In my English class in Mexico we’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird while examining the history and legacy of slavery in the United States. We came to the part in the novel where Calpurnia, the African-American maid, takes the two white children she cares for, Scout and Jem, to her church in her community. Jem notices that the congregation doesn’t use hymn books but rather participates in a call and response where a “music superintendent” sings the lines from the hymn and the congregation echoes the words to the song. Jem is perplexed by the situation and the following scene unfolds:
Jem said it looked like they could save the collection money for a year and get some hymn-books.
Calpurnia laughed. “Wouldn’t do any good,” she said. “They can’t read.”
“Can’t read?” I [Scout] asked. “All those folks?”
“That’s right,” Calpurnia nodded. “Can’t but about four folks in First Purchase read . . . I’m one of ‘em.”
“Where’d you go to school, Cal?” asked Jem.
“Nowhere. Let’s see now, who taught me my letters? It was Miss Maudie Atkinson’s aunt, old Miss Buford–”
I thought it might be interesting to pair this scene with the moment in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography where he discusses how he learned to read. Since my students in the classroom are learning English I wanted to hear first–before we began reading–how they define the word “learning” and what it means to them. I wrote on the board: “What does the word ‘learning’ mean to you? How do you define it? Begin with the phrase ‘Learning is.’” Now I often ask my students for feedback about how the class is going (what they would like to see more or less of) and I’ve even asked how they best learn a language. But when I asked them to define learning I received a completely different type of response. The students in my English class range from the age of sixteen to sixty-seven. Here is a selection of what they wrote:
To me learning is to open my mind to new waves of knowledge. It’s growing in an intellectual way.
Learning is the opportunity to open your mind to other worlds. For me learning is the possibility to grow because you know new things and change your life.
For me it means to share all knowledge, listening to the opinions of people, experts and average people about meaning.
It is making an extra effort and experimenting with something new, making mistakes and being successful in the process to understand.
To take information from outside so you can understand the world.
Learning is the possibility to recreate yourself with other information from outside.
None of my students defined learning as something that happens in school. They all used active words “to take,” “to grow,” “to recreate,” “to share,” “to listen,” “to make,” “to understand,” “to experience,” “to open” and very few of their responses were about how we might typically conceive of learning as simply the acquiring of information or facts. We typed the words into Wordle and ended up with the following visual meta-analysis of the language they used to describe the process of learning.
As they read their responses around the room, my first thought was about the rest of the class I had planned, “Will my teaching live up to their definitions of learning?” But then as I listened to them talk about learning, I began to think even more deeply about my teaching in general. For my students, learning, as they define it, must be active: it requires doing rather than just absorbing. Although they did note that information is part of the process, in their view information must open doorways into new worlds and lead then to experiences of transformation or change.
Later that day in class we went on to read a selection from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass about how learning to read helped him find “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” In the class we talked extensively about the word “pathway” and how learning is a journey, but one that must be taken as an individual in a community of learners.
After today’s class I realize how valuable it was to ask my students how they define learning. All of us, teachers and students, are on different paths. My students come to my classroom voluntarily. They are there to learn English for different reasons. I’m reminded of the mission for Highlander, the school for adults that was instrumental in the labor and civil rights movement. In Frank Adam’s book about Highlander he writes,
Highlander’s staff has learned to avoid telling people how to relieve their problems and has concentrated on helping people look to themselves to find their own potential and their own solutions. When Highlander has succeeded at this difficult task, the staff have been teachers who, as Joseph K. Hart said, were able ‘to teach their own capacity to learn.’
Hearing all the ways my students defined learning reminded me that my role as a teacher is to help them, in any way I might, to walk along their own paths, which can be a difficult undertaking in a diverse community of students where their paths might point in different directions. My students’ responses to the word “learning” reminded me the question I should be asking myself as a teacher is not “What do I teach today?” but rather “How might I help my students to learn?”
Published previously here at The Huffington Post.
In the now widely-shared commencement speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford, he shares the story of three moments in his life that were transformative: his dropping out of college, his being fired from Apple, and his first diagnosis of cancer. We might perceive each of his examples as a different kind of failure whether they be societal or biological, yet Jobs points out that these supposed “failures” were necessary in his development as a human being and in his successes.
Habla: The Center for Language and Culture recently hosted an education forum with the topic, “Beauty in Failure: Experimentation and Risk in Education.” Education leaders gathered from different countries to share their ideas about how failure is an essential aspect of our development as humans and how we, therefore, need to find ways to embrace — not shun — failure in our educational settings. Although all educators were speaking from many different cultural contexts, some clear through-lines emerged from the conference.
One area of agreement was that most schools demand constant achievement. Although this is certainly true in today’s culture of testing where we measure students, teachers, schools, and districts by a battery of standardized tests, it’s important to note that this trend isn’t new. Students have been traditionally tracked by various tests including IQ tests and SATs. For decades schools have posted student rankings based on grades in the hallways and given the honor of valedictorian to the students with the highest GPA. At the classroom level, we evaluate our students through daily homework assignments, in-class quizzes, tests, and papers in up to seven subjects. In such an environment, students must strive to get the right answers in numerous micro-assessments throughout the day.
This demand for unceasing achievement contrasts with the business practices of some of our leading companies. At the Habla Forum educator and writer Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius, highlighted in his speech different businesses that value time spent “off-task.” Pixar built Pixar University, a place where any employee can take various classes in such things as improvisation, drawing, or scriptwriting regardless of job description. Google instituted the now famous “twenty percent time” where engineers spend one day a week working on whatever personal projects they like. Sam asks us to “imagine the kinds of breakthroughs we might see in education if we all got 20% of our time just to experiment?”
There are some school settings that do embrace a kind of learning where students are encouraged to fail and then try again. One example is Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education that partners teachers in schools with artists who collaborate to design cutting-edge creative experiences for students in Chicago public schools. Another is an international biodiversity initiative led by biologist Dan Bisaccio where students track the foliage and animal life on a small portion of land and report their findings to the Smithsonian Institution’s Biodiversity & Monitoring Program. In an after-school organization, New Urban Arts in Providence, RI, youth are mentored by professional artists one-on-one. One student pointed out, “In school, you learn by remembering. At New Urban Arts, you make mistakes and learn from them. In school you just get an ‘F’ for that.”
Rather than valuing short-term assignments, these settings welcome complex, multi-layered projects that students engage in individually or collaboratively. In these projects there is ample room for multiple-drafts, for mucking things up along the way, thinking through difficulties and problems, and then working to get it right. In a recent article in the New York Times, Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale County School, points out how important the behavioral trait of “grit” is for working through problems, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get through failure and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”
We realized that failure is indeed not always beautiful. Steve Jobs’ three examples were traumatic, and after each he describes the experience of feeling lost. Yet, if students and teachers aren’t willing to take risks, to try new things, and to experiment, then there is little chance for true growth and learning. When we all have an opportunity to fail, when there are people to support us and gently guide us through our failures, when we have the chance to reflect and learn from our mistakes and eventually reach epiphanies of understanding, then we are learning not only math or history, but how to make the most of all the experiences given to us throughout our lives.
A special thank you to Arnold Aprill, Gail Burnaford, Sam Seidel, Cynthia Weiss, Kathleen Cushman, and Maria del Mar Patron Vazquez whose ideas all contributed to the Forum and this article.
Since my years first as a student and then as a teacher, I always have had the feeling that summer is a time for rest and relaxation. However, in the years since I was the director of The ArtsLiteracy Project and then of Habla, summer has been the busiest time of the year. In the summer we work with teachers from around the world who are on their vacations but still eager to join other educators in sharing ideas and developing in their teaching practices. I do teach during the year as well, but summer for me is a time to offer what I’ve learned to other educators and to learn from them in return.
This summer I had the opportunity to learn from several extraordinary educators who taught at this year’s Habla Teacher Institute titled Travelling Beneath the Surface. The idea behind this institute was that we would explore what it means to teach deeply–to really wrestle with ideas with our students and explore what it means to teach “in-depth” in our disciplines. Educator Ted Sizer uses the term “less is more” to describe how teachers need to avoid the idea that they must cover a body of material (usually extensive) over the course of the year. Rather we as educators should delve deeply with our students into a few topics. In this way we help our students to wrestle with complex issues and think profoundly rather than superficially about ideas and issues.
My colleague Cynthia Weiss demonstrated this by leading the teachers at the Teacher Institute through an intense and multi-layered process of creating collages. To begin, Cynthia gave a brief presentation about the history of the collage and showed different possibilities from artists such as Matisse and Picasso. In this presentation she provoked us to think about collages through the lens of elegance by offering the following definition:
Elegance is the attribute of being unusually effective and simple. Essential components include simplicity and consistency of design, focusing on the essential features of an object.
Typically we think of collages as an assortment of disparate elements, which indeed they are. Cynthia, however, refocused us on the need to approach creating a collage with the idea of simplicity in mind so the collage wouldn’t become merely a random assortment of paint and paper.
Cynthia then took us to a classroom where she had prepared a variety of arts materials organized neatly into two stations: a station with various paints and a station with different types and sizes of cut paper. She demonstrated how we might play with the paper and paint to create surfaces for our collages. Then she let everyone go to “just play . . . don’t think to much, experiment!” Quickly everyone became entranced in the process of creating the foundations for their collages. As the day went on participants were completely immersed in their processes, losing track of time and even place. As presenters we had other talks and workshops planned, but watching the teachers work we decided to let the day unfold naturally with a focus on only the collage-making (luckily, all the presenters work collaboratively and we have the flexibility to adjust the schedule in any way we see fit). The day ended and the teachers stayed, hard at work, concentrating on the little world in front of them on their tables.
We dedicated another day that week to collage-making. The co-director of Habla, Marimar, turned to me and said, “What about teaching practice? This is a teacher institute, we need to talk about pedagogy, not just be immersed in an artistic process!”
She was absolutely right. As you can see from the photographs, the products were stunning, and most of the teachers attending the institute had no artistic background whatsoever. I was interested in how Cynthia, as an educator, facilitated a process that led to such compelling work. What was going on in her head before and during the workshop? What choices as a teacher did she make to help the group reach such a level of quality? The questions seemed to have implications for the larger field of education:
What can we as teachers do, what do we have in our power, to help students achieve excellence in their work?
After we finished creating the murals, in front of all the teachers I interviewed Cynthia about her pedagogy. She pointed out five pedagogical choices she felt were critical for the success of the project:
1. Modeling for possibility. It’s important for students to see models of what might be possible. Modeling might take three forms: showing models from professional artists, modeling the tools that might be used, or providing models of student or teacher work. Cynthia stresses it’s important not to show a model and say, “This is what your work needs to look like.” Modeling is only a means of opening doors to the imagination to help the students create their own unique work.
2. Selection and organization of materials. Cynthia limits the materials and colors to help create a common aesthetic across all the artistic products. After the materials are selected, Cynthia organizes the materials into various stations. This order creates a safe space in which the students can take their own creative risks.
3. Applying a gentle touch. Teacher institute participant Donald Niedermayer used the term “gentle touch” to discuss how he teaches yoga. When Donald’s students are attempting a difficult position, Donald gently touches them to help them reach further. Cynthia applies a similar technique when participants became frustrated or stuck. She sits with them at their physical level, praises them for what seems to be working, and then offers gentle questions to help them find the solutions to a given artistic problem.
4. Reflecting along the way. In the middle of the collage process Cynthia often asks participants to stand back and look at their own and each other’s work asking them the question, “What do you notice about someone else’s piece?” Another time Cynthia had the participants sit down with their collages to write a reflective piece in response to their visual work.
5. Exhibiting publicly. Everyone knows their work will be part of an exhibit for the community. This helps to build a sense of common urgency as everyone works together towards a clear deadline. In addition, each person will have the opportunity to show and discuss their work with visitors who haven’t been part of the workshop.
If elegance is about “being unusually effective and simple,” then Cynthia’s teaching was a clear demonstration of how teachers can teach the most complex of processes with an intelligence and grace that helps all learners to achieve extraordinary work.
Read more about Habla’s annual teacher institute here.
A special thanks to the other “elegant” presenters at this year’s institute: Patricia Sobral, Arnold Aprill, Charly Barbera, and Laura Riebock.
As a teacher I know how paralyzing an administrative bureaucracy can be. When we’re asked to fill out forms, to give batteries of standardized tests, to attend meetings where we are told precisely how to teach, to institute mandated curriculums and write the state standards on the board, we often lose the time and energy to engage our students in passionate and meaningful classroom work.
Therefore when we opened a school, Habla, we knew we needed to proceed differently. We wanted to build a distinct school culture but without explicitly telling our teachers and staff how to teach. We sought an organic and collaborative process, but one that wouldn’t end in a kind of laissez-faire attitude where there would be no coherence of curriculum or pedagogy from classroom to classroom.
The following is a glimpse at some of the structures we put in place to build a shared culture at our school without resorting to the usual top-down mandates.
1. Intentional Architecture. When we built the school we wanted it to feel like a warm and welcoming place that invited informal conversations outside of classrooms and encouraged our teachers and students to linger before heading home. We discussed these ideas with our architect and designed a reception area that welcomes everyone to the school and encourages conversation. In addition a large community space in the center of the school provides space for teachers and students when leaving classrooms to mix and spend some time talking before heading home or to the next class.
2. Design and Art. Rather than tell newcomers what the school is about, we want to show it. A full-scale mural in the community space at Habla demonstrates the school’s emphasis on dialogue, community, play, and imagination. We also had our designer put one word in the reception area, CREATE, a word that lets students and teachers alike know that learning at Habla is a creative adventure.
3. Purposeful Collaboration. Even more important than the physical space is trusting in the capacity of our teachers to bring new ideas to the school. At the beginning of the year the teachers develop research questions they wish to investigate in their own classrooms. Throughout the year they discuss and refine their questions, collect their students’ work, and present their findings to each other in the form of a PechaKucha. Much meeting and sharing of ideas occurs in formally scheduled staff meetings, but even more occurs between classes or during informal social events outside of school. To encourage this the directors of the school host all of the teachers for a few dinners a year at their own house.
4. Artist as Inspiration. At our school we hired a full-time teaching artist whose primary job is to collaboratively plan projects with teachers and co-teach with them in their classrooms. The artist’s role is to serve as an agent of creativity. Our teachers often have a rough idea of a project they’d like to do but don’t know quite how to go about bringing it to its full realization in the classroom. Having an artist to explore possibilities with helps the teachers to crystallize their own ideas and call upon the expertise of another to consider different ways of doing things. Our experience has been that a skilled and experienced teaching artist on staff increases the quality of the work across the entire school. In most schools such a position might seem like a luxury, but it was one of the first positions we hired.
5. Structuring Learning Around Big Ideas. Our curriculum is flexibly shaped around a set of big ideas for each semester that include the following: large concepts, learning outcomes, written products, core texts, and culminating events. The learning outcomes are the only fixed aspect of the curriculum and few outcomes are essential every semester so that the teacher can focus on them in-depth and give them the time they deserve. Although there are suggested core texts and culminating events, the teachers are free to adapt and change the curriculum in anyway they see fit in order to reach the learning outcomes. For instance, a learning outcome might be for students to write a narrative in the past tense. How students reach that point and what experiences they have is entirely up to them and their teacher.
6. Visible Teaching and Learning. All of our teachers and students are consistently finding ways to document and present their work. Another of our teaching artist’s roles is to help teachers consider new ways to share their work with each other and with the public. Recently in a presentation for families our teachers digitally documented what happened in their classrooms and presented the products and the processes of their students. Watch one of the videos below.
As I noted in my last post, two years after opening the school we feel we’ve developed a shared, common culture of what teaching and learning looks like in our classrooms. We are a small school with a small staff and one that does not have to report to any larger administrative bureaucracy, but I do believe that many of the structures we’ve put into place can be scaled up to larger schools and might provide alternatives to many of the demoralizing ways we are treating our teachers under the guise of school reform.
Last year we were sitting in a staff meeting at our school Habla discussing how we might better induct new teachers into the culture of the school. This quickly led to the question, “What exactly is the culture of Habla? How would we put it into words?” Over the years I’ve seen how policy makers and education leaders think they might create a shared culture by developing lists of standards or principles or by publishing documents that they think will influence teachers’ practices in the classroom. Many of these well-meaning attempts burden teachers with a labyrinth of documents that seem to have little application to the classroom. However, in some cases when these frameworks are straightforward–like Ted Sizer’s essential school principles, Debbie Meier’s Habits of Mind, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, or the ArtsLiteracy Project’s Performance Cycle–they can be useful. They can help us define our practices as teachers or give a sense of what a school culture might look like.
In our staff meeting we discussed the possibility of retreating to our computers and writing our version of “The Habla Core Values” or some similar document. We decided to try a different approach. We had a faculty meeting coming up soon with our teachers, and we thought it a much better idea to seek the wisdom of the group, to ask them to find the words to describe what teaching and learning looks like at our school. We were stunned by our teachers’ responses. Habla is just over two years old. Three of the teachers out of twelve had only been at Habla for two weeks and most had worked at Habla less than a year. Here is their unedited list:
I was recently impressed again by the creative work of our teachers. At the beginning of the year each teacher in our school, with the help of Arnold Aprill at CAPE, developed research questions about their own practices. Throughout the year we met, discussed their questions, and the teachers collected evidence in the form of videos, photographs, student work, and ethnographic documentation that demonstrated their thinking around their questions. Last week all of our teachers presented in the form of a PechaKucha, where they showed 20 images and discussed each one for 20 seconds. Again, the culture that we hoped to build when we opened Habla was clearly present through all of the presentations as teachers discussed arts-integration, dialogic education, documenting student work, authentic classroom experiences, meaning-making, and building links between the worlds of the students and the classroom.
After two years, the shared sense of culture that we hoped to create among all our teachers at Habla had been realized, but we reached it not through the methods that I see most schools currently employing. My next post will begin to investigate how it is possible to create a culture in a school in ways that value the creativity and intelligence of the teachers.
A school holds great possibility for breaking from the routines of daily life. In an age of standardized testing in our public schools, this statement might seem to contradict reality, but this has been my experience as a teacher, even in the most institutional environments. Classrooms are still spaces where teachers and students come together for a period of time and engage in a journey very different from the ordinary day-to-day activities we often must accomplish. I might wake up in the morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, rush off to work, answer emails, take care of finances, run to the grocery store to pick up some food and continue with my typical daily routine, but when I step into the classroom all that is left behind. My students and I are in a space together for ninety minutes or more, and during that time we are in a place where we don’t have to rush, a place where we can put the worries of the outside world aside, read a work of literature, and share our thoughts and feelings with each other. As an educator, I believe this is and always has been one of the great privileges of teaching: to have a sanctuary, a place to step out of the routines of daily life and reflect on how to live in this world.
Literature and the arts are some of our greatest tools for fostering deep reflection. Philosopher and arts educator Maxine Greene describes how the arts provide a space to imagine what might be possible. Greene explains that the job of the teacher “is to devise situations in which the young will move from the habitual and the ordinary and undertake a search.” For Greene this search centrally involves imagination “as the felt possibility of looking beyond the boundary where the backyard ends or the road narrows, diminishing out of sight.”
One of our teachers at Habla, Viviana teaches a beautiful series of classes in which she helps her students look “beyond the boundary where the backyard ends.” Children’s literature is filled with examples of journeying beyond the boundaries from the Pevensie children discovering the magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express, the train that whisks us to the world of the wizards. Viviana explained to me, “We all have imaginary places we like to go to, even when we are adults. When we were kids we had hideouts. We built houses with sheets inside or forts with branches and limbs outside.” She continued, “We can use words as materials to build our own imaginary places.”
Viviana was teaching a group of adults who were visiting Habla from different places in the world to take Habla’s Spanish Immersion course. In her class, she was focusing on the grammatical concept of “mandatos,” the command form of verbs, like ¡Damélo! (Give it to me!) or ¡Ven aquí! (Come here!). Teaching command forms of verbs initially seems like the most unlikely moment to enter an imaginary world. Most language classes ask students to write and then give each other orders (Stand up! Walk to the blackboard! Pick up the pen!). Vivi instead asked her students to read a poem, “Cómo despeinar a un lápiz,” (How to mess up the hair of a pencil), written by a local Yucatecan poet, Alicia L. Franco. The poem includes a series of commands, such as
Borra más mucho más, ahora retira el lápiz del papel
y observa la gran cantidad de cabello
que ha desperdiciar.
Erase more much more, now lift the pencil from the paper
and observe the great amount of hair
that has been wasted.
After discussing the poem, Viviana explained to the group that they should build an imaginary place in their minds. “It can be anywhere: in a forest, a castle, a cloud,” she encouraged. Most teachers might stop here, ask the students to describe their imaginary place, perhaps draw it, but this is the point in our pedagogical tale with a twist. Viviana asks the class to “devise a set of imaginary instructions for how to travel to or how to build your imaginary place and these instructions need to use the command form of the verb.”
One student took the following notes of all the students’ instructions (click to enlarge).
Using their instructions as inspiration, the students then created a cordel of images based on their instructions, an installation we displayed in our school’s garden, “where the backyard ends.” When we enter the school, we take a moment to look at these images and feel that it might be possible to enter another world, if only we follow the instructions.
Instructions for Inventing
1. Enter into the obscurity of your garden.
2. Close your eyes and leave the regular world behind.
3. Permit your mind to dream.
4. Plant many seeds immediately in your imagination.
5. Listen to the sound of great rivers and waterfalls in solitude without civilization.
6. Create savage animals that you have visited in books and zoos.
7. Imagine that your are an explorer, and employee of the train company, and that you go to mysterious places.
8. Believe that your cat is a lion and your dogs are wolves.
9. Point your compass East, and with your dog, walk.
10. Your imagination is in charge, go wherever you want.
This semester in my language classes I’ve been experimenting with ways of teaching in a way that embraces magic realism. Magic realism is the literary style that is often used to describe the work of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers where the boundary between the “real” and the “imaginative” becomes obscured. I’m not actually teaching magical realism in my language classrooms, but rather experimenting with a pedagogy that allows for magic to happen on a daily basis, where the students’ seats rise a little off the floor and strange creatures peek into the windows. I’m hoping to move my classes beyond how languages are typically taught in a utilitarian way. If you examine most language textbooks you’ll find they are organized into units that focus on our daily tasks: shopping for clothes, going to the grocery store, visiting the doctor’s office. In my class we don’t use a textbook. Our goal is to release the inherent magical quality of words. We play, improvise, and create with them. We read literature and poetry to experience the aesthetic quality of the language.
In one of my classes, we’re reading John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl which begins, “Kino awakened in the near dark.” One of the reasons I enjoy teaching literature in a classroom where the student’s are learning a language, is that it slows us down. Since the students aren’t fluent readers, we often take the time to work through a paragraph, sentence by sentence. As readers, this gives us the chance to really spend time with the words. For example, when I read this first line at home, I didn’t think much of it. I raced on through the plot eager to see what would happen after Kino woke up. But in the language classroom we had to start the novel by talking about the word “awake.” Why does Steinbeck use “awakened” rather than “woke up”? Before my student’s asked this question I hadn’t thought about the difference much before. As we started to explore the word “awake,” we realized it is a verb that is much more profound than its counterpart “wake up.” We don’t really wake up spiritually, but we might have a spiritual awakening. We can become awake in myriad ways: politically, socially, sexually, and morally to name a few. So perhaps there is more to this first sentence than what lies on the surface. Does the fact that Kino is awakening in the dark mean that he hasn’t awakened to some realization, that he might experience this change later? Or does the qualifier “near” mean that he is beginning to see light of some kind, that this novel will be about his process of awakening to something larger in the world?
My work as both a teacher and a reader has been highly influenced by Robert Cole’s book The Call of Stories. One of the reasons our school places literature in the center of the language classroom, is because in Cole’s words,
Novels and stories are renderings of life, they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course.
Our classrooms move back and forth between the work of literature and the students’ lives. We use literature to inspire us to reflect on who we are, where we are on our own personal journeys in life, and we find the words to tell our own stories. My class continued to read the first chapter as Kino wakes up . We looked at the verbs Steinbeck used to describe waking up rituals, verbs like braid and comb. I then asked for a volunteer to show his/her waking up ritual in front of the class. Fabiola mimed her waking up ritual and the rest of the class called out the verbs they were witnessing, and we put the phrases on the board (hit snooze, turn off the alarm, get out of bed, take a shower, put on makeup, grind the beans, prepare coffee, make breakfast). In pairs, all the students, using the words on the board for help, told each other their daily rituals of waking up.
So far, aside from our discussion about the opening line of the book, this might look like any other language classroom: listing the words of our daily routines. A discussion of our daily rituals of waking up, from purely a language learning perspective, is important, but I want my student to move beyond the day-to-day use of language, to find ways to play with language in a creative way, one that helps us see new worlds beyond the words on the page. One of my favorite quotes from Argentinian educator Emilia Ferreiro is
There are children who enter written language through magic (a cognitively challenging magic) and other children who enter written language through training in “basic abilities.” In general, the first become readers; the others have an uncertain fate.
As my students learn English, I want them to see their own potential in using the language in ways that are unexpected, helping them to open up to become more flexible and playful in how they form phrases and sentences in English. I asked the students to write two sentences finishing the phrase, “After I wake up I . . . ” One sentence needed to be true, something they do every morning. But the other sentence needed to be surrealistic, something that could only happen in their imaginations.
1. After I wake up I make coffee.
2. After I wake up I float up to the ceiling and turn the house upside down.
We shared our responses around the table and then I asked the students to write a story about waking up. They had two options:
- Write a fantastic or surrealistic story about waking up in the morning.
- Write a true story about a time you woke up and something unusual happened, outside of your daily routine.
When the students finished their stories, we had trouble telling the difference between the imagined and the real. As I read my students stories, I felt like I was in Márquez’s town of Macondo in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although the novel closely relates to Marquez’s life, there is a continuous procession of remarkable events that move us to see reality in a fantastic way.
One of my students, Hortencia, wrote the following story:
I awakened in the middle of the night feeling a strange presence in my room. It was so real that I felt it very close to me but at the same time it occupied all of the room. The atmosphere was cold, rare, silent, and with a sense of somebody here and there.
I was so scared that I couldn´t even scream or get out of my bed; I was paralyzed. I tried to pray or to remember a Bible verse and repeat it as I very slowly got out of the bed and walked terrified to the light switch and turned it on.
My room was as it was always, nobody there. I was still feeling that strange presence when I heard my mom screaming “fire!” so I went out of my room and ran to the front door and I saw red lights, and I opened the window and some neighbors were on the sidewalk next to my house.
My mother opened the door and the neighbors told her that the old lady who lived in front of us had died. That was the reason the ambulance was there and I asked them at what time she died and they said “at 2:15 a.m”; that was the time I had awakened.
HORTENCIA PEÑA GARCIA
FEBRUARY 1, 2011
Living in Mexico, I’ve realized how important telling stories is in people’s lives. Sitting in my classroom, listening to the stories my students’ tell, one might think, “That’s impossible. How could that be real?,” but it’s so much more pleasurable to listen to the stories and for a time put what we think of as true and real, aside for the moment, and for a moment ride the wave of the sentences as they unfold.