Permissable Topics (108)

we cannot talk about some things

because that causes them to happen

We cannot talk about sex

or death or injustice

because they do not exist

we cannot talk

of our experience

because it contradicts others

we cannot speak to each other

because that could build bonds

we cannot speak of the voices

that await us at school

at home and in our heads

we cannot speak

we cannot talk

we are not allowed

(January 21, 2021)

Where One Learns as What One Learns



My old tai chi master

watched his students

study their college texts,

then laughed explosively

into the silence

of the courtyard,

our open air dojo.

We all looked up

like gazelle’s scenting

the air. He laughed

again, then said,

“There should be a book

on how to watch clouds.”

We looked at him quizzically.

“All it would say

on every page—

Look Up!”


(August 28, 2018)




I’m not sure I do much,

but open doors, set up chairs,

provide a place to read,

talk, write; which is enough

and yet, is not enough

to beat back the belligerence

barking like a spittle-flecked

beast. I can’t save them

from what is to come,

nor always be there to speak

amiably into their distress,

and voiceless traumas.

But there is this room,

an open door, and a chair.


(March 27, 2018)

Making Time for What’s Important

In a class on the Essay at Bread Loaf, Shirley Brice-Heath said that reading and writing are leisure activities.  She said this in explanation of why so many writers in the 19th century, or any other time period, were upper middle class and/or wealthy.  It takes time to read and time to write, one can’t be working all hours on the factory floor if one is going to read and write.  Over time I have hacked away at the “stuff” I teach that takes up the time of the classroom; I have abandoned entire beloved lesson plans and units because they ate into the time my students have to read and write.  My students live busy complex lives.  They work at their jobs, often more than one, they have many classes in addition to mine and some of them have babies that they have to take care of as well.  So I schedule huge blocks of time to read and write in class everyday.  It is not a “Read-in” Friday, or “let’s write an in-class essay today”, but every day we are reading and writing together and alone.  It is what is expected in my class.  Over time the students come to expect the time they have to read and write and become irritable when they don’t get that time because of scheduled and unscheduled administrative dictates.  The time to read and write is important, because it is time the students don’t normally get.  It is ironic, as Randy Bomer pointed out, that we banish students committing acts of literacy from the classroom in order to provide time for state test prep, drill and bundle tests; activities which teach the students to hate reading and writing.  Maybe not so ironic as criminal.
(November 2011)

Instruction Manual

            The things not framed allow the mind”
                        –Clark Coolidge
inside this container
you should find the requisite
amount of product
if the amount is
somehow deficient
more can be back filled
only a prescribed
amount however
for each container
ms. dickinson a loner
and an aberration
at best was wrong
when she wrote
“the Brain is wider
than the sky”
so please discount all 
such ideas as nonsense
since immeasurable
(October 2011)

Sustained Silent Reading Why and How: Common Sense, Not Common Practice

We keep saying that Johnny can’t read because he’s deprived, because he’s hungry, because he’s discriminated against. We say that Johnny can’t read because his daddy is not in the home. Well, Johnny learns to play basketball without daddy. We do best what we do most, and for many of our children that is playing ball. One of the reasons Johnny does not read well is that Johnny doesn’t practice reading (Reverend Jesse Jackson quoted in Raspberry, 1976 as cited in Thurlow 1984 p.267)

I used to feel that I had to explain the way I teach to people. Sometimes I still feel that way. Fellow teachers in the copy room will ask by way of making conversation, “So, what book are your students reading now?” I used to try to explain how all my students were reading different books; so I really couldn’t tell them off the top of my head why my students were reading. Then because of the way they would look at me, I would feel like I was an incompetent teacher. I could see the thoughts running through their heads: he doesn’t know what they are doing in his class; or worse, he doesn’t do anything in his class. So I felt the need to explain in detail how all of my students chose the books they read, that those books then became the “text” book from which they worked out the reading skills required by the TEKS, that I really did keep track of every book the kids were reading, all 150, and yes, I could tell if they were actually reading the book without giving them a scantron test. And best of all, the students read two books each six weeks. Eventually I just settled on saying, “No, we aren’t reading anything together right now.” Which was true in a way.

We read together all the time, just not the same book. One day a couple of months into the first year I moved to high school after teaching for 15 years in the middle school, my students were reading their books silently. Some were sitting at their desks, others were lying on bean bags, and about four of them were encamped in the hall on the floor. I sat in the doorway on the floor, so I could see both the kids in the hall and the ones in my room. I was reading whatever I was reading at the time. The students knew if they had a question that I would see them and come to them, or they would just come over to where I was reading and talk quietly to me. A history teacher on conference period walked down the hall, saw my students reading in the hall, saw me reading in the doorway and said, “I wish I could just sit and read during class and do nothing.” She walked on, my students erupted, indignation flowing from them like lava roiling across Pompeii. It took me several minutes and a cooling smart-assed comment directed by me toward the history teacher to return my students to a more stable state of being. They were pissed because she assumed we were doing nothing, because they were reading silently to themselves. Reading is one of the two main purposes in my class, the other is writing. They were doing something. For some of them it was one of the hardest things they had ever done in English class: read a book.

At that point in the year, and still around the end of the first six weeks every year, a student, sometimes more than one, will end their first book talk with me by confessing that the book they had just finished was the first book they had read since middle school or the first book they had ever finished. They tell me this with pride. Not that they had managed to pull the wool over their former teacher’s eyes, but with pride that they had finished a book, and they liked it. There is something wrong with that picture. Seniors in high school, all seniors in high school, should have finished a book, and what’s more, one that they enjoyed reading. I am not blaming the students for this lack, but the way we teach reading.

It all seems so simple, in a head-slapping-duh simplicity. In order to read better one must read; it is an activity that improves with the doing. For years I have been instinctively following this guideline in my classroom without any documented research to prove what I was doing had any validity. It just made sense to me. Yet, the teacher down the hall had the same gut feeling that what she was doing was just as correct. For years I had followed the same kind of teaching. I had built elaborate units with interconnected writing assignments and projects; however, it did not seem right to me to say my students were reading when what they were doing was listening to me read to them and mechanically constructing essays that I had come up with for them to formulaically follow.

Most of the “reading” time in my class, now, is spent in Sustained Silent Reading, where the students read from self-selected texts. I have been frowned upon for wasting time in class instead of teaching. So being fairly pig-headed about most things, a few years ago, I did a bit of reading on the effects of reading silently in class from self-selected texts for a literature review for a doctoral class on the teaching of reading. I found quite a lot to show that my gut feeling was not just my nervousness about not doing what everyone else was doing down the hall. It was the right thing to do.

Bibliography for Lit Review

Armbruster, Bonnie B., Wilkinson, Ian, A.G. Silent Reading, Oral Reading, and Learning From Text, The Reading teacher vol. 45, no. 2 October 1991.

Cunningham, Ann E., and Stanovich, Keith E., What Reading Does for the Mind, American Educator, Spring/Summer 1998 pp.1-8.

Fisher, Douglas. Setting the “opportunity to read” Standard: Resuscitation the SSR program in an Urban High School, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48:2 October 2004 pp. 138-150.

Hunt, Lyman C., The Effect of Self-Selection, interest, and motivation upon independent, instructional, and Frustrational Levels, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 50, No.4 December 1996/January 1997 pp.278-282.

Parr, Judy M. and Maguiness, Colleen. Removing the silent form SSR:Voluntary reading as Social Practice, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 48:2, October 2005 pp.98-107.

McCallum, R. Steve, Sharp, Shannon, Bell, Sherry Mee, and George, Thomas. Silent Versus Oral Reading Comprehension and Efficiency, Psychology in the Schools, Vol.41 (2), 2004.

Methe, Scott A., and Hintze, John M., Evaluating Teacher Modeling as a Strategy to Increase Student Reading Behavior, School Psychology Review, 2003, volume 32, No. 4 pp. 617-623.

Olen, S.I.I., Machet, M.P Research Project to Determine the Effect of Free Voluntary Reading on Comprehension, South African Journal of Library & Information Science, 02568861, Jun97, Vol. 65, Issue 2.

Swalm, James E., A Comparison of Oral Reading, silent Reading and Listening comprehension, Education p.111-115.

Thurlow, Martha, Graden, Janet, Ysseldyke, James E., Algozzine, Robert. Student Reading During Reading Class: The Lost Activity in Reading Instruction, Journal of Educational Research, May/June 1984 (Vol. 77 (no.5) pp267-272.

(August 2011)

Taking Part in the Talk

“The most comprehensive curricular conversations occur when students discover interrelationships across all of the elements in the curriculum, so that the parallel but independent discussions of an episodic curriculum begin to echo back on one another.” (Applebee 1996, p. 77)

I love the idea of knowledge-in-action, as learning to take part in the conversation of a domain of knowledge, and ultimately in the conversations that occur across domains of knowledge. It reminded me of Heath’s (1984) ways of knowing that we all bring with us to school, or the conversation, from our cultural groups. In order to take part in the conversation of a group we must learn the discourse(s) which make up that conversation. Last night I attended a wine tasting party at a friend’s house. I have always liked wine (go ahead snicker), but have found the conversation that revolves around it to be silly and pretentious. There is a fairly stable terminology/metaphors one can use when talking about the wine. Everyone takes it very seriously, but I have often wondered why do we have to use those specific descriptions: chocolate, berry, apple, gooseberry (whatever those are). I read once that J. Mcinerneyay wrote a wine column where he described the wines he was reviewing using actresses rather than the traditional terminology. I thought at the time, why not? Yet, that idiosyncratic terminology would not allow one to become part of the larger discourse community.
In the same manner, integrating the curriculum, whether on a large scale across multiple conversational domains, or on a smaller scale within the conversational domain of a subject area, becomes a way for the student to become a part of a larger and longer ranging (in time) discourse community. This idea is similar to slowly becoming more adept personally with the discourse of doctoral language and literacy studies. When I started this two years ago, people in class were tossing words, and phrases about as if they were frisbees in the park. Much of the time I was befuddled by the language. When I went over the readings, I got it; but the conversations about the topic were obviously reaching back across other classes and other books that were not part of the required reading for that class, yet were pertinent to the discussion. I was hearing echoes of previous conversations which I was not a part. Over time I have become more comfortable in the discussions because I have learned to better take part in the conversation and to make the connections by becoming more conversant in the language of the domain.