over the weekend but has been scheduled to “go up” late Monday morning, East Coast time.


Image credit: http://bunburyinthestacks.com/challenges/challenge-accepted/

Permission to Speak

One week later and I’m still reading and link-collecting and doing a lot of thinking about the Isla Vista murders. Part of me feels apologetic about this, even self-indulgent. After all, I wasn’t even remotely affected directly by these events. I have no six-degrees-of-separation ties to any of the individuals involved or to the locations where the events occurred. (I mean, yes, I was born in the same state, but we moved away from CA before I turned two, and I have zero sense of myself as a west coaster.* I don’t even know where Santa Barbara is in geographic relation to my birthplace.)

gag orderSo there’s lots of ways that I’m privileged to have some distance from these events: a fact for which I am extremely grateful, and one which also makes me somewhat embarrassed to be giving it such brain-space and blog-space. I even felt the temptation to title “Yet Another Post” from me about these events with some variant on the plea “Stop me, before I post again!

But then I read this post from the Standing on the Side of Love blog.** In it, the author juxtaposes the legacy of Elliot Rodger’s misogynist writings and videos with the passing of Maya Angelou and her legacy of speaking out about the existence and effects of sexual violence. Then both of these events were further counterpointed against the simultaneously bombshell and matter-of-fact observation that in the week prior to writing her post, the blogger herself had been sexually assaulted.

These milestones all occurring this week make it so clear to me that patriarchy still rules our society, that sexual assault and misogyny are not limited to one incident but are a ubiquitous threat, in varying levels, to all of us. The humanity of every person is threatened by this reality. I wanted to share my story both to help me heal personally, and to provide information that yes, all women, and all people of all gender identities might find useful.

And then, in following the links from that post and my Facebook feed, I came across two other sites. First, a report on a study which reveals the way adolescent and tween girls understand (and wildly under-report) sexual harassment “as ‘normal stuff’ that ‘just happens’ because it’s what ‘guys do.'” Then there’s the tumblr analogue of the #YesAllWomen twitter movement: When Women Refuse, a collection of stories about domestic and sexual violence that is intended to demonstrate “that Rodger’s mass murder was not an anomaly, but instead part of a larger cultural pattern of violence against women.”

And I thought about my own checkered history of experiencing sexual violence, street harassment and misogyny. The rape in college. Years in Philly which were very mild, all things considered, but still contained a few catcall/honking incidents, the occasional groping, and a couple drunken “encounters” where I wasn’t entirely sure in my (inebriated) head that it’d be a good idea to “back out now.” And all of that happened soaked in the cultural miasma of a patriarchal system. For example: the many incidents throughout my schooling where the message from peers (and some teachers/administrators) was that I was too smart, too ambitious, too opinionated for a girl to be. And so part of the lessons I took from my childhood were about learning to live small, stay quiet, conceal the truth of my mind’s intelligence and my heart’s wisdom.

I am not sharing this in hopes of earning my own “victim cred,” nor to make a simplistic point about how my past experiences make it “okay” for me to be as deeply affected by last weekend’s events as I have been. Well, maybe it’s a bit of yes and no on that last point. Yes, it’s likely my resonance with these events and the ensuing discourse has been deepened by my own past traumas. But no, I don’t need any sort of excuse to be thinking or feeling deeply about this — or about anything else, for that matter.

It’s a messy tangle, rather than a straight line trajectory (this is why the metaphor to miasma is so present with me right now), but I am certain there’s a web of connections between the cultural expectations of women’s silence,docility, and availability; the patterns of sexual violence, harassment, and patriarchal retribution that have come so harshly to light this past week; and my own instincts towards self-silencing as I considered writing “Yet Another Post” touching on these issues.

But it’s a knot that needs untangling. And so I keep writing — even if sometimes all I’m writing about is about the right to write.

Every hard-fought sentence, every awkward phrase, every word a prayer. May we release this. May we be healed.

* Nope. I’m a New Englander, through and through, no matter what my birth certificate says.

** Yay, Unitarian Universalists!!


Image credit: http://ravenblackcat.com/blog/2012/5/18/countdown-to-blackout-anxiety-a-gag-order.html

Be Still, My Weeping Heart

Hulk-YAWPMr. Mezzo and I watched Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart this evening. I’d not seen the original play performed, although I had read it numerous times as part of my teaching and dissertation work. So I was really interested to see what differences there might be between Kramer’s play and Murphy’s film.*

The play debuted off-Broadway in 1985. And its initial impetus and power is summarized by Mary McNamara in the LA Times thusly:

In the early 1980s several things were obvious to writer Larry Kramer. Gay men were literally dropping dead and neither the government nor the medical establishment seemed to be doing much to stop it. Moreover, no one, outside of other — increasingly terrified — gay men, seemed to care.

So Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart,” a blunt instrument of a play debuting in 1985 in which his thinly disguised avatar, a New York writer called Ned Weeks, watches friends die, helps form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center and does a lot of yelling. About homophobia and the Holocaust, about the perils of the closet, about society’s unforgivable hypocrisy and gay men’s own self-destructiveness.

“The Normal Heart” was a howling call to action, designed to push people out of their ignorance, complacency and seats to demand justice, and funding, for all.

Almost 30 years have passed since the play’s debut, and more than 30 years since the CDC first reported mysterious cases of kaposi’s sarcoma. With the unfolding of so much time (and the waves of cultural change wrapped in these decades), I’ll admit I was among the many individuals wondering a little bit about whether the movie would be meaningful, or effective.

It was. In a different way, but yes: deeply effective. To quote Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter:

The movie is a way to remember. It takes something revered in theater circles and give it a wide release with a cache of bright stars. It will get seen, and the message about the horrible history of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic won’t be forgotten. . . . For those people who didn’t see the play or, more importantly, weren’t there to witness or read about the onset of what was first described as “gay cancer,” The Normal Heart works best as modern history. Knowing what we do now, it’s hard to fathom that so many people looked the other way.

It’s a bit hard for me to judge the film’s effectiveness as “modern history” because of the peculiarity of my knowledge around the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I’ll unpack that story in full some other day.**

Suffice for the moment to say that much in my adolescence — socioeconomic privilege, suburban home, mainstream media diet — worked to keep the spread of HIV/AIDS completely off of my threshold of awareness. However, since I chose to write my (ultimately unfinished) dissertation about artistic responses to the AIDS epidemic, I made up for my early years of sheltered ignorance with a lot of research and study.

Still, it’s one thing to research a topic, and it’s quite another to bear witness. And it is in bearing witness to those first years where I am was most profoundly moved by Murphy’s film. To my ears, Kramer’s play had always functioned better as a piece of agitprop than anything else. A howl of outrage, a wake-up call — a piece that condemned inaction but perhaps not one that opened the heart to sympathy or empathy.

And don’t get me wrong: I don’t intend this observation to suggest I have any less respect for Kramer’s play. I am not a member of the tone police, and I know that yawps of outrage and agitprop are vitally necessary. I also believe that acts of witness and stories that inspire empathy are necessary, too. Which is why it’s such an amazing thing for the seed of Kramer’s work and activism to have offered me both of those gifts.

Back in the day, Kramer’s play was one of the things that woke me up to AIDS, to its early spread, and especially to the devastating effects of prejudice and homophobia. The play opened my eyes; it made me angry.

And tonight, Murphy’s film helped re-ignite my empathy for what it might have been like to live through the early years of HIV/AIDS. It bore witness to a time when a community felt such sorrow and loss and — because of cultural disdain and indifference — it faced those losses alone. The film opened my heart; it made me cry.

Both gifts of awareness. Both gifts to be grateful for.

* For lack of a better coinage, I’m going to talk about these two different adaptations as “Kramer’s play” and “Murphy’s film.” I haven’t yet done a textual comparison, but the screenplay sure senses different enough from the original script that I think there’s some validity to addressing these as distinct — though related — artworks, rather than talking about them as two interpretations of a core text.

** I wrote a damn novella last night, so I’m trying to be a bit less loquacious tonight. Especially since I have to get up early tomorrow for work.


Image credit: http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Tom-schulman-dead-poets-society-yawp-freestyle-scene-annotated#note-1685661


What We Measure Matters

I don’t usually write about the details of my 9-to-5 work (0r 8-to-6, or whatever) here in the Wild West of the blogosphere. Besides my general level of caution about being “inappropriate” or “indiscreet,” I also know someone in my circle of acquaintance who was quite literally Dooced, some years ago. So yeah: I consider discretion to be very much the better part of valor.

Marshallville-One-room-Schoolhouse-300x225What I do feel comfortable saying is that I do advancement work for an educational non-profit — which is the field and non-profit sector I’ve been working in for 11 years now. And, because it’s helpful to my work AND because I have a genuine interest in the topic, I regularly make the time to read books, articles, blogposts, etc. that help me expand my understanding of the challenges, trends, concerns, and opportunities that exist in schools and in the educational field writ large. Sometimes I even borrow books from the office “library” to help me stay plugged in.

And today, in that spirit — between the truly massive amount of sleeping I did last night, the tiny bit of laundry-folding/house-puttering that occurred, and then the lengthy nap that was required ‘cos I hadn’t slept enough last night* — I finished reading Mike Rose’s collection of essays Why School?

Rose’s subtitle, Reclaiming Education for All of Us, is suggestive of his desire to refocus the lens of educational discourse away from the usual obsessive focus on knowledge and workforce preparation as signaled by the results of high-stakes standardized testing. This desire is summarized by Rose in this HuffPo post about the book:

There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society. . . . My hope is that “Why School?” contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.

The book is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and I definitely recommend it for folks interested in education. Be aware going in that the book is about asking big questions and providing answers that rest at the level of ideals, values, and visions. Not so many concrete implementable suggestions, but that’s okay by me.

Rose lays out a cogent analysis of how current educational trends are the inevitable flowering of a flawed set of values. I found some of the middle essays in the collection most persuasive and illuminating on this score.

For example, “Business Goes to School”  highlights the self-serving contradictions of a corporate culture that demands the education system prepare critically reflective problem-solving workers-of-the-future while also selling an easy economy of glitz and glamour and anti-intellectualism:

So many of the commercially driven verbal and imagistic messages that surround our young people work against the development of the very qualities of mind the business community tells the schools it wants. (61)

“Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse” calls out the intellectual laziness of intellectual snobbery around defining “intelligence” as solely located in the institutions of schoolhouse and university:

If we think that whole categories of people–identified by class, by occupation–are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across our current cultural divides. . . . To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously. . . . To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the workshop and in the classroom. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination. (86-87)

And, finally,** “Re-mediating Remediation”  draws on Rose’s own teaching history to argue that the most effective way to increase literacy skills for teen, college and adult learners is to address reading and writing challenges in the context of challenging, engaging, age-appropriate metrical, rather than through the usual menu of “dumbed down” workbook assignments:

[W]riting filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material. (130, emphasis added)

I am inclined to agree with Rose’s analysis that a lot of the flaws and misguided obsessions in the U.S. educational system are rooted in these flawed values and prejudices. Given that reality, I would suggest that an essential first step in effectively rethinking American education would be to plant the seeds of different, more functional values. And I’m grateful to Rose for carrying that task forward so persuasively.

* D’you think last weekend’s work finally caught up with me? I think so, too.

** “Finally” insofar as it’s the final essay I’m going to specifically highlight — not that this is the final insightful thing Rose has to say…


Image credit: http://www.hcsv.org/visit/tour-the-village/marshallville-school/

basket of magazines

Lead Me Not Into Temptation

I’ve done a halfway double down on the 5×5 goals tonight. Not on account of choir tomorrow. (Which I do have. I’m just hoping I’ll still manage to get tomorrow’s “quota” handled on tomorrow.)

Let’s call tonight’s double down a combination of playing catch-up and covering my ass (in case tomorrow’s rehearsal does throw me off-track).

Anyhow, one of the things I tackled tonight in the “everyday cleaning and clutter management” category was to get a (partial) handle on however-many days of accumulated mail. (Checkbook-balancing and bill-paying are definitely on the agenda for tomorrow morning or during lunch break.)

Now, one of the biggest categories of mail these days is the mail we call “junk”: advertising mailers, credit card offers, and lots and lots of catalogs. I’ve gotten pretty good at discarding the first two categories with ruthless efficiency,* but the catalogs have ended up having a slightly different ritual of their own.

basket of magazinesHere’s how the system works. I put a basket in the living room specifically to hold catalogs, and as new ones arrive, I just keep adding them to the front of the “stack” until such time as the basket is full. Then I sit down and weed out all the duplicate catalogs until the basket holds just the most recent catalog from each company.**

I’ve been doing it this way for a number of years. Why? I wish I had a better answer for that question. At this stage of the game, the pattern has become so unconscious and unthinking that it’s hard to recapture whatever reasons I may have had to do this in the first place.

I think I wanted a rich collection on hand to give me ideas whenever a holiday came around where I needed to buy a gift for someone. I think I wanted sources of inspiration as I lived surrounded by parental hand-me-downs hoping someday to have/create a home environment that was more authentically expressive of my soul and passions. I think I hoped that being able to glance through catalogs and imagine having things would allow me to develop a deeper level of discernment around which desired-for purchases were items that would actually enrich my life and which were more passing, addictive, covetous moments.

That last thought/hope certainly never came to fruition. Not that I’m trying to suggest that my ongoing shopping addiction is caused by having catalogs in the house.*** However, I don’t think it’s been a great help to have them around. Better than nothing insofar as having a way to (somewhat) contain the paper monster, but still: probably not a great help to have them around.

So tonight, as I went through the accumulated mail, every catalog went right into the recycling bin. Over the weekend, when we’re gathering up paper for the recycling run, I’ll probably make a good dent in the basket, too. And, as new catalogs come in with the day’s mail, I’m going to experiment with tossing them straight into recycling with the rest of the junk mail.****

Will it have any great effect on my shopping issues? Who knows?

Will it have an immediate effect on the amount of paper clutter in the house? Why yes, yes it will.

And I’ll celebrate any win I can get.

* Except, of course, in stretches of time when I let the mail pile up unexamined. Like now. (Also, for the record: “ruthless efficiency” as regards credit card offers includes a trip through the shredder. For the offer paperwork, not for me.)

** There are, yes, a few companies that just go straight to the discard pile rather than being part of this whole ritual of commerce and covetousness. But not as many as you’d think, and definitely not as many as there should be.

*** After all, who needs catalogs to spark temptation when there is the Internet and the corporate media machine?

**** Or tossing most of them, if there turns out to be a catalog that is honestly timely and relevant to some purchasing decision of-the-moment. Hey, this is all about practice, not perfection…


Tonight’s soundtrack: Gipsy Kings, Este Mundo.

Image credit: http://www.organizedhousewife.com/2012/11/02/practical-solutions-boundaries/