Saturday, May 5, 2012

Barefoot Knowledge and a Few Birds

Freedom (Mixed Media. 2009, M.A. Reilly)
As early as I could remember it was the habit of the men folks particularly to gather on the store porch of evenings and swap stories. Even the women folks would stop and break a breath with them at times. As a child when I was sent down to Joe Clarke's store, I'd drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more. Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, Introduction.

I like to be reminded that that there are all kinds of knowing and unknowing in the world.  

I have been immersed these last few weeks in studying the Common Core (ELA) and am deeply appreciative of its insistence that knowledge be an important outcome, especially in primary grade education.  We often have emphasized the code aspects of reading acquisition (not saying code isn't important) and in doing so inadvertently devalued factual knowledge.  Susan Neuman (2010) writes:

the true path to literacy is not the procedural skills that stand out in the crowd, but the knowledge of content and concept that underlie its foundation (p. 301).

It is in naming the knowledge and context, which under girds the development of procedural skills such as code-focus learning (alphabetic knowledge, phonological awareness, phonological memory, rapid naming of letters, print concepts , and writing one’ own name) that is challenging and critical to do. Again Neuman (2010) concludes:

Code-related skills, the essential alphabetic principles that make up our language, are a critical component in learning to read. But while these skills are necessary, they are certainly not sufficient. At the same time, these skills must be accompanied by a massive and in-depth foundation of factual knowledge (p. 304).
I think that is an outcome that is sought via the explicit inclusion of informational text and the practice of text-dependent reading, alongside foundational reading skills.  What I want to caution about though is the means by which knowledge is composed and the confusion between information and knowledge. 


Reading informational text is certainly one way to nudge open a door to learning about the world.  But we should not mistake that for dwelling in a world of ideas. George Siemens (2006) states it nicely: "All knowledge is information, but NOT all information is knowledge" (vi). If we think that adding informational texts to the classroom, so that they represent 50% of the library and taught texts, will lead to knowledge--we are surely mistaken. I want to believe that the intent of the Common Core is much larger than the percentage of books that are taught. We have before us an opportunity to reclaim the arts, literature, natural sciences, history, geography, anthropology--many of which have ceased to be potential lines of inquiry as school time has been doled out to studying for tests in mathematics and reading. We have before us the occasion to privilege embodied ways of knowing.

The Weight of Living (Mixed Media, 2009, M.A Reilly)


Beneath the window where I am writing this I have been stopping, called away you might say, and am listening to and watching birds.  So insistent are some as they use their beaks to move the very leaves that my family and I have neglected to rake from last fall.  They are I suspect in search of worms, insects, food that rests beneath.  They work with an intensity few would not appreciate. There is a kind of knowing, an indwelling here that needs to be learned, embodied, surrendered to.  


In Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge he explains the need to surrender to what you study.  How possible is that in school when there's so much declared stuff to know?

Polanyi writes:
A true understanding of science and mathematics includes the capacity for a contemplative experience of them, and the teaching of these sciences must aim for imparting this capacity to the pupil. The task of inducing an intelligent contemplation of music and dramatic art aims likewise at enabling a person to surrender himself to works of art. This is neither to observe nor to handle them, but to live them. This the satisfaction of gaining intellectual control over the external world is linked to a satisfaction of gaining control over ourselves (pp. 195-196).
We create environments by the decisions we make--be it in a schoolroom, a boardroom, or a bedroom.  Hauling in a different collection of books will hardly matter if language has been stripped from meaning, replaced with the pre-made 'thought'.  

Contemplative experiences require agency and error.  

Room and breath.


The birds are insistent. I wish I understood what their varied cries and calls meant. It's a sound-alphabet I cannot decipher, cannot hear well to mimic. I can't seem to ease the birds from my mind. It's like that moment in Hitchcock's masterpiece when you begin to really see the birds because they block the sunlight.

The world cools.

This morning I am thinking how the birds are always before me so often in fact that I hardly stop to notice.  This indwelling, perhaps, comes with a cost and so I try to distract myself from the ways the birds seem to part the air by turning to Annie Dillard. I read a bit and it worries me that even as I write this someone else somewhere is penning a quiz or a test based on Dillard's "Living Like  a Weasel," as it is now a Common Core exemplar.  I hope they will resist the urge to test.  As Dillard says in The Writing Life, I hope the birds eat your crumbs.

I have lived a half-century and have read and reread "Living Like a Weasel" and perhaps the greatest thing I can say is that meaning still is slippery. With each age, I read it differently, understand aspects less. 

Is there a quiz in which knowing less is an A?

I Found Words (Mixed Media, 2009, M.A. Reilly)


A task we might try on is one that invites children to name their world--through embodied experiences and text-based experiences.  I know that is hardly the stuff we think about when think about curriculum, but it gives me pause--especially when I think of my own child.  Using what we know to name the world opens us to recast what we first know as simple with increasing complexity, with increasing simplicity.   

This is a kind of knowing we cannot codify for another.


In 'Total Eclipse' Dillard first mentions a child's bucket and shovel as noticed when passing through a hotel lobby: 
On the broad lobby desk, lighted and bubbling, was a ten-gallon aquarium containing one large fish; the fish tilted up and down in its water. Against the long opposite wall sang a live canary in its cage. Beneath the cage, among spilled millet seeds on the carpet, were a decorated child’s sand bucket and matching sand shovel (pp. 11-12).
Later in the essay, when she and her husband have gone to witness a full eclipse, she tugs on that simple mention of the bucket and shovel.
All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives (p.24).
She will return to the bucket and shovel again in this and other essays. It is not that she is tossing facts at us, as much as it is that she understands common objects in multiple and contrasting ways. It is in the space between the mentioning and my recognizing the mentioning that I reach to make sense--there, beneath the codification, is a restlessness that suggests a way of knowing that cannot be taught.

Barefoot (Mixed Media, 2009, M.A. Reilly)

Dennis Sumara observes: "Curriculum is a normalizing experience...Teachers become tour guides, showing students which sites must be noticed...As a daily performance, teaching becomes a pointing ritual that seldom pierces underneath the skin of the everyday" (p. 233).

Paying attention to the everyday is a call to the sensual. See how Luis Moll and his colleagues frame this:

The primary purpose of the work is to develop innovations in teaching that draw on the knowledge and skills found in local households...We use the term funds of knowledge  to refer to these historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual function and well-being.   Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Norma Gonzรกlez, 2005. "Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to connects Homes and Classrooms"
For Dillard, like Moll and his colleagues, funds of knowledge are in everyday objects.


There are all kinds of things purported as knowledge. I wonder if knowledge can exist outside a body?

The birds have quit their rooting with the onslaught of Saturday lawn mowers and blowers.  But they remain.  In trees, between trees, on the deck railing across the street, on the wires that cross, I spot them. Their tweets and calls rise above from time to time the insistent motoring of mowers. I wish I knew more about birds, their songs and such.

Pages (Mixed Media, 2009, M.A. Reilly)

There is much to learn in simply being present.


In a few weeks a friend and I will be presenting at a conference.  At that time we will  engage participants in the closest of readings: the kind you embody.  Through choral reading and dramatic tableaux we will step in and out of text.  

I hope they leave unsettled.


As I am not beholden to a system of  learning, I daily grant myself permission to blindly follow 

    lines of flight 

that may     and      may 
                               not lead                          to 
                                                            blind alleys

                                      buckets          shovels   
                    bits of sand

Bloomed Ink and Birds (Mixed Media. 2009, M.A. Reilly)


Works Cited

Dillard, A. (2009). Teaching a stone to talk. NY: HarperCollins - Kindle Edition.
Neuman, S.B. (2010).  Lessons from my mother:  Response to the National Early Literacy Panel.  Educational Researcher, 39, 301-305.
Polanyi, M. 19581962. Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge.
Sumara, D. (1996).  Private readings in public: Schooling the literary imagination. New York: Peter Lang.


  1. Beautiful. I love the stream of consciousness (more like blending of consciousness) and the blending of media. Poetry, visual art, journal-esque analysis on learning, poetry. I love where your mind meanders and the way you express it on this blog.

    1. It was a lovely morning for wandering and wondering. Appreciate you taking time to read the ramble and comment. Reading your blog inspires me to write better.


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