15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616

 

On Reading, Knowing and Not Knowing

I went on a hike recently with my husband and 10 year-old son. The 90 minute uphill trek proved challenging and after 2 hours we were rewarded with spectacular views of the neighboring valley and an expansive alpine meadow. Hiking is not a frequent occupation of ours. Given that, our shared accomplishment of almost 4 hours of walking completed in the space of about 5 1/2 hours let us all feel satisfied and content by the time we returned to our apartment.

The German word for hike is wandern and in my bilingual mind it’s associated with the English notion of wandering: of moving through a space without a particular destination. Of course, on our family hike we had a series of destinations which defined our route. We hiked but did not wander. We walked and celebrated a series of arrivals on our way. We were in it for the experience, the scenery, for time together.

I woke up thinking about reading. I grabbed the collection of essays currently on my nightstand: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books 2014) and opened up to a random page. I landed on a heading titled: “Pimping For The Global North” in the essay “Worlds Collide In A Luxury Suite” from 2011. She describes events, people and organizations I hadn’t previously considered: About the International Monetary Fund and how it’s previous head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn met his downfall after being accused of rape and further abuses of women. Solnit tells me a number of things I do not know; things that are news to me: the origins and purposes of the IMF; about it’s largely harmful effects on the economies of the developing world, particularly in Africa and South America. Not knowing, lacking awareness, being clueless – these were all part of this particular reading experience.

In many ways we may read to learn, to find out what we don’t know. But I didn’t pick up Solnit’s essays because I wanted learn about the IMF. I didn’t go on a hike with my family out of a necessity to get from A to B. Men Explain Things To Me offers a virtual potpourri of insights related to feminism, political activism, social histories of violence against women, and the public presence and absence of women. The not-knowing or ignorance that I bring to Solnit’s writing is not something I need to overcome. Rather it is the portal that allows me to discover “what’s new? what’s relevant? what does this text say to me?”

In “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading,” Jesse Stommel suggests that “Not reading is serious scholarly business.” Realizing that even the most voracious readers among us can only absorb a tiny fraction of all that is available to be read helps me in coming to terms with so much not-knowing. Even as I continue to read widely and travel in so many different lanes of interest, I remain remarkably ignorant. When Jesse explains why he doesn’t police students’ reading, he posits that

[l]earning is a series of constant arrivals. And we should be just as willing to talk about and theorize our non-arrivals.
This is my work, increasingly – to encourage students and other teachers to recognize that there is no genuine turn to a text that doesn’t include both not knowing and not wanting to know as potential outcomes.

The idea that not all reading will hold our attention, spark insight or compel us to even get past a few lines or pages feels important to acknowledge. Jesse reinforces the notion of reading as an act of volition where completing a text is not the goal, rather it’s about locating our unique responses. While I cannot claim to grasp the complex operations of the IMF based on a single essay in which it forms the backdrop for a different narrative, I have a distinct awareness of my not-knowing. From there it’s much easier to determine the status of my curiosity; where it might lead me next.

I am fairly certain my next big read will not be a deep investigation into the politics of the IMF. But I will read more about inequality, about human struggles for justice and as I read I will learn more about myself and the expanse of my unknowns. My reading as a form of wandern; moving through a space to see what I can see. Where what I can see will relate to what I know, don’t know, or think I know and change based on the many different ways I continue to become.

I want to close with some inspired thinking from an English teacher making a strong case for disrupting the canon by replacing or supplementing traditional texts with works by authors from marginalized populations. In her blog post: Disrupting Texts As A Restorative Practice, Tricia Ebarvia refers to the need for teachers to “help students reflect on who they are when they read: what are the identities and experiences that have shaped them? Because it’s these identities that we bring to every single reading experience. Because it’s these identities that are the vehicles for bias and prejudice. Unpack those.

Yes! Who are we when we read? Who do I believe myself to be? Literally and figuratively, what do I know? Because as much as I would like to leave you with this happy image of me scrolling through texts connected loosely by serendipity in the same way that I describe me and my family strolling through the Alps like Maria in The Sound of Music, Tricia Ebarvia’s post reminds me and us that our personal bubbles are neither sterile nor pollution free. The not-knowing person I described reading Solnit’s essays is also someone who holds bias and benefits from privilege. That’s me. I may be ignorant about many things but as Tricia makes clear I cannot afford to hide behind not-knowing my identity as I read, as a reader. Knowing, it turns out, likely has a lot to do with who I am and believe myself to be. Knowing myself in order to learn and be able to see the world becomes the hike of countless arrivals but no end.

Dear Tricia: A meditation on a life of reading

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Dear Tricia,

Ever since I read through the beginning of your thread last night and finished reading it this morning, several thoughts have been turning in my mind. First of all, let me say how grateful I am for your voice not only in my digital life. Your leadership of #DisruptTexts as an initiative and community has opened up another world for me, one I preferred to leave to the experts until now. But let me get to this thread you shared.

It’s of course a thread so there’s a lot more to this and I’m going to pick out the 3 or 4 that really hit me:

I want to pause here. Already at the first tweet I was shaking my head. My bookshelves are testament to the overwhelming whiteness of my reading diet over years. My children’s libraries are not so different, although their shared interest in Manga series may shift their reading ratio considerably over time.

I second your claim that we adopt the values that come along with reading mainly through the dominant gaze. I’ve been very good at assimilating into the dominant culture. My reading choices over decades have reinforced and bolstered that process. And maybe this is what I woke up thinking most about: The way I read, which naturally bleeds into the way I write, is a function of how those efforts have been rewarded – as a student, colleague, employee, and friend. Since my social circles over decades have been comprised of mainly well-educated middle class white people, the language and literary habits I have cultivated reflect that participation. As a kid, I was told by my Black neighborhood friends, “You talk like a white girl.” They were correct. I suppose in my pursuit to fit in even better as an adult I learned to “read like a pretty smart white guy.”

And this is where I am.

My home library is heavy on non-fiction: sport psychology, parenting, education, cultural studies, sociology, general self-help, psychology, and business consulting and leadership lit. This is no accident. At some time in my early 20’s I found non-fiction to be where I felt more at home, where I could explore my interests often with a journalistic lens. In the course of my adulthood reading, I shoved fiction to the margins. I still read the occasional novel and enjoyed it but when it came to book shopping – I always headed for the non-fiction sections first. This is all still largely the case but my fiction and poetry reading is on the rise thanks to some friendly nudges from friends and colleagues.

OK, so that’s some background. Non-fiction – mostly written by academics who have established their reputations as capable (and sometimes extraordinary) storytellers is what ‘s mainly on my bookshelves. That means a LOT of white men, some white women and a comparably smaller selection of authors of color. I haven’t done an inventory. I haven’t gathered the data. But I know. The spines of my books tell me. There are far more Dans, Davids, Jameses, Alans and Michaels than there are Lenas, Rebeccas or Susans.  The few authors of color are most likely to be among the education texts and in my small stash of fiction titles. Sport psychology (the area of my 1st masters) – that shelf is all white male authors.  Fitness, parenting and self-help books on my shelves have been penned overwhelmingly by white women.

My 10 y-o’s library is full of favorite American authors: Mo Willems, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Leo Lioni. We’ve read a number of chapter books by Ann Cameron, Sharon Creech, JK Rowling and most recently Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories. My older son enjoyed similar fare as a child. I am thrilled that they are both enthusiastic, nearly greedy readers. At the same time, I see the lack of color and range of perspectives and work on addressing that. My school library has been a great help so that my youngest and I have read novels by Jacqueline Woodson and Svetlana Chmakova and absolutely loved Sundee Frazier’s Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It, which featured a boy like him – brown and biracial. We also read John Lewis’s March trilogy together which sparked all kinds of questions that I needed to research to answer. (Fortunately I was reading Carol Anderson’s White Rage at the same time which provided more context.)

My insight as a result of your thread: How our reading lives develop becomes its own field of research revealing things we might not have recognized about ourselves just by looking in the mirror. Your thread reminded me that there is always time to explore, to step out of well worn habits and seek out what is likely missing. Most recently for me that has meant adding indigenous voices to my reading lists: Robin Wall Kimmerer, for instance, and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. These are only beginnings but they open doors and windows and help me see new vistas. I’ve made fresh attempts to investigate more fiction as a way of joining new conversations with different people (i.e., #THEBOOKCHAT and #DisruptTexts) This is still so new to me but invigorating and enriching. If not for so many folks on Twitter I would not have read the work of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Jessamyn Ward or Elizabeth Acevedo. Now that I have, I am primed to seek out more from these wonderful writers and others who are being brought to my attention.

The way you describe your experience resonates deeply with me:

We’re growing and cultivating intentionality as we go. Witnessing your example and that of others who share this passion for widening perspectives gives me both pause and strength. It’s clear to me that I will continue on this path. It behooves me as a parent, educator and citizen. Sharing the journey, encouraging each other one read at a time makes it all the more doable and inviting.

Thank you.

Sending gratitude, love and admiration,

Sherri

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0

 

The Wisdom of Spunky

Spunky Tells All  is a book by Ann Cameron, not a gossip column. Spunky is an articulate, astute and terribly funny dog who lives with his family, the Bates. Spunky has become my new literary hero. If you care nothing about dogs, pets or children’s fiction, please skip this post and go read something more dour. I have nothing but quotes and a strong recommendation that you procure this book and immediately improve your mental-emotional well being. You will thank me.

This is Spunky.  (image: ©Lauren Castillo found here)

Spunky speaks truth to power:

I sat up tall. I gave them a talk – the best talk I ever gave in my life.

I said: “Listen! I am a Dog. I will always be a Dog, so don’t laugh. You, Mr. Bates, Mrs. Bates, Julian, and Huey, you are Humans and will always be who you are, too. Sometimes other Humans will laugh at you. That, I have noticed, is one thing Humans do: they laugh at each other.

“But a Dog will never laugh at a Human for being Human. That is why you love us. That is why you trust us. That is why you call us Man’s Best Friend. Still, when we behave like Dogs because we are Dogs and cannot help being Dogs, you laugh.

“Is that fair???????????”

That was the end of my speech. I put a lot of question marks on the last word, with both my ears and tail.

They only understood the question marks. (p. 6-7)

He shines a light on the irrationality of Human behavior:

    In spring I feel frisky, like a young pup. I want to romp. I want to play with my boy. Often he will not go outside. He won’t throw a ball to me. He won’t throw a stick so I can chase it. He won’t pet me. I lick him. He says, “Spunky, go away. I have homework.”

What is homework? Why is homework? I do not know. For thousands of years, we Dogs have passed on to new generations the knowledge of how to survive and enjoy life. We overcame many difficult times and have populated the entire world with the great race of Dogs.

In all our many thousand years, not one of us have ever needed homework. What use is it? (p.21)

Oh, if only we could see ourselves with Spunky’s clarity.

Julian shrugged. Huey copied him and shrugged, too.

We Dogs don’t shrug. We think it is a big mistake to be a species that shrugs. “Whatever!” is usually what a Human shrug means. A dangerous word. If you want to survive, you must pay attention to what’s coming down the road straight at you and say Yes! to it , or No! to it, but never “Whatever.” (p. 43)

I may never shrug again.

Thanks to Spunky, I dare set aside my serious pedagogical pursuits and pause to appreciate the conundrums of life. He shares,

    I am very sorry for Humans, really. Not only because they cannot speak Dog. Even worse: they have such big noses yet get such little use out of them. Why? What really is the point?

You will say, Who is Spunky to question the way the universe is arranged? Who is Spunky to criticize?

I don’t criticize. I don’t. I just wonder. I humbly contemplate. I reflect. Sometimes I ask my departed ancestors about this, trying to reach their Sky Spirits with these questions:

Why are Humans and Dogs so different? Why are things as they are?

So far, I have received no answers. (p. 56)

Alas, dear Spunky, you are not alone in your quest to comprehend the great mysteries of our planetary existence. I’m right there with you.

 

Spunky Tells All by Ann Cameron, R R Donnelly & Sons Co., Crawfordsville, IN. 2011.

Get Rich By “Teaching”

 

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Perhaps it is really this easy. (image via Pixabay.com)

Imagine for a moment that someone wants to let you in on a little secret. He is privy to some special information and is willing to share it with you. It’s a small favor. It will help you, really. So you read on.

This person then goes on to tell you about an outsized opportunity that may well have escaped your attention. But thank goodness, he’s got your back. Listen up, he’s not talking about small potatoes here. This is a righteous opportunity to win big. If you get in early, that is. If you act now and jump on the epic wave that leads to the very gold (I mean totally gold) coast. (You’ve gotta see that, right?)

And get this, this opportunity is in teaching!! Yes, creating, promoting and teaching online courses and seminars! THIS is the future we’re talking about here and IT IS A GOLDMINE! And you can do this all via LinkedIn because LinkedIn just bought e-learning giant Lynda. Are you kidding me, it doesn’t get any better (or easier than that)!

As much as I wish I was kidding, I sadly, am not. This was a real article (post? hype banner?) which showed up in my Twitter timeline.

One of the headines reads:

How YOU Can Sell More By “Teaching” On LinkedIn

“Sell More By ‘teaching.'” Let that sink in. “Teaching” in quotes should set the alarm bells ringing. I realize that the audience here is not educators, per se, but everyone else. The author is John Nemo, CEO of LinkedInRiches, a company dedicated to helping individuals make money via LinkedIn and other media platforms it appears.

I guess what struck me here has more to do with readers, young and old, who can easily accept this as a set of facts to be acted upon; who would have significant difficulty recognizing this as a piece of hypeware (yes, I just made that up), a piece of writing that is there solely for the purpose of creating the illusion of buzz and importance. He could just as well say that selling T-shirts, coffee mugs or pet blankets will lead you to the revenue promised land we all dream of.

We must not be alarmed that “teaching” in this context is there to be commodified like all sorts of other products. This bit of specially served info has little to do with improving society and its citizenry. Rather this is about a business opportunity, and the field in question happens to be “teaching.”  Education in all its forms is a genuinely enormous market not only for tech products but also for traditional publishing. This we know, although the side-effects can be difficult to stomach at times.

I bring this up as yet another public service announcement: Don’t Believe The Hype! And even more to the point: Always Question The HYPE!


 

One of the benefits of the internet, social media, and all this connectedness is that whatever you are doing, writing, explaining – somebody else is probably also doing it/has done it/will do it better. In this particular case, I believe this post, The Non-Uberization of Education  by @mweller fits the bill particularly well. In a nutshell, he asserts that the hype surrounding Uber’s model of market domination and seemingly inevitable march of all other sectors to follow suit simply does not work in the field of education.

The appeal of apps and businesses like Uber is their simplicity. It’s not impossible to address all of the reservations I’ve set out above in some Uberized fashion, but it would end up being a complex, unwieldy affair that would defeat the very object of its existence. And that is the biggest difference between Uber and education – getting a taxi is simple, getting an education is complex. That’s why we value it highly – after all, you put letters after your name to indicate your education, not to show how many taxi rides you’ve taken.

This reminds me that I, too, probably need to learn to let go. Yes, the gold diggers are here and well supported by snake oil salespeople galore. This is no surprise. This is not the neoliberal apocalypse. It is simply an attendant reality of our times. Education and teaching can be tools for money making and therefore plenty of folks will make every reasonable attempt to shake the money tree. Let them shake it.

We, as educators, citizens and parents, on the other hand, will need to do more than preach critical thinking. We’ll need to practice it, and model it, teach it, and practice it some more. We won’t get rich doing it, but we’ll have some integrity and evidence of learning to show for our efforts.

 

Unassigned Reading

Just about everything I read now is unassigned. I am no longer in school. I believe that I have acquired all the academic degrees that I care to acquire in this lifetime. And while there may be the occasional course of study to deepen my understanding of certain professional or personal development topics ahead, the reading choices at this stage of my life are entirely voluntary and self-determined. If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that I am an enthusiastic reader and I have the privileges of time, resources and access which afford me a tremendous wealth of opportunity to engage with texts of all kinds.

I say all this now because I have been thinking about the reading that I have done which 1) has nothing to do with education directly, 2) I do with someone, 3) is something routine that we do simply for pleasure. I am thinking about a year or actually several years’ worth of reading aloud to my sons. My youngest is 8 and reading aloud to him counts as one of my greatest parenting pleasures. He’s an astute listener for whom the length of bedtime reading is still an extremely effective bribe.

Looking back over the course of this year, it’s hard to count how many books we read all together. The first 4 Harry Potter books were big, I think we re-read A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a recent birthday gift which we enjoyed. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf turned out to be an unexpected hit and as well liked as Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Chapter books were always punctuated by various picture books: Piggy and Elephant are among our favorites to read in tandem. Classic fairy tales also hit the spot: The Gingerbread Man, Jack in the Beanstalk, The Three Billy Goats Gruff – we read those over and over. With his dad he has discovered the fun in Asterix and Obelix comics (which is rather lost on me; I think it may be more of a European thing).

The librarians at my school have been wonderful supporters of our reading endeavors, not only supplying us with books that have been sorted out but also directing us to great new possibilities. While I began reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck on my own, my son was drawn in by the detailed illustrations which run throughout the story, so that we read a big chunk of it together. Although I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret on my own, it was a highlight when a 5th grader at school saw me with it and said he was reading it, too. And it was the elementary librarians who turned me on to Jaqueline Woodson, whose autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming in verse felt like a rare gift.

So many words, characters, and plot lines and all for the sheer pleasure of hearing, discovering, following, and anticipating what might happen next. My son remembers details from books we read months or even years ago. He quotes lines from one story that remind him of what we’re reading now. And with him I am miraculously able to remember too (most of the time). Recently we observed that a lot of children’s stories involve (and often open with) the death or unexplained absence of a parent. And we tried to understand how this kind of sets up the kids in the story to be heroes of a special sort. (We’ll be chewing on that theme for many more reads to come I’m sure.) Since I put a hold on continuing the Harry Potter series until the boy is a bit older, I’ve been attentive to introducing books and stories which can pick up some of the excitement slack in a more age-appropriate fashion. We’re currently reading The Abominables which is a delightful story about extremely kind and gentle Yetis being transported across Central Asia and Europe to England by a friendly truck driver and two pre-teens. (This is a book I dared to pick up based on its cover, I admit.) When my son commented on how much he liked this story, he said, too “I like everything you bring.”

All this unassigned reading for both of us. There’s no log. There will be no reports, book trailers, or other creative expositions of our literary excursions. Studies show our vocabularies are expanding, we’ll be more successful writers, we’ll do better on standardized tests.  Fortunately for us this is not the objective. It’s just us cuddled up, turning pages, giggling, pausing in surprise, finding just the right rest stop for the night. We have to good fortune to enjoy the very best of unassigned reading: joy and connection.

Less ‘Out There,’ More ‘In Here’

As a culture, we’ve forgotten that middle classes are not naturally occurring. They have to be created, consciously.
For young people coming into adulthood now, higher education has never been more necessary or more expensive. That’s a cruel dilemma, and it speaks to polarization. If you don’t win, you very much lose. It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be.
The great gift of education is in showing that the present doesn’t have to be.

Matt Reed, (@deandad) Friday Fragments

These few sentences convey so clearly and succinctly what I have been saying in conversation with friends, family and anyone else who will listen, what I find so troubling about the future for our young people.

And yet, Matt Reed holds out hope and insists that we can change things.

Listen to bell hooks describe poverty in our current society (in an interview with George Yancy):

G.Y.: How is the poverty of today different?

b.h.: Let’s face it, one of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption. So part of the difference of poverty today is this sort of world of fantasy — fantasizing that you’ll win the lottery, fantasizing that money will come. I always cling to Lorraine Hansberry’s mama saying in “A in Raisin in the Sun,” “Since when did money become life?” I think that with the poverty of my growing up that I lived with and among, we were always made to feel like money is not what life is all about. That’s the total difference for everyone living right now, because most people in our culture believe money is everything. That is the big tie, the connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people — the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.

This assessment resonates with me profoundly. We all have cause for concern. Yet bell hooks is also hopeful and a believer in the power of love:

b.h.: Well, I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching. I don’t do a lot of teaching these days. I am semi-retired. Because, like any act of love, it takes a lot of your energy.

Teaching as an act of love. Education as a vehicle for change. These ideas are not ‘out there’, they can and should become more ‘in here’: in our systems, organizations, in our schools, in our approaches. But the truth is, those changes won’t happen until we, one by one; each one, teaching one decide to do it differently on as many levels as possible.

I was struck reading both of these pieces. And I felt too tired to write. Yet the need to make the connection (just one of so, so many) would not let me rest. The bell hooks interview is everything and I will be rereading it quite a few more times I suspect. Matt Reed’s hopefulness is a position I want to support and rally behind. There is so much at stake and every day we have choices.

Please read the full post and interview of these writers. Both offer wise and ultimately affirming messages of how we can and ought to move forward.