run away! ! !

Yes, I am obsessed with, and keep returning to Monty Python.

As inspiration, as nostalgia, as poultice; as philosophy.

Thanks in no small part to the gift of the COMPLETE Python collection on DVD, courtesy of best friend and science educator extraordinaire, Susan Berrend. Beneath a shared love of British gardens, humor, and baking shows (and no small affection for Oxford commas and Anglican prayers) resides an even deeper shared commitment to pedagogy, an unwavering interest in discerning student needs and experimenting with new ways to meet those needs.

Which brings me to the force of my allusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur and his knights are on a quest, but when nearing a treasure horde which may yield the coveted grail, they are frightened by a rampant rabbit.

avoidance strategy

This year I have seen students avoid reading. Some practice what Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide – where students get assignments done without actually reading. This is ascribed to teacher expectations. One of my students, fascinated by problem-solving, is absolutely convinced that by dedicating time and energy to memorizing punctuation rules and grammar definitions she will inch her way forward and improve her standardized testing score.


running from or running toward?

Lest I forget that learning is social, and that literacy processes do not occur in a vacuum, these avoidance strategies serve to alert me to the motivating factors in my learners’ worlds.

One learner is driven to complete tasks as quickly as possible in order to move on to the social interactions they look forward to that day. Therefore they will do precisely what the teacher demands, in order to prove to their parent that their calendar is now open to schedule play dates and plan parties. My skill set allows me to integrate even those plans into journaling, research, organizing, and writing-to-learn; I can also involve cooking, makeup, and executive function lessons in authentic and meaningful ways.

For such a student, part of my challenge is to de-school the learner, who will benefit when they see learning as something one does for oneself, as opposed to what one does for others in authority. True, there are wonderful social benefits to the greater community when individuals grow intellectually and acquire wisdom; but one does not learn to love reading just to complete a checklist whose goal is to free one FROM reading.*

race to the finish

Today’s Preakness Stakes reminds me that other learners, like my prescriptive grammarian pupil, run headlong toward a clear goal they have set for themselves, which motivates them. Even if I do not understand the full enticements of these goals, I must acknowledge their power in putting a student in charge of her own learning.

My student can tell me how she learns best, what I should focus on, and how quickly she is improving; she can also relate which fall semester class she wants to qualify for, and how many minutes a day she will dedicate to this finish line. Now, I am no genius, but if you don’t like reading I am not sure why you would want to get into a course that expects you to do a ton of it. The challenge? Actually, I suspect that, like thoroughbreds, the air of competition somehow drives them to top performance.

Yet what role do I play as a democratic instructor who advocates for student voice and shared authority? As a trusted teacher and coach, I can offer advice and exercises that stretch the reader, inviting her take up a text and enjoy it.

I suspect that my I do not fully understand my influence at this time.

A couple of nights ago a school parent from the past recognized me at a concert, and made a point of telling me “Mr. Hultberg got me to like Shakespeare!” The parent also said that our production of King Lear made Shakespeare clear to them. This was poignant, since the performer on stage was Michael Bigelow, a jazz arranger and saxophonist, who had played Lear in that show, which I stage directed and Berrend tech directed.

I have also received a printed invitation to an upcoming ceremony at my current school, and I R.S.V.P.-ed in person to the preteen who had handed me the slip. She said, “I knew you would dress nice, because you always show … respect for people.”

At this moment I simply want to show my respect for the learning choices my students make, and to honor the freedom I claim to value.

When it is most important in their lives, I have to trust that my role as an engaged reader and lifelong learner will exert its due influence some day.

rabbit rampant

So the next time you are frightened by a rampant rabbit, or notice students running quicky in the opposite direction from which you wish to lead them, P A U S E. Remember that they are on a personal quest of their own, and nothing you can do will alter its course. Confide in your trusted friend as I do in mine; value your relationships with students and colleagues, knowing that others will be inspired by your commitment. Trust that what is most important to you – a garden, music – will not fail to exert its due influence in its time.

*Checklists: As I write this post, many of my students are actively engaged in reading ten books this summer in order to win free passes to the state fair!

Image at http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_7FAsUT6FePU/SWOhlsoMZgI/AAAAAAAAAdA/1Emq5jvchOc/s1600-h/Holy-Grail-Killer-Rabbit-Posters.jpg cited in Moviedeaths.blogspot.com

Degas painting public domain

Photo by GH pradlfan 5/17/2018


yesterday once more

When the emailed Groupon ad for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas at half price finally fell into my IN box, I wondered if there really might be something to this “algorithm” thing.

Did it know that I secretly hum Carpenters songs and “Could This Be The Magic?” as I ride my bike this spring?

image Fanpop.com

I had the same nostalgic feeling this morning as I stumbled upon a remark about teaching the art of conversation. It recalled me to the sense of purpose and excitement I had first felt as I completed my bachelor’s degree in Speech and Communication Studies.

Nostalgia is a persuasive tool.

Classroom Conversation

In an essay on Slow Teaching, Mike Grenier of Eton College describes using educational research to inform good teaching. Not much of a surprise, but one detail hurled me back to the ‘eighties with all the force of a Barry Manilow anthem:

I vividly recall the evenings sitting on the floor of our instructor’s home, circled up, reporting back our observations from that afternoon’s Human Interactions class small group discussions. It was the charting and turning of such discussion into data, and analyzing that through conversation theory that sparked my classroom practice of recording book discussions in English class.

I developed new charting systems – replacing Symlog with Kathleen Andrasick’s Opening Texts seating chart, tracking the added element of time with Martin Nystrand’s Opening Dialogue, and coaching student co-leaders to monitor their own participants’ contributions employing Victor Mueller’s In The Block series (e.g. Socratic Seminar in The Block).

Slow Teacher

According to Grenier, there are 4 essential maxims for the Slow Teacher, first established by conversation theorist Grice:

1. Manner

maintaining the most helpful order and structure in what we say

2. Quality

truthfulness or accuracy

3. Quantity

when to lecture, to talk, to prompt, or in fact to say nothing

4. Relevance

sticking to the topic

I strive to be an effective slow teacher, but find myself hurrying to catch up to students who are scurrying away.

In my next post, I want to take a look at why they are running, and what they are hurrying toward.


best practice

The funniest play I have directed is the one-act “Sure Thing” by David Ives. Two strangers–a man and a woman–meet in a cafe, and the man make many choices that abruptly terminate the conversation. Each time, the conversation is punctuated by the ding of a bell, and resumes immediately from the beginning, a little like Groundhog Day. For instance, he asks “What are you reading?” and when she tells him, he says “never read it.”


“What are you reading?”

“War and Peace”

“Ah! Tolstoy.” And this time the conversation is allowed to continue its path.


When I wish that life were like art, I wish it worked like the conversations in this play. Take job interviews.

In January I was asked about my favorite author. “Charles Dickens.”

February, the interview got to the next stage, with a different cast.

Best book you’ve read all year? “Leo Strauss and The Problem of Political Philosophy“.


March. Favorite American author? “Truman Capote.”


Favorite historical period. “That’s easy. Victorian. Oh, and Regency. Uh, pretty much the whole Nineteenth Century. British.”


“And the Enlightenment.”


“O.K. Medieval and Renaissance. Chaucer, Shakespeare … Sorry, I can’t leave out Jane Austen. And then there’ Middlemarch, the best novel of all time. So, yeah, like I said – Victorian England. But the book is set 30 years before she writes it, see?



Once recently, I was practicing naming the best book of the year and why i thought so. I was on my bike, riding and riding, constructing a free response answer. Modifying, revising, editing. I tortured myself because I wanted honesty, but also depth.

My final answer: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. Not too political, not too highbrow, a good solid literary hardboiled.

The next interview, though, they didn’t even ask.


I think the best practice for interviews is more interviews. I have been practicing a lot lately. I though one went really well a few months ago. I could work here. Before leaving I asked, “Hey, do you know Bob Smith?”


I saw Bob later that day, and he said he had been let go for refusing to post positive mentions of the American President on his Facebook page. A friend overheard us and said “That’s illegal”. Not in this state.


I have been practicing saying very little: keep it brief.

What do you know about [our organization]? “Oh, I know everything, are you kidding? First, there was — And then — After that you added — And then I come to the — [I continue telling all I know about the company – and I mean everything]”


A “DoNotReply” email expresses gratitude, “Applicant”, for my interest in their organization.


And then there is my favorite:

Do you have any questions for us?

“Do I!!??? I thrive on curiosity! Can I ask you …”

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

David Ives knew what he was doing.




Moonlighting until tomorrow

I always thought there was something fundamentally broken or unfair about people needing to “moonlight” by taking a second job outside their vocation. I had consumed a steady diet of TV police dramas featuring daytime cops with evening jobs as bouncers, security detail, bodyguards, driver safety instructors. Then I began to notice teachers working extra jobs, too. Last year, one of my colleagues supplemented her full time teacher pay working as a waitress at a local restaurant. When did she see her family?

The job of teacher is demanding enough, consuming all one’s time and energy, without the added stress of more time and work. It would feel more whole, be more just, if our teachers could just remain dedicated to their professional art and craft and have time for family, friends, and community; for rest and remaining current in their fields. How do I remain true to my calling while earning enough to survive, now, and retire, later?

Other professions, too, require clean hands: a similar investment of time, service, and diplomacy that appears both impartial and above reproach. The teacher’s craft compares with the doctor’s, clergy’s, governor’s. Many of us cheer the idea of a politician whose hands are not sullied by an inordinate desire for money, and who can practice the wonderful work of statecraft without becoming dependent on the money offered by the pharmaceutical industry or gun lobby. I am thinking that there are noble ideals in teaching; but in acknowledging them I must be wary not to judge myself against an unrealistic ideal. Where do my ideals come from?

The movies

If we applaud the home-y philosopher-stateswoman who is not beholden to special interests, we are not necessarily alienated by the Western-genre myth of a person hired to “clean up the town”. See our mythic heroes John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. A higher ideal guides such characters, now seen as archetypal, who have come to be embodied in John Ford and Frank Capra movies.

Sometimes these characters step into volatile situations, act to temporarily bring about equilibrium, and leave the town stronger, cleaner, and more whole than when they arrived. All of us humans are touched by some evil or threat of harm, and even if we temporarily gun it down or fight it off, it will outlive us because only something like a love altogether more powerful will disable it. Hints of such better futures are also found in ideal film performances by Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. But they are perpetuated in new and original films such as The Post and The Shape of Water in performancesby Meryl Streep and Sally Hawkins.

Both Casablanca and Gone with the Wind end with lovers parting, and someone walking off into a mist, the words “beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “tomorrow is another day” reverberate in the theater as the score swells and the camera zooms out. But we overlook the romanticized heroism or love that redeems such flawed people. Rhet and Rick are profiteers with “hearts of gold”, but they admire idealism in others. Rick sees Ilsa’s and Rhet sees Scarlett’s. Louis is a Nazi sympathizer by convenience; Rhet will fight on the side of the South if it pays better. Everyone is caught between the real world, with its demand for practical tasks, time, and money; and the ideal world, with its tough and courageous love that sacrifices all for family, love, and justice. And most of us, rather than being in love with a single task-specific aspect of our teaching jobs, such as grading papers or taking attendance, are aligned to a more general, abstract habit, such a coaching learners toward independence or encouraging creativity in others.


That is why I feel the vocation of teaching is caught at this moment in history, caught, like night club owner Rick in Casablanca, between the practical responsibility of running his business (casino, black market) and the romantic heroism of aiding the helpless. In an early scene establishing his virtue and higher calling, he protects a married woman from having to compromise her marriage at the hands of a ruthless, predatory male (who can give her safe passage out of Casablanca in exchange for sexual favors) by fixing the roulette game to ensure her husband wins, then sending them away on an alternate route to safety.

In traditional and archetypal film style, the heroic male is costumed in white and lit strongly; in this shot, I see how Hungarian-born immigrant director Michael Curtiz focuses on the woman’s idolizing gaze at Bogie (Rick), as he, a knight in shining armor, defends her; and while the real love of her life, the man in the foreground, entrusts his savings to Rick. The romantic triangle in tableau foreshadows the actual one eventually played out when Ilsa bargains for her own husband’s safe passage, in order to continue fighting against the Nazis and leading his countrymen to freedom through resistance.

I like hopeful endings: they satisfy my acknowledged preference for justice and honor. I fear that, with many other people today, I also share an unacknowledged preference for the unreal Western myth to be realized in the midst of our daily real lives.

Thus it comes about that we have an national dicussion on the table about whether I, a classroom teacher, should be armed with a pistol in order to protect and defend my students.

The film buff in me has always wanted to be Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart — with a little Hercule Poirot and Fred Astaire thrown in.

Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, PUNK?

But I sense there is a collision of worlds in this scenario I have not acknowledged. It is a clash between the Platonic ideal of Teacher and the practical reality of Bodyguard. Yet some idealism about my work remains implanted in me. I am hopeful that my vocation and my workplace can retain their integrity of purpose. Learning happens in an environment that is safe, peaceful, and fun; when Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith makes his stand in Congress against corruption, he uses his proper tool, his voice, until it wears out; when Eastwood as Dirty Harry patrols the streets of San Francisco to stop a deranged serial killer, he carries the appropriate tool of his trade, a handgun. Movie teachers, in their fictional worlds, carry their spectacles, their Browning versions, their chalk, and their occasional cane or ruler.

Just what America needs in the classroom: one more phallic symbol of authority and force. I remember a much earlier national conversation steered by the Western myth. We considered the “Star Wars defense system” proposed by Hollywood actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan. To most of my friends, such a mistaken idea was a collision between two worlds: one fictional, in which war was glamorized because it symbolized noble human deeds and ideas (Jedi Knights and The Force) pitted against monstrous cruelty and power (Darth Vader and the Death Star); the other nonfiction, in which human beings on either side might bleed and die, and no one could say with certainty which were the monsters and who the humans.

Fortunately, there are women to compete with this myth of masculine power. Katharine Graham, whose strength towers over the men in her Washington, D.C. world, those attempting to exert force over her publishing The Pentagon Papers in The Post, resists their influence in order to make her independent choices.

Graham shown here with Truman Capote

As another Academy Award ceremony is telecast, viewers have a choice of new myths in which to believe. The stories themselves may not be new, since they include historical accounts of such events as The Battle of Dunkirk and the fight to publish The Pentagon Papers. Yet the expression of such stories is meaningful and original.

We witness Katharine Graham make a choice that exposes years of top level government officials’ knowledge about the unwinnability of the Viet Nam war; and in The Shape of Water we feel a tyrant’s monstrous contempt for life, beauty, and weakness countered by a mute cleaning-woman’s love and respect for a captive and complex being. Filmmakers, actors, and writers are only a few of the craftspersons serving as today’s “shapers”, the scops [singer-poets] John Gardner wrote about in his 1971 novel Grendel, a reshaping of the Beowulf epic from the creature’s point of view.

empowered teachers

The decisive Moments in our lives are born in the moments we feel the most powerless. We still need heroes, underdogs, and champions; but we must choose them more carefully today.

On Friday I saw a refreshing film hero with an ancient weapon.

I enjoy knowing that the students next to me during the screening admired this teenage girl’s tenacity; two weeks earlier, I had noticed a couple of others picking out the perfect airsoft assault rifle from an online catalog.

Clearly, we are not the first generation to critique the Hollywood commercialization of the myth of the Old West – its glamor, its icons, its hostility to indigenous peoples and disempowerment of women. Unlike some, though, I don’t feel the need to remove all traces of a trigger-happy culture or of a past for which anyone with privilege used it without a second thought. Warhol alters an iconic image so that we can never see it again as we did before. As summer scholars in El Paso at the recent NEH-sponsored “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderland Narratives”, we secondary teachers and UTEP program directors Joseph Rodríguez and Ignacio Martinez saw value in keeping old monuments standing alongside newly erected ones, in order that the whole story could be told and no voices silenced. This new figure of a Tiguan woman stands not far from the Chamizal Memorial and U.S.-Mexico border, whereas previous Texas statues tended to honor conquistadors.

El Paso Times photo

I do believe there is room for a plurality of voices; new monuments and new myths can help to reinterpret the past and to invite participation in a more hopeful future. In a scene from Middlemarch, author George Eliot composes the view from the window of Dorothea’s future house, “happy” on one side, but “melancholy” on the other; she establishes that in “this latter end of autumn”, in the house’s sunless interior “air of autumnal decline” Dorothea’s fiance Casaubon has “no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.” Dual images compete for Dorothea’s attention, the happy side including a small park, a fine old oak, a pleasure-ground, and an avenue of limes “melting into a lake in the setting sun.” The landscapes and interiors represent a choice between two futures: from the same single vantage point today, any of us might look ahead in time in multiple directions and project either dismal and sunless or cheerful and pleasant days ahead. We may not have the agency to effect a change in our circumstance when things appear hopeless. Yet our outlook might take on a new shape given the myth in which we find ourselves.

vocational training

Our teaching can take new shape in response to new students. As Philip Davis writes in The Transferred Life of George Eliot (Oxford 2017), George Eliot had begun one novel in 1869 and set it aside, only to begin a “different novel instead” in November 1870, more than a year later.

The story was of an ardent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, a modern St Theresa though ‘foundress of nothing’, seeking, without the structure of a clear faith, a vocation and an epic life in the modern world. … As D H Lawrence said of George Eliot … ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’

Eliot sets aside one kind of work for another, and her result is Middlemarch, in which she eventually found room to accommodate both stories. And in contrast with film, which by its nature externalizes action, she transfers action to the inside. Her influence is felt in genres as diverse as the mysteries of P.D. James, the hardboileds of Ross Macdonald, and the YA of Sara Zarr.

Marian Evans as the novelist George Eliot is a true teacher, having used the art of poetry to fashion little worlds in which characters investigate vocation, question faith, and imagine better futures. Just imagine if all our classrooms could be little laboratories like hers!

One of the drawbacks to such rooms, worlds, and communities is that it takes a good deal of time to read and probe, through open dialogue – true Socratic dialectic – and reflect on vocation, faith, future, and authority. I feel helpless and disempowered when the school schedule, class size, curriculum, and student interest and inexperience prohibit frequent use of such authentic investigations. Such lack of agency can lead to shame when I seek part-time work for which an education is not required. I have applied for my share of odd jobs in recent month, from library aide to UPS clerk to cafe attendant; and I have done some moonlighting that puts my expertise to work as a copy editor, test-prep tutor, and background actor. At this stage, for me, it is realistic to work part-time jobs, in order to press on toward an ideal class in which students use their voice, participate in community decisions, acquire abiding understanding of ideas and how they work, and have agency.

Such ideals are shaped less, I find, by the myth of teacher-as-hero than by the ability of my students to see themselves as having a role in their own future. Maybe it is time I acknowledge learner-as-hero mythology. [Icarus, Bildungsroman, Fellowship of the Rings, Karate Kid]

changing the narrative

When my students have agency and hope, I am able to step in and guide, support, or nudge them in my role as a learning coach. I can replace outdated or unrealistic myths with models and mentors who show me how to be flexible, patient, and strategic as a teacher. There remains for me a temptation to put off tomorrow, as Scarlet O’Hara does, till “another day”; and to subvert the traditional broken and unjust systems of authority as the anti-hero Dirty Harry does. I have even been attracted to the notion of placing it all on the roulette wheel, cashing out, and leaving the game, like a Casablanca character.

But my calling goes deep, and has a history dating at least back to Socrates, who believed there was justice in showing young people how to question received traditions, systems, and authorities; and there was poetry in the art of speaking properly about humans and divinities. Today social justice is a key term along with agency, and a motivating force in pedagogy which seeks to empower both students and teachers as literate citizens making a difference in society.

Movies and teachers can work to change the narrative stars by which young people sail on their journeys.


we few, we happy few

I am on the road before dawn and arrive at the check-in area for background actors. It is still dark, and yellow signs installed with red blinkers have lit my way from the main road to the crew parking for the tv series shooting today.

Several of my Saturdays this year, and a handful of my weekdays off, I venture out to locations within an hour’s drive from home.

Once I arrive, I invariably recognize a face or three from similar jobs. We have very little to say to each other. A general rule of on-set silence is observed, and we feel a common bond in our adherence to it. Our fealty to the extras code unites us.

It is a bit of a nomadic life: we travel with a garment bag or suitcase stocked with possible costumes for the day, having been given a rough parameter a few hours earlier.

I have expanded my band of brothers today. I feel a strange connection with a “partner” driver who I passed or who passed me countless times, wordlessly, always staring directly ahead. Our eyes are fixed either on the road in front of us or on the Production Assistant who cues us to drive. We have been hired because our cars are needed today.

It feels like a slow-motion game of “chicken”, each of us parked at opposite ends of a blocked-off city street which is made up to resemble a main street in Anytown, USA. We drive toward each other at a rate of between 8 and 10 miles per hour, reach the terminus of the set, designated by a local police vehicle, execute a three-point turn and repeat the process.

My driver double and I are bound by more than a repetitive task; we are linked mutely by walkie-talkies that have been assigned us to carry in our cars. We hear “stand by; SETtle; rollPLEASE, rolling . . . and BACKground” . . . “CUTting, going again”.

It wouldn’t be any great transgression if we were to strike up a conversation once out of our vehicles and in the green room again. (Less glamorously called “Holding”)

It would feel a little like the fraternity established a few days ago at the public library when an older gent stood near my stack of books, head tilted, and smiling as though he had a thought he wished to share. I invited his comment — and was regaled for maybe twenty minutes by a hail of memories about Louis L’Amour, a paperback of whose was the topmost title on my stack, which also included a treatise on translation, a french novel about Melville, and a Freudian treatmenr of Hard-Boiled detective novelists. It would feel, that is, that we have some bond that is worth more the less said about it. My grandpa read L’Amour. This man had read everything by and been to the places where.

The classroom, the library, the green room. All are places where relationships are cultivated. I can recall my first green room at thirteen where adult actors played cards at a card table while waiting for their scenes. Waiting backstage is another form of silent communion: you want to listen to the moments of a show going on before the curtain, while you are behind it–audiences breathing, laughing, clapping; fellow actors singing, going up, recovering. A silence unites us. In a library one finds commonality in books, reading, and enjoyment of the written word. It may be now that libraries feed our need for warmth, for connectivity, and for lectures and programs that bring together a community. But a classroom is still deciding what kind of relationship it offers, what its adherents serve, and if its value is worthy of our fealty.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

There is the Mr. Chips type of silence demanded of a class by a respected teacher (though not always given). Then there is the beautiful sound of rustling pages and occasional whispers heard during a free reading period when kids are encouraged to share what’s going on in their favorite books. There are the gut-wrenching words “O Captain, my Captain” issuing from a high schooler’s lips on a day when I wondered why I was in the teaching profession. I might call these the useless sounds of school, after Dylan Thomas’s ironic description of “useful presents”. Adults value these, officially.

And then there are the useless sounds – which receive very little ink. This week I heard: the sound of pillows slapping against skin during a pillow fight, the smack of muddy shoes on the tile floor after being outdoors, an English Language Learner asking for my help writing a song and singing it to a new student after practicing, a twelve-year-old explaining the new ukelele chords he is learning, and students of various ages playing animals after creating and drawing their characters with the encouragement of an older yet new student. Useless, hard to test, impractical in adult worlds: but filled with value.

Play-based learning and free self-directed activity can unite school children much as theater, plays, and music have formed the basis of many relationships in my life.

It is almost as if everyone could do with a turn behind the wheel in the land of make-believe. Driving on a street past imaginary store-fronts rigged up just for the day, listening not to a radio station but to a faceless voice in the cupholder telling you when to go; there is no purpose for your journey, and the GPS would have no success in giving you directions, since you literally drive a block, turn around, and drive the opposite direction until the voice says “Cut”.

But even this gesture, as if in imitation of life and prayer, bears the shape of a holy communion. Even now, as my fingers slip over these keys, and I pause to glance up, what do I see but twenty-five background extras – teens, parents – seated in a nondescript meeting room on a Saturday which is clearly used as a chapel come Sunday? A podium, a keyboard, chairs facing a carpeted altar, on which a father relaxes in a beach chair on his cell phone, flanked by two sons sitting behind him to the left and right on the raised rug. We might all be in prayer given that most eyes are lowered to handheld devices, a few to laptops, a few to math books and a James Dashner novel.

If I sometimes have a hard time separating make-believe from prayer, it is probably because I have had many sacred moments in spaces we occupy when doing music, the arts, and education. The silent half hour before classes resume every morning, when you just might share a cup of coffee and some “down time” with a fellow teacher; the unspoken trust when building a set and two or more pairs of hands engage with tools, wood; reading a student journal or personal essay that goes to the heart of a matter. It isn’t necessarily dead silence that accompanies these moments, but rather that one-way communication is enough…or eye contact and signing says it all. The walkie-talkie of course had a button for talking – but neither of us used it. We were eavesdropping on the communication between production crew all day. Waiting.

In a way I suppose we are still waiting.

I turned my radio off at the end of the day. I gathered up my belongings as a pair of set dressers took down the deli menu and window dressing in silent cooperation. I turned my radio in at the end of the day. But I didn’t surrender that part of myself that was attuned to critical language, the crackle of static, the turn signal on the road, or the quiet voice inside me that felt slightly tethered to my driving double, as I saw her car pull past me after dark while I walked into the night. All of us transporting back to warmly lit real homes after a day of make-believe. And in sleep, too, I listen. In waking, what do I hear? In rising, what signs do I look for that the coming day will have sun, light, friends, joy, and a little magic in it?


[Images: Sacred image of L. Olivier as King Henry V in the Crispin speech from his 1945 film. Courtesy archbishop-cranmer.blogspot]



My first P.D. James mystery was received as a Christmas gift from my grandmother, Hazel. I had been in an Agatha Christie phase, begun in eighth grade just prior to the release of the classic Albert Finney treatment of Murder on the Orient Express, and had kept a list of every title I read. Getty Images/Bettman

I had visited the local library and copied out a complete chronological listing of Christie’s Poirot stories, plays, and collections, with alternate American titles. At the time, before the release of Curtain, everything fit onto a single college ruled sheet of binder paper. I checked off each title as I read it, and added second or third checks whenever I reread a book.

Grandma’s gift was my first taste of a police procedural genre, which eventually dominated my crime novel intake. I had dabbled in Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner series, especially intrigued by the fanciful idea that one, two, or even three writers might generate and continue a series with a famous detective, leaving some question for future audiences about whether they were getting the real thing.

Certainly my earlier addiction to the Hardy Boys series had taught me that Franklin W. Dixon became a stand-in for any number of writers and adapters who refused to let Frank, Joe, and Chet remain in a universe of “retorts” and “jalopies” and “roadsters”. Grosset and Dunlap


Now I am in a further phase in my reading, having toured the ouevres of Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, and John Sandford. But when new mystery series are exhausted, I return home to old reliable authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and P.D. James. While there are elements of mystery in the Regency and Victorian novelists just named, such as who Frank Churchill really loves, or who stabs Tulkinghorn; it is James who truly makes herself at home in the mystery genre yet turns it into an opportunity to explore the psychological drama of dramatis personae.

I am surprised at my own curiosity about these specific fictional worlds of Austen and James. I feel something drawing me to learn more about the specific characters that populate Austen’s novels, and the real lives that inspired their creator. And just now, as I reread Death Comes to Pemberley, I trust P.D. James to investigate and unravel the skeins of interwoven lives, of author and fiction, and of women then and women now.

I do enjoy an effective mystery set in the worlds of established writers: I am in the middle of well-done books involving Charley Field, the real life inspiration for Bleak House‘s Inspector Bucket, and Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, main characters from Middlemarch.

Yet much as I am still activated to seek out and devour the works of George Eliot (Marian Evans) and Charles Dickens, I fall once more into P.D. James’s hands. Austen is a subtle writer; she has left far more unsaid than either Evans or Dickens. Somehow I believe James wants to excavate the motivations, to pen the previously unspoken thoughts and feelings running underneath the words on Jane’s pages.

What I am seeking further is a handle on Jane’s view of education. I have become convinced over the past year that Jane Austen saw and felt both the injustices of an education system that favored boys, and the benefits of instruction that prepared one for life. Education included: habits and associations, combined with a young person’s nature and talents, to form understanding and character. I also rely on Jane, Dickens, and Evans to suggest and reveal ideas about schooling through their idiosyncratic use of literary devices. One might say I have been “investigating a case” of my own.

the usual suspects

Naturally I have traced the movements of the usual suspects — governesses, pedants, remarks directly made about reading, and character names such as M’Choakumchild. But I also find that “improvements” assumed to be part and parcel of one’s learning are echoed, intimated, and foreshadowed through upgrades to landscape. Mild conflicts which arise over the meaning of an apparently flowing style of a handwritten letter, or over the destruction of an old avenue of trees to make room for a new one, may do much to reveal, suggest, or amplify the internal conflicts in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. Ultimately my fascination today is with the faćade of gentility we erect and cling to through a misplaced idea of “civility”, when underneath we want to scratch another’s eyes out.

I am indebted to Grandma Hazel for putting me on to P.D. James; I am curious what she will unearth on this tour of Pemberley about the human tendency to sicklie o’er a native hue of resolution with the pale cast of thought.


warning: unconventional literacies

For the past few months I have become frustrated in trying to learn a new game. Bridge. When I’m away from the secondary English classroom, I teach and learn elsewhere. I am currently learning how to play contract bridge and how to tailor piano lessons to a seven-year-old. Both new contexts are instructive for me because I am understanding more about others and myself. In a more abstract way, though, I am learning more about the nature of literacy itself.

Or should I say, literacies.

I have been trying for weeks to identify a single connecting point between these new learning spaces of mine, and I believe I have found one in the concept of literaciescoverjo

Literacy occurs wherever students and teachers work to engage communities and to problem-solve, according to Joseph Rodríguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities: Latino/Scribes And Their Rites. His definition of scribes is informed by a historic view of literacy, originating in Mesoamerican painter-scribes, which includes “discussions of wisdom, beauty, and ornateness”  as well as “[o]rality, reading, and writing”. I am captivated by the term Rodríguez uses,  “enacting”, encountering it myself in the disciplines of literature and Christianity, such as in essays by C.S. Lewis where he draws a comparison between enacting reading and enacting worship.

CS LEWIS: “The majority [of Anglican churchgoers] do not go to be entertained. They go to use the service, or if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore.” In fact, Lewis goes on to compare enacting of church (liturgical worship – in which routines are in place that contain, direct and order the weekly service) with the act of reading: “good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.” In perfect worship, “your attention would have been on God”. I think enacting literacy is the same; a scribe’s attention would be on people and problems, on wisdom and beauty.

Having acknowledged this expansive view of literacy as occurring in places where problems are solved and communities are engaged, I can now put my finger on why some bridge books and apps frustrate me, while others are agreeable.

I opened a new app this morning, for example: Audrey Grant’s Better Bridge, which contains a lesson explaining:

A progress screen keeps track of                                                                                                    the questions you answered correctly [and] incorrectly.

This triggered a visceral response, promted no doubt by my allergy to multiple choice tests, but also by the memory of something I had been told a week ago. I was prepping for this afternoon’s game with the local bridge club. I had been called yesterday as a substitute. I had downloaded the app to coach me in my bidding and play.

My human coach, Bob, had sat opposite me as a partner during last week’s game. “In bidding, there are no rules, you see, only conventions you use with your partner.” This outlook was helpful. “They are just guidelines.”

But a no rules approach (I call it The Pinsky) is fundamentally opposed to the correct/incorrect binary approach demanded by the app, should I plan to continue this lesson.

There are helpful apps out there that do not commit players to a Robert Johnson-style bargain. I appreciate those that offer “hint” buttons, but will allow me to stamp a bid as my own by forgoing them or overriding the “warning: unconventional” pop-up.

I began a new literacy a few months ago as a private reading tutor. In advance of my first tutorial, I investigated web sites, such as one government site that lists as its second rule for reading tutors: “stop learners immediately after an error“. Again, the binary correct/incorrect is ubiquitous.

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

  DJALAL UD-DIN RUMI 13th Century Sufi Poet

As a bridge player I encounter nonsense terms and nonsense symbols. Something is missing, as if I were playing “Night and Day” from jazz charts without having learned what D-7+11 means. Frank Smith, literacy expert and author of READING WITHOUT NONSENSE, cautions against using nonsense to build literacy, and I can see why. My beginning piano student must see the music staff as nonsense at the moment. My goal is to avoid frustrating her, on the assumption that she will have a “need-to-know” soon enough, and the the hunger to learn will help to acquire the sight-reading skills or musical literacy that will be so helpful later on when she sets out to play music which has been written. I have enjoyed essays in a De-schooling collection, a music education book, and a Reggio Emilia volume that alert me to be on the lookout for curiosity, to live in the moments when curious people are ready to learn. During winter break my piano pupil created her very own musical notation system based on a six-armed snowflake rather than a five-lined staff.

But at issue, too, is the very term literacy. Just as cultural literacy consists in knowing things about culture, musical literacy consists of knowing about music’s past and present, such as who Mozart was, what the Gershwins wrote, and why John Cage is a genius. And did I forget to mention the essential musical knowledge of where Elton John and Taylor Swift fall in the troubadour tradition? Sheet music is only a small piece of musical literacy. By comparison, could it be that sight-reading words on a page is a small piece of literacy?

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

I have a hard time learning the principles of bridge as written in books and apps, an easier time learning from a tutor during a live game. Writers of these rules use vocabulary that assumes a level of familiarity and prior knowledge. On the other hand, my friend insists that the context and the partner agreement are the only dependable guidelines.

There are no rules

Thus spake Robert Pinsky, and my bridge tutor Bob.

My discomfiture also results from the altering register of the author. For instance, Charles Goren begins with an insouciant air, a sophisticated sort of drama critic style, which in theater writing assumes that whatever one’s readers believe about theater, they enjoy one’s humor, broad range of experience, allusiveness, and reasoned opinion, so that when they set out to an evening of theater they might come to their own conclusions about the performances and scripts. But they do so because they have entered into a community which uses the same vocabulary (e.g. “characterization”, “line readings”, “beats”) with which to discuss and articulate a playgoer’s various responses to a production and its elements. Such an air is wonderfully fun reading – as if Mister Belvedere (Clifton Webb) were sitting in a clawfoot tub tapping his Smith-Corona keys, a clove cigarette dangling between his lips as the tepid water receives his admonitory ashes. [Image courtesy https://myclassicmovies.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/bathtub-typing.jpg,  a wonderful blog posted by Jennifer Hargis on WordPress (“My Classic Movies”)]


Unfortunately, Goren the bridge author (Mister Bridge, according to the dust jacket)  changes register early on in his massive book, and the instruction devolves into a technical manual which does not connect the dots between cause and effect, leaving me baffled by its logic.

[This image of Chico and Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont from Animal Crackers reminds me not to take myself so seriously!]

Now that I see myself as learner and beginner in two kinds of problem-solving communities, a musical and a gaming, I can better draw parallels between my own experience and that of my students. They, too, spend time acquiring the necessary vocabulary to succeed at school as audience members, but are often at a loss as to how to get onstage and act, to fully participate in the drama of learning.

Charles Goren drops his familiar jovial, confidential register, and takes on verbiage that I am clumsy with, an impersonal instruction-manual tone, all business–chilly. I feel like a child who was part of an experiment in artificial intelligence, reported a few weeks ago: she felt rejected because the robot she was trying her best to please turned away its face.


Shawna Minden’s Pinterest

So I have related that I am frustrated by alterations in register, and by context-specific vocabulary and grammar. “Take your Ace” and “Cash your Ace” both mean “Play your Ace to win a trick”. Each word is simple, but the string of three poses problems for me. I am also fighting between the urge to learn what are termed the conventions of bridge, and to flout conventions.

Conventions are mystifying

A former student of mine works at a school cafeteria, where she invites students to write messages on the white board she has placed in the lunch room. She is very enthusiastic about their communication skills! One exception: it grates on her nerves whenever the kids end a sentence with a preposition. She has to remind them of the rule, she says, and can’t continue her day until she has “fixed it.” This hard and fast rule, once learned (though not from me), has signified correctness to her, although the prescriptive commandment (Never end a sentence with a preposition) whose authority has been widely dismissed, is still regarded with all the pomp associated with divine revelation.

Conventions used in writing can be helpful to avoid confusing one’s readers; so too in the game of bridge, to keep from confusing a partner. Yet their fluidity among experienced bridge players, and their utter disappearance or erasure among some writers (Gertrude Stein, ee cummings, James Joyce, Marianne Moore) can mystify the uninitiated. Namely, me.

Learning is mysterious. It is an invisible process, yet one which we can be certain of, in a similar way that we can be certain of souls, the divine, or love.

Schooling, too, is mysterious, but its mystery is more of a guarded secret kept by acolytes who live in its temples (our schools). In literature, specifically, teachers honor a hidden code of theme comprehension, an acceptance of literary criticism, of reading or writing secrets. Yesterday I overheard an adult offer to a middle grade child an over-simplification of an idea the adult had been reading out loud from a passage in a history book or biographical article related to a Holocaust novel. Without being prompted by the child, the adult plugged in a denotative meaning for a term which had a decidedly different meaning in its context. The child left with 2 false ideas:

  1. about the character described in the article
  2. about reading – that being read to is reading, and that comprehension involves assent to a more experienced reader’s authority
  3. that a more experienced reader is dependable for defining terms and paraphrasing

Why do we as teachers and tutor, facilitators of learning, decide we know better than they what they ought to be curious about, and when? When will I learn to check my own interventions when they are unprompted by a learner’s inquiry?

Even over the recent holidays at a family gathering I bristled when my word-wise mother-in-law offered (without my asking) to show me a Scrabble move which would earn me more points than the tiles I was playing. Imagine next how quickly I jettisoned the new Words with Friends 2 app when I observed the flashing signal in the upper left screen “3 higher scoring words you could have made”.

In learning, one changes. John Cage says an alteration occurs. We have to alter the way we see things in order for us to see their beauty. It can be problematic for me when I want to alter another person, so that she or he sees the beauty of writing, painting, or reading according to agreed conventions. As I go about my life these days, I vacillate between a healthy respect for conventions and a hearty urge to kick them in the ribs. I know how my students must feel much of the time!

I am talking about both the mystery of learning and the demystifying of education. I hope to continue exploring the way curiosity and language play together in both processes.

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