Monday, July 27, 2015

Worth the Walk

Every day, my great grandfather Ferdinando Quattrone walked to work in a group of four. He set out from the 2500 block of 10th Street in Philadelphia and walked to the Stetson Hat Company where 5th Street intersects with Germantown and Montgomery Avenues.

Our family patriarch, Greg Pratico--born in the 1930s--remembers my great grandfather's breakfast. Greg said, "Before he left the house, Ferd had a shot of VO and a raw egg. And then they walked. To take any sort of transportation twice a day, everyday, it would cost too much. You could walk."

Using Google Maps I tracked the possible walking routes for my grandfather. Each route would take, according to Google's estimates, an hour and a half over the course of 4.4 miles. On top of a day's work in the Stetson factory, Ferdinando walked just under 9 miles a day. 

In many respects, Stetson proved to be a great company for my grandfather to work for and worth the walk. Melissa Mandell of Historical Society of Pennsylvania writes at "It provided employees with health benefits, a building and loan association, a hospital, a baseball field, vacations with pay, a life insurance plan, and a pension plan—in short, a way of life."

While none of the twenty-five building campus remains--eight were demolished in the early 40s for scrap metal for the war effort and the rest were razed in 1979--the intersecting streets remain unchanged.

So, I'm wondering--for old times' sake--if any family wants to meet on 10th Street for a shot of VO and an egg and then go on the 4.4 mile walk? 

We won't have to walk back...and maybe we can skip the shot of VO and raw egg too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Let's just remember the dancing

For now, let's just remember the dancing.

In the old photographs from the 1940s and 1950s everyone in the family is always around and involved with one another. Talking with family today, they tell stories which always involve everyone else. It might be impossible for my aunts and uncles and cousins to share any story without referencing others in the family. Family was family and family was friend.

They ate together. Laughed together. Worked together. Lived together. And danced together.

So, for now, let's just remember the dancing because much of their life happened together. My family was connected with one another.

And happy.

And they danced in little rooms.   Young and old. Children. Cousins.  The hip, young daughters and the lovable, laughing fathers. 

My mom says that they always thought that everyone grew up that way. Amazing, isn't it? Except when I watch the family film and video and hear the stories, I think, of course they thought that. If you lived that every day, why wouldn't you think it?

Or wish it for others.

My wife leaned over my shoulder and watched this clip of the dancing and said, "See, that looks fun. That is what makes me think growing up together in the city must have been so much fun."

They did have fun. They danced in little rooms.

And I am starting to "get it"--my aunt would be angry and disappointed--offended--when I missed a family event as a teenager or a twenty-something...or a thirty-something.

The family who me, raised each other from the beginning--from the turn of the century arrivals in New York Harbor and leaned on each other, and loved each other. And if the photographs or the stories or lectures to go to more family events from loving family weren't enough, there is now the 8mm film. 

And I get it. I don't know why I didn't see it this clearly until now. Maybe it is because--more than just the one clip above--we have clip after clip of the same joy, same togetherness. They were always together.

No matter what was happening in the rest of the world, it seems my family found the time to squeeze into one their little rooms and danced.

And they laughed and thought it was the biggest space in the world. The only space they needed.

Because how much room do you need to be happy together? And, for me, this clip of the dancing speaks loudly. I get it. Their lives happened together

But, even though life has changed and we no longer live within walking distance of each other, for now, let's just remember the dancing.

Let's just remember the dancing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Template of Public Spaces

Rome has always been the template for public spaces: 
  • The Coliseum
  • The Vatican
  • The Forum
  • The Palatine Hill
  • The Pantheon
Marc Anthony's funeral oration--public. Where where most ancient Romans buried?--via Appia Antica (alongside Rome's most well-travelled road). If it happened in Rome, it happened in a public space. Do I need to direct you to the story of Julius Caesar...

Romans could not help themselves. They loved their public spaces. And more often than not, public spaces meant public beauty:
  • 300+ churches
  • 2000+ fountains
  • 10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother.

One can't walk down any street and not see at least a church, a fountain, or a shrine--often all three. But deeper than the beauty, the public spaces in Rome christened a change in the world.

For all that was public about Rome, it was still pitch black at night, and most people literally lived a colorless existence--drab clothing, homes, and tools. Earth tones: browns and grays. Stone and dirt. That was Rome. Yet, it was the public space--and more specifically the shrines to the Blessed Mother--where we see the first public evidence of humanity emerging from the darkness. 

The shrines have been up for centuries. When candles lit the Roman streets, citizens placed paintings of the Virgin Mary behind them to help light their way. Each painting is different and can be found on the corners of buildings or near the closest intersection of narrow Roman streets.

In the picture included here, the color of the building is typical of a Roman building. Today, no one is allowed to alter much when you buy a building in Rome. When restored, all buildings must be kept their original color. Walking Rome, we see the limited color palette available so long ago: the earthy tones of yellows, oranges, and browns. Occasionally, one might find a pale blue structure--a sure sign of wealth. In order to make "blue" the lapis stone from the Middle East was needed. As a matter of fact, some frescoes in St. Francis' Basilica are scarred with scratch marks from commoners fighting to scrape away the blue with their fingernails--if they could collect it, they could resell it.

In some respects, this was the first time people were seeing color. Imagine living in a time where the only color you saw might be on the fabric of wealthy merchants and politicians, or painted on the walls and ceilings of churches--all in public spaces. 

The public spaces of Rome retain their beauty, mystery, and emotional ties. Yet, I struggle to compare those public spaces to anything we have here today in America. Where do we go to see something modern for the first time? To see something revolutionary and representative of wealth and beauty? To see something which simultaneously awe? To see something so tempting that people can't but to try and steal it?

The 10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother may have lit the way for Romans to walk from street to street, but they also began to lead the world into a state where color was seen by everybody, everywhere--and that course of revolution is indeed the template for all public spaces.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Being a Better Listener

In 1998 I published professionally as an educator for the first time. As a middle school teacher three years into it, I was swimming in curriculum, planning field trips (as team leader), running team meetings (as team leader), managing low-level discipline (as team leader) and then I scrambled of crumbs of guidance around literacy, writing, and conventions. 

Looking back on it today, I'm amazed I made the time to write and revise something--anything--for publication. It would be sixteen years before I would publish professionally again--even though my memory of this article and what drove my writing then is nothing but pure joy.

So, why did I write it? And why did I abandon writing for publication for sixteen years afterwards?

The article, Seeing the Light Through Antony and Cleopatra focused on directing middle school students in the middle school play.

That year I employed the technique of theater with the lights on--as Shakespeare's plays would have been experienced in the daylight. Without summarizing the article, I'll add that I spent most of the article describing what impact keeping the lights on had on the actors and their interaction with the audience...and what that meant for our goal in telling the story.

You can't find the article or issue (Fall 1998, vol. 2, issue 3) online anymore with the exception of the very grainy, poor quality scan of my article which I stumbled upon. Shakespeare Magazine, published by Georgetown University, has been long out of print. I can't even find a copy of any issue on eBay.

That said, I am wondering what conditions were in place for me, a young teacher struggling like all of us do, to inspire an attempt at publishing?

Significant time studying writing under the guidance of National Writing Project programs (not to mention exposure to the seminal research of Don Graves, Don Murray, Lucy Calkins) helps me make sense of what happened.

Outside of teaching, my experiences at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA--more specifically, the people who taught me at S&C--planted the fundamental skills which I constantly return to in my teaching: honesty and generosity.

Those two virtues mean that when I work with kids I have learned to truly listen--not with any agenda in mind. That is what we did at rehearsal. I learned not to tell kids what to do. They talked it out, and I mentored a lot by listening.

Similar to conferring with young writers in class, yes, I have a tool belt of ideas and techniques ready, but I try to listen and respond to what they share and not with my predetermined, narrow predisposition. I set aside the I know better attitude and invoke an I'll listen better attitude. Sometimes the tools I bring to conferences are useless. Sometimes the best tools I possess are the two ears I was born with. 

Sometimes that is all our students want and all they need.

Honesty means more than telling a kid the truth. It means being completely there for him/her in that moment. And this idea blends with the idea of generosity. In a profession where curriculum, data, and standards drive a lot of what we do, it takes a generous approach to set that aside to make room for the unpredictable needs student.

Teach the writer, not the writing.

In 1998, something sparked within me. The students in the play gave me confidence in my voice. The time we spent in rehearsal after school--highly social and reflective--laid the foundation for me as a teacher and a writer. 

By writing how honesty and generosity drove our learning, I found a bit of a life preserver in the early stages of my career. While I can still remember the pride and validation I felt in publishing, it was still no match for the joy I shared in with the kids who were members of those plays.

It was the listening that mattered. The listening was embedded with the honesty and generosity. And the listening has been behind much of my resurrection as a writer. 

It is no coincidence that my writing life began to take off again when I (re)learned to be a better listener (conferrer) in the classroom. It makes me (want to) laugh that I had figured out something very important so early in my career, but that it took nearly two decades for me to figure out that I actually needed to do it in the classroom too--not just on the stage or athletic field.