Welcome! Use the pull-down menu in the upper right corner (“Research, Teaching and Writing) to find information about my work on these inter-related themes: Language Brokering, Cultural Modeling (pedagogical design connecting in and out of school practices), pedagogies of heart and mind (an approach to learning we take at B-Club, an after-school program in Los Angeles that connects elementary school youth and UCLA undergraduates), immigrant youth and families, and gender/literacy and power. You will find links to public blogposts, academic papers, Youtube videos, course syllabi and more. I invite you to leave comments: your reactions to my work, sharing of your own work, and dialogue with other readers.
On this main page you’ll find my blog, which offers ongoing reflections on these and other issues. I have been thinking about these matters of heart and mind in different ways since 1983: first as a classroom teacher, then as a researcher of language and literacy in immigrant communities and a designer of pedagogies, and always as a learner myself. Topics include:
Reports from a new study I’m conducting on the impact of Covid-19 on family life and learning.
Reflections from my ongoing research on language and literacy practices in immigrant communities, both in and out of school. See a new volume I co-edited, along with Inmaculada García Sánchez, on connecting home and school practices:
Reflections on ethnographic research and other methodological issues. See also my 2020 book: https://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Ethnography-Activity-Transformative-Research/dp/113836102X
So what was I doing in Padova, Italy (known to some English speakers as Padua) this summer?
Six years ago I learned about the Fulbright Specialist Roster, a program supporting short (2-6 week) project-based exchanges to build connections around the world. This is part of the Fulbright Program’s mission of “building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities, and improving lives around the world.”
My youngest child was in college, and I had the freedom of an empty nest. I wanted to spread my wings and see more of the world. I thought I could offer my skills and experiences in some kind of international exchange. I applied and was accepted.
For the next few years, I scoured lists of Fulbright projects, looking for a match for my professional skills. Universities around the world sought experts on agriculture, business, finance, engineering and more. My academic skills seemed so impractical, even within my own field of Education. For example, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission sought someone to help with their “Functional and Technical Competency Development Program.” The Jordan Ministry of Higher Education wanted help with university president selection. I doubted these institutes would see my work with children as helpful for such tasks.
And then the pandemic hit and travel came to a screeching halt.
Perhaps this is an answer to the question I posed in a previous post: Why write? And why share our writing? Here was an answer: because it connects us with other like-minded people. Because someone – even just one person! – may find inspiration in what we share.
When the heavy veil of pandemic lockdowns lifted, the Fulbright Specialist Roster seemed to offer an opportunity to deepen my collaboration with Lisa, and for me to support the University of Padova’s efforts to forge a community partnership inspired by UCLinks.
So Lisa submitted a proposal to Italy’s Fulbright Commission, and it was approved, and I was cleared for six weeks of living and working in Padova. I would work with Lisa and her colleague Luca Agostinetti – a two-person program on Intercultural Education within the Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology – and support them in their ongoing work of forging a university-community partnership to advance education for students from migrant and refugee backgrounds in Padova’s public schools.
I would also get to experience intercultural education as I learned about schools in Italy, adapted to a new local environment, struggled to communicate in Italian, and engaged in new everyday cultural practices for six weeks.
The University of Padova
And so to stay true to the commitments to socially conscious travel that I named in my last blogpost, next up I’ll share a little of what I did while I was there, in words and photos.
But first, a little about the University of Padova, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. Learning about the University of Padova and its fascinating history was one of the many highlights of this trip.
The University of Padova was formed in 1222 (take that in!), by a group of students and faculty who broke away from the University of Bologna because they wanted more academic freedom.
This was stenciled on sidewalks all around the town, celebrating the university’s 800 years.
“This is the place where one and all can share ideas to build a future of justice, equality and opportunity. Liberate your future!” (translation mine, with assistance from Google)
In its early years, students elected their own teachers and rectors; the directors were chosen from their own ranks, and their names are inscribed on plaques on the wall in Palazzo Bo, one of the oldest halls in the university (formerly an inn).
The university boasts of having awarded the first university degree (“lauriate”) to a woman, ever: to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopea in 1678. Elena was actually schooled at home – the only option for women of her time. Elena was the daughter of a poor peasant woman and a noble father (yes, her mother was his mistress). She was a child prodigy who mastered multiple languages (Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic. She also studied math, philosophy, theology, music and more. Her father negotiated with the University of Padova to grant her a degree in Philosophy based on her independent studies.
Other interesting facts: Galileo taught at the University of Padova, and both his podium and his rib (the 5th vertebra) are on display in Palazzo Bo, the former-inn turned university-hall where many PhD students today are awarded their degrees.
So too are the skulls of professors who donated their bodies to science, which were dissected in the medical theatre while students looked on.
Lisa Bugno took us on a tour of this hall, and was moved to tears by the memory of her own PhD ceremony in this austere space.
We also toured Padova’s Botanical Gardens – which is either the first or second university-associated Botanical Gardens in the world. (The University of Pisa is generally viewed as the first, but Padovans contest this on technicalities).
Visiting the university in July was a special treat, because it was graduation time. Ceremonies for different departments and programs were spread out over the course of several weeks, and I would stumble upon informal celebrations all across town, as students gathered to toast (and roast) their friends, in all kinds of playful ways.
I got to witness some masters’ theses defenses, attended by family and friends, held in this formidable hall.
I got to work with smart, multi-lingual, international graduate and undergraduate students at this university on ethnography and interview data analysis, and learning about their work.
There’s so much more I could share about this fascinating university and town; I’ve only skimmed the surface here. I hope I’ve piqued your interest to learn more. Perhaps an international exchange is in your own future?
Forging University-Community Partnerships: La Mia Escola e Diferente
The real aim of my work was to support Lisa Bugno and Luca Agostinetti’s activities in a university-community-school partnership that is called “La Mia Scuola e Diferente.” This involved getting out of the halls of the university and into the community.
The project name plays with the multiple meanings of “different:” it reclaims the power of diversity in the face of a public that sees difference mostly as a problem. The school that is at the heart of this program is generally referred to as “different” in public discourse because it serves “foreign” students who live in a “ghetto.” And indeed, Italy does not grant birth-right citizenship to the children of migrants, so the children who attend this school, most of whom were born in Italy, are not viewed as Italian, and don’t have the rights of Italian citizenship. They are perpetual foreigners, and how to “include” them in the larger society becomes a problem that schools are expected to solve.
One of the challenges we took on together this summer was to think about how to reframe difference in the Italian context: how to help students, teachers and other community members to see diversity not as a problem to solve but as a resource. How to see the richness of culture, language and life experiences that families in this marginalized community bring, and that could be honored, sustained, expanded and developed in school? This is at the heart of my own work across the decades.
This is particularly important in this political moment in Italy, where just last week the most far-right politician since Mussolini was just elected to presidency, on a mostly anti-immigrant platform.
At the same time, in Padova, as in most communities around the world, not everyone views migrants as problems. There are many who welcome these “foreigners” and who advocate actively for their needs and rights. I met with many, including:
—Maestro Fabio, a dynamic elementary school teacher who is spearheading many efforts to connect with parents and the local community: families who come from China, Serbia, Ghana, Ukraine, Syria, Colombia and more. I visited the school during its summer sessions and spent some time with these smart, funny, energetic kids.
—The director and staff of Fenice Green Energy Park, a center dedicated to educating about green energy, the problems of pollution, and climate change. We toured their facilities and got a glimpse into projects they are bringing to the kids in La Mia Scuola e Diferente.
–The staff of Zalab, makers of documentary films about progressive issues, who run a film-making program with school aged youth.
-Members of the University of Padova’s Psychology Department, who are working at Fabio’s school to provide a safe “nido” for refugee youth to process the traumas they have experienced, and to support their social and emotional well-being.
I also met with other teachers and community members who are working to support im/migrants who have gotten to Italy against all odds, seeking better lives.
This includes Luca Favorin, a renegade Catholic priest who has created a project called Percorso Vita, which provides housing and jobs for migrants. We shared delicious meals at the restaurant he has created, staffed by migrants who bring culinary experiences from their home countries to create gourmet meals in an outdoor setting adorned with images of migrants and representations of their experiences.
I met with Sergio Giordani, the mayor of Padova, a down-to-earth man with a progressive vision for the city, in an austere, centuries-old hall.
I talked with the local newspaper and a local television station about La Mia Scuola e Diferente project.
My own intercultural education
I also got to see and experience a myriad of other things.
I had a hands-on lesson on pasta-making (“oriquetas”) at Lisa’s kitchen table.
I also went on a wine-tasting tour to a consortium of wineries (Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepo Pavese) that are working in ecologically sustainable ways. One of my hosts, Luca Agostinetti, in addition to being an expert on intercultural education, is also an expert sommelier. He and Lisa organized a wine-tasting tour for students in a class they taught on wine and gastronomia. I got to join them. We toured six wineries, with wine-tasting at each of them, and had some amazing meals in Italy’s best “slow food,” farm-to-table style in rural areas that are building agriturismo.
Experiencing daily life in Padova
One of the things I most enjoyed during my six weeks in Padova was the opportunity just to feel the rythms of daily life, to immerse myself in this local context, and to get to know the town. I purchased a used bicycle and virtually every day ventured out to bike and walk around the labyrinthian streets of this historical town.
Of course, I ate amazing food. More importantly, I saw the deep valuing of food in the Italian culture: taking time to eat, to be together, to nurture the body and spirit and soul. Eating just enough, and slowly. Enjoying each bite. Not rushing through oversized meals in the American way. I saw that schools also value food as a way of nurturing young people, educating both body and mind.
This extended to coffee-drinking. Tiny shots of expresso, or small cups of cappuchino. Not the bloated and bloating, sugar-drenched, over-sized Starbucks versions. (“Venti” – what an ugly usurpation of an Italian word!)
These experiences formed my own intercultural education. I had to figure out all the things that newcomers deal with: identifying food in supermarkets, navigating the bus system, getting lost, struggling to communicate with a rudimentary knowledge of the language (more on that in a future blog), and so much more. All of this gave me more empathy for and understanding of what new im/migrants contend with – with far fewer supports and a whole lot more trauma.
I did indulge in some “tourist” experiences as well, through day trips to Venice, Florence, Bologna, the foothills of the Alps, and Bassano del Grappa. In the latter, I experienced the beauty of this land and learned more about its terrible history under Fascism.
In all of this, I hope I fulfilled the Fulbright mission. My own understanding of the world expanded. I came away with a deep sense of appreciation for people all around the world who are doing work like the good-hearted people I met in Padova: facing similar challenges as they try to reframe “diversity” from a problem into possibilities, and address the very real inequities and injustices that abound in different-yet-similar forms around the world.
My aim in this blog is to share just a little of what I have learned with any interested readers, and to preserve a summary of the experiences for myself. I hope I have fairly, if only very briefly, represented all the people and organizations I got to know.
Importantly, my collaboration with the people I met in Padova is not finished. In many ways, it’s just beginning. It takes a long time to forge cross-cultural understandings, and I only scratched the surface in my six weeks there. Luca Agostinetti described this work as “fermente intercultural.” Intercultural exchanges are like good wine: they take a long time to come to fruition. They require continuous attention (as in the “metodo clasico” of prosecco-production, in which wine bottles have to be turned twice a day for many years).
At the last winery we visited on our tour, the owners opened a 35-year-old bottle of prosecco for us. We toasted each other in a cellar surrounded by a million bottles of wine, all fermenting, awaiting their time to be savored and appreciated in the world.
There’s another question that has been nagging me this summer: Why travel?
Perhaps I don’t have to convince readers of this blog of the value of travel. There are already a gazillion blogs on the topic, offering 10 or 13 or 17 or 25+ reasons to leave the comfort of our homes.
But why get on a jet plane and add to my already over-sized carbon footprint on this planet?
My perspective on international travel has changed a lot since I first applied to be on the Fulbright Specialist Roster six years ago (which led to my travels this summer). Climate Change seems so much more real.
The pandemic also helped me to see that the Internet can connect us more genuinely than I initially gave it credit for.
But I think we learned during the pandemic that while we can connect and learn about the world through the world wide web, virtual is not all we wish for, or need.
We can’t look into each other’s eyes on Zoom, since the camera misdirects our gaze. We can’t walk or sit together or have the myriad other small ways of getting to know the way people think and move and have their beingness in the world. We can’t experience the interplay of culture and human-made environments with local trees, parks, waterways. We miss the smell and taste and vibes of a place.
I decided to name my own commitments. This public declaration became the main point of this blog, after I cut away a whole bunch of other stuff (such as why I really believe in the power of travel to open minds, since minds can be opened in other ways as well). I’ll even number this list, and title my blog to accord with the genre of blogging, offering easy, enumerated lists of things.
(1) As much as possible, I will avoid traveling as a tourist or businessperson, only skimming the surface of a culture. I will use travel to build real and sustained relationships with people and places.
(2) I will pare back,but not eliminate travel. For example, I will aim to attend ONE or two conferences a year, rather than three or four.
We’re nearing the end of the summer, that time of the year when email with all its demands on our attention slows down just a little bit, and when teaching, faculty meetings, admissions, exams, grading and the myriad other things that absorb our time and energy during the academic year are also (mostly) on hold. Our family and friends think we’ve been on vacation, but in fact we’ve been madly trying to clear our desktops of tasks that have piled up and gotten pushed aside during the year, write year-end reports, prep for the next year, and, maybe, have a little time to think. Space for reflection. And perhaps, even, to do some writing: to push out some publications, that coin of the realm in this “publish or perish” business.
This summer has been different for me: I’ve been busy on a Fulbright-sponsored project in Padova, Italy, and haven’t had much time to write.
But now, as I look at what remains of this summer (with UCLA’s late fall start), I want to take time to reflect and share from this summer’s experiences – to distill these experiences for myself and for anyone who is interested. Blogging seems to offer that kind of space and possibility.
Warming up to this task propels me to reflect on the business of writing, in general, and on blogging in particular.
These days, I’ve been asking myself a lot about what I should do at this time in my life and in the world with whatever time, energy, and skills I have.
Given the potential of impending ecological and social collapse (yes, that’s how I see it), why write?
Why write, when it’s not clear what good those words can do in the world?
Why write, when so many words already fill the airway?
We are bombarded by pontifications these days: on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, podcasts, newspapers, audiobooks, actual books, journal articles, billboards, walls, sidewalks, stores….These words clamor for our attention, their authors begging, “Listen to me!” “Buy what I am selling!” Multi-modal soapbox platforms are a keystroke away. You can find opinions and advice on virtually any topic, presented authoritatively in 280 character sound bytes on Twitter, 60 second TikTok videos, pithy slogans, graphic images and other forms using the many social media platforms at our disposal.
I don’t want to add to the cacophony.
But I’ve paid for this blogspot, and I haven’t written here in a long time.
Looking for motivation, I searched the clogged arteries of cyberspace, googling “why blog?”
This post drew my attention, because I thought it might convince me not to bother.
The reasons it offered for blogging did not resonate with me.
I’m not trying to make money (the Number 1 reason they offer).
I’m not trying to promote my business, unless “my business” means the sets of ideas I have cultivated over my career, my philosophy of education and of life.
And I’m not doing it just for fun,” though I do, somewhat perversely, enjoy perseverating over words on a page.
Writing is hard work. In some ways blog-writing feels even harder than the academic writing that I usually do. At least, it’s harder to write a good blog than it is to write a bad academic paper. In academic writing , you can hide behind a lot of words. Blogs strip all the excess away. You can’t get away with jargony imprecision in a blog. We’re forced to see the logic (or lack thereof) of our own thoughts. We have to have a point we want to make.
So what’s my point in this one?
After sifting through other people’s opinions on the matter, vetting my thoughts with a few friends, procrastinating on getting to the actual writing, and then sitting with drafts of this blog for several weeks, I finally came up with my own “why blog” response. I wrote it up as a numbered list, in a tongue-in-cheek approach to blogs that draw readers’ attention by offering easy answers to complex issues.
(1) I write because it’s the tool of my trade. It’s my main art form. I have learned to trust in its power to distill the human experience.
(2) I blog because I don’t want to write only for academics, in obscure research journals that really nobody reads (except perhaps graduate students).
(3) I write because I believe in the power of words to help change the world: by inspiring, uplifting, making visible new ideas, and kindling the imagination. Even if the only imaginations they kindle are my own.
(4) I write because sometimes I don’t know what else I can do to give back to a world that has given me so much.
(5) And I write in the hope of conjoining my voice with others, to sing in harmony, to build a bigger, bolder, stronger chorus of people who are calling for much-needed transformation in the world.
So this is my blog about blogging: five reasons o convince myself to take time to reflect on and share what I’ve been doing, learning, and pondering for the last few months. Stay tuned.
In this post I share a statement against anti-Asian Racism from an organization I work with at UCLA, the Center for the Study of International Migration (CSIM), and reflect on the work such statements do in the world. (Follow the link above to the text, which is also copied below). I also reflect more generally on the power of words to transform the world. I share some of my ambivalence on this matter, but also my convictions – which lead me to continue writing blogposts despite the inner demons who taunt me all the time. (“Why throw a few more words out into the cacophony of messages out there in the world?” “Will anything I say make any kind of difference?” “Is anyone even reading this?”)
First, a bit about CSIM. The Center for the Study of International Migration is an interdisciplinary network that brings together scholarship on a wide array of immigration-related issues. The aim is to build a community of scholars, and to share our work more broadly. Our recorded guest speaker series is publicly available in podcasts. We also have an ongoing community engagement initiative that connects our scholarship with policy issues, and through which we take action in small and larger ways. Before the pandemic, for example, we conducted visits to Adelanto Immigrant Detention Center to show solidarity with detainees. Our members engage in a variety of policy-focused work; see for example Hiroshi Motomura’s testimony about discrimination and violence against Asian Americans, made before the Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Making public statements such as this one, and another recent one on Anti-Black racism, is part of our public-facing work.
But we have wondered: Are such statements merely symbolic?
What about the issues we haven’t addressed? Given all the injustice, inequality, pain and hatred in the world, we could surely write public statements every week.
Does anyone read them? Do they fall on deaf ears, or just re-sound in the Echo Chambers of the like-minded?
I think about these kinds of issues all the time.
As an academic, words are the tools of my trade. I spend a lot of time trying to get them “just right,” but I know they may never resound with those operating from other points of view.
As an activist, I have witnessed the power of words to unite, ignite, and mobilize – and to separate and divide. I also recognize their limitations, if not coupled with action.
As someone who is stumbling along some kind of spiritual pathway, I know that words are the handmaids of our egos, and they don’t easily open the doors to closed hearts. Many times, it’s better to listen than to speak.
But sometimes, it may be helpful to add our voices into the discourses that are circulating in the world. We can use statements for their symbolic power but also as pedagogical tools. While we can’t speak to every injustice on the planet, we can help amplify ones that are rising to the forefront right now, and ones where we might offer unique perspectives.
In general, this is the approach I am trying to take to my public writing. This involves embracing contradictions: Words matter, but they are also, inevitably imperfect and inadequate. I try to listen more than I speak, and only speak when I think I have something helpful to say. (These Buddhist precepts serve as a guide: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?) I also try to accept that the words I offer may not be heard, or not taken up in the ways I had hoped. But sometimes, like seeds, they will be fertilized by the words and ideas of others, and grow.
Racist discourse planted the seeds for the racist and xenophobic attacks that we witness all around us We can plant different kinds of seeds with our words, and trust that if enough are planted, some of them will thrive.
So here are the words that CSIM planted in the world last week:
Statement on Anti-Asian Violence
The UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration condemns the latest wave of racist violence in this country, this time directed at Asian communities, and specifically the murder of six Asian workers in Georgia. We express our solidarity with Asian American students and faculty at UCLA and with all Asian Americans living in this country. We condemn the insults that have been hurled by politicians, adding insult to grievous injury, and we call for an end to the violence in both words and deeds.
As scholars of immigration, we note that this wave of violence is the latest manifestation of a sad and almost 200-year history of violence against Asian Americans and of racist opposition to immigration from Asia. Our own city of Los Angeles was the site of one of the most terrible such outbursts: in an 1871 riot, residents of the then small city of barely 6,000 persons, lynched 18 Chinese immigrants.
Ten years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, in imposing very severe limitations on Chinese immigration, inaugurated the long regime of immigration restriction, which has lasted to this day. In the early 20th century, Chinese exclusion was followed by an agreement between the United States and Japan to limit emigration from Japan. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act made immigration from East and South Asia all but impossible, imposing restrictions that were not fully lifted until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965.
Opposition to Asian immigration was coupled with opposition to the acquisition of U.S. citizenship by Asian immigrants. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress amended naturalization laws, which until then had restricted naturalization to white immigrants. But when naturalization rights were extended to Black immigrants, the Reconstruction Congress deliberately chose to withhold naturalization from Asian-born immigrants. Some Asian immigrants were nonetheless able to obtain U.S. citizenship, but two important Supreme Court decisions (Ozawa v United States, 1922 and Thind v United States, 1923) unfortunately affirmed that immigrants from East and South Asia were ineligible to naturalize on account of their race.
Exclusion from citizenship in turn set the grounds for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as the entire first-generation population lacked citizenship and was thus uniquely vulnerable. Internment represents one of the most deplorable moments in American history. As internment occurred in the context of international tension between the United States and another country, we also see a disturbing parallel to today’s situation, and we sound a warning: Never again.
There has been much discussion as to whether the Georgia killings were motivated by racism or sexism. We reject this binary, noting the long history of racialized and gendered stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. These were reinforced by policies such as the Page Act of 1875, which was predicated on the idea that Chinese women were prostitutes, and are magnified by xenophobia in the context of globalized capitalism that propels many Asian women into service work.
Layered on this history, the racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric that was promoted over the last six years by the former resident of the White House was profoundly disturbing, as were his anti-immigrant policies. We again express outrage over interlinked racist, misogynistic and xenophobic violence and discourse. We hope that legislation being prepared by the House of Representatives to provide a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” as well as undocumented farmworkers will help us all at last embrace an understanding of a thoroughly inclusive “we” that is fully accepting of immigrants and immigration and is ready to provide refuge to people seeking protection from around the world.
The State of California is proposing to add ten days of
instruction to the 2020-21 school year, in an attempt to compensate for
learning losses during the pandemic.
Schools are driven by the clock. We can probably all picture that great round wall clock at the front of every classroom we ever sat in. Bells chime to signal the beginning and end of each day, at precise hours like 8:14 am and 2:43 pm. The time to pass between classes is rationed, with high school corridors briefly coming alive before the panic to beat the buzzer.
Time is a variable schools can carve up, manipulate, and – maybe – control. We often do it in the name of equity. If we can just ensure the same number of minutes of instruction for all…
In the 1980s I was a teacher in a multi-track, year-round
school – a time-based solution to
over-crowding in LAUSD. In our “Concept 6 Modified” calendar, 40 minutes
were added to the end of every school day, and a whole month of instruction was
cut. A trade-off of time and space was achieved, in the name of equity: three
“tracks” rotated through the building, sharing classroom space, and students
across the district all received the same number of minutes of instruction each year.
But as a teacher I knew that 40 minutes at the end of the day was not the same quality time as a whole month of mornings for children. Never mind all the instructional time that was lost shuffling between classrooms, moving materials, and going on and off of “vacation” mode.
The pandemic has put the whole world on hold, and upended time in countless ways. It has forced us all to take a pause in so many of the things that gave our lives a sense of momentum and direction. We can’t just plod blindly forward along predetermined developmental tracks to a presumably certain future. We can’t start and stop the buzzer just when we choose.
Since April, I have been conducting a diary-based study of the pandemic experiences of 33 families from diverse social positions around the U.S. * Through participants’ words, we see the uneven the impact of the pandemic on the education of children – shaped by families’ social and economic positions, the ages and grades of their children, their access to technology, internet services, and technical support, and children’s particular social, emotional and learning needs. Some young people – across race/ethnicity and social class – are thriving. Freed from the drudgery of school, they are using this time to explore their own interests. And families are learning all kinds of things as they live through this moment – despite or because of all the challenges it presents.
What would it mean to really seize this pause, and use this time to reflect deeply? What if schools led this effort? Rather than adding a few days of instruction to the school calendar – charging forward with our pre-pandemic curriculum – what if we retreated for ten days, to bring students, teachers, parents and community members together to share what we are all learning from the pandemic itself, and from our experiences within it?
I propose a ten-day educational summit, led by California school leaders and students. That’s a ten-day plan I could get behind.
*The team of researchers on the project include Dr. Lu (Priscilla) Liu and Sophía Ángeles. The project was funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, and the Social Science Research Council.
Note: This blogpost was developed in collaboration with my project team, Dr. Lu (Priscilla) Liu and Sophia Ángeles. Thanks to all the families who are participating in our project. Thanks to the Spencer Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and UCLA’s Bedari Kindness Institute for supporting our work.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with all the suffering and challenges it has brought, offers us all a tremendous opportunity to see our social worlds and to re-imagine them. In this blog we suggest a few lessons that we have learned from our research exploring the impact of the pandemic on the lives and learning experiences in a diverse set of 33 U.S. households, and offer suggestions for schools.
Social processes and practices can change very quickly, and do, when circumstances force them. The rapidity with which we collectively moved our lives (and schooling) online and rearranged our social lives is really quite astounding. For sure, it wasn’t without upheaval, dissension, discord, and uneven-ness – partly because of the mixed messages we got from our leadership. And the changes may be more in form than in substance. But we did make certain kinds of changes very fast – changes that might have seemed impossible a year ago.
Existing social inequities are illuminated and magnified. The pandemic has made more visible long-standing disparities in health, well-being, economic stability, and education. The rapid changes are enacted in unequal ways and their effects may further exacerbate those inequities.
New possibilities emerge, if we are able to see them. This is where we find hope. We are trying to focus our attention here, as we draw lessons from the families in our project, for reimagining schools.
While schools have rather quickly gone “on-line” or adapted to remote instruction, for the most part they have not changed basic practices to respond to the moment. Generally, schools seem to be trying to do the same lessons they would do in person, in an effort to keep students “on track.” (We might ask, on track to what?) The rapid changes have been largely in form – learning to work on line – than in substance.
What’s worse, on-line instruction has forced a retreat topractices that we know are not pedagogically sound: ones that magnify and exacerbate existing inequalities, as a report by my colleague John Rogers makes clear. This includes more disembodied approaches to teaching and learning; more reliance on decontextualized language (without the supports that would benefit all students, and English Learners in particular); more “reductionistic” tasks that students experience as disconnected from their lives and experiences, and boring. More drill-and-kill, rather than working with the affordances of technology to open up the new possibilities that many of us are discovering for ourselves in our everyday lives, such as the fact that we can connect across great distances, build new social networks, and collaborate in new ways. More solo workrather than collaborative project-based learning.
This reinforces inequities. Some children in our project had the material and technological resources – and space within their home – to concentrate on schoolwork. Some had older siblings or parents who could tutor them, and help them “broker” technology, so they could address problems that arose as well as use the Internet to explore their own interests. Others used school-loaned Ipads mostly just to do the textbook-like exercises the school gave them, as best they could, on their own.
Given these inequities, and given the stressors that all families are experiencing right now, we have been asking: How could schools support all kids in engaging in rich learning at home during this time?
There is an extensive body of educational research and practice that calls for recognizing and building on what Luis Moll and Norma González called “community funds of knowledge:” the knowledge and skills that are learned and shared in everyday contexts. This work calls for bridging homes and schools in the service of learning, equity, and educational opportunity.
Under the pandemic, the bridge between homes and schools has gotten much shorter. In fact, schools have moved into homes. But movement across the bridge seems to go mostly in one direction, as teachers send home long lists of tasks for children to complete at home.
We want to suggest a few ways in which teachers might cross the bridge themselves, and invite families to cross as well – bringing lived experiences during the pandemic into view and connecting schools and homes in more meaningful, generative, and engaging ways.
Household Activities as Source of Inquiry
One mother of three elementary-school aged children in our study described trying to supervise her children as they completed more than 30 discrete assignments on the iPads each had been loaned by the school. María’s own mother, Isabel, who lived with the family, had meanwhile moved her domestic work outside, so as not to disturb the children. She set up a portable stove on the porch where she prepared “mole,” a heritage-food from her native Oaxaca that involves toasting pumpkin seeds, grinding chocolate, chopping red chili peppers, and mixing some 20 other ingredients.
María struggled with the transformation of her role as a mother into that of teacher/disciplinarian, especially having to enforce silence as the kids tuned into their separate “classrooms” from within the small space her living room offered. She wasn’t always sure what the tasks required or how to guide her children, in English. She did, on the other hand, find creative ways to involve her children in everyday activities that involved all kinds of learning – to, as she put it, “reinvent” themselves, as they struggled with the challenges of the pandemic and its emotional impact. She regularly involved her children in food preparation.
What if schools supported families in learning together, as they participate in daily life?
While not all families may be preparing things as elaborate or culturally/historically rich as mole, most certainly they are all budgeting, shopping, cooking and sharing food. This everyday lived practice is going on around children as they try to “do school” at home, and many parents are struggling to juggle shopping, cooking, and cleaning with their new roles as tutors, teachers and school disciplinarians. How much stress might be alleviated if this work could be combined? What if we honored the work that is happening in homes, and invited children to learn about and share in this essential, everyday work?
Teachers could invite families to prepare a meal together from start to finish, and/or ask students to observe the preparation process. They could write lists of the ingredients, identify how much they cost (perhaps comparing the prices in several local stores), take pictures of the preparation process and the finished products, and write about the experience. Class lessons could involve writing out recipes (which families may never have written out before) to share, describing the meals, graphing favorite foods, comparing and contrasting different ways of preparing common foods such as rice. These activities could easily be connected with state standards in math, science, social studies and language arts.
Importantly, we want to caution against discussions of food preparation that simply reinforce cultural stereotypes or assume cultural norms. We also urge teachers to be careful in the ways comparisons are made across households. Not all families prepare the elaborate kinds of traditional heritage-culture food that Helen, another participant in our study, displayed in photos.
Some families may be struggling just to put food on the table. (In anticipation of that possibility, teachers might offer a list of local food bank resources.)
If families do share food that might be considered more “typical” of their cultural heritages, teachers can help elicit the stories behind these foods, contemplating the meanings these foods take on both historically and in households. Helen, for example, shared the history of the Dragon Boat Festival in China, explaining why people make rice dumplings and do boat racing on this day.
Domestic work: Divisions of labor
The pandemic has increased the domestic labor required in many households, as families are spending more time at home, often combining paid and domestic labor in that space. As with food preparation, children may be witness to work that previously took place when they were away at school, or when their parents were out of the home. This was true in María’s home, as the family stepped up food preparation partly in order to sell it as a new source of income after they lost their outside work. It was true as well in the homes of professionals in our study, such as Luz, who taught her own third-graders from her living room while her two pre-school children played nearby.
Why not make this a source of inquiry as well? Children could interview family members about the work they do at home (both domestic work and paid labor). As with food preparation, they could take photos, write stories, share and compare. (See for example Wendy Luttrell’s article, A Camera Is a Big Responsibility”: A Lens for Analysing Children’s Visual Voices). Perhaps they could support their parents’ work in some way. Luz, for example, involved her own children in the work of recording videos for the classroom.
This might easily lead to discussions of equity. Who does what work, and how is that work valued both in homes and society? What kinds of work are more invisible in households? (For example, who does the work of brokering language, literacy and technology? Here are some ideas about how this kind of everyday language work could be leveraged in school.) They could discuss ways of distributing the work at home – and in society – more equitably.
The families in our study have described a number of new practices they have taken on to enhance their health, happiness and well-being during this time. This includes taking walks in nature, writing “gratitude journals,” hosting game nights, establishing family weight loss competitions, and more Schools could be a place for sharing these practices. Teachers could support students in exploring how these new practices impact their health and well-being. They could also consider what practices interfere with health and well-being. (The stressors that “doing school” at home might be one of them.)
Learning together while easing family stress
We have offered just a few ideas for how schools could integrate learning activities with the things that families are doing every day. The first step to doing this would involve talking with children and families about their daily lives: using the bridge that has opened between home and schools to cross both ways.
We are suggesting that this kind of integration could perhaps ease some of the stress that many households are experiencing at this time. Rather than adding additional, unrelated chores to family life, and forcing parents into untenable roles as disciplinarians while managing household tasks, families could better attend to their own health, well being, and social-emotional needs – which are surely greater than ever during this time. Schools would be supporting families in developing or solidifying practices that could enhance their well-being for the long-term.
For sure, this kind of creative, relational and dynamic approach to learning might not ensure that kids are prepared in exactly the same way for standardized tests at the end of the year. And projects like this might be hard to grade in equitable ways, especially given the diversity of household experiences. It requires creativity, adaptability and flexibility on the part of teachers – teachers who are also experiencing tremendous stress due to the pandemic.
This returns us to the first lesson outlined above: that practices can and do change very quickly when circumstances force them. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine accountability processes to better respond to the needs and realities facing children, families and teachers during an incredibly challenging time.
And perhaps this re-imagining could help us make much-needed, substantive changes for education in the future as well.
When we began 2020 I thought the big event of 2020 would be a personal one: turning 60. I reflected on my life – now most certainly past any “mid” point – and wondered what the years ahead would bring. I revisited a birthday blog I wrote in 2018 in which I reflected on the generally-taboo topic of Death.
It turned out that my February birthday celebration was the last “normal” thing I recall. I took an amazing boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island with my kids, then had old and new friends over to my house to write “get out the vote” letters that I saved until October to mail.
That’s the last clear memory I have of sharing food and drink in a crowded room without worrying that standing too close and simply breathing could lead to someone’s death.
A few weeks later, the world turned upside down. The great taboo topic of Death became harder and harder to ignore. (But somehow, most people managed to ignore it anyway.)
When the pandemic first began, I read many thoughtful, philosophical essays and blogposts about the lessons that Mother Earth, the universe, God or the goddesses seemed to be trying to teach us. I wrote a few myself: about the opportunities that this crisis presented for seeing the social world in new ways and for re-imagining it; about the contradictions we were all suddenly living; about what it would mean to really, truly, deeply appreciate what we have right now, by embracing “the cups already broken” – the fact of our impermanence.
I joined a chorus of people who focused on what we might take from this experience: Slow down. Be more present. Be grateful for each moment, each connection we have with our loved ones, each breath. Re-evaluate our priorities. Drive less, consume less, produce less, and BE more.
But then those lessons seemed to fly out the window, as we – especially those of us in Academia – ramped up. While Death was all around us, we acted as if we were invincible. While the plans of the whole world got derailed, we just kept chugging along the same train tracks. We got schools on line, meetings on line, everything on line…and we taught more or less the same lesson plans we would have, because we were worried about keeping everyone “on track.”
On track to what?
Admittedly, I ramped up my own work this year by taking on a whole new project: a study of the impact of the pandemic on 33 households across the country, part of a study of households in ten countries around the globe.* While this added significantly to my work load, it also helped me to slow down. Reading the diaries of our participants, I and my research team (Dr. Priscilla Liu and Sophia Ángeles) cried and laughed and heard the lessons our participants were learning this year. While not all their words were hopeful – some expressed great despair, and cynicism – I was struck by how many seemed to be learning profound lessons about what really seems to matter in life. Here are a few excerpts:
“Things that mean more to me now: a warm hug, a belly-laugh with my girlfriends, our little apartment with a window full of green leaves that blow in the breeze, the peaceful crash of waves at the beach, an evening stroll in the neighborhood, a freshly-baked slice of banana bread, a drive up the coast, Thai take-out, and smiling eyes peeking out from behind a face mask. Simple, beautiful things that fill my small days with happiness.”
“I was able to appreciate spring this year. Since we were home most of the days, I was able to see the leaves and flowers grow. It’s like time stood still.”
“I have learned to be grateful and take nothing for granted.”
“We’re learning that patience and grace are imperative.”
“This time together is a blessing, and no matter what challenges come with this pandemic, I hope to forever be grateful for this time together.” “This pandemic has taught me to make the most of a bad situations.”
“What an increase in awareness I now have on the freedom and privileges I have taken for granted in life!”
“Living with gratitude in my heart is the single easiest and most gratifying way I know of that grounds me in the moment and allows me to see the blessings manifest in my life and in the lives of my loved ones.”
“Without love, this pandemic is just a thing that brings disappointment and despair.”
As we launch 2021 I’m hearing lots of platitudes like: “It has to get better.” But does it? I don’t think the universe works by simple rules like that. Unless by “better” we mean the things we have power to change – which is probably, mostly, or only, the way we view things, what we do with what we get, and how we respond to whatever comes our way.
But mostly, this year, I hope to be a littleless “resolute.” Google’s on-line dictionary defines resolute as “purposeful, determined, and unwavering.” Instead, I hope to be more flexible, adaptable, present, and ready to respond thoughtfully to whatever comes up.
Because really, who knows?
Maybe that’s the real lesson that 2020 can teach us. To get a little better at responding rather than reacting. To recognize that “better” is what we make it. To see the cups we hold right now as already broken so that we treasure them now, while we have them, all the more.
*The project was funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, and the Social Science Research Council.
Here’s a summary of one more chapter from Mindful Ethnography – one that addresses one of the most important issues in this book, not just for ethnographers, but in terms of the lessons I want to take from ethnography for living in the world. It explores how we can connect compassionately and empathically with others (and with ourselves), staying connected with both our heads and our hearts, as we engage in activity in the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdoQ62CRXI0.
It digs deep into the question of “othering.” Just who do we create as others (in both small and big ways, along large social axes of race, class and gender, as well as in all kinds of everyday ways). To what aspects of our selves do we construct these “others”? What “empathy walls” do we put up – what Arlie Hochschild refers to “obstacle(s) to deep understanding of another person, one(s) that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs ”? Can mind-hearted practices help us surmount them, transcending our own limits on how far we are able or willing to go – or at least better recognizing them? What might we see on the other side, and how might that help us in our efforts to transform the world?
I also share an “aside” in this chapter – on the paradox of accepting things as they are while acting to change the world – one of several paradoxes I sit with in this book as I bring together scholarship, spiritual pursuits, and social action. (See also this blogpost: https://marjoriefaulstichorellana.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=262&action=edit)
At the end, I offer a guided “metta” meditation for field workers: a way of connecting with more clarity and compassion with all of the people in our field site.
Here’s an overview of Chapter 2 from my book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zH7a98OJnOc&t=2s. As with the other chapter summaries, it is set to music composed by Andrés Orellana (Abstract Apathy).
This chapter takes us to the first day of a new field enterprise and offers mindful ways of entering a field site and seeing it for the first time. Considering the human tendency to leap to evaluation, summaries, category-formation, and pattern-seeking, I suggest ways of slowing down those analytical processes, becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings and creating more room to listen, and see, with our hearts. I’m curious what people think about my reflections on the term “reflexivity” versus “reflectivity.” A guided meditation for first visits to the field begins around 6:00.
I hope this format is a useful teaching tool for introducing students to ethnography, with, perhaps, some more general lessons for Life.
Here is a link to a blog about a new project I have been conducting since May (with Dr. Priscilla Liu and advanced graduate student Sophia Ángeles) – following the experiences of 33 families across the U.S. as we move through this global pandemic. The project is part of a 10-country study (that includes Chile, Argentina, Taiwan, Singapore, South Africa, Pakistan, Great Britain, Sweden, and the U.S.). This blog is housed on the website for this international consortium. Each country will be posting there, so you can read about how families around the world are experiencing this “unprecedented” time.
Musings on Children, Migration, Pedagogy and Possibilities