Deep Reading as Counterculture

By: Stephanie Gardella and Brandon Strickland

 

By contrast, deep reading requires human beings to call upon and develop attentional skills, to be thoughtful and fully aware. It teaches humans to be thankful for, and to celebrate, their full capabilities. It makes people, in other words, feel good about being fully human.” – Robert Waxler and Dr. Maureen Hall 

The digital age has drastically transformed the way we think, feel and communicate. No longer are the once cherished stories of such great authors as Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe evoking strong feelings and deep thought that they once did. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are replacing them and consume a majority of some people’s day. Sitting by the fire for hours reading a novel is a past time that is unlikely to be a part of the digital generations’ lives. The gravitational pull by technology is too strong for most. People may be reading more than ever on these social networks, but it is on a superficial level.

In Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing by Robert Waxler and Dr. Maureen Hall they argue that reading on these social network sites “does not require full thinking, full awareness, or full presence.” When it comes to reading, “quantity over quality,” certainly appears to be the maxim for the digital generation. In a time where people are more concerned with what someone is writing on their social network page, deep reading is definitely something that should be emphasized in the classroom. Sven Birkerts coined the term “deep reading” and defines it as, “the slow and meditative possession of a book.”

Although, students may claim they are doing some sort of reading while following Facebook or Twitter, they are not “deep reading.” Reading hundreds of posts about friends and families play-by-play of their mundane daily activities doesn’t exactly conjure about the same type of emotional reactions and deep thinking one would get from reading a novel such as Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms.” It is the constant need to be connected to others through an electronic medium that prevents people from losing themselves in a novel instead.

This is why deep reading is such a great addition to anyone’s life. Deep reading, being in their own world when they read a piece of great literature, can help people to form a reconnection with individuals on a different level that they could find on their computer. When someone participates in deep reading one could say they are immersing themselves in a counter-culture. They are separate from what they would normally be interacting with in society and their classrooms, work places, and personal life.

A counter-culture is characterized as a culture with values and ideals that run counter to those of an established society or alternative culture. This counter-culture is where they can find their inner self. When individuals, specifically students, are involved in deep reading they are put into a counter-culture that improves them as thinkers and learners.

Deep reading, according to Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall, “holds possibilities for helping people make meaning and journey towards full understanding of self” as well as helping them to connect to their text. Once they have a connection to their narrative they can begin to connect it with their lives on a personal and emotional level. Then they are able to connect better with others.

When students are in an environment where deep reading is utilized, they are able to get more out of the classroom. Furthermore, the counterculture they participate in when they practice deep reading can go beyond the classroom and their class work. It can help them improve as individuals, improving their life and their relationships with others. As a future educator I feel like reading of any kind is an important part of every student’s education, but especially the act of deep reading. We’re not only trying to help them be better learners but better individuals and better human beings.

Stephanie Gardella has a BA in English from Rhode Island College and is currently enrolled in the Post Bac Licensure Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to gain certification in teaching English at the secondary level. She begins her student teaching in the Spring. She enjoys baking, singing, and spending time with friends and loved ones. She can be reached by email here.

Brandon Strickland is applying to the MAT-I Program at UMass Dartmouth with a concentration in middle school science. He currently has a preliminary license in general science 5-8 and works at the Stone Therapeutic Day Middle School as a permanent substitute. 
He can be reached by email here.


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A Reaction to Changing Lives Through Literature

By Tara Knoll

 

On November 2, I sat in on a session of Changing Lives Through Literature led by Professor Waxler and held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus. A senior in the English department at Princeton, I’m writing my undergraduate senior thesis on the role that literature plays in prison and in alternative sentencing programs, with a specific focus on CLTL.

The participants that week were to discuss Walter Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the story of a man named Socrates Fortlow who is trying to negotiate his role as both a human being and as a member of a community after spending twenty-seven years in prison. After reading the text, I was excited to hear what the participants in the program would have to say about it. I had researched the evolution of literature programs in American prisons beginning in the 1940s and their tendency to restrict certain literature out of a fear of the reader’s identification with the criminal, or even a resulting glorification of crime. Would the participants identify with Socrates? With his struggles? Would they like the book? Would they want to talk about their own stories in relation to it?

Although I tried to avoid having any expectations, I couldn’t help but be surprised. As a college student, I’ve grown pretty adept at discerning when a student hasn’t read the text for seminar or precept. The uncomfortable avoidance of eye contact with the instructor, the enigmatically vague comments about some general idea conveniently found on the back cover—such are the dead give-aways (not that I’ve ever exhibited these behaviors myself, of course). It was clear from the start, however, that these participants had all read Mosley’s work. There wasn’t a single awkward silence, nor was there a moment when Professor Waxler had to encourage the participants to speak. Rather, Professor Waxler acted as mediator for the animated conversation that ensued.

As the discussion progressed, I realized that I also hadn’t been prepared for the passion the participants demonstrated with respect to the text. Some had read it multiple times. Others drew parallels between Mosley’s work and the text they had read for the last session, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Another participant had written notes beforehand so as not to forget key insights. It was unquestionable that they all cared about the text. Even as an English major who participates in countless seminars discussing works of literature, I was refreshed and inspired by the participants’ engagement with the text. And though their opinions could not differ more—one participant loved the book, another absolutely despised it—the dialogue remained respectful. That in itself was an impressive feat; with eight men, one woman, Professor Waxler, several probation officers and judges, a defense attorney, and a priest participating in the session, the diversity of opinion around the table was immense.

One of the aspects of the program I was most curious about was the interplay between reading and collective discussion. Throughout the session I began to understand that the two exist in a kind of crucial symbiosis; one without the other would simply not allow for the deep engagement and struggling with the text experienced by every reader in the room. The participants generally refused identification with Socrates. One participant declared that he had “hard feelings for the book,” because Socrates “hasn’t earned redemption.” Another observed that Socrates “did a poor job at trying to redeem himself.” Although each reader came into the session with their own reading of the text, shaped by individual experiences and perception, those readings were called into question by the exploration of other interpretations. At one point, Professor Waxler chuckled, explaining, “before this session I always thought of Socrates as much more heroic.”

Through the collective discussion, some readers seemed to change their minds about their initial reading of the text. Others maintained or even defended their own readings, but recognized opinions they hadn’t considered before. The interplay between reading and collective discussion generated participants’ reflection on their own experiences and the text itself. Professor Waxler guided the discussion by pointing to specific situations in the text and acknowledging the different decisions characters could have made. For example, in a later scene in the novel Socrates rats out a man who has been setting fires. Although some participants initially expressed a desire for consistency, even for absolutes—such as snitching is always wrong—the discussion complicated this understanding of right and wrong. What if you have to choose between being loyal to your community, and being loyal to your brother? All of the readers in the room grappled with the complexity inherent in making such decisions. Right and wrong didn’t seem to be the crux of the issue, especially when characters (and people) sometimes have to choose between two options that may seem “right.”

The participants were not shy about drawing connections between the text and their own lives. One participant’s experience as a reader really gets to the heart of my opinion, that after the session participants see both their own experiences and the text a little differently. When the participant first read the text, he overlooked a paragraph in the very beginning that described what Socrates had done that put him behind bars. As he read the book, he found that he really respected Socrates and the efforts he made once he was out of prison. However, when the participant discovered what Socrates had done, he wanted to throw the book down. “I respected everything he was doing until I found out,” he said. Another reader interjected—isn’t that the type of judgment society makes? The realization that we are all susceptible to making those judgments—as readers, as employers, as members of society—was critical.

After sitting in on the session, I made plans to return next month to watch other sessions on the UMass Dartmouth campus and at Middlesex Community College, led by Professor Jean Trounstine. I’m overwhelmed by the amazing work of those who make CLTL possible, and by how helpful they’ve been in my research thus far. I believe that one of the reasons why CLTL is so meaningful is its avoidance of a rhetoric or goal of catharsis, even of therapy in some sense. Literature is not significant because it fixes problems or because it somehow “treats” its readers. Literature, if anything, makes things more difficult; it makes us more aware of the complexity, arbitrariness, and at times injustice in our own lives and society. It’s this awareness that is key.

One participant observed that even though “you do your time and pay your debt to society,” once you get out of jail, you’re still paying. Socrates embodies this constant struggle—the process of being haunted, finding peace, and having that peace shaken. Mirroring Socrates’ struggle, one participant explained, “the hardest part is forgiving yourself.” CLTL engages participants in a constant dialogue with the text and with diverse interpretations and readings of it. As the participants construct themselves as readers, they recognize that they aren’t alone in this struggle.

 

Tara Knoll is a senior at Princeton University where she is finishing her undergraduate degree. Her interest in how literature affects inmates and offenders led her to the decision to concentrate on Changing Lives Through Literature as the subject for her senior thesis.  She can be reached by email here.

 


A Career Behind Bars

By Avril Joy

 

I worked at HMP Low Newton – a women’s prison on the outskirts of Durham City in the North East of England – for twenty five years. I began as a teacher; became an Education Manager and finally a Senior Manager in charge of Learning and Skills development. I never meant to stay that long – somehow the place just grew on me. Or perhaps more accurately it was the women who grew on me.

UK prisons are full of women who shouldn’t be there, women in need of therapeutic care, women who would be best helped in their own community. There are of course, some seriously damaged women from whom the public needs protection but they are a very small minority.

By and large the women I met in prison were ordinary women whose lives had gone wrong. They were great survivors. They were often victims of crime themselves, particularly sexual abuse and domestic violence. Many, very many, were heroin addicts.

They didn’t make excuses for what they’d done, or feel sorry for themselves, or blame other people. They relished the educational opportunities on offer, having missed out on schooling – they were often carers from a young age or had been expelled. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the women was how much they laughed and made you laugh with them. Humour is, of course, a great shield for adversity. In prison it also serves as the acceptable face of rebellion and helps preserve dignity in a world where prisoners are disempowered.

The women were immensely kind too. Always concerned for you and quite protective of prison staff or teachers they liked.

There are a lot of things about working in prison I don’t miss. I don’t miss the gates, keys, bars, impossible windows, or the time it took to just get in and out of the place. I definitely don’t miss the way you never really knew what kind of a day it was until you got out through the gate in the evening; where the air always tasted different. Not long after leaving I had a day out with my lovely friend Carole, who, like me, worked at Low Newton for many years. More than anything that day we were imbued with a sense of freedom, like kids playing hooky: we had escaped and the sun was shining and we were certain that we appreciated being out in the open far more than anyone else could. After all, hadn’t we spent what felt like a lifetime behind bars?

Sometimes when women came back into prison for the third or fourth time (in some cases women were back in and out many times) they would see me and say, Are you still here Mrs Joy? Once, before I left, when a woman asked how long I’d been at Low Newton and I said twenty five years, she looked at me with genuine pity and said, God bless you miss – poor thing!

Of course it wasn’t like that. If it had been I couldn’t have stayed. There was much laughter, caring, hope and comradeship at Low Newton and I worked with many great colleagues and some very enlightened Governors. But I won’t deny there were times when working in prison was tough. It took it out of you and there was a deal of heartache and pain. From time to time, no matter how used to it you became, the pain seeped in, under your skin, and inhabited you.

Avril Joy is publishing a series of prison stories –Beyond The Mask. The first, When You Hear The Bird Sing, is available for download now on Amazon Kindle – 99p. She hopes to share profits with a charity that helps prisoners. You can visit her website/blog (with links to the book) here.

Breaking Free of Patterns With Mindfulness

By: Katelyn Twardzik & Jedly Paredes

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” – Richard Feynman.

Patterns are everywhere we look, from the smallest DNA particles to the wings on a butterfly, to the human experience of following time, schedules and routines. We get set in our ways and repeat similar actions and behaviors only to get similar results. While these results may or may not always be desired or intentional, the art of mindfulness can help us stay in touch with the life that is going on within us as well as around us. To be mindful is to be present, to reflect, and to be aware and thoughtful. Mindfulness can be applied to many areas of our lives to help us gain perspective and to help us take a step back and observe without subjection. This allows us to make needed changes that break us free from old habits, which can lead us to improved mental clarity and physical health. Taking a look at mindful eating and mindfulness as it applies to literacy will help us take a closer look at its benefits.

Mindful eating can positively affect our emotional and physical state. In the U.S., the lack of mindfulness in our diet and eating has caused many health problems. These problems range from diabetes, anorexia, heart disease, liver overload, obesity, stress, bloating and indigestion to name a few; not to mention that our immune system and nervous system are supported by a healthy relationship with food.

Mindful eating can be achieved by knowing what you are eating. You can start having control of what you are putting in your body by keeping yourself aware by checking the packaging label. Your body will react positively to avoiding unnecessary additives such as chemicals and preservatives. Selecting natural and fresh products from a local vendor is a great way to get more food and fewer ingredients. An economical advantage to this is that local farm stands are often much more affordable than the grocery store price since you are purchasing directly from the source. Another advantage is that local farm stand produce is usually sold within twenty-four hours versus the seven to fourteen day journey other produce can take to arrive at the grocery store. Being aware of the process that your food takes to get to you is an important part of mindful eating. This requires extra thought when eating at a restaurant where you are not preparing your own food. Getting your chicken grilled instead of fried will make a major difference in keeping more nutritional value to your food.

Another part of having a healthy relationship with food is giving yourself time to enjoy it. Eating with the company of others is a tradition that has occurred over centuries which validates that food should be enjoyed and can even be joyful and celebratory. Eating slowly allows you to take in the flavors, textures, aromas and presentation. Learning about your taste buds and how you experience taste through your tongue is an enriching way to sort through flavors, making eating an experience. On the very tip of your tongue you will taste salty and sweet flavors. On the sides of your tongue you will taste sour flavors and on the back of your tongue you will taste bitter flavors. Having a bite of food and deciding what you taste first allows you to truly have a mindful eating experience. Eating slowly also allows the food to reach your stomach in a timely way so that you are able to more accurately judge when you are content with the amount of food you’ve consumed. The key to eating a healthy amount is to stop eating once you are no longer hungry, not until you are full or on the brink of feeling like there is no more room in your stomach.

If you are still unsure of the effectiveness of mindful eating, why not ask your body how it feels? Experiment with eating more nutritional foods such as raw fruits, nuts and vegetables and see how your body reacts. How does your stomach feel? What is your energy level like after eating? What is your stomach telling you about the food you ate? Compare your results with more processed foods such as a bag of chips or fast food. Mindful eating does not mean to deprive yourself of food but rather to allow yourself to have a balanced life, eating more of what makes you feel healthy with more energy and less of what makes you feel bloated and drained. Having a mindful relationship with food will lead to a healthy mind and body.

Mindfulness skills are useful in an educational setting. Teaching children about eating mindfully will make them healthier and give them more mental clarity. Mindfulness can also be applied to improving literacy. Practicing mindfulness exercises such as breathing and memory games can strengthen focus and concentration, enable an ability to see a new perspective, reduce stress and increase metacognition. A student’s well-developed metacognition can influence self-monitoring skills, which would build their scaffolding toward independent reading. Having the mindfulness skills of breathing, noticing thoughts, noticing feelings and letting them all go are coping mechanisms that will help a stressed student remain calm. When students are able to keep their feelings, thoughts and emotions in check they will be equipped with the tools that will help them develop further academically. These tools can also be carried into their everyday life to help them with their relationships, job performance and over all well-being.

The idea of reading and mindfulness can be interchangeable because mindfulness can help a reader and reading can help with mindfulness. Reading is actually a way of being mindful. In a world where we are motivated by sensations, literacy is a great alternative that can broaden our awareness in a positive way. When you read a good book, it traps you in its pages. You can become engaged with the characters, the scenes and the atmosphere. You can gain wisdom from the words that you read while leaving behind your own personal judgment and worries. You can gain an outside perspective that you never would have had by meeting characters in a story. You can also experience and connect with feelings and emotions through another’s words that can transform and enlighten you. Reading can take you to a place in your mind where you can self-examine your own acts and reactions.

Mindfulness is so important because our thoughts are the cause of our actions and interactions. Thinking permits us to make sense and interpret the world in ways that are significant to us. Reading can expand our mindset and allow us to experience life in new ways. By reading mindfully, we are opening a door in our mind that connects new information to our own personal experience and gaining a new outlook. This gives us the opportunity to admire, discover and see the broader picture. To have a complete awareness of reality you have to transcend from the personal and leave aside ambitions, fears and old perceptions in order to be able to perceive the truth in front of you. A book does can do this for us. Like a good book, life requires you to be aware of your sensations, thoughts and most importantly, aware of the present moment. Mindfulness can be applied to many other areas in our lives besides eating and improving literacy. It is up to the individual how they can best maximize mindfulness to help them reach their fullest potential. So be full, be light, and be mindful.

Jedly Paredes, originally from Puerto Rico, is studying Spanish at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is enrolled in the Dual Degree to get the education license to teach Spanish at secondary level. She likes to cook and enjoys swimming. She has a part time job at a tire shop, where she loves the contact with customers. She can be reached by email here.

Katelyn Twardzik is currently working as a Paraprofessional with the 2nd Grade team at Atlantis Charter School in Fall River. Her undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts from Bridgewater State University and she currently attends the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth where she is taking classes toward becoming an Elementary School teacher. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, music, yoga, and arts & crafts. She has a webpage where you may view some of her arts & crafts.