Saturday, September 29, 2007

what is civil discourse?

I plan to write a longer post to this question early next week (my parents are here, I had to read a 350-page dissertation, and the CSUWP post-institute meeting is today, so I'm maxed out).

In short, though, I've been intrigued by the way that the term "civil discourse" and the concept of civility has been invoked repeatedly in the past couple of weeks in light of the University of Florida event with the taser and the Rocky Mountain Collegian editorial by J. David McSwane. Interestingly, though, neither concept is ever defined by the university presidents, editors, and letter writers who use it. I've taken this to mean that they assume their listeners and readers understand it as a shared value in our culture.

Uh, really?

So I've been doing a lot of digging for basic definitions of "civil discourse" as these appear in etymological roots, dictionary definitions, definitions posted in blogs, and so forth. My question for you, then, is how would you define the term "civil discourse"?

Monday, September 17, 2007

to be faithful in little things

On Saturday, Natalie asked that I post the questions I’m investigating in my current sabbatical project, a book tentatively titled Tough Talk, Tough Texts. I thought I’d done so before here on this blog, but they’re actually pretty hard to find. So I’ve spent the past half hour or so reviewing old entries, my original sabbatical proposal, and the NCTE proposal Rebecca, Cam, and I had accepted for this year’s conference. What I discovered was that my questions have definitely evolved over time. In fact, a whole series of sub-questions has emerged. Still, in its most boiled-down form, my controlling research question is:

How do we help students engage in productive conversations about provocative texts during book clubs?

The underlying premise of this question is that our students don’t have a plethora of cultural models at hand to help them engage in civil discourse. With commitment and very careful preparation, however, they can learn to do so independently within the context of a book club discussion.

(NOTE TO SELF: I should talk more later about what I mean by “productive conversations” and “provocative texts.”)

Before I leave, though, I want to admit that as I’ve described the book concept to others over the past several months, I’ve felt a little sheepish. I keep hearing this voice inside my head that wants to know, And exactly why is this so important? On Saturday, Natalie and Rebecca helped me remind myself why I still think it is.

You know, a lot of really fine books have been written lately to help teachers figure out how to help kids read and write for authentic purposes. These recommended strategies often culminate in service learning or community projects. In other words, at the end of such a unit of study, kids literally have something to show for it—a petition to city council, a letter to the editor, a new deck for the local coffee shop. I heartily applaud these approaches, but as I’ve held them up next to what I’m proposing, I’ve wondered:

Is learning to read with empathy and talk about difficult issues in productive ways really enough?

But every time I ask that question, the other little voice inside my head quietly but clearly says:

Yes. Oh, yes it is.

In my high school classroom, I only had two Argus posters (you know, the ones with the beautiful photographs and the inspirational quotations). One of them said, “Everyone is an exception,” and the other said, “To be faithful in little things is a big thing.” I’ve been thinking about these phrases over the past few days because they both seem relevant to this project. What might really happen in our culture if people were able to recognize that everyone is indeed an exception, then to enter empathically into lives that differed from their own? What would happen if they were able to really listen and to talk with one another about difficult issues in an effort to co-exist, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye?

Mother Teresa said, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” When I take to heart how much the world has benefited from her thinking, suddenly, this doesn’t seem like such a small endeavor any more.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

where am I now?

We’re back together at the AI post-institute meeting and beginning it as is our usual custom—with Morning Pages. I wrote the prompt and am suddenly realizing that I’ve broken more of the rules than I normally do. For one thing, I did the bad-teacher thing and asked everyone else to create a timeline without creating one for myself.

I guess that’s not completely true. I wrote a ridiculously ambitious one for my sabbatical proposal, and according to that, I should be finished with a draft of my book by the end of the semester. Cue hysterical laughter here.

Let’s just say I probably won’t get quite that far. In terms of where I am right now, I have been writing a good bit, but not much of it is fit for human consumption at this point. In fact, I’m a little adrift (See what I mean? Even as I write this, I’m wondering, is it okay to admit this in a public forum?). Or, more generously, I could say I’m still exploring. I’ve been reading very widely (and am amazed by the echoes I see that reflect back to this project—to interconnectedness and cultural change, for instance) and writing lots of questions and lists of topics/issues to think about later. Now later is here. And as for keeping up with blogging…well, you can look at the date between my last entry and this one and figure that out for yourself.

One new development that I’m very excited about, though, is that I’ll be starting a new book club in Beth Lewis’s classroom in a couple of weeks. Beth works in an alternative school and has pretty free rein with the curriculum, so we’re currently contemplating books that are “edgy contemporary.” To give you an idea, we’ve been tossing around titles like My Heartbeat and Rule of the Bone, and since our last meeting, I’ve thought about Perks of Being a Wallflower, Imani All Mine, and Chanda’s Secrets.

So what do I need to move forward? I need to begin reading texts that are more focused on this topic directly. For instance, I want to see what others have to say about how we use stories to make sense of our lives, how entering storied worlds can lead us back out into our own worlds and help us understand them in a more expansive way. I also want to get back to the search on civil discourse that I began last spring. I also need to talk with Rebecca and Cam to get a sense of their timelines for book clubs in their classes this year. Rebecca and I wrote a rough outline for our NCTE session this summer, and I think it would be a good way to focus our work. Finally, I want to get back here more. Writing has also been a way that I make sense of what I’m learning, and that brings me to my next point.

Here’s how the Inquiry Group can help today. When I told Beth that I still felt very exploratory in my thinking, she reminded me why this project is actually important to her as a teacher. I want to figure out what it can teach me as well:

Why do I feel deep in my bones that this is what I want to know right now—how to make a difference in our world through the “mere” act of literacy? Can we talk about why this project might have some social significance to you as a teacher and to others?