Language Dancing

Wish I’d had this term to use during the defense of my dissertation. I’d scoured the internet to find the correct image and music with which to begin the discussion on the transformative effects of freewriting on Basic Writing students. I knew exactly what I was looking for – the Tango Lesson poster that director Sally Potter used to promote the film and Libertango by Astor Piazzola, one of many compelling selections found on the soundtrack.

That was perhaps my problem: I KNEW what I wanted. After several hope-dashing leads turned up nothing three days before my defense, one library in Phoenix had the CD of the soundtrack and I was able to take a photo of the cover for my powerpoint slide presentation. The way I envisioned our task in the classroom was as that of dance partners in charge only of our limbs and whether or not we would attend class and practice our moves faithfully afterwards. We had no control over the music and had to do our best to keep up. But, if we surrendered to its rhythms perhaps, in eight weeks’ time, we might produce something worth sharing, and do so with a hint of grace.

Image

Of course, the image communicates more what the writing process feels like – a deeply personal, high-stakes contest. And, though it is not so easily seen in this copy, it is more like the movements the dancers mimic in the work of art behind and above them. The ‘work’ of making oneself understood on paper is more closely related to Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, or the wrestling match on continuous play in our minds between what experience has suggested in possible and what we dare to believe is possible in our hearts.

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson point to the epochal research of Todd Risley and Betty Hart, which compellingly shows a direct correlation between a child’s IQ and their scholastic achievement with the amount of “extra talk” and “language dancing” a child experiences between birth and age three. Extra talk and language dancing are is described as being “engaged face to face with the infant and speak[ing] in a fully adult, sophisticated, chatty language— as if the infant were listening, comprehending, and fully responding to the comments.”

The volume of extra talk and language dancing makes all the difference in setting up  a child for academic success and confidence, or academic struggles and negative attitudes toward school.  Risley and Hart argue that class and race don’t impact IQ— it’s all about the extra talk and language dancing before age three do. Dan Brown, author of The Great Expectations School…

Of course, before I got to the above section I had to wrestle with the article’s preceding paragraphs’ reminding me why I detest talking with, reading or listening to certain ‘educators’. My Dad put it this way, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And my entire life inside and beyond the classroom has been spent trying to avoid contagion either from my teachers or, as an instructor, from infecting learners with the oppression we’ve all internalized and some have immunized. I try my best to point to and interrupt the ways in which I am asked and often expected (not just by colleagues and administrators but by learners as well) to assume the role of the agent of the oppression. I try my best to model, expect and hope against the odds that at any moment each of us can leave the herd, exceed our wildest expectations and do something wildly authentic on or off the page. Something like language dancing.

Some teachers actually believe much of what they’ve read, worse – most, if not all, of what they’ve studied, researched or written. Witness the following section Brown quotes from Christensen et al.

Most reformers are toiling away in the realm of K-12, but the authors pause to remind us, “[A] rather stunning body of research is emerging that suggests that starting these reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle, or high school, is far too late. By some estimates, 98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”

How can one hold a conversation, let a lone teach from a perspective of such fatalistic beliefs? I guess I’m as guilty in the opposite direction. In my classrooms, believing IS seeing the results of the beliefs we hold. My first job is to get learners to agree to suspend disbelief in the possibility that they can learn to write. Students in my classrooms did not score high enough on the placement exam to get into Composition 101. But, if they succeed in suspending judgment, engage the freewriting like a bricklayer until their thinking is transformed into a cathedral-builder, they complete the course knowing what they know and how to find out more of what they don’t. At least, that’s what they tell me in their Legacies at the end of each semester and show me in following semesters when they complete COMP 101 and move on.

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Writing as Liberatory Practice

Recently, the best teacher/mentor/friend of my life inspired me to think about inner and outer forms of writing. When I attempted to respond with my thoughts related to teaching on the subject, I was asked to rewrite and resend. Below is that effort.

I agree that wonder and transcendence of self are part of the surrender process that is writing as discovery and ultimate [comm]unity. Further, that they are not readily accessible to most learners or teachers due to the conditioning we are exposed to daily and therefore require the disciplines of attention, intention and constancy.

I have come to understand that I must start with the common or familiar and that turns out to be pain in more than a majority of cases. Beginning with shared experience allows me to forecast the pain that accompanies our use of Freewriting-as-a-discipline.  When practiced as the concurrent, intentional movement through disbelief, fascination, boredom and resistance born of the learned helplessness of the conditioned existence misappropriated as the self, such writing practice is liberatory.

Presenting the terrain (inner landscapes) we will encounter in such a way, helps to diffuse the experience of it as pain. This process was very aptly framed in the Matrix as ‘seeing for the first time’ when the main character ‘awakened’ outside of the reality pulled over his eyes as a newly recruited member of the revolutionaries.

At the same time, I believe our appreciation of form is inherent. And, with enough writing practice (hard work/anguish) to destabilize the habits of mind and being we have grown accustomed to, we can escape, and replace the models of teaching and learning that require parroting and herd mentality with envisioning what wants to emerge from a primordially shared and ever-present stillness. This process, known as Presencing by Peter Senge et al. is always as encouraging as it is instructive.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

True Story

Sometime in ’98, Fall if I remember correctly, I bought one of those ‘Back to School’ cleaning kits containing several products at an irresistible price. I had moved into a new apartment and wanted to give it a good old fashioned going over before I really unpacked and moved in.

Thing is, almost as soon as I got started, I noticed a tightening in my chest. Oddly enough, I didn’t pay much attention to the burning throat and decreasing ability to breathe. I simply opened the bathroom window, finished and rinsed the shower, skipped dinner and went to bed.

It wasn’t until I ran into someone with severe environmental allergies some significant stretch later that I revisited the earlier life-altering experience. I won’t tell you exactly how much time passed between events because I don’t want my Suzy Homemaker badge revoked. Suffice it to say, I switched to vinegar diluted in water until I gave up cleaning altogether.

Fast-forward to this morning and my joy at receiving DoTerra’s On Guard Cleaning Concentrate. I dropped hubby off, had a satisfying 15 minutes on the rowing machine and a sweaty 35 on the elliptical. Met a friend for lunch. Had the awesome favorite Avgolemono Soup at the Greek Grill and an even better chat on everything from paradigm-shifting to rhizome theory, creativity as a lifestyle and presencing.

When invited to spend the afternoon reading by this dear friend’s pool, I surprised us both opting instead to wash the kitchen floor with my new human-friendly cleansing liquid made of clove oil, wild orange and other organic aromatics. Weird huh? Fact is I’ve been waiting and preparing for this moment for some time – the better part of a year in fact.

Now, before you jump to any reasonable conclusions, others have given the new place the once over since we moved in, but on each occasion I had to be far away and return home several hours afterward in order to give my lungs a chance and the air time to clear. Today, I decided to use my freshly purchased broom, dust pan and desiccated Swifter pads with the new cleanser WHILE touching up my hair color – you know, to use the exertion to generate heat to accelerate the color transfer process with my head wrapped in a plastic bag…

Now before you run off thinking, “she’s really not the brightest bulb in the socket after all,” let me remind you, I lived to write this post. In any case, because DoTerra’s entire line is made from 100% certified pure, therapeutic grade essential oils, not even the slightest side-effect was felt. And that’s what I’m thrilled to report. Cleaning is once again a moving meditation option for me.

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Thoughts On Textbook Selection

Textbook selection is not among the least of our responsibilities as a member of the faculty. Years of hearing from students that their “money is funny”, their financial aid didn’t arrive in time to purchase the required text by week three of an eight-week semester, or the edition they bought secondhand didn’t have the assigned sections, I decided to go with electronic texts available in the public domain. As an avid reader of books one can hold in one’s hands and hopefully soon to be gainfully published author, I was deeply troubled with this compromise. It too proved unworkable however. There were problems with access codes, confusion between free versus paid options of the same text, and deceptive instructions for accessing the completely free resources. Still, I kept reviewing titles in hopes of finding ones worth all the hassles I knew would come with adoption. In the meantime, I decided to try something preposterous. I decided to teach an entirely online class without a required textbook. I lost one student who found the format described below “boring” and withdrew before Week 1 ended. Those who remained wrote things like the following in their Legacies:

Utilize everything because it will only make you a better student not only in this class but in future classes as well… I really did not find any part of this class useless.  It was all useful and I will take away a lot from this course, more than any other course I have taken that is for sure. (J.I. SP12)

There are many course objectives, but the ones that helped me the most were; setting realistic and attainable goals, reading texts with improved focus, comprehension, and retention, presenting clear oral and written reports, and managing priorities effectively. While you are doing your Resource Research you will have to read a lot of different articles.  Some of them, I had to read a few times to comprehend.  This class definitely helped me to read and be more focused on the subject.  For a lot of the assignments you will be responsible for writing paragraphs with fresh insight you gained.  You will also be responsible for writing feedback to your fellow classmates.  For the Midterm and Final you will have to write a Paper.  This has helped me to think about the structure of my writing.  Of course because things are due at a certain time and some assignments require more time than others; this has helped me with setting realistic goals and managing priorities effectively. (T.F. SP12)

The following is excerpted from an email sent to a publisher’s representative regarding a book I considered but declined to adopt. It is offered in hopes of shedding light on one thought process during book selection.

At long last I am able to send a few words of feedback on the text, Z. Deep apologies for the delay.
I was considering the requested title for my College Success course but find the text too dense and layout unappealing. This spells disaster for new and novice-readers breaking it into the academy.

Last semester, I did not use a textbook. Instead, I posted a weekly topic and had students post links to different resources (conduct & contributeResource Research)on the same theme with a proposed assignment. It worked well. This Fall I will require students to complete one assignment from a different classmate each week in addition to reading and responding to classmates’ posts with comments about the assignment’s usefulness and suggestions for transferability beyond our class.

Moving in this way from theory to practice of ‘college success’ and several course objectives seems to build critical reading and thinking skills and expose students to a broader cross-section of resources than using a textbook does traditionally. At this juncture, where the rubber hits the road, learners must polish their decision-making, time management (to avoid duplication of links) and process-writing skills (in order to communicate the assignment) while at the same time get into the minds of multiple ‘teachers’ (fellow learner-leaders) at once.

This approach worked well enough in one subject-area that I am going to try it in Composition come Fall. I’d love to hear how others approach this issue.