Search results: "B-Club"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ( 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 (

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.


The cups already broken

IMG_0607 2“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.

On this 45th day of Los Angeles’ “Shelter in Place” initiative, I sit with my Barcelona coffee mug in hand, treasuring all that is already broken.

Memories, still vivid in my mind’s eye, but someday broken too. And new experiences that may leave us feeling a little cheated, but that I treasure just the same, knowing that these, too, will become memories, and that even the memories will shatter one day:

…Standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle with my students on the first day of class; setting our intentions as we pass a ball of yarn around, weaving ourselves together in an interconnected web that we promise to uphold. This spring, we have stretched the threads almost to the breaking point, through the world-wide web that is even more invisible but just as real.  But we each still get to hold our little piece of it, for now.

…Sitting on the filthy floor (how I hated that floor) of the room where our precious B-Club was held, watching young people of all ages move freely as they learned and played together. IMG_3924Now, I smile at video clips of those days, as our team gathers in a Zoom Room to analyze the embodied nature of learning. I relish the connections we are managing to sustain with the kids in our program, through letter exchanges, Remind App messages, and a new and interactive web page. Not the same as playing together, but precious just the same.

…Eating lunch at a faculty meeting in a small room in Moore Hall, another floor beneath us scuffed by countless footsteps in and out. (I never thought I would say that I missed going to faculty meetings, or the opportunity to re-scuff that now-polished floor.) Now, I delight in the tiny glimpses we get of each other’s lives while we struggle through Zoom Gloom meetings: our children, our pets, the books on our shelves or the paintings on our walls or the virtual backgrounds we choose to represent ourselves with. I am happy to see the faces of these dear, smart colleagues, to know they are out there, in the world, doing their good work, fighting the good fight, coming together as best we can with our shared commitments to make the world a better place.

download…Running with friends along the beach path on moonlit winter nights. (I hated wearing a headlight and couldn’t wait for daylight’s saving.) Cheering these loyal friends on, as they pounded with thousands of others through the streets of LA in March’s marathon, right before that cup broke. Now, I treasure the daily texts my running friends send, posting photos of their solo routes on empty streets, reports on distances and times; and I cheer them on in a strange new thing called “virtual races.” I am learning to run alone again,  breathing in city air that is miraculously clean.

…Yoga classes in sweat-filled studios. Holding a plank for an interminable length of time as our teacher prepared us to deal with anything life might throw at us, with a smile.  Now, I treasure meeting up with friends from around the world in my daily kundalini yoga class, listening to my sister-in-law as she leads us in movement and meditation with a chorus of tropical birds around her. I hold in my heart sweet memories of being with her in her Costa Rican paradise, along with those birds…and biting ants and mosquitos. Now we sweat and smile and chat together in this physically distanced but spiritually connected and still-fully-embodied way.

…Places, all around the world, where my feet have touched the earth. The shop where I purchased this mug, on a crowded, narrow, winding street in Old Town Barcelona. Shuttered now, perhaps. Not crowded. IMG_5020The trains and planes and buses that took me there, filled with people going somewhere, oblivious to the privilege of this movement across borders, ignoring the passengers beside them or greeting them with a nod, a smile, or friendly banter, not with fear of the invisible enemy that could spew from their mouths or the pores of their skin and silently spread. All the crowds I have pushed through and the queues I have stood in with aching feet and grumbling mind. I cherish the broken cups of these memories, and embrace the six-foot-spacing-to-buy-toilet-paper-queue that is in the cup I hold right now.

…Greeting friends and family with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on one cheek, or two, or three, or the surprising sweet salt of lips meeting unexpectedly. Selfies and video clips and group shots we took to record precious moments together. Carefree people with linked arms and uncovered smiles for the camera: “Squeeze in! We don’t all fit!”

My hands come together in a prayer, as I bow to these memories, and to all the people I now greet from six feet’s distance: Namaste.

What cups are you holding, right now?



Giving Thanks under the Threat of Extinction

downloadIMG_4845On this pre-Thanksgiving travel day, I am riding a train from Copenhagen to Amsterdam – opting for ground travel rather than a much shorter plane ride, as my small contribution to reducing my overly large carbon footprint. I love traveling this way: seeing the land stretch out before me, mingling with locals, hearing the sounds of multiple languages, feeling the distances between points that are eclipsed in the air. Plus train travel offers undistracted time for reflection and writing.

I will be meeting up with two dear friends/colleagues from London (also traveling by train): Ann Phoenix and Elaine Bauer. I met Ann and Elaine in 2009 when I spent six weeks on sabbatical working on Ann’s study of “non-normative” childhoods (see, analyzing interviews with the adult children of immigrants who serve as language and cultural brokers between their families and the larger social world. It was such a treat to meld minds with these brilliant and generous women, and to build friendships that have stretched across space and time.

That year I was in recovery from what I now call my “year from hell:” a time of multiple losses dealt through cancer, divorce, five surgeries, and the death of my father. It took me a long time to move through the grieving process, to heal and reach a profound sense of gratitude not just for surviving, but for all I learned about what really matters in life by facing the losses head on. I have reflected on that journey in another Thanksgiving blog (, and I channeled what I learned from these life lessons into my work, culminating in a book that just went to press last week (

Ten years later, as I approach another milestone birthday, and as the world moves into an increasingly threatening climate emergency, I want to dig deeper on the gratitude front, and think hard about what my moral and ethical responsibility is to the world, given all that I have received in my lifetime. Because in so many ways, I have come to see that I have been gifted with living through the very best years of the entire history of the species on the planet (from my social location, with all the privileges that my whiteness and location in the global north accords).

What do I mean by “the best years of the species”? The world was expanding; the Cold War had ended; and things were looking up, including on the social front, through the expansion of human and civil rights, and on the economic front, via the expansion of the global economy. Travel became more affordable and globalization had not yet set in (thus the world actually looked quite different in different places; you didn’t see a Starbucks on every corner). Social media had not yet colonized our lives. And we did not yet realize the possibility of our species’ extinction.

Ironically, the very things that made my lifestyle more comfortable (and that made it possible for my parents to raise eight children in modest circumstances, such as the invention of convenience foods and plastic) are now the very things that are contributing to the threat of

What is my responsibility in the face of these realizations?

When Trump was elected, my brother Robert suggested, only half facetiously, that perhaps it was time for us aging white folks to sacrifice ourselves for the welfare of the planet: via self-immolation in front of the White House, much as Buddhist priests did to protest the Vietnamese war. Robert has also suggested, again only half facetiously, that perhaps everyone should be given a “death day” – an appointed time to check out, once we’ve used up our fair share of the resources needed for life.

downloadI don’t think I’m brave or enlightened enough to set myself on fire. I’m not sure I’ll ever be courageous enough to voluntarily “check out” of life.  And while I believe deeply in the equitable sharing of resources – not just a political stance, but one that was strongly enculturated by growing up in a family of ten people – I also recognize that even in an ideal world all resources can never be distributed with complete equity. We can strive to make things fair for others, but in the end, we each get what we get, of both tangibles and intangibles, such as our share of beauty, intelligence, love, belonging, and connection.

The question is, what do we do with what we get?

Perhaps we can do more good by staying alive and sharing our gifts with others than by sending shock waves through our families and nation through the kind of dramatic actions my brother suggested. (So please don’t worry that I am suicidal. Nor is my brother.)

The first thing we can do, I think, is to deeply and fully embrace what we have, with gratefulness, rather than focusing on what we didn’t get, or what we have lost. (However, as per my previous Thanksgiving blog, I realize that grieving can’t be rushed, anger and resentment can be part of the journey, and we can achieve a deeper sense of gratefulness when there is room for us to name our suffering as well.)

And then, we can do what we can to pay it all forward. The tangibles and the intangibles. Share what we have received with the world. For me, the spaces I most aim to do this are with my family, my students, and at B-Club. (See for blogs about this space that is my main place for community-engaged research and that is so dear to my heart; see also,204,203,200_

Feeling guilty or ashamed for what we have (as I have often done) won’t make the world a better place. Focusing on what we didn’t get won’t bring those things to us.  But we can make the world better by sharing what we have been given – and perhaps also by giving to others what we wished we had gotten ourselves. Perhaps, if enough of us do this, we can even turn the threat of extinction around, by moving beyond the grasping, never-enough, need-more-more-more human mentality that seems to have led us into this mess in the first place.

And we may even find that what we give to others comes circling back to ourselves – as indeed I have found, in the sense of connection, love and belonging I have received from B-Club love.

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:

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

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.


Paradoxes of heart and mind: Beyond the Cartesian divide

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling our way into new understandings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings referenced:

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

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




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

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: 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?

Language, Learning and Love

Welcome! Use the pull-down menu to find information about my research, teaching and writing on language brokering, Cultural Modeling, pedagogies of heart and mind,  immigrant youth and families, and gender/literacy and power.  You will find links to public blogposts, academic papers, 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 page you’ll find my reconstituted blog (see Lessons on Impermanence), which offers reflections on these issues, and the themes of language, learning and love.  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 will include:

  • Reflections from my ongoing research on language and literacy practices in immigrant communities, both in and out of school
  • The “pedagogy of heart and mind” that we cultivate in an after-school program I direct in downtown Los Angeles (called “B-Club”), where Teacher Education students, and K-5 kids come together to learn while playing and play with learning  (See also my 2016 book: Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love)
  • Issues facing immigrant communities more broadly, especially the lack of love (and often direct hatred) that is directed against them.
  • Other random lessons from the grand School of Life.

For those who followed the blog that I began in June, 2015, please note that I was forced to restart in March 2016. I’ll be reviving the old blog posts in some form, but mostly learning from the past and moving onward, as is the way of Life.