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

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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.

Rolling up the Post-Election Sleeves

The slow dawning crawl of devastation on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, as I watched the election returns, watched on CNN and MSNBC and occasionally Fox, watched the NYTimes needle flip wildly in the other direction in a matter of hours, watched the unthinkable occur, all curled up like a ball of pain and recrimination in my stomach, late into the cruel hours of the night, until I watched with bleary and incredulous eyes as John Podesta dismissed the mournful crowd of Clinton supporters and then Trump took his stage, preening with humility as fake as his entire line of false and unsubstantiated promises to a resentful America that even now he is betraying with his Wall Street and establishment appointments. Eating up in my stomach, this horror, that having put my faith in people (I know, I know– popular vote majority, etc.), in democracy (I know, I know– electoral college system historically built for landowners, etc. ), and in decency (I know, I know– I don’t know, actually…), that right or rationality would prove itself.

The recriminations were about the echo chamber that I was part of. The coastal elites. The cosmopolitan urbanites. Fooled by our own Nate Silver bullets of data and Plouffe-ian ground game and Jon Stewart sneering at the idiocy of the campaign. Recriminations that we were so stupid and shallow ourselves. I had already been incredulous that Trump had gotten this far, and so had sought out the Arlie Hochschild studies and the JD Vance explanations that explained why some would wind up in that place. But the sheer numbers, the proportion that was enough to tip the scale, the “repudiation” of red caps and white college educated women, the haranguing of right pundits and self-flagellation of left, the steady and expected and deeply wounding flow of vitriol and harassment and hate crimes as the dams of civility burst… how could we have overlooked it, all except Michael Moore and this guy? And the Christian in me asks the necessary probing questions– let’s assume all human beings are both rotten to the core and imprinted with God’s image, and therefore in the pain and cry of these voters, yes looking past the egregious unfitness and bigotry, but genuinely hoping and believing in something… what is the source of this pain? How have “we” managed to leave so many of them behind? What is the repudiation of this election a forceful call for? For us to stop correcting their mispronunciations of our names or misattributions of our pronouns? For us to stop the cruel pressures of globalization on the slowest to change, or to at least moderate its impacts for the sake of forgotten towns? Or just to shut the hell up and go back to our countries? What is the cry that is behind the pull to make America great again?

Those were the recriminations. But also, rage. Rage balled up. Rage that so vile a peddler of unsubstantiated boasts, shifty doublespeak, dog-whistle murderous speech, predatory exploitation, bitter skulking, fearmongering hatefulness– nearly everything on the list of things that we try to teach our children not to become— had been elevated by our voters to the highest office of the land and the world’s most consequential seat of power. Charge me with extremist language but only biblical and apocalyptic imagery seemed apt to describe the feeling. And between grappling for these abstractions to speak the horror, I thought long and hard about specific people– that friend going back underground without DACA, those immigrant elderly vulnerable to exploitative health insurance, the stopped-and-frisked young people pushed out of school and into incarceration, our children growing up on a planet careening towards climate catastrophe. Rage at that smug face and those flippant hands who proved himself right, that circular morality that being a winner made you a winner, that you should run for the party of those you think are the biggest suckers because you could shoot someone in the street and they’d still vote for you, so long as you told them what they wanted to hear while installing every policy that will continue to guarantee their future poverty and continued dehumanization, wrapping them in lies that feed on vindictiveness and existential dread and real pain.

All that was Tuesday night, a maze of unfathomable emotion all pinned to the traumatic rendering of red on electronic maps.

Wednesday morning, I woke up. Determined to get to work. Determined to roll up my sleeves. Determined to… I wasn’t sure. What was I doing? Where do I take the fight? How do I stand up?

March? Write? Speak? Teach? Reach out? Petition? Conspire? Preach? Cry? Reconcile?

I realized that what I most needed to do was to get busy doing what I was supposed to be doing. Teaching and trying to influence education at the same time, so that we learn civility and compassion as we learn language and literacy. Speaking of a faith that gives grace to the humble and lowers the proud, that stands beside the oppressed and suffers with the hurting. Creating and critiquing cultural engagements that mold and form our consciousness and understanding of one another. Taking care of my family and friends, while learning to speak to those who would make us “other.”

But it’s not just business as usual. There was more I had to do. Withdraw from the sedative of social media, and concentrate my engagement. Stop to listen to discern where I was supposed to spend my time, my energies, my ears, my words. Do better. Do more collectively. Fight smarter.

And I watched as collective action happened around me, from journalists and essayists working harder to understand better, to activists and service workers stepping up to make our presence known, from people of faith coming honestly to prayer and truth-speaking, to progressives redoubling their efforts to combat white supremacy, patriarchy and misogyny, amok capitalism and oligarchies, abuses of human rights and inequality. And I was re=inspired to roll up my sleeves and not just watch.

Over this weekend, I’ve been figuring out how to roll up my sleeves, and where. It’s not worth sharing because it’s so specific and individual. Others are composing great lists of how to act, and those land on my list as well. But first and foremost, I sit and listen. I hear God telling me that despair and depression are a way to death. I hear that for me, right now, it’s time to get to work.

Graduating… from Preschool

Eden Preschool Graduation

Tis the season for graduations. Lengthy commencement speeches endured in sweaty crowdedness. Florid leis and loud hoots reminding us that every kid deserves a family that roots for them, that takes pride in their strut. Pictures, pictures, pictures, and muscling other people for position… for pictures.

In our small household, we “only” had a preschool graduation (someone isn’t done with his dissertation….)  I remember, early in his national fame, Barack Obama on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me ribbing the notion of a preschool graduation ceremony (I think Malia was that age at the time), suggesting wryly that maybe we ought to set our sights a bit higher. I know what he means, but I sure appreciated a little (actual) Pomp and Circumstance, because these first five years felt like they deserved some ceremony, some celebration. Is a preschool career worth that much hullabaloo? I say yes. Not because she’s accomplished the remarkable feat of surviving naptimes. But let’s call it a dress rehearsal for the bigger things that are bound to come, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these years for us.

As we soaked in the cuteness of dance performances and pledge recitations, I reflected on the significance of preschool. I won’t repeat here the promise and power of preschool for all, as has been eloquently argued by one of my heroes, David Kirp. Suffice it to say, there are few social policies that I’m more assured would make a positive impact than guaranteeing quality preschool universally. I know that sounds simple, and it’s not so simple– for instance, preschool teachers in our current system are severely underpaid compared to their K-12 counterparts, so we might be looking at a fairly expensive proposition to expand preschool access. But the investment in those critical years has a substantial body of evidence to show huge long term benefits. Especially if we can make sure the preschool we provide kids is quality.

But I’m immeasurably thankful that our kid got a great preschool education. Truly great. Those teachers of hers are amazing. We really didn’t need them to drill her in the ABCs, she had that covered. We didn’t need subtraction worksheets, or tough discipline for the “unruly” boys who pushed her off a slide. What we cherished was the social-emotional learning, patiently and lovingly rendered by her teachers. The way they comforted her when she was hurt, whether physical booboos or emotional ones. The way they taught her to talk to her classmates about taking turns, or not biting people, or joint projects of Magnatile kingdoms.

My wife and I teach adolescents, so early childhood’s not necessarily our realm of expertise, but we know enough to know that what’s going to be most consequential for her future test scores, earning power, and whatever reductive social indicator you want, is how capably her preschool teachers helped her to set goals about what crafts she made, how gently and persistently they taught her to respect boundaries, and how patiently they listened while she practiced using her words. What made our kid’s preschool quality was not how they “pushed” her towards “achievement,” but how lovingly they included and integrated all of the kids: the non-English speakers, the inattentive squirmers and handsy pokers, and all the four year-olds parroting their parents’ home-brewed inanities to one another– including ours. So three cheers to her preschool teachers, and to preschool teachers and staff everywhere.

I mentioned the dress rehearsal for things to come. As a teacher, one of the pleasures of the job is to see families come out to celebrate their children’s graduation. Especially when you have an inkling of the dedication needed to wake up every day and send them to school fed, the trials and tribulations to make sure their children aren’t left behind, and even the struggle with teachers and principals sometimes to broker a fair shot for their kid. Despite all of my family’s advantages and privilege, I can think of many times when my ability to provide the right steerage and environment for my daughter’s learning was tenuous. So I can only imagine the challenge if a parent is raising multiple children at different ages and stages, perhaps on their own, dealing with financial or legal insecurity. Parenting a child, even through those first five years, takes tremendous resilience.

A preschool graduation is a little oasis, a foretaste for those parents of those rewards, and a reminder that the efforts, headaches, and arguments were worth it for the wonder of the little one who is becoming her or his own person with every milestone.