“A Powerful Discourse on Love”
During the Pages fall retreat, 15 educators and teaching artists gathered in a room with visual artist and scholar, Ann Hamilton, as she led us in a “choral reading” deconstructing Bell Hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.”
Hamilton worked with educators and artists to think about how we might creatively approach a challenging text with students. We thought about: What is the text trying to tell us? What do the words look, sound, feel like? How do we get inside of a text? Discover its architecture, its craft. Writing is a form of making. What can making teach us about literacy?
Hamilton discussed how she sometimes uses this deconstructing technique when she is introducing a dense or difficult text to undergraduate and graduate students. How peeling away some of the language reveals something new or different. How sparse, space, and distance, can create a surprising abundance of discovery and possibility.
“Choral reading” is often used in English Language Arts classes with early readers, but elements of this technique are surprisingly effective in older students and more experienced readers. This act of reading out loud in different voices in a round fashion reveals the “invisible architecture” of the essay. The writer, poet, and art critic, Barbara Guest talks about the interior structure of language in her essay, “Invisible Architecture.” In the essay, Guest talks about structure and language as it applies to poetry, but we can also think about this as it applies to prose. Sometimes students are pursuing ideas and meaning with such precision, that they often miss the actual writing, the crafted language used to construct those ideas and meanings.
We talk with students about how we become better writers when we read more, but in practice, the curriculum tends to push students into narrow ways of engaging with texts, often focusing on critical analysis, fact gathering, and comprehension, as the ultimate activities and outcomes when engaging with a text. While these skills are vital to literacy development, just as critical, is identifying the tools of language, and the practice of identifying how language is constructed, woven together into phrases, sentences, larger bodies of work. Learners become better writers when they understand the literary tools at their disposal. When they learn how language can be used to construct ideas and meaning. When they learn to play with words separate and together.
We should ask what is the language doing in a text? How is the language situated to be both concerned with ideas and with structure? How are sentences constructed so that they support the ideas and meaning of a text? Not to oversimplify, but these are all things we can entertain when teaching critical and creative thinking alongside almost any text: written, visual, multimedia, dance, and music/sound.
And then there is play. Here’s how the exercise works: Each person underlines a word or several words throughout the written text. This is done randomly, picking words, language, that stand out. Each person underlines for a minute or so. Then, in a circle, each person reads their word or phrase one-by-one, moving around the table, moving down the text. Readers drop off one-by-one as they run out of underlined words or phrases. If a reader runs out, they are skipped. The text is read through these words and phrases until there are no more words or phrases left.
There is a natural pacing, rhythm, emphasis, on certain words and phrases as each person reads. The ideas emerge. Collect as repetition and echo. The essay morphs into a new text as words and sounds round the table. As teachers and learners, we practiced listening to each other to experience that text on the page and out loud; to create something new, together, towards a deep reading of the text, revealing its meaning and making.
Listed below are a few phrases from the essay. Use them as a writing or creative prompt, or to spark discussion:
Without love we are doomed
Shaping the direction
Longing for change
We need an ethic of love
(How do we) Move against domination
The absence of public spaces (creates…)
Will not be able to create (if…)
An end of what we feel is hurting us (leads to…)
An ultimate reality (is…)
(What are our) blindspots
(We are) interlocking (and) interdependent (of)
Something valuable is lost (when…)
We desperately need an ethic of love
Our capacity to care
(An example of ) collective liberation (is…)
Love shaping (…)
Expand our concern (for…)
A love ethic makes this expansion possible
Supporting each other (looks like…)
Love is as love does
A revolution built on any other foundation will fail
The capacity to care