Monkey See, Monkey Do!

Do you know what this is?

It’s a monkey trap from West Africa, made of clay.  When I acquired the clay pot, a rope was attached to its neck.  Hunters used to stake the other end of the rope to the ground, and bait it with fruit or nuts.  A monkey would smell the food, reach inside, and grab a handful.

The hole was large enough for a monkey’s open hand to pass through, but too small for a balled fist to come out.  As hard as the monkey pulled, it couldn’t escape, because it never occurred to the greedy monkey to let go of the food.

 

Monkeys repeatedly fell victim to this, because they refused to drop the food, even as the hunter approached.

This is often told as a parable denouncing greed, or as a cautionary tale against becoming trapped by a fixed mindset.  But the antique dealer who sold me my monkey trap told me the rest of the story…

In the late 1940s, a monkey was caught in a clay monkey trap, like so many before it.  It struggled to free itself, never thinking to open its fist.  On purpose or by accident, it smashed the pot against the ground, the pot broke, and the monkey escaped.  But here’s the best part…That monkey taught the other monkeys in its troop how to break and escape from a monkey trap. Neighboring troops caught on until, at least in that part of the monkey world, the traps became obsolete.

Imagine a world where we teach our young, our neighbors, and the greater community what they need to survive and thrive.  Imagine a world where we open our tight fists and our closed minds and stop doing things just because that’s the way it has always been done.  Imagine smashing the status quo to leave the world a better place for our children, a place where the powerful and oppressive are outwitted, outnumbered, and they and all their ugly trappings become obsolete.

  If one little monkey can change the world, maybe there’s hope for us humans too.

  All images and words ©Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: State of Mind.

You Don’t Have to be Einstein…

Yesterday was my Cousin Albert’s birthday!

Actually, he was my fifth cousin, and we never met. My personal theory of relativity is that some relative of his got together with some relative of ours somewhere in the old country, and we have the DNA to prove it.

An indisputable fact is that he was a genius, whose life work changed the way we see the world.  He also had definite ideas about intelligence and education.

Cousin Albert said it is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Last month Thom and I drove to Olympia to protest oppressive high-stakes standardized tests. This disturbing trend towards over-testing affects the quality of education for children all across the U.S. by reducing the time to teach and the time to learn.

Since both teachers and students are evaluated by those test results, teachers feel compelled to spend their class time working on tested material, leaving no time to nurture creativity, exercise imagination, or teach a higher order of critical thinking.

Standardized tests don’t account for students testing on empty stomachs because their parents can’t afford to feed them breakfast. Or those who didn’t sleep because their parents were arguing about a divorce.  Or homeless children with no place to study.  Or those who can’t afford reading glasses.  Test scores won’t cut any slack for students with learning disabilities, or recent immigrants who haven’t mastered English, or orphans of suicides, or children suffering from depression, or those who simply don’t test well.

The system of assessment is unfair. For example, in Florida an excellent music teacher was fired because of her students’ low math scores, even though she was not responsible for teaching them math.

Cousin Albert said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

He also said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

We honor that sacred gift of the intuitive mind when we allow teachers to assess each child’s strengths and needs, and design teaching strategies to nurture that child’s curiosity and passion into a lifelong love of learning.

Standardized testing is the servant of the rational mind, reducing children into test scores.

Who benefits from over-testing?  Not students, who are stressed and most of whom will be labeled as failures.  Not teachers, who either teach to the test or risk losing their jobs, regardless of whether they manage to pull kids out of their Learning Comfort Zone, and encourage them to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

The benefits are reaped by corporations like Pearson, that specialize in testing.  Or technology companies that sell schools the massive amounts of hardware students use to take these computer-based tests. Or private charter school operators who are waiting to step in as soon as public schools are labeled failures.   Tests are designed so that 68% of those taking the tests will fail.  It’s better for business.

Diane Ravitch, an educational policy analyst, says, “It’s all about…propping up a vast and growing “education industry” that’s only worth the trouble (money) of the likes of Gates, Murdoch, the Waltons, and the Bushes….if it’s standardized and millions of customers–I mean children–are buying.”

Cousin Albert grew up in Germany, where the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.

He was among the scientists and intellectuals who escaped the Nazis, those methodical masters who were terrifying in their efficiency.  Cousin Albert was lecturing in the US when the Nazis put a price on his head, and confiscated his property, turning it into a Hitler Youth camp. But as efficient as the Nazis were, according to Cousin Albert, they lost their technological advantage and eventually lost the war because they murdered or drove out all the creative free-thinking innovative imaginative intellectuals.

     Cousin Albert said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

And you don’t have to be Einstein to get that.

All images and words copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck, unless otherwise stated.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Numbers.

If you’d like to read more, here is a link to an excellent article about the results of the protest, and a bipartisan bill proposed to repeal Common Core.

Remembering Fort Detroit

 

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At Isaac Newton School, my third grade Social Studies teacher walked out of The Far Side into our classroom.  Mrs. Glotzbecker was a plump middle-aged woman who squeezed into dresses suitable only for Doris Day in her prime.  She wore pointy rhinestone-studded glasses, and bleached blond hair in a French twist.  She’d taught all my big sisters, and whenever she called on me, it was by one of their names.

On the first day of class we opened our history books and read about Fort Detroit.  Our assignment was to draw a picture of it.  Every day we read aloud, then worked silently.  If Mrs. Glotzbecker caught you chewing gum, like Jerry Fink, she made you wear it on your nose.  If she caught you talking, like Jerry Fink, she made you sit in the wastebasket.  Repeat offenders felt the sting of Old Harry, the paddle on the wall.  Jerry became the stuff of legend after Mrs. Glotzbecker sat him in the cardboard wastebasket and it split into pieces.  He was elevated to folk hero when she broke Old Harry on his backside and he just grinned at his buddies, who cheered him on.

Every day in class I worked on my drawing.  Fort Detroit looked better and better.  I added a canoe on the riverbank, a fish in the water.  After a week or two, I couldn’t think of anything else to add, so I used crayons to color it, but details were lost beneath the wax.  I erased stuff and started over, but that left smudges and wore holes in the paper.  I suspected something was going terribly wrong.  I was sick of Fort Detroit, but kept working it like a hangnail.  Finally Mrs. Glotzbecker collected our notebooks for grading.  She got to mine, and called me to her desk.

“Where’s the rest of your work?” she said.

“You said to draw a picture of Fort Detroit,” I whispered.

“That was weeks ago.  Where are the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter?  And the next five chapters?”

I swear I never heard her tell us to answer any questions.  But, dangit!  I should have known.  I’d had a feeling, but was too shy to ask for help or even clarification.  I was confused, and when Mrs. Glotzbecker reached for Old Harry, I was mortified.

What I learned from Mrs. Glotzpecker that day, I’ve applied to my writing.  Follow the submission guidelines!  And your gut.  When in doubt, raise your hand, ask questions.  Cut the fat for a cleaner read or add a scene to flesh it out, but don’t polish the silver off the teapot, or edit until you’ve worn holes in your paper.

What I learned from Jerry Fink was even more important.  Be resilient.  Build up calluses—in all the right places.  Let no one, and certainly not your editor, intimidate you.  Find a support group to cheer you on—there are local, regional, and national organizations you can join.  Most importantly, remember that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but let no one break your spirit.

 

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Leonardo Da Vinci, Italian Renaissance Polymath (1452-1519)                                    

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Paul Valery, French Critic and Poet (1871-1945)

“Remember Fort Detroit!”

–Naomi Baltuck, Author, Storyteller, and Native Detroiter (1956- )