Life Learnings: 2012

I'm a few weeks late in doing this, but another year is down and it's time, once again, to reflect on the things I've learned this past year, both in teaching and in life. In 2009, most of my learning was about the corruption and disgusting nature of gritty inner-city politics. In 2010, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what constitutes real, valuable, meaningful knowledge and how we go about acquiring that and passing it on. And last year, my learning seemed to be all over the place - although much of it was about finding success in schools and democracy.

This year, I'm going to focus on just a few things, because one thing I've been reminded of a lot recently is that less is often more. In 2012 I finished my first year in the Highline School District and began my second. I spent the summer traveling and reading and writing about the impact of Latin American immigration on education in the US. I had two articles on ELL instruction published in EdWeek Teacher (here and here) and one in ASCD Express. Back on the West Coast, I've spent less time thinking about politics and more time thinking about the ins and outs of schools and instruction.

1) Literacy is the capacity to decode and interpret, and to be human.

In 2012, I made a major breakthrough in my understanding and stance toward the extraordinarily broad concept of "literacy." As I wrote here, I understand it now as a form of teaching humanity. The way we read, write, and interpret all sorts of codes is a major part of how we construct our identity - it is how we exist.

2) We are all the same and all different simultaneously. We all want to be a part and be separate simultaneously.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about identity this year and what makes identity. As I wrote here, a teacher's job, in many ways, is to negotiate the tensions that arise out of our (and in this case students specifically) desire to both be part of a group and simultaneously establish a unique identity. The more I allow this idea to roll around in my mind, the more it fascinates me.

There seem to be some parts of our identity that we have more control over than others. The parts we have no control over (cultural background for example) often define our behavior without us even realizing it. We unconsciously allow others' expectations for who we are and how we should act to influence us. And, most fascinatingly, when we don't conform to others' expectations for our behavior, others often peer pressure us back into the box they've prescribed for us - and they often don't even realize they're doing it. This is a major barrier for many students in finding success in school. They've taken on identities that prescribe behaviors antithetical to finding academic success.

3) Are we one thing or 7 billion different things?

In the same way we understand our bodies as one thing rather than a collection of trillions of different microorganisms, cells, atoms, etc; it would be equally reasonable to understand humanity as one thing rather than a collection of 7 billion different human bodies.

There are lots of different reasons we might consider humanity one thing. An individual human body is, in many ways, part of other bodies. Our brains alter the structure of other people's brains routinely through the sharing of conversation and ideas. And as Eula Bliss points out in Harper's this past month, the physiological functioning of our bodies is intimately connected to the functioning of others'.

I point this out to my world history students in an attempt to demonstrate the power of history. I tell them the story Henry Molaison, who lost his ability to remember when a surgeon cut into his brain in 1953. I ask them to consider, for a second, what it would be like if you had no memory. If you could not remember what happened even 60 seconds ago. We all agree that you would be nobody - that you would have no identity. I point out that if you choose to understand humanity as one thing, then history is synonymous with memory - and that if we didn't have history, we would, like Henry Molaison, be without identity. My students often go on to think that if we didn't have history, we would probably invent it in order to develop identity, which leads us to a philosophical discussion around which is more important: historical accuracy or historical agreement.

Students, however, are often resistant to the idea that humanity could be one thing. Many of them believe that, were you to make a list of all the ways we're different and the ways we're the same, the list of ways we're different would be vastly longer. This is, of course, untrue. Identity, or the unique social space we attempt to occupy, is an attempt to obscure how similar we are. I find this fascinating given how desperate all of us are to fit in.

Wrapping Up

I notice that my thinking and writing on the West Coast is much less about politics and much more about the more interesting questions that come up in life. Washington State is still largely protected from many of the harmful education policies affecting the schools I worked in in New York and DC. I am much happier and healthier out here. It's been a good year, and I think 2013 will be even better.


  1. I so agree and found that the coasts are very different. Raised north of Seattle, years ago I lived in New Bedford, Mass., for one winter and was amazed at the cultural differences. I've been all over the west and felt comfortable, not not the east.

    The tension between same/different, member/individual is hard to work through. I remember detesting the only sociology class I took in college reduced individuals to humanity (!) just as you pointed out. I've outgrown that, by the way. Great post.


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