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?

First day of B-Club 2016!


Our first day of this, our seventh year of B-Club, was….well…chaotic. There’s really no other word to describe what invariably happens every year on the first day in which the participants in our multi-age after-school club meet up for the first time, start to get to know each other, and try to figure out what to do in this space that isn’t quite like any other they know.  I am learning to embrace the chaos, accept my own discomfort with the loss of a sense of control, and trust in the process that will unfold as our group builds something unique together, and reflects on our learning therein. It’s not easy to “let go” of control, but when I can do so, step back and notice and observe, there is always much beauty and order to see beneath the surface of what does invariably feel, well…chaotic.

This year we had seventeen Teacher Education students (our beloved “Grugs”), four undergraduates (equally beloved “Ugs”), three graduate students, forty-two kids, and myself. Twenty-two of the kids were returnees, IMG_1249anxiously awaiting the start of the new year of our club, and at least somewhat familiar with our “Acuerdos” and our practices. The other twenty-eight were new, figuring this out along with most of the adults who were there for the first time. There’s a lot to figure out. It can be unsettling.  But sitting with that discomfort can lead to new insights. As one Grug wrote in her weekly reflection:

“A classroom management book we use for another class often talks about how stressful it is for children to be in an environment in which they completely lack control or autonomy. I think it is interesting that on Friday, I felt like the roles had been switched; the kids were autonomous and confident, but I felt like I had fallen into a stream of kids, and simply had to move along with the flow of their choices and desires. They know the campus, the club, their peers; I know no names, no buildings, no “rules”, or expectations, and this role reversal made me very uncomfortable. However, I think this discomfort provides great insight to what it feels like to be a child.”

As often happens in schools, our best-laid plans to create some kind of order didn’t quite pan out. We had pre-planned groups of 4-5 child participants with two Grugs. The groups included a veteran B-Clubber and newcomers, older and younger. The idea was to have mixed ages and mixed expertise so that the more “expert” participants could introduce the novices to the school and the Club.  But some last minute changes to the list of participants were made by the school, so the groups we had established didn’t work, and we had to improvise.

Welcome to life in schools!  Last year on our first day, the fire alarm went off and we all had to exit the room.  An article our group will read later this quarter, called “Teaching as Disciplined Improvisation,” speaks to the pedagogical imperative for improvising. Teachers are often forced to go off script. To figure out what to do on the fly. To adapt, shift gears, make do. And to do so with a smile!

search-1(I did all kinds of improvising during my years teaching at an elementary school not far from the school that now houses B-Club. For example, new students would often appear at my door, sent by the office, unannounced. I had to quickly improvise a desk, materials, a buddy, ways of learning about this child and bringing him or her up to speed and into the community of our classroom. And pretend that this was all part of my plans for the day.)

Organizing large groups of kids is challenging enough in a classroom setting, where teachers can rely on the standard machinery of schooling (all the things that help to assert “control” over squirrelly children’s bodies): four walls to house us in, chairs aligned in space and anchored to the floor, a whiteboard or chalkboard to stand in front, chalk in hand, posed ready to write names under either a happy or sad face…and the power of the institution backing adult authority, via the threat of sending a child to the principal, or a note home.

In our after-school program we have none of that “repressive apparati”  or contextual supports.  We also don’t want to “control” in those ways.  We want to channel energy in safe, responsible and productive ways.  We want kids to take responsibility along with us. We don’t want them to rely on adults to take care of all problems, but work with each other and with us to address any issues that arise.  We want to build a community based on mutual respect, and reflect on that building together.

But on the first day it’s always hard. Plus, it’s after 3 pm, and the kids have been sitting on chairs and walking in lines for six hours. Their heads are hurting  from thinking thinking thinking  all day (as they learn things that are hard for them at that age – even if those things seem easy to adults, who did that learning long ago, and probably in their first language). They’ve spent most of the day listening, being quiet, and keeping their bodies still. At this hour, the kids want (arguably need) to run, jump, dance, and move. And scream!  Julia and Maylin told their Grugs that screaming was their favorite thing to do.  [We have seen these first graders in their classrooms, and we know they don’t get to scream there. (In fact, Maylin’s teacher told us that she almost never talke in class last year.) We imagine they don’t get to do a lot of screaming at home either.  I think about my own “quiet good girl” childhood, and my reflections in my last blog (https://marjoriefaulstichorellana.com/uncategorized/why-do-i-write/) about the power of finding our voices. Perhaps B-Club gives a little room for these girls to find theirs, and to experiment with different ways of using them.]

(I stopped by the school yesterday to take photos of the kids in preparation for Friday’s club. I asked each to record on my voice recorder what they would like others to know about them. Maylin and Julia said, “That we like to scream!”  and indeed, they SCREAMED into my voice recorder.  The cool thing is that I could show them the visual image of their screams – charted on the Ap as sound waves – and how it shifted when they spoke in normal voices, or whispers.)

So on Friday I listened to the screams, but also laughter.  I watched as some kids threw their bodies on the ground in wild abandon (but with perfect control – no safety issues here). They slid on the big wooden floor of the MPR in a way that made an old lady like me feel, well….nervous. I tried to just notice my own discomfort and ask the questions we always ask before deciding if we should intervene with our adult authority: “Is this safe? respectful? responsible?”  If it’s not a matter of safety or disrespect, can I just notice how it makes me feel, and not feel compelled to stop it? (I’m so used to controlling my own every move. What would it take for me to feel that kind of freedom, to let myself loose in that way?)  Note: If it DOES feel like a matter of safety or respect, to ANYONE, we DO encourage ANYONE (kids or Ugs alike) to speak up, or intervene.

Yet even on this first day of confusion and, well…chaos…some magic began to emerge. I watched as a group of about six children of mixed ages forms around two young men who are learning to be teachers in our program. These Grugs skillfully channelled what looked at first like frenetic energy into a game of four square.  Kids saw the fun and joined in. The  group expanded, and the smiles grew bigger, the laughter louder.61qsM8ejJ2L._AC_US160_

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Another group of children discovered some books I had set out on a table: brightly colored with images of “countries we are from:” El Salvador, Guatemala, India, the Philippines, Korea, China. “Guatemala!” a new girl to our program exclaimed. “My mom was born there.” The group plopped down on the hard wood floor of the MPR, books in hand. A Grug noticed, and joined in, using the books as a way to learn about kids’ lives. IMG_2034  We learned that one of our new participants is from India AND Cuba!

The first “letters of love” appeared as well, as kids found the stationery I had set out, and wrote impromptu letters to their new Grugs. They expressed love openly in ways that adults would never dare.  “I love you! You are so butiful” Sarita wrote to her new UCLA mentor friend.letters of love Such expressions of affection – or “letters of love” –  happen every year, without prompting.

In their reflections this week, several of the Grugs commented on the “chaos” – some noting their discomfort, but also commenting on how beautiful it was to see children moving freely, playing happily, not confined or “controlled.”  Two made explicit comparisons to the classrooms they are working in in the mornings.  They noted that there, kids often rely on the teachers to enforce control. They noted how much kids tattled on each other in school. In contrast, they saw the kids at B-Club cooperating, not turning against each other.  One Grug wrote this:

“I was amazed not only by the kids’ incredible energy levels, but also by how good they were at managing independently. In my first grade classroom, every other minute a student comes up to me trying to tattle, asking for help managing a social problem, complaining about something a peer did…in B-Club, I did not see any problems like this come up. Despite all of the chaos, nobody complained about getting injured or being wronged. I thought this was an amazing testament to children’s’ ability to self regulate, and perhaps conversely about their reluctance to self regulate when they expect adults to “solve” problems for them. They happily ran, read, created art, played games, etc.”

Another connected with the best memories from her own childhood:

“I liked how there was no instruction about where the kids should go if they wanted certain things. Instead, supplies were left out in various places, and the kids figured out what they wanted to do with supplies on their own. It reminded me of countless summers I had growing up outside with my neighborhood friends. We were not enrolled in summer school or summer camp. Instead, we played in front yards, and on our street, and made up games with the things we had in our houses. These were some of the best times of my life, and a huge part of it was that there were no adults involved! Instead, we had complete creative control over our playtime, and it fostered lifelong relationships and a kind of creative freedom I’ve rarely experienced since growing up. B-Club felt like this.”

A third said it helped her to think about how schools could be, if we could completely re-imagine them.


When it was time to clean up part of me panicked. How to gain the group’s attention? I felt responsibility for doing something, aware that the new Grugs undoubtedly expected someone – me? – to take charge.

We have long learned not to try flicking the light switches in the room, something teachers do in classrooms all the time. With a group this big in a room this dark, that will only elicit panic and pandemonium. To clap for attention (another favorite teacher trick), or foolishly ask for “one two three, eyes on me” was hopeless, with all the sounds bouncing around this echoic room.  What would “work” to draw people out of their small group activities, and bring us together as a group?

I tried stomping my feet instead, in a steady rhythm. The Grugs quickly joined in, and helped channel all the energy in these nearly 100 human bodies into a beautiful rhythmic stomping in a circle in the center of the room. First grader Carey (a boy whom we learned often gets in trouble for not sitting still in school), danced with wild abandon into the center, swaying his body with the rhythm of the group, a huge smile spreading from ear to ear. It was still not easy to lead the group in any “controlled,” adult-directed verbal conversation, but you could just see how happy everyone was. We were learning to connect with each other and to experience a sense of group  – together, without a single strong-armed or loud-voiced leader, and without a whole lot of words.

Seeing these moments of (relative) order emerge out of chaos – and perhaps more importantly, seeing the unbridled enthusiasm and sheer joy that the kids evince in moments that may feel chaotic to me – gives me hope for the weeks to come. Every year, I have watched magic happen in this space. I have seen how much the kids LOVE being here, and how much learning can happen while having fun.

The mention of that magic gives me an excuse to repost a blog from two years ago (one of the many that I lost). I’m adding that below, as I eagerly await to see what new magic will emerge this year, and to share a bit more of it here.

Older blog posts about our work at B-Club:

Sharing the magic

MAY 5, 2015  / 5 COMMENTS

Every week at B-Club a little bit of magic seems to happen. But how can I put that magic into words to share with you, my readers? How can I convey the feeling-tone of our learning community, and suggest what is possible in educational contexts?  Images may help to convey the magic, but I want to be careful only to use photos that obscure kids’ images. With words, I can provide some “rich, thick description,” as ethnographers like to say; we can also use words to analyze what goes on beneath the surface of the sometimes-chaotic fun at B-Club.  But there’s nothing like immersing in the context to experience what a pedagogy of heart and mind looks and feels like.

The pedagogical approach we take at B-Club is grounded in the core belief that learning doesn’t just happen in the heads of individuals. It isn’t disconnected from our emotions, bodies or spirits. And it doesn’t have to be painful, or difficult. It can be joyous. It can be fun. Learning comes along for the ride when we put our hearts into what we do. We use kids’ natural love for play, and for connecting with people as the driving force for learning at B-Club: love for the word, the world, the things we were learning about, and the people we were learning with and for.

For the last five weeks, my Teacher Education team has brought a terrific set of new activities to B-Club. These emerged from kids’ interests and invited them into new possibilities. They also connect with the themes that these pre-service teachers are exploring for their own inquiries into teaching and learning: around gender, language, imagination, friendship, technology  and voice.  They elicit “data” naturally: by engaging with kids in activities, and listening and watching closely to what transpires. This requires being flexible and adaptable (transcultural competencies, as I discussed in a prior blog, and skills that teachers deploy every day)  as they follow kids’ leads, builds on their interests, scaffold and support and open up zones of development for everyone involved. They bring inspiration from the training the team has received this year as well from a fantastic organization called Inner City Arts (http://www.inner-cityarts.org/).

Maribeth, Marisol and Leslie met with a group of kids to plan a blog and to write digital stories with photos wearing dress-up clothes. They took a striking pictures of Club participants in different poses against aIMG_2670 clear white background. Marisol told us later that she then left the room briefly, and when she came back she found that the room had been transformed into a theatre. The kids were performing under dimmed lights.  Dolphin and Cutie Pie (pseudonyms) were dancing around the large wooden floor. Alexia was filming, holding an IPad camera as steady as she could and announcing with a big smile: “I’m trying my best!”

Meanwhile, Sydney, Maggie, Cristina and Arianna were outside with a group of kids in their “Explorer’s Club.” Sporting butterfly nets, binoculars, magnifying lenses and notepads, they were out in an large open field on the school lot. (Ironically, this is one of the only open spaces in this community – and a safe space for kids to explore, unlike some of the local parks – and yet usually the fields are empty after school. Where in this urban community do kids get to connect with the land and freely explore local ecosystems?)

In our debrief at the end of the day last week, Sydney noted that every time they have gone out to that field they have discovered and experienced new things. This week they explored the far corner, where a few trees grew in some tall grass. This was an approximately 8 by 15 foot area they had never been in before. One student, Roberto (a pseudonym) exclaimed excitedly, “Miss, it’s like we’re in a jungle over here!”

The kids found and piled up pine cones, discovered and tasted honeysuckle, and pretended to be explorers who got lost in this “jungle.” They wrote in their notebookIMG_2241s, looked at slugs, ladybugs and rolly-pollies under magnifying glasses and googled to learn the scientific name for these little creatures. (Did you know that rollie pollies are Armadillidiidae?)

Sydney reflected later in a fieldnote: They were intently looking at everything. I’m not sure if they all live in apartments or if they have backyards, but this experience with them getting so excited about the plants and animals made me realize how important it is to get students outside in nature. I don’t think most kids who live in urban areas get this experience very much and it’s a necessary part of learning and exploring the world. I hope to be able to include more experiences like this with my students in the years to come.

Sydney noted that when they went into the classroom for our afternoon wrap-up, she had never seen them so engaged in their interactive journals. We recalled how some of the kids resisted writing in these journals at the beginning of the year, and how excited they were to write about what they had explored that day. She noted, “That makes me think about how in the classroom how can we have authentic experiences in the classroom that makes them want to do ‘work.’”

Later Ronaldo and Byron compared notes from the day. Byron said, “We made a movie!” Ronaldo retorted, “Well we got to taste honeysuckle.” Ronaldo added, “This was like the best day ever in B-Club!”

Meanwhile, Sarah and Max worked with some kids to write a song about B-Club. Sarah explained in our debrief: “It was all about how we help each other how, how we get to play, how the Grugs (our affectionate name for the grad students) are the best, how B-Club is the BEST place in the world.” She did note that one student, Ronaldo, wasn’t really into the song, which made her realize how hard it will be to respond to the interests and needs of all students in her future classrooms. But Ronaldo got excited again once they agreed to insert the song into a movie they were making about B-Club. Together, Sarah and Max are thinking about how classrooms can provide structure but also give kids freedom to explore and to let things morph and unfold – what R. Keith Sawyer calls “disciplined improvisation.”

There is so much more I could say about what transpires in our magical club world – the learning that is embedded painlessly in the fun, as kids and Grugs plan and execute their visions together, using language in complex and dynamic ways, and integrating multi-modal literacies with explorations of theatre, art, science and math. As we wrap up B-Club for the year, I will have time this summer to dig beneath the surface of the fun, and will try to share more of that with readers.


Why do I write?


Welcome to the 2016-17 academic year!search-1

I’m making a “new school year” resolution to write regularly in this blog. This is my  commitment to public scholarship and to being as transparent as I can about the work I do, why I do it, and what I learn from it.  I also want to face the hard question of what possible good this work (and writing about it) may do in the world.

I haven’t written in a while. Losing my earlier blogposts stymied me. (See Lessons on Impermanence.) I couldn’t really see reposting old writing. Blogs at their best should be fresh and alive and current.

I have also been suffering from writer’s block in the face of all that is going on in the world right now. What do my words matter, search-2when people are being shot by police at traffic stops, wars are raging, madmen are terrorizing people all around the world, refugees are drowning, the climate is going to hell, and income inequality, racism and xenophobia are at an all-time high…. What can I say in the face of all this?  What difference can my words possibly make?

And then there’s just general writer’s block stuff: the voices in our heads that keep so many of us from putting our ideas into the world: “Who cares what you have to say?”

At a writing workshop this summer, in response to the prompt, “Why do you write?” I scribbled this:

I want to say it comes from a noble place, an enlightened space, a transcendent higher self whose pure and perspicacious aim is to breathe wisdom, light and consciousness into the world. I want to believe it comes from an egoless space, a wise and intentional voice of compassion and humility.

But really it comes from a little girl who long ago was lost in the middle of eight, a child who learned take her place and wait her turn and be careful what she wished for lest she blow her precious wishes, and then she’d be sorry. Three rides at Paragon Park each summer: which ones to choose? She wanted to feel her body soar on them all! One box of candy passed around the dinner table at Christmas, with no pictures on the bottom: what if she chose one with nuts or raisins, not the silky caramel or soft whipped chocolate she craved?

When people ask me what life was like growing up with seven siblings, they seem to assume there must have been a lot of chaos at home. We were ten bodies sharing four bedrooms and one and a half baths. But I search my memory and find no fight scenes. No whining or complaints. My mother reined us in with her unspoken rules:

Children should be seen but not heard.

Children should just do what they are told.

Do your share.*

Wait your turn.*

Don’t ask for attention.

Don’t take more than you need.*

What you have is good enough.

Don’t even WANT any more.

So I write for little Mahgie, who thought she took up too much space. I write for the girl who stenciled Margie the Magnificent! in bold capital letters on the half sheets of scrap paper that were rationed out at home, only to crumble under her mother’s stern glare. I shout back at the same glare that Ginny the Genius received when she pronounced herself by that name. I scream with my sister Ginny, who was locked in the “Screaming Room” by herself, at age two, and for my sister Nancy, whose face turned blue when she locked her own screams deep inside. My words are a dance for my mother, who at age three spun around her kitchen gaily in a bright yellow dress only to receive the same shaming look from her mother, and to wake up the next day to learn that her father had suffered the first of a series of strokes that would take his life. I write for little Anna and for the repressed, rationing and self-denying mother she grew up to be. “That’s good enough,” my mother would always say, “That’s all I need; I don’t want anything more.”

I write for my mother, my grandmother, my sisters, and our daughters, for all the people who were told suffer in silence, shut up and take it, be seen but not heard, or not seen at all. For everyone who was ever told not even to WANT any more.

*Note: There is much of value in these unspoken family rules…The world could do with less greediness and more sharing.  But when we repress desires, where do they go? They may come screaming out…and it’s really only when we let them out that we can have any chance of reaching to that higher place of wisdom and perspective.

Perhaps my hesitation about putting words out into the world comes precisely from a recognition of the power words really do have. Words allow us to sing, dance, desire, love…or hate. Words can build bridges, or walls. They can release old pains and bring about healing…or cause new wounds. They can invite people in, or close people out.  They can open hearts and minds, or polarize and divide.

I want my words to heal my own psychic pain as well as the pain that permeates the world. I want to find words that transform suffering, not perpetuate it, pass it on, or simply translate it into new forms. I want to build bridges, not walls.

This means getting past the two-year-old in me who wants just to rant and rave.  (Finally letting her out might allow me to leave her behind.)  It also means writing not just to people who will approve of what I say, who already agree with me, who are poised to like anything I pen.  It means finding words that will surprise, or give pause, and help people -including myself –  to consider things in new ways. Writing can help the writer to grow, as well as those who read.

(Reflecting back on what I’ve written here, I fear my  characterizations of the world going to hell are the kinds of words that can polarize: with some aligning with me, and others seeing the world through very different lenses…Still, I’m just calling it as I see it, and I  invite people who see things differently into dialogue…)

My colleague, Mike Rose, provides inspiration. Mike’s small book, Why School (https://www.amazon.com/Why-School-Reclaiming-Education-All/dp/1595584676), was the “book of the year” read by all incoming students to the Graduate School of Education this fall. Mike writes with reverence about everyday people, doing everyday things, revealing their dignity and humanity. His words go straight to the heart of big issues, with nuance and complexity, but also crystal clarity, and hopefulness. He stakes a clear stance on controversial social and educational matters, but does so in ways that invite people in rather than close them out. (See his blog: http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com.)

So this is my renewed commitment to write: to face my own demons who think being good means being quiet, showing them instead the power that words can have to help make the world, not “good” or “good enough,” but much better than it is.  Or at least, this is my commitment to try to use my words that way.

I invite you to face your own demons as well, and to write, speak, scream, sing, or dance your own words.  Responses to this blog are most welcome.  You can leave a reply in the space below.



Minding the “word gap”


I’m re-posting my “word gap” essay that appeared on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-faulstich-orellana/a-different-kind-of-word-_b_10030876.html here, as part of an effort to get alternative perspectives on this “gap” out into the world.  Google the term “word gap” and you get a slew of websites that treat the concept unproblematically, assuming and reinforcing deficit views.

At the same time, there’s something problematic about challenging deficit perspectives just by flipping the script.  So I include an addendum below.

A different kind of word gap

The supposed “word gap” between children growing up in white middle class homes, and those growing up poor, immigrant or otherwise culturally “non-dominant” families has received a great deal of attention in recent months. Intervention programs in poor and immigrant communities aimed at increasing the number of words parents speak to their children have offered easy fixes to entrenched social problems. If parents would just feed their children more words, these children would grow cognitively, achieve in school, succeed in life and all would be well in the world.


I refer to this word gap as a “supposed” one, because claims that poor and immigrant parents do not adequately talk with their children have been soundly rebuked by anthropologists (See here.)
The study that initiated attention to this supposed gap (Hart and Risely, 2003) rests on uncertain foundations. Did Betty Hart and Todd Risley count all of the words in children’s environments? Or only those that were directed specifically to the child? By all parties (siblings, aunts, neighbors, friends) or just parents to children? Or just mothers?

Never mind the fact that these words were counted by researchers who had stepped into homes — without all the work that ethnographers do to build relations and rapport so that people are comfortable with our presence as we “study” them. If I were a poor, minority or immigrant parent, I would likely shut my mouth and count the time until the researcher left.


Contradictory evidence is emerging as researchers attempt to replicate Hart and Risely’s study. In short, there seems to be tremendous variation in the number of words that children in different households and communities are exposed to, as well as in their quality. These differences do not fall into a neat pattern that reveals a word gap between poor and middle class, white and non-white or any other binary.


But if we are going to focus on word gaps between groups, we might consider what gaps call our attention, and what ones escape our notice. Why are some the cause of great anxiety, and others not considered a problem at all? Why are words seen and heard — and treated as valuable resources — in some spaces, while other “word wealth” goes unnoticed and unappreciated?


Urban communities in globalized cities like Los Angeles are filled with words. There is an abundance of word wealth alive for the taking by children who walk through the streets of Los Angeles every day on their way to and from school. This is a much more print-rich environment than any suburban neighborhood I’ve seen.


Store windows are filled with product labels and announcements in multiple languages other languages. There are advertisements and announcements on buses, trucks and vans — large and small billboards selling a revolving global marketplace of items such as the new Volkswagon Jetta, Tequila from Jalisco, Samsung phone service and Direct TV. There are street and parking signs of different shapes, sizes and coloring. There is print on traffic signs, parking meters, gum ball machines, pavement and walls. Words and images referencing contemporary popular culture are stamped on the backpacks and T-shirts of the people walking by. The print is encoded in a huge array of styles, fonts, layouts and arrangements, conveying meaning in the words themselves as well as through their juxtaposition with other images, texts and signs.


Just as words spoken in homes are not all directed at children, children walking these streets do not directly decode all the signs, of course. But as I learned when I conducted a community literacy walk with first graders in central Los Angeles (Orellana and Hernández, 1999) young children have a great deal to say about the print that is of interest to them. And even if they do not read every word, they are regularly exposed to the rich variety of ways that adults use texts to express ideas and make meaning in the world.


Shouldn’t we pity the poor suburban kids who have to rely on their parents to put magnetic alphabet letters on their refrigerators to get a little bit of exposure to environmental print? Shouldn’t we worry that that print they are exposed to is likely only in English? Perhaps we should stage an intervention, force-feeding multi-lingual signage into suburban communities as a quick fix for the multi-lingual word gap that middle-class parents don’t seem to see. Then we can count the number of times people look at the words when they are out walking in their community — if indeed they walk at all.

On gaps, deficits…and potentialities

In my “word gap” blog (above), I suggested that middle-class children living in monolingual English-speaking suburban communities are limited by their lack of exposure to the multi-lingual print-rich environments of urban immigrant communities. I named this gap between urban and suburban print environments as a way of countering dominant discourses about deficits, for rhetorical effect: to raise questions about why some presumed deficits call our attention while others escape notice. I also questioned the research surveillance that is brought to bear on certain communities and not on others.

There is much more that I could say about problems in privileged communities that go unseen. But really, I want to make the rhetorically-harder-but-ultimately-more-transformative move of challenging all deficit-oriented thinking. Flipping scripts may help us see in certain new ways, but it still keeps us locked in binaries that I seek to disrupt. As Lao Tzu expressed in the Tao te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.


(retrieved from http://genius.com/2139346)


Flipping scripts can be fun, and may help us to see things we take for granted in new ways. But it tends to keep us locked in binaries of good and bad, right and wrong, deficits and assets. This just perpetuates a much more entrenched problem in educational research and practice: the emphasis on naming problems, identifying gaps, circling errors, pointing out what’s missing or misguided or wrong….rather than seeing potential and possibility.

Do our efforts to counter deficit perspectives unwittingly reinforce their power, as George Lakoff suggests?  (See for example his analysis of the discourse around Donald Trump: https://georgelakoff.com/blog/.)

What if educators regularly and consistently simply asserted an assets-based perspective about all people, pointing to buds of development, and nurturing them, rather than focusing on what is missing, misguided, or wrong?

From deficit- to asset-based perspectives

In Teacher Education programs, including the one I work in at UCLA imgres-1(https://centerx.gseis.ucla.edu/teacher-education), much attention goes to countering “deficit discourses” about students from non-dominant cultural groups. We ask pre-service teachers to identify the cultural competencies that all children bring to school from their everyday lives. An assets-based perspective may help us to see the print that abounds in urban communities as a resource, as I noted in my last two blogs. It orients us to hear multi-lingualism as wealth, not a limitation. It points us to possibilities and potentialities, not problems.


This is very important as teachers work with families and communities from non-dominant cultural groups, whose skills and experiences are so often not seen, valued, or understood.

At the same time, a deficit orientation is not uniquely an issue for our work in underserved communities. Really, our entire educational system – and larger culture – tends toward critique. We are good at judging, evaluating, and circling errors – pointing out what’s missing, misguided, or wrong. We sometimes do all right at praising things that meet our pre-determined norms. But we are not very good at seeing potential in things that we don’t already agree with: seeing what is there, in nascent form, ready to be built upon. We are also not so good at seeing different kinds of competencies. Comparing to idealized, socially constructed, singular, and often impossible standards, we find most things and people (including ourselves) lacking.

Many of us have deeply internalized the critiques that abound in the larger culture and that were reinforced from our many days in school. We are more aware of our faults and weaknesses than we are of our strengths. A deep sense of “not being good enough” pervades our psyches, whether we know it or not. This may lead us to project our fears and insecurities onto others, bury them in food, drink, consumerism or other addictions, or avoid judgment by not taking risks, doing only what others tell us to do, and keeping ourselves small.

In rebelling against this system, is it enough to turn the critiques around? Should we just point to different problems, find other people lacking, and cast judgments in a new way? This is what I did when I “flipped the script” in my word gap blog. I stand by this for its rhetorical value, as a way of hearing the scripts that dominate our thinking.

In this same blog I made another common rhetorical move: I pointed my finger at a faceless, nameless, categorical “other” group. In this case, this “generalized other” were middle class people living in suburban communities, whom I presumed to be white, and monolingual.

Let me personalize this. I am or have been part of that categorical other for much of my life.

I grew up in a seemingly homogeneous, mostly monolingual, middle/working class suburb of Boston. In this safe and relatively privileged world, I was limited in my exposure to and understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity. At a time when the label “LEP” (Limited English Proficient) was being tagged on other children, I was, as Luis Moll once suggested, “LTEP:” “Limited TO English Proficiency.”

Even so, I did have experiences that became foundational to my later study of cultural diversity or “transculturality.” I was a middle child of eight. Being in the middle helped me to see the world from different perspectives and to recognize that there are different ways of seeing the world.

And the seemingly homogeneous suburban community I grew up in really wasn’t homogeneous at all, because there was much variation within the “white suburban” experience. I observed it, wondered about it, and tried to figure out my own values and beliefs in relation to the various ways I saw modeled all around me.

These were experiences that provided a foundation for the work I have done as an adult in trying to understand, appreciate, and cultivate transculturality.

This is true for all people, in all areas of learning and of life. We all have experiences that can be built upon. We all have wealth that goes unrecognized, undervalued, and untapped.

I am not saying we should close our eyes to inequities in resources. Problems in resource allocation are real and must be named and addressed. But let’s notice what problems we see and what ones escape notice.

And then, let’s not just name problems, not just flip scrips, not just perpetuate the same old problems in some new form.

Let’s find places of possibility that may help us build the world we want to live in.

My personal commitment

So more than just flipping scripts, I am trying to write new ones. I am doing this by:

  • Eliminating the “nots” and the “don’ts.” When I find myself noticing what anyone is not doing, or what she or he doesn’t seem to know, I ask myself, “What are they doing?” “What do they know?” And – what does the negative framing reveal about what I assumed they should know or do? What does it keep me from seeing?
  • Over-writing the grammar of my own thinking. The tiny words that connect our thoughts can the reveal what we think of as normative, correct, right, wrong or true. “I like what you wrote, but….” implies that I didn’t really like it that much at all, or at least, that I’m more focused on what I don’t like than what I do. Switching the “but” for “and” keeps me oriented to what is there, and could be built upon with whatever ideas I might have to offer.
  • Un-comparability: When I find myself comparing people (including myself), on any measure I ask myself, “Would I ever do this with a tree?” Would I ever expect all flowers to be the same size, shape and color? This doesn’t mean I forgo all criteria: some plants are healthier than others, because they have the benefits of soil and sun. But would I want a garden full of flowers that all looked just the same?
  • Embracing imperfection: This is the hardest one for me, as it for so many of us who have been trained in the Western world’s elusive quest for perfection (on impossible, socially constructed standards). In contrast, the Japanese aesthetic tradition of “Wabi-sabi” celeimagesbrates “flawed beauty.” (See http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi.aspx and http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm). Quirks and “errors” in construction ensure uniqueness in an object. Rust, cracks, and fading colors remind us that there is no impermeable standard of beauty that is not changed by the march of time.

I still have a lot of un-learning to do as I try to embrace and enact these new ways. I tend to focus on where I fall short. After all, I have 16 years of training in Western schooling that oriented me to do just that (plus thirty more years working in its machinations – ten as an elementary school teacher and twenty as a college professor). But then I just get to ask myself, “falling short by what measure?” and start all over again.


*Please note that there is a rather irrelevant photo attached to the word gap essay on the Huffington Post:  a multilingual “thank you” sign.  I certainly value multilingualism, and gratitude, but the image doesn’t fit with the piece. I tried to get the Huffington Post to remove it, but to no avail. So I just have to embrace this imperfection!


Lessons on impermanence


I am reconstructing two years of blogs that were lost overnight, and using this as an opportunity to learn some lessons about impermanence.

First, the story: Apparently I neglected to renew the hosting of my blog. I also naively assumed that everything out in cyberspace stayed in cyberspace forever, and could be easily retrieved.  Wrong.

This lesson came on the heels of another huge loss: the death of my mother, Anna Marie Walter Faulstich: a remarkable woman who was mother to eight children, grandmother to fifteen, and great-grandmother to three.IMG_0442

Now losing a webpage is not the same as losing a loved one. But losing my mother helped me to take the loss of these two years of work in stride, and to really absorb a life lesson that is so much more profound than it seems when expressed in a few words on a page.

Things – words, ideas, and people we love – really can be lost forever.
So too can glaciers, languages, species, polar ice caps, cities, and nations – things that are being lost from our planet even as I write these words.


We have no guarantee that what we take for granted will be here tomorrow, next week, or next year.

If we’re lucky, the things we love can be around for a long time – as my mother was for 94 long, healthy years.

Mom Headshotmombaby

But we can be sure they won’t be here, if we don’t care for them.

I can (and will) reconstruct much of my blog, but we can’t rebuild the polar icecaps.  We can’t resurrect species that have gone extinct.  We can’t retrieve lost languages. We can’t bring back the dead. And we can’t know the impact of these losses until we have lost them.

If we really took in these lessons on impermanence, how would it change the ways we live?

Language, Learning and Love


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 in41T4j75d6sL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ 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
  • Reports from my ongoing research and praxis in at B-Club. See also my 2016 book: Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love)
  • Issues facing immigrant communities more broadly
  • Other random lessons from the grand School of Life