Something that’s important to me… 5 October 2018

It’s no secret to folks that I have a thing for animals.

I feed birds, pet dogs, enjoy watching the squirrels and possums.  I compliment dog owners when I see them on a walk on their “good looking” canines.  And stop to pet if invited. And there are cats. And cats.

I like weird cats with odd markings or extra toes or missing tails.  We “own” two of them. Dottie (aka Big Dot), a stress eater, an oversized, crabby hunter and gatherer.  And there’s her sister Daisy who is pint-sized with half a tail. She’s often confused or in a sort of daze.  Her meows sound more like squeaks. And she’s missing just a notch out of an ear. Rumor has it–at least the people at the shelter said that both arrived there in a bird cage.

You can imagine my glee when I first heard the name “Miao Miao.”  Yes. You pronounce her name “Meow Meow.” From what I understand, it’s a fairly common name in China, where she lives with my brother and sister-in-law.

They found her in an orphanage, abandoned and purple-faced with a congenital heart condition.  The chambers, valves, and arteries of her heart had grown in a way that would have ended her life by the age of seven.  Simply, her body was not getting enough oxygen. The ordinary play of toddlers was a tax her circulatory system could not afford.

This past summer, I heard her before I saw her at the Golden Inn in Xi’an.  

The flight from Cincinnati to Xi’an took thirteen hours, and it was nearing midnight when we finally arrived at our hotel.

Miao Miao enjoys the fancier things in life, and the ponies…

Miao Miao and her brother Yang Yang were “sleeping” in the room next door to ours.  We tried to be quiet. But as soon as the door locked behind us. We heard squeals and neighing of ponies—Miao Miao’s spirit animal—and banging—Yang Yang enjoys hitting things and making loud noises.  We had enough time for hugs and tears before settling down before a week of uncle-time.

Since we first met and fell in love, Miao Miao has come into her own color: rosy cheeks, clear skin, a heart and lungs that allow her to dance on beds and couches and anything that will sit still.  She continues to wear pop-bottle sized glasses and invades my personal space, and I love her for it.

Thousands of miles away, today, I think of her when I consider the prompt: “What matters to you?”

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Revision 1: a new lead/opening

Curious Questions, and my answers:

Through broken windows and through the heavy brush of cedars, you could see a waterlogged mattress on a red-pink twin bed, the droppings of many mice, a broken wicker swivel chair.

Ever since my dad died, we’ve been spooked by the cabin and it’s 33 acres of property.

It was the first structure my dad built in 1981.  And now it’s falling in on itself.

Drafting and Revising. Bramblebrook Farm (Draft 1)

BY LUKE WISEMAN (August 2018, First Draft*)

This is my free writing and response to “Who’s There?”  I will be revising this with help from my classes as we work through ways to structure our complicated life in story form.

I’m interested in comments about the “sense” this makes.  Does it achieve what I want it to: clear images, clear voice, sensible structure?  How could I improve the “effect” this has on the reader?  How can I make this a more interesting or “extraordinary” story?

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Bramble Brook Farm on the border between Highland and Adams County has no mailbox.  There’s no address to “the cabin.” My dad used to call it “the cabin”:

Scene: Morning.  The Wiseman household.  In the dining room next to kitchen.  Bright light from above dining room table.  Large window. Fire place. The usual. Dad seated at head of table, flanked by son and daughter.  Eating breakfast, maybe cereal or eggs.

Dad: Let’s head down to the cabin*.  

(*AKA “the farm” then “the cabin” then if he was feeling well-deserved pride “Bramblebrook Farm”). In the mid-80s it had been renamed “the cabin.” At any rate, Did I want to go to the cabin with my father.  And mice and snakes, an outhouse, and no running water, no electric. The drive to “the cabin” included tiny shacks, where sat on lawn chairs in front of their trailer homes as my dad muttered at them: “lazy, damn bastards.” T only radio station we got on the two-battery radio was a station from West Virginia on the radio.  Hives of bees found their way into my shorts when I was 7, and we sighted a snapping turtle on the other side of the pond where, moments before we had been swimming, a trauma my father guffawed “I’ll be damned.” Catastrophes like my sister breaking her arm while pretending to be a dancer doing a routine to the theme song to Flash Gordon. Took an ice cream stop and an hour drive to get to a hospital we trusted back in suburban Cincinnati, where men in tiny shacks a few acres away sat on lawn chairs in front of their trailer homes.)

Me: No.  I’m good.

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It’s a property my dad built in 1980 when he retired from Great Oaks.  He was a founding member of Great Oaks vocational school with a second young family.  And when he retired he wanted to get away from the all the damn city people and live like Emerson or Thoreau.  He built a small wood cabin on the highest point of he first bought the property—thirteen acres of brambles and brush.  A small creek runs through the property and he put in two man-made ponds for bluegill fishing (and snapping turtles and slimy, invisible friends of their ilk).

Two weeks ago on a muggy, August Saturday, I met my mom down at the farm.  We sat under two giant cedar trees, and rolled our socks over the cuff of our pants, buttoned our necks and arms into our shirts and admired each other.  The little cabin was falling in on itself at the lip of the back pond.  Made nearly impenetrable by the trees and wild rose that had grown around it.

And then we took to pounding, prying, taking, removing  abandoned cabin, first one-room cabin my dad had built around Easter of 1980.

I think we both felt lucky.

Scholar’s Circles: Gonna Give this a Try

I read a tweet by Liz Reilly last night which led me to a blog she is writing about her adventures in a new unit she is teaching her students, and so I was inspired to post to my own blog.

I, too, am venturing into new territory with my students as we embark on what I have titled Scholar Circles.  The loose ideas is that “Scholar’s Circles” are essentially Literature Circles, but these “circles” are populated by Advanced Placement senior English students.

For years I have taught the same 5-6 texts, feeling often like I am dragging my students through each work.  I have had the hunch that many of them did not read the assigned reading and was often discouraged.   More recently, several students shared that assigned reading has, in ways, killed the joy they once had while reading books.  This is my attempt to help them and me discover what happens when I loosen up what I would call my fairly traditional approach to teaching literature.  

This coincides with my reading of Richard M. Cash’s Advancing Differentiation and George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset (as well as Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and others) which both suggest giving students more choice and more control over their learning among other things.

We have finished Heart of Darkness as a whole class with a broad unit focus of “understanding.”  Students wrote essential questions on the topic of understanding and considered to what extent Conrad’s novel answered their questions.  At the same time, we were focusing on writing analysis of Conrad’s prose and generally trying to decipher his complex, ambiguous text.

The novels Liz and I have chosen for our Scholar Circles unit match nicely with Conrad’s novel, addressing similar concerns and questions about the topics of human understanding, investigating our relationships to one another, and the role of power in human and cultural relationships.

We have a loose plan.  Novels are to be completed by early December.  There are 4 scheduled days of book discussion where students will meet in groups to discuss their reading.  They have divided up their books and agreed on a reading schedule.  We have given students a list of standards as their learning goals.  It is up to them to decide how they will evidence their “achievement” of those standards and to show their learning and growth through a choice of assignments.  

Through this unit, I am also testing the waters of moving from my role as a didactic teacher to one who functions more as a coach and encourager.

It is with many nerves but a lot of faith in my students that I begin this unit.  I know I am doing what research and clear thinking suggests is best for students, but I hope I have structured it in a way that be meaningful for students.  I have tried to make it clear that I am learning along side them, that this is a “new thing” for me, that we figure it out as we go; but this is all a little unnerving to them (they’ve said so) and to me.

Best to reflect before blogging…

In our first week I tried to direct us to two specific things we need to know: the difference between academic writing and journalistic writing and partner profiles.

To that, I add *your very own, personal BLOG*   Over the next two weeks we’ll be setting up our own personal blogs and then writing our first posts.  Those of you who already have established blogs can continue or start a new blog.

Either way…

“Blog is short for “web log.”  They’ve grown in popularity, and you probably already know a lot about them.  But before you create your own or continue, I want you to think about what you’re really interested in writing about and to explore some other blogs.

Begin by exploring others’ blogs.  You can start by looking at blogs that past journalism students have written.  They are linked on the right hand side of my blog.  Specifically, I encourage you to visit Charlie Zach’s.  He wrote a final post over the summer.  Then I encourage you to visit several blogs from writers outside Mariemont.  You can do a Google search for “Best blogs of 2016” or go to sites like “The Webby Awards.”

Your goal should be to check out 7-10 different blogs so that you have an idea of the possibilities and to see what others are doing.

Don’t get too anxious about this.  Your blog will be your space (school-appropriate) for you to explore your ideas and writing.  It will be a fun way to interact with class, and some of you will find a passion and network with a community that is larger than our class.

Don’t worry, not everything you write has to be “golden.”  But I look forward to reading some great things this year, and I hope to write a few of my own.  Peace, Wiseman

How we should go out…

There are reasons pipe organs are not found in night clubs.

Although, having just written that sentence, I have an idea for a post-hipster night club: no DJ’s; rather organs, a bar serving an array of drinks in cylindrical glasses (similar to organ pipes), and it would be called The Great and Swell.

Pipe organs are unwieldy and expensive. Their sound can be jarring and loud. And perhaps most importantly they come off as creepy when they are spotted or heard outside of churches (see: haunted houses or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”).

When I tell people I am a church organist, the responses vary from polite “neat,” mildly hyperbolic “cool,” to the unconvincing “oh-interesting” -silence.

During a recent 14-mile run on a Saturday, I was asked by a running acquaintance what I play at funerals.

The question struck me as odd, partly because it seemed unprovoked, partly because the acquaintance is a bit odd (and aren’t we all?), and partly because I wasn’t sure why he was asking.

I will mention that we were running uphill. Running uphill lessens the oxygen flow to my brain as well as my ability to converse using phrases over three words.

“What kind of music do you play at funerals,” he asked.

I answered, staccato a few well-known hymns (at least I think they are)—“Amazing Grace,” “It Is Well,” “In the Garden”—and laughed the question off and changed the subject.

Yesterday I played for the memorial service of Nancy, one of our congregants. The funeral was sparsely attended. Nancy was eighty-three years old. She had “moved” to our church ten years ago. I did not know her well. But I do know she was a feisty lady. While I don’t think Nancy ever complimented me on my playing, she often gave me a nod of approval when I would see her, and say hello. She knew me by name, and used it when she spoke to me.

Even though I would not consider Nancy a close friend, nor will I sentimentalize my relationship with her, I knew of her, knew her faithfulness to the church, knew she struggled with life in the last few months of her life, knew she had a best friend named Helen, knew she loved animals and cared for them, knew she had lived on this earth eighty-three years, and like any of us, I knew she had changed countless lives in small and large ways.

As I sat at the keyboard of Clifton’s 1895 Koehnken and Grimm historic organ yesterday, my odd running acquaintance’s question from several weeks ago returned to me—“What kind of music do you play for funerals?”

And in a prayerful moment before I began to play, I prepared and answered a different question: “How do I play for funerals?”

I chose to play a little J. S. Bach. I love the beautiful organ chorale on the German hymn “Alle Menschen müssen sterben.” Its melody and harmonies step-wise reach—like we do when we are at our best—toward the infinite.

I chose to play a Diane Bish arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” It starts off softly, pleadingly, uncertain, then ends with full organ and jazz rhythms as the tune seems to recognize the words it carries, and the two join saying: “This grace is real. It’s loud. Get on board!”

I accompanied the congregation’s singing of “Hymn of Promise.” And I pulled the mixture and most of the stops when we got to “In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,/ Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

And for the postlude I played a dance-like arrangement of “Hymn to Joy” that transitioned from G-major to D-major, thumping “For All the Saints.”

When I play a funeral, I play loud and sure and bold (unless the family or officiant requests otherwise). I don’t play this way because I believe in an afterlife of pearly gates, streets paved with gold, expansive mansions, or any overwrought dwelling of our own imagining. I don’t play this way because I believe that when we die “at last, we are free!” While those things may or may not be true, I do not play for those reasons.

I play loud and sure and bold, because when I play for a funeral, I consider that we are distilling a life, remembering and celebrating our essence. In God’s presence.

Our daily-basis lives—when we are living them—are mostly ordinary and sometimes muddled. Sometimes our lives are solemn and disappointing.

But if I think about distilling life—which is what I think we’re doing at funerals and memorial services—that distillation is loud, fabulous, courageous, wonderful, bold, and it is beautiful when we let ourselves experience it.

And I think that’s how we should all go out.

What is the Nature of Justice?

After I left Aiken High School for a job in New York in 1999 (only to return to Cincinnati), I have occasionally felt like I was less needed at a school like Mariemont High School.  It’s a high achieving school in a district and community with wonderful families–mostly, if we admit it, white–who work hard ensure their children receive the best education available, and I believe most of them do.  Teaching there has its own stresses, but they are the types of stresses one might experience at a successful medical practice where everyone works long hours hoping for the best.  Most days are fairly calm.  We see each other and recognize ourselves.  And we try our best to be kind and generous.  

And ever since I started teaching at Mariemont in 2001, I have felt incredibly privileged to work at a school like this. My students are great kids who grow up to do great things, but in this greatness is a lack of an awareness of what I experienced at schools like Ohio Wesleyan University, Aiken High School in Cincinnati, and Bay Shore High School on Long Island: an awareness and understanding of those whose lives are different from ours. 

From Mariemont, where I teach, it’s fairly easy to drive or take the bus to our downtown city center, toward OTR and Vine Street.  Many of us or our families have enjoyed a night out at the theater or treated ourselves to a beautiful dinner or drinks somewhere downtown.  If you take Columbia Parkway on your way home, and you drive away from the city, you soon see the beautiful homes and neighborhoods, and our city’s skyline is visible in your rearview mirror.  Most of the drive is scenic, and you can begin to understand some of what makes this city such a wonderful place to live and work.

***

I wonder about a recent drive from the new Anna Louise House on Reading Road in Mt. Auburn to Mariemont.  I was not in the car, but awaited its arrival: nervous, a bit worried, but more a feeling of anticipation, excitement, and gratitude.

I assume Mark Mussman drove and Melissa Mosby sat in the the passenger’s seat with time on her hands to look as they drove away from her current home.  

Mark has a PhD and he’s the Director of Education for the of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, the one I contacted last spring to see if we could have someone to speak to our students, hoping to make abstract ideas like “homelessness” and “privilege” take a human skin.  He is unassuming, responsive, and helpful.

I wonder whether Ms. Mosby, who celebrated her 50th birthday only days before heading to Mariemont on a Friday afternoon, wondered at the houses and neighborhoods that grew out from the city, looked at the stability, logic, and beauty and cursed all of it.  I’ll never know, but that’s what I would have done if I was in her place.

When I met Melissa and Mark in the underwhelming lobby of our high school, she was listing to one side, drinking from a water bottle, wiping her face with a napkin.  Nervous.  On our way down to the assembly where students sat on the same bleachers where they scream at pep rallies, I spoke with them about the students they would be speaking to: mostly white, privileged, curious, empathetic, and in some ways under-exposed.  I hoped this list seemed honest and reassuring.  

Just before taking the last steps toward the gymnasium, Melissa asked, “How many people are going to be in there?”  

500 of them.  She grabbed the wall and laughed or prayed, “Sweet Jesus.”

I will not tell Melissa’s story because it is not mine to tell, but I will carry it with me as long as I live.  And I will add it to the story of my life.

I believe our students and many of our staff are doing the same.

After the assembly and the discussions that followed, teachers and students were grateful for a space to consider what this experience meant to them.  

That’s a side view of Melissa as I tried to get a picture of her after the assembly on my iPhone.  She was overrun by students who were moved by her story.  And Nick Clayton...got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

That’s a side view of Melissa as I tried to get a picture of her after the assembly on my iPhone.  She was overrun by students who were moved by her story.  And Nick Clayton…got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

And Nick Clayton...got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

And Nick Clayton…got caught on camera in what I’m sure is not the best picture of him (but I thought it was funny: sorry Nick).

After the assembly, I received three emails from mothers: one from our district’s curriculum director who missed the assembly but heard Melissa’s story from her sophomore daughter; one from a parent whose child had befriend Melissa on a previous visit downtown; and one parent wrote to me, our principal, and the district superintendent to express her gratitude for the assembly. I don’t get emails like that very often.

To me, justice involves action.  I have tried to quit equating “justice” with punishment.  And I really don’t believe that justice is something we can dole out in a courtroom.  My definition of justice includes the words “learning” and “stories” and “relationship.”

My definition of justice involves the understanding of ourselves in relationship to others.  When we start to think about ourselves in relationship to our friends, then we start to understand ourselves a little better.  

And so it is with others.  We come to know ourselves and, in time, them.  We become curious and interested in people because we realize we are one of them–the black mother living through and then out of generational poverty; the gay football player–it’s a year before he’ll realize there are parties he’s not invited to and boys who would like to kill him–who loves music, and the symphony, a bawdy joke, flowers,  running, and a good book; who knows this world is rich in grace and beauty even through the darkness.