Truth be told, there were two workshops in the final session at Teachers College that my wife wanted to attend. She named them both and had made up her mind as we started to look through the schedule for the location.
First though, a quick recap of how the day unfolded. A mass group of teachers—mostly women, which is important later—descended upon Columbia University to attend a day of literacy workshops for what was called The Reading and Writing Project. The morning started with a moving keynote speech by Jason Reynolds—who was unfortunately blocked from my view—at Riverside Church. We were set free to attend the the first session of our choosing. Reading through the itinerary my wife quickly zeroed in on Lucy Calkins. We walked way past her lecture hall to wrap back around and come in through some maze of doorways and stairwells. This was when I witnessed how the day was designed. Each of the four sessions was held in classrooms and halls throughout the college. Some where small, some where large, and some were huge though not quite Hollywood lecture hall large. Lucy had started a few minutes earlier though we were still let in. There was plenty of room in what I assumed later was one of the bigger halls of the college. We found seats and I began to draw and listen. At the end of the session my wife was deciding what was next as the room emptied out quickly. Obviously these other women (I was one of two men in the room) had done this before. We meandered back across the building and up three flights of stairs to find out that the next workshop we wanted to attend had just closed out. Time for lunch. There was no registration, no guide, yet the day seemed to run rather smoothly. We learned in a few minutes from one session to the next how this all worked, albeit at the expense of the session we wanted to attend. We had lunch in a great cafeteria (maybe I should enroll) and looked over the rest fo the day. I wasn’t really concerned save for making sure we got to where my wife wanted to. This was a beautiful day in Manhattan, the first in a very long time. The key in the packet we were given highlighted larger lecture spaces throughout the day. I knew wI could hide fun back if need be. We focused on that for the next session and after lunch made our way out before the current session ended. As the hallways filled up we entered the Everett Lounge for Arléne Casimir-Siar’s talk on diversity. Fast forward to the moment at hand and my wife names the two sessions. I ask her, as we are slowly gathering our stuff, if the other session is highlighted for large groups. By now I know that I may be asked to participate and if that happens in a small class setting it might be the focus of attention that no one wants to deal with. This is NYC, these are adept and adaptable teachers, two factors that make it safe to assume that the situation might make for wonderful dialogue if an artist/writer is in the room with literacy teachers, but non-the-less might also present a bump in the road to whatever the topic at hand was. (Random side note, one thing I do not miss about college is the course descriptions. You have to be in-the-know to know what the bloody hell is being talked about most times.) As she states the room name of her second choice, I look at her with a naughty glance. “We are in Everett Lounge aren’t we?” she asks. We laugh and lean back in our comfy chairs as the hall empties. To my right a lovely woman who we find out came down from Buffalo sits next to me. She mentions the comfy chairs, we relay the story of our extended stay and we all have a laugh. Already this is not laptop lady from the previous workshop. I subtly mention to my wife that maybe we would be better situated if we switched seats. Not that I didn’t want to have a discussion with Upstate lady, but she would be cold shouldered every time I turned away, or worse, left with an artist to discuss the finer details of literacy on a topic for which I didn’t even understand the title. We casually switch seats. As I set up to draw a larger gentleman loudly places a seat in the aisle right next to me. This is the moment I realize that I am in a sea of women and have seen only a few men the entire day, one of which was definitely a boyfriend although also possibly a teacher. I couldn’t reason this Aisle Man’s presence at first site. He wasn’t much for eye contact. If he was a teacher I had the likes of him decades ago and certainly didn’t find inspiration in his class. It is rather odd what I do for a living. In my personal life I give people the benefit of the doubt on a daily basis yet as a profession I was programmed to judge based on patterns. It is a fine line and hard to describe, but in reality it is often quite clear. I don’t assume beyond what a person presents to me, but I am typically pretty close when said material is put before me. I was in pattern finding mode. As I write with the hindsight of what I would witness over the following hour I can say that all assessments were correct, though I kept trying to poke the bear hoping that I was wrong, but he never bit. I realize this is a long intro for a post but as it s about literacy I’ll keep writing and you can keep reading if you choose.
Cornelius Minor entered the room like a rockstar and within minutes you knew why. We all need a mix of influence in our lives, to have our boundaries and beliefs challenged. So far that day I had not been let down as I already had a battery of new tools in the shed to analyze what I do. Some might get tossed aside quickly, some might be in the box for the journey—the point is that one should never be complacent. Cornelius started in with his talk on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and right away the room was buzzing. He took advantage of giving us quick breakout sessions with the partner next to us. One partner, no small groups. I watched most people turn to their buddy or find one quickly. Upstate and my wife were hitting it off. Aisle Man didn’t once acknowledge my attempts at making sure he wasn’t alone in the world, or at least the room. Not biting. OK, back to drawing. The first half was a series of topics and 30-90 second rapid fire talks with your partner. My wife and I had switched at the right moment between sessions. We could talk all the way home, but this workshop called for a stranger to push the boundaries with. She found her talking partner. I however just had a strange dude next to me. Why was he there? It wasn’t like he was relaxing in the comfy seat in the hall. He looked pained by the minute chair he found and placed in the way of others. Did he want me to offer him my cushy spot? Dude you gotta play it right to get these. The patterns were developing? I turned back to my drawing. I couldn’t draw him as he was about 3 feet away. That would be the thing that would wake the beast. Why did I care? I couldn’t remember what a pedagogue was even though my wife has defined it about 10 times, so I was still on the course description. Third breakout, one more glance, still not biting, though if I were an assuming man, by this point I would have to say he was feeling annoyed by my stare every time Cornelius lobbed the discussion back to us as he ran around the room, once doubling over to catch his breath. Cornelius was energetic and engaged, Aisle Man sat cross armed, even grunted once at one of the Culturally Relevant attitudes to take when dealing with students. The room buzzed and I finished some drawings while understanding just how culturally relevant one man can and can not be when he takes his position. I will never know why Aisle Man was there. He didn’t seem to make eye contact with anyone in the room nor get anything from the talk. Was this teachers community service for not inspiring your students? He didn’t walk away reformed. Was he really just the lost man in the crowd proving himself culturally irrelevant simply by being there?
Back at Riverside Church we found much better seats for the final keynote speaker, though unfortunately obscured from a view worthy of drawing again. The church is amazing—I was fortunate to have graduated from it many moons ago—but its vaulted interior was not in my line of sight. Taking this as a major hint, I embraced the closing session for what it was. Another high note for my wife, as Marc Brackett talked about Emotional Intelligence. Her school had worked with him and his group at Yale, so this brought the entire day full circle for her. To say he was moving would be an understatement. More tools for the journey. We did a little soul searching in our final moments and left feeling like we had a day well spent. We walked by Grants Tomb, got the car and swung back around to get some caffeine for the ride home. One last detour as I snuck in and grabbed a Häagen Dazs cone to celebrate a beautiful day in the city. Just because.—Dominick