Sunday, January 25, 2009

The value of beans

A few weeks back Roberto, who has done pretty much all of our tiling, building, and plumbing work over the past ten years here in Mexico, buzzed at the apartment on a day when there was actually someone there. The economic recession has bitten in Mexico City as it has elsewhere, and Roberto's work was getting more scarce. He was thinking of getting a taxi licence and wondered about the prospects of borrowing some money to get one.

We weren't sure a taxi was a good bet, so we decided against lending the money.

Instead, we suggested he might like to take some time over in Coatepec working on a bit of house maintenance and we'd pay him what he needed for the licence. That way if the idea came unglued it would only be a bit of tiempo perdido (lost time) that went down the tubes.

So, he's been tiling and plastering and repairing by day and helping with some coffee production in the evenings.

Luxuriating in the bounty of this year's crop, I have been playing faster and looser with the beans than has been the case in the past. When we first began making a bit of coffee from the two robusta plants Roberto and I had naively planted in (what is now) the front courtyard of the house -- the first plants to be laid down here -- it was a matter of jealously tending every single bean. Nothing could be lost, and marginal beans were always admitted to the roast (not unlike marginal learner applicants whenever course numbers drop). So, while de-husking the beans this year I have been going for speed, and more than a few beans just fall to the floor or the ground and get swept into the bin later.

But once Roberto was on the job these beans were being picked up, and he was gently chiding me about my indifference to these fallen beans. In my head, of course, I was remembering untold bosses of construction companies I worked for in holidays as a university student. You'd let a dropped nail go because, as we were constantly reminded, "time is money". Yesterday's nails are today's beans in that scheme of things.

Roberto went after the fallen ones. I'd say "there are plenty of beans, so a few spilled ones won't hurt" -- or, at least, that's what I have been trying to say in Spanish.

Today we went out to the coffee land for an hour or so just to have a look around. There were a few ripe beans on the trees and even though we'll not be able to use any more -- the next picking will get sold at the markets -- I couldn't resist picking a few ripe ones and putting them in a basket. Roberto, meanwhile, was liking the place, where there is no electricity or other "urban" amenities. "It's like the ranchito that my grandparents lived on", he said. "They only had a parrafin lamp", he added. "Everything else was firewood, or done by hand".

We strolled through the trees, picking a few beans. He said he remembered when he used to live on the ranchito with his grandparents how they'd sometimes buy some green beans for roasting. "They would buy as many as would fit in three sardine cans", he said, gesturing to make the shape of those well-known oval-shaped cans that are in every supermarket and corner store in Mexico. "That was all they could afford. They would roast them on a comal (the flat circular metal tray used to heat tortillas over a flame). Then when the beans were roasted they would grind them using a stone 'rolling pin' on a stone grinding pad".

In that memory the "chased-down fallen to the floor" beans around the husking machine acquired a perspective that reminded me all too clearly of the politics (or lack of them) of abundance. It was a sobering moment, and one I doubt will be comfortable until the memory fades.

If it ever does.

Friday, January 23, 2009

READ 500-04 Students

Explore the following sites and think about what they mean in terms of children's literacy practices out-of-school, and the implications of these practices for as their teacher in-school.

Thanks Guy, for this list!


Once you've read James Paul Gee's article, "Lucidly Functional Language," visit and read through some of the how-to sites for a range of strategy card games played by 8 year-olds:

Friday, January 09, 2009

Washing and drying coffee beans on the roof

After the shelled (or "skinned") beans have been left to ferment in water for a couple of days -- to get rid of the slimy coating that remains once the flesh has been "despulped" -- it is time to give the beans a good scrub and to then lay them out to dry for several days. The "real" bean is inside the shells that are visible in the clip that follows. After several days in the sun the outside husk gets very dry and has separated from the "real" (green) bean inside. At this time the beans can be husked and then roasted.

The roof on the house has good room for laying out beans to dry. Having filled the floor space in the gazebo it was time to make use of the roof.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A little coffee picking, Coatepec style

Gabriel very kindly arranged for some local pickers to pick for two days to complete the first full pick of this year's bumper harvest. We are hoping the same pickers will be able to come back in another month or so and do the second pick which, at this stage, looks as though it will be larger than the first. We will just sell the second pick, however, because we have already got all and more than we will be able to process comfortably from the first pick. As a subsequent post will affirm, the roof of the house is already fast being covered by coffee beans that are drying in readiness for husking. If the weather stays good there might even be a first roast happening by this weekend. None too soon. Last year's mix is by now tasting rather familiar. Good, but familiar. With luck there'll be enough this year to do a real variety of roastings, from light to very dark.

Meanwhile, here is a short sequence of family style coffee picking. A very social scene.

At the end of the day the sun was practically down and the half moon was in full view as the various bags (lonas) of picked coffee were being prepared for weighing and our share of the spoils was being separated out and dropped into the back of Midnight for ferrying home. We witnessed a lovely impromptu language lesson involving the wee boy who appears in the video, as the women took him between "lona" (the bags) and "luna" (the moon visible in the sky).

The days are so rich just now. Going back to paid work is going to be even harder this year than last. And we all know how hard *that* was, don't we? Eeep. Scary thought.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Coatepec, Veracruz: Magical town (pueblo magico)

After watching the shaky raw amateur video of our coffee land, here's a professional break for your eyes. It's a tourism promo video of the town of Coatepec. There's a nice easy Spanish commentary that is pleasantly accessible for non speakers of Spanish with a bit of help from the guide words.


The "front yard"

There is a reasonably clear area near the entry to the land, and this is where we have built the workshop/toolshed and the open kitchen/cooking area. Eventually we'll add a small overnight dwelling there as well, but that'll likely be a year or two yet. There are some coffee plants beneath tall trees in this clear space and numerous plants that had been living on the roof of the house in the centre of town for want of space in the tiny garden areas there (along with a few small citrus trees and some seedlings taken from the two robusta coffee plants at the house) are being transplanted among the thinly dispersed coffee trees. The video is plenty shaky, again, but you get the idea.

Michele was monstered by some insects while breaking into some coffee picking, but soon had the upper hand. Some of the coffee plants have beans that are yellow rather than red when mature, and you might just glimpse a few of them at the end of the sequence.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Getting to the coffee bean

There are two layers to get through before you get to the actual coffee bean that you roast and make coffee from. The first process involves getting the flesh off the red "cherry" that is picked from the tree. The second involves husking the "bean" that emerges from the cherry, once it has been cleaned and dried. [Basically, after the cherry has been "skinned" you take the beans and soak them in water for a couple of days. This process is called fermentation, and it gets rid of a slimy coating on the beans. You wash the beans thoroughly and then put them out to dry, which can take up to a fortnight. Once the beans are completely dry you put them through a husking machine, revealing a small green bean. This is the bean that you then roast.]

The video shows the first process being done with a manually operated machine. The "skins" that are spat out the back of the machine make a great compost.

Book as friend

Writing a book is always hard work, often involves plenty of frustration, but nonetheless is typically compelling work. Even when it seems not to be going well it is usually a whole lot easier to keep coming back to the task and trying to steer it through a rocky patch than it is to just leave it alone and hope it will fix itself in time or, perhaps, disappear. It’s always good to get to the end, to send the typescript off, to work through the production and publication phases and, eventually, to see the work appear. Always.

At the same time, certain of the books one works on have a way of becoming personal favourites. One feels closer to them than to others. They may feel more “honest”, or unforced. They may seem to have come together better than others. They may have been more fun to work on. Whatever.

During recent years we have had a great deal of enjoyment working on our various “New Literacies” books: the two editions of New Literacies and A New Literacies Sampler. For me (Colin), in particular, the second edition of New Literacies has always felt especially close. It was born amidst the process of mending a couple of fractured vertebrae, providing a focus that helped keep at bay the fear associated with suddenly discovering you are very lucky still to be able to walk. At the same time, the book practically wrote itself. It was a rare day that did not see another 1000 or more words added to the draft as we co-ordinated writing from Cairns in Queensland and Montclair in New Jersey, respectively -- and this was without very much cutting and pasting from existing stock. The ideas were often familiar and had been evolving for a while, but there was a strong sense of the book having its own script and that we were really just serving as the medium for it to express itself. It came together quickly, rarely involved slow or frustrating periods, and generated a lot of fun and laughs along the way. Michele would be glued to "Project Runway" on Bravo TV of a Wednesday night while we were developing our study of "Blogging Project Runway" as a mass participatory online engagement. I'd be transcribing Larry Lessig's keynote from the conference in Oslo to help frame the chapter on remix, while Michele was diving all over the internet checking that key links were still live. And all the while we were keeping a tally of references to ensure that Wikipedia would come out as our most frequently-used source -- since we believed there was an important point to be pushed here.

It felt good as we watched the book coming together. It was a fun experience all the way through, and when the author copies arrived with the happy bright and smiling cover it felt about as good as we can imagine it getting. It was one of those books where we could honestly say “if we never publish another book, and even if it doesn’t sell many or others don’t like it much, this will always be a book that we’ll be pleased to have done”.

It’s been out for a couple of years now and we are about to start working toward a new edition. But we are not in too much of a hurry because the happiness of the book lives on. It has treated us wonderfully well and people have been very very kind to it. There have been some lovely moments, like Mike Johnson’s review in the British Journal of Educational Technology – one of those rare (at least, for us) occasions when you feel that someone has really understood as though from the inside just what it was that you were trying to do – or the review by a student who said that she’d had a great semester full of books she was pleased to have read, but that of all those books New Literacies was the one she had also enjoyed reading. Moments like these make it all worthwhile. They are powerful reinforcers.

Now we are beginning to get a second bite of the cherry, with the publication of the Spanish language edition. We had a good feeling about this edition from the time we found that it was being published by a press, Ediciones Morata, that has been going for more than 80 years – it in fact predates Franco and managed to survive that particular regime – and is highly esteemed by Spanish academics. But it was only once we had the book in our hands that we learned that it had been co-published by the Spanish government’s Ministry of Education, Social Policy and Sport. That felt – feels – good. So did the care taken with the cover design and layout. The look and feel of the book is great.

Most recently, we were directed by the publisher to an academic blog where some very nice things were being said about the book from an academic point of view. What particularly caught our attention, however, was a wonderful interchange between an academic and the man who had done the translation, Pablo Manzano Bernárdez. The academic – a specialist in information literacy – was applauding the high quality of the translation, the care that had obviously been taken with the work and, notably, the helpfulness of the translator’s notes. He also raised the matter of recognition of the work of translators and noted how there seemed to be no copyright assigned to this labour.

The translator’s response took our pleasure in this book to a new level. He expressed appreciation of the kind comments made about the translation and said he felt confident that his own contributions to the text in the form of translator notes would enjoy due legal protection. Also, while it might be nice for translators to get more specific recognition it is common for their role to pass with relatively little fanfare. But since the quality of the translation had been noted he would take the opportunity to make a few comments. One was that the material contained in the book had required him to take quite a bit of time to familiarize himself with cultural aspects that were new to him. He had to spend considerable time online hunting down the artifacts and practices being described, and did so. This was followed by a comment that, for us, was pure gold. He said that what might look like an arduous task had, in fact, turned out to be one of the most interesting and gratifying translation works he has done to date in his career of more than 20 years of translating works for publication. And then still more gold to finish off with. He said that one of the standout features of working on translations with Ediciones Morata is the regular and high quality consultative process between those involved with producing the book and the translators. He referred to the dialogical nature of the process and said this was a hallmark of translations by Ediciones Morata, and how it contributed to the quality of the translations – a quality that, unfortunately, is often absent in foreign language editions of works.

It would be truly difficult not to feel close to a book that has enjoyed the generous – bounteous – collegiality that has attended New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning, at every step of its journey to date. Truly a case of book as friend.

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