1. What words of advice would you give a teacher who is struggling to incorporate reflective writing practices into his or her pedagogy?
Recognize that aesthetics is at the heart of teaching—strive for beauty and something pleasing and lovely in your work—and remember that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic. Anesthetics put us to sleep, but an educated person is always striving to open her eyes, to pay attention, to see more clearly from wider and different angles of regard. Wake up! Get moving! Nourish the imaginative and the weird and the queer! This is a call to ourselves no less than to our students. Art often hurts, is unruly and refuses to be domesticated, but art also urges voyages.
2. How would you direct your class to learn the fundamentals of writing while helping them better connect to the culture they live in?
Everyone has to “learn the fundamentals” in light of something, or while engaged in something, so why not in larger concentric circles of culture, society, experience, personal observation, politics? Classrooms should always ask in one way or another: What’s your story? How is it like or unlike the stories of other people here and elsewhere? How did you get here? Where are you headed? What are your choices?
Here are a couple I use a lot to get the juices flowing: What’s the story of your birth? How do you know? How’d you get your first name? What are three nicknames you might consider for yourself? Have you ever been wrongly accused? What are three things you MUST do before you die?
So begin class: Write for 10 minutes and finish this thought: “People always ask me…” After 10 minutes, ask them to read aloud. Your mind will be blown. Then collect the papers and give a second prompt: I can’t believe I did it, but I guess I did…While they work on the second, go from person to person, teaching the fundamentals: spelling, grammar, usage. I also like homework assignments that are simple lists: everything you saw in the last 24 hours that was red; a collection of things observed on the sidewalk outside school; all the ingredients in dinner last night.
3. What are good writing challenges/assignments that will help the student enjoy Discovery and Surprise?
Discovering things is inherently enjoyable—watch a baby or a toddler, anyone under six who has not yet been schooled, and witness both their internal desire to discover, to explore, to ask queer questions of the cosmos, and the deep satisfaction that accompanies making connections, proving hypotheses, reaching contingent conclusions. So you don’t have to labor hard; simply create a classroom environment and challenges/assignments that reflect what was learned by watching babies and toddlers.
We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue answers wherever they might take them.
Good classrooms are rich with materials to explore, opportunities to leap into learning, and provocations to think more deeply. Because I’m a freak for comics (and just wrote my first graphic novel), I want you to embrace graphics in writing, and across the curriculum. (By the way, looking at the finished product, a comic book about teaching seems somehow just right to me now—the intimacy of classrooms, the aesthetic and the feel of being an educator, the challenge and the joy, the pain and the promise—all of it tough to describe, and represented here with a distinct immediacy. It’s a pathway into the ineffable, relying neither on words nor images, and not mashing pictures onto words, but a third thing altogether with its own opportunities and demands—words and images working together in a dance of representation and meaning).
Graphic novels are now a normal part of the wildly diverse, wacky, and rich gumbo of our culture. If you were teaching a history class today on the Holocaust in Europe, you would mobilize memoir (Ann Frank, Elie Weisel) essay (Hannah Arendt, Thodore Adorno), and film (Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity) to help students get a deep and meaningful, nuanced and complex picture of the entire sweep of the times and events. To leave out Maus would be to banish a fresh and intimate work that adds immeasurably to our overall understanding of the Holocaust.
Dykes to Watch out For is an essential text if you hope to understand the Clinton/Bush years. On and on and on: teachers integrate poetry and literature, art and science, film and painting into everything they teach, as they should. So why not comics?
I teach a writing class on memoir, and I use the graphics Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Epileptic along with more traditional offerings like Homage to Catalonia and Black Boy. Students respond variously, but I would be irresponsibly narrowing their horizons if I left out the comic books.
Plus, the comics world might give teaching a new breath of life—wouldn’t it be cool if a zillion artists and marginalized bodies flocked to our classrooms to lend a hand?
4. Do you think a teacher’s reflections, or, perhaps, his or her ability to successfully teach all students, is enhanced and strengthened when students are invited to participate in the process? If so, have you tried to incorporate this sort of collaboration in your classrooms?
Everything is better/fuller/deeper/more authentic if students are in it from the start. The work of teaching—planning, organizing, setting up, cleaning up—should not be invisible to the kids. Quick example: A teacher sees the possibility of getting $500 from a local foundation if she submits a two-page proposal for a curricular project; she proposes to paint a huge map of the county on the playground blacktop, gets the grant, and one weekend she and her partner and friends get the supplies, paint the map, and dazzle the students until the novelty wears off. Another teacher starts from a different place: she says to the kids one Monday, “I saw this announcement in a teacher paper for a $500 grant…” The kids spend days brain-storming, calculating, writing a proposal, and executing the work. They are active, not passive, co-creators and colleagues not quiet recipients. Whenever my teaching feels to me like it’s not what it should be, or the class is heading south, I pause and say, “Something isn’t working for me here…Let’s spend some time talking about where the class is headed and where you want it to go…” Or I have an evaluation form that flips the script: What have I (student) done to make this class work well? What is one thing I’ve learned that I will carry with me, and what have I taught others? What do I want Bill to do next to contribute to our learning? It sounds scary, but it is essential.
5. Do students do enough creative writing exercises in school from your point of view, or are their assignment formulated, dull, boring, and geared towards standardized tests?
Not enough, not nearly enough; and, yes, boring, dull, clichéd, etcetera…
6. Could you elaborate more on how teachers can teach in an alternative way as an ‘Act of Resistance?’
I’d never really considered teaching until it snuck up on me, and captured me when I wasn’t paying attention. I was 20 years old in 1965, living in Ann Arbor, and returning to the University of Michigan from a stint in the Merchant Marines. The US invasion of Viet Nam was escalating, and in October, in the midst of growing conflict and protest, I was one of 39 students who sat-in and disrupted the local Selective Service office. I was jailed for 10 days, and there I met a fellow anti-war activist who was involved in a small freedom school affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement. I walked out of jail and into my first teaching position and everything—the kids, the sounds and smells, the energy and the rhythm—felt somehow just right to me. From that day until this I’ve been a teacher, a peace activist, a trouble-maker, an artist-in-residence, and a work-in-progress, and teaching has been linked in my mind to the long and never-ending struggle to create a more peaceful, just, and balanced world.
There is no recipe for resistance, but there are some simple (simple to say if not to do) steps one can take to stay alive: 1) Make a list of your commitments to your students today (I will never treat them like objects; I will never undermine their integrity), and put it on your mirror and try to live up to it every day, especially after failing to fully live up to it yesterday; 2) Creative insubordination (cut the wires to the PA); 3) Ask forgiveness not permission (Oh, I didn’t realize I needed that form); 4) Befriend the custodian; 5) Take the side of the child; 6) Get to know the parents outside of school (bar-b-q, book club); 7)Make friends in the community; 8) Find allies among the teachers, and create a teacher-talk group; 9) Tell the truth as you see it, but always with the goal of communicating and convincing (as opposed to having a goal of feeling self-righteously superior); 10) Have a sense of humor, doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism, especially about yourself.
I try to resist bureaucracy and mindlessness, powerlessness and despair, and sometimes I am slapped down and sometimes praised. I’m never sure in advance which will come or when or why. I was on the organizing committee for a faculty union recently, and took a lot of abuse from the administration; I was advised against being involved in school reform in the early 90’s and then got praise and promotion because of my involvement. Since I can’t predict with certainty what will happen, I think the best course of action is to do the very best job you can of being fully you, doing what you do.
7. In ‘Seeing the Student’ you mentioned that ‘developmental theory’ was used to speed kids up through the stages of development. What happens to kids when the institution tries to speed them up? How does this affect their morale or performance?
I think I said that it could be employed as speed-up, just as high-stakes testing spawns test-prep tutors. But the important point is that human beings take time to grow, time to reflect, wonder, imagine, pretend, rest, be bored, and a lot else. In our fast-moving, OCD, ADHD world, too many adults and institutions consider childhood a messy and unfortunate problem to be overcome. Out come the drugs and more.
8. You wrote in the Introduction of ‘To Teach’ that teachers should not be mechanical cogs in an impersonal system but ethical actors with a large degree of flexibility in order to support the growth of the children. Since you first started teaching until now, have teachers become more like cogs in a machine or ethical actors there to support the development of children?
My brother Rick with whom I wrote Teaching the Taboo describes coming to terms with a fact of life: I’m an agent of the state, he says, and an agitator and inciter—both. I have to live within, not run away from, that contradiction.
And it’s always been so. I have no nostalgia for a golden age when teachers were moral actors, or the path to excellent and engaged teaching was paved with rose petals. When I say we should not be mechanical cogs, I’m urging us to recognize and embrace that contradiction, live within it, and find ways to organize, link up with our natural allies (parents and students and colleagues and community folks) and fight back! This involves in the first place changing the frame of the discussion. I hope that people might see that teaching at its best is profoundly intellectual and ethical work, filled with joy and challenge, agony punctuated with moments of ecstasy, and certainly that all the ideas of teaching as clerking are not only reductive and morally repulsive, but they are also aesthetically unappealing and unlovely, entirely unworthy of our deepest humanistic dreams.
Education in a democracy must be distinct from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy, but how? Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matters, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other. What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal, the belief that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all. Education is where we decide whether we love the world enough to invite young people in as full participants and constructors and creators; and whether we love our children enough to give them the tools not only to participate but to change all that they find before them. Democracy, after all, is geared toward participation and engagement, and it’s based on a common faith: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights, each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. We focus our efforts, not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in public life. Democratic teaching encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy is characteristically eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world. How do our schools here and now measure up to the democratic ideal? Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run. Educators, students, and citizens might press now for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, qualified and generously compensated teachers.
The noisy proponents of market competition in public education have managed to push their ideas onto the agenda by the force of their wealth, certainly not because of any moral persuasion, or even the results that their schemes have produced. But the project continues, because it is faith-based and fact-free. We need to challenge the freight train with evidence and argument and a vision consistent with our deepest democratic dreams.
In a school focused on the needs and dreams of the broad community, we would be inspired by fundamental principles of democracy, including a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being. We would rally around the idea that the full development of each is the condition for the fullest development of all, and conversely that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each. One implication of this principle is that in a truly democratic spirit, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their kids—that is exactly what we as a community want for all of our children.
Imagine a school or a classroom where asking, framing, and pursuing their own questions becomes the central work of both teachers and students; where the question of what is worthwhile to know and experience is taken up as a living challenge to focus all student activity; where we would practice participatory democracy; where all the themes, implicit and explicit, are built on a foundational idea that we are swirling through a living history, that nothing is guaranteed or foreordained, that we are, each and all of us, works-in-progress swimming shakily toward an uncertain and distant shore; and where every day we act out the belief that the classroom, far from being a preparation for life, is indeed life itself. Building community and trust and traditions and engagement would then become central lessons of a successful school.
Let me conclude with a word about Hal Adams, a mentor and moral guide to me and many others, who was a modest man teaching literacy in the cracks of our far-flung society. Years ago he founded the legendary Journal of Ordinary Thought, (as well as The Neighborhood Writing Alliance I believe) which included five words in small discreet print in the front of each issue: “Every Person is a Philosopher.” The intention of that signature line, he explained, was for readers to grasp the idea that the poor, oppressed, marginalized people who published their work here could be considered organic intellectuals or philosophers, an expression he borrowed from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who emphasized that the class that dominated society did so by maintaining ideological control as much as through brute force. In order to become free, people would need to overcome their belief that it’s natural for a ruling elite to dominate and a political class to rule, and to overcome, as well, the idea that the road to fulfillment or happiness is to become a wealthy, successful member of the unjust and stratified society we all take as normal and natural. For Hal “Every Person is a Philosopher” meant that the extraordinary ordinary people are those who are capable of fundamentally changing the world.
Hal was concerned about the transformation of that signature phrase from a revolutionary challenge to a marketing tool announcing that everybody has the capacity to become more worthy. It worried him that Gramsci was being made to sound like the irritating “mission statement” of the Gates Foundation, read every morning on NPR, announcing their belief that every person should have a chance to lead a full and productive life—not the right to actually lead that life, but merely a chance at it, and a diminishing one at that. There’s a big difference between those who envision a philanthropic society where the people of property and privilege share some of their largess with the less fortunate through a small group that rules as a kind of Lady Bountiful with beneficent kindness and fairness, and those, like Hal Adams who worked toward the creation of a robust public square, a commons characterized by shared ownership of community property, as well as a society built on an the unshakable faith in a quite radical proposition: every human being is of incalculable value, each endowed with artistic and intellectual capacity. We envision, then, a society that is actually self-governing, with a revolving leadership of organic philosophers: a fair society and a beloved community.
TWO FURTHER QUESTIONS for REFLECTION:
1). How do we work within the contradictions as we re-frame the issues shaping the educational debates today, neither collapsing in the face of oppressive situations—standardized testing, say—nor simply setting ourselves apart as critics or cynics flying above the fray? How do we teach/organize/intervene in a hopeful and affirmative way, one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is, one foot moving toward a world that could be but is not yet?
2). How can we do our daily work and re-imagine it as an act of
movement-building? How does this speech, this lesson, this letter, this gathering connect with and build toward a powerful social movement larger than the gathering, the lesson, or the specific speech?