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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Arm in Arm Down the Street (Del brazo y por la calle) - (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1956) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 2

Juan Bustillo Oro’s film, Arm in Arm Down the Street  (Del brazo y por la calle) (1956) is the story of a young married couple, María and Alberto, who have great dreams, but who live in grinding poverty in the harsh, noisy, industrial neighborhood of Nonoalco / Tlatelolco, which is slowly robbing both of their human dignity and, in the case of María, her sanity. What makes this film unique is the fact that Bustillo Oro uses the Expressionistic techniques he employed in his earlier works of Mexican Expressionism and film noir, to create the sensory conditions of the experience of the living in an industrial part of Mexico City (Tlatelolco) near a huge train terminal and the Nonoalco bridge, and the psychological consequences. María, who hails from a family from the wealthy (and snobbish) Mexican elite, married the impecunious but ambitious artist, Alberto. They are intensely in love, and both have the best of intentions to make their marriage a success. However, the grinding monotony of poverty, the bill collectors, and the invasiveness of the city with its noise, heat, smoke and grime are pushing María into a state of anxiety, despair, and paranoia. 

Trapped at home, she comments that “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry” (from Del brazo y por la calle). Alberto’s pride and ambition push him to make rash and ultimately selfish decisions, and above all, make him blind to the consequences of his selfish point of view. The film is emotionally difficult to watch, but as opposed to the films based on plays by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, Bustillo Oro’s film, like most of the great films from Mexico’s Epoca de Oro del Cinema Mexicano, has a life-affirming ending with a message of hope, strength, and salvation.

While many of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age films are melodramas, comedies, film noir, or westerns, Arm in Arm Down the Street is an example of Naturalism.  In a literary sense, the film is in a direct line of descent from the novels and novellas of the naturalist writers, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and George Gissing in that it shows the inner workings, dreams, contradictions and vulnerabilities of people in a state of relative powerlessness.  In the case of George Gissing, his female protagonists are often ones driven by poverty to degrading behaviors; but it shows (as Jane Austen was at pains to always point out), that women had to muzzle themselves with respect to frankness and honesty in order to have any chance whatsoever at survival (aka, a “good match”).  Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s female characters also tend to fall to that level as well. Without a “good match,” there was essentially nothing to keep you from falling into a pit; a veritable hell on earth. In that sense, many of the naturalists and sensationalists (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Ellen Wood), are in essence writing cautionary tales about what fate will be befall you if you marry badly.  Although they write to question and undermine the practice of “The Season,” there is a sense that they can’t change reality, and so the novels become normative in the sense that they simply equip people with knowledge and a cold-eyed stare at the practice to arm themselves to play the game to win.

Del brazo y por la calle is really no different. While its super-realism / naturalism engenders comprehension and sympathy (and perhaps even self-knowledge) in the viewer, in the end, most viewers will look at María and think, “Look what you could have avoided if you had not been dumb enough to marry an artist!” In terms of the clichés surrounding “artistic temperament,” one can argue that María is even more temperamental than Alberto. He is unflappable. However, that is primarily because he has learned to insulate himself a bit from reality. It is only when reality intrudes does he face his own part in the drama that resulted in such profound alienation and emotional agony for his wife. 

MAIN CHARACTERS

Maria                Beautiful young woman from a wealthy family in the Mexican elite

Alberto             Poor, idealistic painter who is passionately in love with María

Mexico City       Credited in the credits as the third main actor

SYNOPSIS

Del brazo y por la calle the story of María and Alberto, who marry in spite of María’s parents’ exhortations to the contrary.  Wealthy parents never want to see their daughters marry impecunious artists, and it is even more the case in highly stratified Mexico where social hierarchy has been so rigidly enforced it amounts to a caste system. But, love will be love, and all it takes is a little bit of Puck’s pansy juice in the eyes, and the beautiful society debutante falls in love with the penniless artist who lives in a noisy apartment that is falling apart at the seams and inhabited by carousing neighbors and sexual predators. The film is about the how the once utopian part of the city that housed the hub of President Porfirio Diaz’s immense railway network evolved into a dystopian, Hephaestian inferno around the Nonoalco Bridge, and how that environment slowly chipped away the sanity of the residents. In the end, the strength of their love prevails, but it is not without deep challenges and introspection. The clanging, shrieking, hoarse-throated city breaks down, but in doing so, it reveals the gold within.

THEMES

Naturalism in cinema.  As perhaps one of the most innovative and daring films of the entire Epoca de Oro del Cine Mexicano (Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Del brazo y por la calle .  Its subtlety and relative obscurity have resulted in the fact that it seems to be an underappreciated film. And yet, there are aspects of the film that make it unique, not only for being an intensely innovative example of Naturalism in cinema that brings in the city itself as perhaps the main protagonist, but for functioning as a time capsule.  The film was shot in the Mexico City industrial areas of Nonoalco and Tlatelolco, which, at the time of the filming in 1955, was an industrial area criss-crossed by train tracks and busy elevated bridges and highways. It was an ugly agglomeration of Bauhaus-appearing multi-story stucco buildings, plazas with low-rent businesses (pool halls, etc.), cheap hotels, incessant construction, and pockets of grinding poverty where poor children did not get the nutrition or medical attention they needed.  There were also vestiges of the past – a small church dating back to colonial times, constructed over the old Tlatelolco city-state that once rivaled Tenochtitlán. There was also a charming lake, Lake Texcoco, which rivaled Xichimilco, but unlike Xochimilco, Lake Texcoco was drained.  It is interesting to note that Bustillo Oro filmed in Nonoalco, the same location as Buñuel’s classic (but immediately banned) film, Los Olvidados (1950) which incorporated the story of juvenile delinquents. The scenes of the trains and the tracks upon which María trips as she returns from the market are reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s stunning photographs of the trains of Mexico City which he published in 1955. In Rulfo’s photographs, the trains simultaneously evoke the rapid leap to modernity of Porfirio Díaz’s presidency, along with a sense of its impact on people’s ways of surviving against all odds.

Costumbrismo urbano:  One can consider Bustillo Oro’s film an example of “costumbrismo urbano” (to coin a term), because the Tlatelolco of 1956 (as in the case of the pre-Conquest Tlatelolco) no longer exists. Much was demolished in order to make way for utopian urban projects – a utopia that never arrived, given that Tlatelolco was the site of a massacre of students by the military in 1968, and then the site of mass death in 1985 when the relatively new buildings collapsed during the 1985 massacre.

This is a brief excerpt of the full article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.. Click here to read the article with additional details about plot elements, themes, character analysis, illustrative scenes, and review questions. 

In the opening scenes, the narrator takes the viewer on a tour of Mexico City and its wide and diverse array of neighborhoods and communities. This is a few of the Polanco district, renowned for its leafy trees, wide avenues, and prosperous businesses. 

As we progress through Mexico City, the camera angles become more pronounced and the views of Mexico City are askew, suggesting that the city itself can cause disorientation and alienation. 


Alberto and María kneel inside the small, colonial-era church located in the poor, industrial Tlotelolco District of Mexico City, where Alberto lives. 

Working by the light from below, María huddles near the skylight, still mending clothing.  She is still on the azotea (rooftop patio), and in the distance one can see the neon lights, demonstrating that artifice and human constructions have completely overwhelmed / negated nature. 

María observes poor children playing in the dirt and trash in her neighborhood of Nonoalco, just past the train tracks and under the elevated highway bridge. She notices one boy is disabled. All seem to be hungry. She leaves her paper bag containing bread for them. “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry.”


The bridge at Nonoalco where Alberto considers suicide. The chiaroscuro treatment by Bustillo Oro gives it a feeling of being in an inferno. 

María and Alberto recommit themselves to each other. Morning has broken, and the light of day is shining into their home and their hearts. Bustillo Oro uses light to represent calm optimism and a transformation. The cross-beams are clearly visible, also connoting stability

Alberto and María walk hand in hand down the street. They are together, and the sky is clear. There is very little traffic, and the weather is calm. The viewer has a sense of optimism and restored balance. 


Sunday, April 04, 2021

El Angel Negro (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1942) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 1

 In El Angel Negro (The Black Angel), Juan Bustillo Oro takes his desire to experiment with lighting, shot sequencing, mise-en-scene, and camera angles in order to achieve expressionistic effects that represent hidden, chthonic places in the mind and the heart, and a psychological experience that explores perception and beingness, and asks what happens when you represent ontological uncertainty. He also creates what may be the most evil femme fatale in film noir with Cristina. (For a full plot summary and character analysis, click here).

In his earlier films, Dos Monjes (Two Monks) and Cada loco son su tema (Every Madman with His Theme), Bustillo Oro explores the deterioration of mental state due to guilt (Dos Monjes) and due to an excessive exposure to hyperbolic, sensational narrative, similar to the notion that young women could be negatively influenced by reading gothic novels or romances (Cada loco con su tema). In those cases, the audience’s gaze was directed to a particular character whose mental stability was the primary focus. However, in the case of El Angel Negro, the issue of mental illness is not in question; the person who is obsessive and potentially mentally ill has already arrived at that state. Instead, Bustillo Oro explores the kind of emotional impact that he can create within the world of the film; how a world becomes suffused with danger and menace because of a combination of past sinful criminality and a tacitly present sense of invasive, engulfing desire.  Specifically, Bustillo Oro brings his expressionistic cinematography to show how the murderous obsession of a deranged, illegitimate half-sister and the murky worlds of possessive desire, echoes of past violation, and an unwholesome attachment spill out into the audience who perceives the way that the fabric of the daylight, polite world can be ripped asunder.  The audience feels the vulnerability, not only to their person, but also to the potential of being classified as an outcast, or shunned due to one’s origins. In this case, the emotions are not created in order to feel compassion or empathy, but to intensify the sense of revulsion and menace.  The danger is palpable; the assault on one’s values is recognizable. The audience feels relief when the evil woman kills herself and order is restored to the world. And thus it is that horror serves a normative purpose and could be viewed as a kind of “rhetoric of conservation.” Bustillo Oro’s excursion into the depths of depravity end as the holiest and most revered of religious figures, the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, essentially breaks the evil spell and reunites the family, and re-illuminates the sin-darkened world.

In El Angel Negro (1942), Bustillo Oro creates a psychological drama that pushes the envelope on earlier films that established the horror genre, such as such classics as The Mummy or Frankenstein. It is the story of a failed attempt to protect an innocent new bride and her new baby from the jealous intentions of another woman. The fact that the woman was the half-sister of the new wife, and that the man’s previous wives had mysteriously died of poisoning, and that the half-sister lived with the burden of a shameful secret of origin (her mother was raped by a man working in the home) and an unwholesome love for her half-brother add not only a sense of the taboo, but also the experience of vicariously stepping outside the norms and order of the polite world.

In looking at Bustillo Oro’s oeuvre, while on the surface, El Angel Negro may seem rather simplistic, it represents an important aesthetic bridge between his Expressionistic works: the gothic Dos Monjes and the campy satire, Each Madman with His Theme, and the nostalgic, romantic world of ornate architecture, expansive growth of wealth for the upper class, and intricate social rituals of the time of President Porfirio Díaz (In the Time of Porfirio Diaz (1942) and My Memories of Mexico (1944)).

While a review of the relatively simple plot gives the impression that the movie is simply about the fact that truth prevails in the end, and justice is restored, the movie itself is much more than that. The non-narrative aspects of the film, namely the Expressionistic lighting and camera angles, and the visual narrative that contains shadowy evocations of evil, go far beyond the simple person of Cristina, and point to a world at least half-saturated with the forces of darkness, underworld, and the chthonic.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is suggested at times, and in visual allusions and the chiaroscuro with unusual camera angles, the idea of a world where order trembles on the brink of darkness and chaos is suggested.  Femininity and womanhood are problematized by the presence of a woman (Cristina) who is aggressively antagonistic to the social and cultural ideas of a “nice” woman. The power lies in the shadows and not in the light, which trembles and may be blown out or otherwise extinguished at any time.

Bustillo Oro has created film that revels in its triumph of the fertile, chaotic, procreative darkness over the light, and which suggests that the horror genre relies on the interplay of order and symmetry, over its ghastly, infernal counterpart. In such a world, Cristina and Elisa are in fact both the one true mother of the son, but as a fused doppelganger, the order containing its own disorder.

PRIMARY CHARACTERS

Jorge Llorente               Wealthy member of the elites; a widower who marries Elisa

Elisa                             Innocent and beautiful young woman who marries Jorge

Cristina                        Jorge’s half-sister

Don Luciano                 Elisa’s father, a prosperous but rather silly man

Doña Meche                 Mother of three marriageable daughters

Doctor Bustamente       Don Luciano’s doctor

SYNOPSIS

Set in the 1860s, El Angel Negro begins as a story about the “season” for young women of Mexico’s elite class in the mid 19th century who attend elegant balls and soirees in an attempt to attract a wealthy suitor. Elisa, the daughter of a doting (if rather silly) and indulgent father, seems to have the best of all possible chances; at least that is certainly the assessment of the mother of three daughters who will compete in the same pool of men.  Elisa, who is as innocent and good as she is beautiful, is ineluctably drawn to the wealthy, but potentially dangerous widower loner, Jorge Llorente, whose previous two (or possibly more) wives died young by sudden illnesses that look a lot like poisoning.  Elisa and Jorge are magnetically drawn to each other and their intense connection is palpable.  However, when Elisa entered Jorge’s massive, gloomy mansion, things start to become quite strange.  Jorge’s half-sister, Cristina, is the housekeeper, and although she tries to conceal it at first, she is intensely jealous of any attention toward Jorge.  Jorge does little or nothing to stop the behavior; in fact, he exacerbates the problem by keeping a life-size portrait of her in a main hall, and by letting her have access to Elisa.  When Elisa gives birth to a baby boy, Jorge is delighted and relieved.  Almost immediately, Cristina positions herself as the primary caregiver, to the point that it seems that she does not want to release the baby to Elisa or Jorge.  Eventually, Cristina’s possessiveness and erratic behavior become quite obvious to Elisa, and she complains to Jorge.  In the meantime, Cristina catches Jorge’s ear as she whispers to him that Elisa had an affair with a male friend, and that Jorge is not even the father of Elisa’s son. As a result, Elisa is forced to move away and the baby is raised as Cristina’s son.  Years pass.  Elisa and Jorge reunite, and they decide to tell Jorge who his real mother is. Cristina tries her best to block the news, but is unsuccessful. Jorge rejects the information, but Cristina believes it is just a matter of time, so she gives herself a lethal dose of poison.  Jorge remains unconvinced until a religious medal containing the Virgin of Guadalupe triggers his memory. The movie ends as the three embrace – a family reunited.

For the full article by Susan Smith Nash and her analysis of themes, character, and illustrative scenes, please visit Humanities Institute: El Angel Negro

Jorge Llorente arrives at the ball in a top hat. Elisa is wearing a blindfold, which is both physically and metaphorically indicative of her ability to see what she was getting herself into. 

The otherworldly beauty of the life-size painting of Cristina which hangs on the wall in the gloomy mansion / castle where Jorge lives. 

Cristina holds the baby possessively, and the camera angles make the baby blend into her own body, giving the impression that they are a single being. 


Cristina, the camera angle and lighting emphasizing the wildness in her eyes, tells Jorge she will never give up “her” son.



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Phantom Selves and Haunted Places in Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020)

Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020) is a teenage angst-riddled love story that has a The Catcher in the Rye premise.  The new girl in a suburban New Jersey high school walks with a limp and a cane. We find out that she is tortured by guilt and blames herself for the fatal car accident in which her football star boyfriend (she is a track star) dies at age 17.  He was driving, but she thinks she distracted him by trying to be funny. It happened a week after she moved into her boyfriend’s family home due to clashes with her alcoholic mother.  The new girl meets a shy, aspiring school newspaper / yearbook editor who has never had a girlfriend.  

The shy, writerly guy is obsessed with his favorite hobby, Japanese kintsugi, the art of breaking then repairing pottery by gluing back the pieces with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or other metals.  This highly symbolic hobby makes one immediately think that he is driven by wanting to fix broken things and make them even more beautiful than before ; a metaphor that is not lost on the new girl, who, at one point declares to him, “I’m not your latest kintsugi project!” 

But she is, because she is extremely broken. The scar on her leg seems to get larger, and her limp seems to worsen. Psychologically, she reshatters herself daily by living in her boyfriend’s unchanged room, and even by wearing his clothes (it is unclear how / why the dead boy’s parents do not say something about that). 

Grace Town (played by Lily Reinhart) is the new girl. The shy, writerly guy is Henry Page (played by Austin Abrams). The film was directed by Richard Tanne for Amazon films, where it was released for immediate streaming. The dead boyfriend’s name was Dominic Sawyer. 

Grace catches Henry’s attention as they are seated next to each other, waiting to see the journalism teacher. She is reading Sonnet XVII from Pablo Neruda’s 100 Sonnets of Love.  He reads the following, some of which as been highlighted: 

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz

or an arrow of carnations that propagate fire

I love you as one loves certain obscure things – 

secretly, between the shadow and the soul – 

Sonnet XVII

He is also fascinated by something he sees inscribe on a ring she wears hanging from a chain:  “Serva me, servabo te”  / Save me, and I will save you. 


Henry’s curiosity is piqued, and even more so when he and the new girl (Grace Town) are called into the journalism teacher’s office.  The teacher offers Henry and Grace the position of co-editor. Grace immediately declines and offers to be an assistant. Henry is confused. 

Since Chemical Hearts is about damaged or painfully shy teenagers in love, we know there will be pain and heartache. But, what will be the extent of that pain, and what will we learn about ourselves along the way?  Well, it really depends on how you catch the metaphors in the scenes.  Here are a few: 

After suggesting developing a feature story on teens and suicide over the ages, Grace pulls a stack of works of literature featuring teen suicide: Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, Girl Interrupted, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and more. Will Grace follow in those footsteps? 

Henry follows Grace to the places she visits after school. One is in an abandoned building that mysteriously has an intact koi pond on the bottom level. She likes to wade in, hip-deep, in the cold waters.  At one point, Grace is wearing the dress she was to be married in, and one can’t help but think of the pre-Raphaelite (John Everett Millais) painting of Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) face-up, dead after drowning herself in a shallow pond. 

Grace does not literally attempt suicide but in many ways she has expunged her own existence to become the animating spirit of her boyfriend, Dominic Sawyer, as she dons his clothing and becomes a kind of phantom self – a living ghost that desperately seeks redemption through physical contact, which creates a pathway back to a differentiated, re-established self. 

What makes the movie interesting? There are quite a few elements that give the film an edge. First, there are the punctuated “reveals” – the information that is revealed like puzzle pieces or clues that help you solve what is clearly developing as a mystery, or at least a mystery girl. 

Further, there is a sweeping sense of “place,” especially of a haunted place. The leafy, lush New York / New Jersey woodlands, streams and rivers, together with ornate gingerbread-carved Victorian homes, crumbling factories, and a soulful, stained, shadowy home where Grace lives in the dead young man’s bedroom and wears his fading clothes, converge to reflect states of mind. 


At school, visual allusions to Ken Kesey-esque Merry Pranksters can be found in the camaraderie and creative self-fashioning and subversion of the tradition. The Pranksters are those who work with Henry and Grace on the paper. They pursue self-expression where the chemical state of being “in love” is everything, and when the most raucous, they also invoke an echo of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). 

The film itself subverts and challenges the hyperbolic bathos of teenage love and at the same time acknowledges the true, physiological impact of grief by literally depicting walking in another person’s shoes. 



















Saturday, February 13, 2021

Meeting Corporate Collaboration, Training and Talent Management Needs with Workplace Moodle

Reading Corporate Learning with Moodle Workplace (Packt, 2020), by Alex Buchner, filled me with relief.  

Corporate Training with Workplace Moodle


There has never been any doubt that Moodle’s capabilities are ideal for any number of organizational needs, ranging from onboarding and compliance training, to collaborative projects across departments or locations. The problem for most people who want to use Moodle for their organizations is that most web-based Moodle templates are created for schools (primary and secondary) as well as colleges and universities. For someone who wants to have an on-premise solution, there will be a lot of customization to be done, and it’s easy to make a mis-step in the first few phases that lock you into something you don’t want, but it’s too expensive and time-consuming to change. To further complicate things, Moodle has frequent updates and upgrades, and if you’ve put a lot of effort into a custom solution for one version, you may not be too excited about experimenting with it to see if it will migrate to a later version. 

Thankfully, the enterprising Moodle community has developed Moodle Workplace, which is a Moodle build that has the structure and built-in activities for a wide array of workplace needs, which include on-boarding, training, certificates, bite-size training for badges, collaborations, compliance assessment, talent management records-keeping and more.  To give eager users the skills they need to use it, Alex Buchner has written a well-organized, clear, useable, and nicely documented book, Corporate Learning with Workplace Moodle https://www.packtpub.com/product/corporate-learning-with-moodle-workplace/9781800205345 . It is now available through Packt Publishing, an acknowledged world leader in technical training publications.

If you’re familiar with Moodle as it is used for an educational institution, you’ll immediately notice that some of the terms have been used to give the platform a business feel.  Individual users are “tenants” which evokes the feeling of a building with physical office space where you can arrange the workers. The decision by the makers for Workplace Moodle to trigger a visual image of a single building may be a bit ill-advised, given the distributed workplace and the very real possibility that post-COVID, many companies will choose not to pay high rents but will encourage working from home as much as feasible and practical. For Minecraft devotees, the open-world sandbox aspect is an exciting one, and the prospect of building a training and collaboration world with Moodle Workplace is exciting. 

Moodle Workplace does not replace Moodle. Instead it consists of a series of plug-ins that sit on top of the Moodle platform. In this sense, it’s a customization and the downside is that any inherent limitations in Moodle will be present in Moodle Workplace as well. Some of the plug-ins are Totara Learn-developed plug-ins, so if there are aspects of Totara that you do not like, you’ll need to learn to live with them, at least until Moodle 4.0, and then all bets are off. Another limitation is the fact that it’s not available for your own on-premise download. Instead, you must work through an authorized Moodle Partner. They can be expensive. 

That said, the biggest advantage of using Moodle Workplace vs another solution is a quick learning curve for Moodle users, customizable appearance, and rapid deployment. Further, Workplace Moodle has made an effort to integrate with other databases or systems. For example, many companies currently use AEP for their payroll functions as well as compliance, workforce development record-keeping. 

For a developer or instructional designer who is used to using Moodle with educational institutions, it will be intuitive to use Workplace Moodle to set up training modules that include the content as well as assessment. 

The self-enrollment function for both synchronous and asynchronous training events eliminates the need for associations and professional societies with external members to use something like EventBrite.  Being able to integrate the webconferencing function (Big Blue Button, for example), makes it possible to do everything from within Moodle and not have to exit in order to set up a separate meeting with Zoom, Teams, BlueJeans, RingCentral, etc. 

Buchner’s text goes into detail about how to set up the following: 

  • training with assessment
  • training with automatic generation of badges and/or certificates
  • designing badges and certificates
  • collaborative projects with team members from different groups / locations
  • brand-building exercises

Buchner does not go into as much detail as he could about one of Moodle’s big advantages. Although the file sizes are limited, Moodle does and can function as a content management system as well as a learning management system. The choice whether to archive and create repositories in the cloud-based Moodle site, or to create a portal to one’s own storage / repositories is one that the user will make. But, the bottom line is the same:  Workplace Moodle (as well as regular Moodle) can help you map your training path and the objects used in conjunction with it, and to do so with maximum flexibility and re-useability.

 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

E-Learning Corgi Recognized as a "Lockdown Learning Hero!"

 We are thrilled to announce E-Learning Corgi and Susan Nash have been recognized as a "Lockdown Learning Hero" by Twinkl

From the website: This year has presented us with a range of challenges, not least to the disruptions to children's educations. We have been inspired by UNESCO’s International Day of Education, so we’ve been searching for organizations, schools, charities, and individuals who went above and beyond to: ‘Recover and Revitalize Education for the COVID-19 Generation.’ We’ve been asking for nominations for learning heroes, and we’ve collected some of our favorite responses in this post, so we can share some fantastic examples of perseverance in continuing the education of children. So, without further ado, here are some of the many Learning Heroes for 2021. 

Twinkl has developed an enormous number of standards-aligned online learning resources for all grade levels and in many different languages. They are impressive -- and free! 



Saturday, January 02, 2021

The “Animus” Required of a Poetics: On a Recent Poem Series by Rochelle Owens

Rochelle Owens consistently challenges the reader's perspective with her plays, poetry, and videos that relate to her work: Futz!Black Chalk, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need?, Oklahoma Too

Literary critic and scholar Brian McHale argues that the primary difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that Modernism is concerned with constructing vast, new epistemological frameworks, while with Postmodernism, there is no longer any belief in the efficacy of knowledge systems to represent the world.  Instead, Postmodernism’s primary conceit is that of a challenge to beingness and the unavoidable processes of disintegration to be followed by re-integration. 

Award-winning and trail-blazing poet and playwright Rochelle Owens (latest book, The Aardvark Venus)  captures the two often oppositional processes in her work.  On the one hand, her weaving, incantatory rhythms and the reflexive nature of her subject matter, clearly take on the constructive act of developing the poem’s own epistemology.  On the other, however, she often dismantles the very episteme she has built, and as it is torn down, she replaces it with the process of becoming.  In some cases, the “becoming” process starts as an “undoing” or dismantling.  

There may be images and processes that allude to dissection, dismembering, putrefaction (as in Black Chalk (1994)), or they can allude to a destructive, nutrient-robbing parasite (the tapeworm in “Chomsky Grilling Linguica (Part 2)) https://newversenews.blogspot.com/2006/04/chomsky-grilling-linguica-part-2.html . But, by the end, the ontological destabilization turns into a regenerating process that explores how language and poetics model the creative act; more specifically, the freedom enjoyed in the re-assembling of language and signification.    

Owens’s latest work, “Patterns of Animus,” (https://jacket2.org/commentary/patterns-animus) specifically addresses the issues surrounding how the poet represents knowledge and knowing.  The poem begins with the image an etched piece of metal.  The engraver creates an etching that has “geometric form” and is “fatal the design. However, the action of writing and inscribing, or etching, is a work of construction of meaning. The construction occurs when the letters are formed, and that gives rise to the possibility of signification. 

The artist continues to engage in the act of etching, which reinforces idea of signification-in-the-making and meaning that can arise from the actions.  The “animus” brings together a great desire to create, but also suggests a base-level hostility that may be necessary for true art to be created.  

The engraver is inscribing something that stays just outside the reader’s view, which gives it the ability to take on many forms at the same time and to create in the reader’s own mind, the notion of the reader’s own epistemological framework that rises up like a Fata Morgana, the startling weather phenomena that results in mirages resembling complex castles and structures.

In the engraving process one cannot help but think of other acts of generative classifiable ways of seeing and cataloging. The Marquis De Sade comes to mind because his subversive world which is in essence a destructive mirror: an anti-world.

The artist cuts or burns his way through to a new world order and a new system of organizing perception and in doing so creates a sense of permanence by cutting into the metal in a way that the message or the series of signs are permanent and not easily erasable. But instead of metal, he could, like Kafka’s Commandant, invent “The Harrow” to dig into The Condemned Man’s head. The artist, so enchanted by the ability to write, inscribe, or etch, may be oblivious to the fact that the function is violent and will ultimately kill The Condemned Man.  In “Patterns of Animus,” art is likewise consigned to the service of signification, but it is not, as in Kafka, done to remind the condemned of their transgressions.  Instead, Owens reminds the reader of the potential to create.

In contrast to the act of inscribing and etching and of creating a system of knowledge, in Part II of “Patterns of Animus,” the body of a woman (the “dead paysanne”) floats in a swamp, and as it does so, decomposes. Is the “dead paysanne” like the drowned prostitute used by Caravaggio as a model for the Virgin Mary for his painting, “Death of the Virgin” (1606)?   

The paysanne is heavily imbued with signification because she embodies a taboo or a limit to the structure in which people find their roles. That body is potentially a victim, or simply a receptacle of transition as it lies in a swamp and decomposes. The body transmits a message metaphorically because of social constructs (in the case of Caravaggio, the drowned prostitute was used to represent the Virgin Mary).  The body has meaning simply because of the action of the observers and their socially constructed reality. 

However, the body of the dead paysanne is lying in the swamp and it is decomposing, a condition of being (or “unbecoming”) that triggers a process by which all the signification starts to change. One becomes very aware that the meaning system and the concerns of the text have to do with ontological anxieties and ontological instability: the center does not hold. The central concern of the poem transitions to questions of being, beingness, becoming, and their inversions, “unbecoming.” The “dead paysanne” floats in a swamp and the physical changes brought on by “microscopic algae” suggest an unraveling of being and by extension, a poetics of “un-becoming.”  The rather horrifying mental image of a body being broken down by natural processes gives rise to an extended metonymy, and a mechanism by which one can address how the poet subverts traditional values. The restrictive belief systems become turgid, followed by the burbling degassing of values (and of meaning).  

On a larger scale, one can’t help but think of videos of a dead whales that wash up onto beaches, their putrefaction gases building up in their bellies, causing consternation to the communities. Eventually, they explode, resulting in a rain of rotting whale carcass parts. (There was a case in Oregon:  https://youtu.be/thFWlDSu8iM and in Newfoundland: https://youtu.be/bQ6Y2TswxlY.  The granddaddy of them all took place in Florence, Oregon, in 1970, where Oregon Highway Division decided to have a “controlled demolition” with twenty cases of dynamite https://youtu.be/ax7kENH-A7s . It did not go as hoped.).  On a smaller scale, the explosion only bursts the belly of the dead whale, allowing the entrails to slide out as though alive: https://youtu.be/RzB2E9fgMHY. 

If the “dead paysanne” has a parallel with Caravaggio’s dead prostitute who was used as a model for “The Death of the Virgin,” there is another level of ontological insecurity, which has to do with being judged for one’s status in society.  She drowned. Was she murdered? If so, the notion of murder reminds one that certain people within a social construct are those relegated to be the trigger of change.

If the moving eye that moves along the “jagged black line” represents the epistemological framework in a world, the rotting corpse of the murdered prostitute lying in a swamp is representative of the ontological insecurity of the world and an essential fragility that points to the provisional nature of being and beingness. And, in this fragile world, “animus” – with all its contradictory suggestions – is a requisite condition for the creation of a poetics. 

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.” Franz Kafka Online. 2007.  https://www.kafka-online.info/in-the-penal-colony-page4.html 

Owens, Rochelle.  “Chomsky Grilling Linguica” TheNewVerseNews. 15 March 2006. https://newversenews.blogspot.com/2006/03/chomsky-grilling-linguica.html 

_____  “Patterns of Animus” Jacket2: 24 September 2020 https://jacket2.org/commentary/patterns-animus 

Questions? please contact Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

texturepress@beyondutopia.com 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Interview with Bill Kara, CEO and Founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games

Typing is so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget that it is a skill that must be learned. How can learning to type be engaging, effective, and even fun? TeachMe has developed typeracer, a game-based typing instruction program that helps students learn to type and also how to create documents and to interact. Welcome to an interview with Bill Kara, CEO and founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.

1. What is your name and your background?

My name is Bill Kara and I’m the CEO/founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.  I oversee the company’s operations, growth strategies and product development. A lifelong gamer and entrepreneur, I’ve been in the gaming industry for over 20 years and have a passion for blending gaming and learning. I previously co-founded gaming company Hallpass Media, which was acquired in a roll up to create Jam City in 2011. Prior to Hallpass Media I founded Addicting Games which was acquired by Atom Entertainment before being purchased by Viacom shortly afterwards in 2006.

 

2. How did you get interested in e-learning? 

With two young daughters at home, I wanted to create games aimed at making learning skills fun and rewarding with TeachMe; experiences that offer more than just superficial fun on the surface. I’d always been interested in making learning more accessible through games and when I saw existing content out there was full of messages you wouldn’t want your kids to see (not to mention the titles were just really low quality), created by people that weren’t really passionate about either education or gaming as a hobby, I decided to create TeachMe as a way to fill that void. I wanted to combine these worlds of learning and play in a powerful new way with a vision that could change the lives of millions of children around the world.

 

 3.  Why are typing skills important now? 

Typing remains a fundamental skill, and it is one of the most foundational, yet important life skills you can learn. Learning to type fast and accurately has so many real world applications in this day-and-age - it’s an essential skill for anyone working with a computer (which is just about any profession) in any capacity. Typing effectively helps you to work comfortably and more efficiently, it aids in timely communication with colleagues and customers, creating documents, and finding new information and much more.

 

 

 

4.  What is your philosophy about skill-building in an e-learning environment?

Teachers want a powerful tool to complement their expertise, their passion, their skill. Parents want the best education possible for their children. Children want to play online, to master a skill, to feel like they’re growing and learning. With that in mind, we realized that education was moving in one direction and entertainment was moving in another. As parents, we have very little insight into how our kids are learning, what areas they found challenging and the speed they were progressing. And after further research we found a lack of e-learning resources customized to empower the strongest students to continue to excel while addressing the learning gaps faced by those that may be struggling a bit. We hope that games like TypeRacer, alongside the other offerings on our TeachMe properties help fulfill both objectives that also prioritizes fun.

 

5.  What is your program and how does it work?

TeachMe’s games and apps bring new meaning to the phrase “customized learning”. We teach students to master a skill instead of simply answering a question. And the games change based on who’s playing: their mastery of that skill, as well as their experience levels. As the learner gets better, the game — the curriculum — changes to match the optimal level of difficulty. Players pay attention longer and they learn more, which helps ensure their time online is never wasted.

 

As part of the TeachMe family of products, TypeRacer, allows people to race each other by typing quotes from books, movies, and songs. It is the first multiplayer typing game on the web. Millions of people from all over the globe have completed hundreds of millions of races on TypeRacer, improving their typing speed by as much as 50 words-per-minute.

 

6.  Please provide an example of a success :) 

As parents and kids grapple with back to school season in this uncertain time, we want to ease their transition back into the learning environment in a way that’s fun and engaging. We’ve made sure that the TeachMe experience can be accessed in any setting, with any device, anytime. I believe our achievements this year are a testament to how much students, teachers, and parents value learning tools that authentically combine practice and play. This year we’ve seen over 31MM users on Math Games, also part of our TeachMe product offering. With the re-launch of TypeRacer we’re also expecting to see the number of users grow 

 


Monday, September 28, 2020

Interview with Leanne Sherred, Expressable, Online Speech Therapy. Innovators in E-Learning Series.

Speech therapy has long been associated with improved skills in reading and writing. Further, speech therapy helps students develop self-confidence and stop being bullied. However, speech therapy has often been difficult to obtain for a number of reasons. Now, speech therapy can be conducted online. Welcome to an interview with Leanne Sherred, co-founder of Expressable, an online speech therapy provider. 

1.  What is your name and your background?

Hi! I’m Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP, and I’m a speech-language pathologist. I grew up with a knack for doing cartoon voices and accents as a way to entertain my family and, oddly enough, this silliness helped me develop an ear for the voices and speech of others. It only took one class in college on the fundamentals of speech and language to become hooked. I quickly realized that communication is one of the most innate and fundamental human characteristics, and soon afterwards I decided to become a speech therapist.

I studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained my Master's in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Throughout my career, I practiced speech therapy in a variety of settings, including pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health.

However, overtime I became frustrated by the traditional speech therapy model of care. I thought there had to be a better way. So me, my husband, our goofy dog Kylo, and a few colleagues set out to create Expressable, an online speech therapy provider. 


 Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP

2.  How did you become interested in e-learning / e-knowledge transfer?

I became interested in e-learning and teletherapy because of its potential to make instruction and opportunity more accessible. I say this with a big caveat, of course; there are still too many families in this country without reliable internet access or a modern, internet-connected device. While we still have a lot of work to do, I think online learning ultimately has the potential to be a great equalizer by removing many financial barriers and geographic limitations.

Take speech therapy, for example. As an online provider, we don’t have to pay many of the costs typically associated with running a traditional practice (i.e., expensive rent, overhead, administrative costs, etc). This allows us to pass these cost savings down to families, so they can receive the same quality of care at a fraction of the price.. 

3. What are your core beliefs and philosophies with respect to assistive technology?

I strongly advocate for using any type of tool that can help children and students with learning differences develop academically, socially, or emotionally. Ultimately these tools help children capitalize on their strengths in order to navigate or work around their challenges. Yet, I do think assistive technologies should be just that - assistive - and not necessarily used as a replacement for parents, teachers, mentors, and administrators. 

This is particularly relevant in speech therapy. Interactive tools and apps have their role in improving speech and language skills. However, it’s ultimately the day-to-day reinforcement of speech therapy cues, strategies, and best practices that will make the biggest difference in a child’s life. 



4.  What do you see as the relationship between true learning / skills transfer and different types of assistive technologies?

Skills transfer is our ultimate goal. Whether we do speech therapy in a clinic, hospital, house, or over a video session, there is always a difference between performance and learning. Our job isn’t truly complete until a client is able to generalize their skills to other settings outside of the “speech therapy session.”

Assistive technologies for a speech therapist can refer to different modalities of communicating. For instance, an individual with a motor disorder or autism spectrum disorder might utilize a speech-generating device to communicate their thoughts. Others might use a simpler picture-based system.

At Expressable, we leverage technology to achieve an access point to services that more people can reasonably achieve. The video session itself is held to the same principle that sessions in a clinic would be - the skill isn’t mastered until the client has generalized across all environments. 

5.  What is Expressable?  What was the inspiration behind it?

Expressable is an online speech therapy provider. We started Expressable with a mission to make speech therapy more affordable, convenient, and accessible for everyone. 

There were so many reasons that inspired me to start Expressable. While I absolutely love helping children and families reach their communication goals, working in traditional speech therapy settings for much of my career was disheartening. There were so many obstacles that detracted me from providing quality services. 


For one, many families I was serving were being issued denials by their insurance companies for speech therapy. What’s worse, paying the exorbitant out-of-pocket costs of private therapy is unattainable for many families, and watching them make personal and financial sacrifices was particularly heartbreaking. 

Second, while well-funded schools may offer quality speech therapy on site, many lack the staff and resources to provide adequate services tailored to the needs of each child. Additionally, while children make more progress towards their goals when parents are actively involved, speech therapy delivered in a clinic or school-based setting can limit quality face-to-face time with parents. 

And lastly was geographic access. Families benefit when they work with a speech therapist that’s specialized to their needs. However, selection of speech therapists in rural or remote areas can either be limited, non-existent, or require long commute times (which is frustrating for just about everyone!).

By providing online speech therapy, we’re able to reach more people, lower the point of access, and break down geographic barriers. Best of all, teletherapy makes it easy for parents to attend sessions alongside their child, at a time most convenient for their family, so they can stay in sync with their therapist and promote communication-building skills at home throughout their child’s daily life. 

6.  Please discuss how Expressable works.

It’s really simple! It starts by signing up for a free consultation on our website with a licensed speech therapist. During this call, we work to better understand your needs, communication goals, and answer any questions about Expressable.

If you decide that Expressable is a good fit, we’ll match you with a speech therapist based on your needs, availability, location, and preferences. After that, you simply schedule recurring sessions on a day and time that works best for your family (evenings and weekends included). 

All sessions are delivered online using our HIPAA-compliant video platform (think Zoom or FaceTime, but on the other end is a speech therapist). If you ever have any questions, your therapist is available anytime via secure texting. And finally, our therapists focus on “teaching” children just as much as “coaching” parents, arming them with knowledge and exercises so they can incorporate lessons learned during the sessions at home. 


7.  Please share a few success stories.

Speech therapists are constantly tracking data to meet incremental goals - so every goal met is a success! If we see a client all the way through to the point of dismissal, that’s amazing because it means they’ve met age-appropriate level, functional level, or their own personal goals.

Some goals are more hard-fought. Building communication skills can take time and dedication. Those victories can be some of the sweetest! A few of my favorite clients have been families that get to be the main driver of a child’s first words. Whether it happens during the session or during the week with the parents reporting back - the excitement and joy is always palpable, and we share all of it with them! 

A child on the autism spectrum who engages for a minute more than they previously had, a 10 year-old who now speaks in class without apprehension of being teased for her R sound, an adult who gives a presentation at work without stuttering - I’m lucky enough to say I’ve had many, many success stories! The motivation of our clients and families is always what impresses me the most.

8.  What are two books that you would like to recommend to our readers.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Indeterminacy, Freedom, and Female Authorship in Emily Dickinson’s “All overgrown by cunning moss"

 It is illuminating to assess the impact of one writer’s imagination on that of another, who may be working in isolation, even in another continent. For Emily Dickinson, the work of Charlotte Bronte, publishing under the pseudonym, Currer Bell, was of particular interest, perhaps because of Charlotte’s desire to disguise the fact she was a female, and also that the use of a pseudonym emboldened her to write about transgressive topics, and essentially liberate herself from society’s numerous and sundry cages for women, especially at the time that Dickinson lived, in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

“All overgrown by cunning moss,” is a poem written by Emily Dickinson around the year 1859. It is one of the earlier poems and does not reflect the impact of the Civil War.  The manuscript is in the Houghton Library, and a facsimile can be accessed online.

The poem is quite brief. It consists of three stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABCD and the lines have no consistent metric feet, except to say that they alternate between relatively longer and shorter lines. 

Emily Dickinson wrote and bundled her poems in fascicles. The manuscripts are now in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. 

Emily Dickinson’s poem often deal with death, graves, and mortality, and this poem is no different. The “little cage” of “Currer Bell” is the grave, “all overgrown by cunning moss.” It lies in Haworth, which is the last town that Currer Bell, the pseudonym for Charlotte Bronte, lived. The repetitions of certain words give rise to certain meanings. First, there is “This Bird” (stanza 2), which is capitalized, as is the “Nightingale.”  The grave is overgrown with weeds; it’s the resting place (the final cage) of the name of the nom-de-plume, “Currer Bell.” However, the actual author referred to as the Nightingale, or, Charlotte Bronte, has long escaped, and is in neither nest nor cage. In the poem, Charlotte Bronte is in the eternal green of the Yorkshire hills, and in “other latitudes” which could signify the world of the intellect. Among Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, the “Nightingale,” refers to the creative spirit, and a voice of nature. 

What Emily Dickinson probably did not know was that Haworth was not a charming, verdant town or village when the Brontes lived there.  Instead, it was a grimy mill town with polluted air and water, due to the toxins produced by the textile industry, which had transitioned from a cottage industry (everyone had a loom in their front room), to own of dirty, crowded factories and no sewer systems. The life expectancy was just 25 years of age when the Brontes lived at Haworth (Cahill, 2018). 

Nevertheless, death permeates the poem, and the statement that “the Yorkshire hills are green – “ (Dickinson, 1999) juxtaposes the green of life with final “cage” that keeps “Currer Bell.” It's a deceptively simple poem, and the term “cunning moss” is probably key to it all. The “cunning moss” – the intelligent growing plant life that sprouts up to cover and disguise, is keeping her secret safe, while “cage” (the grave) which is “interspersed with weed” contrasts with the “other latitudes” and the Yorkshire hills.  

Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, “All overgrown by cunning moss” becomes a fascinating exploration of indeterminacy. The grave and what it has inside it are ultimately impossible to capture, define, or identify. The name of the person is only the pseudonym, and the captor, “This Bird” have long gone, not found in any nest, or in any state of being, for that matter. The “frosts too sharp” precipitated translocation; the sense that a bird (entity) willed itself to “other latitudes” which seem safer, albeit impermanent.  

In this poem, indeterminacy is a kind of freedom, even as it means erasure and the impossibility of recognition in the mortal coil wherein the pseudonym existed, at least in sufficient capacity to escape and to thus defy a socially constructed form of being.  


REFERENCES

Cahill, J. (Aug 11, 2018). “The ultimate guide to Bronte country: Haworth, Yorkshire.” Beyond the Lamp Post. 11 Aug 2018. https://www.beyondthelamppost.com/bronte-country-haworth-yorkshire/  Accessed Sept 16, 2020.


Dickinson, E. (n.d.) “All overgrown by cunning moss, J148, Fr146.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Houghton Library, Harvard University. https://www.edickinson.org/editions/2/image_sets/74779. Accessed 11 August 2020.


Dickinson, E. (1999). “All overgrown by cunning moss, (146).” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52200/all-overgrown-by-cunning-moss-146 Accessed 16 Sept 2020.


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