Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Lucky Accident of Orality

At risk of belabouring the topic for those who know me or visit this blog semi-regularly, I am still very much informed and influenced by my time teaching in the Canadian Arctic in the early 1990s. The solitude and silence of the place along with the social and professional challenges I encountered there have had lasting influence on my perceptions about education and the relationship between Canada's Indigenous people and its settlers.

The time I spent there was very much a trial and error sequence as I tried to find my way in the classroom and community and I gradually progressed from the tried tactics that I was schooled with during my childhood and something much more intuitive, exposed and - ultimately - productive. One of the milestones on my journey to flat-out asking my students what they wanted me to teach them was storytelling. There were movies that had a hit and miss nature to them based on the content of the story and it was evident with those that there was something lacking and less than compelling for the kids as I resorted to that. To my chagrin, the kids voiced the assumption that life in the south resembled the mayhem of Terminator 2, which had made its tour of the local VCR's while I was there and prompted many of the kids to hide behind the tinted Terminator shades when I arrived.

The shades were part of the uniform for the teen cool and indifference that they tried to communicate and often kept me on my heels as I tried to progress toward some sort of breakthrough to connect with them in the classroom. There were times when I tried certain things to work on their listening skills and vocabulary in the English classes but they were rejected as dated or old because they were the strategies used by the colleague of mine who taught them English when they were elementary school age.

Try and try I did and I gave storytelling a try, even though it was something that I, in my elementary school experience recalled ending around grade four with the vivid memory of gathering on the floor to listen to Stuart Little while I eyed the patina of Gail Murphy's braids and heard Stuart's story. I often concluded that the class I taught in the Arctic was too old and would insist on being too cool for storytelling or me reading from a book to them. Desperate, as I often was, I gave it a shot.

I chose my material quite carefully and did not wish to merely pick something off the shelf but draw their attention to an association between Inuit and non-Inuit stories that they may not have been familiar with: seals. While the Inuit had their origin myths about seals -- most notably the story of Sedna the daughter of a sea god who defied her father and as a consequence of her banishment became the source of all marine life -- there were similar mythological attributions to seals among other folklore as well. Though the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, the most famous -- and I acknowledge I may be using the term "famous" quite loosely -- was produced and released after I left the Arctic, there were other variations on the theme that I could draw upon. I had grown up on a steady diet of Irish folk music and over the years heard the story-song "Peter Kagan and the Wind" countless times and I would always pause attentively at the mix of spoken word verses and sung chorus.

I wrote out the song for myself and brought it into class and despite the reality that there was little or nothing "cool" about this route I was taken to connect with the kids and make my time with them relevant to them, something happened. I provided enough introduction to make it clear that I was intending to read to them but I did not make the effort to draw the mythological connections clear to them. I started and they sat quietly. Some even moved to the floor to lie down and perhaps drift a few inches toward sleep and I smiled to myself about the possibility of that calm repose in their morning of school as unexpected as it was for them. They chose to indulge in that calm of the spoken word and when the 10-12 minutes passed they were clearly refreshed by that recess in their day.

I am not sure of the connections they made that morning. They may not have had the explicit knowledge of the Sedna myth but the story and the voice had done something and in some small way the stones were put in the river from me to proceed from the classroom techniques and curriculum I grew up on to those they longed to learn from.

At a time when Indigenous people and settlers look to come to a closer understanding of one another, it will be our oldest stories, the ones that have the most potential to resonate and echo with one another that will prompt understanding and do so without and extended negotiation about the meanings and misunderstood attributions we will assign to more recent stories. Those more difficult stories need to be told, negotiated and understood, but the older tales, the ones that show we have a great deal in common, are the ideal ones to begin with.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Bridge of Passion

For quite some time I have been meaning to write a post about the passions we have and the metaphor and guide that they provide as we interpret our surroundings and use them to offer our perspective to others. By passions I mean the pursuits, hobbies and interests that occupy our thoughts, occasionally obsess us and, often, give us the language and metaphors to provide our insights on the topics we engage with.

In many instances, these passions are the areas which prompt us to self-identify, with pride, as a nerd or geek. Whether we declare ourselves a Star Wars geek, a jazz geek, or such we describe ourselves with pride and only the slightest bit of self-effacement despite the pejorative lineage of the terms geek and nerd. The powerful aspect of these passions is indeed the way that we can apply them to describe our world and illustrate concepts or shares beliefs in ways that are more challenging when we observe or interpret the world without a lens or vocabulary that invigorates us in such a manner.

At a time, though, when people are less inclined to listen to one another because of the assumptions we make based on perceived self-interest -- the tendency to attribute a certain belief system or motivation because of race, gender, generation, hairstyle, et cetera -- there is the slightest chance that by speaking with the metaphors that are unique to us we can breakdown the layers of platitudes, right and left-wing karaokes and ears-covered-na-na-na-na routines that provide the bleak measure of "discourse" as it is abused during a time when the messy, complex and paradoxical pursuit of understanding of reality and one another has been so nastily discarded in favour of something much slicker, brutish and, ultimately, disengaging and isolating.

As the rights of the marginalized are further diminished and even mocked, there is the chance that a geek's reminders about the egalitarian universe of Star Trek might make a case clearer to someone who is disinclined to hear more conventional arguments about a topic that they are hard-wired to an unchangeable position on.  It is our passions that provide the best metaphors to break the deadlocks that have persisted over the last few years and show little promise in dissolving until something catastrophic sends the pendulum back into retreat.

Speaking in such a passionate commitment to our terms of reference is not without its risks. The Peter Sellars' movie Being There (1979) presents the exceedingly uncomfortable story of a man who finds himself in the circles of power after essentially being expelled from the security of the refuge where he, naive and intellectually challenged, is equipped with little more than his passion for gardening. Clearly, in the clip from the movie above, his metaphor is given the utmost generosity in interpretation and that is far less likely today when there are so many people who are uninterested in listening under any circumstances and would run you out of the room or conversation for being too nairy-fairy for their tastes.

It would still argue though, that there is a chance of reaching a few more people than we would trying to reiterate or fine tune argument or positions that have fallen on deaf ears and strident opposition. So, if Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Fight Club, Seinfeld or the garden speak to you as few other things do, feel free to speak of these things and extend the view of the world that you have enjoyed from each of these lenses. There is a better chance of making your point and if you fail in the process in the short-term you might get a laugh out of it and later learn that you made a point anyway.