Thursday, September 30, 2010

You know the day was busy...

...when you forget to watch the only show during the week you care about--and it’s not one that’s broadcast online!



Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More than just French...

My school is in the middle of its rechartering review. There are people here from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) attending meetings, holding focus groups, interviewing people and sitting in on classes. If you're in the building, you can see them coming and going, here and there, trying to take in all the weirdness that is my school's average way of being. I don't see them all that much, though. It's rare that my classes are observed during these reviews. I think this must be because Introductory French or Spanish is assumed to be bland, basic or uninteresting. I guess, if you took language from anyone else, anywhere else, that would be a fair assumption, but this is my school and I am me. Let me assure you that my classes are far from the average.

One brave member of the review committee figured this out today. He stopped in during my long block class just as they were about to put on their interpretive dance of adjectives (they’ve been learning all about describing words this week, as well as how to use non-verbal language to support the words they use). My visitor, dressed all official-like in a suit and tie, came into the classroom as my first group was setting up. I welcomed him--the first such visitor I’ve seen in several years--and I explained what the class was up to. It needed an explanation because my students were spread all over the room and out into the hallway, and it must have looked quite the sight to see them blocking out their movements everywhere.

He took a seat out of the way and my class settled in as well to watch the first performance. The first group’s interpretive dance, which was accompanied by the music from the Sherlock Holmes movie, incorporated the French words for cocky, strong, intelligent, unique, obnoxious, brave and happy, as well as a word they looked up, afraid. None of the students in this group was a dancer, but all together they created a thoroughly engaging, detailed and well-prepared presentation of their understanding of what we’ve been learning. The applause was enthusiastic (as is usually the case), and we moved right into a review of these words and how the group communicated them without words.

My observer left at that point, I'm sure to go to yet another meeting. I think he left a bit shell-shocked, but absolutely impressed by what he saw. He could come into pretty much any class on pretty much any day and leave pretty much the same way.

I'm sorry I don't get more visitors in my classes. My students to such amazing things all the time, and it's a little sad that the only person who gets to see it most of the time is I. If you're ever in the neighborhood, stop on by. Come watch my class. Seriously, you will leave just like the DESE will tomorrow--a little shell-shocked, but absolutely impressed!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

10 Things Tuesday: Great Words (not in English)

I once found a website (now defunct) that used to share words from other languages that had no exact equivalent in English. It got me thinking about words I knew in other languages that I found beauty or value in because of the thoughts they communicated. I speak six languages with varying degrees of proficiency, but to come up with ten words I knew that really had a depth of meaning unmatched by my native tongue was a real challenge. This post has taken me a while to put together.

1. Ganas (Spanish). Ganas can be translated as “feel like” to express a general inclination, but as a cultural gestalt, ganas carries so much more meaning than that. It is desire, heart. It is to be singular of purpose and intent. It represents a kind of conviction that “want” simply doesn’t communicate. I heard this word used to best effect by Edward James Olmos, who played Jaime Escalante in the movie Stand and Deliver.

“You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire. If you don't have the ganas, I will give it to you because I'm an expert.”

I preach that to my students every day in the classroom, and I work hard to be the same inspiration to my students Escalante was to his.

2. Disinvolto (Italian). To be disinvolto is to be relaxed, casual, easygoing, self-confident and a little cheeky--all at the same time. I love this word because it represents all I strive to be in my best moments!

3a/3b. Celibe/Nubile (Italian). I find it amusing that these two cognates (words similar in both languages) apply to males and females respectively, but in English they both mean the same thing. They describe someone who is “single”.

4. Flâner (French). This verb, which nowadays means simply to stroll, has its origins in the rather curious tradition of walking turtles down the street in Paris. The turtles set the speed of travel, so observationism (that’s not really a word) was almost forced. The world became a feast for the senses! A flâneur is perfectly well aware of their slow, leisurely behavior, but isn’t concerned; it’s all about the journey, especially if it’s unhurried.

5. Schwangerschaftverhütungsmittel (German). The German language is, to say the least, very comfortable with compound words. They look frightening if you’re not used to seeing them, don’t they? My college German professor told me, though, that most longer German words are made up of several shorter words put together, which makes them easy to figure out--if you understand where the smaller words are, that is. Here’s the breakdown: Schwangerschaft (pregnancy) + verhütung (prevention) + mittel (remedy). In other words, a contraceptive. Of course, with a word that long, by the time you actually get through it to ask someone to use one, it might be too late.

6. Tao (Chinese). A popular word in English, many books have been written with the opening words, “The Tao of...” At its most rudimentary, it means “way” or “path” but, as a term of philosophy it is used to describe (as closely as any word can) the authentic and true nature of things. The thing about tao, though, is that it can’t properly be expressed. Taoism would purport that we can know it, that its principles can be followed, but there is an inherent futility in trying to understand or control it outright. This seeming contradiction is one reason I enjoy studying--and practicing--Buddhism and Taoism.

7. Nunchi (Korean). This is a simple word for the ability to sense what would be the wrong thing to say in a situation--and, by extension, the ability to resist saying it. It goes beyond tact or simple manners; it is the ability to read an audience and instinctively, immediately know what’s appropriate. Nunchi is a great thing to have, especially at parties. I wish I had more of it.

8. Desenrascanço (Portuguese). There is, in Portuguese culture, a great deal of value placed upon the ability to solve a problem without the right tools, training or know-how. To spontaneously draw on your imagination and whatever resources you have at hand to figure out what’s “good enough” is a quality many Portuguese believe is essential to living in their world. It is even taught in colleges! Desenrascanço (literally, disentangling) is the sweet spot of workable that exists between what works perfectly and what will blow up in your face. I heard this described somewhere as “to pull a MacGyver”. That seems appropriate.

9. Schlimazl (Yiddish). I only recently learned that this word meant “someone who is unlucky”. I heard it used first in the theme to the show Laverne and Shirley along with the word “schlemeil”, which refers to a person who is clumsy. Robert Kuttner put the two terms in context for me with the following: “A schlemiel is the traveler who spills his coffee on a fellow passenger. A schlimazel is the fellow he spills it on.” With that explanation, a mystery of many years was instantly made clear. Now I have to go find the theme to Laverne and Shirley and listen to it!

10a and 10b. Tatemae and Honne (Japanese). These two related terms refer respectively to what you pretend to believe and what you actually believe. I love that Japanese culture, with its high degree of reserve, recognizes that there is a difference between what we actually believe and what we're allowed to admit we believe. The closest we have to this is the term “political correctness”, but this term carries a certain distain that simply doesn’t exist in the equivalent in Japanese. From what I know of it, Japanese culture seems not to view the dichotomy as a source of angst or stress. Neither is more true or honest than the other. Rather, they are simply two sides of the same reality. It is, it seems, just the way the world works. I like that view of it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday Meditation: Aspiration and Introspection

I had a wonderful conversation with my father this past weekend about the nature of happiness. We often talk about things like that over the phone; it’s one of my dad’s favorite things to do. We sit at either end of the phone, each with a cup of coffee, and we just chew away on the problems of the universe. Over all, a perfectly pleasurable way to pass the better part of an hour.

Anyway, one of the things we both agreed on about happiness was that, as a condition of realizing it, we cannot understate the importance of aspirations and the daily work of trying to discover and nurture our authentic selves. As we were mulling this point, I began to wonder how many people even have aspirations. This brought me immediately to a conversation from the week before with a student, a senior, who was in the process of applying for colleges. It was a beautiful fall day, and Maureen was sitting at a picnic table outside by the door I use to enter the building. She was scratching her head, clearly wrestling with something she was writing. When I asked what she was working on, she said that one of the questions on the college application she was completing asked her to describe a moment of introspection she’d had. She asked for some help, so I offered suggestions about where to look in her past experience, but as we talked I began to discover that Maureen simply didn’t have any to draw on.

I have to be honest here; this surprised me greatly. I mean, I’ll admit that I spend rather a great deal of time in the practice of introspection, so it’s not so out of place that Maureen would not engage in the practice to quite the same degree. I also recognize that it’s not common to find teenagers to do it because they are only just beginning to reach a stage of development that allows for such things. I guess it just caught me that, after nearly 18 years of existence on this planet, it wasn’t possible for her to recall even a single moment on which we looked back and think about what she’d just experienced. Is it possible, I think now as I write this, that she just doesn’t know how?

There is a connection between introspection and aspiration. They each, in their own way, connect our inner selves to the outer world. When we work to move our internal selves closer to our aspirations through introspection, we are changing external reality, bringing together that potential we see in ourselves and the world of which we are a part. There is not supposed to be a distinction between “self” and “other” (yes, I know that sounds incongruous). Some of the most important work we can do as participants in the human experience is to lessen the gap between the two. I like Sonia Johnson’s take on this:

“When we seize power in our own world, the outer world will have to change.” (1987)

I offer, then, the opportunity to take a moment and engage in introspection. Sit and think about a moment in your life for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter when the moment occurred, or how important it was at the time. Just let your mind rest on one and allow it to sit there in the center of your awareness. Not too long, mind you. We have lives, after all. When distraction starts to take over, get up and, if you have time, find a piece of paper. If you like to write, write about your thoughts. If you like to draw, do that. If you’d rather move and do something that puts into action your thoughts, then so be it. For a few moments, just do with the moment still at center. When you’ve done, however long you’ve taken, set it aside. Sometime later this week, go back and look at what you did. What do you think?

I’m all about providing exemplars for stuff like this, so I’ll work on it over the next day or two and share what comes.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Week in Quotes, to ease back into the habit

Things in my world are settling into a routine finally. Classes are rolling along as they should, Wayfarer House is fully engaged in the routines of the school year. The soccer season is kicking along without any major issues. I've been looking forward for some time to picking this back up, but there always seems to be something bumping it down on the list of things my day must see accomplished. I'm sorry it's taken so long.

Since it's Sunday, I thought I'd reinstate the wildly popular Sunday quotes post. This week's collection comes from all over, and represents only a few of the many worthy things I've heard from my students since the school year started. This year's group is going to be great for material! Enjoy.

“To work for one. *I* work for one.” Mark, in discussion how someone’s day could not get worse than being attacked by dementors.

“There’s no u, the two s’s are together, and there’s an o and an i. I was close!” Karly, verifying her spelling of the word “croissant”.

“Haha, I got your problem!! *whiplash noise*” Brian. Added to the list surreptitiously by my TA while sitting at my desk during class.

“Brian explained French grammar to me in English, using Spanish examples. It hurt.” Julia, in a note left on my laptop.

“Quiet up there! I need to get to sleep. I have phys ed tomorrow.” Pearl, age 5.

“They were just so hairy!” Sydney, after her first game against a high school boys soccer team.

“She almost gave it to me for lunch!” NiNi, of Mama’s inadvertent, yet fully prepared mayonnaise and honey sandwich.

‎"There's no dryer sheets. Now my clothes are gonna smell like dry!" Shayla.

“I know your sister kicked you three times trying to take the ball from you, but you can’t just kick her back. Soccer is about kicking the ball, my love, not about kicking the people.” Coach Papa, to Taylor at the end of a friendly, but contentious game of U10 town league footy.

“They’d better start fundraising now.” Wifeness, about students expressing an interest in Wayfarer House leading a student trip to Europe in 2012.

“Wow! I’m not a teenager anymore.” Karla, whose birthday is today. Happy birthday, love!