Monday, November 21, 2011

Knowledge as a Key to Survival (Frederick Douglass & Marjane Satrapi)

Two weeks ago, I was struck by a part of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis when her mother scolds her for cutting class:
“This time I covered for you, but it’s the last time!  Now is the time for learning.  You have your whole life to have fun!  What are you going to be when you grow up??  In this country you have to know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” (Satrapi 113) 
After reading that passage, I couldn’t help but question if American society ever puts that kind of emphasis on education.  Of course the repressive regime Marji Satrapi lives through in Iran is a very difficult environment for her to grow up in and knowledge clearly becomes crucial to survival.  I recognize that many of my students face pressures to succeed in school, but I sometimes question how much most of my students value knowledge and the learning process.  I truly wonder what kind of an impact education would have if the stakes were greater to people’s personal safety and freedom.   
In recently reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the urgency of knowledge is highlighted when Douglass’s master accidentally reveals to him that education is the way out of slavery.  He tricked or bribed little boys to teach him to write, “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter VII).   It became even more imperative for Douglass to learn vocabulary when he first heard the word “Abolition.”  Understanding the meaning of this one word becomes crucial to his life and attainment of freedom.  Douglass writes about his deep understanding of education and slavery’s inability to coexist.
Does our culture value the sustenance of knowledge to this degree?  How can we as students and educators foster the idea that knowledge is crucial to our survival?  During class today, students shared mixed opinions about these questions.  Most students began our discussion by thinking about how education is essential for our eventual success, but I urged them to think of specific pieces of knowledge that can become a matter of life and death.  From there, they began to think more deeply about what knowledge people need to have to travel safely in different countries, what knowledge doctors need to have in order to effectively treat patients, and what knowledge military leaders need to care for their troops.  Some students who have lived in different countries offered stories about how lower classes of people in other countries had to work incredibly hard to gain admission to high school and college to better their lives and to help their families.  
As students continue to read and study The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I hope that the mere discussion heightens students’ awareness of education’s role in our lives.  While we are fortunate to live in a fairly safe and free country, it is important to remember that our ability to seek knowledge and express our ideas is a gift and we should seek to develop our knowledge even if the stakes are not quite as high those Satrapi or Douglass faced.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NCTE 1st Day's Inspiration

This afternoon, I arrived in the windy city of Chicago very excited to get to NCTE!  After the many months of preparation to present, and the more recent stresses of packing, travelling, and preparing sub. plans, the first day alone proved that it was all worth it!

The first workshop I attended was “Talking Writer to Writer: Rediscovering the Power of Conferring” with Douglas Kaufman, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief.  The session was absolutely inspiring!  Kaufman opened the session by stating, “The writing conference is a learning event.”  And then the whole room wrote by responding to three effective quick write prompts.  The presenters paid tribute to Donald Graves and it reminded me of a video I used from him that made such a difference in my writing classes last semester:  To build a writing community, you need to write together, and that was exactly what we did during this session. 

It was interesting to watch the three videos the presenters showed of writing conferences with their students because it was easy to see how coaching writing is a skill (not a formula) and how it looks different depending on age groups.  Some of the best advice the presenters gave about writing conferences:
  •      Go into a writing conference like a listener and writer and try not to push your agenda too much.
  •       Try to encourage students to walk away from the writing conference wanting to write more.
  •       Shorter writing conferences tended to be more productive.

This evening, I was able to listen to Natasha Trethewey read parts of her book, Native Guard.  Her speaking about cultural memory, personal history and what gets erased from cultural history was captivating.  She said that she often asks her students to think about themselves as historical beings.  I enjoyed hearing her read her poetry and like many reviews of her writing, I found her style to be very polished, yet accessible.  I’m hoping to use some of Trethewey’s poems when I teach The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (“NATIVE GUARD” 25), Kindred, Beloved, and To Kill a Mockingbird (“SOUTHERN GOTHIC” 40).  Professor Trethewey signed my book and told me that one of her favorite writers is Seamus Heaney.  

I came back to my hotel room tonight feeling so inspired by the sessions I attended today.  In reviewing some of my students' digital portfolios today, I tried to respond to some of their updated posts with conferring strategies I saw today.  The first session reminds me that coaching writing is a difficult practice and I need to be critical of my role in helping students improve their writing.  Watching the presenters review their conferences on film made that so much more apparent and I really appreciate their willingness to show what they've learned from effective and ineffective writing conferences.