Some Thoughts on a Thought-Provoking Trip

Between Thanksgiving, Buffalo, Portland and a book that still needs to get done, I haven’t had much time to post, but I did want to share a link to the blog of the Opal School in Portland, where I was last week, and invite you to join a discussion about reading that we started there. For those of you unfamiliar with Opal, it’s a Reggio-inspired pre-K though grade 5 school (the preschool is private while the elementary school is a public, lottery-based charter) housed in Portland’s Children Museum. And it’s mission is “to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, imagination and the wonder of learning thrive.”

I’ve know about Opal since I had the great fortune to meet Susan Mackay, the Director of the Museum Center for Learning, and Mary Gage Davis, the school’s Curriculum Director, Reggio Emilia Outsidetwo years ago in Reggio-Emilia where we were fellow participants in a study group exploring the implications of the Reggio approach on literacy instruction across the grade. (To read more about that experience, click here, here and here.) And I’d come to know Matt Karlson, the Center for Learning Administrator who also writes many of the Opal School blog posts, through the perceptive and thoughtful comments he’s left here on this blog. But I’d never been to Opal before. So when Matt invited me to join them for a workshop on “New Possibilities for Readers,” I jumped at the opportunity. And what an opportunity it was! Inspiring, energizing and incredibly thought-provoking, as the staff and I shared ideas and questions about the role and place of reading.

You can learn more about the workshop itself and the ideas and questions we’re still puzzling over in Matt’s recent blog post. But in a nutshell, we realized that while we share many of the same visions, beliefs and hopes for children and schools, we saw the role of books and the purpose of reading slightly differently.

My belief in the power of books and reading are perhaps best captured by author Julius Lester in his wonderful piece “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” where he looks at the origins of the words book, read, imagine, and knowledge and explores the implications of each word’s root. The word read, for instance,

“comes from an Old Teutonic root and means ‘to fit together, to consider, to deliberate, to take thought, to attend to, to take care or charge of a thing.’ To read is to fit together, to attend to. It is to take care of something, to take charge of something. So, what is being attended to? What is being fit together?”

Lester believes that ultimately it’s the reader who is being fit together. And he thinks this because

“. . . books are the royal road that enable us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Books enable us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through books we experience other modes of being. Through books we recognize who we are and who we might become.”

For this magic to happen, however, he says, “Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others.” And I wonder if it’s this idea of putting ourselves in a box by the door to take on the spirit of another—whether that’s a character, an author, or the subjects of facts—that raised the questions we posed.

At the risk of trying to speak for Opal, I think the conversation for them always begins, not with the word book, read, or even imagine (as it often does with me), but with the word child. They believe strongly in the power of children to make sense of the world around them in ways that can also illuminate for us, the adults who are privileged to spend time with them, the wonder, beauty and heartache of our world. It’s certain something I believe in, too. In fact, here’s a sentence from the same piece by Lester:

“When we read we discover and rediscover the power of words, the power to express thoughts and feelings, the power to touch another, the power to express love, the power to take care,”

If I recast it with children at the center, I see an equally powerful truth: When we listen to children we discover and rediscover the power of their words to express Opal_What Happens When You Look Closelythoughts and feelings, to care for and touch one another. And given that our current educational climate tends to value data points over children’s words, I understand and applaud Opal’s commitment to seeing literacy education as first and foremost concerned with offering “experiences that lead [children] to understand that they have something worth saying before caring about what others have to say.” In fact, seeing the amazing work the children and teachers were doing at Opal made me wonder if my work with reading was really big enough—and if perhaps I’m too pious and staunch in my reverence for books. But then the book lover in me kicks in again, wanting to say it’s enough, especially when students have other opportunities in other kinds of settings to recognize who they are and who they might become, as they do at Opal.

And that in turn reminds me of words Susan Mackay shared from Toni Morrison: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” My visit to Opal raised all sorts of questions for me and the teachers there about why, how and when to balance—or not—the words on the page with the words of the child, and what agendas might be served by the choices we make. It’s not an either/or proposition, rather, as Matt said, a question of emphasis. But if we believe, as Jerome Bruner does, that “pedagogy is never innocent,” these questions are worth considering.

So if you have your own thoughts, ideas or questions, Matt and I both hope you’ll consider leaving a comment here or on the Opal School’s blog to keep the conversation going. And I promise that I’ll be back soon with Writing Meaningfully about Meaningful Reading Part 2!

15 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on a Thought-Provoking Trip

  1. Thanks for the link to the Lester piece (and, of course, all your other wise thinking here!). I’m saving it to savor when I’ve got more time…

    • Oh, to have more time! I’ve got a stack of unread New Yorkers by my bed, bookmarked blog posts galore that I haven’t gotten to and a Christmas gift from me to me book waiting for me on kindle. So here’s to a restful, read-full break! Happy Holidays!

  2. Hi, Vicki!
    So great to read this post and your comment on my post. Opal School exists to stir up such conversations, and I love the doors this opens – it leaves me curious about so many things! I’ll touch base on some of the wonderings alive for me here in the hopes that it keeps the conversation going – and I’ll post this on both pages.
    I’m so curious about the absence of comments on your post. One of the many things I love about To Make A Prairie is the community of readers that respond to your posts. I can’t think of many other posts that have generated so little response. I wonder: Why do you think that is?
    I’m continuing to think about the role books play in the development of the critical thinking being described in your post. I absolutely agree that the depth of listening that both you and Lester describe is essential to supporting human qualities our world desperately craves. I share the belief that books are well situated to invite those dispositions. Does it shift our attention as teachers, though, to discuss that approach as one that we take to all of our interactions and trying to think about the conditions that support that inquiry – that pedagogy of listening? This reminds me of the turf wars I witnessed across the social studies between people who staked their emphasis on either History or Civics or Geography or Economics; it leaves me thinking about the transformation Ellin Keene made from Mosaic of Thought to To Understand.
    I’m enraptured by those questions you asked at the workshop after observing Opal School in session and hearing the presentations by Caroline, Susan, and Kerry: Am I thinking big enough? Am I opening the doors wide enough? I’m wondering: What is the value in keeping those questions productively alive in our practice? How do we support that in each other, resisting the call of certainty?
    I want to thank you, again, for coming to Portland and spending time with us. I hope that the trip plays a role in keeping those questions alive for you and for us. And I want to encourage your readers to come to Opal School to wake up those questions for themselves!
    Warm wishes for restorative holidays,

    • I’ve been aware of the quiet on the comment front, too, Matt, and have wondered if it’s due to the day and time I put the post up, readers with little time and too much on their mind with the holidays added to the mix, or whether it’s a case of “You had to be there.” But know that I can’t stop thinking about those questions as well. And for me I’m continuing to think about the role books can play in self-realization, self-determination, and in thinking big enough. That’s not to say that children aren’t self-realized in a deficit-thinking way, only that we’re all on journeys and books can play a role in that if we open ourselves up to them, not by leaving our own lived experience at the door, but by not imposing it on a text. So maybe what I’m trying to say is, could we think about the pedagogy of listening as applying both to us as teachers listening to students and students listened to whatever materials they’re in dialogue with, including books, the same way we think of the work of the teacher and the work of the child centered on inquiry and research? Hmm. . . .

    • Hi, Matt and Vicki!
      A very wet, sticky snow is falling today in Iowa delaying school start, which means that I have two extra hours in a very filled schedule to chop wood and think (and have a second cup of coffee. Yum.)

      I’m totally into thinking about stuff with you! However, I’m having a difficult time understanding the question(s), and their purpose(s), so, at least for me, that’s one reason (besides the thick schedule and the shyness) I haven’t entered the conversation…

      What to do?

      May I add a few more questions that would help me clarify what you are thinking/talking about? I’m wondering if these questions are related or not?

      * What role should books (however that is defined these days) play in the education of a human? (Including mine…)
      * Do books have any special role to play in learning?
      * Who listens? To what? When? Why?
      * Who speaks? About what? When? Why?

      So, I’m not sure if these are at all interesting to talk about (or even, really, how to “speak” about them…?), but I’m intrigued so I’ll throw them out to see what happens.

      All the best to you two!

      • I had to step away from the blog these last weeks to get some other writing work done, so once again I’m late getting back to this. But the questions you’ve raised seem to cut to the heart of what Matt and I were talking about—-and the last two seem connected to the first two in the way they to look at how books might play a role. What my time with Opal made me aware of is how much I value books, sometimes at the expense of other things—and it made me question how I attempt to balance honoring the writer and honoring the reader. I tend to think that readers always have the last say on anything they read, but I do want readers to listen—and question—what a writer has to say first, and Opal got me thinking about whether I should examine that more.

        Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to think about that much, let alone come to any conclusion. But I’m sure I’ll be carrying those questions in my head when I go back to schools starting tomorrow. So . . . here’s to a New Year of provocative collaborative thinking!

  3. There are so many things worth knowing and ways of knowing that cannot be verbalized (and perhaps should not be reduced to words)…a painting, a jazz riff, an equation, an “elegant” line of computer code. But we don’t allow much for this type of knowing. And when we do, we feel the need to verbalize/analyze rather than “know” through the language of color, form, line, rhythm, number or whatever language the creator has used. Somehow if something cannot be explained verbally it doesn’t have as much worth. Surely that’s not true. We could talk about Starry Night for hours but of course we know it’s not about words!

    Naturally, the written and verbal word are paramount — that’s our common way of communicating (and the way we expect kids to learn). But there are other ways and levels of understanding perhaps more natural especially for our youngest learners – I’d argue that’s true for all learners but we squelch it earlier and earlier.

    I’ve taught for over 30 years (20 years in kindergarten). There’s only been one workshop or curriculum meeting at my school where the discussion was on how children learn. And even that focused on literacy (i.e. “is this text in the child’s zone of proximal development”?).

    To focus on the child — to focus on multiple ways for students to make meaning and to make their understandings visible would be such a welcome change of pace. Opal school sounds like an amazing place! Sounds like we should be implementing their “common core” of principals nationwide!

  4. My colleague Janet Collier and I greatly appreciated the opportunity we had to participate in your workshop through the Museum Center for Learning and, in conjunction with that, to visit the Opal School. Both aspects of our time in Portland gave us much to consider and, moving forward, to continue to consider with our colleagues at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital. Many thanks to you and to Matt and to everyone in Portland!

    The nature of the dual curriculum at our school, with its commitment to sustaining and advancing modes of inquiry that go back millennia, does give certain privileges to texts themselves. We carry the epithet “People of the Book” with great pride! We also cherish the spirit of the ancient maxim that there are “shivim panim”–70 faces–to the Torah and, by extension, to all texts. (I think the authors of that phrase intended the number “70” in the same evocative, imprecise way that Malaguzzi used the number 100.:)) This idea fits well with our status as a “community” Jewish day school, meaning one that operates as a big and open tent and does not align with any particular approach to our heritage. When I say we give certain privileges to texts, I decidedly do not have in mind privilege to particular interpretations of those texts. In a related vein, I could say that we treat both texts and the enterprise of encountering them as “sacred” things, and that we feel fully comfortable with some defining that “sacredness” in theological terms, some defining in secular terms, and others falling at multiple points in between.

    Weeks after our trip, your questions “Is what I’m doing big enough? Am I opening the door wide enough?” linger and haunt in all the best ways. I hope they always will, as I join my friends and colleagues in wondering, exploring, reconsidering … or, following Bacon, in seeking, doubting, meditating, etc. This one thing, though, I know: in all the ways we strive and will continue to strive to help students build strong identities, raise their voices, and understand that they have something worth saying, texts and the enterprise of encountering them will always play a central role, always hold a pride of place even. We want to foster children’s sense that they are “created in God’s image”–whether we and they understand that phrase in theological terms or give it a secular gloss–and we also want to foster their sense that they are part of things greater than themselves. In our approaches to teaching and learning, the special, sacred status we give to texts and to our engagement with them serves as an anchor (maybe even the anchor) in balancing these intertwined aspects of our mission.

    • Thanks so much for this, David. I don’t consider myself religious, but I love that the way you’ve described the role of books and reading allows me to see myself-and, as Julius Lester wrote, to fit myself together. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I, too, think that interaction and that encounter between a reader and a text is sacred—as is the kind of encounter and interaction we were all able to have last month at Opal in Portland. So very glad to have had the chance to meet you & Janet there. And I can only imagine that our paths will cross again at some point.

  5. Vicki,
    I don’t know why, but I missed this post. So glad I stumbled in.
    I needed this post (I so often do) to center me. Your study of the word read not just in books, but in our world, and in others makes perfect sense. And, I wonder about the ability of people, not just young people, to do this on a bigger scale as you are hinting at here. I think that Opal has hit on something very fundamental and necessary in addressing that whole.

    I see a limited ability to read our world in students everyday. When asked to understand something or someone in their lives, seeing it from another’s perspective, analyzing an event on the playground, their responses sound similar to those responses we might worry about as a reader of books — limited, without reflection, depth or curiosity. It’s a deficit not in their ability to process words on the page but the world in general.

    I always think of your work as very big in that it applies to all reading situations. But honestly the language we use to study situations in our lives is the same. What do you notice? What does it make you wonder? We as teachers and students need to value and analyze life experiences as well. Perhaps that is where the writing comes in? I’m not sure.

    This sticks with me: “the pedagogy of listening as applying both to us as teachers listening to students and students listened to whatever materials they’re in dialogue with, including books, the same way we think of the work of the teacher and the work of the child centered on inquiry and research? Hmm. . . .”

    The lack of comments? Hmm… I just missed it. I hope/think that is the case for most readers.

    Happy New Year!

    • And I don’t know why I keep getting so behind in responding to comments! But, as always, I’m so glad to hear from you. This reminded me of a quote from Einstein that—unless it winds up on the cutting room floor—will be in my new book: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” And I think that’s because too much of what happens in too many classrooms is about compliance, not curiosity, and that what I might call the vision of traditional schooling is actually what’s limiting students’ ability to do this critical work. And all of that makes feel so very lucky that I get to work in place like Opal and your corner of LA that’s trying to bring curiosity, reflections and depth back to classrooms. See you soon!

  6. So glad I’ve stumbled back upon this post! I sometimes struggle in a class of 20 learners to hear the many thoughts that the students have about what they are reading, but only by listening to their thoughts can we change our own thinking. Each comes with a different perspective and experiences and it is challenging to balance what I want to share about the text and what they can bring to the text.

    • And I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to respond! That’s the greatest joy, isn’t it, when the kids open our minds to possibilities we hadn’t imagined. Sometimes by the time I hear their ideas, I have no desire or need to put my own thinking on the table as often, when combined, there’s is richer than mine.

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