Reyna Grande and Across a Hundred Mountains

March 11, 2009


Gary Dawson Smith and Reyna Grande

Gary Dawson Smith and Reyna Grande

Yesterday was a good day of education.

Seeds were planted yesterday that will turn into beautiful gardens. That’s my hope.

Let me explain.

Last year I began using a novel called Across a Hundred Mountains in my classes. It’s an amazing novel and an audicious debut by Reyna. It’s a little difficult for some students but the rewards of reading this novel surpass the challenge.

The novel is about two young women, Adelina and Juana, in search of their fathers. They are both illegal immigrants from Mexico. Adelina finds her father buried in the desert near the border. Juana goes in search of her father who left for the United States to make more money to give his family a better life.

This is a story of the journey to the United States. It is a harrowing and life changing journey for both of these girls and gives the reader an understanding of the motivational forces that drives immigrants to make this journey.

Adelina’s and Juana’s stories are told side by side. Often Adelina’s story on side of the page then Juana’s on the other. So this can make it a little confusing for students, especially in Basic Skills Reading classes.

But, the book is so relevant to their lives…well I think it is at least…that we work our way through it.

I normally read this book at the end of the semester. This semester, however, I found that Reyna Grande, the author, was speaking at Santa Monica College where I teach, so I moved the book up the reading schedule.

So there we were yesterday. My self and a large part of the audience being my students. For many of them this was the first time they had ever seen an author speak…let alone an author whose book they were reading currently.

Reyna’s talk was really inspiring for all of us. I don’t say that lightly, and I know that sounds so very cliche, but this was different.

She spoke of coming to the United States when she was just nine years old. Like most immigrants, the primary driving force for her father to bring her here was a combination of economic and educational opportunities. She crossed the border on foot.

Then she began attending school and learning English. She quickly fell in love with books, first the dictionary, then many reading books. By the time she was a community college student, she was already an English/Writing tutor. When painting/art didn’t pan out, she followed the advice of her teachers to persue a major in creative writing.

Many years later, she wanted to write an autobiography, but she was fictionalizing so many events that it just turned into a novel. Four years later she had her novel, Across a Hundred Mountains.

So we were all sitting there listening to this. Then we had the pleasure of the author reading the book out loud. She read it much slower than I read it out loud. I feel that I am always in a rush in my classes. Like I always bite off more than I can chew. (I wonder how my students feel).

Both of the selections she read were about the yearning and search for these girl’s fathers. It made me think metaphorically (which I’m always doing) about the relationship we have with our fathers real fathers and father in Heaven.

That rich rich theme with the journey theme and some fascinating twists in the plot which makes us question our identities makes this a wonderful novel for teaching classes.

Reyna inspired me with some things she said. One was that “you don’t know what a story is about until you get to the end”. That’s a profound quote about our lives and the very process of writing. Another thing she said was that “reading gives you the words and ideas to express yourself”. This is a simple way of explaining reading that I love to use also.

The big thing that inspired me though, was when she said, “write the book that you want to read”. I have a story sitting around in my head for three years now that needs to be written. I try to figure it out in my head…but maybe I should just write it in the way that I LIKE: symbolism, action, sex, drugs, rock and roll, mystical themes, all the stuff I’ve been studying or that I find interesting.

Then my students had a chance to meet Reyna Grande and get their books signed. Very cool. I spoke to some and their eyes had lit up. They felt inspired also.

Then I met a wonderful lady, Judy Navarro, who invited me and my students to have lunch with the author. What an opportunity.

We sat in the loft, had a sandwich and began introducing ourselves. I had six students out of my classes there. Primarily Latina girls. 

I made a big boo boo. I said that I teach “Lower” level reading classes. An experienced English professor, Hari, corrected me and said that we don’t teach any “Lower” level English classes here. Good point. This comment really bothered for about 24 hours. I was embarrassed for describing my students as “lower” level students. I can’t help it at times. They are called C – Level classes. The skill level for reading/writing in these classes needs lots and lots of improvement. I thought about this comment deeply when it happened and deeply the rest of the day. Like how I could I see my students as “Lower”. The fact is, I have. But it’s not just me, it’s the whole system. I’ll have to make some apologies. Yet another pin my intellectual bubble. 

I went on to explain how I push students to read five books, and that all students are capable of accomplishing great things with high expectations. So while my students might be “lower” in my mind, my class is not. It is like a graduate level class with more reading of REAL books than they can keep up with. The reading load is huge. From my research of reading comprehension, this is what is needed for big improvements in their reading. Reading one textbook, doing a bunch of multiple choice tests, and one reading novel is not enough to foster substantial changes.

Then something wonderful happened.

All the girls introduced themselves. They talked about where they were from. Two of them were immigrants and were deeply touched by the novel. One of them, a returning student, Vanessa, had read only the second book she had ever read a week ago in my class. I sat there listening to them, and thought…they come to college to pursue a dream. Just like the characters in the novel. This is a REAL THEME that means something deeply to them and every other student that starts college. They come here with dreams, visions of the future, and am I helping them get there?

Hari pointed out how Reyna’s talk was just about perfect…the ideas…the emphasis on reading and writing…the themes in the book. He threw in a comment that he was surprised many of his colleagues were not with us.

Though I was there with students. My boss, Susan Sterr was there. I sat there wishing I had more eloquent words to share with everyone. I spoke again on the wonders of this book and of GOOD BOOKS in general. That I choose this type of novel because when I choose it, it brings this book onto the campus, and then they begin to spread virally. They get handed to friends and younger brothers and sisters and even to teachers. GOOD BOOKS move. They don’t just get returned to the bookstore. They are cherished. Especially with an author’s signature.

And in this age of rapidly declining reading rates amongst youth and adults. In this age of Internet, cell phones, video games, facebook, and DVD’s…a few moments spent bringing the stories to life with our imaginations and emotions means something. The few moments connecting to the real life experiences of the characters. And the few moments spend having lunch exholing the virtues of good literature…well these moments are why I teach. I get to give this gift to young people. It is moments like this I feel the presence of God in the room. Like…THIS is why we are here.

I left that little piece of Heaven to go to El Camino College to teach just 45 minutes later. This is the situation of the part timer adjunct member at colleges. I’d love to settle in and talk literature and work with students for the rest of the day but the freeway calls.

At El Camino, I bored my class silly with reading comprehension exercises. We took a vocabulary quiz.

Then wanting to do all the big ideas I’ve been thinking about and reading and writing about lately I introduced our big projects.

Project One: Group Presentations on a theme based on the book we are reading…My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell. One amazing book that I think more teachers should use with college students. I put the ideas up on which I will share with the class. I introduced them to the world’s best presentation specialist…Garr Reynolds and told them I don’t want a regular Powerpoint Presentation…I want something exceptional. Their presentation is to present ideas about the book and the Iraq War using multimedia.

Project Two: They will have to write a blog on their area of interest. They will have to write ten quality blog posts helping other people through the blog. Gave them all the tools they will need. Explained why and how to the best of my ability.

One returning student questioned the whole efficacy of this. Quite literally said she would rather just do the textbook and take tests and write papers. I explained why we are doing this with the change of literacy due to the Internet. It didn’t satisfy her demands. I know the type of teaching that I do doesn’t please everyone, but I continue on. Researching all these issues, and blogging about them here, makes me more determined to make a world class educational experience in my classroom as the norm not the exception. It’s not traditional. It won’t be. I asked her to stay after class and I’d be glad to give her an alternative assignment.

She didn’t.

Amanda did stay. She wants to do a blog on fashion. We discussed it. I asked her what she was most passionate about. She said she loved fashion. Read magazines on it all the time. Talks about it. Wants to go to fashion school.

So I said do your blog posts as fashion reviews. Then I introduced her to William Sledd. William was a Gap Store manager in Paducah, Kentucky and turned the camera on himself and began doing openly gay fashion reviews. His youtube channel was an instant hit. Over 12 million people have watched his videos. He is now making a career through endorsments, speaking, and product selling from the thing he loves the most…fashion.

And in an age with traditional jobs collapsing around us left and right…I think William has found the proverbial gold in his own backyard. And built a sustainable model of business that takes no money to get started and that any student can do.

Amanda stood there watching William’s video and like what I saw with my students earlier in the day, her eyes lit up.

“I like him. I really like him.”

“I think I can do that. I talk like him.”

I replied,

“Yeah. And you can do this also.”

And we spoke about our dreams for while.

Just like I used to with the handful of college teachers that changed my life by believing in me.

“Yeah. You can do this also.”


Time to quit studying Subjects in Isolation

March 7, 2009

Great ideas in this video.

Integrated learning.
Project based Learning.
Imaginative teaching.

Better retention more motivation.

How can you integrate more subjects into your classes?

Good question. For me something to think about.

ALTERNATIVE FRAME #1 : Every Student is an Entrepreneur

March 6, 2009

Reid Hoffman Tells Charlie Rose: “Every Individual Is Now An Entrepreneur.”

I actually think every individual is now an entrepreneur, whether they recognize it or not. . . . Average job length is two to four years. That makes you a small business. . . . You are the entrepreneur of your own small business. How do you get to your next gig? How do you do your career progression? All these things now fall on the individual shoulders. And so, they’re essentially an entrepreneur. . . . They’re entrepreneurs in terms of the business of themselves and how they drive that. So it’s how they get, like, their next job opportunity, how they get a promotion. All of that stuff comes from how they manage the network around them. Which is, by the way, what gave me the idea for LinkedIn.

So it is easy to criticize the predominant mode of education. Real easy. Just look at some of my other blog posts to see some reasons why the essay/left brain/banking model of education is so broken and so awfully boring.

The facts are dismaying…

55%-60% of urban teenagers DO NOT GRADUATE from high school.
Over 70% of all teenagers are not reading at a proficient level.
Few developmental students ever make it through English 1.
70% of students entering the Cal State System are entering with insufficient skills.

So the solution???? Give em more of the same????

It’s insanity.

I want to introduce the concept of FRAMES here. A FRAME is a window, a structure, a deep metaphor,
for organizing information and seeing the world.

The standard FRAME for viewing students is that they are deficient in skills, knowledge, and good behavior. So it is our job as educators to train them, fill them up with information, and be “tough” so that we can change their behavior. Sit with teachers for a while, and you’ll find this frame dominates the conversation.

The problem with this frame is that it is horribly disempowering for the students. They feel it. And they just live it up the lower expectations we have of them. Study after study prove this; students live up to a teacher’s expectation of them.

See the problem here?

So what’s the alternative?

Here’s one. Begin to treat the student as an ENTREPRENEUR.

Entrepreneurs have ideas or products that they are trying to develop then bring to market.
Then they have package and market their idea/product and then market it to the world.

They might work with a team of similar people excited about that idea or might be working alone. Either way, they have to learn to do all aspects of the process.

If their idea/product is good…they could get funding. They could start a business. They could quite possibly change the world for the better.

This notion of being an entrepreneur is that YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE for building your wealth and well being. We don’t rely on companies and institutions to take care of us. This is increasingly the reality of the workplace…especially in this screwed up economy. Major institutions are failing around us left and right.

Yet most teachers are institutionally oriented in mindset and pedagogy. We rely on the institution of our schools to take care of us…try not to rock the boat too much…once we get settled in…don’t have to innovate…get job security. All of which are the opposite of the entrepreneurial mindset.

The last few years I’ve very much seen myself as an entrepreneur. I innovate at the college level. I’m passionate about my ideas, the books I read with students, and my pedagogy. I even evangelize. Students love it. Well most of them at least. They dig the passion. They dig the hope and big dreaming and visions of a better classroom and world.

But the last few years I’ve been promoting this mindset with my students. It is their job to come up with an idea for their writings and presentations. It is their job to research it, then market it, and present it. It must be an idea that can improve someone’s life. Not just some intellectual argument that just dies off in an essay somewhere.

It’s ambitious. It takes work. It’s exciting.

And when I listen to videos like this…I realize IT IS THE FUTURE.

Gary Dawson Smith

We Forget

March 5, 2009

What We Forget

There are times like this
times like this when we see the way
we’ve been seeing has been an illusion
a fantasy
a world we’ve been trying to make
that was never really there at all.

We suffer and don’t know why
We look for meaning in other’s dreams

We’ve been chasing carrots
Thinking it was a race to the top

But maybe this feeling
this soul restlessness
is just the real world calling
A world that has been with us for
A long long long time

We forget until someone sits in front of us one day
And wakes us through their refusal
to go away

Reminds us
The real work is remembering
Not in doing more or learning
more. It’s in remembering.

We’ve been here before
Others have been here before
We were taught what to do

Remember the map the way the love
the thing we must do and who we are
And that person needs us
Not a lesson

Close our eyes breath deep
We can remember

It wasn’t always this way
You weren’t always this way

Southern California Wildflower

Charles Darwin on Left Brain Thinking

March 4, 2009

Charles Darwin Autobiography

Writing in the 21st Century

March 1, 2009

“Meet the new boss…same as the old boss.” The Who

Writing in the 21st Century

Today people write as never before—texting, on blogs, with video cameras and cell phones, and, yes, even with traditional pen and paper. People write at home, at work, inside and out of school.

This is a fascinating article sent to me by one of my colleagues, Kevin Menton, here at Santa Monica College.

I just read the article and it makes these key points about the changing nature of writing in the 21st century:

  • Historically reading has been available and widespread while writing has been hard work and not feasible for the general population.
  • Composition has not been highly regarded nor given priority in the universities.
  • Composition instruction this century has emphasized technique and process over reflection and creation.
  • With the advent of the Internet and especially Web 2.0, it’s easy to write, and many people are.
  • Students are much savvier than teachers and test makers, there is a world of opportunity and creative energy waiting for educators to channel.
  • Teachers need to articulate all these changes going on for students.
  • A new model of writing needs to implemented in K-12 to reflect all these changes and opportunities.

The author of the report refers to a teacher in Newark New Jersey, Matthew Key, who is changing the instructional model. Supposedly. Anyway after a little research…found the article…Putting Technology In It’s Place.

The 21st century definition of literacy according to the NCTE (English Teachers) is…

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

* Develop proficiency with the tools of technology

* Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally

* Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes

* Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information

* Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts

* Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

So Daniel Cano, one of my mentors at SMC, proposed these set of questions in response to all of this:

“This strikes me as something critical to the teaching of writing. Just the idea that someone is questioning 21st Century writing is hopeful, and since it’s the NCTE, that makes it even better. We can talk about changing pedagogical approaches and topics that interest students, but is it time to question writing itself, what is effective writing today and where it is going? It begs the question “are college writing classes relevant to 21st Century students, especially the large numbers of minority, low income, and older returning students?” Are those of us who have been teaching more than ten years locked in a time warp? How have our writing and literature classes changed to meet this new epoch?”


In so many ways the Internet will revolutionize every aspect of our lives.

This used to be conjecture, then a trend, now a blaring fact (teenagers spend 30 hours online in one study), now it’s a transformative role in our economic lives. While brick and mortar businesses are closing right and left, had record sales this Christmas season. More and more people around the world are going online every single day. Our lives are becoming the Internet. The merger between the two is hard to even differentiate.

And with a horrible economic crisis that is bring more and more people here in the United States into despair (10% of Los Angeles residents are now unemployed)…there needs to be serious, serious questioning into whether schools are actually preparing us for this new economy or not. And this is what literacy ultimately means in my opinion, do we understand how to read, comprehend, and then get our message across using the primary communication channels and technologies of the age (print, writing, books, broadcast, and now Internet).

And with an almost Draconian California budget coming down the pipelines…with every single school district having to cut millions from their operations…well…

“It’s Hard!” The Who

In other words, for students and part-time teachers like myself, the question of literacy is being supplanted by very basic needs for survival. The underlying despair and struggles our students and the school districts will be making such a high tension environment the next few years that I’m not sure how such traditional questions of discussing the literary merits of traditional forms such as the essay and research paper will mean much at all.

These economic hard times will be especially hard felt by minority and urban students (the majority of my students). Which means more students not affording $80 textbooks, more students missing class due to work, more students not finishing classes due to helping out their families, and more resistance to teaching that does not address these struggles.

And yet, with all these changes going on, the same B.S English textbooks I had to struggle with as a community college student still dominate the curriculum. A five hundred page tome that teaches grammar, technique, essay analysis, documentation, argumentation, antiquated essay forms, and the research paper.

None of which seems to be emphasized in the NCTE definition of literacy.

So what do we do? We try to force our students more and more to fit into old models. We come up with elaborate scoring systems…10 points for this…-10 points for that…five page essay prompts…more and more work for them to do…maybe get them into groups every now and then…you know…do some collaborative activities.

Meanwhile we wonder why we get another plagiarized essay analyzing The Catcher in The Rye. We wonder why our students have that glazed zombie look in their eyes every class. We wonder why they have so little to say on so many interesting topics.

As we experience all this, reading rates are dropping year after year. Students are now struggling to just read and comprehend standard literary classics such as 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird. So what do we do? Give them reading journals, study guides, more summaries to write, more…more…more…anything to FORCE THEM TO READ.

Their writing isn’t much better. The Y generation has now grown up texting so half of their sentences with no punctuation and the simplest of grammar is how they spend the majority of their writing time. Their writing is devoid of reflection, substance, voice, rhetoric, voice, documentation, and analysis. Teachers are overwhelmed by the task ahead of them every semester. Going home with 150 essays to read and correct and give comments is exhausting and not feasible for a college teacher to do five times a semester AND improve such low writing levels.

I’ve tried. Any you know what happens? I have no time or energy left at the end of the day for researching 21st century literacy or technology or blogging. So I get caught up in the cycle of give essays -> see bad writing -> give MORE writing -> get frustrated -> teach harder -> students resist all the work -> get more bad essays -> everyone’s tired by end of semester.

I write this because I did it for years. And I want to say THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE. The last year of my teaching I’ve been breaking out of this cycle and it is less work for me, less work for students, and yet the writing is getting better in my classes? How can that be? Well that I will have to leave for another blog post.

And I think Paulo Freire and the critical pedagogy teachers also give alternatives. The key here is getting out of the industrial, banking model of education to something more organic…more traditional…more collaborative and empowering. Something more student based and creative.

So Daniel, I think that the college classroom that sits studying essays on abstract topics such as Globalization or the Death Penalty or Immigration…then asks students to write an argumentative/research based essay of their own that follows all these RULES…and then the teacher grades these PAPER documents alone…well, this model could be in trouble…and is not a model that has much relevance with the technological trends we see occuring.

In fact, I think the only use of it is to prepare you for the next level of college English. And with this Internet transformation occurring all around us…and the growth of web 2.0 social networks…and the coming educational budget challenges…and the coming economic hard times…I wonder what use is the argumentative essay at all. I’ve made this point before…I question the use of the argumentative FRAME as a communicative tool. Dialogue seems far more deeper and meaningful.

I know that’s very opinionated.

So teachers from your epoch…well there are certainly a lot of changes a foot. But reading and writing and thinking skills and sharing our literary heritage are here to stay. We all have a lot to learn from one another.

Yet you folks have this WEALTH of knowledge to transfer on literature, poetry, or in your case…writing. I just hope that in the pursuit of the research paper we are not losing the opportunity to learn REAL KNOWLEDGE from our previous generations.

And I think that is where there is some real work to be done. Merging my generation’s technical skills with the wisdom of the elders to make a new vision.

So what would that be?

Well that’s a discussion for another day…But what I would like to point out the skills and knowledge I had to use in order to write this blog post…

  1. Had to set up a blog on That way I could publish my thoughts for the global teaching community to read…when they find me. Otherwise all this just stays in the email dialogue between you and I. And I think this dialogue IS IMPORTANT and WORTH SHARING.
  2. Competency with the wordpress backend program.
  3. Be able to open up an email and cut and paste hyperlinks and quotes.
  4. Used Scribefire (a plug in for Firefox) to move quickly between all these documents.
  5. Had to look at all these sources of information…from three different websites…then create hyperlinks back to them so others could find them to check out the thoughts themselves.
  6. Then reflect on your question with some basic facts of what I perceive going on. Then compose a well thought out answer using a language that is readable by a larger audience.
  7. I had to know how to use HTML tagging because the blog post looked screwed up and I had to fix it.
  8. Needed the courage to disagree and question a valued mentor and thought leader at SMC in such a way as to continue further dialogue. In other words, I had to present my ideas in way that promotes rather than discourages discussion.
  9. Publish all this information on my blog.
  10. Be connected to other bloggers so I could find out about thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson.
  11. Trouble shoot getting that damn video on my blog below. Could now get it to post. Damn WordPress. Spend like 20 minutes trouble shooting alone and could not get the video to look like a video.!!!!
  12. Try to get some people to read my blog after writing this.

Whew that’s a lot. And what I think might be some clues to what we might need to be teaching for 21st century literacy.

God bless you Daniel, and thanks for creating the space at SMC where this kind of dialogue can take place in person. You and I have talked about this before, now the challenge and next step is to take that sacred space you’ve created and put it up online also.

Thanks Kevin for the links on literacy…you’re a hell of a researcher.

Talk soon,


P.S I thought I’d share some MULTIMEDIA TEXTS with you guys also. Sir Ken Robinson on why the Internet will change the model of education/writing that has so dominated our classrooms for the last 100 years.

This is a MUST watch video for any educator.

Tips for more effective learning.

February 25, 2009

Effective Learning – Tips for Effective Learning

For many years, it was thought that people who multitask, or perform more than one activity at once, had an edge over those who did not. However, research now suggests that multitasking can actually make learning less effective. In the study, participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.

Great article on different ways that you can improve your learning.

This is the FRAME I am using in the classroom nowadays. Learning has to be the focus of everything.

By just shifting the focus from material to learning it instantly engages the students. Try it you’ll see.

Lots of research lately on the problems with multitasking. And I am as bad as anyone. Probably worse.

I’m posting this because I am trying to close one of the 20 windows I have open on my browser.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius

February 12, 2009

Now I have not read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. But I certainly will be reading this book in the future. It is such a big hit and means so much to so many people, that I’d like to see what all the ‘fuss’ is about.

Books like this have tremendous potential in the classroom.

Why? Because girls/women love it. That’s why. And when we honor the experiences of people through our book choices it gives validations to those experiences. Much more meaningful for developmental education students and community college students than an intellectual fuddy duddy book that I THINK IS IMPORTANT.

For those that don’t know about…you should. Some of the best minds on the planet come and speak at this magical conference. One of my goals in life is to attend this conference one day. I will. But looks like I’ll need an IDEA of my own first (Working on that…in fact, this blog is a part of that process).

My idea the more I think about did come to me with the size of Zeus…it was so big I had to start this blog in order to work out all the details.

Maybe the Gods did send me this idea. Hmmmm. Too much to think about there.

Elizabeth Gilbert gave this talk at TED in Long Beach this year. I guess this was well recieved.

Her point is that this notion of a genius inside us like a genie that is waiting to come out is a wonderful metaphor for explaining the creative process. The simplicity of this idea might not explain everyone’s creative journey, but it certainly feels like that for me when I’m making art.

Sometimes the art/ideas come out of me easily…at other times it is a prolonged painful child birth. The notion I don’t have much control over this process frees me up from a lot of anxiety. Yet I could also see it’s limitations…because paid artists must find ways to come up with good ideas consistently. I think it was Andy Rooney who said “When I sit down to write…you better believe I’m going to come up with a good idea”.

This idea that art comes from the Gods is an idea worth exploring much more in detail in my opinion. This ideas has been such a big part of our mythology, music, and arts here in the Western World. I can see all kinds of good uses for this as an educator as it allows me to connect the creative process to our literary heritage. So if it seems a little simplistic and far fetched and unscientific, well…that’s why we faith. To help us make that jump.

This IDEA is easily explained to students and is a nice segway into Greek Mythology. Though as a practical exercise for writing in a classroom setting…I’m not sure how I’d use it.

So watch the video.

And please answer this question below…Where do you get your ideas for writing/art/teaching from? From a mysterious “other” place or simply from your mind.

Martin Luther King and Barrack Obama

January 20, 2009

To Dream Like an American

Tonight I sit here proud to be an American. In the recent history of this great nation we have had some difficult times to endure in the last few years.

An innocence was lost on 9/11. I was running out of Pt. Fermin in San Pedro that morning.

Two years earlier I had made a decision to no longer be a victim of fast food, obesity, and laziness. Two years earlier I had made the decision to run a marathon. So sacrifices had to be made. Sloth and fatty food cravings were exchanged for the discipline of running and nutrition.

And while our the world was shocked and terrified over the tragedies of that fateful morning…while the world was waiting for us to take a meaningful symbolic speech and stand on the horrors and immorality of violence…

America took a different stand. America resorted back to its violent roots. America resorted back to it’s days of might makes right…where decisions were made not with the people but at the cost of the people…for the economic gains of the few.

The United States as a nation was built raping and pillaging its way across this beautiful landscape destroying all the native people’s it came across. The United States was built on the backs of African slaves imported for three hundred years. The United States was built on the economic exploitations of poor Europeans indentured by industries that cared little about their workers.

And yet despite these great injustices…Americans of all backgrounds…Americans of all religions…Americans of all origins…would come together to fight for their vision of a better place…a better country…a place safer and more just from where we came. Oh these battles were hard fought and many died in these struggles. The right to vote, the civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, the eight hour workday, economic opportunities…all these very things we often take for the granted…were fought and sacrificed by many generations before us.

And on those days post 9/11 we had big decisions to make. What kind of America would we be? Would we be the kind of country that used its best minds and resources for war and violence? Or would we be a country that found a way of peace and dialogue…in the Christian tradition…in the tradition of the great leaders like Martin Luther King?

Well America took the brutal route. And whether we thought this war was right or wrong we are deep in that decision now. We have the death of thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians on our hands. We invaded a country without provocation. This has cost us thousands of our finest men and women. We have 150,000 armed forces still in Iraq today.

This war has cost America. It has cost us in lives. It has cost us in wounds both physical and psychological. It has cost us in our reputation as a peace loving nation. No longer does the world believe those precious few words. We are a nation that brought our full force against a small third world nation out of vicious need for revenge and retribution.

This war has cost us a trillion dollars. Billions of dollars that could now be used for building of schools or saving state economies or sending a whole generation to universities to keep the American tradition of scientific innovations and greatness alive.

But instead our schools have now run out of money. Our economy is on the borderline of an economic depression. Major industries that were the very bread and butter of our country are on life support.

And the real tragedy over the last eight years was in our American spirit. We are a country of “can do”…a country of innovation…a country of entrepreneurs…a country that will always find a way…a country where it matters not the color of your skin but what it is you can contribute to the work at hand. There is no country in the world where such diversity works together day by day, hour by hour, in the pursuit of a shared vision of freedom and prosperity and justice.

But instead over the last eight years we’ve had a country of utter cynicism. A country where we actually began to believe we could not change things. A country where we were afraid to speak our minds in fear of a religious retribution or patriotic tongue lashing because you were not behind our leaders.

And when our country falls into this bitter violent apathetic mood of indifference…we must not lose our hope…when our country falls into a rat race where our shared vision is hijacked by fantasies of roman luxuries million dollar investments and million dollar homes and cars that could care less about our the very health of the very environment that gives us life every day…we must not lose our hope.

When we fall into this funk these dark ages of materialism that we are apt to do in this country of such deep and abundant wealth and resources…it is easy to give up our nation’s vision…

We forget about the very moral purpose that has driven the American dream for so long. A dream where there is shared opportunity for all people in this nation. A place where “certain truths were considered as self evident”…a place that was designed to be very different from the shackles of tradition and history that had kept so many us down for so long in our countries of origin.

This life of meaningless materialism is not the the American Dream.

And we have courageous leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to remind us of the real American Dream. That the fight for justice and equality and opportunity is the very heart of the real American Dream. And when he gave that magnificent speech in front echoing the words and cadences of Lincoln’s Gettysburg in front of the Lincoln memorial to the applause of a million Americans who had sacrificed so much to march to Washington…King reminded us again that the real American Dream is so much more than the pursuit of the dollar….King reminded us that the real American dream is not to destroy in the anger of vengence…King reminded us that to dream to build a better kinder more just country is the very essence of what this country is about.

And as long as we trample on the rights and freedoms of a few we do injustice to all Americans.

This dream this vision is repeated in the great speeches through our history. It is in the very basic documents on which this country has made a contract with its citizens…the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

In Chicago, a young man, a man of books and words, who reads Martin Luther King and Ghandi and Emerson and Lincoln rises to the top of his classes and even becomes a professor of our Constitution. This young man, Barrack Obama, believes this American Dream that despite being black that yes he could become President of this great Nation. This young man chooses not to follow the luxuries of material wealth but instead chooses to build social and moral wealth by serving his community and city of Chicago. And like all great men of antiquity, he spends great swaths of his time reading, reflecting, and writing, and envisioning a better America.

So when he speaks at the national stage four years ago at the Democratic National Convention and speaks of ” Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope.

In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.” It resonates deeply with our American Experience.

When he speaks that it is time to “reclaim America’s promise” we know of what he speaks. It is the current that washes under our feet every day in our workplaces, our schools, our churches. And when he stands up there as a black man from the land of Lincoln we know of what he speaks. The echoes of the past are unmistakable.

And when he runs for President reminding us all that yes, we can make a difference. That yes, the impossible is possible in this country. That yes, Martin Luther King Jr. did change the country so that yes he can run for and win the Presidency. Barrack chose to avoid the political trappings of big campaign money and asked American People for help, support, and contributions.

And they did. In record numbers. And he did what many would consider to be impossible. He won the Presidency of the United States.

So when he speaks tomorrow…when he stands on that same spot that Martin Luther King, Jr. did and spoke of a his dream of a country where “children will one day live in a nation where they not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character”.

I hope that he puts forth a new American dream with all the grandeurs and hope and faith and historical significance of Dr. King’s.

And I’ll be watching it with my students at college and talking about America and dreams all day.

And will feel proud to be part of this great nation where such crazy and powerful dreams can come true.

God Bless America.

Gary Dawson Smith

Will There Be No More Literature Classes?

January 19, 2009

Here’s an interesting article about how and why we are seeing the demise of literature classes in our colleges.

In fact, my guess is that in a few more years there will hardly be literature around as a field of study.

The reasons for this are profound and worthy of a lot of exploration which I will be doing more of in this blog.

The Last Professor – Stanley Fish Blog –

healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past

This is a subject that interests me a lot. This theme will be a big big part of The Reading Transformation Project.

At Santa Monica college where I work, the size and number of our Literature classes has fallen over the years while the developmental English classes (Reading Writing) where I work has continued to grow.

In developmental English classes there is a focus on skills over content. This lends itself to a factory model of education also called Taylorism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, you may recall, was “the father of scientific management. Born in 1856, he pioneered the study of industrial efficiency, measuring (say) the movements of workers as they shoveled gravel, with the intention of shaving a half-second off each shovelful and thereby increasing productivity. Twentieth-century industrial bureaucracy—not to mention twentieth-century technowar—was Taylorism made real, with human beings functioning as machine-parts in an ideal factory universe.”

If you see a Reading textbook like the one that I am using this semester in my reading classes (Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills by John Langan)…you will see Taylorism at its best.

The book is neatly divided into digestable sections. There are pretests, review tests, and mastery tests. There are tests online. Answers are at the end of the book so students do not have to rely on the teacher in order to learn the skills.

Perfect textbook right? It’s even affordable (only $32 new).

The problem? There is no meaningful literature in John Langan. No mention of the rich literary heritage that has shaped the western mind. No Homer, Shakespeare, no poetry, not even any modern literature like Toni Morrison or Jack Kerouac. It is the factory model of education at its best. In other words, all skills and no content.

I wish that I had an answer to all of this and some direction for you but I don’t.

I’m caught up in the matrix of thought that characterizes the modern university/college just like anyone else.

It simply seems easier to just shut down my mind…give the students some WORK to do out of the textbook…then get out of the way.

This is what they’ve been trained to do coming out of the K-12. And isn’t this what I’m training them to do for the workplace anyway?

Or is there a meaningful alternative? Your thoughts?

Gary Dawson Smith