Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel and the vocabulary to overcome ourselves

Image result for bao phi thousand star hotel

Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel is poetry I’ll give to friends who aren’t into poetry. That’s not an insult; it’s a tactic he employs. For some reason, I know a lot of Asian American guys, immigrants who came when they were little (or close enough, one way or the other), and now raise daughters, think about their parents and ancestral roots, feel all kind of ways about the racism they’ve faced and the stories they could tell about dancing with white women while others giggled in the back, or being pushed down by truckers’ sons grasping for the entitlements they feel slipping, or being side-eyed about the legitimacy of our oppression or racial animus. His poetry is playful and moody, introspective and rebellious, some of it more deserving to be the spoken word it originated as, others that do a favor to the page. But it has rhythm and energy and nervy-ness that I like a lot, and I think the people I hand it to will too.

Throughout, few big or obscure words mask or grandstand. Phi’s poetry is composed of confessional frankness, sensuous moments laid with bare truths and the twists of human sentiments, and a dogged survival sense that makes his bluntness elegant. That’s why Asian guys I know who have no patience for poetry will feel at home, and challenged the way they like.

For all that accomplishment– and he accomplishes a lot, finding expression for fleeting sentiments and gnarling ambivalences and overwhelming beauties, like the “Thousand star hotel” of the title that I’ll leave for you to find– there is a marker throughout all of it of illegitimate inheritance of English. Granted in many places, his status as a deliverer of words is the sword he defends himself with, and brandishes against threats to his always assaulted identity. But in vulnerability, he also says in the first poem proper of the text (there’s sort of a prefatory poem that’s actually germane to this discussion as well), how language keep eluding him:

And I wonder

if I ever will find a language

to speak of the things

that haunt me the most. (6)

The stanza ends a poem entitled “Vocabulary” about an encounter with a coworker also gathering shopping carts admitting in guy-speak to his flush feelings for a girlfriend, who seems embarrassed by his own emotion and his words getting ahead of himself. Or as Phi puts it, “the vocabulary to overcome himself.”

This portrait of a man whose emotions get the best of him and spill out in an utterance of crude fervor is set against the busywork of “Maintenance,” lining up rows and rows of carts you manage and move like a train you have to test to see if it will hold so it doesn’t overtake you, and can get steered right enough to put away. This image of management, keeping your stuff together, lining up your words in a row. And then, they get ahead of you. They overcome you. Raw and tough as they are, they somehow capture you, and grab more out of yourself than you really knew how to manage or maintain within you.

Phi seems envious of that kind of language. Not those words to capture those experiences, those aren’t what he wants. But the access to those words that overcome you, rather than ever groping for the words, the language, the vocabulary to talk of things you’ve never heard talk of, trying to find the ways to say something that doesn’t feel like it has been said, or said quite right for you, or said quite true to your world. If only there was that language, that vocabulary, for our experience.

And that’s what Phi is up to, perhaps what any poet is up to. Looking for that place where you grab hold of the words that run you over like a train of carts, carrying you careening to expose yourself, or at least to unearth what’s there and not done, barely even begun, getting out.

All of which makes me appreciate Bao Phi for what he makes me want to do: not just to read, but to write too.

“…I’m gettin’ older too…”

Was watching “This Is Us” the other night with the wife. It’s not a perfect show: I get a little annoyed with the Jackie Robinson of the Pearson family that Randall has to be, the subsuming of all issues to the togetherness of the family. But then again… then again, I’m still a believer in family.

Anyway, Chrissy Metz’s character Kate sings “Landslide,” the old Fleetwood Mac song that I consumed in my adolescence through the weird Smashing Pumpkins B-side tape of my brother’s that I played until I wore it out. And then, a later episode, Randall remarks that he’s ten years old (obviously, in one of the flashbacks that are the show’s great gimmick, and I maintain, the show’s great profundity). And suddenly I remember a time when I turned ten years old, when I realized I was ten  years old, and that seemed to be something extraordinary. My consciousness of that moment of self-consciousness, a memory that wasn’t just composed of the photographs that have since grown familiar and replaced my actual memories, struck me by being something completely new, though it was of course 27 years old. I hadn’t thought about thought that I had since I thought it, at ten years old.

The layering of memory in our perception makes our consciousness one place where a certain kind of relativity of time happens.Where we exist in what we consider past, present, and future, all at once.

I’ve been sick today, and anyway, it happened to be a day my daughter’s school had off, so I was planning to take her somewhere fun. Being sick made “somewhere fun” our living room, and sometimes me napping while she worked at a desk next to me, or when we snuck off to Denny’s while still wearing our pajamas. (She kept asking, “is it really okay for us to go out in our pajamas?”)  We practiced some magic tricks she’d been wanting to try, ate frozen grapes, watched “Avatar the Last Airbender.”

You should’ve seen the magic show she ended up doing for her mom when she got home. What a show!

I have another soft dissertation deadline I’m not sure I’ll meet. I keep staring at my own worsening “self-care,” or whatever you call it now– bad eating habits, weighing too much, sleeping too little, easy injuries and persistent back pain– and I realize how fully I’ve changed these seven years. These seven years where I’ve completely lost the ability to keep track of myself, try as I might.

The excuses are many, because the changes have been many. Graduate school. Changing jobs. Moving. Mom’s cancer. The election. But really, actually, despite all those changes, nothing has utterly altered my life anywhere close to this: my little girl was born. And I am her father. And not a thing in the world is nearly as important.

I wish I could explain to people how strange this is, and how bad I feel about it. People are really sympathetic to child-raising changing your life, and they will often feel that’s “nice” and “sweet” that a father cares about being a father. But so many things constrain and confine the expectations here, so that I feel unrecognizable, unintelligible to people. First, I’m a man. I’m not supposed to tear up every time I’m away from her, thinking about her, wanting to be home with her. I’m not supposed to have trouble pursuing my career because I just want to teach her things and explore things with her. Read books with her.

Second, we only have one kid. If you’re a busy dad because you have three, well, of course you are! If you have two, it makes sense that just when you feel satisfied serving the one, you’ve still got to service the other, right? Or if you’re either of my grandfathers… TEN children! Forgetaboutit. A father is all you are. But me, I just have the one. That’s simple, right? Just like having a buddy around. Only had to do the diapers thing once, and once you get ’em walking and talking, they can start doing chores and making things easier on you, right?

Third, I’m not a single dad. I’m the OPPOSITE of a single dad. Her mom is an extraordinary mom. Working to sustain our income AND to make a difference in the world in a tough job. Emotionally available and very present at all of her big life events. Involved in taking care of the home, food, physical needs. Mom is still MOM, the one she goes to when she has a rash or a gash, the one she can be herself around the most, the one who teaches her to dance and get creative, the one who plans her trips and camps and parties. My wife is about as good a mother as a man could ever hope for to raise the child he loves with all his heart.

So what’s the holdup? Why am I still having such difficulty moving on, getting my work done, dedicating myself to other things, still so attached to spending so much time hanging around with his kid?

I don’t know. I don’t have a good excuse. By all healthy, socially-endorsed indicators, I should have already figured things out so that I’m prioritizing her future college savings fund (ie my career), my other projects and relationships (ie my aging parents, my many incredible friends), and that oh-so-important self-care (ie eating right and exercising so I’m still around in 30 years for her). But I’m not, I’m too slow to change.

I still feel like I have to be there for every pick up after school. Still want to wake up and eat breakfast with her every morning, make sure she eats at least some of her egg yolk. Still want nothing more than to spend many afternoons with her, lounging around or eating snacks or doing homework or reading out of curiosity. Still want to be there for her in every new step, though I know that soon enough, she’s going to need space and individuation and she’ll tell me she doesn’t want me hanging around all the time. (I teach teenagers and study adolescent development. I know.)

And can I be a little vulnerable and honest for a second? Just as I cried when I first dropped her off at preschool, shattered to pieces, not in the way that was selfishly possessive, but in the way that wanted to take in all the splendor and pain of it all… just in that way, every time I think about how much I need to move on and readjust, it’s terrifying, since being her dad has so eclipsed anything else I do, since she has totally eclipsed everything else in my life.

So for years, even not having heard that song, the layered memory of Billy Corgan or Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide,” singing:

“Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changing cuz I’ve built my life around you.”

That’s where I am. Afraid.

“But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older too.”

That’s also where I am. Getting older, as she gets older.

“Oh, take my love, take it down/

Oh, climb a mountain and turn around/

and if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills/

Well the Landslide bring it down.”

It feels like my world tumbling down. And I suppose, that’s what it has to be. I just hope that maybe, even faintly, what was there is not so buried in the fresh snow that it ceases to reflect who I was to her someday, when I’m not there anymore, when all she can see is a fraught season, a mysterious horizon.

Back to the Table

The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.

Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.

So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.

Civics and the Teacher Professional Learning Community (part 1)

This is one of a series of posts presenting some ideas of my dissertation, in progress. 

The first of the three parts of my project involves investigating how a group of four teachers I worked with figured out ways to include civic learning and engagement in their English instruction. These four middle school English teachers had been colleagues for years, and worked together in what’s called a “Professional Learning Community” (PLC). I presented the general idea of integrating civic action of some kind into their English classes, and I offered suggestions and coaching along the way, but primarily I wanted to let them devise how they would make the idea materialize in their own classrooms. I learned a lot both from their individual, unique ways of trying out this idea, and from their dynamics as a team, the things they learned from each other and how their team interactions produced interesting results. The clearest result was that the question of how to get students involved civically in their English classes tapped into, and put pressure on, what this PLC of teachers thought mattered most in their jobs, their core visions as teachers, and opened opportunities to pursue those priorities together.

I spent a whole school year working closely with these teachers, attending their meetings, watching their classes, interviewing them. It was fascinating to watch the different ways that they interpreted the idea of “civic engagement,” and how each infused the vague idea I presented of doing “civics” in the English class with their own visions of what it meant to be a participant, a citizen, a young person active for justice. It was also fascinating to see how they learned from each other, the ways this team of long-standing colleagues exercised their teaching talents uniquely.

To offer an example, I would describe the approaches of two of the teachers. These two (we’ll call them Carol and Donaldo) had been colleagues and friends for years, both veterans at the school. Both had taught English, Leadership, and special programs for underserved youth. Both were seen as teacher leaders and enjoyed strong relationships and rapport with students around the school. They embodied the school’s philosophy of putting relationships of high expectations and respect at the center of a rigorous yet caring atmosphere.

Yet they were stylistically quite different, in some ways opposite, when it came to teaching English. Carol could be masterful at orchestrating a lively debate in her class, students on the edges of their seats and talking over each other to share their perspectives and experiences about issues relevant to their lives and concerns. Donaldo, on the other hand, would organize and tinker with his students to produce visual presentations (sometimes digital, sometimes on paper) that were diligently crafted and revised into gallery objects of individual expression. And though their reading and writing instruction were strongest at those tendencies, that’s not to say their teaching repertoires were limited or narrow. They were professionals who expertly taught skills and knowledge that didn’t necessarily fit neatly in their wheelhouse. Rather, it was by playing to their respective strengths that they made other aspects of the English curriculum exciting and vivid. Carol made energetic arguments in the classroom into motivation to write thoughtful essays. Donaldo used the occasion of writing a compelling personal narrative about family photographs as an opportunity to embed lessons about precise language and word choices.

Thus the projects that each teacher ultimately conducted with their students, which I’ll describe next, reflected their different tendencies as English teachers, even as the two teachers influenced each others’ notions of how to integrate civics into their teaching. But their projects also reflected their different ideas about what it meant to engage young people civically, which were again a Venn diagram of shared values but distinctive approaches.  Both sought to make the idea of civic engagement something personally meaningful, inviting students to seek out and research a social issue that touched them individually somehow. Both built their curriculum around culminating projects where students had the opportunity to create something that would become a kind of civic self-expression, which served both as preparation for their future democratic participation and as a contribution now to influence others about their issues of concern.

Carol wound up having her middle school students create a picture book that they would read to a younger student, at an age level they could choose, about a social issue they had interest in. This followed from a year of selecting and reading texts that bridged the chasm between larger issues of justice and young people’s personal sense of power or place. Students in one of her classes had read Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, a book written as an Open Mic poetry slam for a class of urban youth, and Monster by Walter Dean Myers, about a young African American standing trial dramatizing his experiences as a screenplay. Carol integrated reading these texts with lessons from Teaching Tolerance and activities surrounding the school’s Ally Week. In all of these teaching units, Carol helped her students to feel the personal power of how social injustices impact young people’s lives, and her encouragement to speak up productively and compassionately represented an important ideal of civic engagement. Creating picture books and reading them to younger students as a civic education practice aligned with those ideals of engagement and language, where standing up and showing caring as an ally or older sibling was how these adolescents could become agents in their formation as members of their communities. Corresponding with her language teaching tendencies towards interactional exchange in a community of fairness and respect, Carol presented a version of civic engagement where young people took on the responsibility of communicating with younger community members to teach and demonstrate values of social concern and allyship.

Donaldo’s culminating project also focused on civic participation through persuasive storytelling and advocacy media. In Donaldo’s class, his students heard samples of recorded radio essays from the series “This I Believe,” and composed their own “This I Believe” essays. These essays included a blending of the writing types that the team had taken on as a goal, trying to effectively blend narrative, expository, and argumentative writing. And they had to tackle a social issue that was personally meaningful to them, another attribute Donaldo’s project shared with Carol’s. But rather than a project built on creating a tool for interacting with a younger learner, Donaldo’s project was aimed at producing an essay that would be accompanied by a recorded audio reading of their essay by each student. Donaldo also set up a well-lit location to take professional quality photographs of the students’ faces that could go with their essays, most of them featuring a quote from their essays printed over them. These images, together with the audio recordings of the essays, and the essays themselves reprinted and posted on a website, could be shared with peers or adult audiences. They conveyed a strong sense that these “This I Believe” essays, despite being concerned about a social issue, were profoundly personal expressions for the students, a piece of crafted, multi-media expression of self as advocate on the broader public forums of the internet and social media. Though Donaldo’s project had similarities to Carol’s, his tendency towards teaching language in the context of presentation and performance rather than dialogue and interaction corresponded to the suggestion of civic action as an organized expression of prepared advocacy and artistry.

Together, these two teachers’ projects provide a glimpse into how English teachers might make the connection between teaching English and engaging in civic action. Both demonstrated that young people’s civic engagement is often imagined or perceived as powerful when it is an act of self-expression and personal conviction, tied to narratives of young people’s own experiences and observations of the world. At the same time, both teachers pushed their students to communicate in registers other than the personal narrative mode, to seamlessly integrate factual information and persuasive rhetoric into their pieces. Both imagined a social component to their language, though the audiences they conceived of differed, one picturing a civic role of teaching younger children, the other a public contribution of multimodal media production.

Over the next few posts, I will describe some of the development that occurred among the teachers in the course of doing these projects, for Carol and Donaldo and the other two. I will use some of Carol and Donaldo’s students’ work and how these two teachers introduced, aided, and adapted to their students’ learning and language as my examples and evidence. (I will have much more to say about the other two teachers in later segments, when I discuss the case study classrooms and focal students.) These examples will tell a story of how focusing on civics crystallized many of these teachers’ pre-existing ideals of what teaching English was all about. At the same time, the circumstances, potentialities, and constraints of these civic action projects also surprised these teachers in some respects, and those surprises are also instructive about the prospect of the English classroom as as civic development space.


Finishing my Doctorate in Public


The last seven years, since I started my PhD program in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, I’ve been learning how to do research. Academic luminaries like my adviser, Sarah W. Freedman, and faculty mentors Laura Sterponi, David Kirp, and Kris Gutiérrez have surrounded me with an unparalleled set of role models and communities of support. My classmates and colleagues have been inspirations in their intellect and achievement.

But for the last three years especially, as my family responsibilities have unexpectedly grown rather than stabilized, I’ve had to withdraw from being a regular, responsible, contributing part of the academic community. I don’t take courses anymore since I’m in my dissertation stage. Though I’ve been collecting data, analyzing, and writing my dissertation, it has all happened at a much slower speed than I’d anticipated. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a research group, attended an academic conference (much less presented or submitted to one), or published any academic writing.

My strange, bell-curve shaped academic career so far, in contrast to the straight-line upward trajectory of academic activity I expected, has sometimes given me a feeling of failure. I don’t even think I’m doing well now as a graduate student, not even to mention how I will do once my academic career properly begins after graduation, if I ever find a position. Though I’m only a few months worth of writing and revisions away from being finished with my PhD, an excruciating series of family health catastrophes and personal life interruptions have made those last few steps stretch out farther and farther like a cruel prank where you glimpse the finish line but it turns out to be running away faster than you are.

The challenge isn’t just lacking the scheduled time and the support system to finish– and instead having various family and other duties draining away my hours. It’s also lacking the public, the community, where I can become a researcher. As a student, I loved courses. I loved the interaction, the syllabi, the readings and assignments, the knowledge-drops from the brilliant minds surrounding me, the works in progress we shared with each other. When I went to class, what I loved was not just the discipline and structure of a course of study, something that I can formulate for myself (and have, many times over). I also found invaluable the others, even if they were just three or four, who undertook that journey with me. Without that surrounding me, I grope around for a lifeline, fighting against all the other expectations and burdens that

My experiment is to use this blog as a place to finish my dissertation “in public,” so to speak. To write bits that I would share with a colleague or classmate or professor in a research group. To explain and describe the things I’m learning, forcing me to formulate them in a way that makes sense to regular people, not just the artificial audience I construct in my own head. I think that sums it up: to get out of my own head.

And so I’ve retitled the blog “Academic in Public.” Because I’m trying to learn how to be an academic who is not hidden away in a tower. Especially in these times when suspicion of academic, intellectual, and cultural elites has elevated to a frightening pitch– and perhaps with no one to blame more than those elites themselves. (Or is it “ourselves?”) I want to keep engaging in public.

The title is also appropriate because of what I’m going to be writing about: schools and development, civics and politics, culture and literacy. Those are the interests of my dissertation study, so they constitute the unexplored territory my research is mining. They’re also those areas that I think about, read about, talk about, and work at all the time. Academics: the research community, schools and teachers, knowledge and evidence, children and young scholars. And the Public: our polity and communities, our policy and strategies, our politics and struggles. Academic in Public.


Some Prayers on January 28th

This morning, I’m praying for refugees, displaced peoples, and migrants the world over, but particularly from those countries and faiths that this president has targeted. I’m praying to a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, who hangs out with the outcast and exiles, and who brings low those proud rulers who set themselves against him.  I repeat their names, as many as I know, as I read about them or hear from friends who know them, repeat them to a God who knows their circumstances. I pray against the systemic evils that push people from their homes, and the ones that leave them homeless when they’re looking for sanctuary, a safe place. I pray for those sanctuaries under assault.

And when I can hear their points of view, especially when I can know them by name, I pray for people who feel differently. Their cheers prick like more of the deep hurt that punched me in the gut on election night, the sentiments they might call mere politics or consider speaking up for themselves, or trying to retrieve an “America” lost, or equalize things they resent have somehow become unequal. They have aspirations, hopes, hurts, and hesitations. They pray. They have views that they feel are underrepresented, though those views seem so often tinged by misinformation, and so dangerous and out of proportion that I fear for the consequences of those distortions on their souls and spirits.

Though I convulse with disgust whenever I actually try to listen to President Trump, honestly straining to hear past the bloviating and hucksterism to really find some substance, something that drives him beyond a terrifying TV narcissism that has disastrous consequences on real human lives, to search in vain for something to help me understand those who support him and what he appeals to that is good… I pray for him and his administration as well. Not for winning. Not for triumph. Not because when our president succeeds, we succeed. I can’t pray that with any honesty to the God I’m addressing.

But I pray with more understanding of the radicalism that made the prophets and apostles pray for their worldly leaders. With fearful dread of the extent of the earthly power they wielded despite their patent, human self-centeredness and the havoc it wreaked on their subjects, especially the vulnerable, including their supporters. BUT, meeting that dread immediately, an even greater fear-of-God that knows with tear-stained, life-giving faith that God is greater than these powers. The arc of God’s cause isn’t some ridiculous and deadly regime of cartoonish tyranny and hellish brutality. Rather, awe at how God breathes life into the humble and unseen to welcome the stranger and defend the fatherless, how God moves forces we can’t economize to unmask deceit and remind us of our frailty, how God engages every minute towards the outcomes of millennia.

So what I do pray for the president: to hear the voices, see the faces, consider the administration’s power over the lives of human beings all over the world… now, before he hears and sees them again when we’re all called into Account. I pray for him not to be enslaved by a twisted conception of the cheers and hoots of his red-hatted supporters, to realize the hopes they’ve pinned on him aren’t meant for his insatiable ego and capitalistic machinations, but are meant for a responsibility to call them to the best, rather than the worst, sides of themselves.

I pray for these things even though I’m convinced all natural likelihood is that God’s people of conscience will have stand against most things issuing from this administration: approval of torture and unlawful detention, irresponsible stewardship and exploitation of lands and peoples for profit, and so much more. But prayer is for things that are beyond natural likelihood. And the hopes of my prayers are not set on the puppets in power, but on a God of justice, how that God animates those who serve and love, how that God moves.

Happy New Year

Turning the page on 2016, looking towards a difficult but pivotal 2017, I’m thankful for:

-friends more resilient to fight than ever, renewed or reawakened as activists and poets in the face of frightening times

-family who gets tighter with each other the more adversity we face, even when it’s uncomfortable

-fellow teachers and researchers who inspire me to study, collaborate, write, and teach with vision and love

-faith, however shaky, in a God who does not falter.