Boxes of Thought

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Photo by furkanvari on Unsplash

Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.

To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.

To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.

I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.

The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.

I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.

  • Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.

 

  • Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.

 

  • Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.

 

  • In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.

 

  • I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.

 

Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.

I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.

Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.

My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.

Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together  – re – member – in these few days of rest.*

Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.

I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.

Even our freedoms are full of constraints.

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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

 

 

Winter Reads Bringing the Heat

Over the winter break, I was privileged with an abundance of reading time. I finished whole books! Each in turn provided so much joy, sustenance or entertainment or any combination of the three that by the end of the break my literary appetite was temporarily sated.

What did I read, you ask?

Going into the break I was finishing up, Dr. Joy Degruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which after having heard her speak at the NAIS People of Color Conference offered a welcome and necessary recap of her arguments. Reading allowed me to deepen my understanding of the lingering impacts of  slavery over generations. I had never invested in making those direct connections previously between slavery and my own family’s (behavior) history.

After that, I was ready to read Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Written as a letter from an American born son to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, as readers we are drawn into personal spaces at once intimate and charged. I don’t know what I expected but I found poetic passages page after page which blew me away.

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But the books I really want to tell you about turn out to be a rather unusual pairing: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Death and Anger, Anger and Death! What a combination for the holidays!

Caitlin Doughty has made a name for herself on social media with her youtube series, Ask A Mortician and goes by the handle @TheGoodDeath on Twitter and Instagram. Smoke describes her initiation into the undertaking industry at age 23 when she got her first job at a crematory. Besides being a gifted storyteller, Doughty shares her wonderings about the way death is done in modern Western societies, particularly in the US. In the tradition of excellent non-fiction, she provides tricks of the trade alongside a bit of historical background mixed in with squishy messy details of preparing the dead. Author Doughty had me interested in all of it. Smoke emerged as an unexpected page-turner.

Before arriving at the conclusion that humans are “glorified animals” and that “We are all just future corpses,” Doughty describes how she came to this point early in her career as a mortician:

Less than a year after donning my corpse colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world. p.168

She reminds us through stories and wit that “death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” (p. 228) And this makes so much sense to me. Considering what my own “death values” are and where they come from is certainly a mental-emotional exercise in my future. Smoke provided me with an basis for reframing death and burial as processes that complete my humanity rather than erase it. That’s pretty significant.

If Smoke was the beer, Burn It Down was an extraordinary chaser. Behold, 22 essays by women from a variety of backgrounds all illuminating ways of thinking about, experiencing, managing, and expressing anger. So many spoke of the taboo surrounding feminine expressions of anger – about the shame and also manipulative capacity of tears, of being labeled hysterical, emotional, bitter, deranged… That rang entirely true and at the same time, I could also see parts of myself in the stories of those women who flew off the handle, who got loud and vocal when necessary.

While reading I thought of my many girlfriends and how seldom we have chances to be this frank with each other. Which is the beauty of having this collection of women’s voices which validate our right and need to feel and express our rage, particularly when we open our eyes to the underlying patterns in society which place all manner of hurdles in our paths. Especially striking for me were two essays, each penned by trans women, which made me think again about what it means to identify as woman.

Sheryl Ring caught me with this:

“…the reality is, I am a woman, and therefore, I am what a woman looks like. Every trans woman is what a woman looks like. It’s not that we all pass – it’s that whether or not we “pass” is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. (From “Crimes Against The Soul,” p. 191)

And in her essay, “On Transfeminine Anger,” Samantha Riedel proposes a vision of what could be:

Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation.

That is a form of vision that I don’t find everywhere. Until I read that passage, I hadn’t really recognized my own deep appetite for  pictures of what we could create, what alternatives to abrasive and harshly competitive existences might look like.

A different perspective that resonated profoundly came from Lisa Factora-Borchers, a daughter of Philippine immigrants who writes about living in middle Ohio and why she stays. She describes conversations with her kids and I am reminded that my friends, colleagues and I are navigating similar talks with our own kids and with students.

When we drive on Highway 62 and pass the Confederate flags and the billboards declaring “one man, one woman = real marriage,” I see it now as an opportunity to give my kids what I wish I always had: an example of how to embrace anger; how to use it as a natural resource, whether facing injustice of critically interpreting political and religious propaganda. “You see these big signs?” I ask my kids when we pass religious billboards. “There’s a lot of people out there who are afraid of anything different from themselves. People who are afraid will try to tell you who to love, how to love, or who to be friends with, but we’re not afraid of other people just because they may be different from us. That’s just not who we are.” (From “Homegrown Anger,” p. 189)

The struggle to convince our children that we have agency when there are whole industries dedicated to demonstrating the opposite can weigh heavily. In Factora-Borcher’s essay, I am reminded that I am far from alone; that as I teach my children, I can teach myself.

I’m sure it’s no accident that I raced through these essays and Doughty’s account of the undertaking industry in the matter of a few days. I clearly was in the market for some #RealTalk. Doughty takes time to meditate on what it means to handle the dead and death in a society that would prefer to pretend they don’t really exist. Throughout the book she makes a strong case for reclaiming death and its subsequent ceremonies as a natural part of life. Meanwhile, Lily Dancyger’s curated essays assure me that acknowledging  and expressing my anger will not kill me. Either way, I’m better prepared on at least two counts.

 

 

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

Thoughts on *Instruments Of The True Measure*

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My relationship with poems is not as fraught as my relationship with Poetry.

Each poem offers itself, independent of all its potential brethren and I read what I can,

Understand as much as I can and let it be.

Laura Da’ writes poetry which challenges me. In Instruments Of The True Measure I run up against my only rudimentary grasp of US History of the 19th century. It’s a painful encounter – my ignorance colliding with Da’s haunting portraits of specific human suffering and survival of that period.

I read and feel out of my depth. There are so many words I would need to look up: calico, lariat, forelock, sorrel, bandolier, slake, vellum.

As I persist, I begin to make out figures – babies who become boys then young men who find work and traverse the landscape.

I hesitate to tell you what I believe I read because I fear I could be wrong. But there are moments where we see with our own eyes the greedy claims of Manifest Destiny.

From “Greenwood Smoke”

To the south, a surveyor

crosses the river

once called simply

after the shape of its bend,

soon to be baptized anew

with an Irish assessor’s surname.  (p.36)

From “The Coming Men”:

Dig out

the granite corner markers

capped in numbered brass,

 

blaze random

marks in the haggard

stands of hardwoods.

 

Public auction and preemption

scatters two million

Delaware and Shawnee acres.   (p. 56-57)

Da’ who is Eastern Shawnee refers us again and again to the role of measurement in the process of conquest. We consider the tools of the surveyor, the authority of the map maker. She shows us a list of 18 treaties between the US government and the Shawnee between 1786 and 1867 and reminds us:

The gore of the battlefield seeps into the ground and is lost; ink on vellum is its approximation. …

Any treaty is an artifact of unimaginable suffering.  (“Pain Scale Treaties” p.58)

As I read I learn. I am humbled by the weight of history I have been able to shrug off until now. Because it is no longer ‘someone else’s history’. No, my own history is absolutely bound up in those countless transactions designed to benefit only one kind of people. This is where Laura Da leads me – back to my own responsibility and forces me to consider the extent and limitations of my humanity. Alas, I am back to measurement, not with meridians but the low gray lines of my mental horizon.

 

 

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

 

Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

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It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

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In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

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.

More Thoughts on Pasquale’s “Black Box Society”

When I finish reading a good book, my sense of satisfaction and fulfillment tends to be a rather private happening. I finish the book and even as I move on to the next (and there is always a next one), I still spend a fair amount of time processing the last. Since I’ve been blogging, I have used this space to share more thoughts about recent readings and that has felt somewhat liberating.

This summer I even went so far as to tweet out a picture of my proposed reading stack of 4 books:

https://twitter.com/edifiedlistener/status/619863567903256576

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidiche, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale and Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier. Three quarters of the way done, I find my mind twisting and turning to accommodate so much new and rich input. Only Data and Goliath remains and as a back-to-back read with The Black Box Society, I feel adequately steeled for whatever fresh insights on  data vulnerability it may bring.

Here I want to focus , however, on Black Box because I feel like I will find no peace until I have shared as much as possible while the ideas are still so active in my mind.  In an earlier blog post I noted parallels between Pasquale’s illustrations and the Harry Potter series. (Seriously.) In a nutshell, Black Box Society examines the role of algorithmic decision-making in the areas of reputation (how we appear to external parties), search (what we look for online and how the selection and ranking of responses takes place and may impact us), and finance (the business of making (much) more money out of some money). I read it because someone I deeply respect recommended it. Before I started I was already a little apprehensive.

While reading The New Jim Crow presented challenges in the form of emotional labor, I was concerned that Black Box Society might be a bit beyond me. I had reservations about my capacity to grasp all the topics author Frank Pasquale was planning to cover: intricacies of the tech industry and finance. I even wrote a sticky note to myself for a potential blog post: How to read a difficult text:
*go slowly
*talk back to your negative self-talk (that keeps saying you won’t get it)
*be patient
*allow not knowing
*come back to it again & again – build stamina over time

The sticky note is stuck just inside the front cover. As it turns out, however, I didn’t need it, per se. I made it through the text and felt well guided throughout. This was the first text in a long while that I read with pencil in hand. I underlined a lot and put notes in the margins. I got involved with the text and found unanticipated connections (i.e., to Harry Potter). And, I dare say, I had fun, even reading about finance because it was explained both generously and with significant intentionality. Particularly when the discussion turned to CDSes (credit default swaps), CDOs (collateral debt obligations) and MBSes (mortgage-backed securities) which stood at the center of the financial meltdown of 2008, Pasquale provided the necessary scaffolding for me to make sense both of the crisis itself and the underlying assumptions that made it possible.

As I read I kept coming back to thoughts about privilege, wealth and status. Whether describing the titans of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, Pasquale captures a very wealthy, white male demographic who wield an immense degree of power and influence in both the private sector as well as in government. And their ability to carry out so many of their transactions behind various cloaks of secrecy and complexity or “black boxes”, reinforces and expands the wealth and privileges this group continues to amass. As an African-American woman, an educator – I found myself reading and thinking that there are few who  expect me to read and be up on this stuff.  I find myself in this narrative as the clueless user/consumer who stands largely at the mercy of these gigantic corporate structures whose services I engage to write this post, to make it findable on the web, to purchase more books, to tweet more links, to tout my professional skills, connect with hundreds of other educators, and so on.

Frank Pasquale is extremely candid in his assessment of the current state of affairs:

What we do know is that those at the top will succeed further, thanks in large part to the reputation incurred by past success; those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages. Despite the promises of freedom and self-determinism held out by the lords of the information age, black box methods are just as likely to entrench a digital aristocracy as to empower experts. (p. 218)

Think about that for a moment. “Those at the top will succeed further…those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages.”
This captures our society with alarming accuracy. And we can be certain that black boxes abound, especially in areas where power is increasingly consolidated. I cannot help but think of the aggressive pursuit of corporate interests in K-12 and Higher Education where transparency and openness can quickly become casualties in the fight to “reform” public education through various forms of privatization. I must also consider the prison-industrial complex which provides shareholder billions as the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens in the developed world. As Michelle Alexander asserts in The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs has enabled the creation of a new social undercaste whose political, economic and social disenfranchisement underscore  the essence  of “cascading disadvantages.”

While reading Black Box Society I was frequently reminded of an essay by sociologist,  Tressie McMillam Cottam whom I quoted in a previous blog post:

…give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics.

There seems to be no escape from the political no matter where I turn.  Completing The Black Box Society becomes a political act,  as is reading The New Jim Crow and Data and Goliath. This is me “getting up on politics.” Getting informed, adding depth to my otherwise fuzzy notions of impending social and economic demise. It is impossible to read Pasquale and not become politicized.  He writes:

Internet and finance firms “set the standard” for our information economy. So far they have used their powers to know the world of commerce ever more intimately…Knowing more than a rival, or simply knowing it faster, is the key to vast fortunes.

But what if economic success were based less on information advantage and more on genuine productivity? Distracted from substantive judgments on what the economy should produce, we have been seduced by the mysterious valuations that Wall Street and Silicon Valley place on goods and services. But their algorithmic methods framed as neutral and objective, are predictably biased toward reinforcing certain hierarchies of wealth and attention. (p. 187-88)

The choices we have become very narrow very quickly unless we take steps at the very least to understand the evils to which we appear to be wedded. My attempts to comprehend the scope of  algorithmic dominance in our information economy seem to have been a wise and useful step. Following @FrankPasquale on Twitter has also broadened my perspective on related topics. This is not about learning the ins and outs of  a subject area. Rather this is about opening my eyes to what is unfolding right in front of me and has a daily impact on how we function as a society. We can’t see everything at once. But we can train our eyes on a specific field for a time in order to gain perspective, insight, and cause for further observation.

Frank Pasquale, The  Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.