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. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fresh Words from the Writers of San Benito County Jail

"Priceless is what comes to mind when we think of our Gavilan College classes .... Respect, gratitude, and genuine human caring is what this program has brought our community. Our writing becomes a part of our healing."
––The writers of A & C pods  

The writers of San Benito County Jail released two publications this spring: Creativity Takes Courageand Me, Myself, and Dopey: Lost and Found Expressions. Celebrations marking these publications are also a time to celebrate Gavilan College’s expanding inmate education program. 

At the jail, Gavilan offers classes in such things as GED preparation, creative writing, and career and personal development. Alongside the classes, there is a college counselor in place to help students set up long term education plans and help maintain their focus and hope while locked up. 

Having a place to land on the outside can make it much easier to avoid coming back, which is why across the state community colleges and universities are being supported to build programs like Gavilan’s.

According to students themselves, the program has already made a difference. For example, Eddie Kaufman, who attended every creative writing class available to him this semester, managed to overcome his fears about bad spelling and grammar long enough to get his voice on the page––a first for him. 
 “I have come to the point in my life, along with other inmates, that enough is enough. We have hit rock bottom and need to change,” said Kaufman, in his first college essay “Hunger for a Future”. “In Fall 2018, I’ll be attending classes on the Gavilan campus. For once in my life, I am excited. I can walk out of jail as a free and productive man, who can contribute to his community.”
To read more of Kaufman’s work and hear from other writers’ published in Me, Myself, and Dopey: Lost and Found Expressions follow this link and watch this blog for more information about its publication alongside its sister journal Creativity Takes Courage at BenitoLink.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forget Me Not: For Alice who Lived and is Remembered

    "The gentleness of that moon-fish face told me at once: the old woman had just got out of prison.
     'She's a thief,' I said to myself. As I walked away from her, a kind of intense reverie, living deep within me and not at the edge of my mind, led me to think that it was perhaps my mother whom I had just met."––Jean Genet, The Thief's Journal

I never met Alice. She chose not to attend San Benito County Jail’s weekly writing classes, so until she was dead, I hadn’t known she existed.

After her death, however, I learned of the great love students in my class held for Alice. One Wednesday, their sudden lethargy and irritability marked the room. Usually, writers arrive buoyant and ready to experiment. That day it was their sadness they brought with them. I wouldn’t have known of their loss had I not asked what lay behind their grim faces. Even so, it wasn’t something they expected me to understand. It was something between friends. A loss others might dismiss, so why risk talking about it. She’d been released. Soon afterward they learned she died. A friend was gone in a manner that touched on the fears they had about their own lives.

Alice was an elderly homeless woman, sometimes given to outbursts. Before her release, she had argued with not only jail guards but her cellies too. Cellmates, however, understood that anger wasn’t all there was to Alice. They loved her for her humor, her optimism, and her friendliness.

This is the Alice celebrated and written about in Forget Me Not, the latest collection of poetry and prose from the writers of San Benito County Jail. We hope you enjoy this work. Let it open your eyes and your heart to the stories of others like Alice, people in struggle, yes, but also people that bring meaning, connection, and light to those who look closest.

Please click here to learn more about Alice and the people who loved her: Forget Me Not.