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.


Whist and game-based learning

I am immersed in rereading Jane Austen’s novels. I swam in the cooling streams of Mansfield Park this summer, dove into the reserved pond of Emma this fall, and waded chest-deep in Sense and Sensibility as the new year’s current pulls me forward.
Cards, especially whist, are mentioned more frequently in the latter book. An impulse, which I controlled in August with all the self-command of a Janeite heroine, overcame me this weekend and I was swept away: The Cook’s Bookcase is shipping me

Propelling me down the Regency rapids at the moment, and adding to the suddenness of my mania, is the opportunity I had last week and this coming week to play bridge with my local club. There is something winsome about the communication occurring during card play at either whist or its younger sister, contract bridge, that draws me again and again both to play and to become better by learning more. Reading allows me the freedom to digest new principles; practice affords the chance to apply those principles.

So many interesting negotiations happen between characters during card games. While one strategy is employed on the card table, another is being worked out in the conversations of those present in the game room.

With relative ease do I wade into Austen’s aqueous prose, though with pains do I fight against the muddy jargon of bridge rule-books and strategies. More about my reading struggles later.

Until I can write more about the book, after its arrival, I wish everyone a happy new year filled with opportunities for game-based learning, and much discovery through play!


your teacher is right

I recently tutored a student online as he prepared for the AP English exam.

“Have you done any preparation in your English class?” I ask.

“My teacher feels that the class should be enough. What we learn in English will prepare us to do well on any exams we choose to take.”

Well, that’s right, I think. So why the choice for online tutoring to prep for the AP Lit exam?

I did not ask this question directly.

I know the signs.

Parental orchestration. Weak knees in the days leading up to the annual May exam seating. A gripping awareness that other people take this test seriously – maybe they know something I don’t.

Leaving aside for now the whole question of The College Board, the value of AP, tests in general; acknowledging that a quick survey of 3o minutes will suffice to acquaint one with the type of questions to expect and the time and attention to allot; I agree with that teacher.

I am that teacher.

A slightly different angle, though, complicates my clear vision: my student’s personal goal is to gain confidence as a writer of AP exam essays. Under the umbrella of Writing Hope Works, I have chosen to subscribe to the mandate to coach writers toward their goals, so that they become more confident and resistant writers who write with clarity and force.

Combine this student goal with my belief that English class (and tutoring) exists to serve student learning purposes, and I do feel I can be of service. My writing conference format works well enough here, except for the urgency of time: it is days before the exam; and I charge an hourly rate for my tutoring time. In the normal writing workshop a revision process recurs, terminating with editing conferences. The student’s role is to do a lot of talking about her/his own writing; mine is to listen, encourage, ask a productive question.

Student choice is very important here. If this student CHOSE to sign up for the AP exam, great. If she/he CHOSE to set a goal and find a writing/literature coach, also great. This particular coach is a co-learner: I prepare (reviewing) major works in my personal time along with my tutee, who does it separately while on spring break. I create charts, analyze text, and outline my own response to pst prompts to the open question. I won’t simply lay out strategies – instead we need to learn alongside each other [the physical limitations of online learning notwithstanding].


Me with Penny Kittle, author of “Write Beside Them”  

Yes, this is like English class. I even hear this response sometimes from my pupils, or from others in the background during my online sessions. I harbor a secret delight in their comment: in solidarity with all English teachers I know, the test is not the point. The point is two learners engaging in dialogue with the best minds of all time, both of us finding our voices, choosing how to respond, listening, shaping replies…

I can’t not be who I am called to be as a teacher.

And my pupil responds very positively to this. The young writer initiates and chooses activity. Behind the scenes lurk motivating forces beyond our control; but the writer is in control.

And the AP written exam is primarily an opportunity for a young writer to demonstrate control of language. Each prompt imposes specific constraints whose purpose is to draw out the best in each writer, to allow the writer to flourish. It is not much different from The British Baking Show, when it imposes a time and ingredient constraint such as “three chocolates in three hours — B-A-K-E!” The contestants CHOSE to be there in that tent; they CHOSE to work on their baking at home during the week.


detail of a novel preparation chart for Gatsby

So today I am resigned in my position. I will use my experience with writing conferences, literature workshops, and oral exams [with my St. John’s tutors] to inquire with my pupil, dialogue about texts, and solve problems together.

I will enjoy the process of co-learning and co-leading, and will value the goal because it is my AP student’s own goal. If I truly trust the system (Writing Hope Works, whose aim is learner agency; writing conferences, whose aim is writers solving their own problems) then my young writer will set new goals tomorrow. When tests are done, today’s short-term goals are rewritten, and new long-term goals are imagined.

Even in the creation of new goals can I identify with all my learners. My writing goal in the coming weeks is to write a scholarly essay on novelist George Eliot as a critical educator. My teaching goal is to observe a local school model of student-initiated activity.

My goals have “real-world” constraints, such as a June 1st deadline and particular genre requirements for the written one, including submission to an audience of peers and professors. My own goal mirrors that of my tutee in its imminent deadline, highly qualified audience, and specialized genre. Observing the school demands fingerprinting, arranging hours, and understanding the rules (e.g. “No one will suggest to a child that one activity should take academic precedence over another.”).

A common theme runs through the posts I have written lately – not all of them published — every teaching moment is also a learning moment for me. And when my own interests, such as playing cards or piano or reading Victorian novels, put me in the shoes of a learner and student, I appreciate once more how difficult and rewarding learning can be. There is no substitute for the personal relationships formed within small groups learning together and the individualized help from a more experienced teacher. Anyone of any age can be a teacher.

Time and again, analog schools and teachers have proven not only better at teaching students, but  they can actually present more innovative solutions for education’s future.

from “The Revenge of School”, in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter by David Sax




interconnecting literacies

I face the challenge of interconnecting ideas. When I encounter a thought-provoking book such as this one, I both associate and resist various ideas and memories of the classroom, students, philosophy, and fiction.


While at times I see such interconnectedness as an obstacle frustrating my simple enjoyment of a book, many times I feel each connection as an intimate part of my transaction with a text.

The back and forth, the push and pull — nebulous, binary, contrary — describe the innumerable voyages that readers like me have taken. Like me, Joseph Rodriguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities, found refuge in his school library and in the books and librarian and authors residing there.

His book, subtitled Latino/a Scribes And Their Rites, is both a handbook of effective literacy img_0013instruction and a catalyst for both more intertextual connections and new approaches that invite all students, not just Latinos/as, to a fondness for literacies.

I use the plural — literacies — because Rodriguez is careful throughout his book to enumerate the various ways young people can engage with words and ideas in the communities they inhabit. The classic modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening continue to be enacted as literacies; but he persuades us that becoming literate in history, for instance, involves the interest and ability to ask whose history, and by extension why this history?; and then to enact their growing understandings in their communities, through multiple literacies: I think of learners creating documentaries, interviewing family members and activists, apprenticing in ancient handicrafts, volunteering at museums, or teaching others the relevance of great books – old and new.

His book makes me want to wrestle with, cheer for, and work alongside with such teachers, librarians, and students.

The best thing this book does for me is to convince me that teacher education programs in this country have not given up but, on the contrary, have

turned their very resistance into the art of teaching

signified by the Master of Arts  degree, and represented by the author and his pre-service teacher-practitioners. If such programs are successful, in whatever regions and for whatever populations are served by teachers who care less about a test performance and more about whole human beings, they may restore hope in public and private schools which have chased dehumanizing business models, fragmented texts, outdated grading systems, isolated subject knowledge, and chased away some youth by disengaging learning from schooling.

Rodriguez’s book is a shot in the arm for public and private secondary school and college teachers. It goes a long way toward restoring my hope in the future for students and their teachers.

[Images: a. Creative Commons no attribution, Clkr-free-vector-images located by Pixabay; b. GH (l) with J Rodríguez in Washington, D.C. 2015.]



Are you standing at the borders of mystery?

Begin mystified
begin unbelieving
___off balance
learning begins.

We learn to believe
___to accept mystery
___to stop the balancing act.

Such moments, seeds of new knowledge
___of wisdom

V  i  s  t  a  s

Are you standing at the borders of a mystery?

                                                                             by G. Hultberg

We are disillusioned. Teachers, students, and parents are disenchanted with school and schooling. Just when we are about to give up, a new book offers hope.

coverjoEnacting Adolescent Literacies across Communities: Latino/a scribes and their rites (2017) offers a hopeful vision where young scribes:

  • relate learning to their public and private communities;
  • work with teachers to demystify literature, writing, and hidden processes;
  • co-learn and co-lead in their communities to enact their literacies;
  • celebrate:
    • dialogue and discovery,
    • beauty and language,
    • deliberation and negotiation.

Joseph Rodríguez knows teachers. He knows that new and veteran teachers alike are desperate to turn this historic moment into poetry. For some it may be poetry of protest; for others meditative sonnets.

Students, too, want to lend their voices to conversations about the past and present. Who will tell their stories, if they remain silent? Teachers in Enacting Adolescent Literacies invite us to introspection and investigation of past and present lives, and of forces that shape histories.

I love how the same question surfaces in Hamilton, serving as a theme not only of the show, but of histories themselves:

Who Lives,

Who Dies,

Who Tells Your Story?

[PHOTO: composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton] spotify:album:1kCHru7uhxBUdzkm4gzRQc






In Chapter 2, “Histories and Scribes at Milagros High School”, Mariano Guerra’s students, tired of “succumbing to authority in their schooling lives” and having legitimate questions go unanswered, learn to equate history with investigation and research into the “veracity of sources” and “chronicled points of view”. They move from studying Herodotus, through Mr. Guerra’s teaching as “subversive act”, to their own research as citizens whose education “questions and challenges authoritarian policies”.

The beauty of Mr. Rodriguez’s research and reporting is that it holds out hope for all such students, not merely Latino/a adolescents. Although his work focuses on school sites near El Paso, Texas, with a high percentage of Latino/a students, it invites any teacher to re-engage with the often mysterious, and inherently human, learning processes which drew us into learning and teaching in the first place.


Upcoming posts this week will feature a few thoughts about Mr. Rodríguez’s book in connection with my own thinking and learning.  


Lexington Books: www.rowman.com

Mr. Rodríguez will co-direct a summer institute Tales From the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives.screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-1-42-31-pm


Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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