My Life in 500 Words
Once upon a time after college, I arrived in New York City as a modern dancer. After honing my skills and performing with several groups, force of circumstance changed my direction. I became a widow with my two-year-old son in my care. The door to a life in dance closed but another opened. Bank Street College with its creative ways of teaching young children beckoned. I entered this world and never looked back. This was followed by an offer to complete a doctorate in education at New York University, entirely funded by the Federal Government, with a stipend to boot. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Teaching teachers was fully as satisfying as working with children. Language and literacy education became my specialties. I rode the crest of the process approach to literacy learning and made my own contributions to the field with my research in children’s humorous word play.
But all was not well in the field of education, as deeply felt twenty-five years ago as it is today. I was not so disturbed by the quantitative gaps in what was learned as the qualitative ones, how material was taught. My teachers at Queens College CUNY worked in schools where cultural variety was the norm. Most classrooms were communities nearly as fully integrated as the United Nations itself. How to understand the makeup of the classroom as well as how best to teach these young children? A sabbatical leave loomed and I applied for and was accepted as a visiting researcher in the Anthropology Department at Yale University. My views of education changed. All teaching is culturally mediated and has roots in the differing value systems of every social group. When schools ignore this truth they do so at the peril of fatally short-circuiting their students’ learning. With this perspective in mind, my graduate students and I worked on developing ways to integrate these views into their teaching practices.
There is a branch of anthropology that views conversation as a major medium for studying culture. The tapestry of word sounds and meanings woven in daily talk is where feelings and beliefs are transmitted, a Pandora’s box. Recording conversations for later listening is the method for opening the box and examining its contents. As I move toward retiring from teaching, my 7-year-old, bicultural grandson, Matthew, begins to talk about how the world works, where his alternate universe is located and who the inhabitants are. We dramatize imagined scenarios from his prehistoric neverland in my living room, read and tell stories at bedtime, and debate issues of life, death, and extinction in car conversations. I record many of our dramas and other story explorations over the next year, conversations too rich to let them float into the ether never to be heard again. Only when my audio diary is complete do I go back and listen. Like an archeologist digging for hidden gems, I plumb the recordings for the ways our imaginations infiltrate awareness and shape our love and reverence for life. The title of the book is, Matthew’s Universe: My Grandson Charts His Course to the Land of Reading and Writing. I am searching for a publisher who believes as I do that when we love to tell and hear stories, we do our best and become our best selves. (more about the book under Writing)