The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.

2.

“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.

3.

Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.

12 thoughts on “The roads we make

  1. Loving the connections you made here and your honesty about your own reading approach is inspiring me to write about mine. And I do so love that book and have been wanting to participate for awhile! Inshallah today

    1. It’s got me thinking about the small number of books I actually love, and read and re-read. Because I live with a reader who truly deserves the description “voracious”, I’m often slightly embarrassed by my ability to live with a very small number of books that are important to me.

      When I was given a new office at work, I was given two brand new bookshelves. Two years later they’re still more or less empty–maybe one half shelf. I feel like I’ve failed to signal that I’m actually a thinker. I need to reflect on this a bit.

  2. I forgot to reflect on their discussions of learning to read. I have a very faint memory, but my parents said I started learning my numbers by reading the listing of TV shows that was once a staple of newspapers. Fortunately, growing up in Baltimore the the major TV stations were Channel 2, channel 11, and Channel 13 (the latter was where Oprah Winfrey got her start), so I was lucky to get my addition skills correct by reading them in order.

    1. I’m so interested to hear this. I’d really love to know who else remembers learning to read. That’s the thing that most interests me: what difference does this make to later life approaches to learning?

  3. I’m amazed I learned to read at all. One of my first memories of school was lining up to read to the headmistress. Each child who failed to read the passage acceptably received a stroke on the hand with a ruler. I was terrified, but placed towards the back of the line, and hearing the other kids repeat, I managed to learn the whole thing off by heart before it was my turn. I had been at school for about a week.

    I wished for nothing more than to be able to read. Everybody in the house read absorbedly, and I was missing out. I do not remember actually being taught to read. But then it was the 60s and I don’t remember anybody teaching much at all. I carried the same book with me everywhere – just in case the flash of inspiration came and I was able to read it. I do remember persevering and trying to read words. It was the same with swimming – I ran into every body of water we passed just in case I had learned the trick overnight. And these are the two passions that have stayed with me lifelong, and I’m still amazed and grateful for their gift.

    But here – you all have triggered another childhood trauma – fear of abandonment. I’m hearing about some new place that everybody plays, and it’s like when the other kids were allowed to go and play down the field and I was still confined to the garden. Of course, I needed somebody to show me the way, and tell me I’d be able to find my way home, and that those new kids didn’t play too rough. So I might sit in my tree house for a while watching you all.

    1. Oh I get this. I was exactly the same about various things that came along over the past few years (even though I’m entirely sanguine about excluding myself from Facebook). I value Twitter as a community of fellow travellers so much I don’t want to do anything to undermine what’s rich about this. So for me, messing about in mastodon is really about seeing if it’s possible to build out a space for slightly more in-depth conversations (more like this one). But it’s very provisional, and in any moment I think it might not be durable. Or it might.

      But really I wanted to reply to thank you for the beautiful reading story. I’m now keen to collect more. How did we all learn to read?

  4. I don’t have particular memories about the point or timeframe of learning to read but I do remember fondly the reading game my cousins and I used to play called Sausages and Mash. We would read aloud in a group and any word that started with an S or an M we had to substitute with the aforementioned terms. If you missed one then you had to pass the book on. Competitive reading practice but also funny at times considering some of the ways the sentences would play out.

  5. What I love about this story is that I suspect reading is very different if it’s solitary. I was an only child, so I learned to read as a very solitary practice and it’s continued to be that way for me. I have two daughters close in age for whom each learning milestone is fraught with minor rivalry, especially given that this is reinforced in school. I can see that this amps up the extrinsic in reward terms.

    My youngest daughter is entirely of the iPad generation. She has learned to read as a feature of learning to dab at the screen, to swipe. She learned instrumentally from the labels for features, actions, instructions, before I could really get to her and say: oh hey, what about sentences.

    For a while her reading languished while she focused on Minecraft, but now she’s into fanfic and it’s back on.

  6. Think I was taught to imagine things before they had names and then pick around for descriptive words to assemble these things into stories. Not sure if that’s true but it does sound more interesting than not remembering:-) Do remember going to the local library at least once a week and being instructed to read science-fiction and books on modern sculpture by my elementary school art-teacher mom. Reading was the year that my commercial artist dad spent months teaching himself how to paint the world’s most succulent peach for a canned fruit company.

    The word and the picture run together in my mind. A promise of peachness on every can.

    Wonder if this happening at the beginning of the “Space Age” mid-50’s acted as a fertile contrast for understanding that words to name things of earthly origin and words to describe the purely imaginative and unseen can reside without contradiction?

  7. That’s a beautiful story, Scott — the way things run all together. Reading, and memories of learning.

    You’ve made me think of something about my youngest daughter who has been much more self-taught than the other two: when she has come across a concept or thing for which she has no word, she makes up something and it’s always extraordinarily precise as a descriptor — often better than the legacy noun we all use.

    I’ve often noticed this about her instinct for language, and I realise this must relate in some way also to being a self-taught reader. But the other thing that has marked out her life as an iPad kid is audio books. She has absorbed language as sound much more than she fathomed it as marks on a page or screen.

  8. Kate, your daughter’s naming of things on her own indicates a close connection to the world? Words are not arbitrary labels but the names of relationships with other things. Both sounds that activate strings of longer strings and places on a map as in a place holder we can come back to. Sounds like she’s very curious and conscious of the path she took to the word. Different than learning as an accumulation of abstract names that eventually build associations because we are told these words make some accepted meaning.
    The group reading sounds interesting, book order is somewhere in the mail so I’ll be starting way, way late. Right now the interest is in how far people can stretch to defend the Grand Lizard as a necessary disruption to trigger change. How offensive can he be? Or maybe it comes to a great pride in being someone else’s lunch? People have been disregarded for so long they’ll take any attention they can get. Sad.

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