Saturday, May 28, 2011


Gaspar Noe, the ballsy filmmaker behind such light comedies as I Stand Alone and Irreversible has turned his attention to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and entheogens such as datura and DMT. The result is Enter the Void, which is a delightful cocktail made from equal parts Jacob's Ladder and Naqoyqatsi.

Like all of Noe's films, Enter the Void is technically beautiful and powerfully moody; also like his other films it rubs your nose in the dismaying dogshit of life. But it's beautiful too, and is perhaps the most lush visual treat I've experienced since In the Mood for Love. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I've lost count of what day it is...

So I'm suffering through nasty respiratory infection #12 of the 2010-2011 school year, but I don't call out sick because my kids are hyper-engaged by the expedition we've created and I don't want to hand the reins over to a sub. I'm dragging my ass after school to events and thence to band rehearsals for a wedding gig Saturday. Can't croak a note of harmony, and don't know how I'ma sing lead at all, but somehow these things work out before gigs, and if they don't you say fuck it and lay it out on the stage.

So I'm run ragged, plum tuckered out, spent, and all those other folksy euphemisms for being one of the walking dead. I was so tired this morning that even though I woke up at the standard 4:30 am I stayed in bed until the alarm at 6:00, staring at the ceiling. When I got my shit together and went downstairs I poured a cup of coffee, left it on the counter, went over to the coffee maker and noticed there was no coffee in there, cursed myself for not setting up the machine the night before, made another run, and then tried to pour the new coffee into my already-filled cup, at which point I realized that I was fucking exhausted and probably should call out sick. Then I drove to work.

Back on Tuesday the boss was texting me to stay home. I got her text as I was setting up my classroom at 6:20am.

I don't know what to say about this year. It's been crazy, but different crazy--like I'm learning how to do this stuff. That doesn't mean I feel 100% confident, but I feel like I know what I'm doing as a social studies teacher, which I didn't before. I pushed very hard for us to do John Brown rather than the Civil War this trimester because I thought the kids would dig it. I pushed to use the painting the Tragic Prelude as a mystery piece and something to re-visit over and over. I pushed for our final product to be a Socratic Seminar about whether John Brown was a terrorist or martyr. I pushed for a field trip to Harper's Ferry over Gettysburg. My planning partner did amazing work once these topics were chosen: she astonishes me, and created fieldwork journals and classwork journals with interesting puzzles and protocols. We rocked it out. The kids don't want to leave my room, they want to stay and argue and look at evidence and ask questions. It's kind of weird!

I think I'm learning classroom management with urban kids, too. Yesterday I fought a 15-minute war with the 7th grade boys. We took over their building this year and turned their failed school into our hippie charter. They're used to stopping academic work in March and running the halls, but it ain't happening. They were in open revolt in my 90-degree swampy classroom last period, and I said "you keep it up I'll unplug the fans and put them in the closet." They kept it up, and I kept my word, and we sweated even harder for about 10 minutes before they shut up and became cooperative. Then I put the fans back out and my boss strolled in with a candidate for an open position next year. My kids were lying on the rug working, or sitting against the wall by the fan working, or researching Dred Scott in books. "These are the kids I told you about," she was saying quietly to her interviewee. "They wouldn't work at all at the beginning of the year. They used to cuss us out. Look at what Mr. Geoff has done." They toured around and asked the kids questions about John Brown's character and motivation and then left. They didn't see the battle we'd had a few minutes earlier--I'm not supposed to use threats or extrinsic motivation with my kids at this school! But I meet them where they are and move them forward. When they're in 8th grade we'll focus on intrinsic motivation...

I need to learn a few more guitar parts for the wedding gig tomorrow, but first I'ma drink some wine and take a long ass nap. I need to kick this virus so I can sing tomorrow. I have to sing a crazy high song by James and I need the cobwebs out my pipes ASAP. Not to mention all those harmony bits, and maybe "Sweet Dreams." Later!

Sunday, May 22, 2011


I often wondered why my neighbor's cat at the old place in Towson would leave a headless bird or mouse on the welcome mat for us. What makes cats leave offerings? Why are cats revered in ancient religious traditions around the world? Is it their physical prowess, their intelligence, their uncanny skills? Esotericist Schwaller de Lubicz wrote that the Egyptians venerated cats because they always made the appropriate gesture at the appropriate time. In Tai Chi class we learned that the cat exemplifies living in the moment. Even when prepared to strike its prey a tiger is totally relaxed.

John Vaillant narrates with detailed and engaging context the story of an Amur or Siberian tiger who becomes a man-eater, and the efforts of a group of game wardens to track it before it kills again. The relationship between tigers and the native population in this forested region near the Chinese border is described in detail, and Vaillant's portrait of environmental degredation and poaching at the end of civilization is more disturbing even than the desperate tiger's behavior. I don't think Vaillant's intention is to justify the tiger's actions, but he does try to explain them. I think now in new ways about cats leaving offerings for humans; in the Siberian forests native hunters describe tigers leaving haunches from kills for humans, and the hunters reciprocate when they kill by leaving a haunch for the tigers. The tigers and human hunters come to know each other and respect boundaries. When European Russians violate these ancient rules the "Czar of the forest" tracks them and kills them. I found this book utterly fascinating.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Over 1,000,000,000,000 Days Served

Spent yesterday at Harper's Ferry with 130 middle schoolers. It was supposed to rain all day, but we lucked out--it drizzled all day, and then rained torrentially the last hour we were there. After the downpour the park rangers hustled us onto the buses an hour before our scheduled departure. We think this was because the Potomac and Shenendoah rivers were already swollen, and they feared the worst was coming.

I ran into my school's Executive Director this morning, and she asked me about the trip. I told her that all the John Brown and watershed field work was nice, but the best part of the day for me was taking my crew of 7th grade boys across a bridge and over to the other side of the Shenendoah under a high craggy cliff face. A train was blasting by with a load of coal. We climbed down a set of steps to the river's edge, and I let them throw rocks in the water for 30 minutes. They made echoes off the cliff face. They skipped stones. They saw a heron, which sent them scurrying like the cast of Jurassic Park III when the pteradactyls show up. They climbed on rocks, and pointed at fish and turtles and salamanders.

90% of these kids have never been out of downtown Baltimore, excepting our fall trip to Northbay, where their time was totally structured. I thought of how much time I spent as a kid making echoes, throwing rocks in water, and watching animals in the wild, and I watched them making up for lost time. We could have spent that 30 minutes reflecting on Brown's fate in the engine house, but there are educational advantages to some slack time as well.

"On the bus ride over on route 70," I told the boss, "the boy I was sitting next to pointed at some horses in a field. He told me 'that don't look real. That look like a DVD, like some 3D shit.' He'd never seen a field, nor a horse before. When we got to the Appalachians some of the kids were freaked out. They couldn't process these hoary old chunks of forested rock bulging out of the Earth. It was like Petrarch's experience of Mount Ventoux. A whole new worldview opened up."

The Boss started tearing up, as she often does, as many of the staff does at my hippy dippy charter school. "That's the kind of story that reminds me why I do this," she said.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

On Sunday it dawned on me that I might quickly run out of opportunities to see Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. Flicks of that sort make it to big markets like NY and LA, but rarely B'more. Only a couple spots in DC were showing it in 3D, so I jumped in the clunker Sunday and tore down the road to Georgetown.

I left a half-hour early thinking that would give me adequate leeway, but cruddy internet directions and a woefully undersigned section of K Street in DC made me about 10 minutes late. I missed the opening chunk of the show as a result, but was immediately spellbound by the fantastic stuff on screen.

I've seen a few books of Chauvet cave images--I own a couple--and though the photographs are stunning there is simply no comparison to the 3D experience. You can see clearly in Herzog's doc how cleverly these ancient artists used the contours of walls to suggest depth and movement, and how grottos and niches feature surprising little vignettes in a frozen narrative; for example, a zebra will frolic in solitary bliss on his own wall, but just on the lip of the niche in which his image plays are several lurking lions peering around the edge. In flickering light many of these paintings seem to move magically.

Herzog is a loveable crank and I can think of no one better to confront the murky beginnings of modern consciousness. Terrence McKenna is dead, after all! Werner is surprisingly restrained in this film, and only goes wild at the end with some odd mutterings about mutant albino crocodiles. The interviews are mostly useful and informative, and there's a quirky sense of humor to the entire exercise which I found refreshing (the parfumeur who searches for caves by sniffing crevices in rocks is a particular fave. He's busy sniffing Chauvet to recreate its smells for a planned theme park with life-size exact models of the cave and its paintings). The 3D images of the caves are stunning, but sometimes the technology became distracting during interviews: it's hard to focus on an anthropologist discussing proto humanoids while birds flit around the canyon behind him in 3D.

I hope they release a DVD with director's commentary, because Herzog's commentary is always the bomb.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Days #145, 146, 147

Spent the last 2.5 days in Portland, Maine. The flight from BWI only lasted a bit over an hour, which I found surprising. I'd assumed for some reason that Maine was further away than that.

We were charged by the Big Cheese to fly to her hometown to visit King Middle School and to see what we could learn about methodology in order to get some next steps for next year. But more on that later.

Wednesday we arrived around 4:30pm. A quick stop at Hertz and we were driving around downtown in ten minutes. We had a free evening and wanted to make the most of it, having heard from the boss about how funky, hip, and beautiful Portland was.

Our first impressions weren't so hot. The downtown area was rather similar to Baltimore's Harbor before the late '70s rejuvenation projects. A few sad-looking bars and seafood joints poked out amongst warehouses, Quonset huts, and crumbling piers like grass through cracked concrete. We didn't see anything hip or funky, outside of some tatoo parlors and cute craft merchants. But we found a fine local brewery and had a pint, we walked around at dusk and noticed that it was spring and there were still tulips and daffodils and dogwoods abloom, and it was like Baltimore about 3 weeks ago before the moist vise of summer clamped down.

Then we found Wharf Street, an alley of old brick industrial buildings converted to restaurants and bars. Cinque Terre was a spectacular surprise, perhaps the best Italian meal I've had in a restaurant state-side. I knew at the time I'd regret not having the Chef's Tasting Menu, and I do. But the ravioli I did have was out of this world.

The next evening we found a lovely old church converted to a bar and named Grace. Their drinks were called Redemption, Forgiveness, Damnation--and they featured a burly white man on acoustic guitar who did amazing versions of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke. We sat getting stewed and watching the late evening sun through glimmer through 19th-century stained glass.

Now let's discuss King Middle School. They're an Expeditionary Learning School, which is the pedagogical model used at my charter. They're an urban school in a lillywhite state with a substantial minority and immigrant population which out-performs the state and district on standardized tests. They held a Site Seminar this week and 130 teachers from around the country came in to see what they're all about. I was able to wander in and out of classrooms at will and speak to kids and teachers, to watch, to take video and notes. They had a wide selection of seminars and PD sessions, and the four of us split up to attend a variety in order to take back as much knowledge as possible.

King's a pretty amazing place. They'd taken over the local Convention Center to set up exhibitions of student work, and kids manned the entire event. As soon as I walked up to a display a middle schooler would approach and docent-like explain the process, the learning, the skills, the products. There were no teachers at the Convention Center who weren't out-of-town visitors. They kids ran the show. They'd made their elaborate video presentations, they'd arranged and recorded the music, and they'd created and arranged the content on the websites.

In a couple days packed with cool stuff, my favorite part was hanging out with the English Language Learners in class. I'd met a couple kids at the Convention Center who were recent immigrants from Somalia and Iraq--kids who had no English a year ago, but who were now able to explain their elaborate projects to me. I was amazed by their excitement and energy and so when we broked on Day 2 to see classrooms in action I headed straight to the classes where kids who had limited English were brought up to speed before mainstreaming into the school population.

Portland is a refugee center, and many families granted asylum end up there. Kids were a year ago hiding from murderous gangs in Sudan were learning the life cycle of frogs with new friends from Pakistan or Eastern Europe or Bangladesh. King works to get them proficient in English as quickly as possible by putting them in two levels of ESOL instruction. They are tutored by other students and when they are mainstreamed they are welcomed into an exceptional school culture where fistfights and negativity are unheard of. My school has a pretty amazing culture, especially considering its location in Murdertown--but we are nowhere near King. And at King 33 languages are spoken, and kids roam around in Muslim or African or Indian clothes, including elaborate head-scarves, high-fiving each other and sharing algebra notes.

I highly recommend this video, which shows what king is all about, and which gives you an idea how Expeditionary Learning works. I had the great fortune to see this presentation live on Thursday, and its very powerful.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Day #144

I'm headed off to BWI airport at noon tomorrow. Three other middle grades teachers and I are flying off to Portland, ME to visit King Middle School. We'll be checking out the way the staff and students handle their bidness up there. Apparently they handle it quite well. I've not been to Maine since 1983. All I remember is taking the ferry to Halifax. And lots of plastic lobsters on the restaurant walls.

Last week we had a bunch of teachers visit our school. I was doing a bit of a mystery piece with John Brown. The kids didn't know who he was yet, and I was having them make inferences and predictions based on images. They looked at photos and editorial cartoons and then some oil paintings, and I had them record their thinking as they went along. They made me look like a genius in front of our guests! I showed them an image of Brown on the gallows and they were sure he was a criminal or a slave-owner, but then I showed paintings of him kissing black babies and they were puzzled and engaged and asking questions. The week before we'd done similar work with the painting The Tragic Prelude, and before I unveiled it and told them the guy we'd been looking at all day was the same man from the painting, a student in front of the class raised his hand and asked "is this the same dude from that painting we worked on last week?" All the visitors in my room scribbled furiously when that happened.

I finished by reading a bit of text about Brown and having the kids analyze his character based on what he said, did, thought, and felt. Some of them thought he was awesome, some of them thought he was crazy, some of them weren't sure. Just like most adult Americans!

Thursday, May 05, 2011


I was setting on the stoop today after school, listening to the City and reading Lapham's Quarterly, an essay about slavery in ancient Rome, thinking about Spartacus and John Brown, a connection I'd not made before, and wondering if I could use it in the classroom, when some dude on a bike rolled up and dismounted and started rolling an American Spirit cig. I realized I'd met him before--last Saturday he helped me bust up some concrete with sledge and pick as we were doing another round of tree planting in Res Hill. He was blasting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as we worked.

"I was just riding my bike around B'more today," he said, "and I realized I'd come up with a good breathing technique for riding uphill in a headwind. I won't tell anyone I know about this because they'll call me a fruit loop, but..." and a most peculiar conversation followed. We touched on yoga, early Christianity, Buddhism, Mubarek and Egypt and King Hussein in Jordan and Syria/Sudan/Libya/Iran, synchronicity in the Internet Age, and turning off the news.

"I'm really glad we had this conversation," he said at the end. "I'm Eric. Eric means 'friend of the Gods,' I think that's what it means--in Danish. Or maybe Dutch. I get them confused." And Eric rode off down Madison Ave.

Stoop sitting rules.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Day #137

Dude, I think we're like past the 75% mark of the school year?

I was just reading old posts about Booker T. and reminiscing. No attacks on faculty, fights few and far between, no arson like at the March; I can't deal with these kids! All they do is complain and talk. What's wrong with them?

Wednesday we're having a Site Seminar at our school. Teachers from other Expeditionary Learning schools are coming in to observe and see how things are done. I'm being watched first and second period, which is hilarious, given that I have only a minimal idea about how things are done in EL. And Thursday night I'm supposed to talk in front of parents about what Humanities class is and how we teach it in EL schools. Gulp.

The kids are freaked out about Usama bin Laden. "That muthafucka gonna blow something up to get us back," said Panzer today. "He gonna be pissed we kilt him." I wasn't quite sure how bin Laden would get us back, and asked Panzer this. "Well, you know what I mean. His fucking son gonna come over here and drive a dirty bomb up in our shit."

The kids who watch the news bug me, especially since I stopped doing so. Usually kids are worried about the Mayan Apocalypse. I can handle their worries--but nuclear fallout, tsunami, or terrorism worries are a bit more troubling. I try to steer them back to John Brown and the Civil War.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book #16

It's been ages since I read Sacks: I guess An Anthropologist on Mars was the last time. I like his portraits of people whose symptoms exhibit the mystifying and inexplicably complex functioning of the brain. His most recent volume focuses on sight and seeing and visualization and imagery. When the good doctor himself suffers a melanoma in his right eye, causing an initally temporary loss of stereoscopic vision, and thence a final complete loss, he begins to keep a journal of his experience, said journal becoming the largest essay in this book. It's amusing to note his paranoia upon hearing the melanoma diagnosis: it took me back to my own dance with the big M in 1994. Sacks and I see eye to eye!

The variety of symptoms which afflect people who lose sight, or who have neural difficulties translating their vision into perception, or who become partially blind, losing color vision or peripheral vision or fragments of their sight--is quite interesting. The ability to visualize internally or to think with imagery after blindness sets in is also fascinating: some lose it completely, some become better. Sacks tackles all these characters and their cranial riddles with the keen vision of a novelist.

Every time I read Sacks I think of a regular customer at Borders, a young woman who was involved in a terrible car accident which damaged her amygdala. She was rational and logically sound, she retained most of her mobility, and she lost not a bit of her linguistic capabilities--but she was totally unable to read social cues. Any knowledge of etiquette or delicacy or subtletly was gone. The kinds of thoughts we might have and quickly repress she verbalized immediately. She'd stroll up to the information counter and announce loudly "I don't know why that young cashier won't fuck me. I could really please him. Your shirt is wrinkled and I think you need to learn how to iron it. That woman over there is terribly ugly. How can she come out in public? I'd hide from shame! God, I'm horny. I took the most disgusting dump this morning..." You get the idea. At first I'd try to use social cues to calm her down or shut her up but despite staring directly at my face she could not "see" discomfort or embarrassment. Nor could she understand those concepts when explained to her. After dealing with her for almost two years I started simply taking her by the elbow and steering her to the Mystery Section where she could talk herself silly and disrupt fewer customers or staff. But I always felt for her, and tried to treat her with compassion, and I think reading Sacks, and thinking of his example, helped me act this way over the years.