Karma, interconnectedness, and the immigrant crisis


“Don’t come to our country illegally,” President Trump blasted in a recent tweet, his solution to the current immigrant crisis – one in which thousands of immigrants are fleeing violence in Central America and attempting to cross into the United States.  He went on to emphasize the importance of borders, national sovereignty, and “rule of law.”

“Don’t invade our country,” Central Americans might well have twittered back.  What goes ‘round, comes aroudownloadnd, and whether you believe in laws of kharma and the spiritual interconnectedness of life on this planet or not, there is plenty of evidence that the “crises” we see today were initiated long ago by actions that our country took.  And the actions we take today will have profound effects on the future.

In most of the reports I have read about the “immigrant crisis,” there is some recognition that there are reasons families take the tremendous risks they do to cross the border into the United States – a migration that costs thousands of dollars and potentially their lives, with no guarantee of success. These reports usually mention the rampant gang violence in Central America, and sometimes domestic violence as well.

But there is scant mention of the role of the United States played in begetting that violence, through “interventions” we took over the last century.  Interventions, by their very name, involve a disrespecting of nat01_US-int-1890s-1930s-768x423ional sovereignty, borders, and the rule of law. They are achieved militarily – i.e. through violence.

Take the case of Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup that overthrew the democratically-elected presidency of Jacobo Arbenz, because Arbenz had instituted land reform that threatened the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which was owned by Allen Dulles, brother to CIA director John Foster Dulles.  (For details on this history see Steve Kinzer’s book, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and their Secret World War.) This ushered in fifty years of military dictatorships that were supported and funded by the United States, leading to the “disappearance” or murder of some 200,000 civilians and a legacy of violence that now reverberates in everyday life.

My point is simple: violence begets violence; for every action there is a reaction; and what we do today will have profound effects on tomorrow.

The United States’ recent decision to separate young children from their families at the border, regardless of their requests for asylum (asylum from violence that we are implicated in), will have repercussions far into the future: trauma layered on historical trauma.  Recognizing our own role in creating these conditions would offer us an opportunity to right the historical record, to repair, restore, and set in place a different legacy.IMG-0669

Let me end on a more uplifting note. Last week’s international efforts to rescue the soccer team from the cave in Thailand shows the good that can happen when people come together to support life, not thwart it. While some psychologists have warned that the boys may be traumatized by their experience, all reports thus far are that the boys are happy and at peace. This is likely due to the great efforts their coach took to care for them during their time in the cave, and to ensure that they cared for each other. And now, the mothers of the boys are promising to help “heal the heart” of the young coach who is suffering from his feelings of responsibility – such a different response than the press seemed to expect from the parents.

A situation that could have been tragic, traumatic, and full of blame or shame, has become an opportunity to see the power of interconnectedness, the good that can happen when we work together, and the healing power of care. As a favorite podcast reminds me (https://www.oneyoufeed.net/), we can choose how we respond to any situation in the world, and how we choose matters for what we set in play. There seem to be many forces that perpetuate violence and negativity, but with just a little conscious effort, we might tip the balance toward positivity and love.



Birthday blog: Some reflections on life and death



Indulge me with a birthday blog. A bit of self-indulgence on our birthdays is ok, no?

However, my birthday blog is not really about birthdays at all. It’s about the other end of life. I hope you’ll read on, and trust that I’m not suicidal.

Why am I thinking about death?

Why not?  10350432_10152366752796928_3512390558073954627_nWe all should, really. We plan for everything else.  Schools these days are very concerned with making sure toddlers are ready for preschool, preschoolers transition properly into kindergarten, elementary school students to middle school, middle to high school, high school to college, college to the work force. But after that, we mostly stop preparing for what will, eventually, come next.

(I couldn’t resist inserting this “Why?” photo I took in a cementary in Berlin…¿Warum nicht?)

In this sense thinking about death is not really a divergence from my work in education.  We might educate ourselves and others very differently – and live very differently – if we really, truly, fully, grasped the fact that we all will, someday, die.

How would we treat the people on this planet, and the planet itself, if we viewed all life as precarious, and precious?

How would we live each moment if we knew that whatever words we say could be our last ones, or the last ones our loved ones heard from us?

Let me be clear. I do not think young people should have to wonder such things each morning when they walk through their school doors.  

But I do think that schools do a disservice to young people when we suggest that if they keep their heads down and put all their attention on their futures  they will live happily ever after.

I often hear students (and faculty) saying things like, “I can’t wait until the end of the semester!” “Two more years, and I graduate!” “Just have to push through to the end of the quarter…”

Would we say this about our lives?  (“Almost at the end! One more push to the finish line!”)

download-2Sogyal Rinpoche’s interpretation and elaboration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) offers a refreshingly different perspective on life and death than the dominant “denial” that permeates modern western culture. Rinpoche suggests how “hollow and futile life can be, when it’s founded on a false belief in continuity and permanence” (p. 17).  He describes the way most people live: “Hypnotized by the thrill of building, we have raised the houses of our lives on sand. This world can seem marvelously convincing until death collapses the illusion and evicts us from our hiding place” (p. 16).

He quotes Chuang Tzu:

The birth of a man is the birth of his sorrow. The longer he lives, the more stupid he becomes, because his anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute. What bitterness! He lives for what is always out of reach! His thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.  (p. 17)

My children encouraged me to read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. They understand more about what really matters than I surely did at their age, when I was busy trying to “get through” college, establish a career, raise a family, get tenure, write a book, build a life…rather than just living the one I was in.

Thinking about death doesn’t have to be morbid – except in the literal sense of that word.  Nor do I mean to diminish the pain we feel at the death of loved ones – a pain that is felt deeply around the world right now.  Embracing this moment also doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to the work that needs to be done to make life better for more beings on the planet both now and in the future. It doesn’t mean we stop all preparation for what could lie ahead. But recognizing our own mortality can help us to take less seriously the things that don’t matter, and more seriously the things that do.

So as my birthday gift to readers, I wish you a day full of wonder, grounded in a deep recognition of the impermanence of all things. I hope you will be fully present wherever you are. Kiss your children, tell someone you love them, put a pause in your plans for the future, take a deep breath and remember that this day, this moment, this juncture of the time/space continuum, is a gift, not guaranteed.

I leave you with the words of Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems of all time:

When Death Comesdownload-1

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn,

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

downloadas a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth

tending, as all music does, toward silence

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Words from a man who lost his home in Mexico’s earthquake


22859998_10155521906031928_2080079651281708923_oAs part of my fall sabbatical, I had the opportunity to visit Tlatempo, Mexico, a small town in the hills above Cuernavaca that was partly destroyed in the recent earthquake. About half the houses in the town were located directly on an earthquake fault, and they were reduced to rubble. The community school also had crumbled.

I accompanied Dra. Alicia Valencia and a group of her students from the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional – future teachers who were learning with Alicia about community-engaged-pedagogy. They were accompanying the community in a variety of ways: working with children, listening to parents, offering meditation and yoga sessions, and helping with a myriad of reconstruction tasks.22829443_10155521906026928_6214897323039309781_o

Unfortunately, a large part of the collective energy of this group went to a rather sad task: bagging moldy clothing that had been donated to the town.  After any natural disaster, there are often massive donations of relatively useless stuff. In this case, people who had lost homes had no where to store the clothing, even if they could find items that were appropriate and in good condition. And it was the rainy season…

23004391_10155521921141928_2206013737615094998_o 22829820_10155521921406928_3274288189793025410_o







While visiting the town, I had the opportunity to talk with a man named Rosalio Saucedo Figueroa,  whose home had been reduced to rubble. Rogelio spoke thoughtfully and eloquently about his losses. I promised him that I would bring his thoughts to a wider public, and so I share them verbatim here, along with my translation:

“Hoy aquí en mi pueblo tengo la bendición de Dios de contar con una persona que viene de Los Angeles, California. Está grabando este testimonio, y quiero decirle a la humanidad entera, del Polo Norte al Polo Sur, de este a oeste, que caerse no significa el final. Caerse, y levantarse, es lo más lindo que Dios nos ha permitido hacer en la Tierra. Nos quedamos en cero, sin hogar, pero hoy vivimos contentos, felices, porque nos llega la gente de donde quiera a traernos su buena vibra, su voluntad, y sus buenos deseos. Son los mejores cimientos que vamos a poner a nuestras nuevas casas, y que primero Dios, con toda la suma de ayuda y esfuerzos que estamos hacienda, pronto tendremos un nuevo nido, una nueva casa, y será un pueblo con encanto, un pueblo mágico. Ayúdenos, por favor, se les pedimos, gracias.”

“Today in my town I am blessed with a visit from a person who lives in Los Angeles, California. She is taping this testimony, and I want to say to all of humanity, from the North Pole to the South Pole, from east to west, that to fall down does not mean the end. To fall down, and get back up, is the most beautiful thing that God has permitted us on the planet. We are back to zero, without homes, but we live happy, content, because people from all over send us their good vibes, their good will, their good wishes. Those are the best bricks that we can put into our new homes, because if God permits, with all of the help and efforts that we are doing, son we will have a new nest, a new house, and it will be an enchanted town, a magical town. Help us, please, we ask, thank you.”

“Ahora tenemos que ver que nuestra vida sea arte, y tenemos que demostrar a la humanidad complete que a pesar del desastre mundial que hay, en el desequilibrio que los gobernantes de cada país han provocado, por la ambición del dinero y del poder, muy aparte de eso vivimos gente que nos gusta vivir en fiesta, en harmonía, en paz, sin corrupción, sin ambición. Porque hoy que esta tragedia nos da la oportunidad de contarlo, nos dimos cuenta que no tenemos nada, que sólo somos seres vivos en el planeta, como cualquier animalito, como cualquiera planta, pero que somos importantes para nosotros mismos. Y para poder querer a los demás tengo que quererme primero yo… Si hay amor debe comenzar conmigo…Nosotros tenemos ese gran compromiso con nuestra Madre Tierra. Que mucho daño le han hecho los grandes empresarios, los ricos…y tal vez estos terremotos, cataclismos, estén sucediendo también por eso, que no nos hemos dado cuenta que el planeta está viva, el planeta se está manifestando, así es que vivimos con amor, fraternidad, demostrémos la amistad, y bueno, ojalá que esas gentes duras metálicas, un día reflexionan, y hagamos verdaderamente a nuestra planeta donde la gente vivimos en fiesta.”

“Now we have to see that our life is art, and we have to show all of humanity that in spite of this world disaster, and the uncertainty that the leaders of each country have provoked by their ambition for money and power, that very separate from that live people who love to live in celebration in harmony, in peace, without corruption, without ambition. Because today this tragedy gives us the opportunity, we realize that we are nothing, that we are just beings alive on the planet, like any little animal or plant, but that we are important for ourselves. And that in order to love others we first have to love ourselves. If there is love it should begin with me…We need to make a commitment to our Mother Earth. Because the big corporations, the rich, have don ea lot of damage. Perhaps this is why earthquakes and cataclisms are happening, so that we realize that the planet is alive, that it is speaking, and that we have to live in love and brotherhood, in friendship, and I hope that all those hard metallic men will one day reflect, so that we can truly make this planet a place where people live in celebration.”

When I told Rogelio that I help to train teachers, he offered these words:

“Para todas esas personas que hoy se están preparando para ser maestros, quiero decirles que hay un compromiso tan grande. Podría ser más grande que nuestro planeta, ya que futuramente tendrán que trabajar con recurso humano, y lo que Uds como estudiantes hoy y como profesionales mañana van a ser con sus pupilos. Tienen que mostrar que tenemos que vivir con arte. Les tienen que enseñar a reflexionar. Les tienen que enseñar a pensar. No debemos vivir por vivir. No al materialismo. No a la corrupción. La preparación no es para eso. Ayudemos a prepararnos espiritual y mentalmente. La riqueza del ser humano no es en el capital que tenga, sino en el espíritu, conocimiento, y lo que haga para toda su gente, que esté cerca o lejos de allí.”
“To all those people who are preparing to be teachers, I would like to say that this is a very great commitment. It could be the greatest one on the planet, given that in the future you will work with human resources, what you as students today and as professionals tomorrow will be with your pupils. You will have to show them how to live with art. You will have to show them how to reflect.  You will have to show them how to think. We should not live just to live. No to materialism. No to corruption. Education is not for that. We need to help ourselves to prepare spiritually and mentally. The richness of human beings is not in the capital that they have, but in the spirit, knowledge, and what they do for people, whether they are near or far from here.”
“Que no se olviden que van a ser formadores de nuevas generaciones. Que esas generaciones sepan reconocer su planeta. Sepan reconocer los animales. Sepan reconocer su próximo. Sepan reconocer su propia familia. Y sobre todo que infundan y viven con valores: honestidad, amor, fraternidad, colaboración, que mucha falta nos hace en todos los países de esta planeta.”
“Don’t forget that you are going to be forming new generations. Those generations should know how to respect (recognize) the planet.  They should respect animals. They should respect their neighbors. They should respect their family.  And above all they should infuse and live with values: honesty, love, brotherhood, collaboration, which is sorely lacking in many countries on this planet. “
Rogelio is re-building his home and he knows that he will appreciate it all the more for having seen how easily things he love were lost. I take inspiration from his words and will carry them to the future teachers I work with at UCLA.

Why love? Some reflections on splitting and healing


I would be remiss if I pretended that my interest in “love” (as in my previous post) was merely philosophical and scholarly. In fact, my decision to center love in my work has been a deeply personal one, propelled by life experiences: facing my own mortality with a cancer diagnosis ten years ago, while simultaneously seeing my life unravel in divorce; seeing others lose loved ones or have their lives fall apart in unexpected and confusing ways; grappling with just how small we are in the grand scheme of things; turning to spiritual teachings from diverse traditions as a way to find new meaning and purpose in life; and re-affirming that I want to use my “one precious life” (Mary Oliver’s term) not just to study the world, but to participate as best I can in making it a more positive, uplifting, equitable and just experience for more people on the planet. I’m inspired by bell hooks, who wrote that she was determined to talk about love wherever she goes, even though it may “challenge, disturb, and at times even frighten or enrage readers.” (https://plumvillage.org/thich-nhat-hanh-interviews/interview-with-bell-hooks-january-1-2000/)

Part of my own post-cancer, post-divorce, post-life-falling-apart healing process has involved looking deeply at the psychodynamics of my own life decisions – trying to make more conscious things that were not fully so.  This feels important to explicate in relation to the matter of “splitting” that I discussed in the previous blog post.

For some time, I have struggled to understand what it was that drew me to cross linguistic and cultural borders in my own life, as I moved from a homogeneous, English speaking, white working class, mostly Catholic community to an elite institution of higher education and then ran fast and furiously from that world of privilege into community organizing and teaching. What is my own confusing relationship to my class origins, my whiteness and privilege – especially the privilege that I speak from today, as a white, English-speaking, U.S. full professor at an elite institution?

What I have been seeking are not explanations for my own border crossing that allow me to feel good about myself, or superior to others (e.g. to those members of my family and community who have not chosen to cross cultural or linguistic borders very much in their lives). Rather, I have been trying to understand what I was pushing away from, differentiating myself from, or “splitting” from myself – and what it would mean to reconcile those aspects with other parts of myself that I have more consciously chosen.  My aim has been to understand something about the kind of healing work we have to do as individuals, as a nation, as a world, if we ever hope to get past the things that are dividing and killing us.

I have come to see that in pushing away from the seemingly myopic, limited, homogeneous, monocultural, working class town I was raised in – by learning Spanish, marrying an immigrant (refugee) from Guatemala, moving to California, becoming a bilingual teacher, and working in immigrant and refugee issues for my entire adult life – I was not just embracing new communities, I was running away from something in myself.

This is the kind of psychological splitting that I discussed here. Essentially, I created an “other” – the people from my family or community that I left behind. In “othering” them, I didn’t have to see things in myself that I did not want to see.  This involved some unspoken shame for whiteness of a working-class variety.

In fact, I carry the “limited, myopic, provincial, monocultural” community that I came from in me; it is not something I can run away from or leave behind.  I need to look at how it shaped me and own parts of myself for which I feel no pride.

But that community is perhaps not the things I have labeled it as, or certainly not just those things.  It is filled with loving, humble, good, if imperfect (like all of us) people, who have been shaped by their experiences in the world.  I carry them in me as well. Most importantly, I can choose the values I want to live by, not be bound by these aspects of my identity, and try to hold myself accountable to my values. This is the kind of healing work we need to do as individuals, as well as in the world.

I am attempting to name my experiences in this way, and connect more fully with all aspects of myself, not in order to “confess,” nor to elevate myself or my own experiences, but to seek lessons for healing in the larger body politics. I recognize that I have more work to do, as we do on the planet as well.


Talking about love in a time of vitriol



I haven’t written in this blog for almost a year.

I haven’t known what to say, so I’ve mostly been listening.

What words can I possibly offer to the world that will make any kind of difference in the state of affairs in which we find ourselves, as a nation and a world: the resurgence of overt forms of white nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, hatred and vitriol; violent expressions of rage and social unraveling such as was evident in the Las Vegas terrorist rampage;  regressive policies that undo gains made over the last eight (or fifty or more) years on the social, civic, environmental and other fronts; massive destructive impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations all around the world (Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh, West Africa); the renewed threat of nuclear war; growing social divisions of all kinds; and more?

How can I speak about the things I believe in, and want to build up: love, kindness, compassion, empathy, transcultural understanding, joy and play – without denying or ignoring the tremendous pain that reverberates around the world?

But I’m convinced that where our attention goes, energy flows, and what we resist or fight against directly, we make stronger. When we find openings and build on them we make stronger the things we want to see grow.

So I’m back to talking about LOVE in relation to education. FreeVector-Love-Graffiti-VectorI make a public plea in defense of love and education here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/in-defense-of-love-and-education_us_59f2489be4b05f0ade1b55ea

In this blog, I’ll give a little more depth to these ideas.  But they are still very much thoughts-in-progress. I welcome dialogue. As Paolo Freire (1970) wrote: “Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.”

Defining Love

How to define something that humans seem to understand in a way that surpasses words? I’m reminded of an image of graffiti on a New York subway wall: Love is Love.

In my writing about love to date – e.g., in my (2016) book, Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love – I have resisted extensive complexification of this phenomenon that is so fundamental to the human experience, and yet so elusive. I rather loosely defined love as a force that helps connect us with others and with the larger world; as a quality of being and moving in the world; as a stance that allows us to see potential more than obstacles; and a force that animates learning, from within. My aim was to show how, in the after school program that is the center of my praxis in Los Angeles, we use love for words, the world, and the people we are learning with and from as “animators” of learning, and to consider how participants respond and engage in this space.

But perhaps I can do a bit more here, and better connect with the ideas of others – the many philosophers, poets, theologians, musicians, revolutionaries, and social scientists of different stripes who have given homage to love. I will attempt to bring some of these ideas together, with a focus on love in relation to education and social transformation. Readers can decide just how helpful it is to try to pin love down in words; I’m certain I will not succeed in “getting the words just right,” and that there will be both more and less that could usefully be said. I hope readers will add to the conversation if you are moved to do so.

Love can be considered a fundamental human drive for connection to others (Maslow, 1970) and to the world (Freire, 1978), and an interactional disposition that can help us transcend barriers between the self and other (Badiou, 2017). It can be a force that helps calm the “monster” that the egoic drive to be “right” creates (echoes of Francisco Goya’s “el sueño de la razón crea monstrúos”), images-2and one that helps us get in touch with our feelings and spirits more than our minds, seeking “positivity resonance” (which Frederickson, 2013:10, defines as “micro-moment(s) of warmth and connection that you share with another living being”) over opposition.

Revolutionaries and critical social scientists have considered love as a driving force for social change. Love serves to re-humanize oppressed peoples whose humanity has been stripped from them by the larger society, and awaken critical consciousness. For Paolo Freire (1970) love was “an act of freedom” that should be used to propel other acts of freedom; it is “at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.” Chela Sandoval (2014) builds on the ideas of Freire as well as Che Gevara, Franz Fanon, Emma Pérez, Trinh Minh-ha, Cherrie Morega to posit love as a hermeneutic, a “decolonizing movida” to propel social change. Adopting loving orientations toward ourselves and others as a revolutionary practice helps us to seek out potential goodness and create hope.

images-3While most working from a left, progressive, “critical,” or revolutionary tradition have focused on love for and within oppressed populations, Sandoval (2014) suggests that love can help “transit all citizen-subjects, regardless of social class, toward a differential mode of consciousness.” James Baldwin (1963), as well, saw love as humanizing force for all people, including for oppressors who project their own unresolved pain onto the oppressed. James-A.-Baldwin-Quotes-3Baldwin saw the opposite of love  – hatred – as a force that does not just dehumanize the object of hatred, but that destroys as well the one who hates.

Transcending the Cartesian divide

One of my main aims in talking about “love” has been to challenge the Cartesian divide: the distinction between mind and body, spirit and intellect that was reinforced and developed in the European Enlightenment and the rise of what we know as Modernity. This is also a split that severs the body from culture and that privileges the masculine, narcissistic subject (Irigaray, 1996) (which is key to why love is seen as “soft” in the masculinist worlds of academia and politics). I am following a long line of philosophers and scholars who have called for a transcendence of dualistic thinking and reintegration of intuitive or non-rational dimensions of human understanding with the rational, linear, logocentric mind processes that assumed ascendency in the last few hundred years, as I detail briefly (without the depth t hese ideas deserve) here. This is not a call to abandon “scientific” (or masculinist, rational, mind-driven) ways of knowing, but to re-balance binaries that have gone awry.

Within the social sciences, theorists working loosely with these kinds of challenges to modernist rationalism include Gloria Anzaldúa (2009), Dolores Delgado Bernal (2006), Antonia Darder 2017), Norma González (2006), Laura Rendón 2014), Abhik Roy (2015), Chela Sandoval (2014), and of course Paolo Freire (1993). (Please contact me if you’d like a list of references.) I’m sure there are others, and again I hope readers will add to this list. In different ways, each of these scholars reminds us to attend to aesthetic and affective dimensions of learning and living, not just instrumental, structural, intellectual or cognitive concerns, and to transcend forces that divide humans from themselves, from others, and from the world. Norma González, for example, underscored the intimate (if fractured) connection between language, emotion and identity for Latinos in the U.S. in her beautiful ethnography,images-1 I Am My Language: Discourses of Women and Children in the Borderlands.. Laura Rendón builds on Eduardo Galeano’s idea of “sentipensante” – the marriage of thought and feeling – as a foundation for pedagogy, learning and teaching in her book, Sentipensante Pedagogy.  Sandoval (2014) writes about those aspects of human experience that “function outside of speech, outside of academic criticism” and that are not expressable in words. (Indeed, she speaks directly to the challenges I face in trying to pin love down in words here.)

Healing splits

Transcending the Cartesian divide involves a call to heal from the kind of psychological “splitting” that humans have done, both individually and collectively, in many different ways, across time and social contexts. Indeed, what has most propelled me to try to bring non-academic, non-rational (i.e. “spiritual,” for lack of a better word) ways of thinking into academia has been a conviction that there are limits to what we can understand and do with our rational minds, and that if we really want to effect fundamental change in the ways humans orient to the world and to each other, we need to identify ways of transcending or transforming the separating tendencies that seem to compel our species, again and again, to identify groups of “us” and “them,” creating scapegoats, and constructing dehumanized “others,” in-groups and out-groups based on race/ethnicity, religion, politics, national affiliation and more. 

 The philosopher Alain Badiou (2012) suggests that love is what facilitates this, because “in love the other tries to approach ‘the being of the other.’ In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic…you go to take on the other, to make him or her exist with you, as he or she is.” (download-118)  Schwab (1988, in Uraña, 2017) sees love as a force that allows “coming to the other in recognition of the negative in the self.” Abhik Roy (n.d.) draws on Hindu spiritual traditions to call for “viewing ourselves in others” and engaging in authentic dialogue with strangers without either distancing ourselves from the other or objectifying them on the basis of their differences with us. It is this power of love for rising above differences – finding some measure of love for those whom we find hard to love – that interests me, in terms of how we can use this force in transcultural dialogues.

Of course this is challenging, and risky, especially when crossing lines of privilege and power. But lines of power in any social group are generally multiple, complex, variegated, overlapping, shifting, and fraught with tension. The aim does not have to be to resolve those tensions as much as to use the tension in generative ways. Irigary (1996)download-3 sees love as an “intermediary” that refigures Hegelian dialectical relations not by synthesizing them into a new whole (as Hegel would), but by serving as a passage between dialectical opposites without one side being sacrificed to the other. This involves defying binaries of either/or, us/them, true/false logics that undergird Western thought: challenging the ontologies that hold things apart.

This is not just a psychological or philosophical matter. As an educational researcher, I am interested in how to create spaces where “splitting” does not happen or is interrupted and transformed when it does.  Empirically, we might identify structures, politics, policies, and practices that either promote or mitigate against such splitting.

Tensions for education and social transformation

 How do we reconcile the idea of accepting others, as they are, with that of teaching, developing, socializing, re-socializing, emancipating, empowering, or decolonizing others…or changing the world?  This is a tension that is central to all educational and revolutionary work. What is the role of teachers, leaders, guides or mentors in leading others to freedom or growth?  Who decides just how individuals, groups, or society “should” change?  Are there loving ways to support others (and ourselves) in growing without imposing particular kinds of growth on anyone?

bell hooks (2000) argues that a loving approach to pedagogy does not mean accepting whatever people do or think. True love involves helping others to stretch and grow, even if that growth is at times uncomfortable.58eac09c852653be7d470352e0592a14--bell-hooks-quotes-hook-quotesImage result for hooks love image Freire (1978), in his “pedagogy of the heart,” doesn’t call on people to try to change people, exactly, but to use our wisdom, knowledge, skills and experience to help liberate others, to bring them to greater consciousness, and to support their full expansion as human beings. But again, who does the liberating, or helping, and who decides just how others “should” grow?  In educational work, it is difficult to escape the teleological position that presumes that some people are more fully conscious, more highly developed, or more advanced than others, and that it is the work of those greater experts to draw novices into a developmental path – even if, for Freire, the process should be dialogical.download-2

In an edited volume about love in relation to childhood, teaching, and learning, Gail M. Boldt and Paula M. Salvio (2016) explore the contradictions and tensions that are set up in non-dialogical approaches to education, when teachers are simultaneously expected to love their students, and to mold and shape them in particular ways. They argue that to really understand the dynamics of power in love, we need to consider psychodynamic processes, in which people (teachers, students, parents) project their own feelings of inadequacy, loss of control, frustration, confusion or pain onto students when students do not conform to their expectations or respond in the ways we think they should.

Putting these ideas together, as an educator, I am interested in what helps people to see others (truly and deeply), and supports them in growing, without trying to change them per se.  How do we support growth and learning (for ourselves and others), without creating resistance, projecting our own frustration or hurts onto others, and without presuming that any one of us knows exactly how to help others (or ourselves) to grow, or how to transform the world? As an ethnographer, I am interested in studying spaces and places where these things become (more) possible, and identifying factors and conditions that cultivate them.

Love as an impetus for change

Love and education do not substitute for social action and structural change, but an accompaniment to and motor for that action. Getting in touch with deep feelings of connection and empathy for other human beings may propel us to take action to reduce suffering. Certainly, love can go hand in hand with anger, rage and indignation. Indeed, a love that seeks to counter the forces that divide and oppress must allow room for such emotions to be expressed as well. The element of love is just that which helps us rise above the resistances and blocks that we put up to fully seeing others, and to supporting their growth.

Again, we can consider this an empirical question, not just a psychological or philosophical one.  What practices, processes, politics and pedagogies can help people to see themselves in others – e.g. the images that arise daily: those whose homes were flooded in the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh, Florida, and more, or burnt to the ground in California and the northwest; the young Black, Native and transgender people who have lost their lives at the hands of police officers; police officers who were themselves killed doing what they thought was their civic duty; those killed in mass shootings; and so much more random and patterned violence of all kinds?  Once people “see the other in themselves,” what actions are they willing to take, that they might not otherwise?  And, what gets in the way of empathy?

 Grounding the study of love

I am not a philosopher, psychologist or theologian, so I am undoubtedly out of my depth in conceptualizing love in these ways.  Professionally, my forays into “love” have been anchored in my work as a pedagogue, and an ethnographer of children’s experiences in homes, communities, classrooms and other contexts. This pushes me to take on a different kind of challenge: What does love have to do with ethnography, and how can we possibly “study” love on the ground?  I offer a few possibilities here – and once again, invite further conversation.

Love as a tool in ethnography

Ethnography at its best calls on us to see through the eyes of others, to adopt “emic” viewpoints, to understand local meanings, values, and ideologies.  Love as a force that helps us to suspect our own egos, let go of our need to be “right,” and see the other in ourselves, or ourselves in others, can serve as a useful tool to expand our ways of seeing ethnographically. Transcultural dialogue, grounded in a willingness to try to see how others see, and to move past lenses of separation, can assist in expanding our vision, and understanding better the lives of people we “study.”

In the ethnographic methods class that accompanies B-Club, we follow Sandra Harding’s (2016) calls for “creat(ing) missing diversity in research communities” in order to bring novel kinds of insights to research projects. In our classes and on our team, we try to work with the fact that we are people of different ages, genders, social positions, cultural, linguistic, racial/ethnic and social class backgrounds, who are therefore likely to see the world in different ways. We considered why one student highlighted gender issues, and another social class. We wrestle with how and why we each noticed what we noticed, missed what we missed, and interpreted things in particular ways. What was foregrounded? Backgrounded? Left out? Who did we see as the protagonists of actions, or the objects of them? How did we take the messiness of life and transform it into a neat narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end? What, to us, was the story? From what or whose perspective did we narrate the events? We aimed to learn from all of these ways of seeing in order to enrich our own, and to see collectively in more whole and complete ways.

Working with children offers us many opportunities to try to see the world with fresh eyes, and in our work at B-Club we continuously push against the “adult ideological viewpoint” as we try to see how children understand the world they are growing in to. This doesn’t mean abandoning the critical analyses we may bring based on our greater number of years on the planet; it just means holding them lightly, and seeing how they fit with children’s views of their worlds; considering that there can be different truths, or different ways of understanding the complexities of the world. Most importantly, we might learn from kids.

It was listening to children that most opened my mind to seeing possibility, not just problems, and to considering things that had never occurred to me before. The children of today are growing up in a reality that is different than any of us have experienced, and we can learn to see in new ways by attending to their views. As the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo wrote, “It is beautiful to love the world with the eyes of those not yet born” – which I take to mean seeing with the eyes of those who have not yet been damaged by the world we are bequeathing to them.

Seeing the affective/spiritual dimensions of human interaction on the ground

This is a slightly different way of approaching the study of “love” – trying to see affective dimensions of human experience in interactions on the ground. Let me suggest a few possibilities:

–Fred Erickson (personal communication) suggests that we look for where students’ eyes “light up” – that spark of enthusiasm that is an indicator of their inner engagement (or “animation”) with words, ideas, people. At B-Club we try to follow kids to see where they light up. Because kids have great freedom of movement in our club (unlike in most classrooms), we can see what they choose to do, who they choose to interact with, in what language, in what ways.  Where and how do they connect? Retreat? Withdraw? Move on?  This is a way of grounding our study of love, as in love for the things we are teaching and learning, and the people we are teaching and learning with.

–We can look at love as a quality of interaction, such as in the disposition to orient to others or not. We can consider the conditions that support people in stepping in to relationships, and crossing borders (linguistic, cultural, and more), as well as those that may keep them from doing so. Where, when and how are different kinds of borders policed? Where, when and how are they more safely crossed?

–We can look at this in relation to language: Where and how do people freely mix languages or language forms? Where and when do they cut off aspects of their own linguistic repertoires?  (See Orellana and Rodriguéz, 2016 for a discussion of how dominant language ideologies constrained the full deployment of linguistic repertoires at B-Club, even as participants displayed tremendous flexibility and versatility in reading both the word and the world.)

–We can look at overt and covert expressions of love, by children and adults.  In B-Club, we found that children very freely expressed love to adults, in both spoken and written words, and in physical gestures.  Adults, having been socialized not to cross lines of “inappropriate” adult-child school relations, seemed reluctant to speak the word “love.” Adults also tended to follow school rules of giving “sideways hugs” to avoid the sexual innuendos of direct body hugs. (This often resulted in some awkward maneuvers, as adults tried to pull away from children’s spontaneous hugs.)  But some people (especially undergraduate participants who may not see themselves as “adults”) kept “forgetting” these no-contact rules. So we can ask who expresses love/affection/caring to whom, in what ways, in what activities or contexts.

–What other emic ways of expressing care and concern are evident? For example, when and how do people attend to each other’s needs and interests? Share materials?  Offer assistance, with translation or other tasks?  We can identify moments of open disposition, especially those moments of spontaneous cultural or linguistic translation, as well as times when no such translation was offered, or requested.  Who notices when others are or are not included, and what actions are taken either to include or exclude?  Here, some attention to lines of power will undoubtedly become important, as we consider who gets included or excluded, and/or what new categories of power arise.


Love and solidarity: My commitments in the current political context


IMG_4006In my last blog I had promised to begin unpacking a series of seeming  tensions between a “critical” stance (i.e. focused on naming and changing power relations in the world) and a more “spiritual” one (i.e. focused on compassion, love and acceptance).

I don’t have it in me to do this right now. I’m not feeling balanced enough, in the current national state of affairs. I’m struggling to find a way forward, grounded in love and solidarity.

So for now I will simply post my new post-election commitments. I share them in order to make them public, hold myself accountable, and encourage you to form your own commitments as well.

My commitments

(1)Rethink my priorities in terms of where I spend my time, energy and money.

(3) Work imagesin coalition with others to respond to the matters of the day, taking action on immediate items (e.g. defending immigrant rights), and being prepared to respond to whatever comes up. Be mentally, emotionally and physically prepared to respond to hate, with love and a firm stance of solidarity for anyone who is attacked.

(3) Spend more time writing for larger audiences, not just academia, and not just the echo chamber of like-minded peers on social media. I will also rethink WHAT I write about, working hard to connect the everyday work I do in schools and communities with the larger issues of the day, and the historical lessons I’ve learned going back to 1980s Central America Solidarity work.
(4) Begin immediate monthly donations to these and other groups: ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter, the Sierra Club, immigrant rights groups, “tithing” a percentage of my income to support causes that are under attack. I will continue to donate any income I generate from public talks to scholarships for immigrant youth. Now it feels more important than ever to put my money where my mouth is, and to support groups who are speaking to life and death issues of the day.14956575_10212005201469508_6008722053703342377_n


(5) Check my carbon footprint and tax my own carbon use: See carbontax.org. This I say to Donald Trump: Not everyone tries to get away with paying as little tax as possible. carbonfootWhile I don’t like my tax dollars going to funding the U.S. war machine, I do believe in paying taxes to offset my use of the world’s resources, and if the government isn’t going to tax me, I will just have to tax myself.  I am gravely concerned that the Trump presidency can set us back on the ticking clock to stall Climate Change in ways that we simply cannot afford.


(6) Spend more time with people in the world: building community, forming connections, lImage result for community building imageooking people in the eye,  listening hard: less time talking and more time listening and FEELING.

(7) Reinvigorate practices of daily meditation, including the practice of “tImage result for tonglen imageonglen:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwqlurCvXuM: breathing in the pain of the world with the wish of releasing it.


(8) Reinvigorate practices of self care in order to stay in this work for the long haul.

Image result for tonglen image

Paradoxes of heart and mind: Beyond the Cartesian divide


In the past ten years or so, in my life outside Academia, I have delved into a course of independent study: a search for a more heart- and spirit-centered way of thinking than the one that predominates within the walls of the Ivy Tower, or in the modern western world. (Like many before me, I was propelled to this when “things fell apart” in my life and I faced some Life Challenges head on.) I have traversed a terrain of readings by spiritual leaders from diverse traditions, including varieties of Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Sikhism, Toltec wisdom, and Christian mysticism; translations of Eastern thought for Western audiences (e.g. by Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodrön); the work of spiritual psychologists like Tara Brach (www.tarabrach.com); Jungian psychologists (e.g. Karl Jung, Marion Woodman); more edgy/New Agey social science (e.g. Ken Wilber, Michael Singer); and New Atheistic thinking about the nature of consciousness (Sam Harris).


Along with reading, I have tried a variety of practices: various forms of yoga and meditation, along with other embodied ways of getting out of my own head: swimming, hiking, running, and being in search-1nature.

Admittedly, in all of this I have only skimmed the surface of traditions that could take a lifetime of study and practice to fully understand. I have not been in search of a singular “answer” or pathway to Enlightenment as much as an understanding of the many ways that humans throughout history have probed the mysteries of the universe and dealt with the challenges of life.

Indeed, I have found a common core to these diverse philosophies – one that stands in rather stark contrast with the dominant values of academia and the modern western world. The practices and philosophies all strive to get people beyond ego-centric, left-brained, rational/logical/analytical world views and to tap into something that goes under or over or beyond words.

This intuitive, organic, holistic, heart-centered, ego-transcendent orientation to the world has been an important guide for the ways I try to live my life and do my work today. From this immersion in a set of ideas that live outside of my academic world, the mindset that I had when I entered Academia with Ph.D. in hand in 1995 has been considerably shifted. Hopefully, my actions have followed suit.

And yet, for the most part I have kept this thinking separate from my public academic work. This self-surveillance is propelled by the wariness that reins within the Academy about anything that might be even remotely “unscientific,” religious, mystical or dogmatic. Things that cannot easily be dissected, tabulated, labeled, categorized and typecast are quite suspect in the Kingdom of the Left Brain. The Cartesian divide of mind and spirit is alive and well, and we police ourselves into maintaining it.

Ironically, perhaps, I have done some of the heaviest self-policing when I direct my work to activist-oriented scholars. I expect “push back” if I speak about such “soft” matters as love, kindness, compassion and acceptance, or call for using the word “transformative” rather than “critical.” I am aware that many may see this as too soft a way of responding to power. Injustices must be named head on, confronted, taken to task, pushed back upon.

Fo41mn0wOhpBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_r sure, there are exceptional scholars who traverse the divide between heart and mind, and between criticality and love, with grace and power. Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sofía Villenas are just a few who come to mind. These heart-centered scholars inspire and embolden me.

In recent years, I have taken on the topics of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in public blogs (e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-faulstich-orellana/on-gratitute-genocide-rec_b_4400474.html), in ways that I think also take seriously the importance of recognizing injustice and oppression in the world. My recent book (Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love) calls for researchers to “see with our hearts” and for teachers to embrace a “pedagogy of heart and mind.” In the book I mention Thich Naht Hahn and talk about the “animus.” But I skirt widely around the word “spirituality,” and make no real mention of the many other influences on my thinking or on my life –  perspectives that are rarely heard in academia. My silence makes me complicit in shoring up the Cartesian divide.

But I’m feeling bolder now. Perhaps because there is more opening for such thinking: a growing recognition of the limitations of rational empiricism, as well as the limits of criticality. Perhaps, too, I feel a little clearer about how seemingly contradictory perspectives on the world can and do come together, how they can work in productive tension to point to new possibilities. I am more and more convinced that what the world really needs is a fundamental transformation in the ways we think about everything – not just critical analyses that simply topple or invert power, but then re-create it in some new form.

So I’d like to use some of these blog columns to work out and try on my thinking about these matters. (This will include thinking about not-thinking: understanding the limits of the analytical mind.)


I’ll continue to reflect on our ongoing practice at B-Club, and highlight the academic theories that inform that work. But I’ll try to make more visible these other influences on my practice, and the ways that I am seeking to integrate them into my voice as both a scholar and a social justice advocate.

I will also grapple directly with paradoxes and tensions between a “critical” stance (i.e. focused on naming and changing power relations in the world) and a “spiritual” one (i.e. focused on compassion, love and acceptance). Some may see these as irreconcilable, but I think such tension offers the most productive space for propelling the world into new possibilities. Specifically, I will explore the paradoxes of:

(1) accepting what is, as it is, and changing the world

(2) being in the Now, and preparing for the future

(3) naming inequities and injustices, and assuming a stance of profound gratitude for what we have, and

(4) naming and claiming social positionality, and questioning all forms of ego-identification.

These are not easy paradoxes to unpack, and I will be working out some of my thinking as I go. But thinking is much more powerful when it is done in dialogue with others.  (And then after thinking together, we can let it settle itself.)

So once again I will put out a plea to readers. Do you see the comment box below? I hope you will embolden yourself to write something there. Give me some “push back,” if you will. Some words of inspiration, if you feel inspired. Did something resonate for you? Give you pause? Something you want to think more about, or offer readers a different way of viewing?  Something you want to let settle, and see where it lands?

Feeling our way into new understandings


IMG_3924B-Club 2016 is in full swing now. The shift in perspective always surprises me, though I’ve seen it every year. The initial confusion that most of the young adult participants have when they first enter this space begins to fall away. Their critiques of it get suspended, at least a little. Their resistances erode. They begin to open themselves to the experience, to develop a new understanding of what we are doing, and contemplate why. They start asking new questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and thinking about transformative education in new ways.

The entry point is usually experiential – participants feel their way to new understandings based on their own participation in this space. For some the leap is an easy one; for others it moves them into zones of discomfort. I’m always particularly impressed by the ones who admit to discomfort, and are willing to sit, wrestle, or ride with it.  It’s so much easier to resist discomfort than to work with it.

Our class meets for an hour before the kids come in. We talk about the theory we’ve read that week, and use their reflective notes to deepen our connections between theory and practice. This year, this theory talk takes place at 2:30 on Friday afternoon, after the Grugs have been in classrooms, and taking their own graduate school classes, all week. Not an easy time to engage in heady discussions about zones of proximal development, shifting and shared expertise, repertoires of cultural and linguistic practice, and other such Academese! During that first hour I see how hard the class is trying to remain awake and engaged, but how low their energy really is.

At 3:30 we go to B-Club, and spend 90 minutes playing with kids. This week the Explorers’ Club went off to look for caterpillars, butterflies, ladybugs and other secrets hIMG_0591idden in the grassy field upstairs, telling scary stories as they went. Ramón and Amber led a group in finishing the paper maché piñatas they started two weeks ago, talking about this familiar cultural practice as they dipped strips of paper into gooey concoctions and laid the strips over balloons. The art table continued to attract a small but faithful group of budding artists – though mostly girls, as Greg noted in his reflections on the gendering of space and activities.IMG_0587 (That’s one of our theory-practice conversations: how can we create activities that defy easy gender binaries, and help all kids to expand their repertoires?) Kids stop by the letter-writing table, book corner, or journal writing section whenever they fell like it, integrating literacy into their play with the creative encouragement of Grugs. IMG_3920For example, last week Michiko played a game of Hide and Seek with three first graders. She explained:

“We started writing each other notes at the letter table and throwing them on the ground for one another to grab, run away with, and then read. They said things like, “hi,” “do you like cookies?” and “you can’t find me.” Our altered version of Hide n Go Seek turned into an imaginative land of flying letters and secret hiding spots, at least in my mind. Soon, other buddies joined in and it was so fun! I realized that just as with performing, the more into it I got, the more fun it would be for everyone involved. I found a pair of binoculars and pretended to look through them in search of the girls. I’m sure I looked ridiculous wandering around the MPR like this, but the girls seemed to love the game. I kept thinking they would lose interest, but I guess at the ages of 7 and 8, hide and go seek in a big room with pillars and lots of room to run is forever compelling.”

At 5:00 the kids go back to their regular after-school program home, and the Grugs, Ugs, grad students and I gather in a circle to debrief. What struck me most last week was to see how much the energy shifted between 3:30 and 5. Suddenly the Grugs were animated, their eyes bright as they shared from their experiences with the kids. Laughter punctuated the room. They really wanted to share, to the point that we all seemed to forget it was 5:30 at the end of a long week.

By noticing how we feel in this space, we start to ask questions about how to create more spaces where people feel good: happy, engaged, in a “flow” of activity, rather than pressured, stressed, or bored. The Grugs start to wonder about differences between contexts like this and the typical structures of school. They begin to see learning in new ways, and to recognize the cultural nature of the practices that we take as “normal” in school. Here are a few of their reflections:

(An) important aspect discussed in this reading is,“…an expanded view of what counts as scientific thinking and activity…(Nasir, et al.)” I believe this is the real purpose and foundation of B-Club. We are supposed to be looking at all the “non-traditional” learning that is going on around us and try to connect what we are seeing back to what we are learning in our texts. It seems like it would be easy but, we too are products of years of conforming to dominant cultural practices. It is difficult to spot learning taking place because we have been trained to see learning one way. We are trying to combat this detrimental way of approaching teaching and therefore learning. This article suggests that we can do this by both, “…expanding conventional views of these domains and deepening understanding of the intellectual power inherent in varied discursive and reasoning practices that youth from non-dominant groups bring to school (Nasir, et al.).” In other words, we must recognize the differing ways our students learn in their lives outside of school in order to gain a deeper understanding of why their varying ways of learning have just as much value as the dominant cultures’ ways. In theory I am sure I will be “testing the waters” in B Club, but I will hopefully be able to apply this throughout my teaching career. (Amber)

Rogoff’s article (on Communities of Learners) gave me a deeper understanding of what B-Club is about and attempting to achieve through the theoretical framework of a “community of learners.” It is not simply an after school program run by adults, but more like a community of students and adults interacting, collaborating, and learning. I noticed some parallels between the article and B-Club. Many people in the cohort have expressed hesitance about the lack of structure at B-Club. This is reminiscent of Rogoff’s description of middle-class European Americans’ focus on “organizing the child’s learning through instruction as the format for caregiver-child interaction” (p. 73). Children are expected to behave a certain way in schools, or “specialized adult-run settings,” even after school hours have ended (p. 73). Rogoff describes the phenomenon of middle-class European Americans having a difficult time understanding the community of learners, which I have noticed at B-Club. I believe most of us have been conditioned to operate within the standard adult-run schooling philosophy and anything outside of that can seem chaotic to some. (Jessica)

(Note: Grugs chose their own pseudonyms and gave permission to be quoted here. Faces will be blurred in all photos posted on this site.)

Of course, the Grugs wonder how – or even if – such experiences can be brought into classrooms, and whether the kind of learning that they see close up in this space would even count as “learning” in school. There are many questions that we will continue to explore as we move through the quarter together. For now, we are focused on seeing kids and experiencing learning in new ways, using our practice to deepen our understanding of the theories we are reading, and using the theories as new lenses into what we see and feel.

In future blogs I will explore a bit further this seeming paradox of preparing for the future by being fully where we are right now.

Readings referenced:

Nasir, S. N., Roseberry, A. S., Warren, B., and Lee, C. Learning as a Cultural Practice: Achieving Equity through Diversity (pp. 489-504). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of community of learners. Mind, Culture and Activity. 1(4). 209-227.




Cootie Catchers: Lessons from B-Club for the nation?


imagesThis week I’d like to reflect on a “discussion” of sorts that we held at B-Club two weeks ago, about our “Acuerdos,” or agreements for participation in our club. I’ll share two approaches we took to grounding ourselves in these agreements for the new year. The two approaches illuminate differences between a “teacher-directed” setting and a true community of learners. Along the way I will have a few things to say as well about another study in contrasts: the core values of our club, and our ways of enacting them, and the ones that seem to be reining in this country at this time.

As a teacher, I believe in laying groundwork in any learning community: establishing a set of agreements about how we want to be with each other, and codifying these in some way so that we can hold ourselves and each other accountable. I know it’s important to make this as real as possible, not pro-forma, and not top-down: a genuine buy-in from the group. In my classes, we generally start with a community circle that symbolizes our interconnection: passing a ball of yarn around in spider-web form, with each person holding on to a piece as they voice aloud a commitment of what they will strive to bring to the group.

But as I noted in the first blog of this year, it’s challenging to come together as a group at B-Club, given our numbers, wide age range, and constraining conditions.IMG_0596 There is no classroom large enough to hold us, and the MPR just isn’t conducive to large group discussions given its sound quality and the temptations of that big wooden floor.(There are parallels to the nation: it certainly is not an easy task for citizens to come together in any genuine dialogue or “town hall.”)

So this year we decided to divide the group in three. We had formed “buddy groups” consisting of two of the GRUGs and 3-4 of the kids. Our aim was to have buddy groups sit together to have a guided discussion about our agreements.

But a series of things conspired to interfere with the formation our “buddy groups.” And when we entered the classroom space that had been allotted to us for this discussion, we faced long rows of tables facing a white board at the front of the room.Image result for classroom image So what did we do? We defaulted to the familiar classroom script. I and my team walked to the “front” of the room. The students sat in desks. They self-segregated by age and gender. The GRUGs sat at the back of the room. Everyone faced forward and looked for someone to tell them what to do.

And what did I do? I defaulted into an old familiar teacher-directed classroom script. I assumed the space of authority at the front of the room. I called for the group’s attention. I showed them the poster of Acuerdos IMG_1249that we had established in the past and asked for volunteers to read the list. I asked for “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” indicating agreement or disagreement with each one. Like good students, everyone gave them all a thumbs up. Of course, this was all pro-forma. Did it really mean they knew or understood or agreed with these agreements?

As I proceeded with this teacher-directed classroom approach, I found myself distracted by two third graders in the second row. Mical and Keith (pseudonyms) were folding a piece of paper, passing it back and forth, and talking to each other. They weren’t loud or overtly disruptive, but they certainly distracted me, and I found myself triggered. We were talking about our agreements: to be respectful, responsible, and to listen to others. I felt like they weren’t listening to me.

At some level I realized that they may well have been listening as they worked – I myself engage in multi-tasking all the time. I also knew that just because others were quiet and looking at me didn’t mean they were actually listening. I also knew the approach I had taken was, to be honest, BORING. It wasn’t going as I had planned. I knew all these things, but because I had stepped into that teacher-as-singular-authority space, I found it easy to forget, and just to see the boys’ actions in terms of misbehavior.

And of course, I was self conscious. I knew the GRUGS were watching me and that I was serving as a model as they learned to be teachers. I felt trapped by the script I had unwittingly taken up. I knew I had a few choices: I could try to ignore the boys and proceed with the script; I could interrupt the script and assert my power to interrupt the boys’ behavior (by separating them, taking away the paper, or threatening some loss of privilege, such as participation in the club). I knew I didn’t want to do the latter, but I was triggered in that direction more than I’d like to admit.

What I wished for was for the community we were forming to help me out. (The kind of “noticing” and “helping out” that I wrote about in last week’s blog.) I wished for someone to go over and sit with the boys, and coax them into participating in the group discussion – not punishing or threatening them, but finding some way to build our community together. I wished for someone to step up with me and turn this lesson into a poem or a dance or something that would spark the group’s excitement. But I knew the script we were enacting didn’t allow for that. The GRUGs didn’t feel authorized to play such a role. I had assumed the teacher-as-authority position; they were doing their bit as “students as receptacles” – deferring to my authority, with the onus on me to enact that authority. These are roles that are played in school all the time, as teachers “manage” and “control” their students’ behavior rather than creating communities where everyone shares in the responsibility for being the kind of community we wish to be.

Later, when I reflected on what had transpired, I had my first glimmers of insight into different ways of achieving my own goals. Clearly just going over the list of Acuerdos wasn’t a real way of establishing them. It was boring, and it was a set up for resistance from kids like Mikal and Keith.

And just what was it that was fascImage result for fortune teller cootie catcher imageinating them so much more than the boring adult-led talk?

Mikal and Keith had been teaching each other how to fold paper to create what has been variously called –according to Wikipedia – a “fortune teller,” “cootie catcher,” “chatterbox,” “salt cellar,” or “whirly bird.” (My students added “oracle” and “chismographo” to that list of names.)Image result for fortune teller cootie catcher image

They were animated by this activity. There I had been, trying to engage them in the things I wanted to discuss – trying to catch them in like cogs on a wheel – rather than doing what I believe in: looking for where kids light up and following their lead. Finding ways to connect the things I want to teach or impart with the things that kids know and care about. Connecting classrooms to everyday cultural practices, including the practices of children’s culture (cootie catchers, fortune tellers, Pokeman cards, Tachis, and more).

So…What if we made fortune tellers that had the Acuerdos written on them?

So last week that’s what we did. We wrote the acuerdos on the outer flaps, and left space on the inside flaps for kids to write or say what those acuerdos meant for them. We made a bunch and floated them around the club that day. The kids found them, played with them, and spoke the Acuerdos aloud as they had fun and played.  (And the magic that I referenced in the first blog started to happen, as we all stepped away from the teacher-directed script and began to build our community of learners.)

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Of course, we can’t be sure that Acuerdos made any more sense to the kids in this form than they did in the poster and lecture format. Really, the Acuerdos will have to be lived through our interactions at the club. We may forget and need reminders about how to respect each other, be kind, be safe, and have fun. Perhaps the cootie catchers will help remind us.

Perhaps, as a nation, we could take some lessons from this. What would it mean to really live the values we believe in? What role should leaders play in helping to model and enact and live and support those values? And what about the values themselves? What would it mean to live in a world where respect, kindness, responsibility and having fun were central to everything we did?

Perhaps we should make a whole bunch of cootie catcImage result for fortune teller cootie catcher imagehers to spread B-Club’s values throughout the world.  And then hold ourselves collectively responsible for living up to our ideals.

Pitching in and helping out


In this post I’ll unpack one brief moment that happened at B-Club last week, and connect it to theories that we have been discussing in my Teacher Education class (which links theory to practice through our work at B-Club). This is exactly what I’m asking students to do, so it’s good for me to try the task myself.

Our class is centered on sociocultural learning theory. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who lived at the time of the Russian Revolution, is generally credited with being the father of these ideas. Brazilian pedagogue Paolo Freire searchis similarly credited with establishing an approach to liberatory pedagogies, another foundation for UCLA’s Teacher Education program.search-1

But long before either of these men were born, there was a rather little known educator and philosopher, Joseph Jacotet, whose ideas about education resonate with both a sociocultural and an emancipatory approach to teaching and learning. Jocotet’s ideas were brought to light in 1991 by Jacques Ranciere in a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster.images

In his “method of equality” Jacotet argues that the teacher’s job is not to explicate (what Freire would call the “banking model of education). Instead, the master’s job is to “create the conditions for the desire to learn” to emerge.” This is what we try to do at B-Club, as I explain in my book (Language, Learning and Love):

“At B-Club we try to create the conditions for the desire to learn to emerge. We provide laptops, books, magazines, recyclables, and a variety of paper, pens, and markers for kids to express themselves in drawing and writing, as well as in dance, music, movement, speech and other semiotic forms. We make things, using all kinds of tools and technologies: pens, paper, markers, tape, cardboard tools, laptops. Our focus is on the creative process, and on watching that process unfold, with supports, rather than pre- determining where it will end. We then try to follow their lead, or move with them, creating room for them to lead as well – rather than steering them where we might want them to go. We nurture minds and hearts, looking for what kids love, and where they became animated.”

So last week I was seated at our writing table with a third grader whom I’ll call Eva. I had written a question on a blank page in our group journal: “¿Qué hiciste en B-Club hoy?” I was hoping that the question (along with a new pack of brightly colored gel pens)search-2might create the conditions for the desire to write to emerge.

Amelie (another third grader) came over to our table and looked at the notebook. She asked me, “What does that say?”

I looked at Amelie quizzically, thinking to myself, “Why is she asking this?” I read the sentence to her. She looked at me. There was a long pause. She said, “I don’t know what that means.”

Very slowly, it dawned on me that the question was written in Spanish, a language that Amelie doesn’t understand. But Eva was listening in, and was way ahead of me. She knew exactly what was going on. She offered the translation: “That means ‘What did you do at B-Club today?’”

This brief moment illustrates something I have seen many times in my research on child language brokering (translation and interpretation done by the children of immigrants).images-1 Bilingual kids are attuned to language. They read subtle social cues. They know when translation is needed. And they step in to offer it. Eva was far more attuned than I to the fact that Amelie needed translation. I was not nearly as good at reading the social cues (nor at remembering which kids read Spanish and which ones do not).

Amelie – who may not read Spanish, but who is growing up in a multilingual community – knew some things, too. She didn’t try to sound out the words on that page, using her English reading skills. She took one look at the page and knew that she didn’t know what they meant. She recognized that the words were not in English. Implicitly, she seems to know that there are some things she can read and some things she can not. I don’t think many kids growing up in a monolingual environment, where they are only exposed to print in one language, would necessarily realize that.

Eva’s translation for Amelie also illustrates other ideas we will be discussing in our class. We can operate in a bi- or multi-lingual community by pooling our linguistic resources, and helping each other out. In our community of learners there is space for people to offer help to others. Expertise can be shifting and shared. One person (the teacher?) doesn’t have to be the provider of all information, or the source of all help. People can pool the resources they have. Children have much to contribute, if we let them.

In many classrooms in the United States, space for collaboration is limited. Talk and movement and ways of participating are often tightly regulated by the teacher. I’ve seen kids get reprimanded when they offered help to others: told to “keep their eyes on their own paper” or “do their own work.” They are expected to stay in their seats, keep their eyes on the teacher, be quiet, listen, and follow directions. Classrooms also generally segregate kids by age, and often by “ability,” language, or other forms of supposed homogeneity, so kids don’t get to see “more expert” others at work, and learn from them.

Barbara Rogoff, search-3a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has contrasted these typical ways of socializing children in U.S. schools (and to a large extent, in middle class U.S. homes), with the ways Mayan children participate in community endeavors in Guatemala. (See her TED talk: http://www.tedxsantacruz.org/talks/dr-barbara-rogoff/) She shows children observing what happens around them, and “pitching in” with whatever’s needed. They don’t wait to be told what to do, and they don’t expect to be compensated or rewarded for doing so. These aren’t chores; they are full-fledged forms of participating as members of a social group.

What if we created more space in classrooms and schools for people to help each other out, and to pitch in? What if we valued the idea of noticing who needs help? What if we didn’t emphasize the importance of “doing your own work” as much as the value of offering assistance to others? What if we didn’t set things up for all help to get channeled through or organized by a single authority figure (the teacher), but instead all members of a community were expected to assist each other? What if we established a set of core values (like our Acuerdos at B-Club), and then asked everyone to live by those agreements, and to enact them in their practice?

What if we then took those values out into the world?