A lesson from the Year of the Cat – The hills have new places

Tet tree on a motorbike by C Campbell

Tet tree on a motorbike by C Campbell

It is New Year or TET here in Vietnam. A time characterised by panic buying, the burning of things, releasing fish into lakes and the precarious balancing of trees on motorbikes. (see left)

It is also a time to deal with, and reflect on, things from the year we are in the process of leaving and I am going to do just that in this blog post. For the title and to some extent the structure I have borrowed from Erroll Morris’s documentary, ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara’. If you haven’t seen this film then I would suggest rectifying that as soon as you can. My lessons are less confessional than McNamara’s and as far as I know I haven’t started any wars – but I hope, like he does, to tease some wisdom from what has been an eventful 12 months.

 

“The hills have new places”

“Till day rose; then under an orange sky, The hills had new places, and wind wielded Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.” from ‘Wind’ by Ted Hughes

I feel like we are in that place that Hughes describes – the storm after the storm. And as we look around the things we always thought couldn’t move have moved or might even have disappeared. An introduction to a collection of essays by David Graeber that was sent through to me by a friend explains this beautifully.

“At a moment when the old assumption about politics and power have been irrefutably broken the only real choice is to begin again: to create a new language, a new common sense, about what people basically are and what it is reasonable for them to expect from the world, and from each other.”

I am always wary of present time arrogance (see #6 on my notice board) or the dangers of misreading the significant movements of our times by forgetting the filters we use and the echo chamber of ideas we might be in. However, it is my experience that the landscape is changing in terms of what it is we are supposed to do and the opportunities to do it. Yes there are caveats to this and I will cover some of those in these lessons, but let me give a small but significant example of the shifts I am talking about from within my own field of education.

Below is an edited transcript of an exchange on the BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the week’ programme between the presenter Andrew Marr and Neville Brody who had not long been appointed the Head of Visual Communications at London’s Royal College of Art, one of the UK’s most prodigious art schools.

Andrew Marr. A lot of trades that have become ingrained in our heads specific forms of trade have dissolved. So for somewhere like the Royal College where do the special new skills come in that you are going to transmit to the students? (Interesting use of the word transmit here…cc)

Neville Brody: In all honesty we don’t know. The old idea of teacher and pupil dissolves now and it’s much more a kind of collaborative research than anything else. We have to understand the world, what it needs and what the right tools are to deal with that.

AM: Well except that the students that are now paying lots of money to come to somewhere like the Royal College will want something special back. Well if it’s not pupil and teacher it’s possibly, I don’t know, master and atelier, or something like that. They’re going to want to come to someone like you for specific ideas and skills.

Gordon Gecko and the death of success culture

Gordon Gecko and the death of success culture

NB: Well we’re calling it an unfinishing school, so people may come with highly formed skills and ideas and we’re trying to break down the ideas, and then understand which are the most appropriate skills to apply to that… as the students come with a much greater investment in what is happening digitally in their everyday lives. It’s a multiple skillset space – it’s a partnership going forward…The internet is changing everything. Success culture – this has collapsed…Students are no longer guaranteed a job on leaving college… Students are therefore returning to ideas, how can we better serve society? The events of the past few years show this. Success culture collapsed…I think there is going to be an energetic explosion of new ideas, new risks and it is going to be the most exciting time.

I re-listened to this interview several times – nodding along and heartened to hear that progressive ideas about learning and pedagogy were coming into the mainstream. That out of the economic turmoil and the failings of what Brody labels ‘success culture’ a new way to learn is emerging. At the core of his ideas was an embracing of what he perceives to be a new digital landscape, a notion I hope to return to soon in a post on disruptive innovation.

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Five reasons to PechaKucha

This summer we contacted the creators of PechaKucha, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (Klein Dytham architecture) to ask them if we could start a PechaKucha night in Hanoi. They said yes. What follows are five reasons to consider attending one of these events, be it ours or another of the regular nights happening in 442 cities around the world.

20 x 20 by C Campbell (cctinto on flickr)
20 x 20 by C Campbell (cctinto on flickr)

1. The creativity of constriction.

Sonneteers have 14 lines, twitterers 140 characters and PechaKucha presenters 20 seconds on each of their 20 slides. Rather than a hindrance, constrictions like these can be the catalyst for creativity, for distilling your thoughts down to what you really want to say. Additionally, the format lends itself to presentations and evenings that flow.

 

'Serendipity' by alex drennan from flickr

'Serendipity' by alex drennan from flickr

2. Serendipity

It is easy to get a little tangled up in the webs and routines many of us find ourselves in, especially as our search engines and social networking software get better at telling us what they think we want to know. A PechaKucha night can provide a useful way to mix things up a little, to get a glimpse of what people in other fields are doing and the way they are going about it. On a good night you might just get an idea that helps you make a breakthrough with a project you are working on or happen across something that takes you down a new and productive path.

 

'House' by Hideyuki Nakayama from www.busyboo.com

'House' by Hideyuki Nakayama from http://www.busyboo.com

3. Design literate

PechaKucha was started by designers for designers and while the concept has evolved into a much broader and diverse network, a level of design mindfulness remains at its core. Speakers, be they professional or amateur, are all trying to communicate a visually arresting narrative with their audience.

 

 

 

 

4. Open, community based and not-for-profit

Anyone can get up and talk about pretty much anything at a PechaKucha night. It is about sharing ideas. The organisers both globally and locally do not make money from the events and the only reason someone might not be granted permission to speak at a PK night is if the organisers feel the content may not be in keeping with the ethos of the event or may put the permission to run the event in jeopardy.

'beer' by  aka_lusi from flickr

'beer' by aka_lusi from flickr

5. Conviviality

With all that this creative nourishment going on you will have more than earned the right to have a few beers in a setting where you can decide how you want to experience the event.

The Hanoi version at the homely Cinematheque on 22A Hai Ba Trung Street will have two spaces where you can follow the presentations. This means you can either sit down in the main room where the speakers will present or mingle at the bar where another screen will show the presentations, an ideal spot for a little gentle hob-nobbing.

If you are interested in presenting at a Hanoi PechaKucha night please contact us by email at hanoipechakucha@gmail.com. If you want more details about upcoming events go here or follow us on twitter.

Minimalist There Will Be Blood Poster

There Will be Blood minimalist movie poster

There Will be Blood minimalist movie poster

Right, getting into the minimalist movie picture idea now for the digital storytelling course I am following. Here I take on Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. I got the oil barrel from here and I used sketchbook pro to add the drinking straws that I took from another picture (lost source sorry) and just erased the edges. I lost photoshop a while back when my hard-drive crashed and I’d really recommend sketchbook pro for this type of task. More of a drawing programme but has layers and really smooth intuitive controls.

Watching me, watching me – Synecdoche New York movie poster

Jim Groom’s digital storytelling course – DS106, is fun, clever and inventive. It has also got me asking good questions and has even unsettled me a little and as any readers of this post or this older one will know – I consider a bit of confusion to be an essential part of any good project or learning experience. This time the unhinging is all around digital identity, a topic I hope to come back to as the course continues.

Thinking about identity led me to select Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Synecdoche New York’ as a film to create an alternate poster for. A movie obscure, inventive and original enough to perhaps have ended his Hollywood career but hopefully not his creative output. His previous films Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich had all focused on characters struggling with their place in the world. His protagonists can barely cope with themselves, never mind the single minded, self-assured women they all seem to fall for. For my poster I had a go at representing the central project that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director Caden Cotard gets lost in as the film progresses.

Synechdoche NY film poster by Colin McCampbell

Synechdoche NY film poster by Colin McCampbell

I wonder what Cotard might have done for his photo for the daily shoot on the topic of ‘deadlines’. Perhaps just himself alone on a huge empty stage. I captured where all good deadline days start and tend to return to fairly regularly.

'Deadline' by ColinMCampbell

'Deadline' by ColinMCampbell

If I could have taken a point of view shot of me making an uncessarily complicated sandwich that would have been even better but I think this makes the point.

What distractions help us ship? A mooc perhaps?

Seth Godin talks a lot about shipping. “Be a person that ships”, he says. I like that, but I have not always been very good at it. I can be way too ponderous and need to know when just to hit send or publish.

Lizard by TuckerH586 from flickr

Lizard by TuckerH586 from flickr

However, as Merlin Mann points out in one of his videos or blog posts (not this one but they are all good), it is not as simple as that. If we are in the knowledge game then we need to research, we need to read, we need to open ourselves up to the ideas that are out there. I couldn’t agree more, my google reader and twitter feeds have been invaluable in pushing my thinking to new places over these past couple of years. However what Mann says and I think I’m getting a bit better at is to be conscious in what you are spending your time on and why? His advice on email inbox checking is a must view for those who have not read or seen it. I also thoroughly recommend his interview with Seth Godin on the lizard brain where they discuss motivation, Bob Dylan and what stops us shipping.

So what distractions help us ship? Well for me MOOCs (massive open online courses) are an interesting case in point and after reading George Siemens blog post on the very subject I have decided to follow another one about digital storytelling. I follow with these questions in mind that I hope will come back to when I finish the course?

(a) Can participation in a mooc help you ship a project and if so how?

(b) Did participation in the Digital storytelling course change my approach to my digital identity?

Lets see.

The wonderous giant, hammock, art play sculpture in Hakone art museum

Art play masterpiece in Hakone photo by C Campbell

Art play masterpiece in Hakone photo by C Campbell

Clearly I’m not alone in still loving playgrounds and was triggered to write about the one in the pictures after reading this post from a blog all about play spaces. We lived in Japan for a few years and discovered some beautifully designed spaces for both children and adults to play in. Indeed the whole notion of play as an activity that continues unapologetically through our lives is very much a feature of Japanese culture generally. Play-centres in Japan are often set up for adults to play with their children in rather than a place just for kids.

Inside the net maze Hakone art museum photo by C Campbell

Inside the net maze Hakone art museum photo by C Campbell

This piece is in a large outdoor art museum in a place called Hakone about an hour from Tokyo near Mount Fuji. We visited it with our son and another family and completely lost track of time playing in it. Like the Schulberg playground in Germany this works for kids of multiple ages, my son was under three when he played on this. The clever use of knitted tunnels being both challenging and supportive at the same time. None of the kids could stay still long enough to get a photo with them in focus.

The top of the wonderous hammock thing by C Campbell

The top of the wonderous hammock thing by C Campbell

And when you clambered your way to the top there was, just like lying in a real hammock, a place of peace and tranquility. Until of course two children emerged from a tunnel to shout and giggle and then disappear down another one.

Hakone outdoor art museum hammock thing outside by C Campbell

Hakone outdoor art museum hammock thing outside by C Campbell

And this is the outside, the supporting construction being assembled from wooden blocks that reminded me of the sort of constructions you can make with kapla wooden blocks. Thanks to the designers of this incredible object and to playscapes whose blog reminded me of our afternoon at the Hakone Outdoor Art museum.

Teachers in the movies

I have long been intrigued by the way teaching is represented in film. It is a relatively rare subject for filmmakers to delve into, perhaps perceived as too dry or familar a setting for most people to want to spend time in. However, after some reflection and a few tweets it was clear there were enough movies to make the selection of the five best movies about teachers contentious. I persuaded my Uncle to compile a rival list which you can read here, he is an English teacher, Depute Head, blogger and film enthusiast so I am really interested to see the films he selects. For me the criteria was fairly straightforward, the main character had to be a teacher although I have strayed from the rule for one of my selections, but if you have seen the film in question, you will understand why. 

Half Nelosn by p373 from flickr

Half Nelosn by p373 from flickr

5. Half Nelson (2006)

On a second viewing I started to see the joins in this film, but the characters still achieve a level of complexity and realism lacking in most representations of teachers onscreen. On paper there seems to be too much going on with Ryan Gosling’s history teacher Dan Dunne. A crack smoking, off the curriculum, wanabee writer striving to save one of his inner city charges from the clutches of the local drug dealer could easily have slipped into cliche and melodrama. However, a combination of Gosling’s edgy performance and Ryan Flecks’s inventive direction ensure that does not that happen. Half Nelson ebbs and flows with the moods of our protagonist much in the way of a school year.

Here our teacher strays close to a complete collapse and the tension comes from there as much as from the nicely underplayed relationship between Dunne and Drey (Shareeka Epps), the student who discovers him early in the film smoking a pipe in the school toilets. This is far from the teacher as saint, but captures much of what it is like to work with young people. There is a self-indulgence to Dunne’s character, yet he has a clear sense of vocation and affection for his students. No neat conclusions are reached, but we sense our educator may find the next term just a little bit easier to handle.

Greogory's Girl by Vintage Movie Posters

Greogory's Girl by Vintage Movie Posters

4. Gregory’s Girl(1981)

Here I unapologetically cheat slightly by sneaking in a film with a group of teachers in supporting roles rather than as the protagonist. Bill Forsyth’s 1982 Gregory’s Girl is a beautifully observed warm hearted comedy set around a large new town comprehensive school in Scotland. Jake D’Arcy’s feckless PE teacher Phil Menzies is a treat in this film, understanding as little about his adolescent footballers as they do about his frustration with their attempts to play football. Forsyth gets what is inherently funny, ridiculous and endearing about a typical secondary school with the students and teachers coexisting in a routine that seems to have very little to do with the content of the lessons.

la classe

la classe

3. La Classe/ The Class (2008)

A Parisienne inner city school teacher walks the line with his students in 2008’s excellent La Classe. Facing similar challenges to those of Gosling’s Dunne in Half Nelson here we see and feel the rush of decision making involved in managing a classroom filled with ethic tensions, boredom and insecurities including those of the teacher trying to hold it all together.

Mr Marin and his students played fictional versions of their real selves for this project, a set-up that could easily have resulted in a film that felt contrived and staged. However, the opposite is true as we are pulled inside the bright yet claustrophobic classroom. There is always a sense of unease, the laughter slightly nervous, the peace paper thin. Marin is in control but only just, he works with humour to diffuse confrontations but it is a dangerous game that may backfire at any point.

Happy Go Lucky by YES, we like the movies

Happy Go Lucky by YES, we like the movies

2. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

There is a very recognisable Mike Leighness to Mike Leigh films. His characters are painstakingly and intricately drawn over long periods of rehearsal by the actors before shooting and they that inhabit a world that feels very much lived in by the time we, the viewers, happen upon it. In Sally Hawkins’s primary school teacher Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, we get a character whose relentless optimism and chirp pushes and pulls us with equal measure. She is happy on her own terms and defends her decisons when challenged by her upwardly mobile sister over a strained weekend visit to the suburban semi detached to which her sister has ascended. Poppy has chosen a different path and makes no apologies for it.

However, Poppy also infuriates in her inability to keep her little suggestive asides to herself, especially when nervous. A character trait that proves crucial to the central tension of the drama, pushing Eddie Marden’s driving instructor Scott into apoplexy as he tries to teach Poppy to drive. Scott is not sure what to do with Poppy and he starts to come apart at the seams as all his anger and unhappiness is exposed. Also falling apart but with an honesty that just endears her more to her students is Poppy’s flamenco instructor. In the two best scenes in this film Leigh shows us the great joy and empowerment that a good teacher can bring.

Leigh’s films often work in the contrasts he presents between an ensemble of characters but dominating this piece is the usually and unashamedly functional central character of Poppy. An individual who is good at a job that matters, cares deeply for her friends and students and is quite literally Happy-Go-lucky.

Etre et avoir by C Kites from flickr

Etre et avoir by C Kites from flickr

1. Être et avoir / To Be and To Have (2002)

Être et avoir is a documentary that follows a year in the life of the teacher and students of a one room schoolhouse in rural France. This is an elegantly constructed film that guides us through the seasons and in an out of the homes and farms the students come from. In Mr Gonsales classroom we are a long way from the claustrophia and tension of La Classe as we see an educator completely at home in his environment, a place that is slowly and subtlely revealed to be the heart of the community it serves. For a film about a group of children between the ages of 4 and 11 there is a surprising quiet and calmness to this piece; it comes from the gentle assurance of the teacher and lingering shots of the trees and hills that surround this little school.  

This film shows the great skill, craft and patience involved in becoming an accomplished teacher. Mr Gonsales knows when to listen and knows when to intervene. He gently guides his younger students, helping them learn how to count and wash their hands. We see him then have to switch to the role of counsellor to the older students in his class, dealing with the tearful aftermath of a pre-adolescent playground squabble. The scene where he says goodbye to his students for the summer, some of whom he has taught for seven years and are moving on to the big school away from the village is a powerful a piece of filmmaking that stayed with me for long after I had watched this magnificent film.