Vives allí

The other day, leisurely, we wandered into Books on B, a treasure if there ever was one, which we’d heard about and long wanted to visit: a real, live, brick and mortar book store.

Being an English teacher in Hayward since fifteen years ago, watching bookstores come and go, this was something precious. We had to buy something. All of us.

I remember the bookstore that used to be on B Street. You can still see the remainder of its old sign. I remember riding into there when EJ was very little, her on a trike with a handlebar I’d push, which somehow seemed acceptable at the time, to just ride in with a baby girl. We bought a pile of books, stuffed them into the rack on the back of her red bike, rode out. Felt like the last time.

During this summer, I’ve taught English Methods at Cal State East Bay, the Hayward hills, where EJ’s school is, right by the flatland areas where Elaine teaches and where the school’s community lives. (I work in Southwest Hayward.) Given the chance to assign a text to plan lesson around, I chose the first one I taught, thirteen or so years back, English 9, hoping to find something to pave the expanse between my kids and me.

I saw it there, at Books on B, but in translation. I want to get better at Spanish, to learn to speak without flinching at my sentences, to add subtlety to my replies when someone graces me with their comfort in Spanish.

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Reading The House on Mango Street, or La casa en Mango Street, with my frail and forgotten Spanish, is a teeny bit like living in those thirteen year old’s shoes when they sat in my class, unaware that their insecurity was deep but mine was old and wide and also gaping and hungry.

Somehow, again with Esperanza Cordero/Sandra CIsneros’ tender frankness, I’m entranced again.

“Una vez, cuando vivíamos en Loomis, pasó una monja de mi escuela y me vio juganda enfrente. La lavandería del piso bajo había sido cerrada con tablas arriba por un robo dos días antes, y la dueño habia pintado en la madera SÍ, ESTÁ ABIERTO, para no perder clientela.

“¿Dondé vives? preguntó.

“Allí, dije señalando arriba, al tercer piso.

“¿Vives allí?”

-Cisneros, traduzca por Poniatowska, La casa en Mango Street

That longing, those aspirations, that dissatisfaction, that restive desire that comes from the mix of shame and pride, those dreams. Esperanza says of her family/self, “éramos seis,” we are six. The distinctions blur and maintain at the same time, and the same will be true of her and this neighborhood.

And I start to feel it to be so with us three and Hayward.

Writing Lessons as I Dissertate

I once thought I was a decent writer. Then I tried to write my dissertation.

While I believe I can adapt to writing a variety of kinds of papers, this is the only kind of dissertation I can imagine writing. You want the work to stand for who you are and what you’ve learned, how you study and what you have to offer the world. I’m drawn to, and now I come from, qualitative research, social research, research into culture and human phenomena, research that attempts to speak alongside people and practitioners, that invites subjects to talk back to the research, that winds down unexpected paths and has to be reined back in. The description is thick, the theory is too, and the ambitions far outpace the funding, let alone the comfortable boundaries of positivist certainty.

Writing this dissertation has been a cruel slicing, again and again. It’s a necessary cutting process, cutting away until I make sense, until the pie is small enough to consume, until the writing is not a firehose that no reader has the patience for. I try to do justice to people I’ve spent hours, days, months with; try to do justice to a diversity that stays animated and irreducible in the varied kids I studied; try to be methodical, and reasoned, and balanced, and curious, and pragmatic. One paper cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Three things I take away as essential to my writing:

1. A community. As much as I want to hole away and face the solitary task, bearing my own cross for the writing choices I make, each time I’ve had a watershed revelation, a point of inflection in my slow toil towards the right decision, it came with an audience of incisive and generous peers. Foremost, my advisors. Sometimes, my wife. Often, my peers in writing and research groups, stretching to think my arcane thoughts with me, offering incisive questions and generous speculation. I still have to face the lonely keyboard myself, but my good ideas have all been birthed (or stolen? borrowed?) from contact with thinking partners, even if they were just a listening forum for me to clarify myself in front of, but often as a fount of fertile ideas and clarion thinking. And when the community motivates you by the intense quality of their own writing and work, it’s possible to get intimidated and feel inadequate, but impossible not to feel wiser for having spent time with them as thought partners.

2. Tools to “Notecard” My Ideas. I recently became a convert to Scrivener.  Before then, I was repeatedly falling apart under the weight of any revision, so that pieces disappeared into the ether or held on stubbornly to their shape and position, refusing to budge from their lodged positions, like recalcitrant homesteaders before my hurricane of rethinking. Now, not only can I not imagine writing without Scrivener, I am excited to create just because of the invitation to architecting ideas and stories that Scrivener’s tools affords me. Moving seamlessly between the “notecard” birds-eye view, where chunks can move as needed among each other, and the lost-in-the-sentences text view… it affords a wonderful executive control. I still have a lot to figure out how to use probably two-thirds of its functions. But even with what I’ve acquired, the tool has reshaped the user.

3. Forget it. I have to be able to forget it. I have to be able to let it go. I have to take naps. I have to walk away. I have to submit pieces, discontented as I might be. There’s always another pass I could do. Always another frontier of improvement. Always a better turn of phrase, a more complete reassessment of structure and rhetorics, of evidence and presentation. But I just have to forget it. I’ve been lost for weeks in paragraphs that ultimately wound up ruthlessly cut– and am still likely bargaining for more of that. I’ve given hours that have no count to analyses that might burn like fire in my mind, but they will bloat the final product, so they’re left in the memo that won’t fit in any chapter, the paper that might one day spin off, the faint hope of a future project or forum to see the light of day.

I’m not done yet, which I’m relieved for, to be honest. As relieved as I’ll feel to finally be done, I just know there are parts of this process that haven’t finished their work on me yet. I feel great insecurity about my writing, and the scary thing is, it’s not just my writing. It’s my voice. It’s my contribution. It’s great insecurity about my belonging in this work that I’ve been doing for years.

But that unbearable hopefulness must succumb as well to the ticking hands of time, and soon my deadlines will defy me and my accumulated wisdom, and I will scamper to submit My “Good Enough” Dissertation, submit it to my mentors who have ridden this writing rollercoaster a million times more than me, who will offer the loving shatterings that will return me gasping to these chapters. Somewhere out the other end, I have faith a better writer waits. He will laugh at my hand-wringing. He will forget that he earned who he is.

 

 

Crawling to the Finish Line

No, I have not been a very impactful, focused scholar.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my advisors and colleagues, who have carried me every step of the way, I am nearing the end of these eight years of my PhD program. Early in my program, I envisioned myself racing across this finish line, head held high. Instead, I find myself scrambling, crawling. Ashamed I didn’t accomplish more for my years in academia so far. Still struggling with the writing and study, the reviewing and revising, the presenting and attending that should be the schedule of a scholarly life.

The reasons are many and those who know me have heard them plenty, even dutifully repeat them back to me when I confess this embarrassment.

But I hope this last Lenten season has represented a pivot for me, an inflection point, when my halfway presence (“half” is being too generous) as a scholar stops being my apology and starts being my identity. I’ve not earned the grants and won the fellowships. But I’ve been granted chances to struggle beside teachers, to await the end beside my mom, to read to children, to enjoy the fellowship of a spiritual family. I’ve not attended the association meetings and submitted for the conferences. But I hope I’ve associated with the unattended and submitted myself to the inconvenient. I have been a poor colleague and co-researcher, which is what I regret the most. But I have remained richly curious and the glad beneficiary of others’ intellectual fruitfulness.

So stop apologizing, Paul. You didn’t do all the scholar things because you were doing the teacher things, the father things, the son things, the husband things, the follower things, the cultural worker things, the part-of-a-community-of-faith things.

Whatever that means for my academic prospects, I am coming to terms that it matters less to me than doing some good in schools, serving in the niche I can to enrich our literacy and language learning for life, love, and liberation.

I do feel like I’m crawling to the finish line. But it’s a good vantage point from here on the ground, by this dust and these feet.

Sometimes I use sentences from the great orators as models for students to analyze, both for how language can be flexibly and elegantly used, and for how cogent arguments are constructed and defended.

I’m very excited about the new resources we now have for such instructional practices. Wait until students have a chance to learn to acquire not only the powerful language, but the wit and sagacity of our elected leaders:

“Well, they’re governing now. They’ve never governed. You know, they haven’t governed. Now they’re governing. So now it’s just not like saying no. Before they could say no, it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t going to get approved anyway, so what difference does it make? Now we’re governing.”

” We had these incredible flags including the American flags. And they were in different rooms. And they were always being pushed around because they didn’t have enough room. And I said, “How beautiful, the base, the flags, Army, Navy, Marine Corps. I mean, just so beautiful. Just so beautiful.” The Coast Guard flag over here.”

“Well, I was very well known as you understand prior to this. But that was a different type of — that was a different world. This is something you are really in your own little world. Secret Service, they’re phenomenal. But they are all over the place. I mean, they are the real deal. They’re all over the place.”

And this gem, when pressed about wiretapping claims:

“I don’t stand by anything. I just– you can take it the way you want. I think our side’s been proven very strongly. And everybody’s talking about it. And frankly it should be discussed. I think that is a very big surveillance of our citizens. I think it’s a very big topic. And it’s a topic that should be number one. And we should find out what the hell is going on.”

Once our students soak in the richness of this language, it will be impossible for any standardized test or college entrance examination to judge them unprepared for civic, corporate, or academic leadership.

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.

 

Thinking about School Segregation as a Parent (Part 1)

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I was late to reading this piece in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones about ‘Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,’ but it’s a good one. What’s most powerful about it is that, of all the great things that have been written and produced about our deepening problems of school segregation, this piece by Hannah-Jones can speak with a poignancy and authority because of how honestly and earnestly she wrestles with these issues through her family’s own school decisions, her own daughter’s schooling.

What we wish for our society’s schools and what we would want for our own children’s schooling can be surprisingly hard to reconcile. I’ve learned that tension as a parent, but also as a teacher who has sat with parents for long hours, listening to their troubles and conundrums, and also as an educational researcher. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children,” says John Dewey.  That’s been a precious notion to me, one that I make part of my mission as a teacher, that families should feel less of a gulf between their hopes for their own children and the whole school community’s hopes for every child.

But it’s not so simple to agree on what the best and wisest parent wants (or who the best and wisest parent is), nor on who “the community” is and isn’t. Because integration– not just “diversity,” but transformative, anti-segregation, good-for-all-of-us integration– involves some very different people with some very different ideas being willing to coexist. And not just coexist, but to find common cause and harmony on the most important, and often most sensitive, thing to almost anyone: raising their children.

I want to keep thinking and writing about this in this space, knowing that the issues are very personal and also socially complicated, and therefore the problems complex and gnarly. Which is to say, I’m not prepared to offer a listicle of “How to Become Involved in Desegregating Schools as a Parent” or “Ten Tips for Reconciling the Deepest Divisions and Suspicions in Our Society Through School Rezoning Meetings.” I think Hannah-Jones’ piece is a great place to start, but accompanying that is an agreement to respect how important, particular, and often wrenching these decisions are for parents, no matter what their ideals or concerns (as Hannah-Jones devotes more than a few words to acknowledging.)

For our own part, my wife and I have shared the ideals that our daughter’s social-emotional, intellectual, and personal development weren’t best served at a cloistered school exclusively serving “high achieving” and privileged White and Asian kids. Nor were they best served at a school where her culture, language, passions, and personhood as a Chinese-American would be unrecognizable or reduced to stereotypes. Although we are theoretically on the same page, this hasn’t always meant perfect agreement on the practicalities, the real decisions. So far (and we’re not far into it), we’ve felt really blessed that the school district where we work has many examples of great, diverse (actually diverse) schools, one of which offers a Mandarin dual-language immersion program. It is challenging for the school to be as integrated as some others in the district, though I’ve often been encouraged and impressed by the staff and families and their commitment to inclusion. The school is not a high poverty school, but it is about 35% Latin@, 20% Black, and 20% Asian, though I believe those demographics skew differently in the DLI program, for understandable reasons.

So the complicated questions aren’t at all settled for us, and we expect them to remain difficult, especially as we continue to try to be committed as parents, educators, and (for me) a researcher in this district to all schools and all kids while we parent our child as we ought to. But I take from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ example a model of transparency and probity that I hope might be helpful to others who care about these issues.

As the discussion continues, I’m reminded by two bits of wisdom from today’s Revised Common Lectionary passages of the Bible, if you’ll allow my drawing from them. One is the source of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” song, Ecclesiastes 1, which reminds us that there is a time and a season for everything. The second is Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we’ve done unto “the least of these,” we’ve done unto him. Taken together, the passages are reminders that we should not be quick to judge or cast blame on individuals as they search out what is the right time and choice for their own children, that there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Yet we’re also reminded that we’re judged not only by how we have taken care of our own kin, but also by how we have taken care of “the least of these,” of children least privileged by our historically unjust systems with power and resources, as our own children. As my satirical listicle title above is meant to suggest, I know this is placing a huge weight on a very tough and tender pressure point, working out our deepest rooted divisions through our most delicate and defensive worry, our children’s lives. But hopefully, for exactly those reasons, we realize we can’t shirk our responsibility to thoughtful and careful dialogue, to rolling up our sleeves and working toward better answers. I think we owe that to our children.

 

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.

 

 

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Emerson and Fritz Chapter 3

writing ethnographic field notes
The third chapter is entitled, “Writing Field Notes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page.”  My summaries and reactions:
Recognizing that all writing, even that which attempts to take a neutral stance and remain as descriptive as possible, is a kind of construction, the authors are mindful about what influences this construction and attempt to raise, in this chapter, several of the circumstances, questions, and decisions that factor into the ethnographic description that the fieldworker puts on the page (or screen) after being in the field.
Issues of how soon and how long the ethnographer gets to the desk (as fresh as possible, as soon as possible, ideally an hour writing for every hour in the field, as much unpolished memory as an outpouring can produce) get squared away pretty quickly.  Techniques for recalling the day (use of jottings, initial lists of topics, beginning with high points, turning jottings into extended texts) are exemplified.  These seemed fairly obvious to me, but might be helpful to someone else.  I find myself to be that kind of extensive, compulsive note-taker anyway.  This method sounds like second nature to me.  Sometimes in the course of going from jottings to notes, new or fresh significance emerges, and that’s something I see happening often in my field note taking.
The technique of writing “lushly” (Goffman), depictions of scenes, including spatial arrangements, details of the setting, the appearance of people to contextualize talk and action (while resisting the too-easy categorizing and stereotyping we tend to do in taking in other human beings), casting evocative images… these produces portraits of irreducible importance, where the discovery lies in the ethnographic task.  Otherwise, everything defaults to the bell curve, the expected scene, without idiosyncrasy that makes the scene matter.  Dialogue can flow in and out without repeatedly adding the she saids and he saids, and the authors make their pitch for capturing verbatim dialogue however possible and getting the narratives of the speakers as important artifacts of culture, something which is already my starting point into ethnography.  Aspects of transcription like capturing breaks and rhythm, pitch and prosody, as Hymes and company articulated, create many decision points in transcription, ones that the responsible ethnographer makes deliberate decisions about.  Characterizations are discussed, as is the use of active rather than passive verbs.
Organizing writing about the day’s events can be broken down with these tools:
sketches: like a still-life picture, a multi-sensory scene.
episodes: capturing action, a “slice of life.”
transitional summaries: because a full sequence is often impossible, linking episodes with transitional summaries segments and coheres the account.
Finally, including in-process analytic commentaries or asides also helpfully warrants a discussion here.  Asides are quicker, commentaries are fuller.
As a reflection, the authors describe a “writing” mode where the ethnographer is intent on producing the observation text, and then a “reading” mode that involves looking again, reflection, etc.  It’s helpful to think about the discipline of ethnography, for me, as investing enough in this writing mode to work fully and intently as an observer, before leaping too quickly, all-too-quickly, to the analytical or interpretive mode.
Overall, the chapter feels the driest, but perhaps because this is the most obvious, practical, and re-tread territory, and the authors want to give details and procedures in pretty straightforward fashion without overproblematizing or over-thinking these steps.  The examples are helpful, but for the most part, I’d be more interested in a version of this chapter organized around common dilemmas or problems that the fieldnote taker encounters in attempting the work, and the way these tools are solutions.