Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Not Waving but Drowning

The Constancy of Waves (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

Not Waving but Drowning

  - Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Read by Janet Harris.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Simple, Important Instruction in Grade 1: The Handmade Book

Jaslene showing the cover of her new book (Newark, NJ)
I was reminded that simple is often best in matters of instruction. I was able to model today what one-on-one book making looks like in grade 1 and how a 6-minute 'lesson' can be used to teach a child reading, writing, and phonics that they need, while building on knowledge and skills they have. This lesson is based on a modified Language Experience Approach.

Today, six-year-old Jaslene helped me model what comprises a quick book making project. Jaslene and I met and she selected a book type (flip book, 8-page booklet) and then we discussed what story she might like to tell. Jaslene was all about playing and her book illustrated what she most likes to do: play with friends, play with her dolls, and play with her dog.  Because the child dictates the topic and each sentence, they are better able to reread their work.  This is particularly important for beginning readers.

Jaslene's new book (Newark, NJ)
Each page in the book contains one or more sentences that Jaslene dictated and she or I wrote. I began recording her ideas on the opening pages and turned that process over to her as we progressed. Jaslene also used scrap paper to practice writing tricky words.  She created the cover after thinking about the general topic of her book.

She reread each page (in her case without using a finger to match the text) and then the entire book. She did this with great joy.  Buried within this fun are opportunities for Jaslene to learn foundational skills (sight words, letter/sound combinations, letter formation, spacing, appropriate end punctuation) and composing skills (planning what you want to say, checking to see if what you wanted to say is written, importance of rereading, considering audience when writing, creating illustrations that extend meaning). It also provided me and her teacher with an opportunity to learn about Jaslene and her capacities as a reader and writer.

Children love to make and reread their books and this interest helps them build reading and writing fluency, as well as item knowledge.  By the end of the center time in this first grade classroom, Jaslene had authored and  shared her book with several friends, all of whom wanted to make their own books. Jaslene's book will travel home with her (she plans to read it to her dog who I'm told will be the subject of her next book) and eventually will be included in the classroom library so her friends can borrow it to read. As there are iPads employed in this classroom she might even want to involve a friend in making an audio recording of her book.

In order to make a more high tech version of the handmade book, children might want to use an app like Doodlecast where they can draw and narrate their books and then share these with others.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Being Tested

The Weight of Living (Reilly, 2011)

My grandfather was a piano player.  I'm told he took great joy in sitting down to play and did so most days--sometimes for himself, most times for an audience. He died the summer before I was born.

He was a complicated man who drank too much and never studied piano. He just had an ear for it. As did his son and his four daughters.

"Pop could hear any tune and play it," my Da would tell us, a smile broadening across his face. I grew up listening to Art Tatum and stories.

When my Aunt Pat died, the family piano came to me. I had taken formal lessons until high school, as did my middle brother and earned some awards, but never really did feel the music.

Neither of us play these days, although now and then I sit at the piano and coax from the keys the opening to Bach's Two-Part Invention in D Minor--a piece I taught myself.

My husband and son would tell you that I don't play it well. Fortunately, I don't need to.


And Full of Sleep (Reilly, 2012)
When I was no more than 8, I traveled with my mom to visit her friend who lived up the coast in Rhode Island.  We left my brothers in NJ. It was late June.

The friend's home I can't recall, but I'm thinking it was some sort of cottage--or perhaps hoping that was true. How we narrate events corresponds with who we see ourselves becoming.

What I do remember is that it was filled with canvases she had painted.  I had never met an artist, nor a woman who lived on the coast all on her own.  Most everyone I knew was connected to someone else and most certainly this was true for the women.

There was a lushness to her work and though I can't recall the subjects she painted, I feel the thickness and smell of the paint that permeated the rooms.  I can recall how primary the colors appeared and how sticky her homemade jam felt on my fingers as I painted a cat on a fence with a tree again and again on a large, round white plate. She took a look at these attempts and told me I was destined to be an artist and to lose no time starting.

When I arrived home I painted pictures on the back of the six-panel door to my bedroom. There was no hesitation. No need for permission. These panels were my canvases, save the painting I got to do at school,  until I moved from that house at 18 and married a painter just a few years later.

I stopped painting completely in my early 20s and didn't begin again until I crossed 40.  It's hard to predict a future. There are no school-based tests that can ready us to live a life.


When I first met Rob, what I most recall was the cadence of his voice as he spoke about a Richard Powers' novel he had just read. His was a voice tipped in pleasure.  We were in graduate school. English majors. And whereas most of the other students waxed on about reading Dante or Woolf, here was this young guy from Brooklyn telling us about three farmers on their way to the market.  I talked about reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening and how it filled me with necessary courage.  I was 28.

During that semester I would come to know Rob's work as poet and novelist and years later I still hear the rhythm of his poet voice resound in the ordinary acts of ordering at a restaurant, talking to his mom on the phone on Sunday mornings.

There is no test that can predict the immense love triggered solely by the sound of your lover's voice. There is no readiness for this. It can't be taught although it will be tested.

Christmas in Harlem (M.A. Reilly, 2013)

None of things I most love to do are tested at school--well at least not the high stakes variety.

Perhaps this is true for you too, for there are far more critical things in our lives than our capacity to "do" school math and school reading.  Nor are good performances on these measures accurate indicators of a life well lived.

We know this in our bones.

We know this at the critical points in our lives when we are truly tested.  I need only recall the rattle in my own mother's chest as she died to know what is important and what is just folly. Watching the life slip from her body has tested me in ways little else has ever done.

When I think about schooling in 2014, I wonder how it is that our obsession with testable minutia could ever have gotten so far whacked that we now pay obscene amounts of money to testing corporations to give us information we have never needed while pretending that such bare offerings have some significance.

They do not.

In the name of certainty and testing, we are sacrificing spaces of permission and replacing these with spaces of compliance--both for teachers and children.

Let's forget getting kids ready for college and career.  That's not really our job.  Let's help them to live better. Here. Now. 

Could Frank Bruni Be Any More Wrong?

(M.A. Reilly, 2008)

In today's opinion column, The Wilds of Education, Frank Bruni asserts:

While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.
Bruni's misreading here is classic. He references several current educational happenings in an attempt to demonstrate that parents are coddling the kids and that 'people' are already employing technological methods to filter their world.  The parents in the Dallas suburb Bruni references who are suppressing high school students'  right to read seven (7) titles are not about the comfort of students.

Denying another access to print has never been about the comfort of other.

The conservative Jefferson County BOE who wants to limit materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder" are not motivated by children's comfort. There, BOE member Julie Williams and her panel are reviewing history curricula in order to ensure that " 'positive aspects' of U.S. heritage that 'promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.' Materials should not, it says, 'encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.'" (from here). 

Revisionist history has never been about the comfort of other.

Bruni asks: "Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?" 

And the answer here is not quite.  

Yes, an education can provoke, disrupt, and challenge and democracies with public education are better served by ensuring that such disruption is possible, if not probable.  In the situations Bruni cites, it is not the youth who are asking to be shielded, but rather their parents and adult community members who are reducing freedom in order to maintain a status quo.  

Let's not call this comforting the kids. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Accountable Talk & How Words Exist in the Mouth

Sunday Afternoon (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

There's this memory I have that stays with me across more than a decade. It chills me still.  

Rob and I are visiting friends--a couple with two kids.  We are in our early 30s, sans children, and it is dinnertime and this home is pure chaos. The mom, our friend, is a novelist and an English professor. Her daughter, a third-grader will tell us at the conclusion of dinner that she needs us to sit down to review and evaluate a video tape of her and three classmates discussing a book at school. These 8- and 9-year-olds have been learning how to talk. How to be accountable. Their homework is to 'share' the video with their families and critique it. I kid you not. 

The mom refuses saying something about the intrusion of school into home, but I'm stuck on the talk and honestly I've never left that stucked place. It rattles me, the granddaughter of Irish--this shaping of language without consent. I'm reminded of my mom's mother who as a young girl hid behind hedgerows to learn how to speak the language of her birth--a language that was forbidden under British rule.  In those volatile years before Ireland gained its independence, my grandmother had to hide in order to speak and pray.


This last week I participated briefly in a chat focused on the use of accountable talk, knowing the tweets I sent might not be well received.  The phrase is trademarked by the University of Pittsburgh. The belief is that through structured language exchanges, peers can help one another to learn.  Below is an accountable talk poster from Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg's Content-Area Conversations (ASCD). They tell us:
Students take quickly to accountable talk, and many appreciate the guidelines because they prevent conversations from going astray.
from here

And yet, going astray, is often how we make meaning and it ought not to be a privilege only afforded some.  We need not guard our imperfections or limit our students' naive ways of saying. These speech moments are invitations for us to learn.  Each utterance, in its imprecision and faultiness, are human badges so to speak. We should at the very least allow ourselves and others to wear them.


I do understand the seemingly charitable intention that accountable talk promoters desire.  These educators want kids to learn and recognize that talk is a conduit for making meaning.  I don't disagree with this belief about talk and learning.  Bakhtin in a bit of lovely and lucid prose told us: “Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication..."  Meaning is made among these linkages that build and fall apart. And yes, they need to be able to do both: build and fall apart at will. 

Accountable talk grows up alongside accountable teaching and accountable learning as measured by the slimmest of instruments: the annual high stakes test. A test, by its very description must be stripped from the local, the intimate, the here and now.  It is decontextualized fodder that feeds our penchant for correctness as measured by these school reading and math tests. All of this provides the rational for shorting thought by providing language stems for children and teens to utter. They must get to a place someone has deemed important and do so in ways that are wholly recognizable.  And here I wonder: Could we be any crazier? Any less inventive?


I have been long fascinated by how people get said what must be said (yes a nod to William Carlos Williams) much more so than I am by what gets said.  Matters of correctness, accuracy, right, depth and the hundred other synonyms we may well have about end results are more about our lack of imagination, than some important treatise on learning.  For it is in the making of utterances, this chain of speech, this communion that our teaching work needs to be lodged--not to pre-shape children's speech, but to best ensure that their speech has full permission to be uttered and to lean in and make sense of learners' attempts at making thought.   

We would do well to remember what Robert Frost told Sidney Cox (1.19.1914) in a letter he wrote one winter evening:
Words exist in the mouth not in books. You can't fix them and you don't want to fix them. You want them to adapt their sounds to persons and places and times. You want them to change and be different.
Words exist in the mouth.
We shouldn't want to fix them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Poetry Break: Old Men Playing Basketball

Beaver Moon (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

Old Men Playing BasketballBy B. H. Fairchild

The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language   
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot   
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love   
again with the pure geometry of curves,

rise toward the ball, falter, and fall away.   
On the boards their hands and fingertips   
tremble in tense little prayers of reach   
and balance. Then, the grind of bone

and socket, the caught breath, the sigh,   
the grunt of the body laboring to give   
birth to itself. In their toiling and grand   
sweeps, I wonder, do they still make love

to their wives, kissing the undersides
of their wrists, dancing the old soft-shoe   
of desire? And on the long walk home   
from the VFW, do they still sing

to the drunken moon? Stands full, clock   
moving, the one in army fatigues
and houseshoes says to himself, pick and roll,   
and the phrase sounds musical as ever,

radio crooning songs of love after the game,   
the girl leaning back in the Chevy’s front seat   
as her raven hair flames in the shuddering   
light of the outdoor movie, and now he drives,

gliding toward the net. A glass wand
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.   
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout
at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.

B. H. Fairchild, “Old Men Playing Basketball” from The Art of the Lathe. Copyright © 1998 by B. H. Fairchild. Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Things Fall Apart: Schooling, Becoming, Not Being

Want (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

I. Becoming

I read a lot that education is broken.  A worn and tired lot, that.

It's easy, perhaps even comfortable, to lay the brokenness we feel at the feet of public education as it saves us from looking more closely beyond the institution into a void we cannot quite name. Consistency which has held us so closely is less the friend we thought. We fear seeing beyond, for our public institutions are composed to reflect the current reality we believe is whole.

It is not whole.

Our vision of what reality is--a stable, coherent ground--has not worked with fidelity for some time. Claire Colebrook (2001) reminds us:
To see any thing as actual also requires the virtual synthesis of time: we see things only by retaining the memory of past perceptions and anticipating and connecting future perceptions (p.127).
Synthesis is a stream flowing. Becoming requires us to assemble/reassemble/deconstruct. There is no standing still.

Is this fracture, standing still in a stream that moves, not the impetus, in part, for our constant warring?  Our inarticulate speech?  Stability is myth--and it is costly. The internet connects as it disrupts the ways we are in the world and the ways we experience the world.  Its fastness allows us to experience the collisions. A tacit knowing. And experiencing what we have deemed as actual now as myth, perhaps fleeting at first--a glimpse we quickly move away from, has grown more consistent, shaking "foundations" we thought we knew to be true.

There is no one Truth. There is only flow.

We are always becoming regardless of Descarte's insistence on being.  This understanding has deepened across the last century disrupting the center we hold to that says stability is our core.  It is not. Think Yeats, who nearly 100 years ago told us "the centre cannot hold".

The poets know first.

II. Schooling

Public education is built on that faux rock that says we can code the world and transmit it and what we transmit is Truth, not someone's truth, but Truth with a capital T.  Schooling has been built on the belief that we can keep ourselves whole by teaching this truth to our children who can teach it to their children and so on.  Lost in this translation is the reality that we are coding, decoding and recoding often in ways that feel and are simultaneous.  Living connected lives across vast geographies helps us to know this even as we work to deny it.  And so we are a bit like Simon Laplace, hopeful that with some measurements at hand we can name the universe--that it will hold still for us as if we were somehow apart from it.

Nothing living holds still.

Power maintainers situate curricula and pedagogies as measurements of the known universe. Educational standards, high stakes tests, school-based grading and courses often work as the means to maintain the stability myth and alongside it the power of those who get to name. Social media offers us enough clear spaces to (re)name/(un)name the world.  We don't need to hold big power to do so. The power is not in us.  The power resides across the shifting and moving things we make/break/remake.  We are animals with language.  Again, Colebrook (2001) says:
We think of language as a ‘tool’ for speakers, rather than as a differential force that produces speaking positions (p. 76).
And as more and more people connect across these vast geographies, the universe that standards and test results portray reveal speaking positions, not Truth. We come to doubt and as that doubt is echoed we can see not only the cracks undermining the ground education sits upon, but we feel the stream rushing us along.

This movement is not lost on the young, who have less time invested in the maintenance of powerful and established mythologies.  Their knowing is not limited to their selves.  Technologies that connect the young also make more explicit that they are less the individual and more the collective--calling into doubt Wittgenstein's statement, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

They are not silent. They are roaring, moving, connecting. And it is this that creates long tails of difference with regard to how learning is organized, named, needed, desired.  We need not (re)create the system of education as this continues the myth of ground. Education reform is a sordid redundancy.  Rising without our permission are alternatives that young people already turn to as they invent.  Think of them as tribes, as PLNs, as collectives, as affinity groups.

We know more than we can say, Polyani would tell us. That's where we are, tentatively but even as I pen this, the ground beneath is moving and we are moving too.

Learning is more flow, less rocks in the stream.  And so, the space we call school is being cleared.

Colebrook, Claire (2001). Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) (p. 127). London: Taylor and Francis.

Poetry Break: Rain

A Chance of Rain (M.A. Reilly 2009)


With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain.
Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.

Over the echo of the water, I hear a voice saying my name.
No one in the city moves under the quick sightless rain.

The pages of my notebook soak, then curl. I’ve written:
“Yogis opened their mouths for hours to drink the rain.”

The sky is a bowl of dark water, rinsing your face.
The window trembles; liquid glass could shatter into rain.

I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled.
If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain.

I hurry home as though someone is there waiting for me.
The night collapses into your skin. I am the rain.
Kazim Ali, "Rain" from The Far Mosque. Copyright © 2005 by Kazim Ali.  Reprinted by permission of Alice James Books.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Borders & Ordinary People: Can Democracy Survive?

(M.A. Reilly)

"Almost all borders have been imposed and maintained by violence, and are quite arbitrary," writes Noam Chomsky in the article, Who Owns the Earth?
(M.A. Reilly, 2014)

It's hard not to think about borders these days as we wind our way to the end of summer 2014--a summer that is steeped in blood, difference, and distance.  I spent the summer making collages (here and here) each day based on the reported news, most often as found in the New York Times. 

I can barely bring myself to read that paper these days. Most days now, I do not.

Tonight I'm thinking about the women of Gaza and Israel and wondering whether love can ever be strong enough to heal such pain, such wrongness.  The mother of one of the Israeli teens who was killed last June, Rachel Fraenkel, spoke out  against some of the violence that has been committed in the name of vengeance for her son:
Even in the abyss of mourning for Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. 
Only the murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those who helped them and incited them to murder – and not innocent people – will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary; not by vigilantes. 
No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents. The legacy of Naftali, Gil-Ad and Eyal is one of love, of humanity, of national unity, and of integrity. (From here)
I wonder what she thinks now, months later given the death toll in Gaza and the arrest of the six boys from the racist soccer team, La Familia, who are suspects in the 'revenge' murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khudair, a Palestinian child who was beaten and set on fire by the Israeli youths.  

These are borders we make that break us.


(M.A. Reilly, 2014)
Tonight I am thinking about US women and the social and personal borders the Supreme Court has erected in their ongoing decisions to limit women's rights as well as a story that ran in the Times at mid-summer about the hundred of thousands of rape kits that are collected and left unprocessed--stored in warehouses unbeknown to the victims as their rapists go free to commit more and more rapes. More crimes against women. What borders are being erected between women and the police and prosecutors who are protecting rapists by not processing rape kits? What borders are made between women and their independence by the Supreme Court's latest decisions? The costs associated with processing rape kits apparently is too great.

What price is this border crossing and can you afford not to pay it?  

From Ladue, MO to Freguson, MO. 12.8 miles.

(M.A. Reilly, 2014)
Tonight, I'm remembering Ferguson, MO where people are still protesting, still being arrested as I write this. Ferguson is a little less than 13 miles from Ladue, MO--but the true distance between is best not represented as miles. The residents of Ladue enjoy one of the highest median incomes for any city in the United States.  They are #32.

The good people of Ferguson do not enjoy such riches.

(M.A. Reilly, 2014)
I think of this as I recall reading in a local newspaper this week that here in NJ, the percentage of people living in poverty rose again (figures for 2012).  Nearly one-third of NJ residents live in poverty. 

That's 2.7 million people. 

(M.A. Reilly, 2014)
Imagine those 2.7 million reside not too far from the land of hedge-funders and 1 percenters who live in Saddle River, Milburn, Alpine, Rumson, Harding Township, Essex Fells, Bernardsville and so on.  These people live with comforts beyond our very ordinary dreams.

These are the borders that our politicians protect in ways they fail to protect us.

(M.A. Reilly, 2014)

Tonight, I reread Umair Haque's words, Can Democracy Survive? and think that each trip from what we know as home allows us to understand, often in new ways, how the geo-political (in)forms our personal worlds.  Haque writes:
from Can Democracy Survive? - Umair Haque

Beneath each clash are gross economic and power differences: Palestine and Israel, women and all the powers that suppress them, African Americans and police, 1 percenters and the poor.  

These are borders that need to fall.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Poetry Break: Witness

Grafton Street (M.A. Reilly, Dublin. 2008)

This poem is one of five selected from Eavan Boland's new collection A Poet's Dublin, with photographs by the author.

Here is the city –
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.

From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.

And in me also.
And always will be:
Out of my mouth they come.
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
they dispossessed.
What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.
And the dead walk?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poetry Break: On 52nd Street

Uptown (M.A. Reilly, 2009, NYC)

On 52nd Street

Philip Levine1928
Down sat Bud, raised his hands, 
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of ‘50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits—imitating you—
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
“Same thing last night.” Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he’d ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased 
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night’s
still there, just where it was, just
where it’ll always be without
its music. You’re still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Composing Essay & Story in 2014: Are Kids Learning this At Your School?

Facing East (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

This is composing. Today.
This is what convincing essays look and sound like.
This is how they move.

Are you teaching multimodal composing at your school? 

Are your kids learning how to compose?  

Are they doing it despite school?

Below is a first grade horror film. It was created using Garageband, Photoshop, and Final Cut Pro. The story is based on Alvin Schwartz's "In a Dark, Dark Room." 

Tales from the Yard from Needleworks Pictures on Vimeo.

Poetry Break: Roll the Dice by Charles Bukowski

Surfaced (M.A. Reilly, Tuscany, 2009)

roll the dice

- Charles Bukowski

if you're going to try, go all the
otherwise, don't even start.

if you're going to try, go all the
this could mean losing girlfriends,
wives, relatives, jobs and
maybe your mind.

go all the way.
it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days.
it could mean freezing on a
park bench.
it could mean jail,
it could mean derision,
isolation is the gift,
all the others are a test of your
endurance, of
how much you really want to
do it.
and you'll do it
despite rejection and the worst odds
and it will be better than
anything else
you can imagine.

if you're going to try,
go all the way.
there is no other feeling like
you will be alone with the gods
and the nights will flame with

do it, do it, do it.
do it.

all the way
all the way.

you will ride life straight to
perfect laughter, its
the only good fight
there is.

All The Way - a Charles Bukowski poem from Willem Martinot on Vimeo.

Link to Zen Pencil Comic version of the poem.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Tell Me A Story (M.A. Reilly, 2011)


 - Leslie Marmon Silko

I will tell you something about stories,"

[he said] 

They aren't just entertainment. 

Don't be fooled. 

They're all we have, you see. 

All we have to fight off illness and death. 

You don't have anything 

if you don't have the stories. 

Their evil is mighty, 

but it can't stand up to our stories. 

So they try to destroy the stories, 

but the stories cannot be confused or forgotten. 

They would like that. 

They would be happy 

because we would be defenseless then.

[He rubs his belly]

I keep it in here,

[he said] 

Here, put your hand on it. 


It is moving. 

Ts' its' tsi' nako, Thought-Woman,

is sitting in her room

and what ever she thinks about


She thought of her sisters,

Nau' ts' ity' i and I' tcs' i,

and together they created the Universe

this world

and the four worlds below.

Thought-Woman, the spider,

named things and

as she named them 

they appeared.

She is sitting in her room

thinking of a story now

I'm telling you the story

she is thinking.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Who Gets to Noun? Fran, Language, and Standards

American Bus Stop V: Prison (M.A. Reilly 2010)
I. Context

I'm reminded of Fran, a 20-something mom who taught me so profoundly as I sit outside reading from Gregory Orr's (2013) River Inside the River.  In one poem, "To Noun," Orr writes (p.18):
Nouns were a giant
Adam felt the sounds
He made
Build bars around
The things he saw. 
It hurt and thrilled him
To see how meekly
Each thing
Entered that cage. 
How snug it fit;
How smug he felt.

Who gets to noun?  Who gets to build bars around the things seen and be hurt and thrilled by such action is a question worthy of our time, our work, our energies. Years ago  I wrote an ethnography about ordinary courage, faith and chaos.  I was an adjunct instructor at a community college teaching a Developmental Writing II course which was mandated for students who had not passed the college's entry test. Instead of teaching the course as it had been strongly suggested (issue grammar worksheets, essay writing prompts, and practice sample test. Then repeat.) by the department head, I created the course with more of an inquiry bent.

Prior to the start of the semester I am reading Annie Rogers’ research about ordinary courage in girls' and women's lives and am finding her work to be fascinating. In discussing the etymology of the word courage, Rogers (1993) writes that in 1051 it simply meant “the heart of an age.” By 1300, courage means “to speak one's mind by telling all one’s heart” (p. 271). Towards the end of the 1400s, courage no longer is related to the heart, but rather commonly means facing danger without fear. In thinking about this work, I wonder how my students and I might investigate and document examples of ordinary courage in our lives.  It doesn’t occur to me that such interest may be connected to my own middle class life. I am largely ignorant at this point that many of my values may not be the values my students bring to class.  What I don’t know as I plan and revise the course is that nine out of the eleven students I will teach are all working class poor--half of whom are single moms in receipt of welfare services. 
             During the semester I introduce students to Rogers' definition of courage inviting them to author a memoir, collect an oral history from someone who is different from them (gender, race, etc.), and create a portfolio based on artifacts they created and collected. Through these projects I hope to occasion their growth in uncovering and witnessing courage in their own and others' lives and provide them with opportunities to develop their writing by composing texts related to themselves and others they find interesting.  (From Chapter 1)
I interviewed students multiple times in one-to-one situations and with their permission was able to study what they said and wrote in notebooks, essays, interviews, and commentaries about read texts. Fran helped me to begin to think about issues of power--to consider, Who gets to noun? I had been so enmeshed in the study and practice of teaching method, that the harder-to-see issues of power and consent were largely missing from my view.  Fran changed that.

II. Learning from Fran

During that semester Fran, the other students, and I wrote and read one another's writing alongside memoirs and essays authored by Jimmy Santiago Baca, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Charlotte Nekola, as well as oral histories collected by Stud Terkel.  Our interactions with the texts we wrote and read helped me to learn much about these students. For example,  Fran clothed and feed her family on $322 of welfare assistance per month.  Her only additional income was a $50 payment from her son's father, $140 in food stamp and a rental allowance that covered all but $100 of her monthly rent. Fran was at college (although barred at the time to take further courses until she passed the college entrance exam) as part of a condition to the welfare assistance she received. I was married, at that time had no children, and apart from teaching one class and doing some consulting work, I enjoyed a full scholarship to Columbia University where I was earning a doctorate.  Of course we were each more and less than these easy categories suggest, but nonetheless it was difference that first caught my ear as I listened to Fran talk.
When Fran was 17 she became pregnant.  Her boyfriend at the time, who was not the father of the baby was violent she tells me. She miscarried in her fourth month because her boyfriend beat her up. She told me the story through long pauses--her head bowed, eyes staring at the ground. "The place they put me. Right next to the nursery. In the hospital, right next to the nursery. I was sittin' seeing all those babies. It was hard." Neither Fran, nor her parents, pressed charges, although her stepfather "took the shotgun and was gonna kill the guy."  Fran explained that she just wanted to forget all about it, "to not think about it no more." (from Chapter 3)
She would tell me that is why she did not like to write. It caused you to remember, She said that choosing violent men as partners was familiar and say this with some laughter. "I just seem to have radar for them."  Later, she said softly, "I'm always fearful when I write. All the writing I get is bad news."
"It's always written down," she tells me. "The stuff you don't want."
"Like what?"
"Gettin' evicted, going to court, shit with the police." (from Chapter 3)
She continues adding child custody, child care payments, and welfare to the list.

Language hurts.  The who who gets to noun is not Fran.  She is acted upon.  A great confining.

I didn't understand that slim truth about language and pain prior to Fran.  That is not to say I had not experienced pain by what had been said/not said, but I didn't get it so viscerally.  In Fran's life, men nouned and women functioned more like silent conjunctions, ever joining.

Naming is a power.  It's one of the reasons I worry with our ongoing romance with state and national standards here in the United States.  The people who get to name them, hold great power.  They act. Everyone else is acted upon. They are like Adam building "bars around/ The things he saw."

It's the absences we need to account for.  The things not inside the bars that are ever so hard to see, to notice, to be brave enough to name.  It is the tensions between the things that get named and the things that are set off stage that we experience under the broad banner of reform.