Friday, May 20, 2016

In Praise of Ordinary Things...!

Note:  I plan to go into summer time mode blog posting - I will post only when the spirit moves me to do so until late August...  Enjoy the summer!

It has been a busy year supervising my interns and student teachers, and now, summer vacation has arrived - Most recent summers we have gone off to 
explore exotic lands for our annual travel adventures - but this summer Judy
had an important project that she deeply believes in...   And it’s amazing, 
after a busy year, for now,  just doing ordinary things is a pleasure.
Entrance drive into Mills College, Oakland

The dogs and I walked early this morning along the Alameda Creek trail - It 
was a time of day when the water birds were actively hunting for food, I saw 
the first baby ducks of the season, and a great V of geese passed so close
 overhead I could hear the wing feathers vibrate in the wind. The plant 
community is preparing for the long wait of summer dryness-  - seed pods 
have formed... the summer season has begun... Cormorants stood watch from 
atop tops extending their wings to dry in the morning sun.

Me and 2 of the pups - Rusty is down in the creek chasing a ground squirrel
There is a gentleness to this season - a predictability - Mornings are cool and delicious - middays warm - even hot, and evenings cool when the cloudy
 ocean air mass.  The hammock is up if I ever get time to use it...

Looking west - every night cool ocean air comes streaming in from  the Pacific -
usually the fog doesn't reach us in Fremont
We can't have it all - the cool evenings preclude the growing of peppers, 
eggplants, melons, most heirloom tomatoes, and other vegetables that like 
long warm summer evenings.  They will grow handsome plants -   I tell 
myself "Don’t be greedy - grow what is suited to our climate."

As I have changed the garden to have more drought plants - my population  of lizards has increased -
they are good garden friends...

One of my first 'real' jobs this summer has been to weed and prune the winter garden - with all our rain plants grew crazy wild and we had more weeds 
that I have seen before... So I have worn my fingers down to nubs - but that 
job is done...
Scarlet Pimpernel - just like in the fiction  book - they show up everywhere - they are on my kill on sight list!

It is also the season when gophers are digging their deep summer tunnels. 
( 10-12 inches deep in the soil).  I am in a state of war with these guys!  
So far they have eaten the roots off of two zucchinis and two Swiss chard 
plants...  It is a certain ethical problem for me - generally I work to preserve 
wild life - and theoretically I find wild gophers charming little animals with remarkable behaviors... 
Guess who?
But when they eat my zucchini that is another matter.  
I have tried traps, ground vibrators, smoke bombs, 'safe' chemical poisons... 
I dig back to find the "T" in their tunnels... I have tried it all... My latest 
method is to plant inside of buried wire baskets.  One person even told me to 
put ex-lax pills in the tunnels - she said it worked marvelously I haven’t tried 
that yet.  But who am I to complain - in Tanzania  I was told the biggest 
garden pest was rampaging elephants...

Early strawberries

The fruit calendar had begun - we have an on-going strawberry crop, loquats 
and Valencia oranges are sweet and good.  Now I check the fig tree daily - 
they are coming soon! Here my competition for fruit are a big noisy blue
 jay and a fruit loving mocking bird...that and sometimes a nighttime possum 
or raccoon... Oh well - Man against nature right here in my backyard.

These guys are such rascals! Scrub jays!

It is the season of reptile surprises in the garden - delicate little snakes, garter, sharp tail most common, occasional king snakes; and a myriad of fast darting
 blue bellied lizards. I often see them scurry out of the corner of my eye -
 so fast...  they are both cool - we happily coexist;

Rubber boas - about 4-5 inches long...Very gentle

My summer garden is thriving in a raised bed - chard, Romano beans. 
lettuce, beets, herbs, potatoes, tomatoes. 

Exit Sign on gate at Mills College

Friday, May 13, 2016

Reading the signs

I was  pondering the political messages that I am now receiving  - many of them making amazing claims - some I fear are not attainable - many of them seem to be designed to manipulate my thinking...  

It got me thinking about how ads are created to guide our behaviors, opinions, and beliefs.  Some manipulations are helpful - Signs are like ads -sign posts have messages  meant to direct our actions more effectively...  Judy and I were hiking a trail in southern Peru and we realized that there were no signs to tell us if we were on the right path or how far we had to go. Signs are important and an expected part of our lives.  But not all times in history and not all cultures recognized signs.  If you wanted to know something we had to ask a local farmer with knowledge of the area.

Sighs of another sort have long be seen and interpreted by seers who were able to read the signs in tossed dry chicken bones or signs in the sky or the occurrence of earthquakes, or from breathing too man y volcanic fumes - Many of these so called signs were based on a misguided understanding of cause and effect...  If I see an owl in the daytime, it means something... If I see a black cat crossing my path it means something...  Many traditional religions include the reading of signs in this way.

In our day and age, we live with all kinds of signs... In bilingual communities may include two or more languages or may be  signs with only pictograms - School crossing, restrooms: male, female, bigender, cattle crossing, right turn, windy road... Some depend on symbols: Red=stop, Green = go, claxon = evacuate, computer beeps and chimes...  Many of our signs assume that everyone can read English: Stop, Construction - right lane closed...  Traffic signs can be essential for safety. 

The use of messages written on a wall expanded in the late 19th century... "Bertha's cafe - breakfast all day", "Use Sloan's Liniment for pain relief", "Curb your dog.".. But it was in the early 20th century that the concept of signs became an industry - The concepts of Madison Avenue - the concepts of encouraging consumption of certain products through wide spread engineering of needs and wants...  

The famous Burma Shave adds were an early example: a series of signs along a roadway, spaced at intervals, would each have a portion of the message with the "punch line" something about the shaving cream. People loves them and often passed them on like valued jokes:  Examples:

   Hardly a driver / Is now alive / Who passed / On hills / At 75 / Burma-Shave
   Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave
   If you dislike / Big traffic fines / Slow down / Till you / Can read these signs / Burma-Shave

But the industry expanded to include clever radio and newspaper ads... and it works!  If I have a new product and want to increase my profits - it’s all about well-designed ad campaigns to create a need or desire for the product.True is you are selling spaghetti sauce, a church, travel to Tahiti, or tooth paste ...

A kind of co-evolution began to develop among consumers - a growing resistance to be 'taken in' by the ads - Do you sometimes tune out certain annoying ads...? But never mind the ads have just gotten glitzier, cuter, sexier, louder... and they keep drawing us in with subliminal messages that we don’t even know we have received...  We just have to resolve to be even smarter and more resistant - but they will come right back at us...

A different kind of sign has shown up - mostly in the last few decades...  I saw pay first pencil written graffiti on the inside of public places when I was a kid... Modern graffiti is largely dependent on the development of the spray can of paint.  Most graffiti emphasize stylized script - some is recognizable as a single word... What is the message behind it all... The message is "I was here, I matter, whether you like it or not I am leaving my personal mark on the world.  If I don’t do this, I will remain invisible."

So this brings me back to our politician friends:  They tell us "I am running for office because I want to win.  I need to have ads directed at my audience - I want them to know that I will meet their needs - I care about them - I will get rid of things that they do not like - I will make policies good for their freedoms, their resources, their beliefs..." The sad thing is their message is often more about trying to manipulate me and not much about how much they actually will be able to deliver...  The really sad thing is that ads have come to take the place of the hard work of analyzing issues .  There is no other way to vote intelligently but by careful study of the Candidates  past achievements.  What they have said and done are  critically important - We have to discover who they associated with. Democracy is hard work...  We can either be suckered in by Madison Avenue type political ads - or we can each do the hard work of understanding issues.

Good luck!

A friendly home made sign in a farmers yard...

Friday, May 6, 2016

"Oh yeah! I kind of remember that..."

It's the end of my academic year working with interns and student teachers  - I have seen a lot of really good teaching and some - not.  Its a good time for me to reflect on the idea of ' learning'

Try a little experiment with yourself – think about a lecture, speech, sermon, or 'listening encounter' that you have had this last week.  Now, sit down with a paper and pencil and see how many of the concepts and details from the talk you can jot down.  How did you do?  Most of us leave the lecture with a sense that "that was really interesting" or "boring" or "I really liked it a lot"...but at the same time we remember few details.  Most of the time I can’t even remember what I had for dinner two nights ago. 

The watering can/ umbrella effect in education...
Now imagine that you are 15 years old and its 4th period, just before lunch. The teacher is explaining the difference between mitosis and meiosis.  This student may be thinking, “I’m starving – should I get pizza or a hot dog for lunch…?"  "I wonder where that new cute girl eats lunch…?  I wonder if she would talk to me if I sat down at her table?  All this time the teacher is explaining critical ideas about gamete production by meiosis.  The teacher is quite pleased because today everyone seems to be looking intently at her during the presentation.  

There are several different modifications of this chart - but they carry the same message... We tend to apply it more in school education than in presentations to adults... time to change
When the time comes to ask review questions about how mitosis and meiosis are alike and different – the first person passes – “I’m not sure…” The second student says that they think that mitosis in part of animal cell division… “That’s correct – Can you tell us more?”…”Well, I think that only plants have meiosis”  …“No, animals have meiosis too. Would you like to call on someone to help you …?”  "Tayeisha will you help Jerome…" “Well with mitosis you end up with two identical cells that each have a full set of  chromosomes, but with meiosis you end up with two cells with only half as many chromosomes”. Teacher  " "Everybody got that?" ...nopresponse... "Good now we can move on - 

I see this quite often...

Stop… this is a moment to examine…Clearly few of the students understood the difference between mitosis and meiosis and yet the teacher made the assumption that students upon hearing the correct answer - suddenly they all “got it”and that its safe to move on… "They heard it - they learned it - OK to move on"  Have you ever seen this is a class you were part of ...or have you done it yourself?

Has this ever ben you?
When free discussion of a topic occurs in class - how much real learning happens for students?  The discussion may be interesting for the moment - but sit down one on one with students the next day and have them tell you what they remember from the encounter...   It's humbling to discover 'not much'.  Good teachers do 'research' like this frequently to assess their own teaching success,

The following chart is attributed to William Glasser (educational psychologist )

     "At the end of each day, the average person can remember:
      11% of what they heard that day
      30% of what they saw
      50% of what they heard and saw
      90% of what they did"

Sadly I frequently am part of adult meetings where it is assumed that if it is spoken... that is all that is needed - We adults need opportunities to assimilate new information too.
Whether you agree with his exact numbers or not - the basic concept we all know to be true from experience
I am seeing a few enlightened churches posting key questions in the bulletin and allowing time to reflect and write - also space to take notes for individual use. More and more in well run seminars the processing of ideas in taken into account... "There is more to learning and retaining than hearing the information one time!"

The Dale and Glasser pyramids though often quoted, needs to be interpreted with a grain of salt.  Many factors determine how much we retain.  Think back to your own experiences about what  causes you to 'learn' and remember.  
In a 'high stakes' exchange - Memory of first meeting with the one you love... a coach giving you instructions... The instructions on how to drive your new car...  The warning a police officer gives you... How intently focused  are you in the topic affects retention, the authority of the speaker influences learning,  how much information is presented, did you relate positively to the speaker, are you sleepy or anxious?, how abstract is the content ?...  How long ago did the learning take place?
Sharing of ideas crosses all cultures

I know a local politician who had to read and remember vast amounts of information  before each city council meeting.  He found that it worked better for him if he read the materials just before the meeting.  He often quoted:  "Read no piece before its time".

Learning by Conceptualizing - applying - acting - reflecting - conceptualizing what you have e learned...
We each have our own learning style - I take notes. I hear the idea, I process the idea mentally and choose words mentally, and then tactically - I write them down, I come back later and reread my notes.  If I need to really learn something from reading - I take notes as I read - this forces me to be alert and identify key ideas - rephrase - and write down...

 It is also true that the more senses that are involved in our learning the more we retain.  Most good teachers today begin with a clear posted list of learning goals for the day, and for the unit.  The learning experience is presented with repeat encounters with the concept using different learning modes.  We can choose to present ideas that require the student to listen, read, talk within teams of 2 or 4, lab activities, and more...  The challenge is to limit the number of concepts to be learned and then to provide adequate varied learning experiences. 

What we hear in emotional exchanges is often retained longer..

Developing your understanding of a concept is like a snowball rolling down hill.  You start with a basic understanding, then add more knowledge to  develop your basic understanding  A good teacher comes back and revisits important concepts with the students.  By reviewing, all students  reconnect with past learning and then add on to it...  Facts learned individually get lost in the shuffle.

Make it a mantra for yourself - post it where you do your lesson plans - repeat it to yourself when you enter the classroom... "Hearing does not equal learning..."  Effective teachers are constantly on the search for better methods for how to make learning happen for all students .... It becomes a career long compulsion with good teachers to continue that search.

I hope this doesn't apply to this blog

Friday, April 29, 2016

Do you 'kitsch'?

When I was a child, one day my father brought home a fine wooden duck cut from pine boards. It was painted to look like a mallard.  It had wings designed to rotate at different speeds depending on the windspeed; it swiveled and served as a wind vane.   We placed on a pole for all to see.  This was my first experiences with "kitsch" but I didn't know the word then.

Duck with rotating wings
Kitsch is a word borrowed from German - kitsch objects are found in many (all?) cultures. Designs are often based on popular or cultural images.  It is sometimes called "art of the people" when compared with 'fine art'.  Objects or pictures can be hand made one of a kind objects or factory made copies.  Kitsch is meant to be 'fun', it is a statement of who you are and what you enjoy, it is a statement of humor for your neighbors to enjoy.  Originality and creativity are important.
German gnome
Once when we were staying in a pension in Hungary - I walked through the neighborhood to see if I could find examples of Kitsch in the front yards.  With the exception of a few porcelain Gnomes and a couple of medieval looking Gargoyles attached to modern homes - I found few... There was a sad sameness to all the homes - neat front yards, trimmed lawns, a few shrubs... but no "art".  In American yards it is much the same - Why is this?  It is our cultural loss...

Thai dancers
In some neighborhoods in Central America amazing kitsch is more common - simple wooden carvings, religious figures of porcelain, creations of tile and mirrors, terra cotta burros, roof top ornaments... The line between a unique creative art piece with something to 'say' and kitsch is sometimes difficult to define...  Should the religious objects be classified as Kitsch - Do plastic manger scenes set up in America qualify as Kitsch...?  Niles has a peewee golf tournament each summer with individuals setting up different holes in back yards - each participant puts a gaudy pink flamingo in their front yard to advertise. Good example.

Photos or paintings can be kitsch as well
I know people who collect kitsch - searching everywhere for their specialty - old antique toys become kitsch when collected and displayed, porcelain puppies, French postcards, peasant art, farm tools, British tea cups, Silver spoons collected from cities of the world, license plates...  It appears that kitsch is in the eye of the beholder not the original item itself.  In Niles we have 6 or 8 specialty shops that sell every manner of kitsch...

This giant kitsch is used to sell mufflers
If you want to look for kitsch - go look in the average American bathroom or kitchen .  I often see porcelain fish, birds, mushrooms, or woven baskets with seashells.  The bottom line is that when these displays are well done  does it add to the enjoyment of the visitors to that bathroom? What is chosen for display tells something about the person who created them.

Mass produced kitsch straight off the shelf
How you feel about kitsch is largely a matter of your personal history, and who you are reaching out to through the display... - I hate "cute" stuff - Once we stayed in a bed and breakfast with " darling" little stuffed kitties and "sweet" little pictures painted in the sentimental style of the early 20th century, doilies and little stitched messages on the wall... Not my thing.  Nor do I like places with cross-stitch messages like "Don't Pine for Me" "You are the Apple of my Eye".  Not me...

Variety of pieces in a shop window
My preferred Kitsch makes me smile for its originality.  I like something that the person has made or painted themselves.   I like pieces that tell something about the owner.  I also like pieces that tell something about the person’s belief or culture.  Good kitsch in Peru may be a roof top assemblage of objects with origins both in the Christian era and pre-Christian symbols.  A well-made scare crow would be kitsch; a clever carved jack o lantern is a kitsch object with a brief life time. 
A Czech garden snail ( 1 m. high )
In this age of standardization many people fear standing out by expressing their unique creativity by making or showing kitsch.  Kitsch has a 'bad name' in our culture as something cheap and of little value... I think this is  also the result of many mass produced 'cutsie' products flooding the market.  How many plastic gnomes or chipmunks can you take?  On the other hand I know someone who makes the most amazing bird houses our of old boots - bicycle wheel water wheel that uses the water coming from the down spout, clever wooden buildings or garden toys...those things bring joy.

Much of the earlier 'Blackface'  Kitsch was demeaning and filled with racist images

So how do you feel about Kitsch - do you love it, hate it, put up with it?  What Kitsch do you have in your bathroom or front yard? I think Kitsch is one of the last remnants of how we express our creativity  to the world - Tell your story! Do Kitsch!

Unter Wasser Mann - Czech Republic ( Mythical creature lives under water - He catches and holds  under water  children who dont  follow safe practices in and around water.  " Unter Wasser Mann will get you..."