A Teaching Adventure

14330691670_5f562afe1b_zVanish for a month or so from the online publishing world and some people might take notice. A few emails trickle in: “where’d you go?”, “what’s going on?”.  10 years of publishing something at least every week if not several times a week, brings some degree of expectation.

On the other hand, like so many things in life, it is great to break a tradition, strike up in a new direction, or simply defy expectations. Go left when they expect you to go right. – In my case, live more offline than I have in a decade; become a better cook, a dedicated partner, study the ukelele, get more into yoga, push the ultimate frisbee skills to a new level.  And while all that was going on, on the heels of my successful crowd funding project, the reality set in of needing to raise funds in order to live and have some kind of a future.

That is when a whole other kind of adventure appeared, a regular teaching gig, a 15 minute bike ride from home. A far different scene than the scorching hot classrooms of Jalalabad, Afghanistan or the brief-but-exciting classrooms of Brooklyn College, I found myself with the task of teaching 100 or so, mostly Dutch, second year college students who are not pursing journalism, politics, or any of the humanities my work has so often been connected to.  “A challenge” is what teachers typically call a really tough audience that may not always want to hear what you’re trying to show them and on the same hand demand you show up class after class after class with an interesting presentation to keep them thinking (or from falling asleep).  A challenge is definitely what I was confronted with these past months. An interesting challenge that also leads me to see both myself and the world from another new angle.  Although I’m still a traveller at heart, it was a reminder that new ideas and insight can sometimes be found  very close to home.

Like journalism, school is a special kind of institution with a kind of public responsibility. Yet somehow, like journalism, school has become a big business, suffering from all the drawbacks that business entails (sure a few benefits too). Attracting and keeping an audience,  dealing with limit budgets, following rules yet trying to be flexible; unfortunately journalism and education face many common realities. Perhaps that is the reason an education job, to me, doesn’t feel like a far stretch from the media world. It is all connected. As Zenobia Dawson once said to her teachers in “The Wire”, “We’ve got our thing, but it’s just part of the big thing.” – Indeed.

Forgotten Schools, Limited Vision

schoolWhile spending some days in Portugal this month I got to enjoy the beauty of spring in the small agricultural villages of my ancestors. Places where social and economic life has slowed down over the past few decades, as tens of thousands emigrate in search of steady income and a more certain future. Those that don’t leave the country, choose instead to move to bigger towns and cities where urban life may bring them the future their home town could not.  Despite the mass exodus, these villages remain standing, all be it with more empty houses and quiet streets than ever before.

Among the growing list of institutions and concepts of the small village that have been discarded over time is the iconic school house.  Built during the dictatorship as part of the plan that all Portuguese children should attend primary school (between 1940 and 1970), you can find this school in the heart of most any village.  Prominently located with its simple style, these traditional buildings are increasingly being abandoned in favor of centralized urban schools where the few remaining children in villages are sent. A more modern and cost-effective approach to education in an era where the government tries everything it can do to cut costs and services.

EscolaSomewhere in the plan to have modern centralized schools, the fate of the old fashioned school house never received much consideration. Locking them up and letting time or the elements wear them down seems to be the only idea being carried out.  This is despite a few exceptions where villages have found a way to re-purpose their school house as a community center.  Rare examples of some proactive thinking that will allow a main stay of the community to have new life. (assuming there is a community in the area still)

For the most part, in the villages where my ancestors grew up, the very school houses they sent their children to, lay empty and forgotten.  They don’t fit into the new Portugal (and world) where small and old has little value, while bigger and cheaper is considered the best path to take. And regardless of what photos are taken and what comments are made for a few corners of the internet, they will remain shuttered, a beautiful relic of a bygone era.

Education, Art, and Diversity in Lebanon

RMOver the course of my week in Beirut I had the good fortune of spending time with teacher and performance artist Raghda Mouawad.  Through her I learned a great many things about the country and its people, including details about the education system and the harsh reality for artists during an economic crisis in a country that offers little support.  We also get back into that now familiar topic, the contradictions of Beirut when it comes to identities, ethnicity and beyond.

The following podcast was recorded in a car late at night in Beirut on the eve of my departure last month.  Special thanks to both Raghda and our silent passenger in the back seat, Krystel Khoury, for taking the time to explain and show me their city.  Friends like these in far away places make doing what I do, not only possible, but a pleasure.

The Promise of Employment

It is a formula that we decided decades ago makes sense and should therefore work. It is a recipe that for many people in the past decades, has worked to provide a decent life and what people often refer to as security as they look to the future. – You go to school, you do your training, and when you’re finished there will be a job for you somewhere, and it will be a job you want.

Nowadays this formula is less solid than it has ever been. There aren’t many jobs to go around, yet many are still doing the training and the degrees under the assumption that the old deal will still be honored.  As they come out and find the world is not quite what they thought, there is anger, frustration, and sadness across the board. Then come the protests and the campaigns, some speeches from politicians and average citizens, a few policies to try and re-animate that old connection between job training and job. Underneath all the activities and discussions there is a basic principle that remains, in this world as we have built it, you should be able to get an education which also prepares you for a career that once you’re met some set requirements, you can pursue.  After all, how else is it supposed to work?

The hardline voices in the wilderness will say — there are no guarantees in life. A statement that is easy to confirm.

But getting back to that old deal that we’re still trying to revive, here in Portugal one can observe the living breathing collapse and aftermath of that socio-educational correlation.  People young and old with degrees in social work, primary and secondary education, and a long list of other studies, find themselves either in the never-ending spiral of unemployment and job training, or the very common – working retail in a shopping mall. You might have the skills and training to help people in need or teach, but nowadays where you’re needed is selling iPods at the nearest strip mall.  Are these jobs terrible? No, not for everyone. But what happens when you’ve got a country full of social workers and educators selling jeans and flipping burgers? When people’s lives get placed on hold as they wait for that possible real job they trained and prepared for. When they decide not to have any children and to live at home forever to save something from their minuscule pay check?

The discussion is not new. It even finds its way into political discussions regularly these days. But the underlying principle should also be subject to scrutiny. Why believe in the formula anymore? There is not just one way to learn. There is not just one way to make a living. Hoping and working to repair a once functional system is perhaps a noble goal that bears the occasional fruit. But what about teaching each other to break out of the pattern. That if they continue to just wait for something to happen, instead of making something happen, they could be waiting for the rest of their unfulfilled lives.

Life, Death, and the Unglamorous Era of Ad-Men

Photo by FuckNewRave / flickr

John Hall remembers the advertizing business in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and there was nothing glamorous about it. His personal policy in the work place was not to pursue wealth and happiness, but to pursue work that brought meaning to life, which in turn has always given him a feeling of being content and the richest man around. As a business man, a hospice nurse, an english teacher for French people, and a business teacher – one thing shines through no matter what he is working on – John Hall is a force to be rekoned with in the best possible way.

John joins me on the phone from Paris in this very insightful and fun conversation about the lessons he’s learned from fantastic life experiences, and his struggle to convey that to future global business leaders.

Write Our Own Histories

photo by heedmane on flickr

The headlines coming out of Chilé this week echo throughout the world, “government shift in policy regarding learning about Pinochet era in school,” from now on to be described as a “regime”, and not a “dictatorship”. Which is immediately met with anger and disapproval, criticized as an attempt to rewrite and whitewash history.

You don’t have to be Chilean to know something about re-writing history. One constant that transcends borders and time is that history gets told in different ways as time passes. People often refer to the old Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors,” in an effort to explain how the stories from the past are told. Christopher Columbus was an explorer. George Washington, a great leader. Genghis Khan, a brave fighter. None may be true, but each is often told, retold and accepted as fact. Few of the victims are alive or represented to tell a different story, though some brave souls with seek out and bring their histories back to life.

In the context of the classroom and what appears in history books, there is no doubt that these things have tremendous influence as to how children will grow up understanding  the world and how it came to be as it is.  Chileans have every right to be concerned or outraged when their nation’s history is rewritten in favor of those who committed mass murder and other atrocities. Most nations on this planet have marginalized or harmed people in some way in their past, yet not all are willing to admit it and let the shameful stories be told in the classroom. It is easier to hide behind pride and boastful patriotism, far more difficult to be honest and critical of what your country does and has done in the past.

All outrage aside, in our present world of plentiful information and the informal learning renaissance, citizens could also look to each other to address this problem. At home and in our communities, both offline and online, we have the power to tell history from the bottom-up.  The government may shift and attempt ridiculous revisions that might even be implemented for periods of time, but we have a fantastic arsenal of experience and communication to counter such hubris.  The children of the world could stand up during the revised history lesson on how charming dictators from the past were, and calmly respond — we know this is false.  Better yet, they could rewrite the whole section with help from stories of people who lived through the horror.