Archive for the 'Who decides what we read?' Category


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:

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


Will this be on the test? 

I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean? 

1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text. 

2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”? 

3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street] 

 Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task. 

I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers. 

I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed. 

I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”


no bad days

Most of my blog posts are shunted to “drafts” because of incomplete thought. I hope to state up front, today, that the reality is I will not develop this one as much as I could, but rather, like each class each day, call it “good for one day”.

Like many school days, this one had ups and downs. One class saw volunteers either form committees, who set paper deadlines and established principles for fair grading practices, or prepare to model an editing conference. Another class interacted with a younger grade level class as they co-wrote stories. But along with their sparkle came some mud: some students handed in last week’s work incomplete carelessly done, or took a devil-may care attitude to free reading books or writing tasks.

My students who are usually engaged in class were distracted by SSR — sustained surreptitious reading, and those usually wrapped in personal books or reading ahead projected themselves into the class activities.
Absences of key students in pre-assigned roles meant that others shared more than they otherwise might have, while also filling a gap left by less prepared students.

Although during third and sixth periods I did not have time to share my fiction prompt by Ursula Le Guin, nor my sample attempts at her writing exercise, my students did decide on our next steps in class reading, writing, and performance.

I know that tomorrow I will hold numerous writing conferences, receive forty letters from students about their free reading books, listen to discussions of Shakespeare, Hardy, and Wilde, and wonder whether to wrest control from their hands. This, you see, is the most difficult of all decisions, for upon it depends so much.

Democratic, student-centered learning opens the door of a room that exists to serve student learning purposes. At the high school level in English this means some uncomfortable minutes spent every day as I listen to learners and wait for the processing of ideas — the second draft thought that inevitably will follow their initial draft thinking aloud. It must be an uneasy time for the students, too; today that came out effectively when mavericks spoke out in contrast to the majority, swerving the reigns of the whole cartload and helping true consensus, compromise, and accommodation to occur.

I don’t always need a refined, revised draft as a blogger. Taking you to the room I actually reside in immediately following the intertidal flood and ebb that is the end of my school day, before the effluvia settle, is not telling you how my day has gone. It is still a fresh impression on my mind; it will be hours before I can evaluate my own silences and interjections.

It was not at all a bad day.



unfinished business

This has never happened before.

With at most two class meeting left at the end of the year, I have failed to reach the destinations I had assumed we desired.

There is one act of The Tempest yet be read.

There are two chapters of Tale of Two Cities still ahead.

The group action and product for a collaborative inquiry has yet to be created, though it is under way.

On the list of “completed” I am happy to say that small group book clubs and research studies did not suffer. I subordinated my own “coverage of content” goals to student goals such as the book clubs, and curating To-Read lists on Goodreads for their summer reading.

They also worked with younger students to teach them how to get onto Edmodo, and how to dance Jane Austen -style (both 21st Century skills!).

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

They provided me with useful feedback and their own reflections about small group and individual learning as readers, writers, and researchers; they offered suggestions for whole class book studies for themselves and future students.

I have not ever faced so blatantly the absence of alignment between my unit calendar and the actual daily learning processes that occur. I attribute the finish–like the Preakness, where my students are California Chrome and I am the pack spread out behind; or the Giro d’Italia, where they are riders out front, and I am the peleton who waits too long to put on the speed and overtake them before the finish–I attribute the finish to the surrender of control that necessarily accompanies the sharing of authority in my classroom. As I try to respond to their pacing, their needs, I adjust the pacing and mini-lessons that I had planned, adding writing conferences to generate encouraging feedback and removing burdensome requirements.

But the subtraction of certain work means re-prioritizing goals, so that I must ask myself “How important is it for their learning?”

For example, I always told them “Tale of Two Cities [whole class novel] is the dress rehearsal; your book club is the opening night.”

Diigo screen for research group

Diigo screen for research group


Coming into the home stretch at the end of May, we have all run the race. Our students, us; there is plenty of unfinished business on either side. I have a heap of partially operational websites and apps to either dismantle or rebuild as models of student portfolios, class blogs, glogs, and research tools.

Google Site

Google Site

But for now, I have left it all behind at the paddock.

I have to get out of the old mindset, in which I was in competition with myself against last year’s number of units, with students over whose goals merit priority treatment, or with a Platonic ideal of interpretive community. In the new mindset, my students are in the game, and I am their coach, not their opponent; their goals and my goals merge end evolve over time, but flex more by student progress achieved (Past Performances) than by distance remaining to the final furlong, toward unrealistic expectations.

What I see as unfinished business is actually an opportunity for me to practice a flexible mindset and join my students in the Winners’ Circle.


a revolution

Stuck. In a hard place between gamifying A Tale of Two Cities — involving students discovering things I have predetermined and solving problems I have identified and defined; or having them learn it “by wholes” — incorporating play, working on the hard parts, and treating it as the “junior version” of the real game afterward: small group book clubs.

In gamifying, I become gamemaster, a role I am quite comfortable with when it comes to Dickens novels. They chose this book, incidentally.


In the other option I coach as they identify problems that defy easy definitions, offering useful feedback as they respond to the text (which a well constructed game will also do), and setting up conditions for collaborative inquiry. This approach, too, should lead to discoveries, yet I cannot know in advance what they will be.

Because the novel is set during the French Revolution, I have been thinking that revolution encompasses a good deal that might be worth inquiring about as a reader establishes connections and builds envisionments through this text.

There are so many beautiful aspects of revolution that stir me: patriotism and social change; faith, and spiritual change; education, and intellectual change. And there is that unpredictable awakening that happens in most individuals during the teen years when they rebel against conformity and distinguish themselves from others through clothes, music, art, books…looking for a subculture with which to identify.

I insist upon [the right attitude to work], because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage  of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.   From Dorothy Sayers’ post-war essay, “Why Work?” 

For a few moments they will recognize Mr. Lorry, who fights through his deadpan facade, whose bright eyes are the only unburied thing about him; Sydney Carton, who redefines his unsatisfying life by leaving it behind; and the embittered Madame Defarge, knitting in silent rebellion at first, her indignation rising until it breaks out in violence.

Possibly they will acknowledge the protests their grandparents endured or waged against the Vietnam War, similarly removed in time as Dickens was from the Revolution.

And then there is the technology revolution. Will they be moved to consider the implications, the new freedoms, the shameful abuses?

And then there is me. Stuck. Witness to a time of great education revolution, yet grudging participant in a system that still issues grades for indefinite achievements, shouts Liberty, Fraternity, Equality! for some, but not for all. As much a relic of the British Tradition (title of my little-used but proudly shelved Prentice Hall anthology) as Mr Lorry or the institution he serves, Tellson’s bank. All I need is the powdered flaxen wig.

What pulls me forth from my grave, recalls me to life, as Manette, Lucie, and Darnay are summoned to resume theirs? My freshmen, who last week devised a solution to the problem I posed. They had to evaluate “how do I know if I am finished?” with Fahrenheit 451. One group came back with a great response: “We want to read another novel to compare it with (Lord of the Flies), research some elements of both the books, and then show connections we make between the texts, ourselves, and our lives on the bulletin board with yarn [like the one up there now that the sophomores did].”


My American Lit students are enthused about pursuing an inquiry question arising from The Scarlet Letter that will lead to research and social action: writing a bill to send to a Utah legislator who has promised to read all propositions. They became quite engaged in Pearl’s custody hearing earlier this month.


2014-02-26 10.42.33

2014-02-26 10.42.25


No, I am not actually stuck. I am challenged and excited to help my sophomores make sense of a complex text that will yield unpredictably personal and individualized rewards. I just want to be worthy of their thinking, ingenuity, and creativity; this means practicing patience, and allowing ideas their percolating time.

Last time my students did Dickens, my goal was that they would become performers of the spoken text; they found it very helpful when I offered them a guideline that suggested what proficiency might look like, sound like. Fearful at first that they would turn a teacher-designed rubric into a pale excuse for a cause for reductive grading (conformist, aristocratic, abnegating reflection and authorship of their own learning), I was recalled to life by the students’ choice to respond individually to each other’s presentations one by one, pausing between oral interpretations to offer written feedback and encouragement in the form of blank notecards I had in my possession. Each presenter received immediate feedback on her speech from peers, who had also coached her during preparation earlier in the week and could monitor improvements. A true, meaningful recognition by peers of learning by whole, rather than teacher grading on Gradgrind-iose toadying expertise.
Students in those merry days would swap with others who became delightedly immersed in a speech; they recorded the orals as a lasting record of achievement.

The next step sophomores will take is determining whether an Essential Question is to guide their reading and inquiry, now that they have been introduced to the earliest chapters and done some learning activities. Essential questions can work very well; this is where revolution may aid us as a centering concept, but other themes could just as well take the shape of EQs and drive inquiry into this novel. Yet to be a truly responsive coach, I would be remiss not to allow students to delve fully into the love triangle that Dickens places against the backdrop of the French Revolution. For me to urge a Revolution focus would be the equivalent of attending Hamlet and advising an essay be written on the draperies masking the wings, or the fabric of the arras behind which Polonius [spoiler alert] is run through. If the teacher chooses the Essential Question he belittles the concept of democratic decisions. Better perhaps to model frequent socratic seminar questions related to daily readings, asking students to come up with their own opening seminar questions, then periodically grouping and categorizing the subjects of inquiry, watchful for any common elements that might suggest a centering concept.

About my own next step I am ambivalent. The above Tweet appeared just a week after a parent had told me about a book she was reading on grades, motivation, and Finland. I voiced an opinion about grades, homework, and standardized testing, but what I really meant was REVOLUTION. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, colleges, textbook/test publishers, and legislators all play roles in the dialogue about what good learning is. Until we reach consensus about what Dorothy Sayers calls the “absolute value” of doing hard work, the ultimate purposes for and measurements of learning will be frustrated. Last week’s #satchat gave rise to multiple possible ends of the educational project in our country: citizenship, morality, democracy, imperialism. It may be up to stakeholders in each learning community to define its outcomes. Ask essential questions: Why is it worth teaching well and learning well? What can parents do to enter into good learning? How do teachers and students reject tests that don’t measure the things that make good work valuable? How do administrators support and communicate the beliefs about learning among all constituents?

Back to my sophomores. They told me, in response to my mid-year reminder to them that class exists to serve their learning purposes, how to help coach them: 1) “force us outside our comfort zone”; 2) “do a unit where we all read exactly the same thing at the same time and pace”; and 3) “help us work on the hard parts”. That is my mandate. I will fulfill it if I have to don a flaxen wig, take up a pair of knitting needles, and direct the storming of the Bastille in “Tower” Room 209 myself.




The night i first heard laura nyro

…I met a fellow traveler. I was seated at Joe’s Pub on the Lower East Side. A stranger was put at the same table, and soon we were introduced by a mutual friend. “I’ll let you all figure out what you have in common,” Louis said as he left to meet others. Ha, before the lights went down and we were all held spellbound, electrified for seventy-five minutes by theater magic, all I had learned was that David teaches.


2007 reading, Kate and Louis, One Child Born website.

As we listened to the gospel as sung by Laura Nyro, a miracle was in progress. Somehow David and I had been immersed in a process or authorship, experiential learning that honors creativity.

At the end of the performance, when we really had time to visit, it turned out that David in his teaching had been pioneering ideas about teaching and learning that will move students from ownership of their learning experience to authorship of their own learning. Music has this capacity to bring people together; theater has this charm, to gather strangers, unite them through story; both are engines of empathy, generating an experience that leads to greater understanding of others and of oneself.

The performance, featuring Laura Nyro’s songs performed adoringly, beltingly, and bluesily on the piano by Kate Ferber, is a scripted tapestry woven of original monologues by distinct characters all brought under the charm of Nyro’s music, life, and persona. It is also molded and shaped by the metanarrative of Kate’s appreciation for the music.

Louis Greenstein and Kate Ferber can’t know directly how each audience member is affected by the monologues and music that we hear and see, or through our communal theater experience. But they and the director must know that for each person brought to life on stage last night, we each supplied our own concert and place memories, recalling ourselves. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt tutors us in a beautiful reversal that honors her former teacher, David. There is something poetic about educators being taught by past students, as exemplified in this public performance before a rapt audience.

Kate Ferber in performance

Kate Ferber in performance

The reversal is the same one he and I look for every day in our classes, a moment where the student moves from asking the authority figure for permission to “wonder and wander”, as David Dunbar puts it in his blog entry, toward assuming authority for learning. At that point, she or he might decide to share her wondering with the whole group, and ask for help with a new idea; bring a text to the table for discussion; or propose that the best way to explore an issue is to write and perform a play about it. When it is equally possible that in the classroom the learner will be the leader, and the tutor the listener, what you have is authentic dialogue, a productive and yearned-for ambiguity. Such a dialogue seems to be carried on between the audience and the show: during the actual performance I saw it in the give and take; over the years this show has been developed it is apparent in the sequencing and the truthfulness of each section.

I think the secret to effective learning is listening: teachers who listen to students, students who listen to their own minds and worlds, and writers, directors, and performers who listen to the voices around them. Louis said he keeps tinkering with the script, and I am certain that means he wants to learn by listening to what his characters are teaching him about themselves, as well as about structure, writing. You don’t play and sing as authentically and passionately as Kate Ferber does without internalizing the songs, empathizing with the person whose story is told in each song. She has listened to those voices; she has become a conduit for them.

He and I were privileged to listen last night. We were taught; we were changed.
One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro

David Dunbar’s blog


Pilgrimage to Dickens Wold

I have just returned from a pilgrimage to the Dickens Universe in Santa Cruz, and what a passage it was! Beginning with the lovely trip down Highway 1, at times fog-enshrouded, sun-warmed, or overcast, the Pacific beckoned and welcomed me. On campus, walking paths through redwood groves or the arboretum

During free moments of the week, I began to list the things Charles Dickens means to me. The list was pretty incoherent, with no center or glue that caused its items to stick to each other. It might leap from a high school encounter with Oliver Twist to a sense of literacy’s freeing capability, and a growing awareness of Dickens’s mastery of evocative prose. Its tangents extended to community theater, teaching, book clubs, and parties. I am an anglophile, only recently willing to admit that a few American authors have written as well as the British masters.


What alerts me to greatness in music or literature I call energy. Useless I suppose to explain it or think it might produce an identical effect on another reader. Bowie has this energy in young americans or space odyssey. Elton John’s band exhibits it  on 11-17-70, his first live album. But how do we know I don’t just mean star quality, since I have felt Jack Lemmon exuding something like energy on stage, once long ago? Perhaps it is a sense of theatricality, or of character, embodied in a text performance, brought to life in rhythms that surprise and delight, even jolt.

Lectures during the week drew attention to Dickens’s boundless energy, by which I feel was meant active mind, unlimited imagination, and ultimately self-destructive drive to work. In seminars and high school teachers’ discussions we participants celebrated a life of words, and his words of life — life embodied in actress Miriam Margolyes” vividly human and warm-blooded portraits one evening. Yet I am wondering what drew us all together in the first place.


It might be obvious to suggest that a sense of belonging, or wanting to belong, to something greater than oneself moves us to join in appreciation of this author: Victorian teas at 3, post-prandial potations at 6:30, 3 meals a day, and any number of walks back and forth between venues offer infinitely varied opportunities to mix with new acquaintances. But similar paths to membership in a community exist elsewhere, such as at The Glen Workshops sponsored by Image journal. Dickens’s imprint belongs more exclusively to himself, one feels, than to a shared faith or sense of vocation among attendees. That we have come together is less a phenomenon than that it is Dickens who has called us.


I plead guilty to misreading Bleak House at nearly every instance of the phrase Chesney Wold, by reading world in the place of wold. Chesney World, then, is the world in which Lady Dedlock lives (or exists)–a self-contained world where her boredom competes with her beauty for authority over Ghost Walk. Face it, this remote setting is as distant from my own world as is Fagin’s den, Joe’s forge, or Wemmick’s miniature castle with its drawbridge that cuts him off from the working life and practical existence. What compels me is the world Dickens creates, and the mysterious way that world is entangled with my own, imbuing it with richer colors and textures; when I read his prose, I am jolted more often into awareness of my own life than by any other writer.

It may be that a well-built sentence will perform in such a way that the teacher in me makes a note to use it as a model. Or the reader in me delights at the pleasure of some humorous passage set amidst a serious paragraph. The voter is warned that today’s corrupt politicians are in league with those of his own day, and my sarcastic or ironic side responds in mirthful agreement and recognition of familiar social ills and truths. His frequent allusions to the Bard and the Bible offer writer’s shortcuts I can follow. Even the costumes and scenery in Dickens’s world evoke my memories of watching or performing in adaptations, of friendships forged with those who loved and acted in theater, of teachers who taught the novels or took me to the plays, or a director who cast me as Sowerberry; I began thinking of myself as a writer when I was put down Drood and took up a pen to attempt the creation of a similar atmosphere. not least is the writer’s ability to achieve what Micah and Jesus refer to as justice, mercy, and humility as agents of love, a love supreme.

The connections this reader already felt and enjoyed we’re deepened last week through close reading and slow reading of the text. Through such exercises, intertextual relationships emerged with poems, paintings, and illustrations. Extending beyond this were avenues of criticism that opened up new ways of seeing links between the Victorian novel, ghost stories, horror, and detective genres–genres my high school juniors expressed interest in last year, and that resonated with my desire to create new thematic units around such writing. As Raymond Chandler writes in a letter:

Murder novels are no easier reading than Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth. They border on tragedy and never become quite tragic, and if you have to have significance, the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete pattern of the tensions in which we live in this generation.

Maybe what I am saying through all this is that teachers should never stop asking themselves and each other why we do what we do in the classroom. If a Dickens novel commands authority in the classroom, by all means introduce his voice. If Toni Morrison’s voice speaks, let her have a voice. And when Sara Zarr, Suzanne Collins, Socrates, Seneca, St. Augustine, and Steinbeck speak to young people with authority, give them a voice. Better yet, let’s engage students in opportunities to hear these often intertwining voices in conversation with each other, and invite young readers to declare which of the voices speak to them individually. The challenge I see for myself here is to teach in such a way that my own experience as a reader is available to my students, so that I share my joy over a well-written sentence or book, but only in order that they become more aware of language and its uses. When they define energy forthemselves, or engage in vigorous discussion over the merits of one writer over another, then they hone evaluative tools they will use for a lifetime of reading.



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