Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vygotsky. If you have been around education for any length of time, it is one of the names that gets kicked around in conversations about the philosophy and pedagogy of education. Usually filed under "names I can say that show I know something about the foundational origins of education" along with Piaget, Erickson, Pavlov, Skinner, Freud, Dewey, Montessori, Waldorf, Bruner...and many, many more. Prior to my decision to devote my academic life to him, I knew the same cursory information. A few of his main concepts. Enough lingo to get me by sounding like I knew of what I spoke.

So, at the request of E, I am going to give you a quick and dirty thumbnail of Lev Vygotsky. Maybe I can even communicate why I think he is/was so brilliant and my part in moving his theories forward. But no promises there.

So who was this guy? A Russian Jew, born at the turn of the last century. Not the most progressive place to be born a Jew, let alone a smart Jew who wanted to further his education. He was lucky. He worked hard. He was chosen for one of the token spaces in University for a Russian Jew, but denied his first field of study because of his religion. And he was around during the Russian Revolution, which clearly influenced some of his writings...but mostly, he was incredibly smart. And forward thinking. And observant. Died in 1934 of tuberuloisis. He was 38.
Most of his writings were locked up - first banned by Stalin, then shielded by the Iron Curtain from the rest of the world. It wasn't until his texts started to wander out of Russia - rough translations in the early 60's and better ones in the mid 80's - that the rest of the world started to realize what had been sitting in front of them.

Now, you have to remember when Lev was writing and thinking, the world was coming to grips with some of the first theories of why we do what we do - Freud was at his heyday, Jung was right behind him. Piaget was studying mollusks and psychoanalysis and Pavlov was figuring out that dogs can be conditioned to salivate.

Much of what was being discussed and written concerned the Individual. The effects on One. Person as Island. We humans like to believe that we are each uniquely special - that we can control our own destinies and desire to learn. It still resonates in the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology that any person can achieve anything at any time - if he or she WANTS it enough. It emerges from the "Tabla Rasa" idea of a child - a blank slate upon which anything can be written, from this Watson quote: "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist... doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years" (Watson, Behaviorism, 1924, p. 82; 1930, p. 104).

But not Lev. He started to formulate theories on how Humans cognitively work in groups - How we use symbols (including language) to share information with one another. How those symbols are then taken and expanded or changed by other groups of other humans. How intelligence can not be defined by giving the correct answers on any given standardized test...but must be defined by how that individual navigates in his/her culture of origin with the symbols that are valued by that social structure. Further beyond this, Vygotsky suspected that we could never truly gauge the IQ of a person as a static fixable number (Like Binet and Piaget) , but that we should rather look at the individual in a continuum of learning, assuming that we all go through stages of apprenticeship and expertise. He called these fluid stages the zones of proximal development.

Vygotsky then went on to say that he suspected that we learned better Together. He posited that humans learn better when we have access to other humans - that we model for one another. He first looked at Mother/Child pairs. He noticed that these mother and child pairs seemed to work in a unique manner. He called it scaffolding. In essence, the expert (mother) provides a variety of tactics and techniques for the apprentice (child) to learn any given task ( language, feeding oneself) and that the scaffold/support is expanded, deconstructed and reconstucted in fluid movement with the growth of apprentice (Child). Vygtosky only had time to really look at this in a uni-directional way - Adult to child. I also think it moves from child to child as a matter of course.

Because Lev was thinking and writing at the same time as Jean Piaget, one would have to know that they observed something similar about children at work/play. They both noticed that they talk to themselves. However, they came to very different reasons as to what the purpose of this "self-talk" was in the cognitive development of children.

Piaget saw it as a sign of the immature thinker. The child had not yet developed the skills to think internally ( without speaking) and so talked out loud to problem solve. Piaget decided that this tendancy disappeared when the brain and problem solving had matured. Piaget liked nice linear things.

Vygotsky noticed the same "self-talk" but viewed it very differently. He viewed it as the accelerant for cognitive development. It was not an immature mind at all. It was evidence of the child acquiring the tools of the culture (as well as self regulation) and allowed the observer a window into the mind of the child - before the child internalized that information and no longer spoke it out loud.

My favorite Vygotsky quote is "From the Social, comes the individual". In this, he sums up something fundamental about how I believe humans learn. We are first and foremost products of a specific social group ( usually our family of origin). We then go forth and use the tools that we have learned and apply them successfully ( or unsuccessfully) to other social groups - usually child care or school situations for most western children. Children - as apprentice thinkers in our culture - have to form and reform LOTS of information to be able to function in each of these groups.

For instance, if you have a Preschool classroom of 14 children and 2 teachers -that individual child must (mediate) learn bits and pieces of 15 OTHER already formed cultural worlds. Those 16 people have to then teach or share enough of those worlds between each other to be able to agree on a Symbol system that will work in THAT space for THOSE individuals. Every time a child - or worse a Teacher - enters or exits that whole balance is disrupted and the process begins again.

My interest lies in the social use of the private speech - the self talk of children. I do not think it is purely cognitive in nature. It has a social function. I think of it as potentially the "glue" that binds the classroom together. I think that children - as apprentice thinkers - are broadcasting information for their peers by way of this speech. I also suspect that children hear and retain this information from their peers and then use it as a way to mediate information - to rebuild their social and cognitive construct in the classroom through each other. I further suspect that when children are given LOTS of time to get to know each other ( vis a vis talking - long play sessions ( minimum of an hour as it takes kids at least 20 minutes to get a play scenerio planned in order to then go forwards with it) - staying with a stable group of classmates over 2 to 3 years, etc) that we may see less hostile activity (ie bullying) and much better overall learning because they have done the work of constucting a set of social rules and knowledge together.

If I cast my mind outwards and start to think about classrooms in which the social life - and by this I mean the cooperation and coordination of any given class towards a common goal through the shared/mediated knowledge of each others knowledge and cognition - leads the learning?
What would teaching look like? What would those children be like who came out of those schools?


Monday, March 23, 2009

I need to laugh more.

This revelation follows no particular epiphany. But rather as I was just sitting here, flossing my teeth at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon.

If it is not a practice you enjoy, the flossing of ones teeth can become a deeply contemplative experience. I mean, you really have to PAY ATTENTION to what you are doing when you floss, otherwise all that effort is moot. And lets be honest, if you are going to take the time to actually buy at the store ( and not use that one mini sample you got at your last cleaning when you lied about flossing daily), get out and use the floss - you might was well do it right.

The flossing session followed my inexplicable desire to sharpen all the pencils in the house. Grabbing my x-acto pencil sharpener, I gathered all the pencils I could find and sat on the bed - sharpening one after the other. I fished out all the stubby broken pencils and gave them new leases on life with fresh new points. I sorted all of Emilys colored pencils back into their holder - the newly refreshed tips all pointing in the same direction. Terrance came home to me, covered with colored pencil shavings dust, sorting out crayons from markers from twistables from fine line markers from craypas.

I do this occasionally. This overwhelming urge to put things Right in the house, with particular focus on Em. It is a strange cross of maternal instinct and teacher training. If she has all the materials, and they are in their place and ready for use... well then, it proves I am a good Mom. A Capable Mom. A Mom who provides sharpened colored pencils at a moments notice.

I am trying to notice when these internal nesting urges spring forth - they may have to do with my going inside myself to produce something else. There are conferences coming, and I have finally been coaxed to go forth and present myself to others as a Researcher. This is an oddly important step for me, the perpetual know-it-all. Placing myself out in front of the other professionals in my field and asking for acceptance and acknowledgement is difficult, as part of my internal identity as been as an "outsider". My fears of never knowing enough to be an "expert" in my field also roll into play here. My supervisor jokes with me that I probably know as much about Vygotsky as anyone in the world, and yet I get choked up when I have to articulate his theories. Me, the unstoppable talker - completely unable to speak.

And my grandmother. And My mother, and my Aunt and Me and Emily. This line of women have occupied a sizable space in my brain as I puzzle out my grandmothers death, and my place along this continuum of females. The bullet train of Emily's puberty is aiming straight at me as I struggle to remain a granddaughter. The baby. The pumpkin, the best beloved. My grandmothers death makes me feel Old - moreso than the deaths of my fathers parents. My ability to mentally distance myself from that side of the family had also extended to the whole of the Ohio Valley. If I didn't return, then I never changed. A Lost Boy of one.

I finish flossing and throw the floss away. I drink from the coffee I got this morning, but which I never finish until the afternoon. I lay down in the afternoon sunshine, my rabbit standing guard next to my bed. I pull my quilt up close around my face and smile in the sunshine as I build up my energy for Emily's homecoming.

Reviews of things You didn't ask for

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I don't generally talk about the stuff I'm reading. This is for several reasons. I don't think that you would be super interested in Such titles as "Apprenticeship in Thinking" and "Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition". Nor do I suspect that you are all aching for conversations on "Situating Constructivism" or "Describing the Bricolage: Conceptualizing a New Rigor in Qualitative Research".

Well - actually, maybe you are. If that is the case, feel free to email me and I would happily drag you into the bizarre academic world that one portion of my brain now habitually inhabits. Seriously. I can now talk your face off regarding the concept of the "bricoleur" and it's place in both teacher education AND qualitative research AND how I am planning to weave this into a paper I will be writing for my first major research conference paper presentation as first author.

Nope. Not dragging you into that room. In fact, lets lock that door for the moment and put the key in this drawer.

About a month or two ago, I realized that my pleasure reading - my pleasure watching had dwindled down to nothing. This, by historical measures, does not bode well. My mind must engage on a variety of levels and when it strips away anything that I feel as "pleasurable" to only "work" or "distraction from work" there are bad things on the horizon. Possible relapses into places of coal darkness and thick mud sludge.

This time, I caught myself before submerging too deep. I made lists. This is my first line defense to feeling overwhelmed - making lists of things that I should do. Things that I feel like I need to get done to feel like I am accomplishing something. Things that I know would make me happy. Reading and Watching Movies/Shows are some of those things.

So first up: The books and graphic novels/comics:

1. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Linddqvist (book)

To tell you that this book has stayed with me in a viscerally way would be underestimating the power of this text. I had seen the movie first, and the movie - while able to stand alone as a piece of art - seemed to be missing something in my eyes. There was more to this story, I knew. Much, much more. I found it all in the book. It is beautiful in the most painful way possible. The author was able, in my estimation, to craft a story about the utter isolation and exploitation that occurs as we walk the line between child and adult. Plus, it is a vampire story. Which kicks it up a notch in my eyes.

2. Post apocalyptic Graphic Novels : The Walking Dead , Fell, Desolation Jones , The Watchmen, Area 51, Wasteland , Y: The Last Man , American Virgin , 30 Days of Night ( and it's successors) and just starting Preacher.

Most of my non-school reading time has been consumed with the graphic novel/comic genre. I like well crafted stories, with mythological and sociological contexts. I like smart shit. The Walking Dead is by far one of the most gripping series I have had the pleasure to actually FOLLOW. All right - yeah. Its a zombie apocalypse story. But so much more. It takes elements of the evolution of the zombie story genre ( Nods to Romero, I am Legend, and 28 weeks later) and makes a story of who we are, how we must evolve and survive in the midst of the failure of trusted institutions. Wasteland is another that I have deeply enjoyed and is evolving.

The others are series which completed before I discovered them, or ones which fade in and out of existence given the author/artist ability to find time for them ( I am talking to YOU Fell and Desolation Jones)

3. The True Blood Books.
Cheesy, yep. Kind of smutty sex books with vampires and werewolves? Yep. But a smart commentary on social, gendered, sexual orientation and class divisions. Actually, Yes. And Super easy to read.


First, a disclaimer. Dawn is a wicked movie snob. She goes for "foreign" films. She LIKES subtitles. The more subtitles, the better, in fact. This has driven Terrance to no longer view films with her, as she has tricked him into 3 hour Mandarin movies. While Terrance is in the living room enjoying "The Transporter 3", Dawn is pondering the depth of human experience in the bedroom with the texture and reality of Korean film.

Actually not really. Dawn has been seriously grooving on the J-Horror and K-Horror genres. Being a pretentious snob, I refuse to see American remakes of films. The grudge? No, thanks, I'll take Ju-on.

Here they are:
"Let the Right one In" - see book description. In swedish. Fan-fucking-tastic.

"The Host" - Korean. Currently winning awards. View of the US and manipulation of information through Korean eyes. Parental love and devotion.

"Hansel and Gretel" -Korean. My current fave. May have knocked out "Let the right one" in as my favorite. Dark Fairy Tales are my love.

"El Orfanato" - Spanish - Another dark fairy tale derivative. REALLY very good.

"Infection" - Japanese. This one stayed with me. Actually kept me awake.

"Reincarnation" - Japanese - also very, very good. Shades of "The Shining" but in a context of Buddhist mythology.

"Audition" - Japanese. Slow. Slow. Slow. Good, as a cultural touchstone, but a bit gratuitous.

"Tale of Two Sisters" - Korean. Remade as "The uninvited" in the US - this movie kicks ass

"Memories of Murder" - Korean. An excellent example of the changing of a culture as viewed through the detectives in a serial murder case.

"Antarctic Journal" - Korean. Watched it last night. I really loved this one. Didn't get super reviews, but I found it very textual - very rich.

"Suicide Circle" - Japanese. This one was hard to watch. There is a great many things that I didn't quite understand, as I am not Japanese. There are still things that I am puzzling out about the story.

"Premonition" - Japanese - another good story about life choices and where we end up.

"One Missed Call" -Japanese. This was the only one that I was thinking "Save me from this muddled mess". I am hoping that "Pulse" will be better. I get the whole "Connection and lack thereof through a digital society" storyline but Lord.

"The Eye" - Chinese/Thai. Don't bother with what, by all accounts, is a Terrible remake with Jessica Alba. This was an incredibly well done movie - not graphic at all, but scary. You should also know a little something about Death traditions in Asian cultures, or many of the inferences won't make any sense.

There are other ones in my queue - "Pulse", "Phone", "Spider Forest", "Inner senses", "Cello" - The "Oldboy/Mr Vengence/Sympathy for Lady/Mr Vengence", "Silk", 13 Beloved", Paradise Murdered", "Death Bell", "Rahtree, Flower of the Night", "The Quiet Family" and "Marebito".

So - If any of you had delusions that I wasn't a super geek girl, I think I have effectively dashed these. Either that, or you inexplicably love me all the more.

Not Yet a Woman

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yes, I think you all saw where this was going, right?

The discovery of armpit hair in the dressing room of the clothing store...which led to the discussion of her breasts..and lack thereof, and the beginnings of, too. Which led to Emily's knowledge sharing of the stages of breast development.

While I sat there somewhat slackjawed taking this information in. Not actually taking it "in" so much. I was forcing the information to bounce off of me like I was wearing one of those Bio-Hazard suits and Emily was showering me with Teen Ebola.

In my mind, I was running in a circle, flapping my hands and screaming in a pitch heard only by raptors. You know where I'd leapt, right? Periods. Menstruation. Aunt Flo ...which led to the possibility that my baby could have a baby....and then to sexual knowledge and activity and the hows of the possibility of my baby having a baby....which led to the picture in my brain - searing indelibly - of my daughter as a real sexual being doing the things which could lead her to having a baby - which is worse than the horrifying picture in my brain of my own parents as sexual beings which made it's debut when I was 13 and realized that my newly pregnant mother must have had S-E-X.

Now this is the sound I associate with this ball of hellish knowledge:

(which, FYI, is also the sound of the person falling from a great height in any comic/graphic novel)

But my perdition had only just begun, friends and neighbors.

When we got home, Emily dragged out her "Your Body and You" book and chose passages for me to read aloud to her. Fair enough. I can read out loud. No problemo. If there is one thing I CAN do - it is research information and read it aloud. I got that skill down pat. Cripes, it forms one of the tenets of my chosen profession, and we all know that when I revert to Professional Dawn, I do ok.

After reading, she lay in bed next to me. Thinking.
I lay in bed next to her, pointedly NOT thinking.

So while You all see this coming, I did not. Well, thats Not Entirely True. The possibility existed - but the vault of my mind had locked down and the lasers and guard dogs had deployed.

"Mom - Do you think I have any hair on my labia?"

Kill. Me. Now. Seriously. Kill me now.

I've been puked on, shit on, had an Infant Emily shove her toe up my nose, laid in rabbit piss because I was too tired to change the sheets until the morning. In the interest of Too Much Information, I even once slid a clove of garlic up my hoo-ha in an effort to kill a yeast infection without having to buy medication.

But this? No. I can't.

"Mom - can you check for me?"

I stare at her, my eyebrows knit together in consternation. She stares back at me, her face open and curious.

For her, in the past ten years, I have looked at everything. I have wiped her ass, I have washed vomit from her. I have looked at cuts and scabs and bloody gum holes. I have pulled teeth and trimmed toenails. I have applied ointments and balms to every orifice she has. I have pulled things from her nose. And suddenly I get squeamish? WTF?

Not bothering to wait for any answer from me, Emily runs over to turn on the overhead bedroom light, whipped off her undies and lay on my bed expectantly. I approach this body I know so intimately, so thoroughly, so completely with total and overwhelming fear. This body - an extension of me for the past ten years - has changed into something foreign and off limits to me in the span of three hours with the discovery of a handful of fuzzy armpit hairs.

I gather every tenet of empowering my daughter to love her body that I have ever pondered. I gather every bit of knowledge of how to raise a woman with good self esteem who loves her femininity and sexuality. I know that having open, trusting relationships and discussions with the adults in a young womans life set these foundations. I force myself to smoothe over my face, which is flashing through variations of shame, horror and panic.

I lean over her.

And confirm the transfiguation of my baby into the pupal stage of womanhood.

Still a Girl

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Emily smells a bit like peaches when she sleeps.

I'm not sure why, but I woke at 3 a.m. with this thought at the forefront of my consciousness. And Emily in bed with me.

I could tell you it is because it was an especially windy night tonight and that on windy nights she sleeps in bed with me, but that wouldn't be true. She crawls in bed with me most nights. Usually between 1 and 2, when I am firmly asleep. If Terrance is in the bed ( which is about a 50-50 proposition), he will get up and wander into the other room. Most nights, I sleep the sleep of the dead. My daughter and husband are the migratory birds of our home, floating from bed to bed, while I am the Crow - One nest, thank you very much.

But that isn't what this is about. Em's sleep, or lack thereof, has been discussed ad nausuem.

No friends. What has me pacing the house, engendering strange looks from cat and rabbit as I wander from room to room, you think?

When my daughter was handed to me at 4:22 am on May 21st 1998, I did not realize I would struggle so hard to separate my SELF from her. I did not realize that her infancy and toddlerhood would be filled with my own attempts to find the "Before" Dawn. Sure, I was aware that I had just joined the line of countless women who gestate and birth babies...but so what. It is how we promulgate the species.

What I didn't quite get was that I had brought another woman into the world.

Woman. Those creatures of whom I belonged and yet, didn't quite understand. Their reindeer games freaked me out a bit, to be honest and my femininity ( or lack of) has been a tightrope I have walked with occasional success and some spectacular fails.

In each life stage with Em, I have tried hard to keep my eye on the ball. The here and now. What do you need Now and how can I get it to you. One day completed, the next one on deck. Weaning? Check. Baby food to solids? Check. Toilet skills? Check. Wean off binky? Check ( but Jesus, just barely). Ability to dress herself and do basic grooming? Check. Off the Kindergarten? Loss of first Tooth? Questions about sex and reproduction? Telling her about death? Breaking the news of me being Santa, and the Tooth Fairy AND the Easter Bunny? Navigating shitty little mean girls in school?

Yep. Did it. Sometimes better than others, but hey. A little car puking has to be expected now and again.

This weekend we began shopping for bathing suits for her. Anyone who has shopped with an almost-eleven-year-old could tell you - Ugh. I mean, I am NOT forking out 40 bucks for a bathing suit she will shred in half a season..or outgrow. And then there is the "appropriate" factor. My god. Look at some of those hoochie suits. Hell No, my kid is not wearing those. Plus, the evidence points to Em being built alot like me and while I wouldn't say I am fat...I am a brick house. Boobs...and Ass. It takes time to find a suit that fully covers her bootylicious self.

So there we were - in the store dressing room trying on a wide variety of styles and sizes. The first five rejected, I was bringing in the next round when she said this:
"Mom - I have some hairs growing under my arms!"

I looked at her, standing in the dressing room in her panties - smooshed next to the mirror staring at her smooth and hairless arm pit.

"No you don't. Let me see." I leaned in. Staring. Humph. As I thought. Nothing.
"There isn't any hair!", I said confidently holding out the next bathing suit.

"No, there IS ", she said emphatically, "Look - right HERE!" Pointing to a tiny speck of skin under her arm, I leaned in to examine again. Where there were three distinct hairs.

"Oh. You're right", I said and sat down on the dressing room floor.

I was shattered. My mind was completely empty. I held up the next bathing suit for trying on. She wiggled into it and preened in front of the mirror.

She had - for the first time in her life - rendered me completely speechless.
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