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.

Scaffolding With Midterms

Though the repositioning of my desk after such a long wait had me walking on air this morning, the fact that the women of Preparatory Composition were all present and accounted by five minutes after the hour made my heart sing. Their request for merengue on Pandora added to the lighthearted atmosphere. We placed the desks in a circle and got right down to the freewriting topic of the day. The Discussant had sent it to me in a direct message on edmodo in case she arrived late to class. She was early today – another triumph!

After writing for ten minutes, I took attendance, marking the men excused, and the Discussant facilitated seven minutes of conversation on her topic:

What did it feel like writing a 500-word essay?

Responses were stiff for the first minute or two. Hard. Okay, Difficult but doable. Then, someone chuckled and things began to flow. During my time freewriting 339 words I tried to remember the strength of each Midterm exam I’d just graded so I could couch corrections in more favorable terms – the better to soften the blow of required revisions. One had the most coherent paragraphs. Another wrote the most words. Another made the best use of references to the article we’d read. Two had the most legible handwriting. Scaffolding learners requires carrots and sticks, compassion and clarity of purpose and practice above all for both learner and leader.

When I asked for whom PREPing paragraphs was the most difficult all hands went up one after the other. So, instead of discussing what learning had been like for them as women (the strategy I had used with the men) I passed out old business cards and asked everyone to write a topic that was important to them on the back of it. We proceeded, one round at a time, to provide a Point, Reason, Example and closing Point for the topic on the card, passing the card to the left after writing a single sentence. We made corrections to spelling, sentence structure, capitalization and content on each of the sentences we received before writing the one following the pattern and discussed challenging or compelling ones as they appeared.

Though I did not ask at the end of class because I was concerned about returning the furniture to the assigned places before the next instructor entered the room, I had the sense that things had become clearer as we crafted sentences and tethered them to the work of the writer next to us. This provided practice for the peer editing assignment to follow the revision and allowed me to do a show and tell of Jeff Galin’s article On Revision on the course website where their revisions and peer editing checklists would be submitted.

Two students needed clarification on how to revise their essays using the conclusion as their introduction and so they followed me outside of class as the next instructor arrived before five minutes to the start of his class. I answered their questions sitting on the bench in the corridor and decided obedience is better than sacrifice.

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.

Leaning Into Spring Break

It always happens yet I cannot understand it. Every semester, in the last week or so, I begin building the assignments and activities for the next. I do it to the exclusion of everything else – sleeping and grading current students’ final submissions as well. I think it has something to do with ‘leaving for America’. Perhaps that’s a bit too convenient. Perhaps it is simply a defense mechanism to delay my encounter with this cyclical reality: I will miss my students. If ever there were a time I am reminded of my feet of clay, powerlessness over my own addiction to exhaustion, this is it.

Steep Learning Curve

Twenty apps later I am slowed by the recent addition of a Belkin Mini Dock charging and data sync station which has somehow interfered with my ability to use the phone as a hot spot. High winds and an early wake up call prevent me from going to retrieve the cable that came in the box. Walmart was kind enough to provide an auxiliary cable cheaper than Verizon or Best Buy. Now, all I have to figure out is how to download items from my music library!

Photos taken in class before and after the interview scavenger hunt transferred effortlessly and with better quality than former devices.

A visit with a colleague after class also netted some good apps – notably one that syncs multiple family members’ calendars and another that securely maintains passwords.

Lamentably handwriting to text apps are limited but a Verizon rep showed me not only how to organize relate apps in a single tile but a cool one for movie previews – Flixter – and a great flashlight that blasts through the camera aperture.

Next stop – truly learner-centered classrooms without walls! At least that’s where I want to go with the department’s professional development play group. We’re starting with a collaborative slideshow on Freire’s Banking Concept of Education using Prezi. From there not even the sky’s the limit!

Jesus – 1, Devil – 0

Excuse me, Ma’am, I’m no bum, he said by way of introduction, I’m just trying to get something to eat. I was in the parking lot in front of the Ross store I’d just left disgruntled. It was past midday and I hadn’t yet made it inwordpress to campus. His hair appeared to be spiked with an expensive brand of soft-touch, medium gloss, strong hold sculpting gel that probably smelled memorable up close. He wore a gray t-shirt and fashionable, stone-washed jeans. Mine was not to wonder why, nor to unleash on him the frustration that had been building since the doctor’s visit. So what, I thought to myself. So what if I appear to be on top of the world yet remained far from it. I was after all getting into a gas guzzling SUV and he appeared to be on foot though I secretly imagined his beamer parked around back and that he would give himself another hour of ‘field research on American giving habits’ before tooling back to University where his trust fund ensured the maintenance of his even tan. How could he know I needed the $10 they would not refund. Why should it matter. I gave him one of the three dollars I had in my wallet, tried to mean it when I said, Bless you, and did my best to wipe the simmering ire off my face. He was not the problem any more than the information I’d received was the problem. I was the problem as I was the one struggling with being loving and grateful regardless of the circumstance in which I found myself. I’d known yesterday, as Elder Scott was talking, that I had some growing up to do. I just hadn’t been willing to admit how much. My consolation is knowing that no matter how I feel or fare, the battle is already over and we’ve won.