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.