Dear School, tear down those walls! #flatclassroom

It was the late 1980’s. Trans-Am’s were screeching down U.S. highways, and Cold War tensions were veering towards the non-existent. Ronny Hollywood Reagan,  the acting U.S. president,  shouted those fabled words to Mikhail Gorbachev: “tear down those walls”! He meant of course the Berlin Wall, that had kept East Germans isolated from the West since the early 1960’s. In 1989, the dismantling began, and I hope we all can agree the world is better off for it.

A few months ago I issued this same command to myself, to remove the barriers that separate my own students from the world outside the classroom, and by extension the school itself. The process has been slow, I admit, but the results have been positive enough to warrant a post. So please, lend me your mind for the next few minutes.

Like many of my new ideas concerning education, the source was Twitter. I followed up a tweet on a project called ‘eracism,’ sponsored by ‘flatclassroom.’ A month later, my eighth graders were using a Voicethread to debate the merits of Facebook with a school in Manitoba, Canada. The kids exchanged pictures, and the results were judged by a competent and thorough panel in Australia, who kindly pointed out the strengths and weakness of each speaker. A week later there was a heated debate with an intermediate school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and next week we begin the final round debate against an international school from Slovakia.

I bring attention to this because the learning outcomes were positive in both the short and long term. Prior to, and during the debate, students collaborated to research the topic. They would assemble in my classroom during break and lunch to rehearse, and support whoever was speaking in the debate. The public nature of the event also brought out the best in students on a more enduring level. They assessed heaps of data for reliability. They provided clear definitions for the terms of the debate. They  organized their speeches in a logical and sequential manner, referring back to arguments given by the previous speakers. The attention and critical thinking required for rebuttal has also transferred to discussions held in subsequent class discussions. Below are a list of “essential skills for survival in the 21st century” that has been making its rounds in IB workshops:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: ability to ask the right questions. Problem “Posing.”

  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.

  • Agility and adaptability

  • Initiative and entrepreneurial skills

  • Effective oral and  written communication skills

  • Accessing and analyzing data

  • Curiosity and imagination

With the exception perhaps of “initiative and entrepreneurial skills,” students exercised all of these “essential skills.”

An educator in Melbourne Australia and I have recently launched a second debate. Our History students have been using a google doc. to debate topics on 19th century Russia. Again the results have been positive. So, a mature reflection is at hand. The outcomes develop the students academically and socially, while enhancing their knowledge of the powers of social media. The technology is available to make it happen frequently. And there are many teachers out there with the means and motivation to make it happen. I conclude with the following question masquerading as a command: LET’S! (potential collaboraters, kindly leave your contact info. in the comments slot below, and we’ll be chatting soon!)

RSA Animation in the classroom part two

For those of you who missed the first RSA animation, my grade 11 History students created an RSA on the Russian Revolution. The first part focused on the theories of Richard Pipes. Today, we present his ideological nemesis, the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm. I’m feeling pretty inspired by all the positive feedback received for part one. I hope you are equally impressed with part two:

(For those of you considering doing something like this for your own classroom, see the link above, where I lay out step-by-step the process for making it happen)


Yunnan: The Hour of Minerva

It is the dusk of the journey. Tomorrow morning, a return to Hong Kong. It is impossible not to be impressed by southwest China. Snow-wreathed mountains from which the fabled Yangzi and He flow interminably. Fields exploding with flowers of infinite hue. A syncretic culture, sublime climate, and flawless night sky. There is a palpable sense of purpose here in Yunnan, a province both ambitious and confident. There are luxuries. Yet there is also a sense of foreboding, a feeling that what I have witnessed will one day register as a rose-hued blip along China’s vast and tumultuous timeline. The gleaming airports, skyscrapers, speed trains, the labyrinth of shopping malls have all been erected upon the shoulders of cheap labor. But the Chinese labor force now demands more, and wages have risen to reflect these demands. Foreign investment is in retreat. Factories are moving south of the equator, to countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia where the desperation for work translates into microscopic wages. And all the while the restless groan of 1.4 billion stomachs. A country this vast and this diverse, with such a high degree of economic stratification, how does it not collapse beneath the weight of its own contradictions?

The dark skies have departed, carrying the rains off to the mountains that ring Kunming. Kunming, when my mind exits, and with it my perceptions and memories, my emotions and imaginings, my language, what becomes of the city thus described?

The Naaxi of Lijiang

Naaxi Girl 2More than a thousand years before Lijiang became a mecca for backpackers and tour groups, it was a base of operations for the Naaxi. The Naaxi trace their descent from ethnically Tibetan Quiang tribes, and some three hundred thousand Naaxi still live in Lijiang. You will often see them sorting metal from paper near the trash, or carrying huge withered piles of bok choy, or peddling yak cheese flat bread along the road side. Sometimes you will see them just hanging out. ( I wonder if these are the lucky ones, who owned property when the deluge of investment money poured into Lijiang. The class division among the Naaxi is stark, I’m told. Those who owned property drive new Audis and send their daughters to study in Paris and Beijing. Those that did not are ruinously poor ).

Alternatively, if you are a young and pretty Naaxi girl, you can earn a living by dressing yourself in a traditional costume and standing in front of an “authentic Naaxi” restaurant. You see a lot of this in the touristy areas. But this condescending attitude of mine is in need of some empirical supports. It could be that I’m like the man looking out his bedroom window, who sees a woman swerving down the road, unable to keep her balance. He accuses her of being a lousy and reckless drunk. Had the man ever opened the window, he would have felt the hurricane force winds that conspired to knock the struggling woman off her feet.

I met a guy today who, like me, was in search of a vantage point to photograph the old city of Lijiang from above. His name was Michael and he is riding his bicycle from Singapore to Paris. He’s been on the road for five months. He made a comment that I have heard hundreds of times, in various forms, but this time it itched. He said he often passes through “villages” where you can see how people “really live.”

Naaxi women 2

What exactly does it mean to “really live”? Are the Naaxi women in traditional costumes, hawking blackberries in old town somehow living a less authentic life than their relatives in that “real village”, isolated, wearied, slumped over a potato patch beneath the searing sub-tropical sun? What makes the latter life more “real”? It seems the appearance of white faces and youth hostels on the scene abolishes hopes of authenticity. When someone performs their own culture for money it is less real than subconsciously living the culture, unaware that it is, in fact, a “culture.” Why is this? Do we (tourists) know if the young Naaxi girl in traditional dress, drumming up business for a restaurant, would trade her life to be slumped over that “authentic” potato patch?

We theorize that capitalism abolishes authentic culture by reducing everything to a monetary unit. But in seven hundred years our own crass monuments will inspire a shock no less jolting than the temples of Angkor Wat or Macchu Picchu do for us today. The future people will tremble and point, and with jaws agape, announce those famous words: “those people really lived!”

Imagined Cities: Lijiang

Heraclitus once said that nobody ever steps into the same river twice. He meant that the water of rivers constantly flows, so the water stepped in at one moment, will have been replaced by other water by the second step. The same can be said for city streets. One never walks the same street twice. From moment to moment, the street transforms. A shadow seizes another stone crevice from the light. Silence is torn by the sound of a wooden spoon on a copper pot. Tibetan prayer flags, recently placid, now ripple and bounce. A figure emerges from an alley I did not know existed, though I have passed this alley many times. Black circles ring her eyes. Her forehead is fractured by a thousand wrinkles. A cigarette droops languidly from the side of her mouth. A sense of loss now reigns sovereign over this street. I walk on. A soaring hawk traces its shadow across a stone. Will another hawk trace its shadow across this stone, with the sun at this decibel, at this precise angle? A single street recounts infinite stories. And like a river, thoughts flow constantly. A drip, a trickle, a gushing cataract. A street is never traversed by the same person twice. I walk the same streets of Lijiang but I have never walked the same street twice. Lijiang CanalLijiang city and skyLijiang night lanterns

At first advance Lijiang retreats behind the security of crowds. She waits, offering a bloated knee to the visitor’s gaze. But if the visitor is patient, willing to roam among the bloated knees–the souvenir shops, the tour groups–Lijiang extends a warm embrace. There is a temptation to “do” cities. “We did Paris, then we did Barcelona and Madrid, we wanted to do London, but…” But there is something in this attitude towards travel, as if cities are passive objects, to be plundered and conquered. Against this attitude of urgency, of angst and checklists, the city disappears, offering only tokens of death: souvenirs and museums. It is when the traveler is willing to dwell in a city, to listen, this is when the living city is called forth to reveal its infinite depth.

Lijiang PlaygroundLijiang Streets

Lijiang is a story teller. In the layers of stone you can read a story of conquest and collapse. In the narrow alleys emptying upon vast squares you can still hear the seven hundred year old echo of muslim, hindu, and buddhist merchants. Who hauled the heavy stones from which these streets were made? From where did they arrive? By what means? Under whose command? The city tells a story of masters and slaves. The elevated boundary at the threshold of every home recalls a belief in spirits who glide along at ground level, and are thus barred entry. In seven hundred years what will Lijiang say about us?

Slow Train to Lijiang

Snow MountainLijiang rests in a valley guarded by the formidable Himalayas. I arrived in Lijiang by train, eight hours from the eclectic riot of Kunming. I opted for a “soft chair,” around 12 U.S. dollars, and found myself squeezed on a hard blue hospital cot between three other passengers. Across a narrow divide, another cot, another four passengers. Thus it was, eight wearied strangers bundled together and winding through the hills and valleys of Yunnan.

The China covered by the mainstream news channels often fastens upon the dynamic modernization transforming the eastern seaboard, from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, north to Shanghai and Beijing. Yes, some four hundred million people, roughly the population of the U.S., are solidly middle class, and of these some are excessively rich. But unlike the U.S., China has another one billion souls to account for, and if you would like to take an intimate survey of how this “other billion” lives, book yourself a ticket on the slow train to Lijiang.

Poverty is something easy to forget while living in the sparkling metropolis of Hong Kong. Poverty for many people is not an abstraction, it has features and dimensions. It has a smell, like burlap drenched by sulfuric rains then roasted beneath a martian sun.It has teeth, brown and heavily oxidized. It burrows itself deep into the chest. It hack and rasps, chokes and spits. Poverty seems to always need a good nights sleep. It is a ruiner of youth.

How privilege is distributed in this world makes no sense at all, laments the traveler on his ipad, his stomach gorged on powdered strawberries…

Lijiang Farmers Poverty

Arrival: advancing upon Lijiang by taxi, I am struck by a chiseled white monster looming surreally above the clouds. Snow mountain, at nearly 18,000 ft., has stifled the ambitions of many a mountaineer. With my three year old’s grasp of Mandarin, it is time to locate the art studio / guest house which will serve as my base of operations for the next six days..

Imagined Cities: Kunming

Tai Chi KunmingEarly morning in Kunming. A crowd has gathered in the central square. Dipping, swooping, twisting their torsos with glacial measure, like rivers silently hollowing out a gorge. The conductor glistens in sapphire blue silk. Tai chi, while the dawn sun plays on the Tang-era pagodas. Kunming is not without the sound of horns, the white noise of all cities moving to the rhythms of capitalism, but here, stillness reigns sovereign.

Kunming Mosque

Gleaming in the distance, a golden crescent moon reminds the visitor of the Muslim traders who settled in Kunming, following the conquests of Kublai Kahn and his mongol warriors. In 1274, Sayyid Ajall was installed as governor of Kunming. Muslim rule in Yunnan would be short-lived, however the faith has persevered through the violent whims of dynastic rule. In 1855 the muslims of Kunming rebelled against their Qing dynasty rulers. The points of contention were land taxes and access to resources, in this case gold and silver mines in the mountains of Yunnan. By 1873 when Qing forces had reasserted supremacy over Yunnan, over a million muslims had died in Yunnan alone, while nearly eighteen million died in China proper. I recount these stories as a reminder that the crescent moon shimmering above Kunming is not a relic of some distant and forgotten past. Today, China’s rulers gaze with perplexity from the control center in Beijing, across the vast and motley expanse that falls under their jurisdiction. The muslims are one minority group among many in Yunnan–the Naaxi, Bai, and Yao being the most prolific– whose primary allegiance is other than the Chinese government.

Why does the Chinese government care about keeping these potentially divisive regions under their control? In the case of Yunnan province, and Tibet, which borders Yunnan to the west, a primary reason is water. Water, that feeds the rivers that provide nourishment for virtually all of China, can be traced to the Himalayan mountain range. Thus whoever control the Himalayan regions of southwest China also controls the water supply. No wonder, then, that Lhasa (the capital of the Tibet) is the most heavily militarized region of China, and the city with the highest rate of prostitution.

Kunming in the early morning, the sound of jackhammers and diesel engines. The smell of coriander, lemon grass, and roasted lamb. Tomorrow morning I take the slow train to Lijiang. I will return to Kunming in a week, to this city of sublime contradictions…