Inspiring An/Other Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky: A Reader Response by Jennifer L. Fontaine

Inspiring An/Other Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky: A Reader Response by Jennifer L. Fontaine

In “An/other Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky: Green washing, Curriculum and Eco-justice” Ng-A-Fook engages currere as a complicated conversation, as part of  what Pinar (2012) calls “an ongoing project of self- understanding” (p. 47) where he contemplates the reconciliation of eco-justice and lived experience, and explains how he is using his insights to reconstruct educational environments. The concept of complicated conversation continues to inform Ng-A-Fook’s work, and currently I am benefiting from his insights in our Introduction to Curriculum Studies class here at the University of Ottawa.

Working through his memories of the past, thoughts on the present, and hopes for the future, Ng A Fook (2010) constructs a hunting allegory where the teacher is a hunter of narrative holding a “narrative shotgun” close at hand (p. 42).  In his analogy, the bullets are “educational buckshot” distributed by “corporate enclosures” (p.64). Perhaps we must choose if we accept the ammunition presented to us, carefully considering their potential for  “socialization into consumption and society” (Pinar, 2012, p.185). To elaborate, my interpretation of this allegory is that as teachers, we wait quietly like the hunter: listening to different narratives that will influence our response. Often we struggle to hear the ecological narrative, since it is sometimes drowned out by the “urban cluttered noise we live in” (Jardine quoted in Ng-A-Fook, 2010, p.93). Nonetheless, as educators we must listen carefully, and consider critically before we ultimately decide what narrative response we fire back at a bell ringing in the empty sky.

I admire Ng-A-Fook’s struggle with the often conflicting pulls of environmental justice and other powerful narratives that influence our lives. I personally struggle with how best to make socially and environmentally responsible choices in a fast-paced consumer society of urban sprawl. His writing often evoking picturesque imagery, Ng-A-Fook (2010) refers to an ecological narrative, (also a narrative of ecstasy) which he describes as both an earthy drumbeat that a bird dances to and as the nearby Kichi Sibi River calling to us. I understand this narrative to be sort of an ecological conscience, or a spiritual calling to be stewards of our environments. I relate well to this narrative and find myself recalling personal experiences of taking in the ecstasy of such ecological narratives: running along the river, biking in Gatineau park, or camping with my family.

However, the imagining ends quickly as the ecological narrative is sharply contrasted against a narrative of death, when Ng-A-Fook (2010) recalls clear-cut trees, chainsaws and gas, the smell of pesticide, dioxins, and the pulp and paper mill “pissing profitable effluents” in the rural Ontario logging community he grew up in (p.42). He recalls the tragic, unheard narrative of his father: a doctor in the community who saw cancer in many of his mill-worker patients. This time the reference to the bell ringing in the sky evokes a church bell ringing at a funeral, and I wonder how many of us are conscious of these painful narratives of suffering as we continue with our daily consumption. Many people – conscious of the narrative – fire back loudly into the sky for all of us to hear: with responses like environmental/social justice documentaries or like the rallying song lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s (1988): “If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?” Do we hear these cries for help in the empty sky? Do we listen? Do we act? Do we really care? How do we reconcile this narrative of death with the narrative of our daily, consumptive lives?

The narrative of death is just one of many narratives Ng-A-Fook describes, and refers to as a bell ringing in the empty sky. Perhaps the bell ringing is simply a reference to education – a school bell ringing, calling us to come and listen and learn. In this case then, within the field of public education, multiple narrative sirens call on us: we must decide whether or not those narratives guide us, and how to respond.

As part of his regressive work, Ng-A-Fook (2010) recalls asking his father as a boy when it would be time to go hunting (perhaps a memory of being connected with nature), and his father replies with a Guyanese expression “just now” (p. 43) – which could mean anything from in five minutes to two days. I imagine the young Ng-A-Fook being dissatisfied with this response and growing impatient. I sense a similar tone of impatience in Ng-A-Fook’s progressive work, where he explains his hopes for the future of provoking a narrative of environmentally responsible citizens. “There is always just enough time available for justice to come, just now” (p. 43) he explains, echoing his father’s words and prompting us to take action to help reconcile these narratives, because it is never too late. I am encouraged by this hope – that what we do today can make a difference.

In addition to expressions of fulfillment, Pinar’s (2012) progressive stage includes reflecting on fears. Ng-A-Fook (2010) admits to the risks of  becoming “attuned to the consumptive exhaustion of our children’s earth” (p.44) when he states:  “I fear what I may or may not find” (page 43). Of course, deep down I share this fear that we may be doomed: but like Ng-A-Fook, am determined to remain open to what I might learn from a bell ringing in an empty sky.

I suggest Ng-A-Fook is currently working within the synthetic stages of currere; where he uses his insights to create and reconstruct public educational environments. One of these environments is the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, where teacher candidates in Ng-A-Fook’s classes discuss ecological complexities and design various community service learning  projects that take up eco-civic responsibilities. In both undergraduate and graduate-level education courses, Ng-A-Fook encourages teachers to critically question the current conceptual narratives and enclosures in our society and curriculum, and to make informed decisions about the narratives we choose to teach. In this transformed educational environment, students are encouraged to deconstruct and challenge mono-cultural narratives of consumption, anthropocentrism, androcentrism, scientism, rationalism and empiricism and “play within the academic landscapes of feminist, queer, multicultural, sociological, anti-racist, post-colonialist cultural studies, indigenous studies, popular art and arts criticism” (p. 54). Just as Pinar (2012) warns of school deform and that “until educators…exercise greater control over what they teach… school “conversation” will be scripted” (p. 198); Ng-A-Fook (2010) warns us that if we allow ourselves as teachers to become teacher-politicians, choosing corporate educational narratives, we allow schools to become green-washing machines.

As a teacher, I am inspired by what may follow a bell ringing in an empty sky. I continue to think critically about what narratives are communicated and reproduced through education, and to work towards provoking narratives of environmental and social justice.


Ng-A-Fook, N. (2010). An/other Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky: Greenwashing, Curriculum and Eco-justice. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies.8(1), 41-67.

Pinar, W. (2012). What is Curriculum Theory? Second Edition. New York, New York: Routledge.