Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dark Energy & God's Steady Breath

Look Twice. (M.A. Reilly, 2015)

They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense, drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things. (Plato, The Republic: 10.618a

I. Dark Energy

The universe is expanding--an accelerating, dark energy filled cosmos we mostly don't understand. A universe, physicists now speculate that will go on expanding infinitely--a cosmic acceleration that billions and billions of years from now will cause galaxies, like ours, to be ripped apart.

For most of my life I imagined a different universe and a different ending. Think of a big balloon. Now think of that balloon expanding by God's steady breath. And one day we would drink deeply from the black waters of Lethe before God grew too tired from the constant blowing, from our constant whining and stopped. Then the universe would fold back into itself like a collapsed river we did not know, could not even name.

But that's an old story.  One no longer true--if truth, like time, is a river we cannot speak.


II. Uncle Paddy

Stories, I'm told, are a constant.  And it was a story my mother told some years ago about her Uncle Paddy who killed a Black and Tan in Kilmichael, County Cork towards the end of November, 1920. It was late day, perhaps it was dusk.  An ambush she thought or it might have been a fight with fists and bottles and cudgels. And perhaps it wasn't even Cork or November. Perhaps it was late summer. There was such killing that year and the next and the next and the next. Who could really say?
Were there guns?  Did he snap the Brit's neck?  Were his hands bloody? Did he feel remorse?
Recalling details is largely shaped by what we most want to forget and what we partially recall. But some details remain true.

Paddy was too green to wear the IRA tunic the year he killed the Brit, those temporary constables who did nothing to keep peace.  He was too young to be a killer and too green to remain. And thanks to the sure thinking of others, Paddy was quickly bundled out of Ireland via Dublin's Kingstown port while Cork burned.

He was almost 17 when he crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York City. Arrived to find his sister, Catherine, married to a cop, no less, with five small children and another who would be born later, only to die before her third birthday. All of this and the weight of living in a cramped railroad tenement, but he was a hero in that neighborhood, a fighter for Irish independence. He would live with his sister's family on and off for the next twenty years. He was a man who learned to drink more than his measure. A man who would never return home. A man my grandfather would be called on to identify when the local cops found Paddy's body beaten to death.

Ah Mary, he grew to be such a hard man, never marrying, dying too young. Such were the words my mom said, her breath leaving her mouth in a rush as the late afternoon light colored everything and we sat before two cups of tea still steaming at the kitchen table.  I listened to her talk and talk about Paddy and the Brit until it was dusk and the tea long cooled.

And now nearly 100 years after Paddy first arrived in the States, I find myself wondering about the Brit. Was he someone's father. Was he some woman's lover? There's so much we cannot know. But a son? Yes, the Brit was a son, for certain.

All we have are stories.

III.  Maps

Kitchen wall. 
We are the very stories we find hardest to tell, I say to my son as I look at the wall behind him in the kitchen, knowing well it is marked with pencil, pen, marker--whatever was handy. These marks keep certain my son's growth--the infant who came from Korea at 5 months of age. There's so much I cannot name or keep safe, but these messy marks are maps of love and even at that, they are beautifully incomplete.

For every system we think complete is a lie, even the ones we love--perhaps those more than others.

The spaces between stories are not silences, but rather energies we sometimes heed, sometimes name, often forget. They exceed our definitions, our hunches, our partial knowledge as they are maps we make by living.

The marks stop abruptly at the top of the plate my brother brought back from Greece. They stopped a year ago--perhaps a bit longer. I'd like to think they stopped when I could no longer reach the top of his head to place the pencil against his scalp and draw the line that I would later date.  In truth, though, they stopped when he no longer had the patience, nor the need for such measurement.

All our measurements are at best temporary truths--stories we can't quite hold and need not hold.

He's almost 17, I think watching him leave the kitchen to make his way up the stairs to the room that holds his computers where he'll connect with others around the globe.  I pour some hot water over a tea bag--thinking how my mother would frown at my tea making--and I wonder about the juxtaposition of two young boys who each crossed their own ocean to land here.  One from the East, the other the West. I sip the tea recognizing in part the folly I am making for it is always the map we make in contact with the real that matters most.

You must remember that. Tracings are mostly lies especially those we believe are infinitely traceable. For numbers and the like are placeholders for stories we can't quite tell ourselves. For stories we mostly remember, but not fully. For stories we've heard told and retell as if they were omens to heed, sadnesses to forget, joys to claim.

Tracings are never maps.

I snap a picture of the wall and think this jpg is an act of preservation. I want to remember this night. I want to feel the fullness of it so that I might later wrap it around me like a traveler's cloak when the gathering stillness, the gravity of choices made and not made, the steady breath of God, and the expanding universe leave me mute with nothing but a coin in my pocket and a dark river to cross.


Monday, April 20, 2015

In Medias Res: 10 Nonnarrative Film Openings

(M.A. Reilly, 2015)

Thinking about being in the middle of things 

and how some films open in medias res. 

Here's 10 to consider.



Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)



Crossfire (1947,  Edward Dmytryk)



Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)



8½ (1964, Federico Fellini)



Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (stop at 6:40




Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)



The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)



Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch)



Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)


Mulholland Drive Pilot - Opening Credits / Rita... by kary82

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

Still images before this opening:





Sunday, April 19, 2015

Say It Ain't So, Dave


and   (M.A. Reilly, 2015)
I.

And for those of us playing in #Rhizo15,  Dave Cormier asked that we post our Learning Subjectives. Our learning what?
( Say is ain't so, Dave! )

It wasn't until I read several other posts that I began to understand what a learning subjective might be. Although that meaning was rather slippery.

The phrase, alone, is such a mouthful

        of
                                     emptiness

and perhaps       
       
that the genius of it                                  

--- all that room                         

in the middle 

to wander.


II.

I could make up something here, offer it up
in this in/between space of digits and light, but I'd be lying.

And so,  for now my only 'learning subjective'
is to favor the conjunction,
and                              

Coming to Know Emily Dickinson through Prose and Poetry: K-8 Children's Books

from Miss Emily
Elementary School: K-4


  1. Bedard, Michael. (2002). Emily.  Illustrated by Barbara Cooney. New York: Dragonfly Books. (Picture book biography)
  2. Figley, Marty Rhodes. (2012). Emily and Carlo. Illustrated by Catherine Stock. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. (Picture book biography)
  3. Mutén, Burleigh. (2014). Miss Emily. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. (Novel in verse)
  4. Spinelli, Eileen. (2014). Another Day as Emily. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers. (Novel in verse)
  5. Spires, Elizabeth. (1999). The Mouse of AmherstIllustrated by Claire A. Nivola. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Picture book biography)
  6. Winter, Jeanette. (2002). Emily Dickinson's Letters to the World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  (Picture book biography)
  7. Yolen, Jane. (2009). My Uncle Emily. Illustrated by Nancy Sippel Carpenter. New York: Philomel. (Picture book biography)



Middle School: 5-8


  1. Burak, Kathryn. (2012). Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things. New York: Roaring Brook Press (Fiction)
  2. Dana, Barbara. (2009). A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson. New York: HarperTeen. (Fiction)
  3. Dickinson, Emily. (2008). My Letter to the World and Other Poems. Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Kids Can Press. 
  4. Lewis, J. Patrick. (2003). The Last Resort. Illustrated by Robert Innocenti. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions. (Includes ED in illustration and credits her as muse)
  5. MacColl, Michaela. (2014). Nobody's Secret. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. (Fiction)
  6. Meltzer, Milton. (2005). Emily Dickinson: A Biography.  Lerner Pub Group. 
  7. Yolen, Jane. (2012). The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson.  Illustrated by Gary Kelley. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions. 



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Knowledge and Reading: What Happens to 4th Grade Readers Who Struggle & Positive Role of Robust Reading Aloud

I was reading Gina Cervetti and Freddy Hiebert's article, Knowledge, Literacy and the Common Core, (Language Arts, 92 (4), 256-269) and thought a lot about the fourth grade children I have been working with who are in the middle of a study of Greek mythology and how their increasing knowledge of myths helps them to learn more about mythology and to read increasingly challenging texts. As Luis and others in the class have told me, we're Greek mythology experts.

In the article, Cervetti and Hiebert argue well that knowledge and comprehension are synergistically related and do so by providing four claims that are all research-supported.  Specifically, they find:

  1. "...knowledge of the topic has been found to influence comprehension" (p. 257).
  2. "...general world knowledge, not simply topic- or domain-specific knowledge associated with a text has also been found to aid comprehension" (p.257).
  3. "...knowledge supports inferring and higher-level comprehension processes, not simply remembering information from a text" (p. 258).
  4. "...while knowledge aids comprehension for all students, having a knowledge base can be particularly beneficial for students with lower levels of reading skill...Knowledge about a topic can compensate for reading skills" (p. 259).

Whereas all of these statements are interesting, it is the last claim that most interests me as I think about some of the students and how reading aloud first followed by small group comprehension conversations has proved valuable. In the design of the unit, we privileged reading a variety of Greek myths aloud first, along with independent reading (managed choice of texts) before beginning small group comprehension conversations. As I was modeling for teachers the process for comprehension conversations, I worked with the highest performing readers in the class in one group and the most struggling readers in a separate group. The text I had selected for the children who most often struggle as readers was Joan Holub's The One-Eyed People Eaters: The Story of Cyclops. The text has a lexile level of 400 and also is coded as a guided reading text level K (beginning of second grade). The four students in the group (2 boys and 2 girls) have a history of reading difficulty and all receive special education services.

Comprehension Conversations

A comprehension conversation is a scaffolded method for guiding students' reading.  Students read a text or portion of a text and write answers to a few questions the teacher has prepared. This helps the teacher to ascertain the children's understanding of the text and to prepare for the conversation she or he will have with students. Specifically, the teacher prepares factual, inferential, and when appropriate critical questions for students to answers and then reads the students' responses prior to meeting with them. The student responses help the teacher to determine the content of the conversation, by seeing how well students understood the factual aspects of the text and more inferential understandings. Some questions that help are:

  1. What did the children understand about what actually happened in the text? Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?
  2. When asked to infer, to what end were children able to do this?  Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?
  3. When asked to think critically across a text, were children able to do this?  Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?



Based on the interpretation of students' answers, the teacher then crafts an engagement with the students that will help to explicate the areas of comprehension strengths and challenges the students showed. Usually, I want to anchor a group's reading of a text before engaging in a such a conversation. In this case, I wanted to make sure the children could actually manage the reading before setting them out to read and respond to a few questions. 

The children's significant knowledge of different Greek myths and how they are related has impressed me as I've worked with this small group. Their knowledge of Odysseus allows them to understand the Holub book with greater ease.  Although they had not read about the Cyclops and how Odysseus outsmarts it, they did know about Odysseus, the Battle of Troy and the Trojan Horse.  So when Holub's book opens, we are met with a tired Odysseus who is making his way home after the Fall of Troy. The children's understanding of the text at a factual level allowed me to set a task for them that would help me to see how they inferred about Odysseus based on his actions and dialogue.

Tomorrow, I'll try out the charts with students and then use what they generate to inform the conversation we have on Friday.  In addition, I'll be sharing a collage by Romare Bearden, The Cyclops from his work, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, so we can discuss how Bearden portrays the Cyclops.

Romare Bearden's Cyclops.









Tuesday, April 14, 2015

4th Graders Wanting to Learn More = Productive Learning

I. And What Do You Mean By Learning?

I know the learning is going well when I top the staircase and enter into the hallway and from the distance of a city street I can hear the children's voices in Mr. Watson's class.  As I enter the classroom, this is what I see:
Purposeful Learning in Grade 4

Some students are illustrating myths, others are creating a comic series, Mr. Watson is engaged with a small group, while other students record a myth and on and on and on. The atmosphere in this 4th grade classroom in Newark, NJ is joyful, purposeful, and appropriate for children.

Earlier tonight during a Twitter chat, I had reason to mention Seymour Sarason's book, And What Do You Mean by Learning? Sarason defines learning as either being productive or not.  In the preface of the text, he writes:  
Learning is not a thing it is a process...And by productive, I mean that the learning process is one that engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literature in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learning they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? (ix-x)
Mr. Watson reading aloud today in 4th Grade.

The children in this classroom want to learn more and do so.  Mr. Watson, his students, and I are exploring Greek myths by listening to texts being read aloud, reading myths in small (un)guided groups, independently reading written, audio, and visual texts, and doing lots and lots of talking, drawing, and writing. The children do this with and without their teachers. They use resources found in their classroom and at home to deepen their understanding of mythology and often to answer questions they pose as they learn.  I noticed today that squirreled away in their desks are books they are reading about myths, mythological creatures, plays, comics, cartoons, histories and more. Given that we usually work in a 2 to 3-hour block and the children do not seem to tire even a little--I know the work matters simply because they want to learn more. 

II. Reading Greek Myths

For the last week I have had the privilege to teach Dionni, Antoine, Luis and Kamila--all of whom are fourth graders in this public school classroom.  These children, like their classmates, are capable and motivated to read a Nathaniel Hawthorne text as all things Greek mythology are of interest. Their teacher has engendered a desire on the part of the children to want to learn more. There's not a child in the room who isn't turned on. Way turned on.

I like to think of the small group work I do with the children as being (un)guided. I call it (un)guided to suggest that the teaching is neither guided nor unguided, but rather both guided and unguided. I'm always looking for a space in the work we compose where I can bow out and the kids can take over. We shuffle control back and forth as needed. So it's not unusual that earlier today I found myself smiling as I realized I could sit back further in my seat and listen when Dionni said to the other 3 in her group, "There's one thing I've been thinking about that I just don't get. Why didn't Ceres just use her powers to find her daughter?" 

It's the command and tone that lets me know Dionni is on to something she values. We are at the midpoint of Hawthorne's story, The Pomegranate Seeds, which is his retelling of Demeter and Persephone that he published in 1853.  It's a challenging text.  Today it will be Antoine who will help us explore Dionni's question as he uses an example from his Minecraft play to help us contextualize why Ceres' powers cannot help her to find Proserpina.

Antoine tells us:
One time when I was playing Minecraft I used a portal and got transported to the Netherworld.  It's all lava there--like what I think Pluto's Underworld is like.  Anyway, the portal got damaged, it got shot, and I was stuck there for awhile. I had to make do with what was there. I couldn't use anything I had back in my chests. Finally, I  found a way out of the Netherworld by fixing the portal. You see what I mean? That's what it's like for Ceres. Her power works on Earth, but not in Pluto's Underworld. She can't use her powers to find Proserpina. That's why she's so upset. She's pretty powerless.
Dionni who is also a Minecrafter catches on immediately. "I get it.  She can speed up crops on Earth, get the animals to help, but she can't use those powers to help Proserpina because she's already in the Underworld with Pluto. It's like she doesn't have a Portal to get there or to get her power there."

"That's why Hawthorne says she's sad and anxious," says Luis reminding us of a section from the text we had just reread.

"Could you read that section to us?" asks Dionni.

He reads: "And when they saw only a sad and anxious woman, with a torch in her hand and a wreath of withered poppies on her head, they spoke rudely, and sometimes threatened to set the dogs upon her."

"And she's a goddess and she expects her power to work and it isn't," adds Kamila.

"She's so ungoddess-like. The people in the palace want to set the dogs on her. That's not what she's used to," adds Dionni.

"I also notice the poppies which were fresh at the start of the story are now wilted, kind of like her  spirit," I add.


III. Why This All Matters

"I think we should read on," Kamila tells the group and they chat briefly, deciding to read the next few pages and determining a stopping point. They're used to taking charge and do so. A few minutes later, a music teacher arrives and it seems that everyone has forgotten that today is music.  There's a bit of a clamor as the children put away their books, roll up drawings, and leave the classroom. Mr. Watson and I are seated at a table in the room when the one remaining child, Xavier, whom I don't know well, makes his way to the table.

"Hey, you think I could be an expert tomorrow?" he asks his teacher. "I'm gettin' this Greek mythology." 
"Yeah, show us your stuff," Mr. Watson tells him.
"Yeah, I got stuff to show," he says with a certain pride before turning and leaving the room.

The child is fairly new to the city, the school and the classroom and he's got stuff to show. Thankfully he's landed in a place where that matters, where we're not confused about what we mean when we talk about learning.




BTW, I've blogged about this experience in these other two posts: 


What it Was I Was Listening For


                                               ...The space we stood around had been emptied
                                               Into us to keep, it penetrated
                                               Clearances that suddenly stood open.
                                               High cries were felled and pure change happened.
                                                                                - Seamus Heaney, from Clearances, VII


I.

Forgetfulness (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
On a too early day in May, I watched my mother die. There is simply no easy way to buffer that truth. I stood beside her bed, touching and not touching, hearing even now, fifteen years removed, her chest rattle as I bargained with an indifferent God. Just a bit more time though I knew she suffered. And regardless of all of those years I spent on my knees--the hard kneeler a kind of penance for sins committed and not--God was mute. Tight-lipped. Taciturn.

I never quite knew what it was I was listening for.

II.

Time passes like a list begun more than once, left tucked inside the pocket of a winter coat worn last season. This is how grief moves and fails to move. Memories arise from the least provocation like a wave that swamps me. And I am drowning here on a Tuesday morning on day too much like the day we set her in the ground--a too beautiful, too early spring day at that.  I sit next to the grown daughter and her mom--both out for some talk, out for a pair of pedicures--nothing too goddamn special.  And it's the ordinariness of it that most undoes me.

I am desperate for Heaney's pure change.

III.

There's little to know when burying the dead. Knowing is a false balm that does not soothe. Knowing is a way to stand still, like that cup of tea made and remade that is still waiting on the counter, long cooled and forgotten.  With each lived moment, I edge closer to leaving and nothing terrifies me more than the thought of my son bargaining with some god on a too early, too spring morning. What words will he proffer?  Have I even taught him how to listen?  Language is a vice--one part fixed, one part moving--a bolt through the heart.

I tell you love is nothing if not epic.