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How to Assassinate Boredom: Reading and Writing our Lives

4 Oct
Thinking Outside the Book

Thinking outside the book: a 3D graphic organizer I made,  illustrating the reading and learning process.  A number of the pen-strokes that compose the image are actually cursive words, notes on the underlying texts, which run together, below and to the left, right through the borders of the page.

Metacognition: Thinking about our thought processes

( One part Zen mindfulness, one part revolutionary consciousness, one part creative activity.  Mix and stir vigorously )

Reading Strategies: thought processes we use to create meaning from a text

( Don’t worry if this meaning spills outside the borders of the text; this is natural, and to be expected )

Objective: You decide.

(  As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing )

These are the  concepts I’ve been teaching the past few weeks.

When I first meet them, most of my students think reading is boring because they think it involves scrolling through the text looking for the trivial piece of information the teacher wants them to regurgitate as the correct answer.  I want them to be able to use reading to assassinate their boredom.   But to do that, they have to stop putting their lives on hold the minute they start reading.  They have to learn how to relax and allow their lives and the text to flow together by becoming aware of their own thoughts and feelings as they encounter the text.

I want them to do this together, because it’s more meaningful that way.   As Hegel argued, we can only grow  when we spar with other peoples’ minds.  And in a society based on oppression, we only develop when we  overcome the roles of  master and slave that we work ourselves and each other into.  I want each student to recognize that his thoughts and feelings are simply one trajectory of possibility emerging out of the text and the world; his peers bring different experiences and ideas to the table as well,  experiences shaped by the races, genders, and classes this society has assigned them into.  The experience of reading blooms when we all declare and transform these experiences, and when we actively rebel against the systems of power that confine us to our identities and elevate some of us over others.

Reading together is one moment among many when this can happen.  Really it’s about active listening.  It’s about the texture of a cypher, the cheers and hollers of other peoples’ voices that shout “go in”, pushing us to freestyle life, instead of just watching it from the sidelines.  It is the chorus of  emotions that give us the courage to speak freely.

I want my students – and all of us –  to replace our awkward, Facebook-fueled self-consciousness with that rush of grace that comes from adding a chapter to the much larger story we are all reading and writing together.

If they are going to do this, they need to remember that both their lives and the text are human creations, produced with specific cognitive technologies: tools and strategies that they can all learn to wield gracefully.  Neither the text nor its interpretation is set in stone by a permanent authority who can never be challenged.   A text is not a sacred object that must be protected from the rest of the world.  You can draw on it with your pen.  You can draw insight out of it with your mind, breaking the borders between the text and the world.  You can even draw it as a weapon as you set out to change this world.

Teaching myself to teach my students to teach themselves 

Reading this way can be dangerous.   But that’s exactly why I encourage my students to try it at home.  I do myself.  In fact, I’ve started using my own teaching methods, teaching myself to enjoy reading more actively.  And it really works.   I have decades of education and two masters degrees behind me, but it feels like I just learned to read!  (Maybe I’ve unlearned some of the boredom I had picked up in school.)  In any case, I want to read everything I can get my hands on.

So recently, when I sit down to plan lessons, I start with these questions: what do I do in order to love reading this much?  How can I share this love with my students?  How can I teach them to teach themselves,  like I teach myself?

When I read, I imagine the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells conveyed in a text.   I  think about how people I know – friends and enemies – would respond to the text.  Would they debate it, would they draw all over it, would they throw it at me in frustration, or would they use it as a tool to solve problems in their lives?   I’m working on part three of my Reading for Revolution series, which will map out these reading strategies more specifically.

The vulnerable creativity of reading and writing 

All of this requires seeing the text as an open-ended process, an ancient yet relevant technology.  It is one-third-magic, one-third machine, and one-third living organism.  It flows like the rhizomatic neural networks of tree roots in the movie Avatar  So do our identities and our consciousnesses.

The text is fallible, contradictory, and unfinished – just like us.  But it also has potential running in every different direction, just like us.  We could get lost running down the rabbit hole that every clue leads us into.  So part of reading strategically means finding the most  promising and meaningful paths, and letting some of the other ones go. Good authors drop hints that point in these  directions, but they never leave you a hyperlink saying “click here.”

That’s because they don’t want to impose all of the answers.  And, in all honesty, they may not know them yet anyway.  Every book is a rough draft waiting for a new edition, a sequel, or a counter-polemic.  The author longs for readers who will not only understand, but will finish the process started in the text.  A good author draws from currents of life that came before, and provokes an explosion of new discourses that flow outward from that point onward.

In that sense, writing is a vulnerable act;  you leave tentative ideas for others to complete or destroy.   Reading in public is also vulnerable, because it it involves blurring the boundary between your consciousness and the text, and this inevitably involves sharing a bit of your consciousness and the experiences you bring to the text.

Let’s be real: most of our classrooms right now are not safe enough places for youth to do this, especially if they are women, gender nonconforming folks, LGBTQ folks, youth of color, or working class and low income students.  So the first step in teaching metacognitive reading strategies needs to be establishing a respectful, egalitarian, communal class.

It is also important to explicitly reaffirm that it is more beneficial to fail and to understand why then it is to succeed and not know why.  That’s my class’s mantra.   Over the long run, those who fail wisely will learn more and will create new forms of success that the people who set the original standard for success could never imagine.   Students will only open up in class if the teacher and students collaborate to turn down the volume on all the (inner) voices that say “you are not good enough”, “you are crazy for thinking that”, “you’re a freak”, “you’re too ______”,  “your’e not _____ enough”, “if you think that , they’ll all say______”.

As researcher Brene Brown argues , vulnerability is the key to creativity.  So working through shame is the starting point for living a vibrant, connected life.   I would add that it is also the starting point for any type of social transformation.   Schools construct a veil of shame around reading, especially for those high school students who have been tracked into classes and labeled “stupid”, “remedial”, or “below standard”.

This is so destructive because it sacrifices everything good in life at the altar of perfection.   The manic obsession with testing contributes to this awkward sacrifice by pitting students – and teachers – against each other in frenzied competition to meet and exceed abstract,  arbitrary, and often inaccurate standards.   When there is a test to prepare for, who has the relaxed state of mind necessary to gracefully make mistakes?  Who has the committed flexibility necessary to analyze these mistakes  and learn from them? In the name of rigor and progress, we destroy experimentation and growth.

The sacred texts are still unfolding –  write now as you read

As teachers are always saying, good writers show ;  they don’t tell.  They leave something for the reader to imagine, and their assertions are experimental and unfinished.   A poet uses a metaphor instead of a blunt accusation.  A scientist shares her test  results and ends with a tentative conclusion, knowing that truth is embedded in a process of refinement through future experimentation.   The most brilliant intellectuals all respect the fact that we create and recreate our minds.  So when we apply our minds to a text, we create our experience of that text, just like the author created the text itself.

And what we create is not just an abstract fantasy.  When we learn, it literally reshapes the neural networks in our brain, uprooting some and branching out to intertwine with others.  Chemical particles move and blood rushes to feed cleavages, folds, and swerves of growth.  Our consciousness is a  human production, because our brains are parts of our bodies, and  our bodies are parts of the world.  The world is always changing, and part of that change is the product of our activity; we transform ourselves as we transform the world.

When we become mindful of this process, we can hone it.   Our brains are organs, and we can exercise them just like we exercise our arms and legs.  We can start by honing in on one aspect of life that we’ve neglected or repressed, and we can move beyond the boring, confined answers we’ve already come up with, wrestling with that problem from new angles we didn’t think were possible, and solving it – not only in our minds, but  in lived, embodied practice.  Our thoughts emerge out of the physical world that births our embodied brains; we return them to the physical world by using our hands and the rest of our bodies to make new things, and to care for new people.

This is human labor conceived as self-activity, as embodied creativity.  Our labor breathes as part of the earth’s metabolism, shaped into consciousness by our blood, sweat, and tears (of joy and sorrow).   But usually we can’t see this, because we spend our time working too hard, to the point where it all just seems natural and numb.   Meaning given and unchanging.

The social origins of boredom and television

We miss all of this because we get used to producing for someone else – a boss, a teacher, the test, the marketplace – instead of creating freely for ourselves and each other and the earth.   We watch the hours until we can clock out, go home, and passively consume officially approved texts – TV scripts, song lyrics, whatever we can sip on to dull the pain or banish the boredom.  We have lost the ability to entertain ourselves, so we have a desperate need to be entertained.   We’ve lost this ability because the most entertaining thing a human being can do is to create ourselves together, and it’s hard to do that from a couch, cubicle, assembly line, or classroom desk.

Because our pre-packaged entertainment is never enough,  it leaves us bored and disconnected from ourselves and each other.   We take that boredom back into the classroom with us.  And that leaves us indifferent when we are exposed to the very tools we could use to produce our own shows and our own lyrics – or even better yet, to produce a life we won’t feel the need to escape from.

So here is the secret they won’t tell us on TV or in the classroom:  we have the capacity to  read and write the stories of our own lives, through our literal literacy, and also through the self-activity, the many-sided capacities for labor and physical transformation that lay dormant in our minds and bodies, waiting to be awakened through social learning and rebellious life.

Hey NSA: you can read this, but you can’t read my thoughts about it

Before I go further with that thought, maybe I should stop and check to see if they’ve made it illegal yet.    Who knows – many good and true things, from wildcat strikes to tent city occupations, are illegal.   As we try to transform the world, there is no doubt that the government will try to stop us.

But as my students often tell me, learning is the one thing they can’t take away from us.  What’s most amazing about creative, critical literacy  is that it can never  be fully surveilled because it can’t even be fully measured.  Like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it changes the minute you try to observe it.  Trying to read our minds is like trying to crucify a jellyfish.

They haven’t figured out how to plug our brains directly into the internet yet, so the tentative, provocative, exhilarating, and sometimes scary thoughts that we all experiment with when we read and write have time to gestate.   They are not immediately posted on our Facebook walls, Twitter accounts, or some NSA spy’s console, to be measured, trolled, liked, disliked, co-opted, sold, mocked, or repressed.  And here’s another thing that’s not a coincidence: they also can’t be tested.  Bill Gates will be so disappointed when he finally figures that out.

When we travel to worlds created by a book, we can continuously co-create these worlds with the author, in a graceful dance that is sometimes risky because it requires that we step out of the characters we have written for ourselves and confined ourselves with in.  When we enter these words and worlds, this movement is not traced on Google Maps, Facebook, Foursquare, or the FBI’s computer networks.  We go off the grid, out of bounds, and beyond the law.   We even slip out of the confines of the book, the page, the text itself.  Someone else reading the same book might not even detect the traces of our departure.

The NSA and FBI should be worried about this.  They are pretty stupid to think they can scare everyone into paranoid self-consciousnes through online surveillance.  Especially when there are all sorts of subversive books hidden in plain sight in your local library.  They should be worried that some of us might read those books and get inspired to take actual,  physical action to begin co-creating the worlds we imagine.  They should be worried that we start creating them not simply as an afternoon fantasy or a highbrow hallucination, but as an actual, material reality – a movement, an uprising, a revolution, a commune.

To get to that point, we can start by teaching ourselves how to create our lives like the author creates the text, and we can write draft after draft without jumping ourselves because the first one isn’t perfect.   Revolution doesn’t operate on a schedule with school bells and factory whistles.  The draft we discard one day may end up being the basis for building the tools we need to win our freedom.

To the administrators, testmakers, and state surveillance experts, the results of our studies look like idle doodling, a waste of time that can’t be tested or measured.  For now, they let this slip through the cracks because it looks like passive, infantile rebellion, not dangerous insubordination.

That’s because they can’t see that our doodles and daydreams are actually graphic organizers we use to remember our way to the futures we aim to create.  They are not entertainment or fantasy; they are plans.  They are cookbooks full of recipes for transcending capitalism’s disasters.  They are blueprints for dwelling places occupied by free people who build them for each other, not for profit or a test score.

Reading for Revolution (Parts 1 and 2)

26 Jun

I recently wrote two articles on struggles for critical literacy, which I posted over on the Black Orchid Collective blog.  These are part of a 3 part series called “Reading for Revolution”.  The first article, “Steal the Ability to Read this Book”,  makes a case for seizing the reading skills that slave-masters and capitalist bosses have systematically denied oppressed communities.  It also highlights the importance of literacy in revolutionary movements historically and today:

There is a reason why the slave masters made it illegal for slaves to learn to read.  In the hands of  oppressed people,  written words can be revolutionary.  They were back then, and they still are today.

Of course, the written word would not be powerful without the spoken word.  Spoken words have always been a weapon of struggle, from the storytelling of the West Africangriots through tales of resistance told in code on the plantation so the masters couldn’t understand.

But the written word builds off these oral traditions in equally powerful ways.  It allows oppressed people to communicate with potential comrades who are not immediately in their presence – and that’s crucial when they’re trying to overthrow a global system of oppression.   It allows for stories of events like the Haitian revolution to spread to places like the plantations of the  US South, inspiring uprisings there, even if people there had never met someone who had participated in Haiti’s revolt against slavery.   Texts like Walker’s Appeal, smuggled into the US South, were powerful calls to rise up, calls that the masters needed to silence at all costs.  Hence, the masters imposed illiteracy – they made sure potential rebels wouldn’t know how to read these revolutionary texts.

That forced illiteracy continues today with school systems that put a lot of effort into training students to be good capitalist workers – or future obedient prisoners.  They do this instead of teaching students how to teach themselves to read.  They present reading as something that is boring, dry, and whitewashed, instead of showing students how to love reading, and how to find strength in it over the course of their lives.   This is especially true for Black youth, and youth who are economic refugees from the places around the world that the US dominates through its empire.  As Dead Prez put it, “They schools ain’t teachin us, what we need to know to survive. They schools don’t educate, all they teach the people is lies”.

This is not an argument for abandoning struggles to defend and transform public education.  As I wrote earlier, I am all for expanding the kinds of struggles teachers, parents, and students are waging, from the MAP test boycott to fights against austerity budget cuts and privatization.

However, when we say “defend and transform”, this transformation needs to confront the ways in which the school  system is deeply embedded in the historical process of creating and recreating institutionalized race and class hierarchies in our society.   In order to fight these, we’ll need to build spaces outside of the schools where we can learn from each other and can grow through struggle in ways that are not currently possible in public school classrooms.  We can use this new knowledge to fight for better education in the classroom as well.   Part 2 of Reading for Revolution makes a case for these kinds of movement-based study groups.   I am currently working on Part 3, which will provide some practical suggestions and curriculum materials for how to conduct study groups.

For the full articles, please  click here