Breathing Out Loud

Yup, I’m breathing.  Up for air from a long semester.  I’m even publicly breathing (that is to say, no I’m not doing much work on anything right now).  For two weeks (maybe a bit longer?) I’ll be both offline (traveling) and not working.

A few quick reflections on what went well this semester–

Hearing a student in class discussing language and how, although she and her mom do not speak fluent Tagalog (a language of the Phillipines, where her mom is from), they “pretend” talk in Tagalog in jibberish with the cadence and tones her grandmother used to use while talking.  I was astounded that although language could be lost in words, it wasn’t lost in feeling by the way she and her mom still claimed it at certain moments in their private interlanguage among themselves.

Getting lost in so many rabbit holes and forcing myself to come back to a main tunnel in my literature review on my probable dissertation topic.  How exciting.  It was invigorating (and nerve-wracking) to review over 350 sources (some VERY lightly) for my work.  And I’m not amazed at my initial lit review in terms of its sense-making, but I am amazed at how interested and engaged I was.  More details on the topic itself–eventually.

Teaching my class and having three students who were enrolled in the African and African American Studies component (who were not education majors but for whatever reason thought my course title sounded interesting) who have told me they now either want to become teachers and/or get advanced degrees in education because of the course.  I’m doing a bit of mentoring with them at this point.

Walking through McKinney Falls State Park and riding bikes with my husband to help keep me grounded.  I got to see another series of change of season here, as subtle as it is, alongside my partner.  We’ve had some really good talks during those outings.

Having a student come out to the class when we discussed LGBTQ issues in class and being able to support her voice about how being part of the LGBTQ community in Austin is an additive part of her identity.  I wondered about teaching this part of the course particularly when it rubbed against some students’ religious beliefs but felt encouraged by her own courage in class.

Getting more of a bird’s eye view of a few elementary schools in Austin and how they work; being able to genuinely compliment one of the principals of those schools because of her culturally responsive work in her school, from Day of the Dead altars throughout the school to invited bilingual speakers to cool field trips where kids’ identities were celebrated in a sense that did not feel like simple tokenism.

I could go on, but this should give a small sense of some moments for which I’m grateful in the semester.  Just one more full semester to go (and one or two summer courses)–and then my coursework will be finished.

Crime Scenes

This semester is over.  The grading is done.  No more student teacher evaluations.  The last paper is in.

And life, and the cessation of life, continues all around me regardless of my academic program.

A couple events that seem to have nothing to do with me have stood out in the last week of my exam period.  They rolled around the back of my mind, and now that I am no longer sprinting to finish a massive literature review, I think.

I think it was Monday, maybe Tuesday, and I walked toward the group of mailboxes in our complex.  I don’t think I was wearing my jacket–the kind of Texas weather where if the flowering bushes didn’t know any better they’d try to start blooming.  I noticed a short yellow strip of tape with words running backwards and upsidedown through it–”CRIME SCENE.”  I blocked it out for a moment.  We supposedly live on the dangerous side of town, and I was exercising my right to denial.

But probably my sense of safety prompted a quick phone call to my husband, who, without hearing anything about the crime scene remnants told me, “Apparently there was some kind of problem in unit 502 last night” (he’s on our condo association board and also on the listserv).  ”Somebody has suggested that someone was killed, but it’s probably just a rumor.”  I think I felt a tremor and then made my way back home more quickly than usual.

Later that afternoon, Rob confirmed the worst.  Someone had died.  They had done it themselves.  Suicide.

I wondered about it–for about six minutes.  I was so busy studying I couldn’t give it space.  Why should I care when someone who lives about twelve houses down the street is now gone?  Permanently?

This was just two or three days after dinner with a friend who is the lead guidance counselor at a local high school.  Though the local media showed up the day of their crime scene, somehow it remained out of the news.  A high school student had thrown herself from a high, second story stairwell railing into an atrium.  The staff members to whom she had distributed notes found her.  She survived, somehow.  He spoke about it, and I wondered about the memories of what he saw as they flashed through his head.  I could only conjure through the imagination.  Imagine.

Yesterday I found the space to say to my husband, “Maybe we should knock on the door of the home where the person, you know… uh, to say we’re sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter–no one’s in it now.”  I didn’t ask why, or how many people had lived there before, or if anyone was coming back.  I have other projects I’m working on.

Breaking a leg

No one told me to break a leg.  And I didn’t.  But I did write about legs and then perform about them.

I completed my “Meditations on Bodies” in three parts for Sandy Stone’s Blackbox class (part of the Actlab), of which I was a part.  The meditations shifted from a poem constructed of samples of Rumi, Yeats, and Whitman (who had influenced various theorists we discussed in the course–why not go to the source I figured?).  Music from Max Richter played behind me.  Then I did Meditation II–a cyborg body biography a la Eastern meditation weaving in references to experiences from the course.  I went through various body parts and shared my own reflections written in my take on cyborg style while images cycled through behind me of each body part. Here’s a stanza (picture a massive projection of an Eye of Horus behind me):

Eyes

Receptors, conveyors

Blink

Readers, waterers

Glass or plastic?

Blink

You missed it?

The self in the other’s pupil

As you are beheld,

If you peer closely.

We all wear it on our eyes.

The third meditation was an invitation to reflect on the body collective of the group present.  Several people offered words and phrases.  Finally, the music cycled off (a piece by Phillip Glass, “Metamorphosis”).  Afterwards, folks reflected on what the experience meant to them, offered questions and ideas.  I felt really good when I was finished (and even found myself enjoying the performance–here’s a shot of me, courtesy of Joseph Lopez).  I was shocked at how hard it was to a) write in Donna Haraway cyborg style (imagining how a cyborg might write and also celebrating the body of a cyborg) and b) perform my own creatively written work.

I got a lot of encouragement and support from the class, even beforehand.  One student is brilliant at selecting music for performance and film.  Another student compressed the music so it would be more even sounding and then walked me through the entire process of figuring out lighting, projection, and sound.  For someone who never took a theatre course (and never performed in dramatic performances), this was a stretch.  The teacher is also amazing–without her the course just wouldn’t be the same.  I learned I can stretch and feel beautiful, strong, and still deeply afraid.

I spent all day reading today–the concept I’m working on for my dissertation.  I made sense of a book I already read by writing some notes (the main theorist in the field wrote in a style that isn’t as straightforward as I might like).  Thanks to a friend who gave me some good advice about charting out my lit review readings–I can feel a bit more confident that I am actually making sense of the readings.  And even though I thought I was finished with the student teachers, I still had another issue to deal with–but, luckily, it appears to be resolved.

Oh, I still have a massive stack of student papers to grade for the course I teach.  Still juggling.

And one more thing–I love the music in this link which someone shared the night of the performance (click on the bottom vimeo, my favorite) by the group Phoenix.

(Ir)resolution and performance

Yesterday’s performance:  Met with a teacher who was very upset about the headbands and feathers (they were, according to him, “developmentally appropriate” and evidently approved by the school).  Wondered about power dynamics with his being male and and my somewhat liminal positioning as facilitator who is not yet Dr. Anyone and still working underneath the supervisor who is also the student teachers’ professor.  She also attended and was brilliant at facilitating.  Part of the outcome was that we agreed to disagree on the headbands and feathers.  He had another set of fears we were able to put to rest.  I have to wonder if this meeting was generative.  The supervisor (Dr. Somebody) asked us both how we felt at the end of the discussion.  He said he felt much better (and he looked authentically relieved, as if he had gotten a lot of his chest).  I said I was glad we could communicate, but I did not say entirely how I felt.  I spent a fair amount of time reiterating how much I valued his work with student teachers (true) but felt spent and worn by the experience.

A good friend got the unedited version yesterday afternoon, and I can tell you my analysis had gender dynamics at play.  Did I edit myself so as not to jeopardize the program?  Did I hold back because I wasn’t certain there was much to gain from being authentic?  Was I protecting myself from further difficulty?

Tomorrow’s performance:  Finally, I will be performing my body biographies (see earlier posts).  Despite my years of teaching, the idea of performing with a capital P scares me.  What if I forget something?  What if it’s no good?  What if people get bored?  I know this is a really good exercise, and it’s good for me to stretch.  I know those reflections are not unique to me, but a good reminder (to me, at least) about the kinds of reactions we have to new experiences.  Also, everyone else is performing or sharing something they made, and it will be rich.

I turned in a reflective paper today about ethnographic fieldwork–my experiences with it and locating myself and my insights within theory from the field.  It’s not a typical academic piece, and maybe that’s why I like it.  I know–too much reflexivity can amount to navel gazing.  Still working on a literature review for a paper due next week.  Not sure how much the papers feel like performance and how much they feel like work in a way that is constructive; no doubt they are also performances in some ways (I just don’t think of them that way).

Disconnections

The  headbands and feathers as curriculum about Native Americans drama continues–suffice it to say the principal (she’s actually called CEO, reflective of our turn toward privatizing education in the U.S.) at the elementary school is now involved.  That’s about all I can say; I’ve entered the political waters of not being able to bring this out publicly.  More silences.  But if you’d like some good information about why the use of headbands and feathers as curriculum is a bad idea, try this article from the journal Equity & Excellence, or a website specifically about teaching about Native Americans (with a specific section about why not to use headbands and feathers).

Speaking of privatizing–a small victory.  The federal government has decided charter schools (run by private entities, not the government) will play a smaller role in helping turn around failing schools.  This is good news to me because I believe democracies need to have schools which are not run by private companies.  That’s not to say I hate charters, but the increasing phenomenon of privatization makes me nervous about our notions of the public good.  The disconnect here is I have so little say about the process regarding the massive stimulus package being offered by the federal government, the largest in many years.  How is it I am a PhD student and have so little to say about something so important?

A final disconnection, but a good one–I had my final evaluation meeting with one student teacher and her cooperating teacher today.  It was inspiring to see the way these teachers worked together and to join in the generative work they did with students.  It was validating to be thanked by the cooperating teacher for the feedback I provided her student teacher and how much she enjoyed working with me.  I’m kind of sad about having to stop the work, but the student teacher is ready to fly.

Unglamorous complications

Dinner with a former student from China (who I taught in China and is currently in the business school here at UT for a semester from her master’s program in Switzerland).  ”So do teachers make much money in the US?”  Well, no.  ”But professors make good money, right?”  Well, if you’re in the law school, or the business school, or the “hard” sciences.  Me:  ”Your profs have great suits, right?”  Former student:  ”Yeah, they are all pressed and have those, what do you call them?”  Cuff links.  I gesture at my given-as-a-gift-seven-years-ago sweater and jeans–”I can teach in this.”

I can teach in it now as an assistant instructor (assistant? but that’s the title despite my designing, teaching, grading etc.).  I’m not complaining as much as fretting over when and if I can even get a job when I finish this program.  But these practical concerns aren’t what’s driving the next sip of the beverage beside me (though they’re always lurking).

It’s the feathers and the headbands I mentioned last post.  No one in critical pedagogy seems to think it’s good, least of all Native Americans.  But I am in a dogfight that has turned into emails written by the cooperating teacher, CCing the elementary school principal (and others), over my position on this.  It has turned into, “my social justice is as valid as yours.”  And it’s utterly complicated.  And not cute or nice and doesn’t feel (Elizabeth Ellsworth) a damn bit empowering to be on this end.

See, I like the teacher who sent the latest email.  I do think he has a mind for social justice.  I don’t think I’ve cornered the market on what’s right.  It’s not about good vs. evil, bad guys vs. good guys (cowboys and Indians, if you will).  Can’t I just have a cup of coffee with him instead?  Can’t we have our own version of Thanksgiving?  Instead I fear I have two student teachers who may now be dismissive of all this semester’s feedback.  I fear I’m creating a pushback against the wacky language of critical pedagogy.  What if I’m alienating them from the language of social justice as I know it?  And how can I know?  Yes, I have talked with them face-to-face, emailed them, tried to sort it out.  It’s more complicated than this, but who has the patience on a blog anyway?

The supervising professor of the student tells me from her conference in California [because this is WHAT academics do--we go to conferences], “You have to be the adult in the room on this.”   Not so glamorous.  Complicated.

All eyes, all hands

I was at McKinney Falls State Park this weekend and desperately looking for signs of change of color in the leaves–anything that resembled a change of season beyond a drop in temperature.

Taking my bike with the 25 mph chilly gusts to the elementary school inspires today’s post.  Abundant sunshine, air, and the mess I see.

The mess being teaching about Native Americans.  Walking into a classroom to observe a teacher and seeing all the children with stereotypical looking headbands complete with feathers.  Ummm… I realize I haven’t seen the logic of the entire unit plan, but, ouch.  And that student teacher is good, but we’re going to talk.  On the upshot, she was doing an interesting and engaging writing activity on legends, using models they had read together. The other upshot–she listens.

Part of the mess includes moments of beauty.  One of the students said to me, “Don’t you wish we had school on the weekend?”  I smiled down at her as she held the door for me and asked why, “Because I just love school!”  Turns out she loves to read–fairy tales.  Second grader.

I write in gratitude, too.  Two good folks at George Mason have emailed me today with groovy requests to collaborate on projects I can’t turn down (one of which is already in motion but had stalled a bit).  How do you thank the universe for good energy with people you like to work with (and miss)?

An update on my project (previous post)–I’ll be doing a meditation on a cyborg body biography (a nod to our class discussion on Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto).  A hybrid of sampling from great poets, my own poetry of the cyborg body, and a concluding moment as yet undetermined.  I’ll use some images of the body I’ve found on the Internet.  Unless it changes.  I leave you with a line from my sampling: “My face became all eyes, and my eyes all hands.”

Silence and Speaking

My silence about my program here is because I feel I have to be silent.  There are too many things I can’t say.  It’s like a novel without an ending, or a deeply unsatisfying one whose characters leave the reader with ambivalence.

But this doesn’t mean I can’t speak about other issues.  So, for anyone subscribing who will see this update, here goes.

I hold two jobs currently, in addition to being a student.  I work as a facilitator of student teachers in an “urban” education program.  I was frustrated at first by the work, disgusted by one too many “Criss cross applesauces” and “One, two, three, eyes on me.”  But now that Harry Wong’s first days of school (which, by the way, last about six weeks as far as I can tell but don’t stop the book from being sold in the millions) are over, more learning takes place.  I like working with student teachers; I like the challenge of trying to apply what I learn to real teaching.  ”So, Judy, do you think you should have a picture of a stereotypical ‘Indian’ on your alphabet chart for the letter I?  Maybe for W we could put a picture of an obese white person eating a Big Mac?” (Yes, for real, and I said it lovingly.)  We could start there.  Or we could go a bit more general and talk about the need to provide challenging and engaging work, and we do, almost every time we talk after I observe their teaching. I work with a great lead professor who I learn from every time I’m around her, and the students in the program are great in unique ways–I just wish they could teach in a better system.

I teach a course–sociocultural influences on learning for undergrads.  It’s not over yet, and I’m afraid to ruin something that feels pretty rewarding by blathering here.  I was surprised to learn from a future student last weekend that she will be in my class in the spring–I was trying to talk her into taking my section, as she mentioned being registered for one of them.  It’s crosslisted again as an African and African American Studies course (which I only learned from her as we pieced together that she’s actually in my course anyway).

A class I’m currently taking is an Actlab course, and right now I find it a bit frightening.  I’m supposed to make something based on the semester’s course.  This is a course outside my program of study with a professor I admire and hope to in some ways emulate.   An idea I’m kicking around is something she said–that when we teach we should be doing poetry–no, not spontaneous freeverse per se, but rather inspired, in-the-moment work.  I’m thinking about a group constructed poem after one of my own and/or reading my own and/or at least a text rendering based on poets who have emerged through my readings related to her course (Rumi, Yeats, Whitman).  Then I think of all these things I’ve lived and cared about and want to integrate them (sea turtles, bike rides, elbowed stomachs in basketball, the people who have taught me to cook, so many things), as my coursework otherwise tends to eclipse the rest of me.  But then I don’t know how that fits the scope of the project, and I find myself with this one opportunity to be expressive and at the same time a little panicked. Sandy (the prof) bases here courses on the hero’s journey (Campbell).  What courage would I have?

Some of My Process as Student

There are sometimes mundane aspects of being a student which are so common but often undiscussed.  Here I’ll illuminate a few of those.

Reading: I know I mention it a lot.  But each week I print off several pages of readings when I am not reading actual books.  Sometimes the stack for one week is so large it seems as large as a semester’s coursework of reading.  Sometimes I am intimidated by that stack of white paper (I’ve already reconciled myself to the damage to the planet I’m doing).  I want to hide under the bed, pretend it’ll go away.  But I read it somehow.  My highlighter flashes in the margins of text.  I try to do all my reading–mostly because in many ways I like the text (even if I don’t like the style or some of the arguments).

Class discussion:  Here’s where I get really earnest.  I can’t help myself from caring a lot about the discussion.  I bring questions about the readings.  I get really animated.  Sometimes I feel like nothing is more important than working through an idea with my colleagues.  I don’t like it when class is cancelled (even though I’m relieved to have a break).  I want those opportunities to talk with co-learners.  I realize that after this program, I won’t likely be in those spaces again as co-learner on a semester system.

Paper writing: My experiences in the Writing Project helped me hone skills in writing thoughtful reflections to texts (and some professors ask for these kinds of short, 2 to 3 page papers frequently).  I feel good when I write them, like I’m improvising jazz (if only!).  I do not ever feel good when writing long papers with academic citations.  Then I feel afraid, worried, and often stuck.  The prose goes from fiery to wonky; my spirit feels slightly deadened by the process.  I fear my work isn’t good enough (whatever the standard is, argh), I worry I’m not really making a contribution to anything.  I like synthesizing ideas; I’m either lacking the confidence or buy-in to enjoy the process of academic writing.  I suspect few people really enjoy the genre.  Ideally I hope to marry some of my writing skills with the genre of academic writing so that I can survive the process and eventually like it.  I’m wondering who to use as models…  I’m reading some great ethnographic work as a start.

Spring

A couple good folks asked recently for an update.  Thank you for coming back, reader.

The middle school where I run an advisory program is so engrossed in test preparations (you know, US “gotcha” testing based on business models of accountability) that I was directed to write my advisory lesson plans to help students prep additionally.  That is, when there still is advisory when the school isn’t shut down in “testing camp” as preparation.  The school, like the majority of schools in Texas, spends at least three months a year in test-prep mode (if not the whole year–ask the teachers).  Here’s the upshot, today’sAustin Statesman says schools that do well choose to release their students TEN DAYS EARLY!  Yup, instruction becomes so invaluable after all the testing is through, why not?  

I miss the Korean teachers I worked with in January and February.  They helped me understand why I care about education when I taught them what education is in the U.S. (as well as a neat course on writing instruction for language learners).  Lots of heart, lots of passion in those teachers.  I do not miss feeling crazy as I tried to juggle my various jobs and fulltime student life.

Official student life: I read about a book a week for each course I’m taking.  All courses are directly in my field, taught by professors in my small program.  I feel I am getting stronger in my theoretical orientation–and, if you’re curious, some of that includes the works of Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx, Anzaldua, Freire, Gramsci, Dorothy Holland, Vygotksy, Bakhtin, G.H. Mead, and Voloshinov.  

Big point of anxiety–what will I research?  This question is always mediated by wanting to address a need in the field of education (and social science).  I kick around ideas all the time, from students from West Virginia who migrate out, to whiteness studies and white supremacy, to colleagues who experienced (like I did) an amazing grassroots organization while we collaborated in community development as college students in Guadalajara, Mexico, to immigration and how to help support immigrant students and their communities through education.

Personal life–today’s economy.  Since I last posted, my husband lost his job (the entire division is being shut down) and got a new one.  In the process, we wondered about returning to Washington, D.C. where I could finish my former PhD program and where he could take his old job back.  I decided I wanted to finish this program, regardless of the personal cost.  We were fortunate, and he got a new job here, so we get to stay in the same place together (at least for now).

Chiquis–my dog.  My affectionate friend survived a crazy bout with cancer and an experimental treatment.  And then last week I noticed the tumor was back.  We’ve been to the vet, and the scenarios are not good.  As far as we can tell, we will be saying goodbye to her soon (perhaps weeks, perhaps months).  While I want to be in control and change this, I cannot.  I have to surrender to that.

Finishing out my break–after celebrating my birthday (three days off–hey, it IS break)–back to work.  Reading ahead for my classes so I can manage the conference I’ll be presenting at in Denver next week.  I’m presenting on “The Unexamined Privilege of Whiteness in TESOL” and “Helping Immigrant Students Navigate the Terrain of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment.”  I’ll have assistance from awesome former colleagues at George Mason University.