What I read this summer

In the LMWP Institute, we read books about teaching writing and drafted reviews for each other.  Here’s my review of one of the books I chose to read this summer, focusing particularly on the concluding, “so what” chapter.  Our discussion of this text threatened to divide our otherwise warm community, so I offer this as one turn of talk in an ongoing conversation.  I’m a White professor listening closely to the research of two Black scholars.

Alim, H. S., & Smitherman, G. (2012). Articulate while black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Should students’ Black Language be accepted in school?  Should we correct sentences that don’t follow the rules of standard English when students are talking to us, talking to each other, writing first drafts, or editing final drafts?  Alim and Smitherman tackle this question head on.  In their last chapter, they even use the verb “should” to speak directly to educators: “Rather than interpreting Black language behavior through the lens of Black inferiority, ignorance, or violence, these creative language practices should be utilized for educational purposes” (177).  Are they advocating that students be encouraged to express themselves using the very strongest “creative language practices” that their home languages have to offer?  Sometimes, but not all the time.  They insist that students of all backgrounds be taught the rules of Standard Written English, and we all know that good teaching involves lots of practice.  What Alim and Smitherman want is for students to “be fluent in multiple language varieties, including Black Language and ‘standard English’” (168), and they lament that “schools continue to fail in their teaching of ‘standard English’ to Black students” (168).

What accounts for this failure?  Alim and Smitherman argue that “many youth can learn ‘standard English’ grammar, [but] they resist the constant and unrelenting imposition of White linguistic norms by their teachers.”  They continue, “It’s one thing to learn grammar rules but quite another to be rewarded for ‘sounding White’ (as if there is something inherently wrong with ‘sounding Black’)” (175).  As a White teacher, I was convicted by Toni Morrison’s words that open chapter six:

The language, only the language….It is the thing that black people love so much–the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them.  It’s a love, a passion….The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language….It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language.  And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging….This is a really cruel fallout of racism.  (The New Republic, March 1981)

What are the se “five different present tenses” that Morrison references?  I don’t know exactly, and that’s part of the problem.  I know a lot about the rules of Standard Written English, but not so many of the rules that make Black Language so resonant, so poetic.  Alim and Smitherman outline some of the linguistic strengths of Black language in this chapter, not only explaining twelve rules of the Black language syntactic system (copula absence, use of equatives, and negative inversion, for example) but also artistic and creative cultural modes of discourse.  

So what teaching practices does this suggest, exactly? How do we teach the rules of Standard Written English while honoring the strengths of Black language?  Teach them both.  Teach a critical awareness of the two dialects side by side–all of the dialects, actually, that circulate in students’ subcultures.  Teachers, they suggest, need to educate ourselves, not only about what standard verb tenses are (what is the present perfect tense again?) but also about the rules that govern the dialects that our students speak–because there are rules (see the examples above).  We do not need to pretend to be experts of any of it, but to model a meta-linguistic curiosity for our students; model being sleuths of language variety in our world.  Alim and Smitherman argue that this stance of humble curiosity and attentive study of the grammar rules not just of White English but also Black Language can have an influence for good in our society weakened by social inequity: “The critical linguistic perspective that we adopt in this book should be taught in schools in order to bring about social change” (169).

Life (in memory) is beautiful.

After a week in France with my friend Anne and her family and a week with my parents, I found it difficult to come back to work. It felt like the first half mile of a run, when my heart rate is still so slow that my muscles are begging for more oxygen. The pace felt too fast. People seemed to be talking too much about too many things. One week later, I’m moving at the same speed as the work, so it’s fine. I’m over jet lag, and the memory of a vacation continues to bring almost as much pleasure as the vacation itself. That’s one of the benefits to having an imagination as vivid as my actual senses.

Steve, Caroline, and Margaret and me: our three days with Anne, Eric, and Bea in Ansouis are now like a perfectly smooth, giant pearl in my pocket. I can wrap the fingers of my memory around it and admire its beauty.

The beauty of traveling with family and friends is that the pearl can be passed around.  We can remember together.

So Anne,

Just now, our children are laughing. They are trying to learn how to do a somersault in the water, but they turn catawampus and come up wiping the pool from their faces. They are holding hands and jumping in, blue and green sunbursts of flowers opening just behind their shoulders.

On the bulwark of the castle behind us, our husbands lean over the wall. Steve is saying “Hey, look at me! See what I did?” because he climbed part of the tower to get a better view.

You notice that there’s lavender growing by the side of the pool. You say, “Wouldn’t it be great to drive through lavender fields?”

We walk past a festival of Porches to reach the farmers’ market, where you and B buy radishes to make a French side dish. The men are giddy to buy un poulet entier for dinner. We wash our hands with a lavender soap stone, rinsing them with water the seller pumps from a jug with her foot. My children beg to buy colored pencils, and I let them.

In the afternoon, we walk out of the village and look back on it, sun slanting across the blonde stone walls of the castle and church. We know what is inside the rectory: red poppies, wild flowers bending thickly over streams, and a few naked women painted by the man in the corner. His art is on display annually in the region. The posters are a year or two old, announcing the show’s location.

At the church where scenes from Manon des Source was filmed, a baptism takes place on Saturday morning. French families navigate their cars up the narrow streets (as we did looking for our hotel) and park by the entrance to the castle, taking the final climb to the church on foot.

We walk the steep angle of the streets for the pleasure of the views, vinyards stretching to the feet of forested hills in the distance. I hope we will walk up the closest hill and look back on the village, and we do. We slowly learn to read the trail signage through trial and error. We scramble over fallen trunks to a vista on a rocky outcrop. I take a photo of Caroline taking a photo.

At night, we let the light fade around us on the patio. Our children sleep nearby together, while we lament and laugh at politics. In our hands are French wine and chocolate. In our hands are our husbands hands.  We have no papers to grade, no lessons to prepare. The next day will be like this one.

So, when I want to feel relaxed, to be convinced that life is beautiful, I’m going back to Ansouis. I can rearrange the chronology, erase the travel discomfort, and stretch it out as long as I like. Memory is good like that.

Why write?

As the 2016 LMWP ISI ramps up, it’s time to begin at the beginning again.

“Let us remember…that in the end we [write] for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”
~Christian Wiman

Midwest Climate Ride 2015

I’m going on a bike ride.  Grand Rapids to Chicago.  That’s a long way for these legs to take me, from our home in Heritage Hill to the windy city, assisted only by two pedals and some gears.  I anticipate some aching muscles and a sore seat, but I’m committed to trying to make it for two reasons.  First, it’s an adventure with my husband, Steve, for whom this will be his third Climate Ride.  Last year on sabbatical in Europe, we lived without a car and loved it.  The photo above is me and our kids taking our weekly bike ride to the local farm to buy our produce directly from the grower.  Yes, it was idyllic.  Bike paths made it possible.  This brings me to number two.  Going on Climate Ride allows me to help raise awareness of the dire need for more sustainable solutions for global transportation.  People, our use of fossil fuels is a problem that we need to solve with the best minds of this generation.  I don’t have one of those minds, but I do have a love of exercise and adventure, so here I go.

Not only am I hoping to raise awareness about the need for sustainable solutions to the host of issues affecting the health of our planet, economy, and communities, but I’m also trying to raise some money for a few organizations that are doing front line work.   If you’re also interested in a green future, you can help me to support these organizations.  I’ve designated that all of the money I raise for Climate Ride goes to West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC)Grand Rapids Bicycle CoalitionNational Parks Conservation Association, and Wellhouse.   Giving to my fundraising goal for Climate Ride is giving to these local and national advocates for sustainability.

You can make a secure online donation by clicking on the “Support Me” icon above. Both of us will be notified by email of your advocacy.

Thank you for your love and support!

Climate Ride Support Page

Writing Territories

This week I have been leading the LMWP institute fellows into a writing life.  On day 1, I ask them to consider the fundamental question:  why do humans write?  What purposes motivate us to write?  What verbs do we use to describe what we hope to accomplish with the variety of types of texts?  On day 2, I lead a discussion of audience.  For whom do we write?  Does it help or hinder writers to hold their imagined audience in mind as they draft?  Should we, as Peter Elbow recommends, “close our eyes as we write” the first draft, and only revise with audience in mind.  We also discussed the difficulty of writing for audiences who we don’t know very well.  Kids who write for adult teachers.  College freshmen who write for faculty.  New faculty who write for scholarly journals.    I modeled making a list of audience that inspire me to write.  I realized that even the same people, like LMWP TCs, are two different audiences when I think of them as teachers and as researchers.  Similarly, I want to write advice about how to improve the teaching of writing for an audience of GVSU SWS instructors and for those GVSU instructors as potential research partners.  I also want to write to my children, but my purpose changes (and thereby my topics, tone, and diction) according to the age at which I want them to read the text.  Am I writing for Caroline to read now as a 6 year old?  Or am I writing to her as a 16 year old trying to figure out how to be a a healthy adult?  These same physical people can be different audiences.

I also have a couple of aspirational literary journals (Fourth Genre and Brevity) to which I would like to send essays.

With my writing group today, I realized that my most pressing purpose is to entertain this audience of 2015 LMWP fellows.  I want to write something to read aloud (tomorrow and on our final Thursday) that will delight in some way.  I asked my writing group to flood me with questions about living in Utrecht last year.  I want to know what is of interest to them.  Having an immediate and familiar exigence is helpful.

Another favorite thing about our year in the Netherlands: neighbors with kids

Another favorite thing about living in the Netherlands this year: next-door neighbors with children.  While Steve and I chose where we lived this year very carefully, we got even more than we were hoping for.  We hoped to live without a car in a historic city within easy commuting distance to Amsterdam where there was an international school for our kids.  It took us months of research and good luck to find this house in Utrecht.  Google Earth helped us to scout out the neighborhood before we signed on the dotted line.  But what we could not know, and could not even imagine, was the special enclave of young families into which we stumbled.  There isn’t space here to do justice to the appreciation we feel to our neighbors.  They have welcomed us, invited us to dinner and birthday parties, taken us for boat rides, signed our kids up for gymnastics, art, and horseback riding with their kids, and taught our kids more Dutch than they learned in school.  We have been so blessed.

buuv photoOur neighbors told us that they had an annual neighborhood photo tradition, see above. Tonight, they confessed that it was staged for our benefit, and gave us an album with shots from the year.  Thankful!

Architecture

Nine days to go! This year I have relished architecture. Everywhere we go, we encounter something to see: charming 17th century row houses, soaring cathedrals, Amsterdam School brickwork, or innovative new design–sometimes in the same block. We are living our daily lives within a rich and varied built environment.

IMG_0569

IMG_0587

IMG_0676

IMG_0682

IMG_0683

IMG_0848

IMG_1090

IMG_1122

IMG_1123

IMG_1164

IMG_1275

IMG_1334

IMG_1364