Pop-Up Palace of Memory: Alhambra

Originally uploaded by anselm23

Gordon’s post about Al-Andalus from several months ago (update: ok, 2+ years ago!) has been on my mind (he has a great post today about 24 phone apps that can change the way you live and work, and I’ve already downloaded several of them).

Anyway, about Al-Andalus, Gordon writes:

Of course, it’s only an advantage on a group level but that is one of evolution’s many, many grey areas… Grey areas that Darwin himself freely admitted were there.

How does this relate to western magical history?

Because magic is like the gay giraffe. Whenever it has shown up -and it shows up everywhere- historians have brushed it aside. “That’s not a magic book. It’s an astronomy book.” And in the ninth century the difference was what, exactly? (By the way, pause to enjoy the mental image of a historian literally brushing aside a giraffe wearing lipstick and eyeliner.)

Whenever you see an historian referring to an ancient text as medical, mathematical or scientific you need to train your nose to smell out the conjure. Because, chances are, it’s right there under the surface.

So why is this old entry from two+ years ago on someone else’s blog tugging at my mind today? Well, it begins with a plan for a book. A colleague of mine is annoyed with how a specific project in her class has been going for a while, and I had the idea that I could assist her by combining it with the technology from all these pop-up books I’ve been buying about how to make pop-up books.

Pop-up books are an interesting technology. They’re easily made of simple paper, and yet with a combination of geometry and glue, you can make a 2D-ish surface become 3D-ish. The bends in the page become walls and roofs, and when combined with drawing and collage they can become tremendous vehicles for storytelling and imagination. (By names and images are all powers awakened and reawakened).

So of course, I had to provide “proof of concept”. And so I made this little layout as an exercise in creating a Spanish abcedarium, “A est por al-Andalus, y La Alhambra.” My Spanish is terrible, but you get the idea: her students would learn to build pop-up books by building fourteen pages akin to this one — each of which would teach a different pop-up structure, and one of the provinces or regions of España. Interesting proof of concept, no? Teach kids some engineering skills related to hinges, tabs, and folds; some mathematics and geometry; some paper-folding and drawing techniques; and a little bit of a language and culture that may be critical to their long-term survival…

Sounds familiar, no? Sounds an awful lot like grimoires, no? Or maybe more like a particular grimoire, one from al-Andalus at the height of that place’s power. No, we’re not going to brew goat piss and dog’s blood and mercury into an incense that will give eternal life; but maybe we combine art and mechanics and basic materials with a decidedly-odd symbol-system in order to teach kids things they didn’t know they needed to know — things about color and graphic design, about story and engineering, about mathematics and geometry and relationships and right angles, and wars in other times and places, and who are you, really? Are you the sort of person who gets stuff done? Or are you the sort of person who hangs back and lets others do all the work?

A Digression to Magic
I read somewhere that Israel Regardie, the mid-20th century magician, heard that someone was building the Enochian tablets as three-dimensional objects, with physical pyramids on the tablets, carved and painted and symbolified in a way that gave the powers of the tablets. He was horrified, and wondered why anyone would give the Enochian powers that much room — he said they were difficult enough to deal with as two-dimensional beings, much less having actual space in which to move.

My friend Scott says, “A picture is worth a thousand words; but a part is worth a thousand pictures.” And it turns out that a pop-up card can be sigilized just as easily as your notebook. In fact, it’s more so. It’s like squeezing your word-set into a machine: a machine that works every time you pop open the hinge. And so a how-to-build pop-up books pop-up book is potentially a very powerful grimoire indeed, because it will give you techniques for making your sigils three dimensional.

My life has gone into overdrive the last two weeks. The two weeks I’ve spent dabbling with pop-up cards.

Returning to Educational Theory
Gordon says, and I re-quote:

Whenever you see an historian referring to an ancient text as medical, mathematical or scientific you need to train your nose to smell out the conjure. Because, chances are, it’s right there under the surface.

Which means that most of the books in the Design Lab are actually magic books. They’re books about how to make mathematics do your bidding; they’re about how to make healing salves for your hands, and how to learn the stars. They’re about how to draw, and how to learn to memorize, and how to learn to relearn, and how to build machines that talk and fly, and how to cast metal, and how to build mechanisms that can move the world.

I’ve stocked a library for children (and adults) with books that belong in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts. And if your school has a design lab, or a design library, or even a how-to section in the regular library, so have you. You have a library shelf filled with grimoires, that will summon powerful spirits to aid and assist your students.

The Challenge…
Of course, the challenge is that these books must be used. You can’t simply wave students at a group of books on the shelf, and say, “follow the directions in those books to the letter.” It doesn’t work that way.

No, the challenge is that you, the teacher, have to go through the grimoires laboriously, and demonstrate that you are learning the skill. You are learning how to learn. You are building and managing the process that you are hoping to teach them. You are showing students, in front of them, that the skill with knife and glue stick and cutting board and rotary cutter and T-square, can be learned and practiced and improved upon.

… And the Palace
And yet. And yet, to have the grimoire is not enough. The medieval daemon-summoning books had a context, and so do we (whether as wizards like Gary Stager or as teachers like Jason Miller. Or did I mix those up?). One has to go into the palace, too. The Palace of Memory.

None of what I’ve told you about pop-up books is useful if you haven’t got something to say or show. One of my kids learned the basic technique shown in this Alhambra card in two minutes. It’s easy: make two parallel cuts equal in length to each other, perpendicular to the fold line of the page; and then score and fold the “hinges” at the outer edges of the cuts. Congratulations, you now know the basics of the box cut. Cut the upper line slightly longer than the lower, and pinch the triangle: you’ll get a triangle or a roofline.

But. But — currently — he doesn’t have the imaginative chops to take the basic box-cut and turn it into something else.  I make the basic box cut, and the triangle cut, and a world of options opens before me: this can be a house… oh, if I cut the paper right, this can be an arcade of a monastery, or a palace… oh, it can be in Spain… oh it can be the Alhambra, in Andalusia… which makes me think of that entry by Gordon… And as various potentials emerge, the potential for the reënchantment of the world comes along with it.  There’s a whole collection of stories that can be inspired by, and built by, the box-cut… but you must know the stories to tell them this way.

So, if you haven’t been teaching students how to retain information and store it in memory, both visually (by image) and by geography (by place), they’ll only have one piece of the necessary strategy for learning this engineering… this magic. Memory allows kids to have the ingrained symbolic context to read this as the red stone of the Alhambra and the fancy Moorish arches of the Court of Lions, no matter how poorly my penknife executed the work. The green paper becomes the paradis, the walled garden; the blue paper becomes the sky, with the surrounding lands of Al-Andalus forever hidden from the servants within the walls; the white, the mystery; and the square pavilion at the center, the place where the page folds, is the canopied space where imagination runs riot.

WIth the right Palace of Memory, you can say to students, “build me a pop-up book that shows the first seven Presidents of the United States” or “the ten Native American tribes you know” or “Seven stories from the adventures of Lewis and Clark.” You have fewer options if all they know is Pokemon and the prepositions.

Reclaiming Ourselves
Politicians, parents, students, colleagues, and “reformers” expect us teachers to be wizards – capable of protecting students from difficult truths, attacks on their physical bodies, and assaults on their mental capacities.

It sounds like we need to be wizards. So… let’s be wizards.

Via Flickr:
One of my colleagues teaches a foreign language unit on the regions or provinces of Spain. The kids make posters for the various regions. I thought, what if they made pop-up books instead? This is Andalucia, inspired by the Alhambra.

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  1. […] And so, paper engineering.  Paper has a lot of advantages. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, it’s ubiquitous, it comes in amazing colors and numerous sizes.  It can be bent, cut, folded, wet and re-shaped, and even cut up and re-made in the lab or classroom.  And it can be used to teach geometry (through origami and kirigami), or to teach pop-up book construction (which teaches geometry), or to make boxes as part of game design and sculptural elements that can be used to teach about architecture. […]

    • Yeah, it looks like it’s from 2010… but it’s been rather like chess —a mental virus lurking in my head, waiting to take over the host. Not as catchy as a gay giraffe, perhaps. But the idea that any book about astronomy, mathematics or medicine might also be a magical book… heck, schools are stuffed with them. But their users and expositors don’t think of them as magic, even though they are.

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