No.17 - Keeping
into the backroom
of a needle
in a name?
at them yet looking at you
at the Inside
I was young
Dog and Depression
of the night
and the past
Welcome to edition #17 of The Creative Teaching Space.
It has taken some time for this edition to come together. A lot of water has flown under the bridge.
This year (2006) has been an interesting year for me. Primarily, I have stepped back from my involvement in staff development work. I have reflected on the work that I do. I have forgotten about it at times and taken up new interests.
The year started with the writing of a resource for the Gambling Support Bureau in Tasmania. The kit is shortly due for publication. I enjoyed writing a resource that allows a topic to be accessed through a range of disciplines. This allows teachers to work together. Students can use a host of skills to make a topic even more meaningful.
Having completed this work I spent a couple of months in the U.K. I hadn’t been there for thirteen years and wanted to touch base with friends and relatives. I also wanted to explore areas of interest. I took my digital camera and ended up with hundreds of photos. I visited seaside towns, monasteries, graveyards, gardens and cities. I continue to follow these themes in Australia. Eventually I hope to present a gallery of photos on my website.
I enjoyed meeting relatives and friends, and making new friends. As I get older I find myself increasingly following themes rather than doing the ‘touristy thing’. I visited the extraordinary Mass Observation Archive in Brighton. I also researched a painting’s history.
Growing up with a print of the English painter Benjamin Williams Leader on the wall of my childhood home, I arranged to visit Ruth Wood, the main expert on Leader. I visited the original site of the painting and learned a tremendous amount about Leader’s life and work. This culminated in a visit to a gallery in London to see the original painting. Like any good investigation I learned far more than I intended. I learned about the history of Worcester, land use, painting techniques, art commerce as well as art investigation. It was a pleasant time.
These experiences are only the tip of the iceberg. Travel involves many subtleties and nuances. It was wonderful sensing spring emerge on cloudy and thundery Worcester landscapes. Sitting in seaside cafes it was engaging talking to local people about life in England. I sat on buses, listened to conversations, watched people go about their daily lives. London found me exploring theatre and meeting Wolfgang Stange, the director of the Amici Dance company. I participated in his group. We talked about disabilities drama. I was once again inspired by the extraordinary beauty within this field.
As I return to staff development work, coming off teaching work in Hobart, I find myself relocating to Melbourne for family reasons. Later in the year I intend to move to New Zealand. I look forward to opening new doors in staff development and disability drama work, as well as spending time with my kiwi relatives.
As I contemplate the move, and once again dip into this magazine, I have a continuing interest in working directly and practically with teachers and students.
I tire when I hear of words like ‘capital’ used in education. To me it seems as if business jargon is being unquestionably appropriated by schools.
I also tire at the unnecessary complexity placed on education. Education, I believe, is very simple. It is an act of engaging with learners and using the skills of talking and listening to connect with people and ideas. Many people surround education with an extraordinary complexity that can’t help but empty it of spirit and soul. Rarely do I see people challenging this complex view. Complexity is synonymous with sophistication, simplicity with being ‘simple’. To challenge this complexity is to undermine the very base by which many people fashion a career.
I stay on the outer. I think of how trends complicate and factionalise enterprises. One only has to look at, for example, the history of Buddhism. What was once seen as a simple and practical philosophy has become a religion with all its trappings and theatricality. People buy into the theatre without going back to the practicalities. I think that something similar has happened in education. The trail of paperwork is long and repeated infinitely.
I like that which is simple: a group of people, communication, and the opportunity to engage with a topic. I like the challenge of finding the fresh view, the new way of opening a topic, seeing all its depth.
As I contemplate education I increasingly move away from trends. What is important to me is that which is simple. That which is simple is often deep. It is these depths that we should delve into. Too often we burden students, and teachers, with a vast curriculum and a culture of stressful expectation. How often do we stop and really ask ‘what is being learned here?’ We know what is being covered, yet, is it being understood? Does it have a resonance that can be carried into everyday life?
I keep thinking about the fascinating videos on the www.learner.org site e.g. A Private Universe and Minds of Our Own. Each episode shows how students, even Harvard graduates, fail to grasp deep central concepts.
I think of how deep knowledge enables us to find connections. The world is not so complex. There are really only a small number of things that we can learn about deeply.
I walk away from factions in Disabilities Drama because they politicise and complicate the experiences of people living with a disability. These factions want to project views of disability on the lives of others. Pressure is placed on arts organisations for projects to consistently refer to ‘living with a disability.’ Funding is very issues based.
I want to work with people – as actors – and enable a genuinely open and expressive environment. People with a disability may not want to refer to their disability. If I lived with a disability everyday I would not want to necessarily refer to those experiences all the time. Why not act? Why not imagine? Why not dream? Why not aspire? Why not have a choice?
I want to work with people in a classroom, or theatre, honestly and genuinely. I want to work with what is in front of me rather than what is dictated by external forces.
To put it simply: Just look at the room. Look what is in front of you! Act on it! This is where the spirit is. This is this spirit that nourishes the soul.
In my experience so much of the overlay eats away at the spirit. It may look politically astute, culturally in hand, up to the current trend, and in line with all the benchmarks, but, is it alive? Too often we create environments that fulfill expectation and play the game. But, are we really going to a core of humanity and working directly with people? I think not. I think too many times we teach students to play the game – a game that we are just as vigorously playing.
Give me that which is deep. Give me that which is simple.
Here I think about a lovely book I discovered only a week or so ago called Family Business. The photographer Mitch Epstein had established a career as a respected photographer before he returned to his family home. His father’s furniture store was nearing liquidation and the family’s rental properties had been destroyed by fire. Epstein chose to document the experience in a book that includes photos and excerpts of recorded conversations. I think of a simple image: his father’s briefcase lying on a bed. It is an evocative image that says so much.
If only we could look at education in such a way?
Bless those who do and are keeping the journey alive!
I dedicate this edition of my magazine to the concept of youthfulness. This includes the many young people we see at school, who choose to question and remain open to possibility. Don’t be soured by staleness that you see around you. Youthfulness does not have to sour with age.
I am looking into the back of the shop. What appears at the front is very different to the back. There is a threshold and it marks a junction between two worlds – both a physical and a mental space. How can we explore such distinctions? What does it mean to be public? What does it mean to withdraw from public view? What is seen by the employees in the back of the shop? What fixtures are there? How do thoughts and behavior differ across space? What happens as one crosses the threshold?
Encourage students to think about how spaces differ. What conversations could be documented? How would a person feel in one space and another?
Excerpt from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and in London, Chapter 11:
I can recall, as a child, visiting my father’s factory. My father was the Manager. I was often at the factory on weekends. I can recall factory workspaces with girly calendars, almost a sense of a private space that I was invading. I can recall my father’s office with its assortment of desk fittings. The welding space in the workshop was particularly strange. I would wear the welding mask. Each space carried unusual feelings.
Invite students to discuss and explore the distinctions between spaces. By walking from one room to another we do more than simply walk through space. Think of how such a central idea can generate possibilities.
Explore the many ways to enter a room.
The following poem, even with the editing of a swear word by myself in a surprisingly prudish mood, invites us to consider the many attitudes people have. It is a fun and stimulating poem. Let students investigate its structure. What poems could students write using a similar structure? How many attitudes could one present? Use your discretion in how you use section 9.
Ten Ways to Avoid Lending Your Wheelbarrow to Anybody
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
I borrow your wheelbarrow?
The Internet is burdened with extraordinary claims. These include all sorts of coincidences and puzzles that defy explanation. While I am not a total skeptic I still remain cautious.
This skepticism has been increased by my recent writing of resources for the Gambling Support Bureau in Tasmania. Writing this resource has made me increasingly aware of the myths and mathematics associated with gambling.
Casinos know statistics very well .They deny the truth about statistics while perpetuating, through advertising, myths that some people have about gambling.
One myth is the Gambler’s Fallacy. Here the gambler believes that past events will shape future events – "I have had a run of heads, so, tails is more likely to come up next." The fact is that the odds remain 50/50 at every toss of a coin. I always have a chuckle when I see people thinking about their choice of a suitcase on the television show Deal or No Deal. Thinking doesn’t affect what is in the suitcases. It is always beyond one’s control. Thinking just gives the illusion that one is in control.
Growing up with the bestseller The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, in my book collection, I was always intrigued by the following story:
When I look at this story I wonder if it is accurate. What was the source? Who first drew attention to these occurrences? What would have motivated him/her to identify historical survivor lists?
Any investigation on the web by Googling the above story usually leads one to supernatural or paranormal sites. Here the information is taken as gospel. It is unquestioned. The hidden agenda is one of pushing intelligent design, the paranormal, Christianity or taking a backhanded swipe at rationality/science.
I am skeptical. There are an extraordinary range of lists and names that one can draw upon in order to find connections. This is a mathematical fact. At some point links will be able to be found. Even though I am not an expert on probability I remain very skeptical of paranormal claims.
The following statement is a prime example of how dates and names can be connected to create the impression of incredible coincidence:
The following Snopes article Linkin’ Kennedy analyses this information. It is a sobering analysis – a talent worth investing in students. Think of all the information one could analyse. The text by Starbird/Burger Coincidences, Chaos and All That Math Jazz models excellent thinking.
By comparison here is the use of the Kennedy story on a Supernatural site.
I really like the following sites as they show how we can use information to come up with almost anything. The Moby Dick Assassinations site shows how Herman Melville was able to predict many deaths. And what about Barney, pictured at the top of the page. Here we can use numbers to prove that he is Satan. Warn your children. We need to be aware of hidden communicators:
Wouldn’t it be great to see students questioning myths, satirizing misleading information, and taking a solid look at the myths underpinning gambling.
Here I am going to allude to two quotes. One is religious, the other scientific.
It is interesting to see how famous expressions can be appropriated by e.g. science writers. I like the above example as it shows how language and meaning can be used in differing ways. The Bible quote refers to the value we place on wealth and is figurative. It is ironic and aimed at creating a very clear picture. We know the size of a needle and the size of a camel; a description that is not lost on people despite hundreds of years of change. The Bible quote is poetic.
We can understand both quotes yet the first quote would have been lost on a reader in the thirteenth century. Our modern understanding of microscopy allows us to read meaning into Dr. Stephen Juan’s quote.
Invite students to reflect on the meanings of both quotes. Can old expressions be changed?
And an example made by me on the run:
*Based on this.
I have always been intrigued by the use of real names in songs. I am sure that modern rap songs, particularly gangsta rap, use real names to effect. Below is an example of a song by Woody Guthrie that initially drew upon the names of people involved in a famous shipping incident.
The Reuben James official website details the history of the ship and its sinking by a German submarine during World War Two. It includes links to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and interesting documents that personalise the history of the event.
Swayed by his fellow Almanac Singers Guthrie did not use the real names in his eventual song about the sinking of the Reuben James. Still, the original lyrics are documented.
The final version of The Sinking of the Reuben James can be viewed on the official Woody Guthrie website.
In the song Deportees Guthrie used the real names of victims. The song is about exploited Mexican farmworkers who were killed in a plane crash while being deported to Mexico.
The quote, below the song, details Woody’s belief in using real news in music – an interesting example of how current events can find their way into contemporary music.
Ireland, 1870, my dear and loving son John
Encourage students to look at real events and how that information can be presented in the form of lyrics.
In a tremendous transcript
on the ABC
Science Show website, reviewing the book Evolution of the Insects by David Grimaldi and Michael Engel, Palaeontologist and broadcaster Paul
Willis espouses the importance of insects. He also makes thoughtful comments
about Intelligent Design.
How can we misread nature? What can nature tell us about the world?
We place animals in zoos. We look at them looking at us. The advent of modern glass, or perspex, means that the view is not hindered by bars. Animals can be seen in their clarity. In some instances, when two-way glass is used, animals can also look back at us. The book, and website, The Glass Between Us invites us to explore our relationship to animals. The site/book explores the relationship between animals and people within cities. I particularly like the photographs that capture the viewer. Rebecca Norris Webb says that the glass can on rare occasions be a ‘window, wall and mirror.’
I wonder what animals think as they look at us. What looks do people have on their faces when viewing animals? What do people think? What do they feel? Zoos and aquariums play an important role. They educate us about animals. They are involved in conservation. Relationships, nevertheless, exist between the viewer and the viewed. Students could explore these relationships.
I have photographed in a similar way and sensed an unusual relationship that exists between the viewer, and the viewed, both physically as well as metaphorically through the finished photo.
I really like the fine art photographs by Jeffrey Aaronsen. His photos are rich in colour. Again an interesting relationship, and range of meanings, can be created by reflections in city windows. I love the final photograph of a shop window with ties and scarves. It is also worth exploring the extraordinary photo-realist paintings of Richard Estes.
In a strange coincidence the Worst Jobs television series begins on Australian free-to-air television the week that I am writing this entry. It is an intriguing series that shows the reality of past working conditions. The website includes data that students could explore:
Students could write about horrible jobs. What was it like? Students could construct diary entries, job interviews, or strange adverts, documenting, in their own words, the experiences of past workers.
I also wonder, having recently seen part of the film Powaqqatsi, to what extent this film shows us the truth of working conditions in this modern era.
What working conditions are experienced today in the developing world? How different are these from the experiences in the middle ages? I wonder to what extent we aestheticise, or romanticise, the experience of work. One may question the depictions of the Serra Pelada gold mine workers in the film Powaqqatsi.
Do such images tell us the truth of working at the Serra Pelada gold mine? How do the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado compare?
Here is an intriguing reading, and typescript, of a poem called What Work Is by Philip Levine. It is about disempowerment.
The sculptures of Rachel Whiteread ask us to consider unusual spaces.
We are so used to the perception of surfaces, and traditional spaces such as the interior of buildings, that we neglect other spaces. Whiteread invites us to ponder the interior of a hot water bottle, the space beneath chairs, the interior of books, buildings, etc. Using a range of materials such as rubber, polystyrene, plaster and concrete Whiteread casts the space around, underneath, or inside objects. This creates an unusual perspective of space and asks us to look at objects from fresh angles.
The so called ‘negative spaces’ echo traces of human inhabitants. The ‘negative space’ of objects ask us to look at objects anew; their shape and their use are highlighted in the gallery space. Their solidity contradicts their original form. Similarly urban sculptures, such as the interior spaces of buildings, present us with puzzles: this is a casting of the inside of the building yet it is solid, we cannot enter it, there is no space.
I find Rachel Whiteread’s works stimulating. They certainly have a presence as I experienced when I visited a number of art museums in Britain. Her work makes me reflect on the sorts of questions that we can ask in education: what spaces do we experience in life, how can we view them differently? If we had an opportunity to cast the interior of a room what would it tell us about that room?
Now for a short sharp reference to one of the most insignificant forms of communication – the label on, for example, clothes. How often do we read such labels? What do these labels say?
The following prank was played by a French manufacturer. When translated the labels, on laptops and backpacks, were very strange. They read:
"We're sorry our president is an idiot. We didn't vote for him."
What a lovely gag. Was this a swipe at President Bush? Ask students to look more closely at labels, or other forms of written instruction. What differences can be discerned? How important is this form of communication in our society? Think about legal issues? Students may even be interested in exploring the funny, yet culturally interesting, fact of mistranslation. Here is the interesting Chinglish site exploring funny mistranslations of instructions from Chinese to English. Have you ever seen bootleg DVDs? Have a look at the language.
Students could investigate how forms of communication can be subverted.
I saw a great film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, in the avant-garde program, called Bow Tie Duty for Square Heads, by Stephan Müller.
It is a spirited German film, set in Berlin, in which people subvert signs and images. It is full of life and loads of fun. I love one scene in which two fellows are standing around a boiling pot in a city street. When the camera pulls back you realise that two policemen, standing nearby, are framed as if they are in the pot. The police are oblivious to the visual gag. Here is an example of what one can do with a steam tower in the background.
Here is an image from the film in which a person is seen to be playing drums with a billboard graphic. The film also includes scenes of people suspended from billboards.
I am not suggesting that students break the law yet there are many visual tricks that allow us to look at images from a new angle.
While Müller’s film is anarchic and fun there has been even more politically directed subversion by organisations such as Bugaup.
Adbusters is an organisation that challenges views of the modern world. Its magazine uses fantastic imagery to make us question modern advertising and corporations. The Adbuster website even includes an anti-ad about McDonalds. And here one can use the power of a computer program to create a new McDonalds’ sign.
Students can explore this idea – each person tries to come up with the best story. A degree of one-upmanship must exist. Each person tries to have a better story than the last. A topic could be: "You wouldn’t believe what happened on my first day of school."
The above game, I am sure, fits into the annals of Theatresports and Improvisation. Here is a good starter.
The following Monty Python sketch uses exaggeration to great effect. A group of men compete as to who has the best story.
Students could devise an exaggerated performance like the Monty Python skit. It could be improvised or scripted.
A performance of this skit is available on www.youtube.com.
There have been a number of instances in literature in which people have been accused of exaggerating their past. Increasingly journalists are investigating claims in memoirs. Recent examples have been James Frey in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces and the questioning of Heather McCartney Mills.
Despite there being many famous hoaxes in autobiography such as the Demidenko hoax in Australia – I love the surname spelt backwards – the writing of memoirs is open to philosophical as well as historical conjecture.
Just what do people remember? How do peoples’ memories of incidences vary? By exploring what it is that we remember – let’s all write an account of what happened last Wednesday – we can encourage students to be more critical of information.
I can recall a documentary on the history of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The Cathedral, an amazing building, has been built in a traditional Byzantine style. It took several years to build – an astonishing feat in itself – and stands as a symbol of post-communist Russia.
The original ornate church, standing since the 1840s, was destroyed under the pressure of Stalin. The rebuilding of the church was as much a symbol of revitalised Christianity, in Russia, as it was a challenge, for architects, to build a church in a traditional style.
One image that really struck me about the documentary was a piece of footage taken in 1931 of the destruction of the original church. It was clearly footage taken by a government film unit that was unquestionably pushing Communist propaganda.
The footage, at one stage, shows the statue of an angel being pulled down. A large rope encircles the statue and it is slowly being pulled to the ground. What staggered me most was the length of the shot. Clearly the film cameraman was seeing something beautiful and symbolic about the image, as if the angel was being crucified. There was something poignant about the image, as if the statue of the angel was being cruelly hung. The cameraman saw this and held the shot. It was delicately framed. It was thoughtful. I am sure I was not misreading the shot.
What struck me, upon reflection, was how this scene found its way into the original film. It was clearly emotive, drawing sympathy. It has a sensitivity that must have eluded the hard-heads of the polit-bureau. It was a very brave shot. It could easily have lead to the cameraman to the gulag. Why wasn’t it edited? On the other hand perhaps it was excluded from the original screening, being found as extra footage by archivists. I will never know. Perhaps the cameraman was punished.
There can be extraordinary power within even a short piece of film.
The following story, 'Martin and Me', can be read in its entirety at the Granta magazine website. It is a beautiful account of a man and his relationship to his dog. It is worthy of being read and heard. Need I say more.
The Butlin’s photographs of the John Hinde publishing company are intriguing photographs, originally created for a postcard market. Hinde utilised the skills of photographers to capture a positive and colourful view of the Butlins holiday camps in Britain. The results are highly staged and colourful – certainly for the era – as Hinde had pioneered a technically astute means of printing cards. This meant that his postcards were far richer in colour than others on the market.
I am intrigued by the postcards as they draw one in. Like modern day Breughels they show a variety of scenes.
The photos are odd and staged. They have taken on a curious quality overtime, far beyond what Hinde had imagined. Nowadays, much to Hinde’s surprise, they are exhibited as works of art. Through a strange twist of fate the commercial has become fine art.
On another level the Butlins camps were such a strange phenomenon. Catering for a largely regimented working class population, extending out of the stresses of World War Two, the camps were extraordinarily successful. You can read about the camps, see an alternate set of photos, or even explore the ruins of the Filey camp in North Yorkshire.
As photographs are able to be reappropriated by a new audience so have a number of books, dedicated to boring postcards.
How interesting it is to look at mundane photographs in a new light. The book Photobooth, by Babbette Hines, includes many captivating photographs of people inside photobooths. And to think that there is a comprehensive website dedicated to this cultural icon. I once saw, in a nearby shopping centre, a poster of the film Amélie, on the side of a photobooth. I still wonder whether this was intentional, or coincidental, given the prominence of a photobooth in the film.
Do we ever stop to think about the night? What does nighttime mean? How has the night been perceived through the ages?
The historian A.Roger Ekirch poses such questions in his text At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.
In an article Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles, and two webcasts – an interview and a speech – Ekirch explores how the night was experienced prior to the industrial age.
Ekirch says that people surrounded themselves with familiar objects in order to navigate through the dark. People were more in touch with the life of dreams. One can imagine a man lying awake at 4am, in the middle ages, reflecting on his thoughts and dreams. There was no easy possibility of losing oneself in the distractions of a lit room or a radio.
Ekirch contends that, prior to our modern era, people generally slept in segments, often waking at around midnight, after a first sleep. At this time people made love, socialised, drank, prayed, reflected, etc. People would then customarily return to a second sleep that carried through until dawn.
Ekirch speaks about circadian rhythms. These appear to have been very different in the middle ages. People were forced, by the dark, to go to bed earlier. People responded more directly to the seasons and the available light.
The night was perceived as a time of witches, of satanic rituals, of the unknown. One of Ekirch’s main contentions is that we have lost a deep connection to the night. Artificial light has removed us from a degree of reflection and introspection that was once very common: in the words of Thomas Middleton "disanulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies."
The night was experienced differently by social classes. A poor family would have struggled with costly candles, an exhausted labourer may have fallen in bed straight after work. The wealthier would have been able to generate more light.
Darkness swayed people to lit taverns. The night was a time of lust and crime. The dark increased peoples’ sensitivity to low light. People relied increasingly upon senses other than the eyes: touch, smell and hearing.
What do students think of the night? Who has experienced complete darkness at night? How did it feel? What thoughts and feelings do we have at night? How has illumination affected what we do, how we think and how we feel? What would it be like to experience a time before illumination? How would one perceive time? What would a person feel about the moon and the sun? What would darkness mean?
History of the night
the course of the generations
to think that she wouldn't exist
have been one acquainted with the night.
have looked down the saddest city lane.
have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
not to call me back or say good-by;
the time was neither wrong nor right.
Anyone familiar with the photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, or Jack Delano, usually imagines a black and white world of workers, dust and poverty. The land is ravaged and buildings are rendered stark in the contrasted tones of black and white photography.
What is forgotten is that some of these photographers worked in colour.
The following websites show colour works by photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, between 1935 and 1944. Images can be viewed at the Library of Congress Bound for Glory exhibition or archive.
Early kodachrome photographs show a different world. We can compare black and white scenes with those depicted in colour. We can explore our emotional reactions to colour and black and white photography. How do we feel? How does the use of colour, or black and white, contribute to the photo? Does the experience of seeing scenes in colour bring us closer to the original experience of the photographer?
The Captured in Colour exhibition at the Australian War Memorial allows us to see early colour photographs of World War One.
Here is a reproduction of the apparently first colour photograph, in 1861, by James Clerk Maxwell.
Early Lumiere autochromes are rich in colour.
The Prokudin-Gorskii archive, at the Library of Congress, details early Russian colour photography.
© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009