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.


Natalie said...

Thanks so much for restating your question. Once I started reading all the summer discourse came back and things made sense again. And in that sense-making mode you cannot discount the validity of the topic. In this time when the media is flooded with the "I" culture of celebrities whose coping mechanism is denial and avoidance your topic becomes much more important. It is essential that young people learn to talk about the tough issues - gosh, there are many young people out there who seem to need a reality check that tough issues even exist.

Every year seems to take us a step further away from important issues and focus more intensely on the fluff. The plethora of news stories about Britney Spears recent debacle on television is such a trivial matter when placed in a more global context - you know, it's trivial even when placed in a local context! It seems that what you're looking at is a way to move young adults past the focus on sensationalism and into the internal world of what really matters.

I say your book is RIGHT on track - it's a topic that MUST be addressed.

Rebecca said...

I second Natalie's sentiment that your book must be published (and not just for my own selfish reasons either). :)

I too think service learning is fantastic; however, it is not the only way to raise students' awareness of the world around them. One of my former student teachers is working in a small rural community and she has been charged with a "service learning class." Her experience has been challenging because the opportunities are limited where she teaches and her principal's idea of service learning is washing the windows of local businesses. Book clubs don't face this type of obstacle. They are accessible in most contexts and that is why your book needs to be published.

Cindy O-A said...

Thanks for the pep talk! I hadn't thought about how reading these books could help students distinguish between trivial matters and those that happen in a more global context. That will help me think more carefully about book choices in the future.

And, Rebecca, I'm starting to think more about how this kind of reading is socially significant. Not that clean windows aren't! But I do think any kind of service learning or social justice project needs a depth of motivation that sometimes missing.