Wednesday: Portraits and Memory

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of today (with lots of photos) here

Starting with Reflection

We wrote our reflections on another note card (as we did yesterday) and turned them in. Here's the thinking routine we used:


3 applications (ways you can apply what you learned)

2 questions

1 metaphor or analogy

Workshop 1: self-portraits

Cynthia and Ana Paula led this. They started with a slide show of professional models of black-and-white photo portraits, from photographers including Flor Garduño, Luis Rosales Palma, Irving Penn, and Francesca Woodman). As we looked at each photo, they elicited characteristics of the photos from us, and wrote them down on the whiteboard. Cynthia and Ana Paula also took time to give quick, impromptu lecture on things like the rule of thirds. 

There were lots of photos, but they were fascinating - I didn't want it to end!

We formed groups of three. Each person "directed" their own portrait, but the other two were there both to take photographs (on smartphones) and to (literally) offer different perspectives. The only directive was that the photos should be black and white. Cynthia suggested using the "noir' filter on the iPhone, but this was a suggestion.

Side comment: there's a fundamental difference between a "filter" and a "template". Both can make your work look more professional and real, but a template reduces your agency and creative freedom, (I'm thinking especially of those "movie trailer" templates in iMovie) whereas a filter expands your options rather than limiting them.

I knew I wanted to be in a tree for my photo, but that was all I knew. Here are some of the photos that my partners, Claire and Maritza took, that I was considering:

And here's the one that I ultimately chose:

The next day, the facilitators had printed out our portraits and put them on the wall of the gallery space. Here's how it looked:

Workshop 2: collaborative mind map

1. Two students (prompted in advance, neither one dominant in most full-group discussions) read the passage from 100 Years of Solitude in which the villagers become insomniac and start losing their memories. To combat this, they start labelling EVERYTHING.

2. Individually, go through the text and select a word or a phrase of no more than 7-8 words

3. Write the word/phrase in the middle of a blank piece of paper, using a colored marker. 

4. Pass it to the left, add to the conversation, and keep passing (we did this in our own time, not being told by Kurt when to pass).

5. On your new paper you can...

  1. respond directly to the word or phrase
  2. elaborate on others' ideas
  3. ask questions
  4. respond to someone else's ideas
  5. add a connection to the reading, or the book
  6. add a connection to another book, film, etc.
  7. Make a connection to your own life

6. When we stop, read all the comments on your paper, and add one comment.

7. Choose a really interesting contribution to yours. Share it with your neighbor. 

Here's a scan of my mind map:

Workshop 3: labelling our world (after Macondo)

This workshop, led by Cynthia, started from the same excerpt as the one we used in Workshop 2, as well as from Ruth Krauss's book of definitions as given by five-year-olds, A Hole is to Dig.

After reading a few of the definitions from A Hole is to Dig, Cynthia demonstrated what she wanted us to do by sticking two neon-colored note cards on the wall. The first said Wall/Pared, and the second said "To lean against."

We took six notecards each, and went all over the building, labelling objects and providing their definitions, in the style of A Hole is to Dig. We were encouraged both to label objects with definitions, and add definitions to already-labelled objects. 

After we'd really gone to town, we did a brief gallery walk, writing down objects and definitions we really liked. 

Here are a couple photos of our labels:

At this point, we came back to the tables, and in groups, we shared our definitions and used the words we'd written down to create a new text on a big sheet of paper (with the rule that we couldn't add words, but we could rearrange them).

Dinner: at Lo Que Hay

Dinner needs a special mention: a four-course vegan meal next to a swimming pool, all cooked in an outdoor kitchen: soup, tacos, a tamale with some kind of avocado sauce, and piña colada sorbet, plus all the jamaica we could drink (and I really pushed the limits on that). Here's a photo Tere took of the kitchen:

Tuesday Part 2: Working with "100 Years of Solitude"

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of these workshops (with lots of photos) here

Kurt led this workshop. He began by finding out how many of us had read 100 Years of Solitude "within the last six months", assuring us that it hadn't been a requirement and it would be fine if we hadn't. Then he reminded us that invariably, if we expect people to have read at home, some of them won't have done it, and suggested the following exercise as a means of all entering a text together:

1. Everyone gets a slip of paper with 1-3 sentences of text written on it (these turned out to all be excerpts from the same passage from 100 Years of Solitude (a description of how Úrsula realized she was going blind and concealed her blindness, but that wasn't clear to us initially.

2. Get in a circle

3. Become an "expert" in your text (this just meant reading over it a few times and making sure you had an interpretation and a "wondering". Obviously, the depth of understanding would vary wildly between people who had read the full book recently and people who hadn't!

4. Count off 1-2-1-2

5. "Ones" step forward into the circle, then turn to face a two - you now have two concentric circles, as in "paseo" and "speed dating"

6. Read your excerpt to your partner, say what you know/think and what you're wondering. Then, your partner does the same. 

7. Exchange slips of paper - you are now an expert in your partner's excerpt

9. Outer circle moves one to the right

10. Read your partner's excerpt to your new partner,  say what you know/think and what you're wondering. Then, your partner does the same (You are providing your own interpretation and wondering about the excerpt, not repeating your partner's).

11. Repeat 4-5 times (as a teacher, you'll have a feel for how this is going and when to stop)

This flowed smoothly into the next bit, but I'm isolating it because the concentric circles took place outside and then we went inside. Also, I think this would stand alone very well as a method for entering text as a group. I loved the elegance of this structure - as you move from partner to partner, we literally develop a shared (but incomplete) understanding of the text, which (for us at least) grew a powerful motivation to read the full text. I finished reading 100 Years of Solitude only a week ago and I still wanted to re-read the passage because I heard excerpts that reminded me of details I'd forgotten, but didn't fully explain those details. For example, I read one line about Úrsula bumping into Amaranta and getting upset because Amaranta wasn't sitting where she normally did, and another about Úrsula now being able to tell where Amaranta was sitting by the date, but couldn't remember why she was able to develop that skill.

12. The group reads the story together. We all had copies of the story in our binders already, one in English and one in Spanish. We read in English. Kurt's initial concept was for everyone to read the line they were holding, but this seemed not to work so we just had people spontaneously read one sentence each. We had the option to read our own line, but we could also read when the spirit moved us. I read my own line because I felt (not that it mattered to anyone else) more comfortable cutting someone off if I was reading a line that I felt ownership of (and I in fact,  totally started reading that line at the same time as someone else and cut them off). 

13. Choose a line from the text and frame it using sharpie - we were instructed to use a straight edge to do this, so the lines would all be straight. We were told these were going to become part of an art piece, but the piece hasn't been made yet.

14. Find a partner you haven't worked with yet, and take their hand 

15. With your partner, discuss the text using the "See Think Wonder" protocol

Had a fascinating conversation challenging the idea of Úrsula as "strong" being an essentially conservative take on her position, which relies on her being "in the home" and very much partakes of the "feminine mystique." In the words of my interlocutor, "If we saw Úrsula outside the home, her loss of power in other spaces would create space for social critique that's missing in the book."

16. Write one of your wonderings on the text with a colored marker

17. Give the page to the "curator", who will be putting it on display with everyone else's

Lunch Time (pork pibil tacos, nopales salad, frijoles, watermelon juice, homemade lime jellies for dessert)

During lunch, choose a passage from the cordel (a string hung between trees outside, with texts hanging from it by clothespins.

  • Every text on the cordel is a passage rich in description of a character from 100 Years of Solitude. I chose the passage about "The Catalonian"

18. Read the passage you chose, and frame a line with a sharpie

19. Find someone else who read the same passage as you and do a "walk-stop-talk-walk" (this just means walk around and chat). My partner and I went outside, which was a great move. We talked about language, words, war, and the different intellectual landscapes of Mexico and the USA.

20. Back inside, write a question next to your "framed" line with a colored marker (like you did in step 16)

21. As a group (with facilitator scribing on a whiteboard) make a list of techniques that Garcia Marquez uses in order to make portraits of his characters

Some ideas we came up with:

  • characters often identified by a single trait that is "iconic and elemental" - Mauricio's butterflies, Rebeca eating dirt...
  • The "temporal zoom" (many years later, he would...). The most obvious example of this is the book's first line. 
  • "Like a carousel" - minor characters suddenly move into focus, are the center of the book for a few pages, and then move back out. 

It occurred to me as we did this that an interesting (albeit kind of crass) exercise would be to design a logo/icon/brand for each character.

Then we paused for a quick game:

  1. Each table appoints a leader
  2. Everybody stands up
  3. Leader makes a sound and gesture.
  4. The table repeats the sound and gesture.
  5. The room repeats the sound and gesture.
  6. Each table does this

And then everyone sets back down. 

Now, the final work of the day:

Patricia and Cynthia led this. We went back through the list of "things that I'm from" from yesterday, circling or starring things from the lists that could be visually interesting. We were told we'll be creating self-portraits tomorrow. 

Cynthia and a small group of volunteers then modeled masks they'd made earlier. Then, we were turned loose with construction paper, paper-cutting knives, scissors, sharpies, and string. 

For the rest of the afternoon, we designed and created masks (or paper jewelry, or whatever else we wanted to make). I became utterly absorbed in my paper-cutting, like Colonel Aurelian Buendía and his golden fish in 100 Years of Solitude. Here's what I made:

The lion is inspired by an incident when I was about eight years old and my family wen to Disney World. Though I don't remember this being an issue, my health was declining precipitously and I'd soon be flying to Birmingham, Alabama, for major heart surgery (major enough that my cardiologist recommended against doing it near home in Washington, DC. Anyway, I was desperate to go on Autopia, Disney's "racetrack", and to drive my own car. It turned out that I could only reach the pedal by lying on my back, and that the cars used actual gasoline, so the fumes were intense. Three-quarters of the way around the track, I couldn't keep going, and an attendant rescued me, driving my car back to the start. I got out of the car, took a few wobbly steps, and dropped to the ground, my eyes rolling back into my head. I lost consciousness for long enough to terrify my parents. When I came to, my dad was carrying me and shouting for help. 

I remember what I saw while I was unconscious: everything was black, except for a lion that I could see in profile, facing right, in the lower left-hand corner of my field of vision. 

Tuesday Part 1: Cropping & Editing

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of today (with lots of photos) here.

How we started: reflection

Unlike previous days, the room had about seven round tables in it. We sat around the tables, wherever we wanted. 

We started today with a half an hour of reflection. Kurt gave us a "connect-extend-challenge" structure, and told us to use it or ignore it, whichever felt best to us. We wrote our reflection on a small piece of stiff paper, and were told that these will all be displayed, and that all our reflections will be bound together in a book that we will take home with us. Here's a bit more about the connect-extend-challenge structure:

Connect: How are yesterday's ideas, experience, and information connected to what you already know?

Extend: What new ideas did you get that extended or pushed your thinking in new directions?

Challenge: What is still challenging for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings, puzzles do you still have?

After about twenty minutes of writing time, we shared with the person next to us, then Kurt elicited comments from the group. He framed this by saying "If you're a person who usually speaks, wait this time. If you're a person who usually waits, speak." Sure enough, we heard from very different people. 

I jotted down notes about the kinds of reflections people shared. Here are the types of things we heard:
  1. Connecting the practices we did to learning theory
  2. Sharing an anecdote from a particular exercise that illustrates a point
  3. Sharing a personal challenge that you're working on
  4. Connecting our experience to the experience of your students
Kurt closed the reflection by pointing out four aspects of the reflection that had been included deliberately:
  1. It will turn into a tangible product (a booklet)
  2. We have a prompt that we can use or not use, as we see fit
  3. Time to write alone
  4. Building community through sharing out

Workshop 1: framing a photo and editing a story

The first workshop was led by Cynthia Weiss, an artist and educator. My understanding is that a lot of what we did was developed in Project AIM ("AIM" stands for "Arts Integration Mentorship").

Cynthia opened the session by saying "Yesterday we focused on us, and who we are. Today we are working on the text." 

She introduced our work on text by beginning with photographs, and "photographers as storytellers." Here's how the first workshop went:

1. Choose a photo - On each table was a stack of printouts of photos by the Mexican photographer Flor Garduño. We were told to each take one. I took the one that was handed to me, other people walked around the room looking at different tables before selecting a photo. Cynthia provided time for this, then said "I want to give you time to choose a photo that speaks to you, but added "What we're going to do will work with any photo." 

Here's the photo I chose:

2. Observe your photo - "Notice what's in the frame, where the light is coming from, how the figures are framed within the image, what is in the foreground, what is in the background, what is not in view? What parts of their bodies are in the frame and what parts are not?

3. Talk about what you observe with the person next to you - After she brought this to a close, Cynthia pointed out that "One of our biggest questions as teachers is how long to let something go on for."

4. Write the story of your photo in 24 words

I wrote one 24-word story, then noticed that my neighbor had written hers about the moment of taking the photo, and started again. Here's my first story:

He was paid in lilies. Mourners always had a few extra when they visited their subterranean relatives, and they laid them outside his crypt.

And here's my second story, which imagines how the photo came to be:

"Nice shell suit."


"Want to be in a photo?"



"Will I look cool?"


Will I look scary?"



"Put on this mask."

5. Crop your photo with the largest viewfinder (the viewfinder is  rectangle of black construction paper with a rectangular hole cut into it. There were viewfinders neatly stacked on our table when we came in.)

Here's my first cropped photo:

6. Shorten your story to 12 words - You can only use words from your original 24-word story, but you can rearrange them. It may start to sound more like a poem than a story, and that's fine. 

Story 1: 

Mourners paid in their relatives' lilies. They laid them outside his crypt.

Story 2: 

"Nice shell suit."


"Want to be in a photo?"



By this point, I was incredibly anxious to share my story with people, and to hear theirs, but we kept working individually for a while longer... 

7. Crop your photo with the medium-sized viewfinder:

Here's my second cropped photo:

Cropping, it turns out, is a low-stakes way to experience "killing your darlings." My favorite thing about the photo is the pose of the kid in the dog mask (and his/her shell suit, who's pattern includes leopard heads) but framed by the medium-sized viewfinder, it looked pretty pedestrian, and I vastly preferred the view of the graveyard with the hill behind it on the lefthand side of the photo. So I went with that.

8. Shorten your text to six words - (your new text does not need to describe your latest cropped image - the two processes are separate)

1. Mourners paid in their relatives' lilies.

2. Want to be in a graveyard?

I didn't intend for my cropped photo to influence my story, but I found both drifting away from the kid in the dog mask and into the graveyard, along with the image. 

9. Crop with the smallest viewfinder (I haven’t measured the viewfinder dimensions, but I traced them into my notebook)

Here is my final cropped photo:

10. Shorten your text to three words:

1. Mourners paid lilies.

2. A graveyard want

11. FINALLY, share with the person next to you

I loved doing this. It was fun, it was simple, but it was full of all kinds of interesting resonance. We didn’t spend that much time discussing it, but we could have gone on for hours. One of the many things I love about it is that the two processes are, to an extent, metaphors for each other - or, put more prosaically, at least one aspect of this will appeal to just about everyone. 

More to come about today...

The gift of awkwardness

This morning, it occurred to me that whenever somebody in our group gets confused, or misinterprets instructions, or gets tense, or resists what's going on, they are giving a gift to the rest of the group - because those responses will be the ones that are most prevalent among our students when we do this work with them. And whenever I get confused or tense, or misinterpret instructions, I'm giving a gift to my colleagues.

Habla Teacher Institute: Monday

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of today (with lots of photos) here.

The bats were still flying over the pool when we went outside at 6:30 to do a workout this morning. 

We spent most of today in a workshop led by Patricia Sobral, Professor of Portuguese at Brown University. 

We began by going around the circle saying our name, and "something people can't tell by looking at you." This time, I finally remembered to write down everybody's name in the location where they were sitting on my paper, which was exceptionally helpful. 

Then, Patricia took us out of the air conditioning and into the gallery, and had us get in a circle and hold hands. It was human knot time. 

For the first knot, everybody was told to go underneath somebody's arm. Once we were all entangled, we were told to ask anybody who was know near us "Where are you from?" 

Once we unravelled ourselves, she had us let go of one person's hand, then take the hand of somebody else across the circle, thereby re-knotting. Now, we asked people near us "who are you from?"

For the final knot, we held hands around the circle as we had at the start, but this time we were instructed to go under two different sets of arms in order to tangle ourselves up. This time, we asked people around us "What are you from?" 

Once we'd untangled ourselves, we quickly debriefed about what we'd noticed about the experience. This was very unstructured, and people volunteered to speak, as generally happens at Habla. I'd definitely give time to pair-share if I were doing this with students. 

After the knot, we walked through the space, initially without interacting with anybody, then "greeting people with our eyes" as we passed them. After a bit, Patricia said "You're late - you slept through your alarm and you know no matter what you're going to be late" - we sped up, hunched our shoulders, the whole atmosphere of the space changed as we charged through it. Then she said "You're walking along the beach, you don't have anywhere you need to be, it's sunny, you're taking a long stroll, life couldn't be better." People slowed, stretched, swiveled, and sighed contentedly as they walked. Then she said "It's 3 AM, you're walking home alone from a party, and you probably shouldn't have taken this route. You can hear footsteps behind you, you're willing yourself not to turn around. Then you can't help yourself, you turn around, but all you see is a silhouette." We sped up, taking tight, clenched, steps. Then she said "You're going to a party. It doesn't matter when you get there, it's a Mexican or Brazilian party, it starts when you get there, and it never ends. You're with your friends, you're so excited about tonight." 

This went straight into a game in which when she told us to freeze, two people made roof with their hands together, and one person stood between them. The people making the roof said words to the effect of "My roof is made of ______" (for example, 'compassion' - the idea is that should be what you use to shelter others), while the person "under" the roof said "I am sheltered by _____". 

After a few rounds of this, we debriefed. I found it much easier to be a roof than to seek shelter - partly this can be explained by how I tend to interact with others, and my general unwillingness to be "looked after", but it was also a question of math: more people are needed to shelter than to seek shelter. Also, choosing to seek shelter means you risk not finding any.

Patricia then handed out "viewfinders" (a piece of black construction paper with a rectangle cut out of the middle). We used these to frame a shot somewhere in the room, and then to share our shot with another person. I found it immensely satisfying to look at the space through my viewfinder, zooming in and out by moving it closer to or further away from my face. 

At this point, we went back into the air conditioned room - it was time to write. On a "fresh page" of our notebooks (Patricia was very specific about this) we made a list in response to a prompt. Then we talked to the person next to us about what we'd written, then on another fresh page we responded to another prompt, then discussed it with the OTHER person next to us, then another prompt, then found someone new to discuss it with, then the same for  a fourth prompt. Here are the four prompts:

  1. Who are the people who frame your life?
  2. What are the places that frame your life?
  3. What are the objects that frame your life?
  4. What are the memories that frame your life?

We drew a square on a new sheet of paper, writing one item from each list on the inside of each side of the square (our "frame"). 

Then we had two more prompts (again, we wrote, then shared with somebody new):

  1. How do other people frame you?
  2. What would you like to have in your frame that is not in your frame yet?

After this, we wrote down and shared "two wows and two wonders" about the morning, then went for lunch.

After lunch we added a "way other people frame us" below our square, and "something we'd like  in our frame" below our square, on the paper we'd already started. 

We shared our square with yet another new person, taking much more time for this discussion than we had for any others. 

At this point, we wrote. We were given twenty minutes to write freely about what we had put in (and out) of our frame, writing about all six items, with the goal of finding one strong line about each. 

We walked around the room sharing our "golden lines" with other people, with Patricia telling us which line we should share (based on the order of the prompts). We were told not to respond or give any feedback, in fact to give no more acknowledgement than a nod. I liked this a lot - it was fast and clean, and meant that we all got to hear lots of different takes on how to respond. 

Now it was time to devise a performance: Patricia counted us off, one through six. I ended up in group 5 (consisting of six people), which mean we were performing our lines for "How do other people frame you?" We read our own lines aloud, then wrote them down on strips of paper and went around the group with each member rearranging them and reading them all aloud together (this particular "thinking routine" was our own strategy, not something prescribed by Patricia). As we were doing this, Patricia came around and told us to keep gestures minimal for our performance, but to try to memorize our line and be ready to perform. We went out to the gallery space, and all the groups performed their pieces, then (of course) we debriefed. 

And if you're curious, here's the line I performed: "I figure out what I want to say by talking."

It was getting near the end of the day at this point, when I remembered we had a second workshop, this one led by arts educator Cynthia. She gave each of us a packet containing eight styrofoam balls of various sizes, and ten bamboo skewers. We were to create a freestanding structure, which we would then combine with another, then our pair would connect it to another pair's, then our four to another four, and then we would connect all of them together, creating a sculptural metaphor for community. Here are some photos from that process:

Saturday at Habla [Part 2]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "the faun on the bus"

I'm writing this on Sunday. We went to Uxmal, and it was incredible. Here are some photos:

I just took my evening dip in the pool, and while I was floating on my back, bats were flying all over the patio, coming within a foot of my face. It was really cool, until it was too unsettling (about 45 seconds). Once I stood up in the water, they dispersed. I tried floating again to coax them back, but I'd broken the spell.

Now back to yesterday's workshop, "The Sound of Light"

After we finished the “building conversations” thinking routine, we returned to the air conditioned room and re-formed the groups in which we had composed our soundscapes. W were all given a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “Light is Like Water”. Our initial assignment was develop a “clear reading” of the passage - this, Kurt explained, meant presenting the reading “straight” so that it was comprehensible to the audience. So, dividing up the lines between readers was within our scope - movement, singing lines, and other fancy stuff was not. Before we went off to prepare our script, Kurt reminded us to seek “distributed leadership” (I think that’s what he called it anyway), reminding us of the “jumping at the same time” exercise at the beginning of the workshop, where on the best jumps everyone thought someone else was the leader. 

Our group went outside and, in the shade, divided up the text. In the time we had (only about ten minutes) our reading went from the plan “everyone just read one sentence and this thing will run itself” to “OK she reads the first paragraph, these three sentences are split in two, everyone reads a different section of the final sentence, and we’ll all say the final three words in unison.” Had we been given another ten minutes, we probably would have been subdividing specific words between readers. When you distribute leadership in a group of people who don’t know each other well, nobody wants to say no, so complexity increases exponentially as idea heaps on top of idea. It reminds me of what the Innovation Unit used to say about public services’ tendency to get bloated: nobody wants to decommission anything, so innovations and new institutions pile on top of each other.

We came back in with our “clear reading”, happy with it, intimately familiar with the text, but not wildly attached to our arrangement (well, I wasn’t - I can’t speak for the rest of our group). Kurt now revealed that this was only a “first draft”, and we wouldn’t be performing it. Instead, we would be choosing from the same collection of found objects that we’d used to make our soundscape based on the “text” of the noises we heard outside, and performing the reading with sounds. To model this, Kurt and Dario performed the opening of 100 Year of Solitude together, with Kurt reading and Dario playing percussion. Before we rushed to get objects and compose our piece, Dario discouraged literalism. “Don’t just make a ringing noise if a phone rings in the text,” he said. “That’s sound effects - and that’s not what this is about.” This was a surprising redirection to me, since I’d felt like that was exactly what our previous soundscape had been about (thought, in fairness, when we’d composed that I’d ended up blowing over the lip of a beer bottle on the theory that it would sound like a mechanical drone - it sounded nothing like a mechanical drone, especially since I can’t circular breathe (a didgeridoo would have been perfect) but we kept it in our piece anyway). 

So we went back outside. By this point our papers were covered in contradictory marks as we re-conceived the piece with me starting it in the voice of a 1940s newsreader with one group member hitting knives against a cardboard box to mimic the typewriter keys (or is it a telegraph) that we somehow all associated with 1940s newsreaders (kind of literal, I know…). Then as soon as we reached a bit talking about light, another voice took over reading, slowing down and opening up. The piece was initially totally improvisational, but a couple group members (rightly) pushed us all to tighten up our plan. We ended up with every word clear and accounted for, with, as one member noted approvingly, “lots of open space in the sound effects.” At this point, we were disciplined and comfortable enough as a group to start our “drafts” with lots of instruments going, and remove elements as we refined. This was in absolute contrast to the “clear reading”, in which ideas had piled on top of each other with none being rejected, except by the default rejection of neglect. Looking back on it, in less than an hour we’d matured enormously as a group. 

Each small group performed their passage for the entire group, each performance was wonderful and utterly distinct. A fabulous workshop.  

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

Then I walked around the city...

After the "Sound of Light" workshop, we had a few free hours before the "official" opening of the institute in the evening. I went out to lunch with some of my fellow-instituters, and then walked back to our hacienda, stopping by the Dante bookstore on the way to buy a book of local maps, then to Cafe Latte to buy ground coffee (it was shut, but the owner let me in anyway, and ground me a delicious blend of beans that stood us in good stead all week).

Here are photos from my walk:

The last one grabbed me because it looked so much like I imagine Macondo, the setting of 100 Years of Solitude (it's available for rent, too, if you're ready to do some serious fixing-up).

Workshop 2 (and the official opening of the Teacher Institute): The Faun on the Bus

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

This workshop was facilitated by Kata and Marimar. It began with an excerpt from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, in which he describes seeing a faun get onto his bus, ride for a few stops, then disembark at a park, thank the driver, and disappear into the trees. Garcia Marquez says that he made the choice as a writer that this had been his experience - he remembered seeing the faun - and therefore, it would be dishonest to claim that it hadn’t happened. 

Marimar then gave a brief lecture about Garcia Marquez and magical realism, that began with her grandmother’s claim that she has seen chupacabras in her backyard on two separate occasions, and her grandfather’s story of stealing cows from farmers by carrying them on his back.She compared these stories to Garcia Marquez’s memory of the faun. This took her to the observation that in Garcia Marquez’s writing “there are hardly ever any portals.” She contrasted this with Anglo-American fantasy: Harry Potter must travel to Hogwarts by passing through Platform 9 3/4, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, the Pevensey children pass through a wardrobe into Narnia, Coraline discovers a passageway to the parallel home and her sinister “Other Mother”. But in Garcia Marquez’s writing, the mundane and the magical coexist on the same plane of existence (incidentally, as I recall, David Foster Wallace makes the same observation about David Lynch, who you could argue is America’s foremost magical realist filmmaker). Miramar concluded by saying “I don’t like using the terms ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ because they make a portal.”

Then we left the air conditioned room to the gallery space, formed partners, found two other pairs, and in our groups of six, prepared to tell one-sentence introductions to extraordinary stories from our own lives (and those of our friends and family), beginning with the words “I could tell you about…” 

We led into this with excerpts from the picture book Gabito (based on elements from Living to Tell the Tale). The excerpts were read by volunteers (or possibly the “voluntold”)from among the participants (however much choice they’d had in the matter, they seemed to have been briefed on reading slightly in advance of the workshop itself).

 The first excerpt described the extraordinary parrot in the house where “Gabito” grew up who once predicted the arrival of a runaway bull in the kitchen. We were then prompted to think of a story than involved animals. This was rapid-fire, and I found it incredibly stressful, because I felt an inner pressure to think of stories from my past, and my family’s rich well of stories. I both identify (in a casual way) as a storyteller, and worry about forgetting things, so I felt a sense of failure when I was doing this (on the other hand, I thought everyone else in my group of six did wonderfully). 

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken my notebook out into the gallery with me and I was absorbed in trying to think of my own stories, so the story “teasers” I heard instantly grabbed me, but didn’t stick with me. If I were doing this exercise, I would have people bring notebooks with them, encourage them to take notes on each others’ stories (possibly drawing a circle first, labelling it with people’s names, and then writing a constellation o keywords around each name), and, critically, give a bit of time to think and write (just listing, no more) before going around the circle. 

We then separated back into our original pairs (I was working with Nick) and used the second phrase, “I want to hear about…” in order to hear the full story behind one of the “I could tell you about” sentences we’d said in our group of six. Nick and I both admitted we had virtually no memory either of what we’d heard, or what we ourselves had said. But we jogged each others memory. He told me the story of the trout that created the milky way, and I told him the story of when my father was nearly shot for carrying a flute. 

Then, we told each other’s story (or rather, that’s what I did, but I don’t think that was precisely what we were supposed to do. The phrase for this portion was “I can imagine.” I retold Nick’s story with embellishment, which meant I didn’t even reach the point where he got to Montana, which was basically where the story started. What I think I was SUPPOSED to do was to riff on the images I’d heard, adding detail to particular scenes (I can imagine the three fishermen on a pitch black river, under a pitch black sky; I can imagine an inexperienced, twitchy cop drawing his gun when everyone else’s gun is still in it’s holster). I think this would have worked a lot better than what I did, and I think it’s what Marimar and Kata intended.

At this point was the final phrase: “Can you imagine?” For this one, we all came up with a single-sentence “Can you imagine” phrase, behind which our story lived. Here are the phrases I brainstormed:

  • Can you imagine a flute that can defeat a wild dog?
  • Can you imagine a son ready to turn his back on the very privilege that had been denied his father?
  • Can you imagine a beach made out of scuttling shrimp? [totally different story, incidentally, I was just riffing]
  • Can you imagine a flute that was suppressed by the police?

At the end of the workshop, we went around the room, with each of us reading our sentence to the group. I went with my last sentence. After this, there was a concert of music from the Yucatán, by a band that included one of the members of the Habla staff, with free tapas and drinks, and dancing. 

Jason, Tere and I caught a taxi back later than Marisol, Jesús, and Julieta, and went to Rosas y Xocolate, where there was a jazz trio playing on the roof. I sat in on “Corcovado” on sax, and after that, had a chat with the drummer, an Argentinian named Mauricio who told me that he’d be playing a breakfast gig the next morning with a Cuban pianist and a trumpet player. We went to hear them, and they were awesome.  

Here are some photos Jason took of me playing with the band on the roof:


Saturday at Habla [Part 1]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "navigating the light"

OK, now there's a LOT to write about, and it's 12:37 PM (I just got back from Rosas y Xocolate's rooftop bar, where I briefly sat in with a jazz trio, so the evening got late).

The day started at Rosas y Xocolate too, because it's just down the street from us and they did a great breakfast (I had poached eggs and fried bananas with curry sauce). 

After breakfast, we caught a cab to Habla.

Workshop 1: The Sound of Light (11:00-2:00) (led by Dario and Kurt)

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

We started by going into the gallery space and standing in a circle. 

Everybody walked to a different spot in the circle (silently) while Kurt counted to ten, then again while he counted to seven. Between place, changing, Kurt asked us to check the circle and make sure that it was maintaining its shape and not flattening out on particular sides. 

Next (still in a circle) Kurt had us all jump "as high as you can" at the same time, without speaking to each other. He told us to be still for a little bit before we jumped. After the jump, he asked everyone to point to "who started it". Ideally, we would all be pointing in different directions. We jumped a few times - sometimes there was one clear leader (though they didn't necessarily realize they had instigate the jump), other times we really were pointing all over the place. When it worked really well, everyone was beginning to tense up to jump, and one person's tension went infinitesimally towards a crouch, which triggered several others to crouch more, and then we all went. 

Then it was "bumper cars". We counted off by twos (still in a circle). "Twos" shut their eyes and  crossed their arms in front of them, elbows jutting out protectively from the chest. Their task was to walk across the circle, eyes shut, to a different spot. Ones kept their eyes open. Their job was to gently shift the Twos so that they didn't crash into each other, and so that they ended up in the perimeter of the circle, facing the center, at a different spot. Nobody was assigned a partner, we were all expected to look after everyone. After doing this, Kurt asked people what they were feeling, and got some responses.

This led to us pairing off with someone new, again with one person shutting their eyes. The other person led them around the room by  pushing gently at the center of the back (between the shoulder blades), or touching either shoulder blade. Somewhat counterintuitively (to my mind, anyway), when Kurt and Dario modeled this, touching the left shoulder meant that the "led" person shifted their shoulder back into the hand, thereby turning left (I would've thought the hand on the left shoulder was a "push" onto that shoulder, so it would actually make you turn right). Finally, if you took your hands off the person entirely, they needed to stop. We no longer had a goal for our journey, we were just encouraged to explore the space. Once both partners had been led, we did it again - this time with the freedom to lead however we wanted, within reason - by the hand, by the elbow, by both hands, so the leading took on an element of dance. In the final variation, we led our partner for a while, then indicated in some way that we were leaving, and left them standing alone, for someone else to pick up and lead. Kurt described the loneliness of an elderly architect who had been "left" for a long time when they did the workshop at Brown ten years ago, and reminded us to make sure everyone was looked after, and no-one was left. 

In retrospect, this feels like the point when the "warm-up" ended, and the workshop-specific work began, but that wasn't clear at the time. In any case, we returned to the circle and people talked about how they felt and what they noticed, both when being led and when leading. After that, we sat wherever we wanted and Dario led what I'd call a "listening meditation", listening first to our breath, then what was near to us, then to the entire room, then to everything outside, then back to the room, to what was near us, and to our breath. My mind was crammed with thoughts (among others, wondering how I was going to keep track of all the exercises we'd done and reflect on them) and I didn't feel like I ever really started listening. 

After chatting to a partner about our listening (or lack thereof), we returned to a circle, counted off by twos again, and the twos sat in a smaller concentric circle, while the ones stayed further out. Everyone shut their eyes, and the twos created an improvised sound piece by making whatever sound we wanted when Kurt tapped us once on the head, changing the sound when he tapped us once again, and then going silent when he tapped us twice. After that "conducted" piece, we did it again - this time with no "conducting". We were told to provide some silence, then start our piece. We could make any noise we wanted, change it at will, and stop it when the time seemed right. All the pieces we improvised were magical. 

At this point, we returned to the air-conditioned but acoustically problematic room, made groups of four or five (self-selected), then went outside to listen. Kurt told us when to start and when to stop listening, and gave us time to jot down what we heard in our notebooks. This was our first "text", (Kurt's word). In our groups, we used a collection of objects to recreate the soundscape we had just heard. We performed out composition for two other groups, who also performed theirs for us. 

Before we composed our piece, Kurt reminded us of the "jumping at the same time" game, and encouraged us to seek distributed leadership in our team. When we were composing our piece, I was reminded of the painful aspect of collaboration - especially with strangers - as I would see an idea begin to flower and then die of neglect in the general tumult of ideas, variously directed enthusiasms, and the critical work of projecting goodwill to the people we'll be spending the next week working with. The withering of neglected ideas is an inevitable byproduct of collaboration, but I always find it hard. I also find that I (increasingly consciously) decide where collaborations fit on a continuum of priority, between "make something really good" and "have a positive experience in a group". This act of triage has helped me to relax a lot in collaborations, and be a less obnoxious group member, because I'm able to tell myself things like "Hey, in this context we do not need to produce the platonic ideal of a pipe-cleaner animal circus," and relax into having a good time. And the work always ends up being good, and better for me having relinquished my role as self-appointed arbiter of quality. Although I also nearly always feel a sense of "why didn't I think to do that" competitiveness when I see the work that other groups produced.

What I'm trying to say is that I have developed a relaxed attitude to group work through force of will, which I suppose means I don't have a relaxed attitude to group work. 

The other interesting thing I was reminded about, working in the group, is that groups are nearly always composed of some people who prefer to carefully map out what they want to do before they do it, and people who want to do it and then figure out what they liked and didn't like about it. I tend to want to do whatever we're planning to do (my general attitude is that it's never to early for a first draft) and then discuss what we did. Lots of people, I've noticed, really don't want to "do the thing until they have a clear sense of what they want to do. I haven't heard this difference of approach acknowledged in groups before. I'd like to bring it up.

After that, we did our first "serious" reflection, a 3-2-1

Here's what I wrote:

Three thoughts

  1. I want to make sure I remember these games
  2. The games were purposeless, and as such, depended on our goodwill
  3. There are some very dominant voices in the group - I'm curious to see how this dynamic develops over the week.

Two questions:

  1. What additional steps would Kurt and Dario have included in the warm-ups if we weren't as receptive, mutually trusting, and/or as skilled at these kinds of physical games?
  2. How far will goodwill and expectations get me with teenagers, weighed against their (justifiable) fear of losing face? What if we do something like the improvised soundscapes, and the first time we do it it isn't magical? If that happens, why would students want to give it a second try?

One analogy:

  1. The process that we went through - of making yourself vulnerable, disconnecting from speech (and thereby rationality), and putting blind trust into other people - is the same process that indoctrinates people into cults. 

After a short break, our next text was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story, "Light is Like Water", from Strange Pilgrims. I read it in Spanish. I'm going to try to read everything in Spanish. It's a novel experience to read something that takes me our entire allotted time to read, and that I then only partially understood. It had a remarkably minimal impact on my ability to take part in the conversation, which took place in a trio and followed the "building conversation" protocol in which each of us spoke for a minute, with each minute building on what was said in the previous minute, then for three minutes we spoke together (with the only direction being that we not merely rehash what was said in the first three minutes). Full disclosure: after the discussion, I skimmed the English version of the short story. 

I should mention that the 3-2-1 and “building conversations” protocols, which I described in the previous post, come from Harvard’s Project Zero.

I should also mention that Kurt uses the term “thinking routines” instead of “protocols”. I’m going to try it. 

OK, it's 1:30. I will continue this tomorrow...

Blogging the Habla Teacher Institute - Day 1: The Arrival

I'm only writing this post in order to start off on the right foot - there isn't much to tell. After meeting at Marisol's house at 6:45 AM to cross the border to Tijuana International Airport together,  we finally arrived at our hacienda in Merida at 10:15 at night. Even accounting for the two hours we lost between time zones, it was a long trip - most of it spent in Mexico City's airport on a layover.

But we're here! As promised, it's hot and humid (even at 10:15 at night). On the taxi ride in we saw lots of people out in the streets - I guess this is the nicest time to be out and about. The bathroom sink had a bug trapped in it, with an antenna-span of well over six inches. When I tried to capture it and take it outside, it escaped down the drainpipe. 

What else to tell? We've got a small but perfectly formed pool in the back, and I just took a dip. It's refreshing. Also, whoever is next door to us was playing pretty out-there jazz on their stereo. 

Tomorrow we'll be at our first pre-institute workshop, doing vocal improvisations. I'm nervous, I'm excited, and I'm wishing I'd spent more time reconstituting my Spanish before we flew here!

Some thoughts in response to watching Miss Representation

Tonight, a student hosted a screening of Miss Representation.

I left my notebook in my car so I ended up taking notes on a note-card. I want to record them more permanently before I lose the note card. 

My one big frustration with the film

Continually, throughout the film, different people talked about "The media" and how we live in a world driven by "The media", as if there is a monolithic entity called "The media". 

Media is a plural noun - the plural of "medium" - we forget this way too often. It's made up of lots and lots of people with lots and lots of goals, many of them competing. When we talk about "the media" it's easy to imagine it as a disembodied demonic force, but what we see on our computers, TVs, phones, magazines, etc. is the result of created by lots of people clustered together and collaborating in lots of ways. 


First of all, a remarkable statistic: the US is ranked 90th in the world for proportion of the legislature that is female. 

  • The film made the interesting leap that a lot of the most interesting and important legislation (especially socially-focused legislation) in the past few years has been spearheaded by women. What's a bit odd about this is that if it's the case, it's presumably the case because women are relatively disempowered, and so bring a perspective on what's important that reflects the experience of the (relatively powerless) majority, rather than the limited experience of the male elite. So, in an equal society, women would not be any better at coming up with legislation than men would be. However, this scenario doesn't look to be anything but hypothetical in the immediate future. 

An idea for an essential question

This one is a bit of a tangent from the film, but I thought "What is a citizen" would be a really interesting question to explore, and you could do a history week about the rights and responsibilities (and self-conceptions) of citizens of different civilizations, which you would (of course) present as a citizen, in costume. 

The productive frustration of hearing an argument that's missing your perspective...

Eventually, this will be about teaching: specifically, reading and discussion

On a recommendation from a friend, I was listening to an episode of Dan Carlin's Common Sense podcast in the car yesterday. From what I gathered, the show consists entirely of Carlin's commentary on current events. He began the episode with a story in Newsweek about a demand by Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director general of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE), for all European governments to alter their gun laws so that Jews could legally carry guns, in order to protect themselves from terrorist attacks.

Carlin was presenting this as a case study about why European attitudes to guns are too rigid, and he was making a case that the right to protect yourself is a "human right". 

Now, on one level I just want to write a post about how wrongheaded Carlin's premise is, but I'm not going to write that blog post. All I'll say on this subject is that based on Rabbi Margolin's reasoning (that gun laws should be relaxed for groups of people who are in danger of attack based on their religion), then the only people in Europe who need this exemption more than Jews need it are Muslims, and I doubt Margolin would be receptive to a deal in which Jews & Muslims were both exempt from European gun laws.

OK, enough of that. I don't want to write my reaction to Carlin's argument - I want to write about my reaction to Carlin's argument. First, a confession: I turned it off before he was finished. I'm not proud of this, but I became aware that I was so frustrated by the podcast that it was ruining my mood, and I was on the way to visit a student at his internship site, so I didn't want to carry my frustration to my meeting with the student. Since then, I keep thinking about the podcast - so much so so that I brought it up with two different people afterwards. This got me thinking about why I was thinking about it so much, and here's what I think it boils down to:

I get incredibly frustrated by listening to an argument in which...

  1. I care about what's being discussed
  2. I'm unable to contribute, and
  3. I can see an obvious point that is not being articulated
And this, finally, brings me around to teaching.

The frustration of listening to an argument in which no-one is making the point you want to make is a beautiful educational tool - because it's almost impossible not to engage with the text, and articulate a response, when you feel this frustrated. If I knew I was about to go to seminar about Carlin's podcast, I A) would have kept listening, if only to make sure I didn't look stupid by leaving out some important aspect of his argument, and B) would have been desperate to get in the room and talk about it. Now, this feeling of frustration is not sufficient to lead to good reading, good discussion, or good writing (it's entirely possible - easy, in fact - to get angry about a piece of writing without reading it properly) but it's a heck of a good start. 

Next steps...
I'd love to build a library of articles that have this frustrating, "I've got to respond to this or I'm going to explode" effect. Let me know if you want in on this!