WMWP: Takeaways After Reading ‘White Fragility’

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project leadership team is reading White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo and we will be having a book discussion next week, facilitated by one of our WMWP colleagues. It’s a book on my radar for some time because it has been mentioned so often in so many circles, so to read it knowing we will be discussing it together as a group of teachers is helpful. (DiAngelo, who is white, is a diversity trainer, brought into companies and organizations to confront racism and she brings many stories into the book of how difficult those conversations can be).

It became clear rather quickly that I am a target audience, all the way. White male. Living in a neighborhood that is predominantly white. Grew up in an apartment complex, predominantly white. I teach at a suburban school, predominantly white.

DiAngelo’s book frames such white experiences in a way that makes sense — once you let your defenses down — but it takes courage to step back and see it as it is. Even if we suggest we are open-minded and not racist, her message is that our culture is, inescapably, and therefore, we, the white population with much of the social power and financial capital, bring that history and those societal influences to the table with every single interaction we have.

I appreciated the various ways DiAngelo names these things, such as the defensive reactions that white people have when called out for saying something hurtful, or the excuses white progressives have for why they are not racists, or the way we use “color-blind” as our defense, or the various triggers for white people when race becomes a topic of conversation, and more.

Honestly, I started the book thinking, I won’t see much of myself in there. (And double-honest, this was not my first choice from our list of possible texts — I had hoped we would read the New York Times series about the start of slavery — The 1619 Project) I consider myself rather progressive. I am leader in WMWP, which espouses social justice and works race and equity into our programs. I teach my young white students to question the world. I run a diverse summer camp project in our large urban center. I have my own personal history, in which I was the only white soldier in a military platoon of black soldiers, the outsider for a long time. And on and on.

I was wrong. I saw myself all over the place in White Fragility.

This is her whole point.

If we don’t intentionally notice and own up to our views, we will never make progress, never take forward steps. She suggests that no white person will ever be free of racism — it’s engrained too deep in our society — but that we can make progress in addressing those issues, in making amends when we make mistakes, and in looking deeper at ourselves, not blaming others.

We live in a time — The Time of Trump — when the very issues that she writes about – defensiveness, blaming the other, turning racism around, ignoring the inequities, fear — seems to be on the front page, every day, either overtly or inferential, and on the political stage. with regularity. If Stephen Miller is whispering in your ear and if Breitbart is your alt-right source for news, then the world is skewed and will remain so.

But voting out Trump won’t change the racial currents of our country. Maybe some of DiAngelo’s suggestions can help make a different on a small scale, person to person, and that is ultimately where change can happen. Maybe it starts in our classrooms. Or so we can hope.

Peace (digs deep),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Amazons, Abolitionists and Activitists (A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights)

Amazons, Abolitionists and Activists (A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights) by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico is a powerful statement about the past and ongoing struggles by women to find equal footing with men in the world, or even respect (we still see this playing on political stage, don’t we?). I could not even begin to list the dozen and dozens of women who are profiled in this dense and packed illustrated book.

Suffice it to say, this graphic novel — told through a narrative lens of a group of young women learning from a mentor about the many women who have fought for change on gender issues  — covers a lot of ground. Many of the profiled women — politicians, warriors, tribal leaders, cultural icons, everyday people — come to the reader in short biographical sketches, with just enough information to spark an interest that could lead to further reading or inspiration to take action.

Seen through this larger quilt of historical perspective, one realizes just how many brave women — of all races and of many countries — have risked their lives to ensure a better path for the generations behind them. And even with many modern day gains, there are a still many glaring gaps in equality. There is still work for all of us — women and men and as the book notes, transgender people, too — to push for a better world for all of us.

The book also repeatedly reminds us of how our history books so often, too often, ignore women’s role and leadership in the stories told of the past, or reduced powerful women to mere figures of compliance to the men around them. This book seeks to counter that narrative.

“Welcome to the history you clearly never learned,” the mentor/teacher/guide tells the group of young women. “You’re where you need to be. Pay attention.”

My complaint upon finishing the book is that it felt as if there was so much information, so many women to be admired, so many situations and conflicts to learn about, so many countries with such different histories, and so many pages jam-packed with wonderful art and images … that it began to feel like a blur to me. I ended up forcing myself to read shorter sections at a time, to put the book down for a day or even a few hours, and return to it with a fresh and attentive mind.

This graphic novel would be appropriate for high school and above, although much of it is also appropriate for middle school.

Peace (in the push for equal rights),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: This Place (150 Years Retold)

There may not be a more beautiful pushback against a prevailing cultural narrative than This Place (150 Years Retold), a collection of graphic stories that dig deep into the indigenous peoples of Canada, and all the myriad of ways their lands have been stolen from them, and their heritage, reduced.

I am neither Canadian nor indigenous to the soil I live on, so I openly profess much ignorance and little knowledge of the background of these stories. Alas, I can hear the echoes in the ways my own country has treated Native Indian tribes here, and in the ways other natives of other lands were treated when white Europeans stepped ashore and decided the land was theirs. The pattern of removal from communities, abuse in state-sponsored schools and foster homes, the theft of language, forced assimilation and more is a terribly familiar one.

It’s hard for me here to capture the powerful scope and artistic merit of this collection. So let me say that the variety of graphic novelists here — there are 10 different stories — have different styles — some more modern than others, even as they tell of ancient tales — that neatly connect together the narrative of a people constantly being pushed to the brink by the Canadian government.

The stories almost always center on the people, and the mystical nature of people and the land come through in ways that tap into the creative power of comics and graphic arts. The medium does justice to the stories, as the stories inspire the push at the edges of the medium.

The editors also enacted a brilliant move to complement the stories. They included a running timeline that begins in the 1860s and stretches to the current day by the last story (which is a look ahead into the future of the tribes). I learned more about Canada than I ever knew. What emerges in this collection is a love of tribal nations, the skills of powerful tribal leaders, and a love of the land and of the past, even as both are systematically encroached upon with relentless might of the government.

This Place (150 Years Retold) is appropriate for high school students and older, and it would be a powerful supplement to any historical inquiry into Canada as a nation, or to a study of native people pushing back against assimilation. In the ideal world, this graphic novel collection would not even be the supplement, at all, but would be the main text. But I know that day is probably still far off from this day. Until then, linger on the stories.

Peace (in the lands and people),
Kevin

Book Review: Book Love (Comics by Debbie Tung)

A few years ago, I reviewed a book called Book Love by Penny Kittle, which is all about how to instill a love of reading in students. It’s a wonderful book, full of insights and wisdom and ideas. And perfectly titled.

Along comes Book Love, by Debbie Tung, which is a collection of comics about loving books (and tea), from the view of a passionate reader and collector of books, and self-described introvert. And perfectly titled.

I love that we all love books so much. Tung’s small book collection of her comics explores her passion about stories and reading. I saw myself in way too many of her comics, but maybe that is not a bad thing. Each page here is a different comic, and most come from her Tumblr site, focused on books and tea (she loves to drink tea when she reads).

Here, you see her character (her) refusing to pass by a bookstore without either gawking at the window or going in (and coming out with a book or two or three). You see her praising libraries as the most perfect public space imaginable. You see her passing books to friends (and worrying that the books won’t get returned). You see her bringing books with her everywhere … just in case a minute or two frees up for some reading.  You see her worrying that movie versions of books she loves will ruin the stories and characters in her head. You see her choosing paper books over digital books, for the tangible nature of bound stories (and her fascination with the smell of real books).

If you’re like me, you see yourself.

Book Love is a quick read, but a lovely one.

Peace (beyond books),
Kevin

Keeping Tabs on Books, Read (2019)

Books Read in 2019

For a few years, I have taken part in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which you set a goal (mine is usually around 100 books) and then at the end of the year, the site spits out an infographic with some basic information that I always find interesting. I also like to scan back through the “books, read” list to remember the reading journey I had during the year.

Peace (in pages),
Kevin

Book Review: Emmy in the Key of Code

With Kwame Alexander as a mentor and inspiration, author Aimee Lucido has crafted a beautifully-written free verse novel with Emmy in the Key of Code that artistically embeds computer coding into story narrative. This is hard to explain, for while there are books that using computer code as a narrative hook during this STEM/STEAM push, here, Lucido (herself a technology insider) pushes that even farther, using scripts and code as a way to dig deeper into Emmy, a newcomer struggling to find friends.

There is all sorts of Java script used, as Emmy learns about the beautiful underpinnings of code, and as she experiences and filters a complicated world through If/While/Then statements, Boolean numbers, brackets and commands, and all of the terminology and concepts of logic and design. Some of the later pages of the story are powerful in this regard, where elements of the story are written as raw computer code, as Emmy grapples with some difficult topics in her life.

I think this merging of programming and narrative is intriguing, and it never feels forced in Emmy in the Key of Code. It feels like a natural fit for Emmy’s story, and the use of free verse poetic writing gives Lucido plenty of room for story innovation, and she takes advantage of that right from the start.

This free verse novel would be a nice fit in any upper elementary or middle school classroom, and might provide a nice roadway into computer programming. I wonder how we might inspire students who have some knowledge of computers to write stories in this vein, where the coding architecture becomes the narrative frame?

Peace (010101010),
Kevin

Book Review: Typewriter Rodeo (Real People, Real Stories, Custom Poems)

Oh my gosh. This whole concept just gets me thinking and dreaming of poetry. I wrote a poem nearly every morning (I do it over here) but these talented folks set up with typewriters and write for hours, as people come up and ask for a poem on a suggested topic. The poems are just marvelous and what’s missing with the book is the sound of the typewriters in action (there should be an audio file on the cover that you can push to listen as you read.)

Here’s a video of four hours of typewriting ..

Anyhoo … Typewriter Rodeo, the book, seeks to capture the experience of Typewriter Rodeo, the experience, where the four poets — Jodi Egerton, David Fruchter, Kari Anne Holt and Sean Petrie — set up at festivals, Maker Spaces, bars and restaurants, and special events, and write poemspoemspoemspoems for people, sometimes for hours. It seems like magic. (Special thanks to my friend, Mary Lee, for turning me on to Typewriter Rodeo)

The book collection here — Typewriter Rodeo: Real People, Real Stories, Custom Poems — is full of the poems written on the fly with little more than a word or phrase, and quick connection between poet and audience — or at least, the ones they have remembered to take a picture of before the poem leaves in the hands of the requester. The four writers tell stories of their experiences as poets-on-demand (“The mistakes are free” is one of my favorite mantras of theirs), and some of the poem recipients also share stories. In fact, what emerges is how many people are surprised at how deep the poetry goes, capturing their emotions and thinking in a way that no other writing-from-a-stranger can probably do.

The result is this beautiful, crazy collection of poems — heart-felt, deeply emotional, funny and insightful, and it makes me want to set up a typewriter on the neighborhood corner and write on request, as if I could pull that off. (Hey, maybe I could! You could, too!)

Peace (poems bring it on),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: Tubes (A Journey to the Center of the Internet)

Andrew Blum’s journey to the center of the Internet, as he calls it, begins when a squirrel nibbles the wires of his house, shutting his online access of. This event sparks a years-long journey of curiosity to figure out how the wires all connect, and how data flows through the physical space of the world.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum brings us along with him. It’s a pretty fascinating ride, if a bit technical at times, as he researches, investigates, and visits some of the main hubs of the dispersed Internet, from data centers to undersea cables to spaces below buildings in urban centers to isolated rural places — all forging different kinds of connection so that when I hit “publish” on this blog post and you click to read what I wrote, the data flows rather seamlessly (or so it appears) through fibers, wires, and yes, tubes of light.

There are moments where Blum geeks out a bit too much for my tastes, but I understand why he goes into such descriptions about routers, packets and fibers. What I was more interested in is how he frames the flow of information with the physical aspects of the world — the way we can imagine data moving along the contours of our Earth, and the ways in which those same contours provide barriers of access, too.

Overall, though, Tubes gives the reader a fuller sense of the digital world — sparking some appreciation for the original design of a distributed networked space and for the rather fragile elements that make up what we mostly take for granted. Some hubs are monumentally important, and yet, as Blum describes them, neither as secure as one would expect nor as reliable as they could be.

I really appreciated these final thoughts of Blum, who seeks to humanize his research, and ground it in the world we live in, not the virtual one we imagine when we use our technology.

“What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.”

— from Tubes by Andrew Blum, page 268

Peace (flowing through us all),
Kevin

Book Review: My Life As A Gamer

My sons really loved this My Life As A … (Book, Cartoonist, Ninja, etc.) series by Janet and Jake Tashjian when they came out, but I sort of ignored them as yet another knock off of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series. Finally, I had a student recommend the series to me, and who am I to ignore a suggestion by a student?

I chose My Life As A Gamer, which I believe is the fifth book in the series of nine books (so far), and I have to say, I really enjoyed the story and the cartoon artwork that went along in the margins of the story. (I believe Janet writes the stories and Jake, her son, illustrates them). The story of Derek Fallon and his friends enlisted to test out a new video game really struck a chord with me as I begin to bring my sixth graders into our own video game design unit.

There are adolescent escapades and funny moments, but also some deeper looks at family (dad is out of a job, etc.) and Derek’s own struggles with a reading disability — the cartoons in the margins of the book are representative of the ways that Derek learns by doodling vocabulary words — and the sketch-noting-vocabulary aspect of the book’s illustrations caught my attention, for sure, as I often have my students do the same.

This story also gives some insight into the development of a video game, as Derek and his friends spend weekends at a video game design company, play-testing an upcoming game — Arctic Ninja — and elements of storyboarding and narrative design and intuitive design are all woven into the story.

Looking at the next few books in the series, I see the next two have interesting themes as well: My Life As a YouTuber and My Life As a Meme. My interest is piqued!

Peace (doodled),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Stargazing

Stargazing by Jen Wang is a lovely exploration of friendship and adolescent, of creative spirit and illness. Told with heartfelt humor and a tender touch, the graphic novel centers on Christine, and her new neighbor, Moon, as they forge a friendship.

Moon, in particular, is a complicated character, from a struggling Buddhist family (and Christine’s family is Chinese). Moon is never a follower, always unique and strong in her opinions, and her spirit of looking at everything from an angle shines throughout the story — including her tales to Christine about being certain she is a celestial being from the stars. All this by Wang draws us in, and then surprises us when Moon acts with unpredictable rage against another student at school.

Even Christine does not know what to think.

But it turns out, there is more to the story of Moon, and health issues have shaped the good (creative) and bad (anger) of her emerging personality. The second half of the graphic novel is about the two friends grappling with Moon’s diagnosis.

I want to note that the artwork here by Wang is perfectly attuned to the story of Moon and Christine, with the color shadings and hues contributing to the enjoyment of the story. This book would be good for upper elementary and middle school students.

Peace (in contradictions),
Kevin