Reddy Branch-sweeping my mind clear of invasives

Yesterday, I cleared a small piece of Reddy Branch and managed, in the process, to clear my mind.

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I followed my usual process.

The tree branches were the first to be tossed aside, to be hidden from view behind the old maple. All that wasted time, money, and gas driving to that meeting which could have been a webinar. Done-no longer a source of stress. Lets move on to tougher stuff.

Now, the rose, not overwhelming here. Bounded by the trail and the holly, this patch could be trimmed to the ground, pulled out by the root. Only got pricked a few times. How gratifying to cut the long, barbed stalks down to inches that will become little more than harmless litter on the forest floor.  Done in an hour. Like waiting for others to make a decision. Budgets have been cut but students still need help over the summer. Who’s going to pay? Got a teacher waiting to fill a class, waiting to know if there will be a paycheck this summer. Done. I’ve communicated. I have to wait for other people to make their decisions. No longer my problem.

The ivy and honeysuckle need to go. Standardized, computer-based testing. More than eight hours of meaningful instruction lost to the banalities of another test pilot and students unfocused and tired by the time they get to class. This work will take a little while longer. You see, you have to bend at the waist and pull from the ground to get out the ivy and honeysuckle. The ivy will root every few inches, the honeysuckle will set a root in one spot. The leaves have to be brushed aside to find that spot that will allow you to pull. This area was around 500 sq. feet-manageable. And, then I got the gratification of holding yardage of vine in my hand, freed soil beneath my feet and a mind cleared, for a time, from all of the intrusions of another day.

I went home to make dinner for my family and time for them to remove the invasives of their day, the exams, the meetings, the uncompleted frustrations.

I looked forward to it.

 

The Journey Home-Edward Abbey

I need to put down Abbey. He’s really not healthy for anyone who has to work indoors, work around people, or live around anything made by people. The Journey Home is an ode to wildness and wilderness and it is not to be taken likely. Like the loaded gun Abbey was found of keeping handy, this book can kill. Kill your desire to, yet again, force yourself to go inside. Kill your desire to acquiesce. To accept the asphalt, plastic, and concrete that separates you from anything that would make you uncomfortable and and make you realize that you are alive.

I want to start a petition for the rights of workers to take well days. Why must we take a sick day? What about well days? Those days that it’s just too damn perfect outside to be inside. Those days when the rain drives hard enough  to keep the ridge trails empty of people, and empty of lightening. But not so hard that that pine tree, the one up in the saddle,  doesn’t make a perfect place to open the thermos of coffee and watch the curtains of water dance in the wind.

Those windy days in the autumn that swirl the leaves into dervishes of reds and golds. Those days when you have to run!

Those days when the sun rises and the air thrums with the song of the blackbirds in the marsh grass.When the kayak glides into the water and you can feel the air come alive with the beating wings of the great blue heron.

Those days when you feel too good about yourself to want to compromise with, talk to, or convince anyone to do anything. When your heart is full of its own energy and has no desire to share it but with the hot sun. When a long run or hike or ride or walk is needed- or anything but another damn day inside!

Again, the book is titled The Journey Home. Edward Abbey. Don’t read it. It’s dangerous to those who prefer the free air, mud in their boots, and a soul on fire.

Lesson II- All men are created equal

In this post, I will provide the next day’s lesson after we discussed the concept “all men are created equal.”

“Yesterday, we discussed the proposition that all men are created,” I announced after my students finished the day’s activator, examining examples of irony.

“Where is this foundational principle, that makes you among the freest people in human history clearly stated?”  “The Bill of Rights!” “The Constitution!” was the resounding answer from my 8th grade class. There were a few, no less quiet voices,saying, “The Declaration of Independence.”

I sternly told them that most of them were wrong and what they did not know was a threat to their freedom. Yes, I meant to scare them a little. And, yes, most of them realized that I was being hyperbolic. They’re quite used to me being a little theatrical.

As I had explained early in the week, I reminded my class that we were going to study George Orwell’s Animal Farm and that we needed to understand both its allegorical significance and, more importantly, its relevancy to the world in which they would become young adults.

I proclaimed, channeling my inner Al Pacino (check out Colonel Slade’s speech at the Baird School in Scent of a Woman), “If you do not understand where your rights originate, if you do not know where to go to point out the truth to power, than you will have no ability or right to protest what you perceive to be an infringement on your rights.”

Then I handed them The Will of the People:Readings in American Democracy, from the Great Books Foundation and asked them to find where that statement, “all men are created equal” could be found. The few who knew where to find the sentence eventually got the word around the classroom that it could be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Having given them some time to read and review what they studied earlier in the year in their social studies class, I then asked them how they knew that what I had handed them was true, was real. Was an accurate copy of the original.

The answers were interesting. “Because you’re the teacher.” “Because this looks similar to what we saw in social studies.” “Because, if you are lying, you’ll get fired.” “What? Are you telling us not to trust you?”

I went on to ask them where they could match the original with what they were holding in their hands. All of this thinking is getting them ready for the instance in Orwell’s Animal Farm  where the animals who did not participate in the creation of the principles of Animalism nor in the creation of the condensed version created by the pigs, the 7 Commandments, ask Benjamin the donkey who can read, to read the Commandments which have been posted on a barn wall. After listening, the animals seem to remember the Commandments saying something different, but they can’t remember. Why? They were not a part of the process, they did not learn to read, and they did not question the pigs who created Animalism, created the Commandments, and changed them when it suited them.  The result of this ignorance is their enslavement and their slaughter.

Not one student knew where to find the original Declaration of Independence. Not good considering how they live 15 miles from the United States National Archives where it and the Constitution can be found. I wish my school system didn’t make field trips so difficult. The ironies just compound themselves. 

Some kids asked, “How do we know if those copies are the originals? How do we know that someone hasn’t changed the versions on display?” With a smile and an acknowledgement that that thought might border on conspiracy theory, I told them that questioning everything was a good thing.

And, here is where I told them of the need for an independent and free press. That the press has the responsibility to report on what our government is doing. And it is our responsibility to read and demand the facts. Not alternative facts. Not tweets. Real journalism based on real reporting.

What I showed them next was an attempt to help them see how to wade through the “noise” and figure out a truth. I made a pen and paper version of what I sketched on the board:

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I explained how each of the black lines is a piece of reporting. A newspaper article, a magazine essay, a blog post, or an editorial. All of these pieces focus/report  on one event. Say a tweet written by someone accusing another person of wiretapping his home. Maybe a tweet about one president accusing another of breaking a federal law without a shred of evidence or an understanding of the concept of truth. That’s the other green line. The one way off on the fringe. The intersection of all of these black lines is where facts can be found. At the intersection of everyone’s opinions and reporting is the most likely place to find something that actually happened. After reading multiple pieces, what these voices all discuss is likely a version of a truth.

The green line running through all of the black lines is the informed reader and citizen of a democracy. The green line is the person who immerses themselves in learning the facts and in working to figure out a truth. Not the truth (I’ll explore this idea in a later blog) but a truth.  The informed citizen’s line, the green one, intersects and exists within the black lines. It cannot exist without a free press that is in turn, connected with the green line, the citizen willing to read and engage in the reporting. 

With enough black lines working long and hard enough, our fundamental freedoms won’t be altered or lost.

Yes, minds are blown at this point. Most students are desperate for me to explain the difference between a truth and the truth. I’ll save that for another blog post. What I will say is that the truth requires a  basketball.

The point of my simple (and oversimplified) image is to get them to understand that 1.) they cannot shoot off their mouths and say unsubstantiated nonsense without being challenged. 2.) they must have an informed opinion to be taken seriously and to be allowed in the “circle” of other informed opinions. 3.) it is their responsibility as members of the United States of America to be informed and to be engaged within the appropriateness of their age and what their parents provide.

 

All men are created equal

This is the time of year when I teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my 8th graders. I lay a lot of ground work before they are ready to wrestle with the themes and controversies in this text. This is a book that examines, among other themes, the concept of the abuse of power as a result of the willful ignorance of the governed. A government that can get away with saying “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

This year, more than any previous year, I felt the need to define controversy in an academic setting; what it is and what it is not. I told them that it is not throwing out an outlandish, unsubstantiated claim on social media in order to upset and shock. It is not yelling the loudest and most obscenely in order to drown out other voices.

I told them that, unfortunately, our political leaders were not representing the most mature and respectful ways of speaking to others with differing viewpoints; so we, in our classroom, will model how to do so.

Here is what I said to my students. “Controversy is when many people have many opinions that may sharply differ from each other. It is when there is much to say about a topic that carries a great deal of importance for many people.” I go on to emphasize that these opinions can be expressed in dignified and respectful ways.

I went on to provide them ground rules for the day’s activity which would be a four corners discussion. Posted in the four corners of the room, one in each, are four statements, “strongly agree” “agree” “strongly disagree” and “disagree”. A thematic statement is posted or announced by the teacher and the student proceed to the statement that best matches their current thinking. This is best done before the text is discussed. Students come with existing thinking; the text can then be used to challenge their thinking. The point of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to express a opinion and to change it as a result of listening to others.  The teacher can set up when it is appropriate for kids to change corners, if they wish.

The day’s theme is “All men are created equal”.

Here are the expectations and rules I presented in order to create orderly, dignified, and respectful discourse (Mitch or Paul, feel free to use any or all of these rules as you seem to have a need for them). There were no warnings and persistence is rewarded, not punished.

  • Create your own opinion. 
  • Go to your corner in silence and remain there, in silence, in order to respect the thoughts of those around you. (I emphasize, repeatedly, the importance of allowing those around you the ability to think and reflect without interruption-it is a guiding principle in my classroom)
  • Do not follow your friends or, conversely, avoid those with whom you have disagreed in the past. Go where your thinking tells you to go.
  • Listen at all times. Do not interrupt. 
  • Remain silent if you would rather listen. An attentive silence is a sign of deep respect for other’s opinions.
  • Avoid being politically correct. (This one always gets me a few puzzled looks-I tell my students that they are 13 or 14 years old and will likely say something that might inadvertently hurt someone’s opinions. I go on to say that as long as they are speaking from a place of kindness, then we will not be offended. I also say that I’ll provide the language, if needed, to make the statement less potentially offensive. For example, students always struggle with how to describe those with cognitive or emotional disabilities.)
  • Today is not a discussion. Because these conversations about themes are new and challenging to many of my students, I don’t want them arguing with each other, yet. We can argue about a text but not about beliefs and ideas. Early adolescents are delicate creatures, despite the personas they may try to show. Feelings are easily hurt.
  • We don’t gossip in the hallways. This is a safe space. What is said here is not thrown in anybody’s face later.
  • Tell your parents/guardians what we talked about today. Get more ideas.
  • You may move to another corner after we have talked for a few minutes. (I don’t want kids milling around the room while a student is sharing an idea).

The last bullet was a fail. And, I am still excited about that as I write about it several days later.

After explaining these rules, we began. I had the theme hidden on the front board. I revealed it and, after students had a minute or so (they don’t typically need much time to deliberate) to decide and move to a corner, I called on students with their hands raised. I don’t decide on a corner, I just start calling on kids from all corners. I take notes, capturing key concepts and ideas. I remind my students to listen. Students shared their opinions and ideas and I recorded them. I don’t call on kids who don’t have their hands raised. Not yet. One other important thing-I stay out of the conversation. I am the facilitator and note taker. Here is a photo that captures some of the key ideas generated by one class:

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As you can see, some of the things they focused on whether they strong disagreed, disagreed, agreed, or strongly agreed as they discussed, “All men are created equal”.

  • what people are born with (natural talents)
  • what parents provide (nature versus nurture)
  • equality in the United States compared to the rest of the world
  • the impact of prejudice and stereotyping

The fifteen minute conversation was so rich, engaging, and thought provoking, that, within the first three to five minutes, I had kids literally sliding their feet toward other corners. When I asked what was going on, they responded with, “do we have to wait to move?” They were listening so attentively to each other and were so open to other ideas, that they were eager to move to support another opinion and to express a new idea. Of course, I told them to move as needed. It worked just fine. My classes average 28 students; 10-12 students in each class moved corners.

The hardest part of the lesson was concluding it. When I told them that I wanted them to have a few minutes before we left to write their ideas into their journals, I still had the class eager to share more ideas (to be honest, things were getting repetitive, so I was okay with putting those ideas on hold.) I left the notes on the board for them to use. I erased them before the next class arrived.

Provided with a safe and welcoming environment, a controversial topic could be discussed with dignity and maturity. I had many students ask “when can we do this again?” Good stuff.

Controversy

 

Reddy Branch-a few days after the snow

I got in several days of work on the hillside before the snow came on Tuesday, part of the big Nor’easter. My goal was to continue to knock down the multi-flora rose, open up space for the small hollys, and create a five foot circumference around the bigger trees.

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I went out today, freed from meetings and appointments, looking forward to taking pictures of the snow and ice in the late afternoon sun. And continue to learn to use my borrowed camera.

I was hoping that the snow had knocked down all of the cuttings and remaining pieces of rose, helping me envision what the forest floor might look like in a few years as I continue to clear.

There was too little snow and still too much rose for me to get a shot of a nice, white blank canvas. But the big trees are definitely clear of clutter.

The fields up at the top of the ridge certainly provided wide open clarity.

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I keep trying to capture the immensity of this maple up on top. Still working on that.

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The creek down at the bottom of the trail, on the way to the twin oaks, was frozen over and I had to go cross country as the trail down to the creek was a sheet of ice; being in the shade, it was too hard for me to smash a toehold. Played around with the light on the ice.

 

I’ll continue to  work and enjoy the simple pleasures of Reddy Branch. I am looking forward to the spring to see what delights the forest offers.

 

 

Silence

I search for and examine silence.

I guess one wants what one does not have. I’ve been working on this blog post for some time with may false starts as I try to work out some profound statements that are worth sharing. Perhaps there is a little irony there.

I am a middle school English teacher and the father of a child with Aspergers Syndrome. If you have unfamiliar with children with Aspergers, they talk a lot…to you, to themselves, often to anyone who appears to be listening. So, I don’t get much quiet. My thoughts alone provide enough noise for me to navigate; by the end of most days, I am exhausted, seeking only the refuge of silence.

In his brilliant essay, The Eloquent Sounds of Silence, published in 2001, Pico Iyer discards the cliches and tired metaphors in order to tell us that we must work for silence and make it part of our daily existence. Silence is not simply given. It is not something to find. It must be created.

Iyer warns his reader about searching for the type of silence that is fool’s gold-a mountain top, a retreat, an escape. We may come back refreshed from these getaways but we then find ourselves frazzled and exasperated as soon as we have to return to the clamor of the world. When we go to these places of silence, we recite the standard litany of comparisons. “Silence is golden, company is brass” and all that.

He tells us that silence must be earned. Work must be done to build stillness into our lives. To create a presence, not an absence. To make silence not an escape but an enchanted place where one can think and where one can create.  And, truly, this is remarkably difficult. Finding a public silence is perhaps the easiest. It is fairly simple to turn the cellphone off (something I try to do more and more), shop online, walk late in the evening when all of the neighbors are safely ensconced in front of their televisions. Finding a private silence is more difficult. Turning off and turning away from the myriad distractions that prevent us from hearing ourselves and others think is much more of a challenge. How can we engage in meaningful dialogue when the pings of our tweets, feeds, and messages from those far away distract us from the very real soul attempting to connect to us in the here and now?

Iyer tells us that silence is only as good as what we can bring forth from it. Silence is not malevolent brooding-it is not isolation. It is the teacher allowed a quiet retreat from the clamor of the classroom to research, to read, to plan; without time to engage himself in inner dialogue, how can he be expected to help his students engage in reflection and thinking that helps them become better versions of themselves? How can an educator teach a child to think more critically when the educator herself has no time to do the same?  It is the silence of the political leader who is comfortable within the citadel of his own thoughts; he who can bring forth from decades of incarcerated isolation reconciliation with those who imprisoned him.  It is the religious thinker who can emerge from his contemplations of cancer and his own imminent death, to tell us how we all must exist joyously, together, within the Cathedral of the World.

Iyer goes on to examine the holiness and wholeness of silence. How, in silence, we go beyond hearing not only ourselves but perhaps something larger; behind the protective walls of silence, we are free to examine the stillness within ourselves. Here, we can see that the sacred is as much within us as without.  Vows of silence can be seen as the highest devotional act. It is only in places of silence that we can stop and hear the voice of the divine. God has no place at the table of man’s idle chatter.

Our world has only gotten noisier since Iyer published his essay. In 2001, he ponders a future where more and more machines talk to us; a future where we can cocoon ourselves ourselves from public noise with the Walkman. In 2017, we live in a world that no longer demands any amount of silence. Indeed, we live in world where it seems that he who speaks the loudest and with the least amount of forethought is the one who is listened to, not ignored for being a buffoon. We live in a world where children can speak to a device called an Echo for information and for entertainment. Heedless of Bradbury’s warning, we are allowing the nursery to raise our children; unaware that we may find ourselves devoured by the lions of their imagination. Iyer’s exhortation that we work to build silence into our lives is  ever more urgent and  even more necessary.

Silence does take strength and a willingness to be still, and we appear to be weakening in our resolve to be silent and to listen. If we are constantly creating and consuming noise, then we are not listening to each other. The consequences of this lack of meaningful exchange surround us. We are a world that is returning to the dreaded “us versus them” mentality. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of history knows the consequence of this thinking.

Iyer concludes with his thoughts on silence as the “ultimate province of trust.” With loved ones, we can be silent. Idle words are not needed-there is no embarrassment to mask with babble and idle gossip.

Perhaps if we begin with simply being quiet, if we simply allow silence a place at the table, there will be a little more peace on everyone’s plate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late winter at Reddy Branch

 

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Spring has come early to the Washington D.C. area. With this early warmth and growth, those of us who battle the invasives must redouble our efforts to clear the way for the native growth.

Among the many advantages that non-native flora has over native species is a longer growing season. The multi-flora rose, autumn olive, and privet are now green while the native flora remains dormant. These plants not only crowd out the native pieces with their foliage but the root systems can also alter the chemistry of the soil, disrupting the growth of the native plants. In addition, the berries of some of the plants, the privet in particular, will last far into the next winter, providing another advantage to the invasive.

Two of the above photos show the immensity of the rose and how green it is against the grays and browns of the February woods (there should be white!). Two photos show a portion of the clearing that is on the ridge. The green you see on the ground is mostly English ivy-this too will be pulled; though, as long as it is not in the tree canopy, it will hold back flowers and new growth but do little damage to the existing, large trees. There are a number of small holly trees just out of the shot. Hopefully, in three to five years, there will be holly saplings in this clearing. That is a root of the rose bush in the other shot; we use a pulaski to get it out of the ground.

My son and I had a great work day yesterday. We not only finished clearing the area on the ridge started at the beginning of the winter, but we also recruited another volunteer to help us. He had seen us work before and had offered friendly curiosity in what we were doing. Yesterday, he offered us his help and, as there is much to do, his offer was gladly accepted.

I have only recently begun to work during the week at this spot, typically preferring to work in the relative solitude of early winter mornings.

During the week, we are greeted by those who enjoy walking and running in these woods and the fields adjacent to them.  After a day full of the noise and conversation of being an English teacher and department chair, I am desperate for the silent rhythms of my loppers cutting the rose and the contentment of accomplishment when I behold the newly blank canvas of the forest floor. But, I can accept interruptions if it means more help for these woods and news of the latest hawk sightings.

I am, as always, eager to continue my work. This year will be different from past years as I have decided to not make March my farewell until the autumn but my time for renewed effort.

I do not know if there are spring flowers in these woods. I see dogwoods and hope they will bloom but  I do not know if any spring ephemerals can grow through the mats of English ivy. It will be next; now that the rose is gone, I will pull the ivy from the ground and I will keep clearing the way.

Heifetz's fits on teaching, writing, the woods, and other miscellanea

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