In Abstraction

where we wander
whether through wood or city street
the words call us to task
the very path
the way we walk
the slant of the sun we watch

the air thickens – – we breathe out
as we speak – -the world widens

so talk to me see what we can see
I’m willing to change my speech

action beyond mere acceptance

Rereading the Texts in Our Lives; Our lives as Texts

‘People have no idea what reality is like. Or they’re in their own safe reality.” (Alvermann 2006, p. 23) The problem is that there is no real reality. “Myth exists, but one mus tguard against thinkingthat people believe in it: this is the trap of critical thinking that can only be exercised if it presupposes the naivete and stupidity of the masses” (Baudrillard 1994, p. 81). We are all functioning in our “own safe reality.” Even if that safe reality is tainted by cynicism or blind optimism. The touchstone texts these two young people have inculcated into their being play out in both of their adult lives. Simply because one has started to see a text differently than before, does not mean one has any more a sophisticated understanding of the text. It still falls into the turmoil of hermenutical interpretation. If we are written as texts by cultural texts, we are also writing ourselves inside/into the cultural texts. In the Holland et al. text referenced in the introduction, one chapter discusses how people who join Alcoholics Anonymous, adjust the story they tell over time to more fully fit the model of “the story” of the others in AA (specifically the “Book” of the founder). This phenomenon is reflected in the stories El and David tell about themselves. Their stories contain common tropes for the kind of lives they have begun writing for themselves. I am reminded of the Piagetian “Identity v. role diffusion,” where adolescents try on different roles provided by the adult world as they search for their own identity. Identity formation never ends, yet somewhere in the ever changing dance, I believe, there is a core (soul perhaps?) where all the parts we construct rotate. The writing/reading/revisioning/rereading all take part in a ongoing never ending recurssive simultaneous pulse that is us.

52. Checking the Map

And yet here I am:
not much farther than
where I was when I left:
only the distance was great.
It’s never an easy matter
to stand still, listening close.

from My Book of Changes (December 11, 1995)

Thinking about the Turmoil

Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap, while a useful book, brings up the question I had when I read Ladson-Billings’ The Dream Keeper. How is this just not good pedagogy? (Yes, I am aware of Ladson-Billings’ article that counters this question). Is it simply an awareness of the cultural differences in your classroom that makes the difference in the pedagogy? But shouldn’t a teacher be aware of where their students are coming from, the abilities they bring with them, as well as the culture (ways with words, ways of knowing) that determine how they react to the culture of the school? I know that too often the one method for all the students does little to serve any of the students. Also too often teachers who claim they teach all students the same, mean they teach all the students as if they are middle-class and white. Tatum drives home his point through the constant repetition of respecting the student, allowing them to learn to make meaning of a text, as opposed to telling the student what the text means; teaching them how to make meaning, as opposed to decontextualized “skills;” as well as finding ways to make what occurs in the classroom culturally relevant. I agree with all of these, yet I still have a hard time seeing how these are not just things teachers should do with all of the students. Yes, the crisis that exists with African-American males makes it imperative that teacher’s focus on them. I wonder however if we could have a larger effect if we could reconceptualize the way literacy is taught across the board. If we would stop the decontextualization of reading skills, and the constant testing of irrelevant disconnected texts, and focus on how to make meaning out of language/sign systems then we will be a lot closer to helping all of our students be literate in ways that will help them do more than survive in our world.

Babbling After Beers

“The less we depend on programs the more we depend on our own knowledge – -informed by practice and research- – the less likely we are to be controlled by politically driven mandates, expensive programs that appear and disappear from our classrooms without rhyme or reason, and federally funded (or not funded) programs.” (Beers p.37)

I like Beers’ focus on the differences between independent readers vs. dependent readers. What a concept: look at what good readers do, and then coming up with ways to teach dependent readers how to do what good readers do. Explicit instruction on specific techniques, which over time should become more automatic as the dependent readers practice doing what we are asking them to do. Read. Sometimes I wonder about my constant, albeit brief, babbles as I move about the classroom concerning the how and why of reading and writing. I am constantly telling stories, in which I try to embed what it is I do, or someone else does when they read or write. I want them to think about the process, to think about their thinking when it comes to reading and writing, while at the same time not belaboring the process nor breaking it down to such minutia that they forget about the big picture (reading) by becoming lost in the details of the craft. Yes, reading like writing is a craft. There are so many students at so many different levels. I constantly tell them, one is never finished with becoming a better reader. One of the problems I have now with my own reading is that seemingly benign sentences will send me off on tangental strands of thought (not that they are not connected, because ultimately I come back to the text and the text is made richer by the connections I am making, ala Rosenblatt); this tends, however, to cloud (trouble/interrupt?) the meaning I make of the text in my hands.

“I’m going to propose that each time a reader rereads, she revises her understanding of the text. The first read of a story, a chapter, a poem a novel, a web page, a letter – -any sort of text- – yields the first draft of understanding. Readers revise that draft through every rereading.” (Beers p. 118).

An easy example of this was when my own children were small and I would read and reread books to them nightly. I barely had to pay attention to the text after awhile, which was a good thing considering that sometimes “The Cat in the Hat” would cast a spell upon me, sending my thoughts all over the place from Joseph Campbell to people who protest certain books because of what they read into the text. It was not just me thinking about stuff I was interested in, but the Dr.Suess book that would send me to a deeper understanding of what I was thinking about. This also makes me wonder about the teachers who argue against letting the students read free choice books, because they are afraid the students will not select “difficult enough” books. In my experience students move on to “more difficult” books when they are ready to move on. Sometimes it takes a little prodding, but never very much. They get bored with the formula writer’s (all writers) use to put their texts together. Over time I noticed that I will go through periods where I read a lot of one writer: twenty years ago Faulkner and Hemingway, as a child everything by Robert Heinlein or Roger Zelazney, more recently Jim Harrison, Sherry Tepper, and Dashiel Hammet. What always happens is that I will suddenly stop, usually after I have identified common themes, tropes and plot devices. As a teacher, being there ready to make the next suggestion, kind of like Amazon’s “other books purchased by those who bought this book” suggestions, will send a student off in another direction. Even if it is only a matter of a shift of one or two degrees, in the long run it will make a difference.


I impose all of me
the oblivious and the obvious
I mean nothing
but what I say
and what I say
without me as well
congruence is reflection
flipped to gain parallax

Depending where I am in the field
different flowers burst into bloom.

from Fragments of Water
(April 2006)

Nothing to do with class at all.

Pushing through Push

I finished “Push” by Saphire last night., a sad horrible good book. My emotions were played like a piano. I remember as a child wondering about my dad crying at sappy movies; now I just wonder how I can be so much like him when he died when I was seventeen. Of course this thought makes me think of Precious in Push overcoming her wretched parents: is that possible considering how abusive and destructive they were to her. I know the redemtive ending is heartwarming and all, but is it really a reality? Can literacy and a few caring people really become so transformative? It would be nice to think so. Rosenblatt seemed to think that reading could change the world; while I agree that literacy can be life changing/affirming, I am not sure it can save someone so quickly who had been crushed down so completely. I did enjoy the contrast between the positivist therapist using the test score data to catergorize and marginalize Precious, as oppossed to Rain Blue focusing on the individuals in her class and the power of the word. Made me happy, after reading a memo from central office about a workshop on how to teach the students to write higher scoring short answer questions. One final comment for this entry. When I mentioned to one of my students that I read “Push” last night, she got excited and wanted to talk about it. She had read it over the summer, and has been loaning it out to friends since then. She was surprised that I had read it for a “college’ class; that seemed to legitimize the book in a “school” way to her.

Quotes and Notes: "The Reader, The Text, The Poem"

“The reader draws on his own internalized culture in order to elicit form the text this world which may differ from his own in many respect. Moreover, the text may yield glimpses of the personality and codes of the author. The literary transaction may thus embody, and probably to some degree always embodies, an interplay between at least two sets of codes, two sets of values. Even when author and reader share the same culture – – – that is, when they live in the same social group at the same time and the text directly reflects that culture, their uniqueness as individual human beings would insure this interplay” (Rosenblatt 1978, p. 56).

Meaning happens in a space between the text, the author and the reader, kind of like Bhabha’s ‘third space.’ The space created by what the author brought to the text, the text as object in a specific time and place, and the unique vision and experience of the reader come together in a new experience of the text.

“. . .during the reading the reader keeps alive what he has already elicited from the text. At any point, he b rings a state of mind, a penumbra of ‘memories’ of what has preceded, ready to be activated by what follows, and providing the context from which further meaning will be derived” (Rosenblatt 1978, p.57).

The process of reading itself , even when staying within the text for prior knowledge, reflects the overall process of living and making meaning of the world. We are constantly reevaluating our thinking based upon the interplay of the past, present and future. We are making it up as we go, by ourselves and with others.

“What each reader makes of the text is, indeed, for him, the poem, in the sense that this is his only direct perception of it. No one else can read it for him. He may learn indirectly about other’s experiences with the text; he may come to see that his own was confused or impoverished, and he may then be stimulated to attempt to call forth from the text a better poem. But this he must do himself, and only what he himself experiences in relation to the text is – – again let us underline – – for him, the work (Rosenblatt 1978, p. 105).

It is the constant reevaluation of experience, brought about by the text, one’s response to the text and the response of others to the text and to the reader’s response, which causes a reader to evoke deeper and different meanings from the text. Yet even with this seemingly social construct of the text occurring the ultimate meaning a reader takes from a text belongs solely to him, even if the reader parrots back the response of another, it is still an interpretation the reader has presented as his own, and he takes what he wills from this interpretation, understanding it on his own.

“In contrast to Saussure’s , Peirce’s formulation is triadic: ‘A sign is in conjoint relation to the thing denoted and to the mind . . . . The sign is related to its object only in consequence of a mental association, and depends on habit’ (3.360). Since Peirce evidently did not want to reinforce the notion that ‘mind’ was an entity, he typically phrased the conjoint linkage as among sign, object, and ‘interpretant,’ which should be understood as an aspect of a triadic mental operation(Rosenblatt 1978, p. 182).

My first class in my Master’s program taught by Courtney Cazden, was called “Forms of thinking, speaking, and writing.” Over the course of that summer I came to an understanding that these three aspects of language were simultaneously influencing and shaping each other in the creation of a text. I imagined a spinning triad where one part of the triangle never became predominate over the others. I see the same interplay between reader, text, and author that Rosenblatt describes.

Inquisition, or Look at Me When I Talk to You

What do I think do you think? This is a poem. It means what it says. It doesn’t mean what it says. What do I think I mean do you think you mean? Is the word a key or a lock? Is there meaning in silence? Is the word the meaning? Is there meaning? Is a rock a rock when it’s a word? If you kick that rock is it there? Does space between words mean anything do you think? Is a shape a cow because we call it a cow? I mean do you think that A equals B like B equals A because A and B mean the same I think? What do I mean you mean I think? Do you think there are spaces between words when we speak? I mean do we speak the same language when we write do you think? I mean what I say. I mean what I don’t say. What is the mean do you mean I think? Is meaning an average between silence and sound? Do questions have meaning like statements I mean? Are all the words included when we mean what we say? What can be said? What can be unsaid? I mean my cat sniffs my finger when I point to her food. What do you think she thinks I mean? What do you think I mean? I don’t understand the meaning of what you think I think I mean. I think I mean do you think? Yes or No? But only if you mean it.

(Summer 1990)

Rosenblatt Redux

“One of the banes of educational systems today is the pressure on the teacher to work out neat outlines of the ideas about literature that his students are to acquire. Once such a plan is made, there is a great temptation to impose it arbitrarily. The teacher becomes impatient of the the trial-and-error groping of the students. It seems so much easier all around if the teacher cuts the Gordian knot and gives the students the tidy set of conclusions and labels he has worked out. Yet this does not necessarily give them new insights. Hence the emphasis throughout this book on the teacher’s role in initiating and guiding a process of inductive learning” (Rosenblatt 1995, p. 232).

It is easier to simply tell the students what I think. It is harder to listen to what the students are saying about the text and help them make the connections go a bit further. It is tempting to make their statements, force their statements, into forms which I saw before they started to talk about the text. I have discovered (originally through teaching “Twelfth Night” using performance) that if I allow the students to learn the text with me, rather than from me, then I will come to a better understanding of the text: a social construction if you will. Thereby we both gain in the extension of our knowledge about and around a text. Last Monday I suggested to my UTeach student that she watch what I did in second period, then make an attempt on her own during third. Yes, kind of a sink or swim method, but I provided lots of water wings, and I was there if she started to drown. What was interesting, and what relates to the quote from Rosenblatt, was rather than listen to what the students were saying, and letting/allowing them to go where their conversation about the poem led them, she tried to force them down the same path my second period students travelled. Not to say that my second period did not discover something about the poem, but third period were finding something else out. And that is hard to do; I think, like all humans, we get trapped by the first thought we have about something. We tend not to look for alternatives: why should we, we have an answer that works, which is why I think we are so easily trapped by our tacit ideologies. It is easier not to think. “The first man to see an illusion by which men have flourished for decades surely stands in a lonely place,” wrote Gary Zukav according to my daily quote calender a few days ago.