The Cloud of Witnesses and Children

This summer I’ve had the joyful chance to help out with the children’s ministry at our church, New Hope Covenant Oakland, and under the direction and partnership of Pastor Kara Groth to tell stories of saints’ lives to preschoolers and early elementary students.  They’re not my usual age of students, having been a high school teacher and youth group leader, so it was a learning experience from me.  Fortunately, friends at the church set an example of thoughtful teaching and storytelling for kids at that tender age, the age of my daughter, which provided a tremendous example for me.  Some of the ways they teach stories are inspired by the books and materials of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education approach developed by Jerome Berryman and others.  Some of the ways they teach are also just born from experience with the groups of kids they have taught, adorable and precocious and curious and unique kids.

via Godly Play UK

via Godly Play UK

Focusing on the lives of saints has been fun and fascinating.  We’ve told them stories of St. Paul and Ruth from Scripture, Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer,  St. Clare and St. Francis, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Bishop Efraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth, St. Paul Miki and the 26 Companions (Japanese martyrs), and others.  Those saints that I had a chance to tell stories about, I was inspired by the process of reading and research, composing stories simple enough for five year olds but spiritually meaningful.  Or maybe spiritually meaningful precisely because they are simple enough for five year olds, and still profound enough to inspire prideful old farts.  I revisited Endo’s Silencecame to appreciate the extensive catalogue and hagiography of saints that Catholics cultivate on the internet, and repeatedly reflected on the contrast between my goals and the purposeful lives of those saints the church remembers.

Communicating this to small children has been a different thing.  Godly Play involves stories played out with figures and materials, and our Sunday School room is stocked with wooden human statues, temples that can be assembled and disassembled, sand in boxes and felt underlays.  It’s tangible, beside which the spiritual is unfolded.  Christ in the flesh, God in the world, the Spirit inhabiting human lives and the material world: these are to be seen and lived by kids.  I realize how much I rely on abstractions on one hand and images on the other, and it’s taken an adjustment to think about stories differently.  Characters moving slowly across sand, in spatial relationship to each other.  Symbols that we can hold and touch.

Appropriately, the theme that Pastor Kara introduced, aligned to the church’s discipleship model, was introducing how these saints heard God’s call and saw the world through God’s eyes.  We tried to tell stories about people being sensory and perceptive about the spiritual enfleshed in the concrete.  I found that kind of thinking really necessary for me, the kind of person who has a way of intellectualizing my faith and compartmentalizing arenas of life.  No, Paul, you can’t just rely on a bunch of rhetoric and philosophy, phrasings and stories– these stories have to get down to the visible and mundane, the grounded, the kind of stuff small kids can see and understand.  Dorothy Day’s ragged coat, Paul Miki’s long trail of snow towards crucifixion, St. Clare’s bed for the sick.  How does God’s call invite us along a story that moves our feet and hearts, and how does God’s vision recast the reality around us?

Studying and telling stories about this cloud of witnesses, I also thought a lot about the daily lives of these kids and their families.  Establishing habits and experiencing disruptions.  Forming curiosities and discovering mysteries.  Lunches and movies and tan bark and scary cars.  Unbridled joy and depths of mourning.  I thought about how these stories might re-narrate help them hear God’s call and see God’s world.  It’s hard to expect immediate evidence.  My kid didn’t go home from one of our stories and radically reinterpret her life.  I don’t think it happens quite that way, quite that fast.  But i did think a lot about the stories i regularly read with her, ones with heroes who vanquish enemies and lovable losers who navigate and negotiate their way through existence.  Yes, those are the substance of life too.  But I’m so glad that alongside those stories, she has stories of a dawning revelation of things outside the hero’s journey that matter and last, of a larger adventure that begins before and extends well beyond an individual life, of a communion of saints who, remembered or forgotten, are known and loved by God.

‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson: Chapters 1-4.

 

Concerning our Justice System: This TED Talk from Bryan Stevenson, which I watched with the friends at New Hope Church in Oakland, is a great introduction to the message (and messenger) of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.  My first post about the book’s introduction is here.  

The abuses and racial injustices of America’s prison and policing systems sear our consciences.  Like the Black Lives Matter movement, Bryan Stevenson has a way of making those corruptions of the justice system into something human and stirring, weaving together memoir as a civil rights lawyer, stories of affected people and communities that are as compelling as any page-turner, and historical and contemporary contexts that captivate the moral imagination.
Just_Mercy_courtesy_Equal_Justice_Inititive_t670 The first four chapters bring us into the story of Walter McMillian, a wrongly convicted inmate awaiting execution in late-1980s Alabama who Stevenson represents on appeal, and whose case is a miscarriage of justice that could only happen in real-life because it’s too unbelievable for fiction.  Interspersed with his unfolding account of the story of the crime McMillian didn’t commit and the contorted, nightmarish social, criminal, legal, and penal apparatuses that bring him to death row, the author explains establishing his own legal practice defend and advocate for people like Walter, and the sounding drum for justice that motivates it.

What these chapters make clear is that Stevenson recognizes the critical vitality of being a witness.  What I mean is that his work demonstrates what happens when you fearlessly pursue what others spend their lives shielding themselves from.  He witnesses executions, and the words and stories of the people who wind up on the chair.  He is in the courtroom and he is in the cell block and he is in the church house.  And once, affectingly, he is arms-spread over the roof of his own car as a sufferer of illegal police profiling and persecution.  His work and his writing are testimonials, testimonies, shattering and stunning, but without soap-boxing, in touch with compassion and history, laced with faith and hope.  And so he is a witness in a way that convincingly bespeaks his subject with political, practical, professional, as well as prophetic credibility.

Read this book.

 

 

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Preface & Chap 1

I sometimes get asked by people who don’t know much about the kind of research I do what it entails.  In many settings I’m in, I’m an incurable note-taker, constantly writing, furiously.  What’s going on in my note-taking, they wonder, and how is it research?  Am I writing private judgments and opinions, copying every uttered word like a stenographer, drawing caricatures of people dressed up as superheroes?

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw is a book I’ve been waiting to read, timed with the beginning of qualitative research I’m conducting for my doctorate.  (For anyone keeping count, it’s the fourth of five books I plan to read simultaneously and record on this blog, along with occasional journalism, academic articles, pieces of culture, etc.)  From my skimming, it will package up and remind me of what I learned from taking courses with and hanging around anthropologists as a graduate student, and what I have taken away as the intellectual practice of being-in-a-place and taking-notes-while-there, which I think is a theoretically important, rich, and potentially weird thing to do.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw (2nd ed)

The authors begin by pointing out classic works on ethnographic writing, analysis, and fieldwork (Geertz, Sanjek, etc) that, despite their import, don’t provide an organized introduction to the act of writing while in the field, or taking fieldnotes.   The authors describe very different uses and conceptions of fieldnotes in practice– how they’re done, why (or whether) they matter to the ethnographer, how organized or idiosyncratic they should be– which make it difficult to transparently discuss or teach how to do fieldnotes.

Transparency, or “making explicit the assumptions and commitments [held] about the nature of ethnography as a set of practical research and writing activities,” is the authors’ response to the different conceptions about fieldnotes specifically and  ethnography generally.  In that spirit, the authors are ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists, which I think gives them sensitivity to “mundane” practices that compel them to think this carefully about fieldnotes as a kind of habitual practice for ethnographers.  Their experiences teaching courses about taking fieldnotes and their imagined audience of not just ethnographers in anthropology and related fields, but also people in experiential education and service learning– those are interesting to me as a writing educator.  They talk about writing not only about the “critical incidents” one encounters “in the field,” but also the everyday practices, habits, and routines that get taken for granted, which is of course core to the ethnographical enterprise, but also important to learning and reflection for people who don’t consider themselves academic researchers.

The book’s organization is structured based on the actual processes by which takers-of-fieldnotes, including non-experts, experience them, beginning with the notetaker’s assumptions and stances, then moving to the step-by-step aspects of writing, describing, developing analyses, organizing, etc.  The first chapter begins with detailing the place of fieldnotes in ethnographic research, essentially the interconnected activities of being in the field and writing about it.  Here, the ideas of social worlds, the interactional accomplishments of everyday situations that are defined between people, and the interpreted meanings of interactions, those kinds of concepts that ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism are concerned with, become developed between the ethnographer’s participation in the field and all that’s entailed in writing description.

Being in the field means the immersion of body, self, personality, in the social situation, not as objective outside observers, but as participants in the lives, interactions, and practices of the people studied.  Then, the ethnographer can understand the ways of thinking, the struggles, and the meanings of people in that setting.  But because of this, writing isn’t just noting what you observe and witness impartially, but working through perceptions and interpretations that you the ethnographer make.  The authors provide the examples of three different descriptions of supermarket checkout lines in LA to exemplify how “orientations and positionings” of the observers change the accounts, the representations in writing.  These show how fieldnotes involve selection, emphases, choices, filters and lenses of interpretation.

Therefore, fieldnotes involve a kind of inscription, a notion from Clifford Geertz, where the ethnographer takes “social discourse,” passing events happening in moments, and turns them into writing through a transformation, onto paper, of the events.  Selection, framing, and other reductions are involved, of course, and that’s why method matters.  What are we selecting for, looking for, viewing for?  And yet, even while defining those lenses, the ethnographer’s job is to be aware of context, details, factors, influences, all that might go into a “thick description” (Geertz again) that understanding people requires.

The four implications the authors draw: (1) data is always tied to the observational processes, and whatever the method is always the data at the same time; (2) the ethnographer is always looking for indigenous meanings, local interpretations, not imposed though mediated through the ethnographer; (3) writing fieldnotes contemporaneously is necessary, though not sufficient, to build the account, because the writing nearest to the occurrence maintains the character of contingency and specificity of the moment; and (4) the everyday activities, the mundane interactions, the microscopic moments– those are the ethnographer’s concern, with detail, attending to sequences, eventually leading to identifying processes, to document life.

The authors conclude by summing up some different takes on what’s involved when ethnographers write down the cultures and localities they’re immersed in– is it, as Geertz called it, inscription, putting into words a moment?  Or is that too much like “salvage ethnography,” the rough notion that anthropologists are about capturing and bottling up disappearing languages and heritages before they pass into extinction?  Is it narrating, translation, or “textualization,” as Clifford calls it?  Each perspective tells us something about what’s involved in fieldnotes, the authors explain, and yet none adequately parse out what’s involved in the daily “way of life” that ethnographic fieldnotes invites a researcher into.

As I said at the top, these are ideas I’ve been familiar with and have influenced me, but I appreciate the clarity and coherence with which the authors introduce ethnographic fieldnotes in the larger context of what ethnography is.  As a qualitative researcher (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an anthropologist or ethnographer formally, since my discipline lets me pick and choose what’s most useful and necessary to answer whatever research question), I am pretty aligned to these authors’ perspectives about research work.  There are more critical questions about research and communities that the authors haven’t taken up yet– in the “immersion” experience, we can’t forget that the farther and faster we “swim” into the waters, the more we push out waves that ripple through the ecology of the lake.  But I appreciate this refresher as I set up the infrastructures to take fieldnotes in my own work.

“A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners” by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera

From the Review of Education Research, this literature review piece does the kind of job that makes me thankful for literature reviews, assembling and organizing the existing research within certain boundaries.  In this case, the authors, researchers at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, gather research since 2000 that describes academic language, research on how it is taught, and the implications for teacher education and professional development.  It’s a valuable piece that puts together much of the research I read, a piece that I’ll share with others, and definitely cite in my work on academic English.  A rough outline of the piece, before some of my own thoughts:

I. Introduction: Language’s important in teaching/learning and schools, “hidden curriculum,” and CCSS emphasis.

II. Methodology: Marking the boundaries for inclusion in this review

III. Conceptualizations of Academic English in the Literature:

   A. Differentiates Academic vs Social English

   B. Explicates Features within and across Content Areas

      1. Vocabulary

      2. Grammar

      3. Discourse

      4. Science, Mathematics, History/Social Studies

      5. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math

   C. Addresses the Social Function of Language

IV. Research on Academic English Instruction

      1. Instruction in Academic Vocabulary

      2. Instruction in Grammar

      3. Classroom Discourse

V. Implications for Teacher Knowledge

VI. Conclusions and Research Priorities

My Commentary:

Like any literature review, or really any work covering extant knowledge, the authors/reviewers have to gather, select, and justify their selections.  Sometimes, that’s the most interesting part.  For example, from the paradigms of evidence these authors are working within (the piece is based on an unpublished report commissioned by the US Department of Education), they need to cite the “scarcity of research” to justify a broad inclusion of studies with different research methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative studies.  They cover empirical studies with various approaches, including linguistic studies, educational ethnographies, and even works of theory.  I’m presuming here, but with an audience sector that tends to privilege quantitative, gold-standard research, adding those notes about the inclusion of qualitative research is a necessary move.  But there is a feeling of, why should those have to be justified?  Qualitative studies are necessary to get at the depth and detail of phenomena like teaching and learning or structures like academic English.

Anyway, if I have any critiques of the piece, they aren’t ones where I would fault the authors for the shape of the review.  Instead, they would be things I’d add as I shared the piece with others in order to say, “this review covers many important perspectives well, but if you wanted to think comprehensively about the topic of ELLs and academic English, I’d also include consideration of these things.”

What are “these things?”  They’re related things: a somewhat attenuated discussion of “English Language Learner,” a little short shrift to social and cultural dimensions of both ELLs and academic English, and a few other perspectives that could have been included somehow.  Some of these oversights are a matter of a lack in the research, not in the reviewers, and some of it is alluded to in their conclusion.

First, while the article repeatedly specifies work on English Language Learners and not the general population, this seems more like a useful limiting or boundary line for a segment of work than an exploration of all that goes on under that label in relation to language.  In that sense, this review addressing “English Language Learners” is a little bit like the uses of the label itself: useful for focusing, categorizing, and specifying, but not quite ready to take on the full-blown implications of addressing the population of immigrants and children of immigrants.  The complexities of the population (which have huge impacts on their relationship to, and learning of, academic English) aren’t really discussed, and they could have cited scholars like Kate Menken, Laurie Olsen, Ofelia Garcia, Tatyana Kleyn, and many others.  Granted, those researchers may not always be doing work directly concerned with the linguistic or learning aspects of ELLs, so I can understand their omission from the review.  But some parts of education have a habit of ignoring the concrete social dimensions that both research and teacher instincts tell us have a primary role in student learning and achievement, such as whether groups of immigrant youth are isolated, overlooked, or embraced in a school community.  Like I said, if I were tasked to write a similar review, I know such considerations might end up on the cutting room floor, but when we talk about language and immigrants in pre-service and professional development training, I’d hope we have a bigger-picture conception.

The authors do have a useful section talking about the social function of language, which I notice draws heavily on the work of James Paul Gee.  I can understand why and I’ve done the same; Gee has a way of pulling together theory, research, and practice from language, literacy, and education research in very accessible, comprehensive, and still sophisticated ways.  There’s also work cited from Systemic Functional Linguistics like Halliday and others, who have done great work on academic language analysis with awareness of its social dimensions.  But I wonder about the missing perspectives from fields like language socialization (ie Patricia Duff) and sociocultural and other socially-inflected approaches to second language acquisition (although Lourdes Ortega and others within these schools are cited, but not explicitly discussed).  Again, their omission may have to do with research not directly addressing ELLs in P-12 schools and things like that, so it’s understandable.  And it’s a relevant question whether, when we talk about ELLs and academic English, we’re talking about second language acquisition, first language acquisition, or something that really busts those simplistic categories (see Ortega and folks like Ofelia Garcia for that stuff).  But really important thinking and research still left out, which I think is highly relevant to ELL education.

All of these concerns are triggers for my own work, and people familiar with my research projects (still in progress… grad student… ) will see these as familiar concerns coming from me.  But my work needs the knowledges and awarenesses from the research reviewed in DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera’s piece, for which I’m grateful.

“Listen to Me Marlon”: Storytelling, Lies, and Truthfulness

marlon

Like one path winding through a woods, storytelling reveals reality, and obscures it at the same time.

“Listen to Me Marlon,” the well-reviewed documentary about Marlon Brando “in his own words” culled from hundreds of hours of audio tapes he recorded of himself, is a rumination through the actor’s biography on authenticity, acting, storytelling, and truth.  My wife and I saw it in Berkeley this weekend, and I would recommend it.

Brando is the actor who has influenced me most, even compelling me at one point in my adolescence to consider acting myself.  Watching the film walk through his major roles, I realized how many hours of my life I’d spent, re-watching On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather and even The Wild One and Guys and Dolls and his Caesar, his eyebrows’ tilt and rounded shoulder flickering silver on the screen, performing the pathos, the pain, and the animal prowl I seethed in as a young man.

I’d read five or six biographies of the man, but all when younger, and none put together all these disparate parts of his life– his apprenticeship with Stella Adler and association with the Actor’s Studio, his flirtations and family tragedies, the island in Tahiti, the political statements and alignment with indigenous peoples and Black Panthers, the on-set misbehavior and career self-sabotage and disdain of celebrity, the psychology– nothing had put it all together so well.  And the fillmmakers, it seems director Stevan Riley most prominently, deftly wove together bits of Brando’s own voice, sometimes a daydream, sometimes a mouthful of scorn, sometimes a melancholic reflection, along with newsreel and footage, to tell the man’s life with a convincing sense that here were the contradictions and hypocrisies, yet here was a coherent whole.

It was fascinating.  My wife found it intriguing, and she didn’t know much about Brando.  Meanwhile, I knew nearly every fact and detail, could predict how bits would play out and pay off later when they were introduced as part of his life, and yet still found the storytelling surprising and moving.

Of course, knowing all these various, separate facts about his life, and having gathered them in the haphazard fashion I did, I could maybe more readily smell the bit of fabrication, the bit of a creative reconstruction that the movie was.  Details left out, or introduced in sequences that made certain ugliness less ugly, certain fuzzy facts appear more transparent but suggestion or juxtaposition.

But that just reminded me that stories clarify, crystallize, cut through the fog and to the heart– but almost inevitably, some texture is lost in the clarity, some vitality swept away with the fog, some jaggedness smoothed over in the momentum of stories.  Brando himself seems to ponder this in relation to his own acting, the truth and lie of acting.  He seemed keenly aware, articulately so, of the lie that acting was, the lie that engaged deeply felt truths the way a Method actor does, but a kind of truthiness.  He was aware of himself and the Hollywood system he rebelled against as lies, and spent his life inhabiting it and fleeing it at the same time.  The way the movie tells it, he achieves a peace with that lie, a reconciliation with the possibility that the little bit of falsity and flight of escape that a movie can provide, the being transported when clouded by depression, that it was beautiful, worthwhile, something significant for him to be part of.

Indeed, the documentary itself is a nice harmonization that renders Brando’s life with much of the nobility that made me admire it when I was young, and now quite a bit as an older person, slightly wizened, wondering a little bit myself the worth of devoting life to stories/lies and reality/truth, and of course, questioning that simplistic dichotomy at every turn.  Brando isn’t nakedly romanticized, I think, and he comes across as complicated, unresolved, and sometimes insidious.  But mostly, heroic for the vast life he lived.  And of course, that’s both truth and a fabrication.

‘Sabbath as Resistance’ by Walter Brueggemann, Intro

Quietness is hard to find, and even when circumstances clear up for it to be possible, it’s hard to achieve.  Yesterday, in ongoing efforts at cleaning and organizing and, ultimately, simplifying, we went to Ikea to find a shelf, and would up spellbound by its consumer witchcraft.  I’ll skip the details, but they may or may not involve “necessities” like pillows and floor lamps for the basement.  And I was reminded of the frightening fact that when I turn off noise, sit still, close my eyes, what comes to my mind is an impulse to browse, click, add to cart, and checkout.

I’m reading Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance and he quotes Michael Fishbane, who writes about the Sabbath:

One enters the sphere of inaction through divestment, and this release affects all the elements of the workaday sphere.  Business activity and exchange of money are forbidden, and one is urged not just to desist from commerce but to develop more interior spheres of settling the mind from this type of agitation… Slowly, under these multiple conditions, a sense of inaction takes over, and they day does not merely mark the stoppage of work or celebrate the completion of creation, but enforces the value that the earth is a gift of divine creativity, given to humankind in sacred trust.  On the Sabbath, the practice benefits of technology are laid aside, and one tries to stand in the cycle of natural time, without manipulation or interference.  (Ellipses Brueggemann’s). 

The idea is becoming quiet and mindful of God, not just against noisiness and people and busyness, but against the commodification of our bodies, the commercialization of our needs. the cycle of work and consumption that are always a live threat to define us.  Instead, we are offered Sabbath and Manna, resistance and alternative to what we need to and have to and are required to by the yokes of contemporary society.

Now Brueggemann:

This book is addressed exactly to those who are ‘weary and heavy laden,’ made so by the insatiable requirements of our society–in its taxation for the sake of imperialism, in its social conformity that urges doing more and having more (now perniciously embodied in ‘teaching to test’), in its frightened intent that there should be no ‘free lunch’ for anyone, in its assumption that there is a technological resolution of every human problem, in its pathologies of greed and control.

I am exactly weary and heavy laden by those particular loads of care.  I’m concerned about my taxation, and ours.  I’m constantly tested by measurement society.  I’m anxious about fairness, anxious about solutions, anxious about security and securitization.  Sabbath is not neglecting those things, it’s answering them with a resolution that they are not Lord.  Instead, the Lord sees as more than those things, not the sum of our assets and liabilities, not the evidence of our productivity or return on investment, not our plans and strategies.

I am interested in this alternative life of discipleship that Jesus invites and challenge us to.  I’m curious what kind of Sabbath practices weave into my week and daily life, weave into our life as a family, weave into the fabric of my thoughts and prayers, that offers a way of freedom.  A way where his yoke is easy and burden light.

 

 

‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson: Introduction

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

And sometimes, the worst things we’ve done are minute compared to the distorted things our systems do.

I started hearing about Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson last year when it popped up on year-end lists and some black legal scholars I follow mentioned it.  It’s a moving, humanizing take on mass incarceration and the criminal justice system, written by a lawyer advocate for prisoners, the great-grandson of slaves who went to Eastern and then Harvard Law, and ended up

In this introduction, he describes himself knock-kneed and out-of-place in law school, finding an internship and a clearer sense of purpose when he begins working with the Southern Prisoner Defense Committee– and encountering, in bolted down cells, the precious human contact of being face to face with prisoners.  He moves between his description of his first time meeting a death row inmate and the big picture figures and realities we’re starting to fathom, far too late: ballooning prison populations, 1 in 3 black men incarcerated at some point in their lives, a prison industrial complex riddled with moral and political corruption, and grievous sin for a nation with many of them.

if The New Jim Crow articulated our disease with prophetic truth, it feels like Just Mercy will pull on our consciousness and consciences with personal import and awakened compassion.  I’ll keep posting as I read.

(Shout out to New Hope Oakland, my church, for prompting me to read at last.)