Tag Archives: Rhizomes

Freestyle Learning in the Rhizomatic Cypher

3 Apr

Recently I’ve been wrestling with a question many teachers face: what should we do when our students’ learning journeys roam out of our carefully constructed lesson plans? We call these moments tangents, but what if they are actually creative lines of flight?

My formal teacher training didn’t prepare me to answer this question; the only solution I was taught was to suppress these tangents in order to make sure students meet my learning objectives.  I’m experimenting with new approaches now, based on my students’ interventions in the classroom, the philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari, and the dynamics of hip hop production.

My teaching masters program was useful as far as masters’ programs go; my professors were certainly supportive of my efforts to teach critical literacy, ethnic studies, and open-ended discussion to youth who are considered “at risk” by official society.  They gave us plenty of intellectual ammunition to hurl back at the corporate eduction reformers who want to control and standardize learning at the expense of teachers, my students, and youth from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

However, my professors’ hostility to standardization operated at the level of society, not at the level of the classroom.  They taught us to advocate for our right to create our own lesson plans, free from the proto-totalitarian influences of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the other billionaires who want to recreate education in the image of their machinery.   But they emphasized that our lessons themselves must be tightly planned. If they had any political program, it might be summed up as “all power to the teachers, the professionals who know how to craft effective plans, tailored to their specific situations.”

I’ve partially bought into this, out a desire for my own labor to be creative and well done.   I also see its usefulness in terms of challenging the informal social hierarchies that permeate every classroom.  For example, teachers need to intentionally plan to check our own biases.  We need to intentionally organize our classroom layout and our activities so that students talk to each other, instead of simply talking to us, the people they’ve been trained to treat as authorities.  And of course, we need to plan to differentiate the curriculum, so that students with disabilities are not left behind.

All of this certainly can advance beyond the banking model of education, where the teacher deposits knowledge in the students’ brains, which they then regurgitate on the test. But it still assumes that the teacher is the one who should set the pace, rhythm, direction, and content of the democratic discussions that our lesson plans are supposed to foster.

Teachers divide learning activities into discrete bundles, which we call learning objectives.  We choose these objectives so each assignment builds on the previous one,  in chains of increasing cognitive complexity, beginning with understanding facts and moving through application and  analysis toward independent production of original work. My best lessons are tightly organized in these ways, and my students certainly build up confidence and motivation when they meet the initial objectives.

However, sometimes they use that confidence in ways that surprise me, and that diverge from the learning objectives I had in store for them further down the road. In many ways, these moments remind me of social movements I’ve been a part of, where crowds in motion suddenly change the political terrain, making our well-crafted strategies obsolete overnight.

Similarly, my students’ thinking becomes nomadic, roaming right out of the lessons I’ve mapped out for them.  They open up entirely new lines of flight that lead into uncharted and possibly dangerous intellectual and emotional territories.  For example, we are talking about religion’s role in society and suddenly a student shouts out “I’m gay, does that mean I won’t go to heaven?”, or we’re talking about  some contemporary political debate and suddenly three students demand to know why the economy crashed and a fourth wants to figure out whether it has something to do with the Illuminati and a fifth makes a speech against conspiracy theories, prompting a debate that engulfs the class for the rest of the period.

I’m not talking about the moments where  bored students tactically lay out a piece of  tangent-bait hoping the teacher will get derailed so they don’t have to do their classwork. Usually those tangents are even more predictably scripted than our lessons.   I’m talking about moments where students go on tangents precisely because they are NOT bored. Moments where the planned learning activities open up a vortex of emotion and thought  because they touch on concepts, issues, and experiences that students usually do not get a chance to discuss in their daily lives.  Something one student says resonates with the others, and it unfolds a waterfall of thoughts that students didn’t know they urgently needed to talk about until that moment.  Now they are not going to want to talk about anything else – except for everything else that relates.

No matter what the teacher does, these new thought-machines have taken flight and are forming brainstorms of connections with each other, unfolding into wider and deeper layers of complexity at a pace the teacher can’t keep up with.   The thinking we are doing together has become bigger than the teacher, and bigger than the students, and it demands space to form more and more connections.

Recently I’ve been reading the works of the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, who shed some light on these moments.  They argue that the universe is composed of pure difference constantly folding and unfolding itself into new identities.   The forms and identities that exist at any given moment are real, but they are not the only way the world might have ended up, and they are constantly changing themselves into something else.  New possibilities are always opening up, as people and things leak out of our identities in all directions.  We open up lines of flight that break from the paths society has charted out for us, becoming nomadic, creating new lives.

This process does not fit neatly within the borders of the individual person.  It leaks out of our minds, bodies, and identities.  It happens within the individual, and among individuals as we interact, overlapping with our selves.   Lines of flight are like desires, but we  are not talking about “my” desires, or yours.  We are talking about creation that seems to take a hold of me, you, and others, unleashing life we didn’t’ know we had in us.

In this sense, learning is not about discovering perfect truths that represent a stable reality composed of separate people and objects.  That kind of learning leads to understanding , posing objectives like “students will identify what these things are, and show this on a test”.   It objectifies things, and thus it objectifies knowledge.  Instead of seeking understanding, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the really interesting pursuit is learning to think – which often involves learning to feel.   Thought does not simply discover things, it creates new lines of flight.  It creates concepts and desires that traverse our bodies and minds, weaving among each other and the people, machines, plants, animals, cities, economies, words, and music we interact with.

This is the kind of learning that my students seem most excited about, and when it erupts in the classroom, I’m reminded of why I love teaching/ learning.  It is not simply about planning  for social change; it is a movement with its own velocity and rhythm.  Teaching/learning is about creating new concepts together with our students, going on  nomadic journeys together in ways that undermine and cross society’s borders.  Learning this way is always potential anarchy.

As Dave Cormier puts it,

I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections i would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.

To borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor, learning is less like a tree, and more like a rhizome.  Learning like a tree implies hierarchy – you start with the roots, the base of knowledge, then you build upward in a predetermined trunk of application and analysis, and only then can you branch out and create fruits of your learning.  This is similar to how I was taught to structure my learning objectives in graduate school – each lesson must build off the previous one in a planned way.

In contrast, a  rhizome is a root structure with no clear beginning and end, no up or down.  It can expand itself in multiple directions by creating networks, intertwining with soil, tress, and other rhizomes, and for this reason it is both innovative and resilient.   It is organized, but not in a centralized or standardized way.  It self-organizes, just like my students do when they push a class discussion into fruitful tangents.

This process reminds me  of hip hop, which is no surprise considering that my students are both producers and consumers of hip hop’s cutting edges.  Hip hop, at it’s best, does not follow a formula.  It does not build on previous cultural genres in a linear way.  Instead, it pulls little pieces of previous songs together into new networks of beats and samples.  Then it pulls pieces of experience together into networks of rhymes that refer to each other and to life in exploratory, playful ways.

A Hip hop freestyle “reads” or interprets the current moment, writing its interpretations into new concepts immediately (without the mediation of approved intellectual categories).   Concepts, images, sounds, senses, and experiences relate to each other in ways that don’t try to capture reality; instead, they sample and play (with) it.

For example, the emotional resonance of a certain beat combines with the stress a rapper puts on a specific word which evokes new ways that word is being spoken in particular cities that are going through their particular crises, resistances, and renaissances.   Hip hop is learning, combining culture, current events, politics, and many other discourses and structures.  But it connects things together that didn’t have any obvious connection before hip hop spun and palpated them into networks of sound and color.   Hip hop is about growing rhizomes and nomadic journeys.

Unfortunately, students who immerse themselves in these journeys are then inserted into tidy boxes called classrooms, where they are expected to take their headphones off so they can consume and produce knowledge  using methods originally designed to train workers for factory assembly lines.

No wonder they rebel.  Many of the so-called disciplinary problems  in classrooms might actually be a subterranean class struggle between nomadic rhizomes, and the structure that aims to chop them into pieces of identity so it can channel them into official trajectories of career, family, conformity, citizenship, gender, and race.   Schools are the explosive meeting places where students’ rhizomatic journeys crack the system’s concrete, and roses grow through the cracks, as Tupac famously narrated.

So maybe teachers should organize classrooms in ways that participate in this rhizomatic learning instead of choking it with linearly planned lessons modeled after tree trunks and assembly lines.   Maybe we should create learning environments where students can sample and reorganize thoughts in new ways, like many of them do when they produce hip hop.   Maybe we should let our classroom discussions become freestyle cyphers, where students can immediately interpret each other’s thoughts into new lines of flight.

I’m still exploring how to do this.  But one thing I’ve started to do is to make freestyle creation of concepts the learning objective of the lesson itself.  That way,  tangents become the point, and the whole class becomes a set of tangents, like the roots of a rhizome.  I plan out lessons to share what skills students need to know in order to prepare for this, so that no one is left out (e.g. I teach them how to do an internet news search, or how to check for bias in a source).  But then I let them think in multiple directions, allowing the objectives and the curriculum to emerge out of the process.

For example, we’ve recently been doing freestyle research cypher sessions.   Students sit in a circle and each gets a copy of a Freestyle Research Worksheet and a laptop***.   The teacher writes a few topics on the board, choosing from  a survey of student interests conducted earlier.  Everyone starts by researching one of those topics online, finding articles, images, and video related to it, and filling out their worksheets with this information.  Whenever they find something interesting, they share it with the whole class, and the teacher projects it on the overhead projector and asks students what they see/ hear and what they think about it.  These discussions then encourage other groupings of students to research topics related to what was discovered. Eventually different groupings emerge based on what students are interested in pursuing further, as they wander into related topics or concepts.  At the end, we have an open discussion about what we’ve learned, and students write reflections integrating their new ideas together, drawing connections between the different topics.

I recognize there is a danger that students might simply touch on topics superficially, especially when there is not enough time to explore each of their interests in enough depth.  It is important to keep track of issues or topics that might need further elaboration and to come back to them, possibly using these cyphers as jumping off points to construct more traditional lesson plans with scaffolded objectives. This could help students develop the background knowledge necessary to analyze particularly difficult issues that come up and could make future freestyle research discussions more fruitful.

In any case, this is an experiment, not a perfect answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post.  I am curious how other teachers and learners might answer this question in different ways.  That’s why I’m throwing this post out into the blogosphere –  which, of course, is its own rhizomatic learning process.


* The worksheet has multiple cells in google doc form, which students can fill out electronically and can share with the teacher and each other so they could collaborate on filling it out together if they want. This also makes it easier to project their findings onto an overhead screen.

**We are luckily enough to have laptops that work, which is not guaranteed in this era of austerity.  It could also be done with archives of newspaper clippings, photos, artifacts, etc.  I’ve also allowed students to use their smartphones, which lessens the conflicts students and teachers are always having about whether they should be allowed to use their phones in class.


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.