Miss Dierdorf and the mythology newspaper

I was asked to write about a favorite teacher for a project in a philosophy of education course. The person who asked me plans to use the lenses of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Pádraic Pearse to look at the responses from various people. Here’s mine:

I remember many good teachers, but no one that stands out far above the rest. But I’ll pick one: Miss Dierdorf at W. P. McLean Junior High School cared about literature and history in an infectious way. She organized a class newspaper project in which we wrote and illustrated stories from Greek (and Roman) mythology. The antics of the ancient heroes and gods became as real to us as the day-to-day events around the school.

As I recall, every student felt that he or she had a vital contribution to make to the newspaper. We designed the paper, wrote and drew, because we too cared about the stories and the characters. I think that the sense of becoming engaged with the ideas and feelings of the past or faraway has stayed with me ever since.

It was interesting to see that the majority of the responses were about English teachers.

I should add that there are many mythology newspaper curriculum units available on the web and other formats, such as Greek Mythology Newspaper, by the children’s book author, Bernard Evslin. They all seem to be more sharply defined in terms of skill development and assessment than I remember the class to be.

Thoughts for today

“Books are no substitute for living” (May Hill Arbuthnot), but “Life without books is empty” (Isaac Asimov)

“To feel the meaning of what one is doing, and to rejoice in that meaning; to unite in one concurrent fact the unfolding of the inner life and the ordered development of material conditions–that is art” (John Dewey)

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers” (James Thurber), but “The best way to find things out .. is not to ask questions at all…if you sit quite still and pretend not to be looking, all the little facts will come and peck round your feet, situations will venture forth from thickets, and intentions will creep out and sun themselves on a stone” (Elspeth Huxley)

“One’s work should be a salute to life” (Pablo Casals, from “Salute to Life”)

Christmas in Kilcrohane

sheep on Sheepshead Wayme in KilcrohaneWe had a wonderful Christmas in Kilcrohane on the Sheepshead Peninsula in West Cork. We went with Stephen, over from St. Petersburg, Russia; Emily, from Minneapolis; and Matt, one of their friends, from Saint-Raphael, France. Our week included a visit to Fitzpatrick’s one evening, several to the O’Mahony store, and stops in Durrus, Bantry, Ahakista, and other charming towns.

swan lakeWe also had winds, fog, sleet, and torrential rain. Locals call it “rain,” even though it blows horizontally, rather than falling sensibly from the top down. There were several terrific gales (or was it one long one?), which made us thankful for the stone walls of Betsy and Michael’s cottage. Sitting by a warm fire, we could look out on gorgeous Dunmanus Bay with sunny skies one time and am awesome storm the next.

Lough HyneDespite the general theme of winter storm, we had frequent sun and glorious skies. That allowed us to manage several good walks. One was in the ancient forest above Glengariff; another around Lough Hyne south of Skibbereen; and others on the Sheepshead Way. We made good use of Kevin Corcoran’s West Cork Walks.Mizen peninsula

Emily was a writing dervish, thus missing some of the walks. Her friend Matt played his guitar, while posed on the large window seat. Stephen had a swim down at the end of the road. He was inspired in part by Frank O’Mahony, who had done the St Stephen’s Day charity swim at the pier. Perhaps it was warmer for the swimmers to be in the water than in the air, given the sleet and winds. And we played a fair bit of bridge.

Photos by Susan Porter Bruce.


Barsana Monastery church I’m attaching a couple of photos from Romania, where we went in September. One is a wooden church in the Maramureş style. It’s part of the Barsana Monastery. Another was one of many hitchhikers we picked up. Our old Dacia wasn’t much as a car, but it beats walking or horse-drawn cart when you’re tired. We had learned enough Romanian to figure out that the man is 82, has 9 children, and knows the woman who works in the post office and runs our B&B. We also saw what may be the oldest, and is certainly the longest-running Unitarian Church (in Cluj-Napoca). I spent an hour with the pastor, learning about their history and the church building and furnishings.

In Maramures, we saw Elie Wiesel’s home/museum. As you friend in Botizamay know, Maramureş was one of the worst holocaust sites, with over 20,000 Jews from Sighetu-Marmaţiei alone sent to Auschwitz. Later, Communists in Romania sent tens of thousands of “Saxons” (ethnic Germans) to work and die on the Danube canal construction. Roma people managed to be persecuted throughout, and still suffer from prejudices today (although projects such as Şanse Egale are working to improve opportunities).

We also saw the museum sometimes called the “Museum of Suppressed Thought”, which made me aware that my imagination is limited in conceiving all the ways people can oppress one another, and all the different ethnic prejudices that can be realized. Maramureş and Transylvania in general have seen more than their fair share. That’s especially disturbing to think about in a country which is otherwise so beautiful, friendly, and welcoming.

I gave a talk on Dewey, Hull House, and Paseo Boricua at the Philosophy of Pragmatism: Salient Inquiries conference at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. I’d certainly value any comments or suggestions on the draft.

Lycksele learning centers

On October 21, while I was in Sweden, I spent a day in Lycksele. There, I learned about an innovative organization called Akademi Norr from Regis Cabral, their EU coordinator. The organization emerged as the result of cooperation among 13 municipalities in four counties in northern Sweden. It initiates, coordinates, and implements higher education programs and courses for people in the north, in order to meet needs for both education and development.

Each of the 13 municipalities has its own learning center, typically housed with the community library. Akademi Norr works with the center, a local industry, community members, and a university to devise a specialized higher education program. The center offers meeting spaces, ICTs, local tutoring, and other services. Their program shares many similarities with the GSLIS Chicago program in LIS education.

For example, I visited one of these learning centers, Lycksele lärcentrum. Most of their website is in Swedish, but you can see a little bit more in English on education in Lycksele. They’ve set up several programs. One currently underway leads to a BS in Engineering, with a focus on GIS; another is for a BS in Nursing, with an emphasis on ICTs.

Students who have completed these programs have easily found jobs in their region, because the program is designed from the start to make that possible. This is especially important in a region with strong ties to the land and community. The program is also designed to meet the needs of local industries, which might otherwise have dfficulty finding qualified workers in such a sparsely-populated area (3.8 people/sq-mi in Lapland versus 223.4 people/sq-mi in Illinois)

The staff in the Lycksele lärcentrum as well as at Akademi Norr are very open to having people visit or study what they are doing. There are possibilities for funding through iorganizations such as the American-Scandinavian Foundation . We could learn a great deal about community work, meaningful learning, ICTs in education, and more, through a better understanding of the learning centers programs.

Fulbright trip to Umeå and Göteborg, Sweden

I’ve been selected for a Fulbright Senior Specialists award to Sweden, during the second half of October. My first week will be at the Department of Informatics at Umeå University. I’ll visit with Ulf Hedestig, who works in computer support for collaborative learning, and Victor Kaptelinin, who works in human computer interaction and activity theory. Victor is from Russia and had worked with A. N. Leont’ev at Vygotsky’s institute in Moscow, but he also has strong interests in John Dewey’s work. I’ll be giving a major talk on learning there, as well as leading a discussion on the Schools of Information movement in the US.

During the second week, I’ll go to the IT-University at Göteborg, where they’ve been using my situated evaluation approach. I’ll see Marisa Ponti, who works on in the area ICT and Learning, as well as others. There’s a half-day seminar, “Supporting Distributed Collaboration in Science: Reflections from Experiences”, which I’ll present along with Diane Sonnenwald, from the University College of Borås. Later that week, I’ll teach a two-day short course on Pragmatic Design of Information and Communication Technologies, and then on Friday give a lecture on inquiry-based learning.

On Tuesday of that week, I’ll go to the Swedish School of Library & Information Science in Borås to give talks on our distributed knowledge project and the information school movement. In addition to Diane Sonnenwald, I hope to meet with there with Olof Sundin, who has done recent work on pragmatism and sociocultural theory, and also with Louise Limberg, who work in information literacy. She and I are both involved with an information literacy project directed by Eero Sormunen in the Department of Information Studies at the University of Tampere, Finland.

Somewhere in there, I plan to teach my classes in Champaign using Flashmeeting (web-based, video conferencing). We may have links from the various Swedish universities in addition to the class in LIS 109 and me.

The city pigeon is the bird of peace

I used to imagine the bird of peace as a small white dove with an olive leaf in its mouth, like the one Noah sent out to see whether the waters had abated. But now I think it’s really the big city pigeon, which some people call the “rat with feathers.”

This change of image started when I heard about the improbable scheme of Bertrand Delanoë, currently the Mayor of Paris. Delanoë recognized a problem: Pigeons are messing on the beautiful statues and buildings of Paris, costing huge piles of euros and displeasing both residents and visitors. But there are pigeon-lovers as well, many of whom risk fines to share their day-old bread with the hungry birds. Is there any way to recognize the divergent needs of pigeons, pigeon-haters and pigeon-lovers?

The Mayor proposed something, along the lines of his beach on the Seine or the ice skating rink 95 meters up the Eiffel Tower. I learned later that people in Basel, and then throughout Germany, had this idea also, but initally it seemed crazy to me. I’m afraid that when I talked with others about it they attributed that craziness to me as well.

pigionnier The idea was to build a home for the pigeons, a pigeonnier, where they could live comfortably and safely, and even be fed by the pigeon-lovers. This would preserve “the only sign of biodiversity in the city center.” In return, the pigeons would not mess the statues and they’d undergo population control. The money saved on cleaning statues would pay for the €40,000 construction and €9,000 annual maintenance.

Some people asked rude questions, such as “what will make the pigeons stay near their houses?” or “how can their population be controlled?” Yet the pigeonnier had been built and more were promised. I had to see for myself.

I set out for the Place de la Porte de Vanves in the XIVème arrondissement. This is in the SW of Paris, near the Périphérique, so it meant a good walk, and as I’ve discovered many times in Paris, a walk that would take on its own character.

Along the way, I stopped briefly in the Jardin de Luxembourg. On the west side of the garden, near rue Guynemer, I looked for a while at the bronze model of the Statue of Liberty by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. The statue itself was given by France to the United States in honor of our first centennial. Next to the model was an oak tree, planted to commemorate the solidarity of the French and Americans in response to 9/11. These made me ponder the deep intertwining of French and US histories, as well as the current political divisions. But I couldn’t dewll on that, as I had a goal—to see the pigeons in their new home.

Walking a bit south of the garden, I came upon the unusual sight of a man getting into a late-model car and driving away. What caught my eye was that he wore sandals and a brown robe with a rope around the waist. He was a Capuchin monk coming out a monastery, next to Notre-Dame de la Paix, at 6, rue Boissonade. The image of old and new, religious and secular, somehow seemed relevant to my ponderings on the French/American relations, to accommodating and understanding differences, especially next to the “our lady of peace” church, but again, I had a goal to pursue, and couldn’t afford to linger there.

Walking along rue Schoelcher, I passed Montparnasse Cemetery. There were plaques describing Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893), best known for the decree of April 27, 1843 abolishing slavery in the French colonies. Reading more about him, I learned of how he became the most well-informed French person on the Caribbean colonies, and of his efforts to show how sugar production could be continued without relying on slaves. He helped the French people see that their interests in peace and well-being were not counter to justice, but in fact depended upon it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But I moved on, not relinquishing my goal of seeing the pigeons in their house. At the town hall of the XIVème arrondissement, at 2, place Ferdinand Brunot, I stopped briefly at one of those innumerable monuments to the “enfants mort pour la france” (the young people who died for France). If I were ever to lose a loved one to war, I would certainly want to believe that it was for something noble, but I wondered, especially having just visited the battlefields of Verdun, whether all those deaths were really for France, or instead, for greed, stupidity, injustice, the inability to see from the perspective of others, and all the other vices that foster wars and violence.

Still moving toward my goal, I walked along rue Didot to the Cité Croix Rouge. This is a reconsturction of the Broussais charity hospital, which is to become “un grand projet humanitaine du couer du XIVème” and “un lieu d’échanges ouvert à tous.” This new Red Cross center will be open to all and serve 1000 people a day as a hospital and education center. It seemed like a grand and noble project, but I couldn’t avoid seeing the graffitti and tags marring the large banner proclaiming the project. I wondered about whether the “writers” were the intended beneficiaries of the Cité Croix Rouge and about the difficulties of working for the justice that Schoelcher and others saw as so necessary to civil society.

On other walks, I’ve focused on architecture or art, music, history, science, the clothes, or most often, the ordinary people on the street. This one presented me with images of peace and justice, which I hadn’t intended. I simply wanted to see the folly of the pigeon house.

Nevertheless, I reached my goal, and was able to see it in a way I hadn’t expected. The pigeonnier was set in a small park, with benches and trees. Pigeon-lovers could watch the pigeons and even feed them there. Pigeon-haters could stay away, or perhaps learn that pigeons aren’t so bad when they have a place to live without harming others. The pigeons seemed happy, too. I also realized that the Place de la Porte de Vanves had become a more humane place. Softening the nearby railroad tracks, construction projects, and its general gritty urban character, the little park offered a hint of the natural beauty and gentility I had felt earlier that day in the Jardin de Luxembourg. I learned from the Pigeon Control Advisory Service that killing pigeons simply doesn’t work; they breed too fast, and attempting to kill them all simply helps them evolve into stronger, faster, smarter birds. I don’t know whether providing comfortable, modern homes, with ample food and water, perch sites, and a garden nearby will work either, but I saw that there was something grand, not just foolish, in the idea.

Jane Addams showed that tragedy lay in “believing that antagonism is real,” in assuming that a gain for one must mean a loss for the other. In contrast, the pigeonnier represents an attempt to realize what she called “affectionate interpretation,” to see the world as others see it, and thereby, achieve progress toward a common outcome. Pigeons need food and water, and a safe place to live and rear their young. But they don’t need to mess up the statues. Similarly, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, Parisians, and visitors each have their own needs and interests, which need to be understood and accepted, rather than quashed. The pigeonnier and its park is a common good, which is based on interpreting each party in an “affectionate” way. In fact, no one’s interest is served either by killing pigeons or by indiscriminate feeding.

The final story of the Paris pigeonniers remains to unfold. But regardless of the outcome, it stands as a lesson for larger conflicts. Many people assume that their interests are served by military force or by building walls, indiscriminately imposing their interests over those of others (consider US prisons, immigration policies, the war in Iraq, etc.). The tragedy here is not just that injustices are done, that we commit these injustices on ourselves.

Religion of Grass

I would be converted to a religion of grass.
Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring.
Sink deep roots.
Conserve water.
Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees gain the upper hand.
Such are the tenets and dogmas.
As for the practice — Grow lush in order to be devoured or caressed, stiffen in sweet elegance, invent startling seeds — these also make sense.
Bow beneath the arm of fire.
Connect underground.
Be lovely and do no harm.

by Louise Erdich

Assistant Professor, Rutgers

I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey during 1971-74. The Department was new, starting just two years earlier.

I taught in both the Graduate College and the undergraduate, Livingston College, which “embodied the spirit of social responsibility and cultural awareness demanded by students of the time.” My office was in the Hill Center for the Mathematical Sciences in the Busch Campus in Piscataway (upper right).

canalThrough Livingston College, I taught courses such as basic programming and data structures. One of my favorites was Models of Thought, an early cognitive science course. I also taught masters and doctoral students in areas such as Non-Numerical Algorithms, Natural Language Processing, Question Answering by Computer, Artificial Intelligence, and Discrete Structures.

[Hill Center photo from the Rutgers website; Delaware and Raritan canal photo from canalphotos.org]

Longitude 74.47168 W, Latitude 40.52180 N.