Archive for the 'classical Christian' Category

26
Feb
17

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.  

coverjo

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

11
Aug
12

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.

GREATNESS?

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.

COMMUNITY

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.

DICKENS WOLD

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.

 

09
Aug
11

Whose Wisdom? (“Teaching Literacy” Part 2)

In the second half of Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom, Wilhelm and Novak share a vision for the future of education. I am aware of the irony of a “Christian school” -teacher feeling uncomfortable with the evangelical fervor with which the book makes its case, as it calls for us to  “spread” this “worldview” to the “masses of world citizens” (192). They call for nothing less than a “reawakening”, arguing that it is “our central task as human beings to teach others to “bring their separate odysseys into fruitful convergence” (195). But I am uneasy. I hope I can explain why.

Building on a foundation laid by Gordon Pradl and Sheridan Blau, the authors’ ideas of students dialoguing about texts shift away from conversations about texts of all kinds toward texts that resonate with the ideals of a classical era – books from the eastern and western canons, especially sacred texts.

What is important and valuable in their book is the attention it gives to why we feel called to teach in the first place: the souls of our students, the desire to make a difference, and the belief that education must address the needs of the whole child, not intellectual, physical, or spiritual growth alone. Because practicing wisdom means (in this book) learning about and acting upon our desires for justice and compassion, I agree with their concept. The Hebrew scriptures contain the following in Micah Chapter 6:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But one of the drawbacks I see as possible with educating children for wisdom as a national “American” practice (American democracy is foundational to the theory that drives the vision) is that such wisdom is inextricably merged with a view of God as well as of humanity. Therefore, if the highest aim we have is the establishment of peaceful, kind, and just communities worldwide which change culture, create hope, and eventually offer happy coexistence to all citizens, this seems a supernatural feat. The authors admit that nothing short of spiritual awakenings, one soul at a time, will succeed in altering the world positively, given its track record. In the verse above, doing justice and loving kindness are requirements–not options. It seems to me that the whole program of education set forth in “Literacy” would be much easier if we stopped teaching literature altogether, and began teaching Hebrew prophets. If, as they see it, all wisdom teachers (sages) essentially agree, then why not simplify things, and read only one or two who put it most concisely. Really, how much easier could a  life statement be than this: be humble before your God, and do good to others?

If the end result is really to have a whole culture made up of people who follow such a spiritual practice devotedly, performing acts of mercy, and pursuing justice, with the understanding that only spiritual renewal will allow such transformations, then by all means begin to teach only the sacred books, and make it so easy a child could understand it – a portion of St John, a dash of Jeremiah. We could all appeal to an influential God who arguably has made a big difference in societies all over the world (the God of Abraham), asking for the enlightenment that will let us see Him, see each other, and to “know as we are known” (an allusion the authors make to 2 Corinthinas 13: 12, which in context says: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”) But as an English teacher this would severely limit the value of my credential and all that reading! What do I do with all that Melville knowledge? No, we turn to the great books because they communicate their wisdom in vastly diverse eloquences, available not only to those whose eyes have been opened, but to anyone in a learning community who is willing to make sense out of words on a page, and open to listening.

[Barry Moser’s image http://hortontankgraphics.com/broadsides3.html]

One of the puzzling things for me in putting together the worldview presented in “Teaching Literacy” is to determine whether this is a spiritual undertaking in a mystical sense or a psychological sense. Profoundly theological statements in their book and in my own faith tradition acknowledge human dignity. But I am uncertain how to integrate the anthropocentric worldview presented here with my own theocentric worldview. That is, I assent to the dignity of human beings because I believe all people are created in God’s image. For me to educate children for wisdom would be to help them fully realize their potential to be awakened and used by God to serve (love) others. Caring for them and working for their justice would have little meaning apart from my seeing them in relation to myself as fellow human beings and to God as expressions of himself. Are we being asked to teach children to do good because it is good? or because it is right? a healthy mental practice? what are the grounds for the claim that it is morally good? As a teacher who aims to make his classroom more democratic, I can get behind reading Kant and St Paul on the reasonable or spiritual roots of goodness; but will my own philosophy get in the way of students forming their own opinions?

How welcome am I, using Wilhelm’s and Novak’s concepts, to teach an author such as Marx, who asserts that all human relationships are economic ones. His own wisdom, once adopted by me and my class, could lead to our action on behalf of oppressed people. (But could I guarantee that such action would be non-violent?) Or a reading of Ayn Rand, opposed to collectivism of all kinds, could push us to adopt individualistic goals. In one respect, it seems like conversations about their great books would foster a wonderful conversation about democracy and equality – its limits and liberties. Yet texts and wisdom must be selected somehow; all along, I have felt one question will have to come up: whose wisdom? whose texts? whose worldview?

Whose new orthodoxy?

In my educational paradigm, each individual must take responsibility for forming and integrating his own worldview, determining how best to practice what he believes about the world and the people in it. Literature and philosophy and history, as well as writings in the sciences and arts, provide a rich array of texts which touch on essential aspects of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life, allowing their wisdom to emerge through democratic conversations. I don’t quite see the benefit of an agenda that pushes readers to find a particular brand of wisdom. If anything, during a democratic conversation about a text, we teachers need to set aside our agendas long enough to allow students opportunities to explore meaning for themselves. [Away from what we claim is a democratic conversation, there is ample time in a Christian school Bible or English curriculum for teachers and students to apply biblical wisdom to readings and experience. In carefully orchestrated classes run by a sensitive teacher or facilitated by student leaders, it can occur even during open dialogue.]

My own prejudice shows through here: I bristle a bit when any thematic unit announces its literature’s theme prior to the students’ opportunity to read it. In a perfect conversation in a democratic classroom the students, not the teacher, will explore and discover (or construct) themes and meaning; it may also happen in concert with the teacher as co-learner and co-leader. Wisdom’s themes, as the authors suggest, will be truths that are acknowledged universally. They also posit the co-creatorship of the world which will ensue during a series of classes. It is something like a return to Eden. Because they have chosen a powerful religious myth as their conceit, the new life they are selling in “Teaching for Literacy” has powerful appeal to teachers, who already want to save the world, one student at a time.

It seems there are models of wisdom education already in practice. What would have to change in order for these to comply with the new literacy, the new and generous orthodoxy promoted by Wilhelm and Novak? Am I already engaged in this kind of reflective learning and teaching?

1. Jesuit education: for education that honors spiritual wisdom, academic rigor, and emotional connections with the personal practice of mercy, justice, and compassion, look no further. There must be many classrooms in this model which promote democratic conversations.

2. Classical or classical Christian schools: liberal arts schools built on foundations of the eastern and western canons, often featuring Socratic dialogue seminars, get to the heart of the texts which the authors deem worthy of attention – those from the high period when wisdom flourished.

3. Matthew Lipman’s research: integrating philosophy from an early age in classrooms, so that young people begin thinking about wisdom and truth and continue throughout their lives.

I am unsure of a few things as I continue to muse about the reasons I need to teach this coming year. Is it so that I can start my students on a journey, or involve them in the democratic process? Is it to make them grow wise or become good? Is it to provide them a space where they can explore their faith in human beings, or their faith in God?

I do think I want to be part of this conversation, but I do not think I am clear about what is expected of me. I do feel certain of several things: students need to be acknowledged holistically, and teachers are in an excellent position to help them become aware of their own growth and potential; a democratic classroom offers good opportunities for students to listen to and express ideas, and teachers are in a privileged position to help them think about the implications of accepting various wise and true things. I think that an experienced teacher should have a grasp of various worldviews, sources of wisdom, philosophies, and critical schools, in order that when students do find or challenge the apparently wise and true, we may respond in ways that help them question, understand, and apply the new ideas, so that as they form their identities, they are continually growing as confident and resistant readers (as Pradl has it), and who are reflective about the way they practice what they believe.

They do not have to save the world in order to love it and its people.

[Photo credit: St John’s College website]




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