The Power and Seduction of Reading

The incredible power and seduction of

of reading.

 Reading out loud.

 In a class. In  a group.

Yes,  yes, I know, lots of exceptions to this, so let’s get that out of the way, I am generalizing. Read on…maybe read out loud?  In a group setting?

What is it that makes us want to read out loud in a class? Even the average reader wants to hear their voice, sounding out the words.  That’s what used to count as reading, as we sounded out words, said them with decoding confidence, even though we had no idea what we were reading.  Most of us learn to read by de-coding, leaving overall comprehension in the dust in our race to the finish line of learning to read.

I think we continue to learn, and practice, reading. An extraordinarily fascinating and challenging concept, sitting right up there next to language acquisition, a little cousin perhaps, to this area of our development as children.

But I’m talking about reading out loud today. I teach theater, remember, so we read plays—a lot of plays—out loud in class.  I assign readers like I’m casting a show, trying to match up personalities, voices, energies with certain roles.  My gut feeling for 25 years is that (almost) everyone wants to read! They are silently and invisibly raising their hands, “ Pick me, pick me!” At this time, they know the text is a little challenging. – we’re currently reading Sophocles. Theses texts are not difficult to me, but for my students, the fact that they are written in verse both compels and worries them. But they want to read, I can feel it. I have seen it with my own two eyes: when I give someone a “title role,” they light up—I’ve seen it, I can feel it too.  Sometimes I give a large role to a not-so-good reader, even a marginalized student.  They have been chosen to take on a major role. I’ve witnessed the transformation in broad daylight. That student gets their ass to class on time, with forward-looking energy. They know what page we’re on…okay, that might be a slight dramatization, but it’s just plain true. Take “Dante” for example. Dante is barely passing my class last year—I give him the role of Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun.  He’s not a great reader, but something happens, something I’ve seen before, but never fails to thrill me.  I tell him after class how glad I am that he is reading the part, how well he’s doing.  He is. Now Dante comes every day, on time, book in hand, lines underlined for him to remember. Sound Polanna?  Sorry, it’s true as true is.  I have, for the moment, turned a  “non-student” into an engaged and engaging young man.  His smile is wider, his gait more energetic.  That’s it, people, it’s the best I can do, for the moment.

I remember back in 2nd, maybe 3rd grade, so so eager to be chosen to read out loud. It was most often a paragraph from a tome, a history tome, most likely.  I just wanted to show the world that I could read fast, loud and with expression, we called it:  Expression. It meant that I had a feel for commas really.  That was more than 50 years ago and I’m still in love with the comma, its beautiful effect on the sound.  This is no lie people. When my third grade teacher explained the construction of a sentence, listing three things with the use of commas and “and,” I fell in love with those sentences—real beauty. “The words were beautiful, powerful, and magnificent.”  I loved the final comma, followed by “and.” Wow, I can see some words on the chalkboard in my memory even now as I write to you.

How is this connected to reading Out Loud? Is this just ego? Do we just want to show off, sound smart in front of the group? I don’t think so. I think it has to do with making music perhaps. We have our instruments, but to read a beautiful set words is to play some notes, make music for ourselves and for others.  We want to hear the text, we do.  Reading on our own has its own power and pleasure, but reading in a group is a different animal.  Students, generally, want to read out loud. They take an immediate ownership of the work.  “No that’s my line” They almost say this  when someone makes that kind of mistake.  They hold their place in the book, they follow closely and accurately along with the notes I require them to take.

(that’s another blog – trying to get my students to aggressively mark up their books with notes, to have a relationship to a text)

It’s a power beyond me.   I am amused when the discussion takes us way far away from the immediate text. I. e., I ask them about definitions of irony in their lives, and blahalhblah the discussion ensues. But this discussion, which feels contained and whole OUTSIDE the reading of our play, never cuts into where we were in the text.  The students who are slated to read know exactly where we left off. This ownership of the text is tight, strong, and transcendent of the subject of the lively discussion. The students, after 20 years of training, know when and where to return to the text. I’m more playful, ready to abandon the text altogether, ready to follow the flow of an energetic subject.  For example, we’re reading Antigone. I ask them about irony. This discussion takes up to 30 minutes. But when we return to our text, the gal or guy reading the title role knows exactly where we left off.  I have long since forgotten that detail, engaged as I tried to be with their personal shares.  Fuck the play, we’re talking about personal stories right now, that’s what matters most, right?  But no, the students take ME back to the text.  They marry it in a way that I don’t.  There’s a glue of some kind there, hardened over 10 years of classroom protocols. This happens again and again in various forms, becoming a fugue, of sorts, throughout the term.  I lead a discussion away from the play. Again, fuck the play, we’re sharing our personal lives and making connections.  BUT the students reading out loud want to get back to the play, back to their lines! They own them.   For that moment, I have done it, with the help of a power I do not wield. 

It’s the sound of their own voice in a room, the incredible power of our voices in a room, vibrating inside of us, bringing us a level of pleasure, of calm too.  The power of vibration, the power of the sound, the power of song.  The power of the hearing yourself read…we love it, we crave it, we say, “Pick me, pick me.” So go ahead, read my blog out loud.  See what happens…  

Meetingspeak

25 years ago, ish, I had to serve on the faculty senate at my college. I’m certain it was one of those “send the new gal,” things, but I perceived it as an honor, of course.  Midway through my career I served on several high level committees with more or less “success,” but that’s not what today’s musing is about…no, I’m just reporting about attending what we call a “Division Meeting” which is run by our Dean, in the area of “Media, Arts, and Communications.” Truth be told, I’m not exactly sure that’s the current name of our particular cluster of subject matters. The name keeps changing of late.  At one point, we were called “The School of the Arts” which I vehemently opposed…we were no “school of the arts” since we all spent a lot of time just getting our students to bring supplies to class. School of the Arts connotes a  mastery that is far far out of reach for most of the students at my school.  This is not a bash-my-students moment, just a reality check.

25 years ago, I attended a faculty senate meeting and experienced a panic attack, of sorts.  I looked around the room at these people, looked hard at their faces, leaned in on the heavy oak conference table in the senate chambers, and I just…I just….couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying.  Panic breeds panic, as we know. What was wrong with me?  I was intelligent, I taught my classes with aplomb, I studied pedagogy…what was this?  I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Even one of the senior faculty members on “the bench” was speaking in gobblygook…call it some form of jabberwakky.  I was so nervous about having to report what the senate was up  to, that I called that senior faculty member at her home on a Sunday! To ask,  “hey, what happened at that meeting?  I was a little lost.” (Little? Ha!)  This was before email, but still, calling someone at home made it appear very urgent.  It was.  I didn’t know what anyone was saying.  They were speaking English to be sure, but no matter… I was a wreck.

I stayed a wreck, though I think I got a few little notes to report.

When it came my time to report to the smaller area meeting that week, I just said some vague things, hoping to pass…”We discussed the budget allocation model  and some new grant proposals on the table.”  Something akin to that…Everyone nodded, I was free! No one paid much attention and no one seemed curious to ask for anything specific.  My friends in the arts (a much much smaller group than now) seemed to get it—I was saying that nothing really happened and that was commonplace.  Whew…I was with my people and I didn’t have to stand up and quit my job because I failed so completely to proudly represent my constituents at a Senate meeting in the Senate Chamber.

Fast forward:  This past week, I attended our first large division meeting for the year (on Zoom of course).  Fast backward:  I sat there in my box, nodding a little, but having no idea what they were talking about. Here’s a peek into some of the delicious new words that I grabbed, but I failed again to capture any the whole of anything.  I had the same thoughts I had in the early 90s. “I’m smart, I know what I’m doing (enough), I’m looking around the room at the boxes, and I have no clue as to what is happening…are we voting on something, if so, what?  My boss – and those who are pal around on the inside management track—use some of the following words and phrases onboarding, critical race theory, leverage our efficiency, cross platform delivery systems, seamless integration.

Academia is always a few years behind the fashions of the day in private business.  We pick up the words, the models of management from corporate America, we really do.  Some of my colleagues will be loathe to admit this at all…but yes, my sweets,  we try hard to be like Corporate America, we do…on the administrative side of the tracks.   Our senior administrators would die to be compared to Bezos and Musk,  I’m just sure of it… curious, innovators, visionaries, blahblahblah…  so we pick up the language, we’re just a little slow.   But as far as talking in businessspeak, or administrativespeak…jargon I guess, the whole fricking meeting was truly blahblahblahblah.  I try to be polite, sit still in my zoom box.  I tell myself, “ don’t eat my bowl of cereal in front of everyone. Stay quiet. Try to nod sometimes.” I focus on other things, analyzing their background choices, their hairdos. Before zoom meetings, I spent a lot of meeting hours observing shoes—do you realize how shoes come in black?  That was way more engaging than discussion of the Allocation Model.

I have to tell myself these things, because I’m confess that I’ve taken on that role of the  snarky, sarcastic member of the group who says things like, “Follow the money.” While some folks have thanked me for speaking truth to power (my activism, in a meeting), I’m mainly just lost.  One or two folks speak and everyone seems grateful for clarity, but I’m just as lost as ever.  I’m alone in this, I conclude.  I am just alone………… in this………………the world of meetingspeak.   Is it possible?

But language is language and I am not copacetic about this phenomenon.  I want to play in the mud too, but I’m kept out of this game, because truly, I have no idea what anyone was saying. By the time I get back to my bowl of cereal, it tastes so so so good. Something I know about.  FOOD. It comforts my anxious mind. I try to shine it on, but it lingers – why and how do I feel so lost in a world that I’ve inhabited for decades?  Maybe, maybe…I don’t belong there anymore.  

“Dirty” Little Secret

A dirty little secret…

Well, maybe not “dirty,” but least suspect…No worries, I’m not about to talk about sex (sorry to disappoint).  I’ll bring that up later in the year when I begin to talk about the eroticism of higher education.  But for now, I call it “dirty” because it’s so abhorrent to my profession…

It’s exactly what we, as instructors, are NOTsupposed to do, so of course I take the bait. It’s anathema, really, something to practice NOT doing perhaps.

On occasion, I actually pencil in final grades after the first week or so.  Yep…I do.  I do this as a game, of sort– but if it skewers my final grades, I suspect it skewers them up rather than down.  I’ll address final grades a long time from now; there’s a few books in me about final grades, but for now, here’s what, why and how I do this:

I’ve been pummeling my students with questions—some about themselves, some about what we are reading about, blah blah blah..  I’m holding discussions on  zoom, and believe me, it’s exhausting to me to hold a lively, energetic discussion on the screen.  I call on students randomly, try to link their ideas to their fellows, sometimes link their ideas to mine, creating as much connectivity in the room as I can.  I am a classroom master…the more zoom feels like a room, the better.

I learn so much about them, so fast.

(this is just 3 decades of practice, that’s all, no magic here people, just being in the trenches for so long.) 

A apt analogy is this:  I am also a theater director, right?  When I hold auditions, I get what I need to know within a minute. I’m certain I’m not alone in this, but I’ve not had this conversation with my fellow theater directors. If any are reading, please…let’s talk.  They speak a few words—I can see their aptitude with language within 5 words and if they have any kind of energetic animation.

We’re talking about being animated. Animate:  to bring to life.

I’m not talking about content here people.  Sure, I’m mildly interested in where they went to high school or what job they have (BTW, it’s amazing how many of my “kids” are working for Home Depot right now). I’m interested in the form.  How do they speak, what position are they holding themselves in, most literally. Are they sitting up or trying to sit up?  So many remain slouched in a loungy thingy.  Are they leaning in?  Are they speaking with some modicum of  confidence, a little bit of pizazz, some resonance in their voice? Do any of them employ a little bit of charm, knowing that they’re better off doing so, in most situations?  Is it possible that charming people get better grades just because of their charm?  DUH…

(Death of a Salesman, duh…Willy and Biff Loman…Ouch, that play is so poignant, I have to pause in my writing and hold my chest for a moment and breathe)

I’m looking for signs of life—in the eyes, the mouth, the nostrils even. Intelligence, curiosity, the ability to breathe, listen and respond. That’s all they will need in my class.  All of these are so apparent…do we know how transparent we all are, by just talking for a moment? And when they read aloud, which they do, a lot, in my class…wow, talking about revealing.  

Okay, okay, call me too judgmental. You’re right.  I told you it was a “dirty” little secret.  So yes,  I play this game with my own perception, my first impressions.

I grade them.  I pencil in what I think they’re going to end up getting in my class, based on the first 2 weeks.   As I write this, I hope you will trust me to keep myself in check, to be extra careful as the end of the term is looming, that I continue to check myself for bias…but fuck it, I AM bias… we’re all BIAS, but we have to check ourselves constantly.  It’s the best we’re going to be able to do…I’ll write about the layered complexity of Bias on and off again.  Teachers grade things. Oh my God, they are bias.  Of course, we’re being asked to be as neutral and robot -like as possible so that grading becomes more “fair, “ on and on and on and on….I have rants about this which will seep in, but today I’m sharing my little

Confession:  I grade them all.

It’s a game.  It has to do with animation.  Breathing, listening, responding.  I am sometimes wrong about these early grades. People do better or worse than I expect.  Good. Keep me humble.

I have no ego invested in this; if I’m wrong all together, so be it. It’s just a little game, remember? I’m testing my own perception skills.  Most of the time, the students who are awake, have the potential to animate themselves, with a little cajoling on my end, will do well. That’s all there is to it. And that’s a lot, I know. Students who start out the semester sleepy, late, removed, bored…these things are evident within the first hour, or faster than that. If they change their affect, I’m all for it. I work on poking and prodding them;  I would love to see all of my students earn high marks, I take no pleasure if giving Ds and Fs, none at all.

I’ll keep you posted, and keep myself humble too…that’s part of the blog. I have to practice. 

Beautiful youth.  I start to fall in love with all of them.  Some more than others.  I do.  I fall in love with my students. More on that secret later.

Still asking for help from a higher power — from I.T.?

Again, I ask for help…

Be present and alive…that’s all I ask.

That’s a lot. I know.

Help me

Disappear with great great effort to appear…

I appear first “present and alive…”

So I can slowly disappear.

It’s a rhythm thing.

__

Take a leap baby…it’s in the language, the paint. Bold, Italics, all those little

Marks

For the page.

The page, the room, it’s all the same

Playtime baby.

But I go to the cemetery now.

Not to die, to walk among the dead.

__

August 20, 2020

It was awful yesterday.

My film class.

I teach a class in film analysis. Yep, that horrible job of having to watch films and talk about them together.  Poor me.

Never tolerate a complaint from me on this, okay?  I get healthily paid for showing evocative films, guide my students through details of content and form, which is often a  beautiful experience.    But it was awful yesterday, just awful.

Zoom bombers—again—they made it “in the room” again yesterday, after having appeared there on Monday as well.  They come in hollering terrible words, words I don’t even want to quote here in this blog, porno words, but worse, racially charged words, a spray of verbal bullets around the room.  Zoom “bombers” is perfect nomenclature.

As instructor, I can “remove” them, but during this first week, it’s hard to slide so fast between screens and know who is who.  The Zoom bombers use names I might not have on my roster and while I’m staring at all my students, I can’t immediately know who is legit, and who’s trickster.  I don’t have my roster memorized, not yet. I’m fast but not that fast. It’s a big group. At some point, I managed to remove most out of the zoom bombers—techie vandals, who throw verbal grenades.  They explode into the room and throw around all this horrible horrible language. In addition, yesterday someone threw a photo of a penis on one of the thumbnail screen shots.  I’m just barely hanging by a thread, when one of my students points out this disturbing image on the screen. It’s a big class…I’ve got nearly 40 little tiles of faces in front of me, and the zoom bombers snuck in between, using fake names.

I’m not crying “victim” here.  Yes I am.  Yes, I am…I am….

I’m angry and pissed and hurt and I feel like it’s my fault.  I’m trying to assure my students that they have landed in a class that they are going to love.  Now they see a room fallen into chaos, and I don’t have the techy savvy to fix it fast.  My rapier wit is useless against this barrage of offensive images and words. The coarse language hurts me, I feel it in my arms, my legs, my chest.

It was awful.

It messes with my usual paradigm:  I try to wow them in the beginning. I want them to go home, chat with their family member(s): I imagine, I construct the narrative for them. 

“I have this film class…looks like a totally cool class with a whacky teacher who manages to call on everyone, and really listen to what the class members say, plus, she makes us really think about stuff.”

That’s all I want.  It’s enough.  For now.

I try to wow them into constructing that narrative and maybe more so…I do this in all my classes…get them early, I want and need their buy in, and their trust. This way, as the semester unfolds, I can work  less hard in keeping their interest, because they have already chosen, already perceived that this class is gonna work for them.  They make that choice. It’s a powerful choice and may last over the next 15 weeks. 

It has nothing to do with course content, or course form. It’s more fundamental, baseline perception, a construction of reality.

Back to the zoom bombers – they “won” for a few precious minutes, but it really damaged my belief, my energy, my positive joy that I was spreading, spreading the good news of thinking. The lesson of the day, which is to deconstruct genre together, was only a minor minor success.  That discussion is usually top notch in my class, totally interactive, funny, smart, curious, passionate on lots of levels. Yesterday I was walking through mud, looking at my clock, “get me out of this hell” is what I was thinking…did It read this way?  Did they, the big clan of young people (the older women too),  get that feeling too? God I hope not. I tried to fool them. I tried a few tricks to fool them.   How can they construct that narrative I want them to, when our class was bombed today?  Here’s how it might go now: 
“oh I have this film class, the teacher totally fucked up, because all these people came in, even with a photo of a dick…that’s right, we had to look at dic pic along with hearing the ‘n’ word, and all this other mean and embarrassing stuff. My teacher tried to handle it, but she didn’t really fix it.  I don’t know… I don’t know if I want to go back to that class…Not sure I trust her to keep control of the space.”

Oh my god, I hope I’m so wrong.

__

August 21

August 21, 2020

No zoom bombers but serious tech issues with one of my two classes, again leaves me in quite the opposite state that teaching usually invokes.  Passive, yes, passive construction for the passive feelings of not knowing how to fix the tech problems that arise where I’m flying between tabs to try to bring everyone into the room, my writers and actors, the ones with whom I am most “friendly,” with whom I am the least formal…theater kids, ready to put on shows – this class puts on the original plays, “Emerging Work,” the program I have built in my career at the college, something I’m leaving behind after I go, I hope.   But this morning is not the place to talk about legacies.  I’m  just trying to get through the hour and a half, with more than 8 students—half of them did not “get into the room.”

Big sigh__

If I have to fight the technology,  I will never find the beautiful rhythm that I have for so long been working on, using as the rhythm section of my orchestral, jazz trio, my rock and roll, you name it, the kind of music I employ, I live in, I create while teaching…  That sentence is so passive I’m almost tempted to cut it…but it reveals the problem…I’m not in the driver’s seat of the class…The technology is winning. I have no groove. My rhythm section doesn’t even have a bass player today. The chords! the Chords! give me some solid chords.

Another Big sigh.

More soon, my dear readers…at least I can type on WORD.  When WORD fails me, my WORD WORLD crumbles. It is standing, and I am here, writing to you…for this, I am grateful.    More soon.

I will look into better equipment…?

Less than an Hour From Now

Why am I nervous?

I greet my students in an hour.  I’ve done this hundreds of times, why the extra butterflies right now?  I admit that I most likely always have a tad bit more adrenaline on day one, but not actual “nerves” like I do this morning.  Is it the technology?  The sheer volume of keystrokes in the right order?

I am meeting my students through zoom;  most of the class hours will be zoomed hours.  I did this in the great pivot we had to do immediately last March. But now, this zoom world is just standard fare, right?  But still, this first day is likely to be saturated with tech issues. Students not able to get online correctly, not able to see my screen shares, etc… this would all be manageable if I considered myself anywhere close to being savvy with the technology. I’m such a neophyte, but sometimes I can pass. Don’t get me started on my 45 year relationship with anxiety around tech issues. But what I imagine is that a lot of the kids, though much more savvy and comfy with tech than myself, will still have tech issues I won’t be able to solve.  This throws the wrench, the proverbial wrench…

My goal of the first day of class – start out right.  Let the students see/hear/feel the kind of class they’ve signed up for. This means getting used to my energetic style and their having to think on their feet, as I move around the room (I’ll figure out how to do this virtually, I hope) asking them questions and creating what I believe is a safe space, but also a hot space…hot for learning.  Blahblahblahblah (more another time, okay)

Back to my nerves. I just don’t want to be caught/seen as the tech-idiot teacher.  I can pass, but maybe I should ask for some divine interference to help me sail through these first impression waters.  First impressions are so critical, it’s easy to drown. In normal times, I walk into the room, I may be slightly nervous, just in terms of meeting 40 people all at once, blah blah blah…but my thoughts usually run something like this:  “I got this, this is what I do.”  

It’s time for a context check in here for you, my dear readers.  I’m going to do this in short-hand, just for brevity, but know that each point is a whole book at least.

I teach theater classes.  (most of them are more like history/lit classes.  I do teach production and acting, but most of my classes are more “traditional” courses—reading, writing, critical thinking,blahblahblah…)  

 I put on shows.   I write, direct, produce, blahblahblahblahblah…

I work at a community college where most of the students are “under-prepared” for college-level work.  I put quotes around those words above because that phrase in coming under some serious social fire right now…who dares make these statements, etc….a great subject for another blog, okay?)

Most of my students are people of color.  Most of my students come from working families, many of them first generation college students.

The college has 18K students, roughly.  It is a minority majority school.  One of the first of its kind in this way.

My fundamental pedagogy is Socratic.  It’s all there, people, it’s in the language, people! 

I gave up sharing the department chair job 8 years ago, so in some small ways, I’m not totally in charge, but I collaborate with one colleague on most major department issues.

Back to the gist of the morning nerves.  In my line of work,  I have relationships. I’m about to start roughly 100 new relationships, 99.9 percent of which will be over in a few months. But they are relationships which require conscious work, acknowledgement, care, and perhaps love.  It’s true, I love my students. I do.  Go ahead and call the authorities, I guess I’m not supposed to say things like that, and don’t worry, mums the word in the halls.  But it’s true.  I’m not attracted to them or play out any of it in any of those worrisome ways. But for a few months, I love a lot of people.  I take them inside of my heart and mind; they take up residence, I give them free room and board, for the next 17 weeks or so.  It’s too long, and we’ll all feel that truth in about 14 weeks.    So yes, first impressions are important.

I take stock: My clothes – well for zoom, this just means what is my top—hair is wild but not too wild.  Clothing a bit off-center, but not freaky.  Makeup, the same. Not freaky. I don’t want to be perceived as the freaky, tech idiot, hippie teacher. Nor do I want the students to see a schoolmarm, an old-fashioned old lady who is completely out of touch and worse, dressing the part.

Of course, I am already beyond the kids so far so far so far so s o soooo farrrrs  so     far….that these feelings are old feelings, still in tact from my earlier years.  It’s quite possible that it matters not at all:  I try to look youngish and attractive, but maybe all they see is an oldie who is a weirdo.  Maybe that’s the best I can do now, after 30 years. I have long lost my “hot, new teacher” status, where the boys and girls both just want to get to know me, cause I’m so…so…you know….relatable…”She’s just so so …you know, she’s just cool, I guess.”  But those ships have sailed maybe 10 years ago…I just need them to know that I am going to get them on their toes, not their heels.  Sometimes this comes in the form of being truly connective and warm with them, sometimes it comes from being prickly and sarcastic.  I will keep them guessing…that’s key. Don’t let them, and don’t let yourself LePell, fall into a pit of predictable, strictly strictly, super structured, perfectly outlined set of actions.

Find that sweet spot LePell…you know it’s a gift you carry – structure /  preparedness  coupled with playfulness/ spontaneity.  Be present and be alive…that’s all I ask.

That’s a lot.

I pray for help. 

That’s what I do.

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