A Father’s New Manifesto: My Kids Won’t Bully Yours!

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

vlcsnap-2013-03-09-13h16m46s85

“Kids will be kids.”

Doesn’t this unfortunate cliché say more about us than it does them? Is it really the overwhelmingly simply explanation for their behaviour that we pretend it is? Is it productive or even fair to surrender and place blame on those we have the responsibility and privilege to mentor and shape and teach? Isn’t surrender precisely the function of the statement, “kids will be kids”?

What are the consequences for our apathy and refusal to act on behalf of our precious kids?

Last night, I sat at my 4-year-old daughter’s bedside, and as I watched her sleep, I wondered . . . what ‘names’ will my beautiful daughter hear some day that threaten to undermine the love and encouragement I am determined to provide her with daily? What psychological torment will she endure at the hands of ‘kids being kids’? At the moment, she is ecstatic beyond comprehension about attending junior kindergarten next fall, but at what point will her enthusiasm be crushed by the selfish and the cruel? Is it necessary that this should happen at all?

bully_project_ver2_xlgAdmittedly, my ruminations were influenced substantially by the recent documentary, “Bully”, which I viewed immediately prior to this bedside lament. I am thankful for but disturbed to my very core by the content of this powerful film, and I’m certain this was the filmmaker’s purpose for pursuing his subject in such a frank and visceral way. The experiences of Alex, Ja’Maya, and Kelby are potent and affecting not only because it is terrible to witness the cruelty they must face at such young ages, but because these incidents are all too common and have troublesome and far-reaching consequences. To hear a child who weathers physical and verbal assaults on a daily basis say, “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything any more,” is almost too much to bear!

It is true that bullying is hardly a new phenomenon, but incidences of teens and pre-teens committing suicide due to bullying are becoming far too common. Playground conflicts may have existed since the advent of playgrounds, but bullying via electronic means (a.k.a. cyber-bullying) ensures that no place–not even a loving home–is a safe haven for a bullied child! I will concede that children engaging in ridicule and violence directed at other children likely do not comprehend or intend the outcomes that typically result from the onslaught of abuse they dish out, but their intentions are really beside the point. Victimization of any kind among our children and teens requires a swift response if we are to possibly spare the victim and reform the perpetrator.

I am encouraged to see a school board (one of many) in our own province taking such a stand against bullying in all its forms. Following the arrest of eight Ontario girls for ‘criminal harassment’ at a highschool in London, Ontario, last fall, director of education for the Thames Valley District School Board, Bill Tucker, had this to say:

If we can change behaviours about drinking and driving, if we change behaviours and attitudes around smoking, why can we not change behaviours and attitudes around bullying.

Reformed attitudes and behaviours are a valiant pursuit, and I applaud any efforts in our schools to pursue this end. I am thrilled that the aforementioned documentary on the subject fought for and finally received a PG-13 rating, allowing it to be viewed in many schools where these dialogues must continue. The advantage that Tucker and his school board had in the incident last fall was that the bullying was reported (if not by the victim, by others who were privy to it). The sad truth is that in many of the worst incidences, victims as young as four or five years old suffer in silence.

I was shocked to learn, after viewing the film and relaying some of its most startling elements to my wife, that three of our closest friends are confronting serious bullying situations with their children at this very moment. We are fortunate that my wife is able to stay home with our girls for the time-being, and she benefits greatly from the interactions she enjoys with other young mothers like herself. She recently heard of beatings on the bus endured by a kindergarten-aged boy (inflicted by 3rd and 4th graders), among other stories of abuse and torture routinely faced by little ones who call me ‘Uncle Paul’. One mother couldn’t understand why a son who recently displayed the excitement toward all things school-related (akin to that currently expressed by my daughter) suddenly broke down crying as she urged him toward the bus each morning. It was months later that she learned that her beloved son’s cries were the result of genuine fear for his safety. I shutter to think what would cause greater pain: the fact that such abuse was occurring, or that as a parent, we would fail to recognize it.

vlcsnap-2013-03-09-13h18m37s44

My heart breaks with the parents in Lee Hirsch’s film who have lost children to suicide, or must move their families and their belongings to ensure safety and security for a daughter who has identified as gay. As one woman in the film explains, we spend all of our time with these ‘little people’ when they are young, then send them off to be educated and soon discover that we “never really know them” or “know what’s happening to them”. It’s utterly terrifying to consider that regardless of the relationship we establish with our children early on, they simply will not communicate everything that we need to know to ensure that they remain safe. As a protective father with somewhat of a type-A personality, I struggle to accept this reality.

I have no desire to launch an indictment against our school system, or lob accusations at our youngsters regarding their poorer attitudes/behaviour when compared with previous generations. I absolutely love technology, and aim to raise children who respect its power and benefits, and make good choices about when and how it should be employed. Action plans and methodologies for addressing a serious problem plaguing our schools and our society today have certainly been better-researched and better-enunciated elsewhere. Having said all of that, of one thing I am sure:

‘Kids’ are the way they are because we permit, or worse, model, the destructive behaviours they now exhibit! It is we (parents/adults) who must change our ways first!

I will start right now by speaking and breathing love into my children’s lives as consistently and frequently as I am able. I will treat them with respect, kindness, and compassion so regularly that when they engage others, they will know no other way of relating to them but this example that their mother and I have provided.

I will tirelessly communicate their uniqueness and their value as individuals and members of our family, and I will continue to do so through their adolescence when my impressions and opinions will inevitably mean less than those of their peers.

I will lovingly correct them when I see hostility, anger, or frustration expressed outwardly in harmful, abusive ways. I will encourage them to adopt healthy methods of conflict resolution, and to uncover the pain/hurt that so often fuels attacks directed at family members, friends, and acquaintances.

I will do everything in my power to make damn sure that your kid is not bullied by one of mine! It is my responsibility first and foremost to teach them and to hold them accountable, and I won’t let you down!

Will you do the same? Let’s not wait on our education system or our criminal justice system to react and intervene. Let’s attack the problem at its root, where we have a shred of control, and let’s do it by adjusting our own attitudes and behaviours first and passing them on intentionally to the next generation!

The following TED Talk impacted my thinking today as I sat down to write this post. I hope that it prompts action in you. Please share it with others.

I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.” – Shane Koyczan, Canadian Poet

Our ‘Precious’ Stories: How to Survive Their Film Adaptations

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Photo 2013-01-04 2 55 45 PM

SPOILERS ABOUND! This article is intended for readers who have already seen the films. (If you’ve seen 2 out of 3, by all means skip a section, but I don’t want to ruin 3 great films if you haven’t had the opportunity to experience them yet!)

George Bluestone, the father of criticism in the field of ‘novel to film’ adaptation suggests that, “changes are inevitable the moment one abandons the linguistic for the visual medium” (Novels into Film).  Somehow, acknowledging this fact doesn’t make it any easier when we wander into a theatre to view a film ‘based on’ one of our favourite stories!  Are there any stories so precious to you that the announcement of a film adaptation causes you to shutter?

As an avid reader and film fanatic, I am routinely in a position to compare two ‘versions’ of a particular story–that presented on the page (or stage) with the ‘big-screen’ version (or film).  Admittedly, I often fall into the trap of merely highlighting differences, griping about what was added/left out, and feeling duty-bound to declare one or the other version ‘superior’.  Conversations over coffee surround this very topic, and debates frequently occur online following the release of a recent film adaptation.  There is no question that we live in an age of convergence with regard to the arts!

Encountering similar stories expressed via multiple mediums can be a privilege and a joy, except when someone sees fit to interpret a story we hold truly dear–one we own–one that matters or has mattered to us for a significant period of time.  This past christmas season, I encountered film adaptations of three stories extremely precious to me, and quickly discovered that the casual ‘compare & declare’ behaviours were insufficient when it came to sorting out the complex emotions and intellectual relationships that I shared with these texts.  I have been rewarded for the time spent sorting out some of these thoughts.  I need not litter cyberspace with further reviews of these films (as regards these three films, I’m far too ‘late to the party’ to do so), but I hope that the conclusions I have reached might stimulate further conversation on the subject of these stories, and perhaps, others that are precious to you.

In his excellent book, Novel to Film, Brian McFarlane identifies two “unhelpful critical attitudes” that regularly surface when we compare a source text to its film counterpart: a) evaluation of the film is based on the implied primacy of the novel (or source text), or b) the film is ‘read’ by someone unfamiliar with the source text, or someone who insists on the autonomy of the film version. Essentially, the novel is immediately deemed superior, or it is ignored/dismissed altogether.  Neither acknowledges a ‘convergence’ between the arts, and either ‘reading’ misses out on a fascinating relationship that exists when a beloved story becomes ‘multi-modal’.  In the case of the three film adaptations I recently viewed, perceiving the films as autonomous was tremendously difficult due to my familiarity with the source texts, and writing them off as inferior to their textual/staged predecessors would be lazy, and significantly decrease my enjoyment of these latest ‘versions’ of the stories I love.  McFarlane is right to dismiss these approaches.  Fortunately, he offers some alternatives.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

HAUJ_Bus_Dwarves_DOM

Tolkien fans can not avoid the discussion of ‘fidelity’ as it refers to Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.  The degree to which the film is faithful to Tolkien’s text and characters, and the exactness (or not) of his re-envisioning of Tolkien’s elaborate fantasy world are (for many) serious issues treated with a high level of scrutiny–even reverence.  While I would certainly not regard myself a Tolkien scholar, I was enchanted by The Hobbit at a young age and have cherished the tales of Middle Earth ever since.  I understand why it has taken so long for a live-action adaptation of The Hobbit to storm our multiplexes; family members and copyright holders wanted to be certain that those granted the ‘right’ to produce such a film would demonstrate concern for things such as authorial intent–would aim to ‘get it right’!

What we ignore, of course, when we deem to make statements about what the author would have intended (a practice Roland Barthes dismissed decades ago) and estimate the ‘success’ of Jackson’s film, is that our apprehensions of both text and film are merely subjective.  As McFarlane reminds us, “reliance on individual, impressionistic comparisons” is unavoidable unless we relocate our critique in a more objective sphere, with the aid of some shared vocabulary.  McFarlane employs terminology (originally coined by Geoffrey Wagner) that incites more objective critique, the usefulness of which is clear when it is briefly applied to Jackson’s film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”.

The first distinction is between elements of a story that can be transposed and those that must be adapted.  Often, basic narrative elements are easy to translate directly.  Both Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s film revolve around a hobbit named Bilbo, a wizard named Gandalf, and a band of spirited dwarves that journey far to slay a dragon and reacquire some treasure.  This is rather elementary.  The structure of the narrative is nearly identical, and quite a bit of dialogue has also been transferred directly from the page to the screen.  Much of the action unfolds exactly as it does in Tolkien’s novel, and consequently, feels very ‘true’ to the source material.  These instances where translation can be seen are largely due to the fact that narrative elements, words spoken, etc. ‘function independently of medium’.

Thorin_Oakenshield_Key-777x1024

Other elements such as character, atmosphere, tone, and point-of-view must be adapted (interpreted) to suit the medium of film.  When only words are available, the imagination is activated to fill in much of the visual/auditory information that can’t be included.  A film director inevitably makes choices about how best to relate these elements utilizing his preferred medium.  We may disagree with some of his choices:

  • Does Thorin Oakenshield ‘look’ the way you imagined him, or he does he look less ‘dwarvish’ than his counterparts?
  • Does the often light-hearted, sometimes comical tone of a novel intended for children survive the change in medium?
  • Do sudden shifts in point-of-view not present in the novel serve to needlessly expand a story that was ‘smaller’ on the page?
  • How does the atmosphere in Rivendell differ from that in the text and what effect does that change have on our feelings about the elves as we watch the film?
  • Do ‘functional equivalents’ available to filmmakers (especially the film’s score) relay mood, suspense, atmosphere to approximate those ascertained by a reader of the novel?

Whether or not we would have chosen to ‘adapt’ the elements above in the manner that Jackson did, we can concede that such decisions were necessary as the story underwent a transformation from novel to film.  But what about the choices Jackson makes that resist classification as elements easily translated or forcibly adapted?  Scenes never depicted in Tolkien’s text assume quite a bit of screen time: the convening of the White Council at Rivendell, and the episode concerning Radagast the Brown.  Another notable insertion is the character of Azog the Defiler, the albino orc that injures Thorin toward the end of the film.  A significant amount of background information revealed in pieces throughout the novel is spilled out in a grand ‘Prologue’.  Perhaps one of the most significant details is that Bilbo clearly sees Gollum drop the ring; and consequently, Bilbo is aware of his own thievery when he takes advantage of Gollum in the game of riddles and escapes with his prized possession.

Such directorial decisions can only be understood as commentary, wherein Jackson knowingly deviates from the source material, retaining the inspiration that comes from Tolkien’s novel, but re-imagining it in order to produce an entirely new work.  Bluestone notes once again that inevitably, “the filmist becomes not a translator for an established author, but a new author in his own right”.  In this case, there is little question that Jackson’s motivation is to produce a work that will dovetail nicely with his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and elevate the tone and grandeur of Bilbo’s story, such that it will serve as a suitable companion to those films.

Commentary need not be perceived as strictly negative.  I welcomed the focus on ‘home’, and felt that Bilbo’s motivation to press onward was strengthened by the careful identification of the dwarves as a people without a land they could truly call home, without a shire–a sanctuary.  Even still, my sense several weeks after first viewing the film is that Jackson feels comfortable enough in the realm of Middle Earth to freely insert elements of commentary when and how he chooses.  The truth is, he has been afforded this freedom!  Am I pleased with how he has exercised it?  Merely satisfied, not thrilled, but McFarlane’s terminology clarifies that while I may be willing to forgive ‘adaptations’ that differ from my previous experience of the story, I am less willing to stomach some of his ‘commentary’.  

“Life of Pi”

life-of-pi-poster
It was with fear and trepidation that I ventured into a late-night screening of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” the week before the bulk of the 3D screens in my area would surely be surrendered to Jackson’s aforementioned journey into Middle Earth.  I first read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in 2010, when I was called upon to teach it to a group of eleventh grade English students.  What followed was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding months of my teaching career thus far.  We examined why certain stories resonate and challenge us, considered Pi’s maturation as it relates to the various names he receives as a child, and debated one’s ability to subscribe to multiple world views simultaneously, and all of that before the shipwreck even occurs 100 pages into the novel!  As our study deepened, we explored mankind’s will to survive, contemplated the relevance of prayer in our lives, and entertained the notion that belief can exist independently of–and at times, in spite of–reality.  So as I said…though I admire Ang Lee’s films very much, I was terrified that a poor film rendition of this meaningful story could somehow sully the memory of a marvellous educational experience, and render such an experience null and void for future students who would contact the film before (or worse, instead of) the text.

What was I expecting or hoping for this film to be?  How could it possibly live up to such grand expectations?  Could it match the power of the final chapters as I read them for the first time stretched out on the spare bed in our study?  Would it strike a chord the way that it did in our final lesson of the unit when we revisited an earlier exercise and made connections between our stated values, and our beliefs, and what we believe to be ‘true’?  How could it?  I’m not sure that classifying the director’s choices under headings of transposition or commentary would suffice if the end result struck me as disastrous.  Objectivity eluded me.

What I wanted to experience was a film that was accurate and truthful in its depiction of Martel’s story!  Gunther Kress uses the term ‘modality’ in his book, Reading Images, to describe ‘the measure of the truth of representation in relation to a predetermined set of standards prescribed by a particular medium’. In other words, modality increases/decreases depending on the degree to which we ‘perceive truth’ in an image–or by extension–a representation of a literary work.  Though it goes hand-in-hand with ‘fidelity’, Kress’ term acknowledges the inevitable existence of subjectivity that results from expectations of the viewer and differences in perception.  I would be lying if I tried to deny my high expectations of any filmmaker who dared to adapt this novel.  In the case of Lee’s film, and according to the subjective judgments of this viewer, modality is accomplished if three conditions (predetermined standards) are met:

1.  Richard Parker, the formative bengal tiger, must feel entirely ‘real’ from his first appearance floundering in the water, to his eventual disappearance into the tall grass.  There is no room for this ferocious beast to be ‘Disneyfied’.  Pi’s constant danger must be vivid and frightening, and the technology that allows a young actor and a tiger to appear in such close proximity must be completely invisible.

life-of-pi06 (1)

2.  The exposition can not not be rushed in favour of the action that follows.  The first 100 pages of Martel’s novel contain the ever-important promise (“I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God”) and pave the way for Pi’s extraordinary ability to survive such a wretched ordeal.  The temptation to compress an essential introduction and skip ahead to the action is understandable, but would ultimately prove detrimental.

3.  The ‘better story’ should be self-evident.  The power of a story is unleashed in its telling, and what a first-time viewer won’t realize is that for the bulk of the film we observe the first of two narratives explaining Pi’s survival.  His hospital visitors–and the audience–will be invited to decide which story to ‘believe’!  If the audience doesn’t buy in, if the ‘one with the animals’ isn’t believable, then Martel’s promise is broken.

Though I will always have a greater appreciation for the source text due to my memorable initial contact with it, I believe that Ang Lee’s film meets and occasionally surpasses the conditions (expectations) described above.  At no time was I distracted from the story to marvel or grimace at the CGI tiger; I just accepted it as entirely real.  Lee definitely tweaked but obviously recognized the importance of Martel’s extended exposition and did it justice.  I felt shivers as lines of dialogue were ‘transposed’ directly in the final scenes of the film, and I had a strong ‘sense’ throughout that characters/plot/themes were depicted ‘truthfully’.  Kress would remind us that in addition to our personal sense of ‘modality’, comes a cultural one, and I have been pleased to confer with others who perceived the film similarly and are as passionate about the source text as I am.  Merely understanding Kress’ analytical lens does not equip us to prove that the film is or is not ‘highly modal’, but we can relish the fact that if it feels like the filmmaker ‘got it right’, it is because we have identified a representation that ‘appears truthful’.

“Les Misérables”

Les-Miserables-Movie-Poster-Large

So it seems a bit contradictory I suppose to attempt an ‘objective’ evaluation of Jackson’s “The Hobbit” only to embrace the subjectivity’ inherent in Kress’ explanation of modality as it applies to “Life of Pi”.  Perhaps it is simply honest to acknowledge this tension that constantly interferes with our ability to offer valuable critique of cherished stories retold in different forms.  How then am I to understand my enthusiasm for Hooper’s rendition of Victor Hugo’s tragic tale?  I would argue that Hooper’s film improves upon the beloved stage musical, but can I defend such a claim?

Andre Bazin nails it when he claims that “faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence of meaning of the forms” (“Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest”).  I loved Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables”, and will continue to say so despite the backlash it now appears to be enduring!  Bazin’s statement truly sums up my sentiments: the profoundly affecting story that has twice enraptured me from the stage did so again on the big screen!  It’s that simple.  We live and breathe and cherish stories because they have meaning, not out of reverence for their form!  

The unjust punishment, spiritual defeat, forgiveness, and rebirth of Jean Valjean is truly epic, though it accounts for at most a quarter of the tale depicted on screen in Hooper’s “Les Misérables”.  What follows is the story of a man raised out of the mire to become an upstanding gentleman, a compassionate father, and a merciful opponent.  His nemesis, the incomparable Javert, refuses to accept the forgiveness and mercy that have proffered Valjean a second chance at life, and ultimately plummets to his death due to his inability to reconcile the man before him with the false image of that man that has haunted him for decades previous.  Fantine is a pillar of suffering, a hopeless victim dealt blow after blow, who wishes only that her child will find light in a world consumed by pain.  Cosette is that rescued child, cherished by an honourable father figure who cares for her and knows when best to release her into the hands of a man who will show her the romantic love she deserves.  Marius, and his idealistic friends on the barricade, long for a future free from tyranny, full of opportunity, and worthy of the love they possess.  I could expound the virtues of the story forever.  I could quote my favourite lyrics.  Melodrama?  OK…but damn powerful stuff regardless of your desired label!

les-miserables-hugh-jackman-anne-hathaway-new

I have puzzled for a couple of weeks now over how to adequately describe the heightened impact of these characters and this narrative as it was expressed on film.  Yes, the actors sang live on set and this directorial choice has been championed, but also criticized due to the less-than-perfect vocal performances that resulted.  In truth, if vocal perfection was all that mattered in communicating the story, a cast full of the world’s best professional singers would have sufficed, but Hooper was willing to sacrifice musical sublimity in favour of screen actors whose gaze would penetrate our souls as they sang “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Bring Him Home”, or “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in extreme close-up.  Much has also been made of their gaze…at times directly into the camera, a cardinal sin for any screen actor, seasoned or otherwise.  I contend that it is precisely this ‘adaptation’ that elevates Hooper’s “Les Mis” above its stage counterparts.  

I began this overlong post with the premise that consideration of stories and how they are adapted is especially relevant because we live in an age characterized by the ‘convergence of the arts’.  As actors sing and agonize and shed tears while staring into the camera, we are audience to a film AND a stage musical simultaneously.  We are immersed in sequences especially ‘filmic’ as the camera winds through the slums or captures the chaos of battle in the streets, but when Anne Hathaway lets loose her despair in song, she is singing to US!  Who else would be listening?  She’s alone.  This is the artifice of the musical genre; she is singing her thoughts for our benefit.  On stage, she would address the audience and occasionally lock eyes with audience members in the front row.  Hooper’s film puts all of us in the front row–closer, in fact!  He puts us close enough to reach out and catch the tears streaming down her cheek, then pulls back to remind us that we are only witnesses.  We can share her sorrow but do nothing to alleviate it despite how near to us she appears to be.

Kress and Van Leeuwen maintain that “[i]n the visual semiotics of Western cultures, images are used to perform two fundamental types of ‘image act’: demands and offers”. They argue that every image (moving and otherwise) ‘offers’ a being/object for the viewer’s contemplation, or ‘demands’ an immediate social response–invites the viewer into a specific social relationship.  Which effect is accomplished by a given image is determined by an assessment of the vectors ‘formed’ by the subject portrayed, or the angle from which the subject is captured.

Vectors, however, are defined by the line-of-sight of an image’s subject, and enable us to delineate between implied offers/demands by distinguishing where exactly the subject is ‘looking’.  A ‘demand’ is ascertained if a subject looks directly at the viewer, and the nature of that demand (and the implied relationship between subject and viewer) is to be apprehended by the manner in which the represented subject ‘looks’.  An offer, conversely, is understood when the ‘participants’ or objects represented in a given image do not gaze at the viewer in a definable way.  They are, consequently, depicted for the viewer’s inspection, but do not require acknowledgement from the viewer or incite a specific social response.

When Fantine, Valjean, or Marius look at us, they demand a response, some type of acknowledgement, a relationship!!!  Whereas most characters depicted on film gaze past us and offer themselves for scrutiny, Hooper’s carefully chosen actors with the occasionally weak voices convey their emotions directly with an intentional gaze.  Though cloaked in theoretical jargon, this simple model for understanding how images communicate meaning validates the tears I shed involuntarily at two points in the film (yup! I’m secure enough to admit this!)  Hooper undoubtedly harnessed the greatest strengths afforded by both stage performance and film and united them to maximize the power of his subject matter.  Somehow my knowledge of what would happen next evaporated as he immersed me wholly in the events of his film.  Clearly, I’m in subjective territory at this point, but I believe that the transformation from stage to film intensified the meaning!

At one time or another, we all yearn to see and hear our favourite stories, but this desire is tempered by an even stronger desire to see them treated with care and respect–to ensure they are preserved.  Brian McFarlane contends that the goal of a director who seeks to deliver a “faithful film version” of a text is to “achieve, through quite different means of signification and reception, affective responses that evoke the viewer’s memory of the original text”.  Fidelity, truth, meaning, and memory matter to us, and if nothing else, perhaps we have thought a little more about why!

What stories are ‘precious’ to you?  How have they fared on the big-screen?  I’d be honoured if you shared.

**Feel free to contact me if you would like a complete list of sources quoted in this piece.

Like School, Without the School

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

It was more than a month ago now that I attended a Glen Hansard concert in Toronto, but something he said between songs still reverberates through my mind on a regular basis. If you’re not familiar with Glen and his music from the Oscar-winning film, “Once”, the resulting duo ‘The Swell Season‘, or even The Frames (the Irish band he founded and led between 1990-2006), suffice it to say that he is a special performer. His connection with his audience is so pure and his stage presence is unassuming and genuine–simply mesmerizing! After guiding the crowd at The Music Hall through the singing of backing vocals on a solo performance of “Back Broke” (YouTube video linked here) he complimented the audience and remarked that the aura in the room felt “like church, without the church.” I wholeheartedly agreed.

I couldn’t help but explode the implications of that statement over the days that followed. I assume we can agree that congregational singing is relatively scarce in our 21st-century society; it rarely goes on beyond the confines of church buildings–and at times, concert halls–yet when presented with the opportunity to collectively produce a joyful noise, we eagerly accept the challenge and the result is beautiful. I dare say there’s even a connectedness that results, due in no small part to the charisma and prowess of the leader (in this case, the esteemed Mr. Hansard). If we extend the simile even further, we might conclude that with or without the ‘church’, we all possess an innate desire to worship (someone or something). I doubt very much that Glen felt ‘worshipped’ on this particular night or wished for his adoring fans to relate to him in such a way, but by likening the solemnity and unity brought on by the shared production of music to a church-going experience, he offers us an interpretative lens through which we can better understand our relationship to him and those seated around us.

Two weeks removed now from my most recent long-term teaching assignment, I feel as though I am finally in a position to reflect on what I believe was a positive educational experience for myself and ‘my’ students. At first, it was painful to bid farewell to the wonderful group of 9th-grade students I had helped usher through the first days of highschool, and leave behind an ambitious group of 12-graders that I desperately wanted to encourage and equip for the bright post-highschool futures they’ve begun to pursue! Now, I am grateful for the time we spent together, in a humble classroom, united by our common–often undetected or unexplainable–desire to learn. For me, at least…it felt like school, without the school!

I mean not to suggest that the structures and co-participants that comprise a school building and community are or should be absent. In fact, they are integral and welcome, especially in these early years of my career where the support of colleagues and the predictable routine of school life are consummate lifesavers! I merely intend to suggest that once the door closes to that classroom and we consent to learn together for a period of time, it is as if all else fades into the background. We may not have even realized that we had this innate desire to ‘sing’ with a group, but as more of us give it a try, exciting things start to happen!

Jabiz Raisdana (@intrepidteacher) does an excellent job of giving shape and substance to the abstract dynamic that we enjoy as educators when a classroom environment just works! In a brief talk he recently gave at Learning 2.012 in Beijing, he outlines the importance of deliberately breathing life into the physical and online spaces that are so often ‘dead’ if left unmodified and untended. We invite students into these spaces, beg them to engage with us and learn with us, but fail to realize that we are responsible to establish (at least, initially) environments where students feel confident and comfortable expressing themselves honestly and creatively. The successes he shares verify that once our students begin to cultivate and own their learning environments, the boundaries inhibiting self-expression and creativity vanish.

My physical classroom ‘space’ was far from refined, and the online spaces within which we interacted were only beginning to blossom, but I believe that the fruit to which I bore witness in a mere 7 weeks resulted from the fact that students knew that our classroom was a place where ideas and thinking were prized above all else, and their personal contributions were valued enormously as together we sought to improve our skills and arrive at greater understanding. Course content was not a means to an end (required, dull, and arbitrary) but a pathway to relevant, tangible knowledge about the world we inhabit. Whether we were analyzing a seminal work of literature, identifying the building blocks of a meaningful story, or decoding the influences that inform our identities, we charged ahead with purpose and conviction. Risk-taking was celebrated and challenges bravely accepted.

I understand that this all sounds relatively vague and idealistic thus far, so permit me to be concrete and specific:

  • I applaud the students who were willing early-on in our time together to articulate a moral viewpoint and respectfully challenge the opposing views of others in the class.
  • I salute the reluctant writers, who typically responded to weekly writing assignments with fear and trembling, but eventually were willing to share their work online with their classmates. The praise you received for your efforts was well-earned!
  • I acknowledge the reluctant readers who demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of reading on a symbolic level.
  • I am impressed by the poetic language, insight, and wit that populated the creative dramatic works I was privileged to read.
  • I am extremely proud of the class who prepared themselves for a challenging in-class essay and skillfully argued their interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays!

Schools are not buildings but communities of people in pursuit of common goals. It is possible to do school without ‘the school’. When you’re fortunate enough to teach in a school like Galt Collegiate Institute (GCI), there is no desire/cause to dissociate one’s classroom from the school in which it resides, but I relish the moments when our classroom–the ‘school within the school’–was all that existed. I am convinced that the classes I surrendered will continue to flourish under new leadership and my sincere hope is that the mutual respect and unity among students will strengthen and their passion for knowledge will increase!

I recall part of our conversation as the three of us travelled home from Toronto after Glen’s performance in late September. My friend Chelsea (@MissusRoy) thoughtfully commented that at times it appeared as if Glen had such an “intimate connection with the band that it felt like we were intruding”. At times, perhaps, it felt to the onlooker like a band performing only for themselves out of sheer love for the sound they could produce collectively. Perhaps that’s why we were so thrilled to enter in and participate; it was clear that all involved were savouring each chord and note! I remember my clichéd response, something about how Glen and his band ‘left everything on stage’.

Clichéd though it may be…I hope that I ‘left everything on stage’ at GCI for the betterment of the students! I enjoyed the music we made together.

Image

I’m Finally ‘Mobile': Reflecting on a Dozen Years at Rogers Communications

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Across the ocean, they refer to televisions as ‘tellies’, french fries as ‘chips’, and cell phones as ‘mobiles’.  Different words for different folks I guess, but it intrigues me that in the third example, we in North America employ a term that describes what the object is while they utilize one that approximates what the device does or is capable of doing.  A similar dichotomy exists between my ‘workplaces’ pictured above; seemingly oceans apart, one represents (for me) a space in which significant attention is paid to the present interaction–the ‘experience’ we endeavour to create for our customers–while the other looks ahead to the untold lives we diligently equip students to navigate.  I’ve enjoyed tremendous success in the retail environment, but admittedly, it’s liberating to finally be mobile–investing energy and passion where I am certain it will have enduring value!

The fact remains, a dozen years is more than a third of my life thus far, and consequently, a period of time worth reviewing as I take this pivotal leap forward.

My career at Rogers Communications Inc. began around the dinner table one evening when my mother mentioned that she was in a Rogers Video store paying her bill that afternoon and had heard a clerk mention that they were ‘short-staffed’.  I ran down after dinner with a resume and was hired a few days later.  A truly unremarkable story, variations of which are likely to be told by many teenagers in search of part-time work.  I was 19 years old, halfway through my first year of a B.A. at the University of Waterloo, and it was February of 2000.

Today, I worked my final shift as a ‘Sales Associate’ for the Rogers Plus chain. On Tuesday morning, I will begin teaching at Galt Collegiate Institute in Cambridge, Ontario.  Many of my students will be working tirelessly to earn coveted positions in the university programs of their choosing, and I am determined to give their education my full attention.  From where I stand, this transition is definitely a remarkable one, and despite my burgeoning excitement to greet my new students, it seems fitting to mark and reflect upon the end of an era.  

As I look back at the 12+ years since my telecommunications career began, I am utterly amazed–not only at the changes in communications technology that I have witnessed and to which I have adapted, but at the life changes that have coincided.  I never expected to still be working for the company at age 32, married, with 2 children; I couldn’t even envision these days back in 2000, but the way I see it now, there were a few forces at work that fuelled and prolonged what has proven to be an incredibly rewarding working relationship:

Passion

When I worked my first shift at Rogers, we stocked about 17 titles on a ‘new’ format called DVD.  (That’s 17 more than we stock today!)  The other 5,000+ looked like this picture.  I remember purchasing a DVD-ROM drive for my computer with some of my initial earnings from Rogers and buying my first DVD, “Eyes Wide Shut”.  I was (and still am) a HUGE Kubrick fan, and had weirded out my new girlfriend the previous summer by dragging her to the theatre to see it.  (She mustn’t have been scarred too deeply because she agreed to marry me 7+ years ago!)

Though I spent the majority of my time selling cable television and high-speed internet services at that time, even working in a centre within a video store was a dream come true!  Movies were such an influential force in my life, and the thought that I might be paid to discuss them daily with co-workers and strangers was simply too good to be true.  (Thankfully, those film discussions/debates didn’t end, even as we sold off the last of our Bluray discs this spring.)  In many ways, I mourn the death of the video rental business because I think that discussing movies with total strangers, even if they have wildly different tastes than we do, is a ritual that will be sorely missed in our society.  How many places can you go where it’s appropriate to strike up conversations with random people merely because you saw their hand reaching for a particular product?  “You have got to try that yogourt!” probably won’t spark the appreciation and follow-up conversation that ensues when you point out a hidden gem to to a fellow patron in search of that perfect popcorn flick on a Friday night.  Netflix and iTunes and On-Demand services offer wonderful new ways to consume entertainment choices, but at the cost of treasured social interactions?  I hope not.

Addiction

Without a doubt, I had the best part-time job of any university student I knew because I made commissions and worked for a company that offered lucrative incentives!  In truth, despite the many weaknesses that detractors will eagerly point out, Rogers has proven time and again to be quite generous to its employees.  I have literally lost count of the cell phones, televisions, iPods, tickets to sporting events, gift cards, cameras, and endless other gadgets that I have collected over the years in addition to a healthy paycheque.  I mean not to brag about anything but the company that doled out these goodies.  I merely encouraged our customers to try out our new digital cable service (requiring a box with a surface area roughly equivalent to that of a picnic table!) or our blisteringly fast 5mbps hi-speed internet service, and I was repeatedly rewarded handsomely for my efforts.  (Check out the heatsink on that modem!)  When Rogers shifted its focus toward the sales of cellular products under the ‘Rogers AT&T’ brand, my addiction to sales took off and I never really looked back!

Most of my friends worked jobs where they knew exactly how much money they would make from a Saturday shift before they even left for work in the morning.  They poured coffee, or set up banquet halls, or folded jeans for a pre-determined hourly wage.  Conversely, I could push myself to work faster, engage more customers, and present complicated products and services in ways that made them easy to digest, and my paycheque would increase in proportion to the effort I exerted.  I jumped at every opportunity thrown my way and took pride in my sales results.

In 2005, upon completion of my grad studies, my then-fiancee and I decided that in the absence of a clear career path, Rogers would be an excellent place to work full-time while we prepared for our upcoming wedding and adjusted to the responsibilities of married life.  Blessed with a strict but inspirational manager who joined us at this crucial juncture, I embraced the idea that though a sales position was not my calling–was not what I had sweated through grad school to spend my life doing–I would pursue excellence in my workplace and my attitude and competitive spirit would enable me to push myself (and oftentimes my co-workers!) to new heights.  I was reminded of the importance of ‘attitude’ many times throughout the 5.5 years that followed.  I passed up several job opportunities that felt like compromises, and occasionally questioned whether I was moving forward or backward, while I continually reached for the sales crown in our area, our province, our country.  Addicted to sales?  Not really…but it had certainly become a way of life that was comfortable and afforded a degree of confidence.

Familiarity

My final two years with Rogers have proven to be an exceedingly long exercise in ‘letting go’.  As I began my year as a Faculty of Education student at the University of Western Ontario, commuting and working long into the night on lesson plans and assignments, I still maintained a position at Rogers. In hindsight, I see that it injected a normalcy into the craziness that characterized that taxing academic year.  As I ventured forward into my first year of teaching last fall, getting my feet wet in a profession where job prospects are often difficult to come by, again, I was allowed to continue working for this company.  It was as if I was reassured to know I had a ‘fallback’ if my educational pursuits fell flat.

I mean not to suggest that I stayed with Rogers only because it was convenient or because there was something in it for me.  My sentiments lean closer to the original meaning of the term ‘familiar’, which evokes an intimacy, a friendliness, or a sense of being ‘on family-footing’.  I was privileged to work alongside one co-worker (who turned out to make a pretty decent manager!) for 12 years.  Together, we have weathered many storms loosed on us by the business and everyday circumstances of life.  I’ve been told that I’ve filled the role of big-brother, confidante, and debate-partner for a host of others.  As the perks of the job began to evaporate with my decreasing involvement, one powerful reason to ‘stick around’ was to continue to dwell among people I genuinely enjoy!  I know friendships need not crumble in the face of changes such as these, but as life leads us in different directions, the relationships we have can’t help but undergo modification. Hopefully a few of our long-standing traditions will endure.

As my anticipation of the upcoming school year peaks this weekend, it definitely stings a tiny bit to sever a bond that has grown strong over the past 12+ years.  I will remember fondly my time with the innovative company that is Rogers Communications.  I think our relationship has proven to be mutually beneficial!

There are many unknowns that still plague my venture into the field of education, but of one thing I am certain.  When that empty classroom pictured above is filled with inquiring young minds on Tuesday morning, I intend to bring the same dedication and pursuit of excellence to the craft of teaching that has been my practice for the last dozen years.  Here’s to mobility!

The Dark Knight Rises: The Cost of a ‘Clean Slate’

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

SPOILERS ABOUND! This article is intended for readers who have already seen the film.

“Mere improvement is not redemption.” – C.S. Lewis

Why can’t we all have a ‘clean slate’?  Why is that so difficult?  What has to happen in order to make a clean slate fathomable?  Lewis suggests that redemption supersedes the desire to be better.  It is an absolute; one can not be partially redeemed.  It’s puzzling to consider that a film based on a beloved comic-book character may have something serious to say on the subject, but despite the unquestionable entertainment value of “The Dark Knight Rises”, it proves to be an incredibly serious film.

In “The Dark Knight”, the middle film in Christopher Nolan’s masterful, genre-defining Batman trilogy, Harvey Dent argues that, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  At the film’s climax, these words serve as self-fulfilling prophecy, and Batman accepts the mantle of villain, allowing Gotham City to memorialize her ‘hero’, Harvey Dent. Redemption on a grand scale–for our anti-hero and the city that rejected him–fuels the action and the intrigue in the story’s final chapter, “The Dark Knight Rises”.

From what must they be redeemed?  What does redemption even look like? Is a second chance, like the one Selina Kyle/Catwoman hopes to acquire with possession of the ‘clean slate’ software, really enough?  Kyle believes that a clean slate will mean anonymity and a criminal record that is expunged.  She equates freedom to getting away with her crimes.  Her character fascinates us because her actions at the film’s climax confirm that the removal of punishment alone doesn’t satisfy.  She has been morally ambiguous throughout, but ultimately chooses a more benevolent path and denies her self-preservation instinct.

Gotham’s redemption appears a more formidable task as she must crawl out from under the inequality and corruption that oppress her like a plague. Though other bloggers/critics have rightly pointed out that the script for this film pre-dated the Occupy Wall Street protests, it is difficult to avoid drawing parallels with a movement that sought to highlight these same faults and inadequacies.  Unlike the protestors who called for change, Bane insists that the time for redemption has passed and purposes to bring about Gotham’s reckoning instead.  His acts of terrorism remind us that the balance of power is not restored by stealing from the rich, and determining a just punishment for corruption is onerous at best.  Despite our occasional impulses to the contrary, Bane’s torment exposes the horror that would ensue if our society was to inflict pain on all of those responsible for its ills.  In my opinion, the prevalence of corruption (Gotham’s, and ours) itself corroborates the necessity of a collective redemption, as we all tacitly assent to such indiscretions and abuses of power until some sort of personal affliction results.

But literature, folklore, and religious ideology would have us believe that redemption doesn’t transpire on its own; there must be an agent of change. Mankind’s depravation and subsequent inability to rebound from such a hopeless state compels the establishment of mythical figures (as Barthes and Lewis would employ the term) equipped to succeed where we can not. Batman is one such character, but he must pay a significant price for his own redemption, and that of the city he is determined to protect.  A ‘clean slate’ isn’t an easy thing to come by.  (At one point the characters question whether it truly exists at all–literally and figuratively!)  It can only come at a cost.

For Batman/Bruce Wayne (and us?) the cost is three-fold:

First, he must acknowledge that a ‘fresh start’ is impossible. Commissioner Gordon can not undo the lies he has perpetuated for 8 years to cover-up Dent’s heinous acts, any more than Bruce Wayne can forget about the childhood tragedy that has fuelled his fear and anger throughout his entire life.  In another film I viewed this weekend, Sarah Polley’s “Take this Waltz”, Seth Rogen’s character states that, “some things you do in life, they stick.”  It is seemingly a condition of our humanity that we will be haunted by the past: mistakes, regrets, tragedies endured.  We can not simply return to a time when we were complete, unscathed by the evil we seek to bury.  In “The Dark Knight Rises” it is an early visit by John Blake, portrayed admirably by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that brings about this realization for Bruce Wayne and persuades him to once again don the cape and cowl after an extended hiatus. An angry orphan himself, Blake peers deeply into Bruce’s dark soul and reminds him that any effort to deny the permanence of particular qualities and circumstances is futile.  Batman’s reappearance on the streets of Gotham is evidence that Wayne has listened.

Next, our hero is humbled in more ways than one.  It’s fascinating to note that along with physical training and the obligatory high-tech gadgetry that is his trademark, one of the prerequisites for Batman’s participation in Gotham’s redemption is the loss of his own fortune.  Though technically a citizen and a billionaire, Wayne’s distinguishing characteristic was his money.  Forced to answer his own door, break into his own house, and eventually, endure a prison where his previous wealth and status earned him no special treatment whatsoever, Wayne realizes perhaps that he can’t truly act on behalf of the people until he is one of them.  When he fights alongside hundreds of Gothamites who have themselves sworn to serve and protect the citizens of their great city, he may be the only guy in a batsuit, but he is certainly not swooping in to single-handedly save the day as he did in “The Dark Knight”. Instead, he identifies with the risk and threat of failure that they face daily. He still advocates for them in the name of justice, but also allies with them on the ground where they live.

Finally, Bruce Wayne/Batman is reborn–forever changed by the physical and psychological tests he faces in ‘Bane’s prison’.  Forced to watch as Gotham burns, and powerless to respond due to his fractured back, Wayne is confronted with the harsh truth that he lacks the strength, resolve, and resources to overcome such an evil.  It is here that Lewis’ quote is most applicable: “Mere improvement is not redemption”.  He can not simply wait for his back to heal, grab his gear, and try again; grabbing a rope and climbing out of the hole will not suffice.  Wayne’s cellmate suggests that the climb can only be made without a rope due to the super-human ability that the fear of death will inspire.  Perhaps more essential to our understanding of redemption as portrayed in the film is the recognition that Wayne’s triumphant climb accomplishes a task that ‘no man’ has ever performed, and in doing so, qualifies him to embody the symbol of hope that he has thus far only aspired to represent to the people.  It elevates him above the world of mere mortals to heights of greatness that an entire society may never expect to achieve, heights that could only be reached by a wholly new creation, clean and free of all that previously held him back.  The film frequently refers to the damaged condition of Wayne’s ‘soul’, one that is arguably made whole again as he tosses the rope down to the remaining prisoners and takes his initial steps away from pain and suffering toward his destiny as Gotham’s redeemer.  The madness and agony and fear that held him hostage are no more!

I relish the sublime final moments of Nolan’s opus, but I’d also be curious to temporarily inhabit the mind of a Gothamite who believes that his ‘saviour’ has made the ultimate sacrifice to allow for his salvation.  Regardless of Batman’s eventual fate, Nolan’s film reenforces the tremendous cost of redemption.  A ‘clean slate’ can’t be stolen, manufactured, or even earned. Evil will always rise mightily and with destructive power. but the costs of redemption are worth embracing.  Failure to do so ensures that we will never defeat the horrors of this world and transcend the dark pasts that limit our potential.

Baby Steps…Together!

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

A child’s first steps, precarious, hesitant, are utterly remarkable to behold.  I try to puzzle out the expression on my daughter’s face as she waddles toward me–secure in the belief I will pick her up when she falls, but with a hint of the kamikaze implied by the twinkle in her eye.  At least, this is what I imagine she might be thinking.  Perhaps she’s as stunned as we are that she is already capable of this feat.

Despite celebrating our 7th wedding anniversary last Monday, I feel as though our family (my wife and I, and our two daughters) is in its infant stages. We are blessed with incredibly strong ties to the families from which we’ve come, and these relationships inform who we are every second of the day, but I’m also desirous of a familial identity that is ours–is unique to the four of us.

What defines us and characterizes us as a family is undoubtedly still evolving, and in a state of constant flux.  The emotional climate in our home, the physical environment we affect and improve, and the joys and sadnesses we share impact us as individuals and as a family unit.  In our routines, our recreational time, and even our slumber, we are intimately connected to each other in ways that far exceed all other interactions we enjoy.  Of these truths, I am convinced, and thus, I value these relationships above all else.

I often contemplate how well my wife and children are convinced (at their varying levels of understanding) of my commitment, not only to their well-being, but to the overall enrichment of the life we share.  I have much to learn about how to do this well.

I can be certain that on Sunday evening, our family took one baby step forward…together!  Even though our 11-month-old daughter has been toddling around furniture and crawling at the speed of light for some time now, it’s difficult to escape the excitement resulting from the first time it happens unaided–without something to hold onto or offer support (however real or imagined).  Following her beloved bath time, and her ritual shrugging-off of the towel, she broke form and walked across her room and into my arms. Our home literally erupted with triumphant praise!  The cheers prompted a repeat performance, and our appreciation did not wane at second viewing. Smiles. Laughter.  Joy.  Pride.

In that moment, a truth long-held was reiterated and spotlighted for me once again: a strong family shares and participates in the successes of its members.  Like most (I’d imagine) I am better at recalling memorable moments than listing qualities that define our family, but I would be thrilled for this to become our signature trait.  I know that Shannah did not take those steps ‘unaided'; she was supported and encouraged the instant we apprehended her willingness to take the risk.  We didn’t strategize or discuss amongst ourselves the best way to incite positive results, but reacted naturally and in unity because we love her.  Our 3-year-old, who often seems perplexed by our celebration of her sister’s tiniest advancements, was ecstatic before our own responses conveyed to her that she should be.  Truly, family at its finest!

As I anticipate joining the staff and students of a new school in the fall, I wonder if there is any application for such a principle in our academic communities.  Awards assemblies and ‘job well done’ stickers aside, what could our school communities accomplish if we were more deliberate about seeking to uncover the passions held by others and championing these pursuits?  Is it fair to suggest that any time we are living in community, we would do well to share and participate in the successes of its members?  Of course, it may come naturally to cheer on a baby taking her first steps, but as an educator and a parent, I worry about the times when I withhold my praise because the ‘success’ isn’t quite what had envisioned.  Perhaps there are even more times when I don’t recognize the success at all!

In the past year, I’ve discovered that the Personal Learning Network (PLN) model, made possible by social networks like Twitter, succeeds mightily in this regard.  Many active participants in these online communities are genuinely interested in connecting with others on a personal level–where encouragement and the sharing of experiences can have the highest impact on personal growth.  (If you are an educator and you have yet to begin establishing a PLN of your own, I would definitely suggest that you seek out available resources about how to get started!)  The result is that we are strengthened collectively as an educational community through the spreading of ideas, healthy discussion/debate about best practices, and ongoing support for challenges faced inside and outside of the classroom.  I believe we are drawn to these relationships because they fulfill a powerful (dare I say, familial?) role in our professional lives. Educators at their ‘finest’?

As my family grows and matures, I trust that we will encounter many more transcendent moments where we operate as one–as a family should.  A few of these will seem as effortless as the one we shared last Sunday evening; many more will be the result of focused attempts to support and love each other, to succeed together.  The latter will be no less beautiful.

Find out what those around you are passionate about, and how you can participate in their success, then purpose to do so.  I guarantee that the community/family of which you are a part will be better for it.

Adventures in Our Own ‘Backyard’

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to Middle Earth for lunch!  At least…it might as well have been Middle Earth because there was a fully-furnished hobbit house with a chimney and a door and luscious plants growing around it and I had to duck down to squeeze half of my body inside to take a look around.  It was pure magic…and all I was expecting was a barbecued sausage and a beverage.

In the midst of final mark submissions and cleaning desks/classrooms and monotonous end-of-the-year paperwork, a brief lunch with a couple of guys in a co-worker’s backyard brought me unexpected joy!  This same backyard contains a pirate ship, an Ewok village, numerous slides and tunnels, a wealth of fruits/vegetables/flowers, a walkway bordered by trees (like something out of a Tim Burton film) and a gigantic ancient rock that is still the source of much mystery.  The river that passes along the back of the property is home to swans, frogs, fish and a host of other unknown creatures.

My backyard–by comparison–is comprised of a lowly shed, some green onion plants I can’t seem to get rid of and a decrepit gate in need of repair.

The obvious care and meticulous attention to detail I witnessed were evidence of the passion and love that a family continues to pour into this space!  How long must it have taken to collect dozens of pieces of driftwood and assemble them into a working gate?  How many years of gentle coaxing were required to produce a ‘hallway’ made only of trees, or the circular gardens where popcorn bursts forth from the ground and a different section is designated as compost each growing season?

It’s almost intoxicating to catch a glimpse of a passion so defined and alive!  I couldn’t help but drop my colleague an email later that afternoon to express my gratitude for his willingness to share such a place with us, and the words that came to mind were impressive, inspiring and infectious!  Were I not among fellow professionals, I may not have suppressed a burgeoning child-like desire to explore and discover–to seek out the yard’s best hiding places and best-kept secrets.  I imagined my own 3-year-old daughter and how she would react in this environment.  I was in awe.  I have a feeling I won’t soon forget this place.

As I bid farewell yesterday to the staff and students at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School (until we meet again!) I walked away from another place I won’t soon forget.  W-O is a place filled with passionate people who love their work and pursue it with excellence and integrity at every turn because they believe that we have a responsibility not only to be good educators, but good people as well!  The school building is their ‘backyard’ and the community that inhabits it is alive and growing because of the enthusiasm shared by all involved.  As one finally entering a profession I had long ago been convicted was my calling, I was warmly welcomed, actively supported and regularly invigorated by those I worked alongside.  At times I was even in awe of the generosity, sincerity, and skill of those with whom I worked closely.

Now, I’m keenly aware that passion alone can yield reckless behaviour and lead to chaotic results.  The backyard I visited was not disorganized, and not without deliberate design.  The desire and enthusiasm that brought it into existence were obviously coupled with a high level of skill and much contemplation.  It is also true of the Waterloo-Oxford teaching staff (many of whom I am proud to call my friends) that though the work is ignited by passion, it is expertise and continued reflection that are largely responsible for the positive results.  This winning combination isn’t magical, and some would say it’s easily explained and simply the product of experienced individuals who have honed their craft, but we can’t dismiss the fact that it’s special!

As I look back upon the school year that was and anticipate the one that is before us, I am grateful for these fellow educators–passionately working for the betterment of a body of students and a surrounding community.  My personal growth as an educator and the many lessons I received this year are fodder for another post, but suffice it to say that I will remember fondly the time spent in our ‘backyard’.  My one wish is that my own passion for students and education was visible to others, and that maybe I left an object or two behind–something distinct–that will add character or spirit to an already unique space.

*I acknowledge that the title of this post (save for the alteration of one word) bears striking similarity to the title of the latest Patrick Watson album (talented Canadian singer-songwriter!)  Pics have been posted with permission from Kirk Bergey in Wellesley, Ontario.  

Relay for Life 2012: Why I Relay

Tags

, , , , , , ,

It is my privilege to participate in this year’s Relay for Life at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School in Baden, Ontario.  I wanted to take the opportunity to share with you why I felt led to participate in this event.

In July of 2009, a few short months after the birth of our first child, my father-in-law lost his battle with small-cell lung cancer.  Wayne Goodmurphy was a man who loved his family, loved the outdoors, and loved to work with his hands.  His commitment to all of us was evidenced repeatedly by the ways he prepared for the inevitable while he was still healthy enough to do so.

It was painful to watch the strength and vitality drain from such a strong man over the year he battled his disease, but life has a strange way of mixing tragedy with hope.  My strongest memories of that time are the moments when I watched Dad savour every second he had to spend with his newborn grand-daughter.  It was said over and over again during that time (and since) that our daughter, Éowyn, arrived at just the right time; she made it possible for all of us to endure the trial before us!  Wayne endured it like a true champ and we will not forget his fight!

In 2010, my wife Brae participated in Relay for Life in honour of her father.  This year it is my pleasure to do the same.  Please give generously to the Canadian Cancer Society in honour of someone you know who has been affected by this all-too-common disease.  I truly believe that the skill, ingenuity, and technical ability of medical professionals and researchers can pave the way for a cure IN OUR LIFETIME!  That’s a cause worthy of our support!

Here is a link to my participant’s page where online donations can be made.

I am grateful and honoured that you would take a moment to read this post. Thanks.

- Paul

Kony 2012: Four Messages I Shared with Students

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Regardless of our personal feelings about Invisible Children and their slickly-produced viral video, we’ve been handed a gift-wrapped teachable moment, and I intend to use it as such.

On Thursday afternoon, my students begged me to watch the Kony 2012 video that has to date been viewed by more than 71 million people on YouTube (and millions more on Vimeo) after only 6 days.  My curiosity was piqued by their obvious passion and conviction, so we gave it a look.  I definitely had reservations about the filmmaker’s methods while and after I viewed the video, but I listened to the students intently before offering a few brief comments. Since then, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on our conversation and the messages that I spontaneously communicated to them (some of them, admittedly, half-baked).  I imagine that as we near the April 20th date that Invisible Children has set aside to ‘Make Kony Famous’, we will witness the involvement of more and more of our students.  How will we talk to them about a cause that has suddenly captured the attention of our culture? Let’s start the conversation.

Here are the 4 messages that I recall offering my students:

1. “Outrage is Justified”
He may not have been a household name in the western hemisphere until this past week, but the injustices and atrocities endured by the Ugandan people at the hands of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been the cause of much concern and heartache for years.  Why shouldn’t this sudden awareness of an extremely bad guy and his grotesque actions inspire moral outrage?  On some level, I am thrilled that the before-the-bell-rings chatter in my classroom has temporarily shifted away from hockey suspensions and weekend parties to a subject with a little more gravity and significance!  Of course, much has been written already on the role that social media has played in the dissemination of not only a video, but a message.  I guess that if all of these ‘trending topics’ and Facebook ‘Likes’ represent heartfelt responses to a problem, and not just our own vain attempts to imitate compassion, then who am I to squander them?

More than anything, I think it’s valuable for students to feel the complicated emotions that emerge when they are angered and afraid for strangers on the other side of the planet.  To incite the type of cultural response that 71 million views represents, the emotional impact must outweigh the sad sighs and fleeting bouts of regret that occur when we catch a World Vision commercial sandwiched between ads for toothpaste and fast food.  As a parent, the mere thought of so many children exploited in such horrific ways compounds my confusion and frustration about how a group can ‘get away with’ crimes so despicable over such a long period of time.  In a world where moral compasses are oriented around such disparate world views and philosophies, it is a powerful experience for us to unite around a cause that many agree is right and call to accountability an individual that quite clearly embodies our idea of what is wrong!  Outrage is justified!

2. “Maintain a Critical Eye”
At the same time that I championed and validated their indignation, I implored students to view all media they encounter–and this video especially–through a lens that is critical of the filmmaker’s bias and the rhetorical methods he employs for the advancement of his message.  Good intentions alone do not suffice.  What potential harm may come of presenting a child with an image of a black man then proceeding to demonize him?  Should advocating for a worthy cause outweigh a father’s desire to protect his child’s innocence, shielding him from the realities of child soldiers and mass kidnappings until he is mature enough to comprehend and process them?  The seemingly obvious solution understood by Russell’s son (capture Kony!) no doubt served to elicit much agreement among viewers, but child exploitation is a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line?

Russell would be hard-pressed to deny that his film is propaganda; his purpose is definitely to promote and publicize his point of view in hopes that it will inspire political action.  Not all propaganda is to be dismissed, but students must be taught to guard themselves against manipulation.  Idealistic thinking at their age is common, and as educators we need not burst their bubbles, but I want to fuel their innate energy and enthusiasm while at the same time urging them to think for themselves.  How is Russell framing their ‘responsibility’ as individuals who are suddenly ‘in the know’?  Is he welcoming of suggested solutions to a perceived problem or has he already narrowed the field to one solution that we all must accept and support?  Are the channels his group has selected as conduits for the message intentional rallying points for the naive and idealistic, and if so, why these avenues when so many more are in place?  Invisible Children has attempted to respond to questions like these (look here and here if interested), but regardless of the varying quality of these responses, my desire is that students will ask the appropriate questions!

3. “Where human beings are concerned, it’s never that simple!”
I asked my students this question, and they found it difficult to answer (as any of us would because we don’t really know): “Does eliminating Kony really solve anything, or do we just feel good about punishing yet another of the world’s notoriously evil men?”

Isn’t it usually the case in organizations such as the LRA that if a leader is deposed, another steps up to take his place?  I will avoid digging myself into a hole with any comments that suggest I have a profound understanding of the situation in Uganda and North Africa as a whole.  Instead, I will defer to Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices and researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  If you read his weblog, you’ll quickly discover that his “heart is in Africa” and he has a lot of on-the-ground experience with which to back up his comments.  He has written a wonderful post called ‘Unpacking Kony 2012‘ that you can read in its entirety if you wish. I will share with you a brief quote found toward the end of his post:

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

Zuckerman explains that Museveni, “the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda”, has rigged elections, suppressed freedom of speech, and is even working to introduce the death penalty for practicing homosexuals.  In short, this isn’t a government we should be eager to support politically or financially. As a result, co-operation with the Ugandan military to coordinate a search resulting in the arrest of Kony is far more complicated than Russell and co. imply.

No doubt it is easier to buy into a story where black and white–good and evil–are indisputable.  As an English teacher, I immediately recognized the power of this narrative and its presentation.  It’s not necessarily a lie, or even purposefully misleading…it’s just far too simplistic.  Since it obviously intrigues students, we must encourage them to seek out the whole story!

4. “Follow Your Convictions”
Lastly, despite all of the evidence suggesting that this type of action may prove futile, I can’t help but conclude that if a 30-minute video has compelled students to act on behalf of the voiceless and toward the betterment of others, then this action (however ill-advised) is better than inaction!  I am skeptical as to whether the putting up of posters or wearing of bracelets can truly be a step toward the capture of Joseph Kony, but I never want my skepticism to promote inaction in others.  This blog post (in part at least) emerges from my own belief that at our best, we educators are respected and influential people in the lives of our students, and our responsibility is to foster their growth as individuals.  We defy this worthwhile pursuit if we deny them a sense of purpose.

I admit that I look ahead to the morning of April 20th, 2012 with moderate anticipation.  If the cause doesn’t flounder as quickly as it surfaced, millions of people may end up peacefully stating to governments and leaders around the world their intention to stand on the side of justice.  For many of the teenagers that I encounter in an average week, it may be nothing more than a first opportunity to participate in and feel a part of something bigger than themselves, but maybe some day a few of them will get on an airplane, and cross an ocean, and see first-hand the struggles that plague a continent, and recognize that their “heart is in Africa”.  We don’t know what the outcome of this bizarre campaign will be, but we do know that it suddenly seems to matter to us.  However it turns out, I am quite sure that my classroom will continue to be a place where students are encouraged to speak their convictions and put them into action!

How will you approach ‘Kony 2012′ in a classroom setting?  What will you say? What advice might you give?  What questions should we be asking?  I look forward to your ideas/feedback on this topic.

But I’m an Artist…

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

I have only one New Year’s resolution, and if I’m up to the challenge, I suspect that many other goals, priorities, and areas requiring greater self-discipline will mysteriously fall into line!  The personality trait against which I intend to wage war is decidedly more difficult to measure for improvement than one’s spending habits, or surrendering of addictions, but its improvement has far-reaching implications.  Once again, a work of art has impressed upon me a truth of which I was already aware–has brought it to the forefront of my mind, so to speak–and incited me to action as only the best films/songs/books can do.

Two weeks ago, I saw a preview screening of “The Artist” with my sister-in-law, and my initial response was luke-warm.  My expectations for the film were admittedly quite high (as an avid film fan, I had perhaps read too much praise prior to going into the theatre!)  I immediately admired the acting, the cinematography, and the wonderful score, but the story/characters themselves felt hopelessly dated.  I enjoyed it purely as an homage to the earlier days of cinema–but wrote it off as somewhat irrelevant to my personal experience.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Michel Hazanavicius has employed the medium of silent film to portray an industry undergoing revolutionary changes and a man who stands in denial of progress because ‘he is an Artist’!  He need not TALK to be understood, and feels that no further generosity should be required of him in ‘making way for the young’.  In his mind, the era of ‘talkies’ is but a passing phase, and his talent and fame will sustain him beyond a fad that threatens to annihilate the true artistry of cinema.  As he brazenly produces films for which there is no longer an audience, and comes to grips with the truth that his appeal has been relegated to older generations of moviegoers, his conclusion mirrors my own: our pride lurks beneath the excuses we offer for our failure to adapt, and ultimately, impedes our growth.  

In 2011, we witnessed the fall and/or death of many proud dictators.  We continued to weather the after-effects of a financial crisis that analysts now agree could have been avoided if, as a society, we weren’t so intent upon buying with credit and living lavish lifestyles beyond our means.  Whether or not you agree with its methods, the ‘Occupy Movement‘ took aim at inequality and corruption–two pervasive social problems that stem from the pursuit of power and the sordid lengths to which many are willing to go in order to preserve the power they possess.  It is not my place to pass judgment on anyone involved in such things, or to be so naively idealistic as to suggest that we eradicate pride altogether, and thus, solve all of the world’s problems.  I can only examine my own life.

As I do so at the dawn of another new year, I can’t help but identify the missed opportunities, the relationships forfeited, and the stubbornness that has occasionally characterized my decision-making over the past year. Without a doubt, I consider myself to be open-minded, highly motivated to advance my career and serve my family, and sincere in my encounters with others.  I’m succeeding in many ways, but am I generous with my time?  Do I always follow through with the promises I make?  Am I willing to stomach the discomfort and embrace the changes happening around me and in spite of me?  In 2012, I am committed to do all that I can to receive the grace and summon the will to act differently when pride comes knocking.

It’s simultaneously humiliating and liberating to publish on a public website such thoughts and admissions concerning my own pride.  I guess I feel no shame in revealing to a supportive community that I have weaknesses and I am committed to self-improvement.  Is this not really the function of all our annual sharing of ‘resolutions’?  We secretly crave accountability and relish the opportunity to step boldly into a new year, declaring our intention to pursue collective and individual growth!

Naturally, we need not surrender who we are in the quest to be better.  Be it the ever-evolving medium of film, our habits in our workplaces, our parenting styles, or the ways in which we relate to those we care about most, the old and the new will inevitably co-exist.  Hazanavicius’ artist may be correct to assert that it’s not always what we say that counts, but we submit ourselves to folly if, by extension, we choose not to speak at all! 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.