Fermente intercultural (“Intercultural Fermentation”)


So what was I doing in Padova, Italy (known to some English speakers as Padua) this summer?

Six years ago I learned about the Fulbright Specialist Roster, a program supporting short (2-6 week) project-based exchanges to build connections around the world. This is part of the Fulbright Program’s mission of “building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities, and improving lives around the world.”  

My youngest child was in college, and I had the freedom of an empty nest. I wanted to spread my wings and see more of the world. I thought I could offer my skills and experiences in some kind of international exchange. I applied and was accepted.

For the next few years, I scoured lists of Fulbright projects, looking for a match for my professional skills. Universities around the world sought experts on agriculture, business, finance, engineering and more. My academic skills seemed so impractical, even within my own field of Education.  For example, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission sought someone to help with their “Functional and Technical Competency Development Program.”  The Jordan Ministry of Higher Education wanted help with university president selection. I doubted these institutes would see my work with children as helpful for such tasks.  

And then the pandemic hit and travel came to a screeching halt.

But shortly before life closed in on itself and international contact got confined to little boxes on Zoom, I met a young scholar from Italy. Lisa Bugno had read my book, Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love. She wanted to know more about B-club, the afterschool program featured in this book, and the university-community partnership that had spawned it. 

Perhaps this is an answer to the question I posed in a previous post: Why write? And why share our writing?  Here was an answer: because it connects us with other like-minded people. Because someone – even just one person! – may find inspiration in what we share. 

When the heavy veil of pandemic lockdowns lifted, the Fulbright Specialist Roster seemed to offer an opportunity to deepen my collaboration with Lisa, and for me to support the University of Padova’s efforts to forge a community partnership inspired by UCLinks.

So Lisa submitted a proposal to Italy’s Fulbright Commission, and it was approved, and I was cleared for six weeks of living and working in Padova.  I would work with Lisa and her colleague Luca Agostinetti – a two-person program on Intercultural Education within the Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology – and support them in their ongoing work of forging a university-community partnership to advance education for students from migrant and refugee backgrounds in Padova’s public schools. 

Poster depicting intercultural education, from Lisa and Luca’s office wall.

I would also get to experience intercultural education as I learned about schools in Italy, adapted to a new local environment, struggled to communicate in Italian, and engaged in new everyday cultural practices for six weeks.  

The University of Padova

And so to stay true to the commitments to socially conscious travel that I named in my last blogpost, next up I’ll share a little of what I did while I was there, in words and photos.

But first, a little about the University of Padova, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. Learning about the University of Padova and its fascinating history was one of the many highlights of this trip. 

The University of Padova was formed in 1222 (take that in!), by a group of students and faculty who broke away from the University of Bologna because they wanted more academic freedom.

This was stenciled on sidewalks all around the town, celebrating the university’s 800 years.

“This is the place where one and all can share ideas to build a future of justice, equality and opportunity. Liberate your future!” (translation mine, with assistance from Google)

Sidewalk stenciled with university insignias, leading to the “Porto Portello,” one of the old entrances to this formerly-walled city.

In its early years, students elected their own teachers and rectors; the directors were chosen from their own ranks, and their names are inscribed on plaques on the wall in Palazzo Bo, one of the oldest halls in the university (formerly an inn).

Plaques honoring the early directors of the university

The university boasts of having awarded the first university degree (“lauriate”) to a woman, ever: to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopea in 1678. Elena was actually schooled at home – the only option for women of her time. Elena was the daughter of a poor peasant woman and a noble father (yes, her mother was his mistress).  She was a child prodigy who mastered multiple languages (Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic).  She also studied math, philosophy, theology, music and more.  Her father negotiated with the University of Padova to grant her a degree in Philosophy based on her independent studies.

Statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornario Piscopia
“First female lauriate in the world”
Galileo’s podium, in Palazzo Bo, at the University of Padova

Other interesting facts: Galileo taught at the University of Padova. Both his podium and his rib (the 5th vertebra) are on display in Palazzo Bo, the former-inn-turned-university-hall where many PhD students today are awarded their degrees. 

Galileo’s fifth rib is encased in this display

So too are the skulls of professors who donated their bodies to science, which were dissected in the medical theatre while students looked on.

Professors’ skulls on display in Palazzo Bo

Lisa Bugno took us on a tour of this hall, and was moved to tears by the memory of her own PhD ceremony in this austere space. 

We also toured Padova’s Botanical Gardens – which is either the first or second university-associated Botanical Gardens in the world.  (The University of Pisa is generally viewed as the first, but Padovans contest this on technicalities).

Photo credits to Dr. Lisa Bugno, with thanks for a wonderful tour of this amazing garden!

Visiting the university in July was a special treat, because it was graduation time. Ceremonies for different departments and programs were spread out over the course of several weeks, and I would stumble upon informal celebrations all across town, as students gathered to toast (and roast) their friends, in all kinds of playful ways.

One of the many creative, fun ways of roasting/toasting graduating students that popped up around Padova in July.

I got to witness some masters’ theses defenses, attended by family and friends, held in this formidable hall.

Masters theses defenses, with family members of the candidates as audience

I got to work with smart, multi-lingual, international graduate and undergraduate students at this university on ethnography and interview data analysis, and learning about their work.

Conducting a workshop on interview data analysis for doctoral students at the University of Padova
Conversation about ethnographic methods with Dr. Francesca Gobbo, Professor of Education at the University of Turin, Italy, and author/editor of numerous books and articles on ethnographic methods

There’s so much more I could share about this fascinating university and town; I’ve only skimmed the surface here. I hope I’ve piqued your interest to learn more. Perhaps an international exchange is in your own future?

Forging University-Community Partnerships: La Mia Escola e Diferente

The real aim of my work was to support Lisa Bugno and Luca Agostinetti’s activities in a university-community-school partnership that is called “La Mia Scuola e Diferente.”  This involved getting out of the halls of the university and into the community.

Public elementary school in Padova

The project name plays with the multiple meanings of “different:” it reclaims the power of diversity in the face of a public that sees difference mostly as a problem. The school that is at the heart of this program is generally referred to as “different” in public discourse because it serves “foreign” students who live in a “ghetto.” And indeed, Italy does not grant birth-right citizenship to the children of migrants, so the children who attend this school, most of whom were born in Italy, are not viewed as Italian, and don’t have the rights of Italian citizenship. They are perpetual foreigners, and how  to “include” them in the larger society becomes a problem that schools are expected to solve.

One of the challenges we discussed together this summer was how to reframe difference in the Italian context: how to help students, teachers and other community members to see diversity not as a problem to solve but as a resource. How to see the richness of culture, language and life experiences that families in this marginalized community bring, and that could be honored, sustained, expanded and developed in school? This is at the heart of my own work across the decades.

This is particularly important in this political moment in Italy, where just last week Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter was just elected to presidency, on a mostly anti-immigrant platform.

At the same time, in Padova, as in most communities around the world, not everyone views migrants as problems. There are many who welcome these “foreigners” and who advocate actively for their needs and rights. I met with many, including:

—Maestro Fabio, a dynamic elementary school teacher who is spearheading many efforts to connect with parents and the local community: families who come from China, Serbia, Ghana, Ukraine, Syria, Colombia and more.  I visited the school during its summer sessions and spent some time with these smart, funny, energetic kids.

Meeting with Maestro Fabio and the research team at a local store/lunch space near the school

—The director and staff of Fenice Green Energy Park, a center dedicated to educating about green energy, the problems of pollution, and climate change. We toured their facilities and got a glimpse into projects they are bringing to the kids in La Mia Scuola e Diferente.

Display about reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering at Fenice Green Energy Park
Experimentation with different kinds of solar panels at Fenice Green Energy Park
Children’s playground structure that uses kids’ play energy to pump water from deep in the ground!
Displays of different kinds of sustainable construction materials at Fenice Green Energy Park

–The staff of Zalab, makers of documentary films about progressive issues, who run a film-making program with school aged youth.  

-Members of the University of Padova’s Psychology Department, who are working at Fabio’s school to provide a safe “nido” for refugee youth to process the traumas they have experienced, and to support their social and emotional well-being.

Safe space for emotional well-being at a local school

I also met with other teachers and community members who are working to support im/migrants who have gotten to Italy against all odds, seeking better lives.  

This includes Luca Favorin, a renegade Catholic priest who has created a project called Percorso Vita, which provides housing and jobs for migrants.  We shared delicious meals at the restaurant he has created, staffed by migrants who bring culinary experiences from their home countries to create gourmet meals in an outdoor setting adorned with images of migrants and representations of their experiences.

Luca Favorin at the restaurant he has established to provide jobs to new migrants, and to educate Italians about the situation facing migrants
An information display about migrants at the restaurant
A meeting with students on a farm that provides housing and food for migrants, part of the Percorso Vita project.

I met with Sergio Giordani, the mayor of Padova, a down-to-earth man with a progressive vision for the city, in an austere, centuries-old hall.

Meeting with the mayor of Padova

I talked with the local newspaper and a local television station about La Mia Scuola e Diferente project.

Newspaper report on this intercultural encounter

My own intercultural education

I also got to see and experience a myriad of other things.  

I had a hands-on lesson on pasta-making (“oriquetas”) at Lisa’s kitchen table.

Making “oriqueta” (little ears) pasta
Oriqueta ready for boiling
Pasta in the pot!
The finished product!

I also went on a wine-tasting tour to a consortium of wineries (Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepo Pavese) that are working in ecologically sustainable ways. One of my hosts, Luca Agostinetti, in addition to being an expert on intercultural education, is also an expert sommelier.  He and Lisa organized a wine-tasting tour for students in a class they taught on wine and gastronomia. I got to join them.  We toured six wineries, with wine-tasting at each of them, and had some amazing meals in Italy’s best “slow food,” farm-to-table style in rural areas that are building agriturismo.

Grape growing region in Oltrepò Pavese
We were welcomed with personal placemats and glasses for six wine pours at the Quaquarini Franceso Winery
“Slow food” dinner at the Torrazzetta winery and restaurant.
Our multi-course menu
The owner of Castello di Luzzano winery, Giovanella Fugazza.
Packaging and labeling of wines at Castello di Luzzano

Experiencing daily life in Padova

One of the things I most enjoyed during my six weeks in Padova was the opportunity just to feel the rythms of daily life, to immerse myself in this local context, and to get to know the town. I purchased a used bicycle and virtually every day ventured out to bike and walk around the labyrinthian streets of this historical town.

At the Prato della Valle in Padova, ringed with 78 statues of famous Italian men, erected between 1775 and 1883. (Yes, only men.)

Of course, I ate amazing food. More importantly, I saw the deep valuing of food in the Italian culture: taking time to eat, to be together, to nurture the body and spirit and soul. Eating just enough, and slowly. Enjoying each bite. Not rushing through oversized meals in the American way. I saw that schools also value food as a way of nurturing young people, educating both body and mind.

This extended to coffee-drinking. Tiny shots of expresso, or small cups of cappuchino. Not the bloated and bloating, sugar-drenched, over-sized Starbucks versions. (“Venti” – what an ugly usurpation of an Italian word!)

These experiences formed my own intercultural education. I had to figure out all the things that newcomers deal with: identifying food in supermarkets, navigating the bus system, getting lost, struggling to communicate with a rudimentary knowledge of the language (more on that in a future blog), and so much more. All of this gave me more empathy for and understanding of what new im/migrants contend with – with far fewer supports and a whole lot more trauma.

I did indulge in some “tourist” experiences as well, through day trips to Venice, Florence, Bologna, the foothills of the Alps, and Bassano del Grappa. In the latter, I experienced the beauty of this land and learned more about its terrible history under Fascism.

Memorial to victims of the massacre of 48 young men, victims of Fascism in 1944.

Street dedicated to these young martyrs

Fermente intercultural

In all of this, I hope I fulfilled the Fulbright mission. My own understanding of the world expanded. I came away with a deep sense of appreciation for people all around the world who are doing work like the good-hearted people I met in Padova: facing similar challenges as they try to reframe “diversity” from a problem into possibilities, and address the very real inequities and injustices that abound in different-yet-similar forms around the world.

My aim in this blog is to share just a little of what I have learned with interested readers, and to preserve a summary of the experiences for myself.  I hope I have fairly, if only very briefly, represented all the people and organizations I got to know.  

Importantly, my collaboration with the people I met in Padova is not finished. In many ways, it’s just beginning. It takes a long time to  forge cross-cultural understandings, and I only scratched the surface in my six weeks there. Luca Agostinetti described this work as “fermente intercultural.”  Intercultural exchanges are like good wine: they take a long time to come to fruition. They require continuous attention (as in the “metodo clasico” of prosecco-production, in which wine bottles have to be turned twice a day for many years).

Wine cellar stacked with a million bottles of wine.

At the last winery we visited on our tour, the owners opened a 35-year-old bottle of prosecco for us. We toasted each other in a cellar surrounded by a million bottles of wine, all fermenting, awaiting their time to be savored and appreciated in the world.

Celebratory uncorking of a 1987 bottle of prosecco.

Ten Days?


The State of California is proposing to add ten days of instruction to the 2020-21 school year, in an attempt to compensate for learning losses during the pandemic. 

Schools are driven by the clock. We can probably all picture that great round wall clock at the front of every classroom we ever sat in. Bells chime to signal the beginning and end of each day, at precise hours like 8:14 am and 2:43 pm. The time to pass between classes is rationed, with high school corridors briefly coming alive before the panic to beat the buzzer.

Time is a variable schools can carve up, manipulate, and – maybe – control. We often do it in the name of equity. If we can just ensure the same number of minutes of instruction for all…

In the 1980s I was a teacher in a multi-track, year-round school – a time-based solution to over-crowding in LAUSD. In our “Concept 6 Modified” calendar, 40 minutes were added to the end of every school day, and a whole month of instruction was cut. A trade-off of time and space was achieved, in the name of equity: three “tracks” rotated through the building, sharing classroom space, and students across the district all received the same number of minutes of instruction each year.

But as a teacher I knew that 40 minutes at the end of the day was not the same quality time as a whole month of mornings for children. Never mind all the instructional time that was lost shuffling between classrooms, moving materials, and going on and off of “vacation” mode.

The pandemic has put the whole world on hold, and upended time in countless ways. It has forced us all to take a pause in so many of the things that gave our lives a sense of momentum and direction. We can’t just plod blindly forward along predetermined developmental tracks to a presumably certain future. We can’t start and stop the buzzer just when we choose.

Since April, I have been conducting a diary-based study of the pandemic experiences of 33 families from diverse social positions around the U.S. * Through participants’ words, we see the uneven the impact of the pandemic on the education of children – shaped by families’ social and economic positions, the ages and grades of their children, their access to technology, internet services, and technical support, and children’s particular social, emotional and learning needs. Some young people – across race/ethnicity and social class – are thriving. Freed from the drudgery of school, they are using this time to explore their own interests. And families are learning all kinds of things as they live through this moment – despite or because of all the challenges it presents.

What would it mean to really seize this pause, and use this time to reflect deeply?  What if schools led this effort? Rather than adding a few days of instruction to the school calendar – charging forward with our pre-pandemic curriculum – what if we retreated for ten days, to bring students, teachers, parents and community members together to share what we are all learning from the pandemic itself, and from our experiences within it?

I propose a ten-day educational summit, led by California school leaders and students.  That’s a ten-day plan I could get behind.

*The team of researchers on the project include Dr. Lu (Priscilla) Liu and Sophía Ángeles. The project was funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, and the Social Science Research Council.

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.


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.