Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Reading Like This

“I am left bereft of both pleasure and satisfaction, and yet I cannot stop trying to figure it all out. Jouissance works in a similar way. It is a driving force that brings with it regret and pain even as one seeks for more. Jouissance maintains an illusion of mastery. If I keep writing, if I keep studying, if I keep researching, I will somehow beat racism. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytical Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

Thank God, I had the opportunity to teach a stand-alone reading class last semester. It seems it’s only when we teach something we truly learn it. Somehow I’d completed college and two graduate programs without the reading strategies necessary to integrate what I’ve been learning during my sabbatical project, which you can learn more about here.

Reading texts thick with unfamiliar concepts and fresh ideas has become an almost physical experience. I open these books, pencil in hand, pacing my reading rate by the marks it makes. As I go, the pencil underlines, questions, and fills margins with stars, exclamation points, and connecting thoughts and comments. Rather than merely listening to an author, the experience is akin to having a conversation with them. They make statements, and my pencil offers its emoji-like responses.

Each writer’s words flow through and across my own consciousness triggering subtle neurological responses. A brain cell alights and suddenly an idea on one page connects to another in a novel way. Like a magic-trick, terms I’d never come across suddenly describe things I’ve often seen in my own world but had left unnamed. Therefore, what had only moments before been nearly invisible to me crystalizes into a tangible and meaningful shape. It’s humbling, enlivening, and thrilling all at once to experience this sensation page after page––concepts that explain learning conditions I’ve worked within for all my professional life, but have never been able to truly understand, come fully and freshly into view.

Without sabbatical, I’m not sure I could expand my thinking with such freedom and abandon. Had my sabbatical not been granted, I would have had to cram this kind of intense study into a semester break (which are longer than most professionals’ and for which I remain ever grateful).
But unbeknownst to me, such cramming narrows what I’d be able to take from what I read.

With one eye on the calendar, I would feel pressure to pull out only those ideas that applied directly to what I’d be teaching next. Even more limiting, I think I’d unconsciously reject ideas counter to what I was already doing in my classrooms. Taking in a radically new perspective is almost impossible if one lacks the time and space necessary for the reinvention and integration that are a meaningful idea’s natural consequence.

And because much of what I’m reading describes system-wide structural phenomena that hurts students (and by extension society), it will ultimately, require collective degrees of change to ameliorate, meaning it requires changes in my classrooms, yes, but far beyond it as well. When I return to campus, I will need to attend to both, which means I must be in community with others to create transformation.

A sabbatical framework means I’m meant to think this broadly. Certainly keeping in mind my campus, a rural community college on the southern end of the Silicon Valley, and my role on it but also education as a whole and its larger purposes, imagining alongside others what it might be and become.

Surprisingly, I’m finding this expansiveness invites greater clarity and precision instead of less. I find I see both a general context and a particular place with greater distinction. I now recognize there are patterns in the ways educators are being pushed to name problems and solutions on our campus. It isn’t that California has suddenly and magically aligned with the top-down reforms also happening in other states. Rather, my college like every other campus in the US, and maybe even all over the developed world, is being pushed toward certain types of educational solutions because global business and political interests want it that way and not because that is what is best or most humane for students and workers alike.

The thinkers I’m now engaging offer alternative perspectives and a critique of solutions being promoted across the nation and on my home campus as well. However, I find my brain isn’t as nimble or as masterful as it once was at retaining new ideas. That’s where last term’s reading class also comes into play. I know what needs to happen in order to integrate the thoughts of writers and scholars as varied as Chimbganda (quoted above) George Yancy, and Gilda Ochoa. It’s all in the reading strategies I taught last term.

Here’s what I’m doing to make it most likely that what I’m reading won’t disappear into a gaseous vagueness once I put a book down.

As described above, I read with pencil in hand. I mark key ideas and anything that excites me (only sometimes ever the same thing) by using explanation points, stars, or simply a check mark in the margin between paragraph and page’s edge. Sometimes, if I’m unfamiliar with a term, introduced to a person I don’t know, or a new concept I circle it. Often by page’s end, these have become clearer and are already entering my own vocabulary. Sometimes not. Nevertheless, I carry on, reading at a pace slightly quicker than feels entirely comfortable. Counter intuitively, that’s what makes it most likely I’ll be able to makes sense of what I read.

Occasionally, I slow down enough to make a small comment about what I’ve read, noting how one idea relates to another in a different text or even something I’ve experienced or heard first-hand.

Often, I underline something in order not to lose it, sometimes half a paragraph or more at a time. What I really want to hold close, I box up with my pencil, so it sits on the page bounded on all sides. Sometimes a portion of the page is boxed and dancing with explanation points and also stars because for me the words are burning with power. They’ve become precious to me, and my marks signify their vibrant energy and make it easier to find when I need to share them with a friend.

And then there are those ideas that seem so vital, so important, so filled with a potential to make education better, to free not only students but teachers too, that I mark them with a heart––a heart to signify what I hope stays with me for decades of teaching to come.

One text, then another. A new dialogue between writer and reader arises. A fresh voice enters my conscious, and I sense the old author’s voice drifting away––still a part of a background melody, perhaps, but the lyrics no longer as fierce as they had been only hours ago. I know I’m in danger of being unable to share what I’ve learned with the integrity required. For this there is only one solution––the annotated bibliography.

I’ve adapted this old composition classroom form in the following way: I write an overview of the text, then talk about how it applies to the sabbatical project as a whole. Next, I pull out important points in ways that follow the path of the book. Finally, I include the quotes and ideas that meant most to me. In typing these out, word-for-word, I find the author’s voice becomes distinct and sticky once again.

I wish I could say this was a quick process. But hours of work go into these bibliographies. Some are only a page or two, but a dense text like CharlesMann’s 1491, with its dozens of facts per paragraph, grew to 20 pages.

To complete an annotated bibliography, it’s not enough to read the text once marking as I go. I have to skim each book a second time, sometimes even a third, reframing each page in one or two key phrases that chart an author’s line of thinking across sections and chapters. This is what allows me to retranslate their ideas it into my own words. It is in this way, that these finally and thoroughly integrate into my consciousness, and I see more clearly how they relate to other parts of the sabbatical project.

It’s tedious. It’s time-consuming. It’s delicious. And I very much look forward with sharing the results of this labor with you.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Love & Learning

“I am aware that I tend to romanticize education. It is my chosen object; the longest and most beneficial relationship to which I have ever committed. I hate when teachers corrupt education because I simply love school. I love its ideals and values. I believe in its promises. Even though I have endured much emotional and physical trauma throughout my schooling, usually perpetuated by teachers who did not understand how or why I value education, I still hold education to be true and good. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytic Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

It is ever more evident to me, as it is to many others, the energy of love itself is supportive of, maybe even critical to learning.

My own best teachers introduced me to the following idea; a loving environment is recognizable by the presence of three distinct elements:
  • Safety (physical, emotional, and spiritual)
  • Validation and acceptance (no one is trying to “fix” anyone else)
  • Inter-relationship and connectedness (to people, shared activities, and texts)

Since being introduced to this working definition of love, I’ve found it useful in surveying my own classrooms for love's presence. My assumption being, that when love is in the room tensions ease and learning deepens.

Love is a kind of nutrient, feeding students and teachers alike. It allows for greater intellectual and creative risks, and it provides a sense of purpose and hope when the other less pleasing and inevitable aspects of learning arise––challenge, discomfort, and threat. After all, in order to integrate new ideas, we often have to let go what we already believe to be true. That’s seldom pleasant, especially if it brushes up against what we call the self.

Chimbganda, a Canadian psychotherapist and educator, who is quoted above, has a lot to say about these dynamics. She doesn’t shy away from the idea that aggression is naturally present in educational environments, but she also highlights the harmful ways aggression plays out in classrooms where historical, social, and political inequities are also part of the picture.

For example, at the rural community college where I teach most instructors and administrators are white, as am I, but most of our students are people of color. Nevertheless, we seldom explicitly reflect on how that might be affecting our campus or our classrooms. Part of this sabbatical project will be to better understand these dynamics and to look for ways to mitigate their harms.

Considering love’s three elements is one way for me to start a conversation.

At one time, it felt simple to believe my students and I were physically safe during a class, but the proliferation of guns and a more fearful and divided nation have lessened my sense that our campus is safe. Still, in order to teach, I must proceed from the assumption that in any given moment, at least, my students and I can grant each other physical safety.

To attain emotional safety, we must first become a community. This takes time to establish. Naming our purpose, forming and then agreeing to communication norms, experiencing classroom rituals, such as regular periods of freewriting, mindfulness, and movement between activities calm brain and body. 

This promotes a positive learning environment, especially as ideas and relationships get more complicated, as they are bound to do the more time we spend with each other and commit to our work.

The presence of emotional safety, however, doesn’t mean everyone is guaranteed constant emotional comfort. Learning is difficult. People are complicated. Teachers sometimes suffer for it. So do students. It helps when people are allowed to ask for what they need while being held accountable to a group’s larger purpose, a purpose the group itself collaborates in naming before the inevitable difficulties arise.

It also helps to remember we have choice. No one can make another person learn something. It’s never worked that way, even when we organize our schools and classrooms as if forced learning is possible, even preferable to a more collaborative approach.

Especially at the community college level, safety can sometimes be established simply by reminding ourselves, we chose to enter this classroom together, and it is possible to leave at any time.

Because of some specialized training I’ve had in trauma informed practices, I now invite rather than demand students engage in particular activities. “Are you willing?” I often ask them. Sometimes extending the question to include, “Are you willing to fail?” It’s meant as invitation, not threat. I find the more failure becomes possible, so do the joys that arise from creation.

Asking, “Are you willing?” reminds everyone, I can’t make students do anything they don’t want to. I can only work with them to set the conditions where desire and willingness bloom despite the specific barriers we each bring to the room.

In my profession, there is a long tradition of teachers claiming commitment to an asset model. In theory, this means we actively embrace and recognize students’ specific intellectual and expressive gifts.

But teaching is hard and often emotionally so. Chimbganda speaks of teaching as an “impossible” profession, one that largely happens through the complicated realm of human emotions, which are sometimes only marginally connected to class content. Teachers and students alike are swimming in feeling as they make through various assignments and some of those feelings are attached to social, economic, and political marginalization.

At my school, for example, we teachers still easily fall into speaking about multi-lingual students as problems for us. Most of us are untrained in helping fix the particular sorts of errors they make in their writing. We feel like failures, and we focus on flaws (theirs and ours) rather than on the fact they these students are generally far more language fluid than us teachers and that such fluidity is a tangible benefit in and out of the classroom.

As with all things, it’s easier to identify the finite way in which something isn’t working than the infinite ways it may be working well. Such distinctions become especially stark at institutions like mine where there is ethnic and racial segregation between the people serving and the people being served.

Old ideas about who writes well and who lacks what are perpetuated within this structure, therefore, the expressive and linguistic bounty in our classrooms goes unnamed and the students unseen. 

But if I don’t see my students, I can’t understand them, and if I can’t understand them, I won’t ever recognize them for all that they are and all that they hold. This lessens the chance our classroom community (much less the institution as a whole) will ever become inclusive and strong. 

If this sabbatical project has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t see my students half as well as I thought I did.

Books like Chimbganda’s alongside Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi and other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, sre helping me confront the limitations of my own perspective and understand why it’s necessary to acknowledge my limitations when working with students of color. That acknowledgement alone can validate a student’s experience.

My background closely mirrors that which the academy most values. My speaking and writing arise from its preferred linguistic and cultural practices. But these represent only one strand among many possible discourses. My students usually have a broader perspective and are engaged in many more possibilities each day. They speak languages I don’t, understand the world in ways I can’t name, and have experiences outside of what I can imagine.

If we can learn to name and welcome their viewpoints, realities, and earned wisdom the academy will benefit. They can help an old structure become more expansive, fluid, and useful to society in a time of great upheaval and change.

Perhaps, there will be no mastery here for me as a teacher; the sabbatical project is large and keeps growing and I feel more unsettled the deeper I go. I don’t yet know what any of it will mean for how I teach once I return to the classroom come spring. But I do see these questions are enlivening my sense of what may be.

I write this post in hopes that love will remain at the foundation of what I do and that the classrooms I enter will generate more of it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sabbatical Project: The Beginning

“Not infrequently, training course participants call attention to ‘the danger of conscientizaƧao’ in a way which reveals their own fear of freedom. Critical consciousness, they say, is anarchic.”
––Paulo Freire
Pedagogy of the Oppressed

There are voices I’m meant to keep with me, insights to hold as I embark on a seven-month long pedagogical journey to identify best practices for teaching incarcerated college students and anyone else my rural community college campus serves. These are the people of the forgotten and more impoverished southern Silicon Valley. Our students, like any students, hope to earn certificates, transfer to four-year institutions, or more fundamentally still, learn about the world, their place in it, and the potential each holds for transformation, creation, and how to best establish safety at a time when life is uncertain for many.

Why teach using different cultural practices? someone urges me to find the answer. What are barriers to experiencing our authenticity? asked another. Such questions emerged during brainstorming sessions I facilitated during the final weeks of the spring semester. I gathered tutors, teachers, and incarcerated and non-incarcerated students alike to anonymously frame questions and remind me of what to keep in mind as I explore four pedagogical approaches:

  • Social Justice and Liberation Pedagogy
  • Trauma Informed and Safety Seeking Frameworks.
  • Improvisation and Play
  • Mindfulness and Contemplation

You need to include more Latina activists, someone wrote. Remember to teach courage is the virtue that validates all others, wrote someone else. Personal stories are powerful and motivating, says a fifth. 

Each idea is expressed on a single post-it note. They clung, one to another, like flower petals, a riot of color in unruly clumps that settled at the bottom of the canvas bag within which I carried all this thought. It awaited organization and order, which I dreamed would appear come summer when I had the time to put each idea into place.

What is the best way for trauma-effected people to learn trust? they asked. How much support does it take? How long? How can the scars of history help us appreciate the present? How does a teacher’s whiteness impact what happens in a classroom? Is it easier for students to enter conversations about race through a gender lens? What resources are available for helping facilitate anti-oppression activities? What do we say to those who don’t want to think in these terms? Is it OK to get up and move around during class?

The college where I’ve been teaching English for 18 years has gifted me with this opportunity to explore these diverse and inter-related approaches, approaches that have shaped my teaching to lesser and greater degrees over the last two decades but within which I have never truly felt entirely grounded. 

My purpose is two-fold: to gain insight into best practices and program possibilities for the college’s inmate education program and to learn more about establishing good learning foundations for students who will be enrolling in our transfer level English classes, without the remediation we are used to providing. Our California state funders will no longer support the old model and now every community college is required to accept almost every student at the transfer level within the first year.

To answer the questions my sabbatical has generated and meet its objectives, I’ll visit other California community colleges, prison programs, and culturally rich community based projects and museums across the country. I’ll interview educators and experts who are leading voices in understanding how the ethnic, class, and gender identities of students and teachers alike affect classrooms, creativity, self-expression, and success. I’ll attend dance, improvisation, and mindfulness conferences and workshops to gain insight into the relationship between the mind, the body, and learning, and I’ll read and re-read books such as Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed(which provided the epigraph above) as well as Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

My plan is to post what I learn here. Perhaps along the way you’ll want to share your own insights and questions, which will further enrich this anarchic exploration. With that in mind, let the image of this blank post-it note be your inspiration. 

Share your ideas and your voice, too, will be one I keep with me as I journey.