Holding Back The Tears

Why should it take so long to find one’s preferred learning style? How many years does it take to earn a doctorate? Why is it only now, taking an American Sign Language class taught in a voice-free zone, that I understand that voiced environments have been just about too much for me for just about as long as I can remember. The professor, a colleague, hands out a page with facial expressions we are to master during the course of the next several weeks and learn to use them when signing corresponding words and ideas. It is all I can do to restrain the cascade of tears that threaten as I glance at things I would barely know how to feel, let alone express. Extreme? Perhaps. But someone out there understands in her bones what I am writing about. I know that I am not the only one on Planet Earth who has lived with low-grade panic for so long that “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” is no longer even an understatement. I felt a modicum of relief when someone or circumstance, some decade or more ago now, provided me with the ‘hyper-vigilance‘ frame. But, absent a way to redirect one’s chronic thought patterns, or an understanding or diagnosis for the accompanying disorders, one remains trapped, as it were in her own living nightmare.
Chicken or Egg? I don’t know. All I know is today, for the first time in 20 years of teaching (and, by the way, as a direct result of a thought that had room to rise during a meditation workshop at this semester’s convocation) I began my class in a darkness punctuated only by the sound of my voice reading something to my students that mattered to me. Light filtered in from the muted projection screen and a shaded window high in the wall behind which was an overcast desert sky. All of that is to say, that today, 20 years into teaching and counting, was the first day I started class within MY comfort zone.

“To Dethrone Ourselves From The Center of Our World”

Team-teaching has its moments. This semester’s Migrant Literature presentations have had many high and teachable ones. One such moment occurred today when a team selected ‘language illiteracy’ as the form of oppression their team would provide steps to eliminate. Because they included understanding another’s feelings among their Steps to Living a Compassionate Life (part of our community guidelines inspired by the Charter for Compassion and the source for the title of this post) I was able to offer a course correction during the Question and Answer period after they’d finished.

I asked for their understanding of oppression and one member offered that it was something that kept someone down. Building on this I made a distinction between prejudice and the power to limit another person’s life chances. It also provided the opportunity to discuss blaming the victim. One by one the light went on for each student. I look forward to reading their Process Papers.

In an online College Success class, their team presentations are due next week, Tuesday. As can be expected online and off, teams run into setbacks, snags and slackers. One despairing member emailed her feelings yesterday and, receiving no response (until now) wrote again this morning asking if she could proceed on her own. The text of my reply follows.

While it’s all right to work on the midterm alone, Dear Student, you’ve put in enough time on the midterm as a team to benefit from it without making more work for yourself. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation are par for the course in school and at work. Working through them, forging new possibilities, and sticking together teach different lessons than soldiering on alone. Lessons of both kinds are valuable.

If it provides any comfort for you or reduces your stress in any way, know that only 20% of your Midterm grade depends on what you / your team actually ‘produces’, so whatever emerges is likely to have only a superficial impact on your grade. Responding to two other teams presentations (20%) and writing your own Process Paper (60%) comprise the largest portion / weight of your Midterm grade.

I hope this helps. Thank you for contacting me with these very valid concerns. To answer your ‘unasked’ but hinted at question in a previous email, one or more course objectives per person is acceptable. It’s up to each member to decide which will serve as the best organizing tool or theme around which to build a presentation and write a Process Paper.

Though it may not feel like it, you are doing very well and are in the home stretch. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and remember, it’s all small stuff!


And an imperfectly perfect day was had by all.

Dear Lucille

After a long weekend I begin the teaching week heavier than usual. Even my glasses feel tight. So I turn to your latest volume for inspiration before facing class and open to photograph. Your poems, memories of your classes, are among my favorite things.


keep them turning    turning

black blurs against the window

of the world

for they are beautiful

and there is trouble coming

round and round and round

You dedicated this poem to your grandsons, spinning in their joy. What do I have to do for some of that joyous spinning to rub off on me today? I arrive on campus late, yet find a parking space close to the building that houses the office they have told me is mine yet will not allow me to arrange my books or desk in ways that suit me.

The trouble you mention is closer now. where, oh where, is the saving thing?

On my way in and up, I pass a license plate holder proclaiming “only great moms get promoted to nana.” We know otherwise. Yesterday was my birthday. Unlike you, I did not write myself a poem. I made a list yet did none of the things on it. I did not go swimming. I did not read. I have not yet learned the art of celebration. Perhaps that will be this year’s lesson.

The NCLR sent a text this morning asking us to complete the following:

Our economy won’t work without me because…

I responded reflexively something about teaching generations but the trouble is that the dysfunctional economy IS working for someone and the psychological wardrobe of Horatio Alger is paraded as sufficient and possible for everyone else. That’s why this myth has not been revealed, dismantled or replaced. Too many people will settle for changing places with the oppressor.

Though I miss you sorely, I am glad you got out when you did.

Reclaiming Identities Through Migrant Literature

For as long as I can remember – at least since I began implementing servant leadership in the classroom to increase engagement – students have served as Discussant, Oracle, Colombo and Mr/s. Rogers. This semester, wanting to underscore activism, I changed the names of the roles to Perpetrator, Rescuer, Bystander and Survivor. Originally, perpetrate simply meant ‘to commit’. My goal is to inspire myself and others to commit to scholarship, compassion and transformation. A short description of each role (from the syllabus) is included at the end of this post. The purpose for this writing is to share what today’s Perpetrator invited us to consider and my response to her question.

What do you expect to learn about the culture / background you identify with?

“I identify with a culture of once-apathetic-now engaged activists. I hope to learn the steps from apathy to activism so I can blog about them and make a scalable model for educators who want their disciplines to matter to the species beyond the 21st century. (Note: It’s freewriting, so nothing is too off the wall to include.)

Why is being a species-level thinker so important to me? First I should define what a species-level thinker is. A species-level thinker is one who knows who she is as well as who she might appear to be in various contexts from various Big 8 Little 4 perspectives, and continues to think about the whole and moving toward pro social ends using pro social means.

It’s one thing to be a do-gooder but another to make a greater difference than sleeping with a clear conscience. Wrecked, by Jeff Goins, helps to clarify the distinction. I wonder if the Gipsy Kings-like music is distracting to others’ writing. So why is it that important to me that I and other educators unleash such initiative in the most effective and strategic ways possible? Because I believe life is beautiful and that the challenges we face as a species will require all of us to solve or take all of us out.

I look to the clouds and see the footprints of God in all His glory. I wonder why people don’t look up and take notice in much the same way [Shug] in the Color Purple said:

I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.  Shug

It’s a pity when lives are so embattled and people so submerged that we don’t notice the beauty of everyday things around us and within one another. There’s loud drumming in the next classroom drowning out the Alto (?) sax crooning in ours through Pandora…”

We went on to discuss the identities people hoped to learn about and whether what we believe is as important as why we believe it.


Service Roles Described:

  • Perpetrator: Selects in-class writing & dyad (paired discussion) topics related to the assigned reading /activities for the week. Moderates class discussion.  See Conversational Roles in Course Resources.
  • Bystander: Summarizes daily activities and upcoming assignments 10 minutes before end of class. Opens Thursday class by following up on Tuesday’s Discovery & Intention while Perpetrator is writing topic on the board.
  • Rescuer: Takes notes during class and posts to Service Notes discussion Board in Angel; collects week’s attendance, emails absent members. This prevents absentees from asking the instructor, what did I miss.
  • Survivor:  Serves as translator, time and peace-keeper to keep class on schedule. Observes class to identify random acts scholarship to be celebrated and muddy moments to be clarified. Reports before Bystander’s summary.

Life, It Turns Out, Is THAT Simple

The Things I Shouldn’t Do

I know my left hip would be better off if I sat without my right leg tucked under it, yet…

I know Morning Pages should be written before everything else, as I roll out of bed, yet I return a text, take my folic acid tablet, wash my face – sometimes even peel and eat a banana, not to mention put on a pot of steel cut oats.

I know these things and yet remain, the way I know I shouldn’t be this unhappy, this heavy of spirit, this sad or angry or double-minded every day, yet…

Today, however, in honor of President Barack Hussein Obama’s 51st birthday, before writing or even praying, I take these few words and moments to glory in the light filtering in my East-facing window, dancing through the leaves making their way across the carpet, filling my heart with a joy as true and ineluctable as one’s most holy vows.

91° Sunny
Spring Valley, Nevada, United States

May grace and mercy encircle you.


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.


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.