Summer Reading the Word and the World: Preserving a spirit of hope and inquiry


My mind and soul feel like they are on fire right now.  This summer has been an interesting and fresh balancing act of attempting to disconnect and focus on quality time spent with my family and friends, while simultaneously struggling to stay focused and motivated to confront all of the realities of tragedy and despair that have become (or maybe more accurately have always been) “las noticias de hoy.”  It has been surreal and at times I have felt the despair set in.  Every time I feel this happening, I have to grab hold of something, a book, podcast, television show or documentary, album, ANYTHING that can jar my mind back into accepting the reality that the world is a beautifully harsh place, that can indeed be transformed through collective effort, into a more just and peaceful planet.  In trying to continue to be a student of life and all of its instructive stories, I have found it difficult to force reflection on some of these more difficult realities.  Yet I know that this is absolutely necessary for true understanding of what the hell is actually happening.  And so this is my attempt at a reflective synthesis.

In preparing for the upcoming fall semester at CSUMB, I have been reading Antonia Darder’s The Student’s Guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  In redesigning my class for novice teachers to be able to rise to the occasion that, now perhaps more than ever, demands we teach for “liberation” and not merely for content mastery, I chose to use this text to help unpack Freire’s original influential text.  It is here that I have been prompted to think more deeply about what a liberatory and critical pedagogy actually mean.  Reminding myself of the necessity for time set aside for direct and intentional theorizing and abstraction, but never sacrificing action.  It is serendipitous that the new History and Social Science framework is intentionally focused on “civic action.”  Never mind that many history and social studies teachers are not yet fully aware of what this actually means for their classroom instruction, the architecture is now there to spark an authentic dialogue (which is another fundamental aspect of Freire’s text) amongst teachers who are in the position to have tremendous impact on the patterns of thought and eventual action of many young people.  On this note, I have been simultaneously excited and nervous to begin my new job as a curriculum specialist, which will help experienced and veteran (some expert) teachers collectively consider the implications for a type of instructive pedagogy that has civic action at its foundation, in particular at this moment in history. This text also reviews the history of many schools of philosophical thought and more importantly the historical context of authoritarianism, which is as stark a reminder of our current national and global epoch.

Aside from professional reading and pondering, I have been personally immersed in stories of the day that force the full act of humanity, that is to say I have been  intentionally reading, watching, and listening to things that recognize and acknowledge the human suffering of our brothers and sisters all the world over. It is not always easy to stare into the eyes of human suffering, but I know it to be necessary if I truly want to be part of movements designed to lessen and eventually end such oppression.  Enrique’s Journeyhas been an emotional slog for me. In the context of the mass separation of migrant children from the parents, this powerful narrative ha also harkened me back to the stories of so many of my students, undocumented minors both in Los Angeles and here in Salinas, who’s own journey’s were comprised of similar trials of tragedy. It also reminded me of many parents I have had the honor to work with, attempting to repair the often strained relationships between themselves and their children.

The Intercepted podcasthas been a summer staple, providing much needed journalistic context for the litany of crazy that is our current events. Two episodes that have had a lasting impression on me this summer have been these two. The show is unapologetic in its “speaking truth to power” style but what I appreciate even more is their journalistic commitment to contextualizing the stories of today through factual history, with a depth necessary for authentic understanding. Also appreciated is the hopeful chord always struck by interviews with activists and resisters. It has been on of my “go to” podcasts since the election.

Despite my steady summer media diet, which has also deviated into the realm of indulging pure entertainment in my attempt to not go insane, it was last night’s episode of Treme that really “struck a chord” in my soul. I have waited until this summer to watch this series from the beginning, knowing full well that I missed the metaphorical train on this. Truth is, I have not been ready until now. I remember the summer Katrina hit. I stood in disbelief as the events unfolded, the human callous out doing Mother Nature’s stormy onslaught. I remember feeling petrified, afraid of how I was reduced to a mere spectator from afar, gazing daily at the suffering of mainly black residents of New Orleans and the blatant disregard of our government. This feeling could not stand, so I along with my friend Daye and my future wife, signed up for a “disaster relief” course from the Red Cross. We were prepared to go to New Orleans and help in any way we could. In retrospect, relying on an institution to grant us “permission” and “training” to go help our brothers and sisters was unnecessary and ultimately futile, for it was not to be. The Red Cross said that there was a diminishing need for relief workers, as so many folks around the country had already been actively engaged and sent down to New Orleans. Historical hindsight being what it is, I never felt quite ready to see the deliberate destruction and designed despair that was to be the “re-building” of New Orleans. The neighborhoods left to rot while others were rebuilt. The closing and “charterization” of the entire public school system. I guess I was only ready to see this story dramatized on screen after the sobering reality of yet another disaster, Hurricane Maria, instructed me as student of history… this is the way of our world right now.

That is of course, unless we are called to action. And this is I guess the main struggle of my summer. The continuing questioning of action. What can I be doing? Am I doing enough? There is no one answer. On any given day, at any given moment the answer, for me at least, can change from the negative to the affirmative. These are often questions of focus. As someone who often lacks focus, who wants to pretend to concentrate on everything, I have had to remind myself of a previously stated intentionality of focus at this time in my life: family. My wife is my daily reminder of the importance of parenting to any movement related to social, political, or economic justice. How we raise our children will indeed have impact on our future circumstances. No matter how many times I have marched, or contacted my representatives, or voted… there is nothing as powerful as cultivating the imagination of a child towards empathy and reflection. Reading my daughter’s book is just another reminder that my focus has to be on my children right now. And all of the other things we know we must do to stay vigilant in these times.

“Sell your cleverness…”

Yesterday morning’s #superbluebloodmoon was awe-inspiring for those of you up early enough on the west coast to witness this celestial event.  I felt blessed to have this otherworldly scene greet me first thing as I opened my front door at a quarter to six.  As I pulled up to the gym parking lot, a little later than I would’ve liked, I was compelled to suspend my routine (albeit it very new… as in 2 weeks new) start time.  I sat in the back of my car, just staring at the eclipsed moon, in all its darkened red glory.  I felt a little silly as people passed by me, some already having been productive in their personal fitness and some rushing towards whatever physical health goals they had previously established, while I sat dressed to work out and instead gazed at the sky.  The shyness quickly turned into shock and then sadness.  One person saw me gazing and stopped just long enough to ask me. “What is this all about?”  I responded as a matter of fact, but this seemingly innocent inquiry really got me thinking about the crisis of our modern relationship with our surroundings.

No doubt living back in the Monterey Bay region has reawakened a sort of environmentalism that has been lying semi-dormant for a long while.  This is after all the area where I put my finger on the brand of educational and spiritual training I felt most drawn to.  I have also been prompted reexamine what exactly I mean when I say “environmentalism” by some pretty profound writings of Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame.  His collection of essays entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays has been helping me survive the massive onslaught of “bad” news in the past year.  But in reality its been several years if not decades since the roots of extreme global capitalism have taken shape, forming a type of global consciousness (or lack thereof) devoid of any true connection to land and environment.  This is what became clearer to me early Wednesday morning.  How could anyone witnessing this eerie celestial event not pause to question and reassess their position in the “grand scheme” of things?  Even if only for a moment, a break in one’s gait long enough to view the sky through eyes of wonder.  How would our ancient human ancestors have viewed this gigantic blood-red sphere, hovering above, so differently than every other day?  How would they have rearranged the sublunary events of their day to accept a larger, profound, and more universal one?

I wondered about this and other questions as I stared into the early morning sky.  I also took a few pictures, with the intent of sharing.  I soon laughed at the silliness of this, not the instinct to share this with others like friends and family whom I texted despite the hour to see if they were fortunate enough to be awake and experience this, but the absurdity of trying to ‘capture’ this amazing image with my phone camera.  I walked away in awe and also distress.

Admittedly I have not been the best optimist of late.  I have real concerns about the state of just about everything in the world.  From the state of our own nation, to geopolitical realities that are unfolding, humanitarian crises, and the ever-growing threat of nuclear war.  But at the center of my pessimism is the absolute realization that we are not, by and large, not making this world a better place.  And I don’t just mean for people.  There are many who would argue, even quite successfully that we have. I mean making the world better for all life.  And I think there are also just as many (hopefully more) that could counter the argument of unlimited growth and progress leading to better qualities of life by recognizing that those processes that we engage in the name of progress are actually the main drivers of death.

And it is not that death is necessarily supposed to lead to pessimism.  We all are supposed to die.  All life leads naturally to death.  It is the obsession with staving off the natural declines and deaths of everything in favor of a false philosophy of infinite growth and wealth that eats at my soul daily.  Knowing that this philosophy drives most everyone in the modern world, including myself to live in ways that are murderous to everything that is actually sustaining to our lives.  And the cognitive dissonance is so real, that it has taken those of us who feel a drive to “save” our planet from the unnatural destruction of our own making to a place where we are dependant on the human solutions of technology and innovation, the ironic drivers of this destruction.  Kingsnorth pulls at this idea throughout his entire book of essays but utilizes the soul-stirring words of mystic poet Rumi to really drive home a much-needed paradigm shift.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.” – Rumi

In my attempts to heed this advice and combat this pessimism before it devolves into permanent paralysis and inaction, I have recommitted to some key principles in my life.  The first is to get out in nature and be a part of it.  This has developed into a sacred and spiritual Sunday outing where our family explores the wonders of the wild and untamed world, recognizing our very small but important place in it. This may even turn into a more disciplined practice of something I used to enjoy many hours of in my youth, nature journaling. My wife recently stumbled upon this dandy of an idea, suggesting that we even consider taking his class as a family!

The second thing I have dedicated energy and time to is involving myself with a local organization working on a very important social and environmental issue, specifically in our local region. Salinas being the salad bowl of the world, industrial agriculture has bestowed both the blessings and the curses of mass food production. Pesticide use as a “reasonable” byproduct has long been questioned and challenged in the region, as far back as Cesar Chavez’s work with the UFW. It still is today. A local community organization called Safe Ag Safe Schools, a part of Californians for Pesticide Reform, is leading the charge to help change regulatory policy of pesticide use near and around schools. After attending one meeting, I was energized to continue to deepen my involvement with this dedicated group of people. From banning chlorpyrifos to eliminating the use of Round Up on school campuses, there is still so much work to be done with regards to challenging the ill and often catastrophic impact of our modern-day food systems.

These are the things that have helped me to begin reintegrating my spirit into this land again. That and being able to spend more time with family and friends. And even though there are many moments where things feel hopeless and strange, there are still many more moments to embrace the grandeur of where we are and what is actually possible… when one invests in bewilderment.

A letter to my little graduate…

This post has been incomplete and in draft form since July 5th, 2016… Thought I would complete my thoughts and now seemed as good a time as any.

I’ve been to a lot of graduations in my time. I’ve been moved by many a speech, affected  by many a pupil. And yet of course, none other has broken me down as fundamentally as my daughter’s recent ceremony commemorating her transition from preschool and into kindergarten this coming August.  It didn’t break me down in the way one might expect. I didn’t weep because of the actual program, though it was one to remember and as such I took copious amounts of video footage of everything from a play written, directed, and starring the children, the final circle time which included a rendition of “Happy Trails” and some pretty funny gift giving. All of this was pretty heart wrenchingly cute.

What really got to me was what it meant for my child’s future… the prospects of an education by and in a system, designed for conformity and lacking empathy. A system where play is limited at best and completely forgotten at worst. One where a unique identity as a learner is often a liability. And where children get lost… sometimes forever.

What I know now after having seen my daughter survive kindergarten in her first public school experience in the second largest school district in the nation, is what I knew at that moment when she closed out her time at Neighborhood Nursery School (NNS)… that she will be alright. As long as we, her parents are vigilant and strive to build community within her schooling, relationships with her teachers, her peers and their families. This fortunately happened at Elysian Heights Elementary where she attended. And despite moving out of Los Angeles and having to home school her this past year in Monterey, she still talks about her teacher and her classmates with love and fond overwhelmingly fond memories.

I often write on this site about education from my vantage point as a teacher. But what I have been more keenly aware of lately is my experience as a parent of school aged children. I have had to complicate my thinking on many things, my notions of where different institutions and policies fit into the theoretical and practical landscapes of education, in my head and in my children’s lives. Since that day in July of 2016 (again, when I first typed the beginnings of this post) I have had my second daughter leave the beautiful community of NNS. We have transitioned out of LA into the communities of Seaside, Monterey, and Salinas. My focus and the majority of my attention and energy has rightfully been diverted to my own kids and my role as a parent. I anticipate writing from this head and heart space more and more as time moves on as well as I expect my identities of educator and parent to merge more holistically as one better understood entity.

You remind me of the babe…


All last night as I drifted in and out of sleep, handing my new baby boy to my wife for feeding sessions and changing diapers, I couldn’t get this song out of my head.  During one of these sessions I had checked my Twitter feed only to find out the sad news about David Bowie. 

One of my all time favorite movies and characters in that movie, Bowie’s talent had presented itself to me early on in my own childhood. Wearing out the VHS cassettes with multiple viewings of Labyrinth, my father would walk by and without fail, every time Bowie was on screen comment out, “there’s Ziggy! Ziggy Stardust!”  I would quickly correct him that it was in fact the Goblin King, annoyed that he could not just sit down, shut up, and watch such great art without interrupting. 

I didn’t fully understand until I saw the album the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in the collection of 8 track tapes and Vinyl of my father’s. Reading the cover and jacket and staring at the pictures of Bowie, I could not imagine why my father, a typical “man’s man” would ever be into something like this. The iconic 70s glam rock and sexual ambiguity juxtaposed to the traditional family oriented version of my dad was definitely confusing. As I grew older and wiser and more accepting of the nuances and complexities that  made up my parents as individuals, I appreciated my father’s love for Bowie’s Ziggy, which in time would grow to symbolize my own interpretation of a younger, more open minded and at times rebellious version of the man who had taught me much of what I know.  A younger man, who like me had a passion for surfing, music, fun… For people with passion. 

Now both of these men are gone, leaving us only with their legacies; the people they helped inspire… The people who’s lives they touched. As the world struggles with yesterday’s loss of Mr. Bowie and I continue to wrestle with the absence of my father while working hard to learn what it means to be a father… There are lessons I am grateful to have learned at the intersection of the lives of these two men. 

  1. Identities are complex but always justified
  2. The creativity we have as children is our most precious human resource… And should be treated and protected as such
  3. Creativity necessitates courage 

These are lessons that I feel Mr. Bowie (Ziggy) embodied unto his last breath.  These are lessons I feel my father believed in becaus of people like Bowie.  As I sit with millions today listening to his final album, which I first heard constructing a tree house last week in the backyard for my children, I’m reminded of these lessons. They are lessons I take forward with me into fatherhood, into the classroom, and out into the world. Thank you Mr. Bowie for your courageous creativity. You will not be forgotten. 

Crisis, Creativity, and the tools of Caring

I have been putting off writing about this for some time. Mainly because I am busy being a father, husband, teacher, school founder, professor, etc. Nonetheless I have been consciously thinking about how the often unconscious processes of Creativity work in communities and individuals, ever since my nemesis invited me to be a part of next week’s Creativity and Crisis symposium hosted by Colorado State University. Unlike most other symposiums, this one aims to informally  bring together folks from different walks, academic and non-academic alike in what I hope is an applied and active dialogue.

So what is it that connects these concepts together? Crisis, Creativity, and Caring? At first attempt to get my internal dialogue going, I thought about the areas of my life where I have or am currently experiencing “creativity.” I then began thinking about the tools I use to manifest this energy into the “real” world. Pen and Paper have always my go to weapons of choice. Doodling and jotting down ideas and connections that I see. Many folks who know me identify my scribblings with my personalities at work or home. For me, the lines on the page create or perhaps are manifestations of the connections forming in my head. Hearing one person’s ideas and recalling another’s, I often find points of connection and intersection… but knowing that these Aha moments can vanish quickly in the ocean of the mundane… I try to scribble them down. Original I know, but my scribblings are not just notes. The are usually more “artistic” and filled with doodling or actual drawings. And clouds… a lot of clouds. Why is this important? I am not sure that it is beyond a personal level, but there is growing evidence that it may be. Though many of my colleagues poke fun at my icons and symbols, they also often volunteer me to “chart” out meetings and discussions. Students seem to appreciate the class notes even on just an aesthetic level, which I feel should not be minimized in terms of significance. No one wants to stare at “important” notes if they look hideous and unruly! At least I don’t and that is where I would leave this conversation, but others have moved it forward at least in the educational sense, as this fantastic article helps us remember. And not only remember… but also help us connect.

  

The next two “tools” that have reawakened some of my other creative neural outlets have been the last two years’ father’s day presents from my wife and daughters. As the previously mentioned creativity often finds my head in a permanent space of professional work endeavors, my hammock and ukulele were gifted to me by my family in an attempt to ground me back in my most personal and closest moments of home. Relaxing and enjoying the life I have helped to create. These tools have been “instrumental” to say the least. As I have been immersed in helping to build my second home, the Schools for Community Action , my home and family have been my everlasting source of renewed energy. Yet, like most wells, you have to actively partake in the process of replenishing. My hammock has been my partner in crime on many occasion in sparking impromptu and spontaneous naps and cuddle sessions. This has helped to remind me of the importance to taking and making time for the most important and often overlooked aspects of one’s life. Home and family are essential.

  

All of these things are “homegrown.” And the last real bastion of creativity for me as of late has been my actual house and the standing or sitting structures that I have been a part of designing and bringing to fruition with my own hands. Building backyard gardens, benches, and fences (yes, city boys can build things too!) has been very cathartic for me recently.  Something about working with your hands and elements of Earth once or currently living, reminds us that we are part of nature. And everything we create is an extension of ourselves and our visions and intentions of and for the world. 

   
   
Of course there are other tools and times when I feel creative  Riding my bike to work and choosing the “lines” that won’t get me crushed by a bus. Playing games, figuring out puzzles, building, acting, drawing, or basically doing anything with my kids. Riding waves on the ocean. Teaching students how to ask important questions and then how to go find answers, how to organize oneself for change. But all of these things, if you think about it involve crises, big and small. Problems that beg to be examined and solved. 

  
The crises I have been dealing with, the problems that have required my creative thinking; 1) how best to be a good and decent husband/father? 2) how to continue creating and sustaining schools rooted in authentic community action and self determination? 3) how best to re-examine and redefine my truth and identity as I grow older in this life? 4) how best to exist in this world and answer our Earth’s call reform our capitalistic practices in favor of culture and climate? 5) how do we begin dismantling systems and institutions of oppression and build towards economic, social, and environmental justice for the most marginalized people in our society?

These are the questions I care about pondering and working out solutions to. And if we don’t care (actively) then we lose our ability to create, to solve problems. Capitalism requires this of us. Capitalism craves consumers and not creators. 

What are your crises? And how do you use your creativity to combat them? In essence, what do you care about?