Windows and Mirrors Transcript (022)
Checking Windows and Mirrors with Emily Style (7/5/19)
KINZY BROWN: Hello everybody. I am Kinzy Brown, actor, master thespian, educator, and sometimes Peter Horn’s scene partner! You just found yourself at the Point of Learning. Buckle up, because today’s guest, Emily Style, has something for everybody!
PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, Emily Style, a visionary educator who 31 years ago laid out a simple but transformative framework for reconsidering curriculum.
EMILY STYLE: That’s the purpose of the classroom. You’re to be seen, to see others, to be in relation, to understand yourself as a person who belongs.
[VO]: She understands the deep dynamics of groups that don’t always register on teachers’ radar.
STYLE: … those kinds of moments that I believe are so deeply shaping for students in school but often are not acknowledged as occurring. That is part of the sacredness of classroom work.
[VO]: We’re going to explore three of the most useful ideas I learned from Emily for classroom work … or any time I work with teams or other groups.
STYLE: That quality of relationship-building and -unbuilding I believe occurs in classrooms every day, and I wanted as a teacher to operate with that awareness, so that we would be building each other up.
[VO]: Emily Jane Style is a “relational scholar.” She appreciates the intellectual dimension of ideas, but also knows that ideas matter relationally, because there are real flesh-and-blood people in any given room, people with real and complex life stories involved in any given discourse. Emily values acknowledging what she calls the “heart-to-heart dimension” of how we talk about ideas face to face, or on the page, or across the ages. My favorite tribute to Emily’s work comes from Christina Patterson Brown, an educator and activist who studied with her in 1991, and recently thanked Emily for modeling “what woke and intersectional work looked like before there was an internet.” Style began her teaching career at Eastern Christian, a high school in NJ not too different from the Dutch Calvinist schools she attended when she was growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I met Emily when she joined the faculty of Westfield [NJ] High School in 2003, but that was after she’d taught at the Evening High School and a specialized school for young pregnant women, both in Passaic, NJ, and at Madison High School in Madison, NJ. At the university level, Emily has served as a Teacher Corps Associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and taught courses at NYU and Cornell. She served on the Teacher Advisory Board for the first Dodge Poetry Festival in 1986, a kind of biennial, multi-cultural Woodstock of the poetry world that continues to this day. Together with Peggy McIntosh, she co-directed the National SEED Project for 25 years. SEED, which stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, got an overview in my recent episode “Unpacking White Privilege with Peggy McIntosh,” so be sure to check that out—and SEED will get its own show in the coming months. Simply put, SEED is the best teacher-led professional development program I know about.
Though Emily is not a preacher’s kid, she spent at least as much time in church growing up as I did, hearing sermons twice a Sunday, where it was explicit that you studied a text to unpack it, but the sermon wasn’t complete unless you applied it to the Here and Now. To this day that’s how she understands text and unpacking text: how does it relate to the people, the “life-texts” in the room? In today’s conversation with Emily we’re focusing on three key concepts that she provided me language for. As I said, Emily and I met as colleagues in a high school English department, so we’re going to use mostly classroom examples, but I lean on these concepts when I work with any kind of organization or team, because these ideas matter to the sociology of group work. Regardless of the work you do, I think you’ll find them valuable.
The first concept is DKDK, shorthand Emily uses to refer to what we don’t know we don’t know. Emily credits her longtime colleague Dr. Linda Powell and their work together in the school district of Philadelphia and the NJ SEED branch with exposing her to the value of teachers, facilitators, and other leaders coming to terms with what we don’t know we don’t know. So, imagine a pie chart.
STYLE: And there would be the slice of KNOWN and then there would be the slice of YOU KNOW THAT YOU DON'T KNOW. And then there would be this huge slice of YOU DON'T KNOW, AND YOU DON'T KNOW THAT YOU DON'T KNOW.
PETER: What would be an example of something in my DKDK? Like, I didn’t know I didn’t know this?
STYLE: A classroom example would be when, let’s say a White student makes a remark out of his or her Whiteness that they don’t know that that’s where it’s coming from. So they make a shallow kind of statement. There may be a couple of other White students in the room that recognize that there’s an ignorance that’s just been expressed. But the student who has said this, such as, “Well, they all look alike”— that kind of obtuse generalization, but the student is being fluent and kind of speaking from the heart, so to speak. That’s where their consciousness is. But then there’s a quality of electricity in the room because some other students and myself as a teacher have registered on the level of ignorance that has just been expressed. So then how to deal with that?
PETER: It’s important to say that the kid’s not saying it to be disparaging.
STYLE: That’s right.
PETER: The kid is just kind of offering as an observation, “Isn't it true that all people of this other race look the same? Isn’t that just the way it is?”
STYLE: And so then you’ve got a teachable moment, but only if there’s a way to address the ignorance that’s been expressed in a bridge-building fashion. At least, that's often my approach as a teacher. Okay, so this ignorance has voiced itself. How can this become a teachable moment? The narrative that I love to use and would always put in place within the first couple of days of any class I was teaching at Westfield High School or Madison High School, or when I was teaching at NYU or at Cornell, is the ancient Hindu fable of the blind men and the elephant.
[VO]: I’m betting you’ve heard this ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, so I won’t retell it here, but as a quick refresher, the six blind men, who have never before encountered an elephant, each perceive different parts of the whole. One blind man feels the trunk and decides the strange animal must be like a snake; another, touching the ear, believes this creature must be like a fan, and so on.
STYLE: And the reason I would use that narrative is to establish the qualities of intelligence that those six characters had.
PETER: All these blind men are touching different pieces of the elephant and describe it in different ways—
STYLE: That’s right, so they each have a piece of the data in hand, and they compare it to something else in their experience, which makes them very sure of what they’re saying. And they are accurate, but only in a partial way. And the fable itself does not include go-arounds or conversing back and forth, and so they’re stuck in DKDK. So by introducing that term and using that narrative—often in my classroom work, I could use DKDK, but sometimes I would say, “I believe we were at an ‘elephant moment.’”
PETER: An important aspect is to give it a name, you know, to give these things a name. It seems to me that part of what that does is to diffuse it a little bit, to say like, “This is a thing. This is something that happens”—
STYLE: It’s to normalize it—
PETER: as opposed to saying, “Look at you, horrible child! What have you just said that’s so offensive?” And there are a number of the different ways that people can react to that, but ultimately, we want to draw people in.
STYLE: Instead of calling people out, we want to call people in. So then proactively as a teacher to put that narrative in the foreground, to normalize DKDK, so that there are for any one of us, regardless of age or “politics of location” [a phrase for which Style credits Adrienne Rich], there are a multitude of things that are in our DKDK: we don’t know, and we don’t know that we don’t know. To have that as foundational understanding, I think, makes for a really healthy teaching and learning atmosphere. To have a shorthand term that takes it away from shame, blame, and guilt and makes it kind of an ordinary part of how we have to navigate in communicating and in understanding the world, it feels like a real gift.
[VO]: Emily first wrote about DKDK in 1995 in an article called “In Our Own Hands: Diversity Literacy” for Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy. [Vol. 6, No. 2 (Fall 1995), pp. 64-84] It’s a very accessible piece with some good exercises that I’ll make available from the show page for this episode.
[VO]: The second solid gold concept I gleaned from Emily Style is that 50% of the curriculum walks into the room with your students. If you’re not teaching school, think of it this way: regardless of what specific project your team or organization is trying to knock out of the park, the better you know your team members and their stories—and the better they know each other’s—the richer the result will be.
PETER: At one point when you and I were colleagues in the English Department of Westfield High School in New Jersey, you shared with me the version of your English I syllabus that you gave out to parents on Back to School Night. You wrote, “There’s a sense in which half of the curriculum in this class comes from the students, individually and collectively. From Day One, I talk about the textbooks of students’ lives and that I see them being just as important as any other texts with which I ask students to engage.” I want to add that I find this idea of 50% of the curriculum walking in the door with students so valuable that I share it with every group of educators I work with, and probably most groups of non-educators that I work with as well, because I don’t believe it’s possible to do meaningful work with people before you have a sense of who they are, where they’re coming from, and what they have to teach me as well as each other. How did you come to this essential equation?
STYLE: In the wrestling with how to understand my role as a classroom teacher in terms of being trained in coverage—
PETER: As in “covering the curriculum”?
STYLE: Yes, as in covering the curriculum. That was my job. I had a sense of responsibility and wished to behave with integrity with regard to my role. But that template of framing my job was inadequate. It gave me a big headache to try to figure out, given that framing, how to do my job.
PETER: But I just want to observe that this ubiquitous metaphor of covering. That's one of the things that happens so often when, of course, what we’d hope would happen is that we uncover! We’d hope that we reveal, but this language lends itself to just getting through this and then, you know, “I’m going to cover all this material.” It feels like, if we think about it, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing. I just wanted to flag that because it’s used so, so often. It’s so commonplace, but I think it’s really counter-productive.
STYLE: I really agree in that it’s sort of like paving over, right? You know, as in covering, and it also keeps the agency on the teacher.
PETER: That’s right. It’s what you do [as a teacher]. You cover it.
STYLE: Instead of understanding the relational interactive task of orchestrating with the half of the curriculum that’s come in the room. In fact, it’s an orchestration, a negotiation, a conversation that you’re in charge of as a teacher—not a plowing through some version of material that you’re supposed to cover. I agree that language does us a disservice there in that understanding of covering the curriculum. So that’s where the half the curriculum came from: that headache, that wrestling with “So what is my job?” And by then I’d been in the classroom a decade, so I could name for myself that half the curriculum walks in the room and that’s why students’ names were so important, why I spend the first couple of days learning their names. The first quiz is the name quiz. We have to know each other by name because that’s the nature of the work that we do. It is personal as well as political, as well as curricular.
PETER: Was the name quiz based on pictures, or how did you give it? You're asking everybody, “Can you name everybody in here?”
STYLE: Right. And it was for my benefit as well because I had 150 names to learn. And so we would do go-arounds. They knew about half of the students in the room [already]. But the nature of my Westfield High School classroom, for example, the freshmen, they were learning each other’s names as well. And so we would start and finish each of those first couple of days by volunteers going around and saying the first name. And then I would get a chance as well. And it wasn’t until everybody was ready that we would take the quiz because the goal is that everyone got an A. So the nature of that: making it a grade that counted—that our names mattered—emphasized that this is the starting point. Knowing each other by name. And I’m just as responsible for that as you are. In fact, I had the greatest responsibility because of the number of students that I had to learn their names so that we would be in that quality of relationship with each other in the classroom.
In wrestling with the paradigm with which I was educated about what my job was and how that was insufficient, that’s where the naming that half the curriculum walks in the classroom with the students came, and then I could develop a sense of coherence of what my task was. And it had to do with the interaction between that half of the curriculum, which I needed to become acquainted with, and the half that I was already semi-acquainted with because I was the grown-up in the room and I had an education. But I still had lots of choices to make in terms of what texts we were going to engage with besides the textbooks of our lives.
PETER: I just wanted to give a quick example for people who didn’t have access to your teaching in your classroom. You know what I loved, for example that you would, I think at the beginning of the year in conjunction—often, maybe not every year—but often in conjunction with [Hemingway’s] The Old Man and the Sea, you would ask students to have a conversation with an old man.
PETER: Somebody 65 years or older. And at the end of the year, you would have a conversation with an old woman in their life.
STYLE: Yes. Right.
PETER: So you’ve got something that’s cross-generational, which is wonderful, you know, to prompt that kind of conversation. But also it’s a great example of a paper that nobody else can write!
PETER: Only you can write about this person you’ve selected. I’m sure often it was a grandparent, but probably sometimes somebody else, but it’s that kid’s choice, and then what they learned from that, and then you’re asking them to write about that. It’s just very different from “Give me three characteristics of Brutus in Julius Caesar and that’s going to be our essay.”
STYLE: Absolutely, and also it calls forth the scholar that I believe exists in every student to exercise with authority your capacity to listen and document what’s occurred relationally in a conversation with someone you’re related to or someone that you select from your church or synagogue that falls in this age bracket, from whom you can learn.
[VO]: QUICK SIDEBAR: Images of Organization. It’s fun to talk metaphors with Emily, a fellow former English teacher who is especially good at them. But the way we talk and think about our work, the images we construct about our workplace—these really do affect how we approach our work, in small and large ways. If I believe my classroom or business is a jungle, this mindset predisposes me to different behaviors than if I consider it a garden, say, or a family or a jazz ensemble or a factory. The factory metaphor for schools is regrettably beloved of policy makers who see teachers as technicians that cover curriculum in order to attain prescribed rates of student success on standardized tests.
Emily’s favorite metaphor for curriculum is a house with windows and mirrors. In fact, her 1988 essay “Curriculum as Window and Mirror” has been so influential to so many people that dozens of teachers and other fans gathered at the Wellesley Centers for Women on October 4th, 2018 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its publication. The show page for this episode has a link to the essay, but in a nutshell, “windows” are texts that enable readers to peer out and see the realities of other people, and “mirrors” are stories that reflect one’s own reality. Style argues that balance is key: all students deserve a curriculum that pushes them to view the world outside their lived experience as well as one that validates their own experience in the public world of school. I asked her how she came up with these powerful metaphors. Was it a flash of inspiration in the middle of the night, or what?
STYLE: It has to do with being seen. It wasn’t a flash in the middle of the night. It was a kind of growing awareness of the classroom as a place of belonging, of being seen, of being known by name that mattered to me. That’s what classroom life was, was being seen. And so the leap to a visual metaphor occurred in relation to the being seen and belonging. My belief that that’s the purpose of the classroom: you’re to be seen, to see others, to be in relation, to understand yourself as a person who belongs. So mirroring and looking out the window, or into the window of someone else’s eyes and life experience. That lovely “My Great-Uncle’s Horse” poem that has mattered to me for years from Lew Gardner, a New Jersey poet, about that fourth grade where the great-uncle walks past. And the students in that fourth grade are doing math. And the young person who is related to this old codger, who loves him, can hardly contain his excitement in saying, “That’s my great-uncle!” But before he can identify that relationship, out the window of that classroom, other students see a stereotype—someone to laugh at—and that laughter shuts him down. And he does not identify that he’s related to this old man. And so in the narrative of that poem that I have loved for years comes the understanding of how the division during math class that occurred in that classroom where the young person who loved the old man out the window all of a sudden became aware how others saw that loved one in a disparaging way, and how that educated his heart and mind. So he said nothing. That quality of relationship-building and unbuilding I believe occurs in classrooms every day. And I wanted as a teacher to operate with that awareness, so that we would be building each other up in the face of our DKDKs, in the intimacy of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, the way that high school life happens.
PETER: Would you be willing to read the poem?
STYLE: I would love to! This is New Jersey poet Lew Gardner’s “My Great-Uncle’s Horse”:
My mother's uncle had a horse.
The best time of a deadly relatives' Sunday
was to walk with him to the stable
and watch him feed the quiet animal,
to give it sugar from my own hand
and jump back away
from the big warm tongue,
to smell the hay and manure, to see
the white horse in the next stall,
with tail and mane like yellow silk.
If my mother and I ran into him
as he and the horse were making their rounds,
buying up the wonderful junk
they heaped and hauled in the wagon,
he'd lift me up to the seat
and let me hold the reins and yell "Giddy-up!"
In the spring of 4th grade,
one afternoon of silent division
we heard a clanking and looked outside.
My great-uncle! I could tell them all
how I had held those reins!
But everyone laughed at the hunched old man,
the obsolete wagon and horse,
the silly, clattering junk.
I did not tell them.
[©1973, used with permission]
STYLE: It’s those kinds of moments that I believe are so deeply shaping for students in school but often are not acknowledged as occurring. That is part of the sacredness of classroom work, because there’s an intimacy afoot. As I’ve said before, to go back to laying a foundation with the ancient fable of the blind men and the elephant, with DKDK, with an explicit acknowledgement that half the curriculum walks in the room with you all [i.e., students] is to acknowledge the tapestry of the terrain, which for me makes the classroom more rigorous. The rigor is relational, psychological, sociological, as well as academic and intellectual. So that’s that balance between the scholarship on the shelves that I’ve been charged to transmit to the next generation and the scholarship in their selves. And in fact, the scholarship in myself, that’s a part of the mix. That’s a really precious part of what it means to be a teacher.
PETER: And it’s a part that, as you said, that’s always there, whether we acknowledge it or not. But the extent to which we do, the extent to which we do, the extent to which we gloss over it, cover it,
STYLE: Yes. Bury it, repress it—
PETER: —or suppress it in, you know, the spirit of “don’t smile until after Thanksgiving” [a hoary piece of bad advice to new teachers]. That can be costly, but it also deprives everybody of much of the deep learning that can happen.
STYLE: Absolutely. It diminishes the dimensionality of our humanity all the way around, and so the learning isn’t as deep and wide as it certainly can be.
[VO]: That’s it for today’s show! My great thanks to Emily Style for another illuminating conversation—this time on the record! Special thanks to guitarist Jason Grant, a member of my SEED cohort at Westfield High School—led by Emily—who worked up a couple Simon and Garfunkel favorites for his friend and former colleague. Thanks as always to Shayfer James for intro and outro music, and thanks to you for listening, subscribing, rating, and reviewing this show. Point of Learning is written, recorded, edited, and mixed by me, Peter Horn, and it’s produced in sunny Buffalo, NY. Please do think of one other person you think would dig it, and share it up. It means most coming from you. Back at you just as soon as I can with another fresh take on what and how and why we learn!
For most episodes, this is where you hear an outtake I found pretty funny. Today what feels right is a quotation from my first interview with Emily in 2011 when I was just starting to pursue my doctorate and seeking out inspiring leaders in education to talk to. I don’t have the audio anymore, so I’m just going to read it. Once again, she’s referring to a classroom context, but anybody who ever runs a meeting should listen up: Emily said, “I’m cognizant when I teach that we’re dealing on more than one plane, and one of the planes is what makes life worthwhile, the philosophical plane: Why are we here, and why does this enterprise matter?”