June 18, 2012, 9:00 am-12:00 pm
Facilitator: Professor Doris Sommer, Harvard University
Rapporteur: Alison Hicks, University of Colorado, Boulder

What do you associate with the word clown? Perhaps it’s circus, buffoon, Auguste, Pierrot, traffic cop or a red nose. Wait, traffic cop? For Colombians, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. As mayor of Bogotá from 1995-1997, Antanas Mockus sacked the corrupt traffic police and replaced them with clowns in an attempt to use theatrical displays to “gain people’s attention and, then, to make them think.” Traffic fatalities dropped 50% and Mockus now serves as inspiration for Harvard University’s Cultural Agents project that aims to build society through the arts and humanities. PRE-texts is one of the associated Cultural Agent projects that focus on using the humanities as a tool for civic engagement. Run by Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University, the project provides workshops aimed at engaging even the most reluctant readers, as well as training for teachers and artists. The workshops draw on new and longstanding Latin American cultural traditions such as cartonera or cordel literature to “develop…avid and creative readers by using classic literature as an excuse for making art.”

25 SALALM participants signed up for the three hour workshop with Professor Sommer, eager to experience and engage with the techniques and process that combine textual analysis with bookmaking, drawing, performing and writing. Working from the premise that all literature is recycled (Borges himself remarked that a written text is one of 10,000 options), Professor Sommer facilitated a collaborative process to help us pull out elements of a text and rework them into new interpretations and creations. In this way, we started to understand how literature works, the first step in the process of really understanding and engaging with an author and an essential part of empowering student literacy.

The Workshop

The first task of the workshop was to create a book cover out of the various recycled craft materials on the tables. As participants set to work happily cutting, gluing, drawing and coloring, Professor Sommer called for a volunteer to read aloud, just as tobacco rollers paid for professional storytellers to read Marx to them while they worked. The passage chosen was a 500 word extract from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Chapter 1, “Holding a child by each hand…”). In true García Márquez style, the passage was fairly dense and full of allusions and metaphors, so another volunteer read the passage aloud again, a deliberate attempt by Sommer to try and channel the dramatic and engage participants as listeners before handing out a copy of the text to look at. We were then given five minutes to think of an aspect of the text that was puzzling, and share this as a question with the group. Very little about the text was left untouched as participants queried the various characters, melting Armenians and the cost of entry to the tent.

As we started to engage with the text, Professor Sommer was quick to highlight various instructional techniques too, allowing us to reflect on participating and facilitating at the same time. Thus, as the questions dried up, she reminded us that every student in the class had to join in fully with the activities. With an almost uncanny knack of working out who hadn’t spoken yet, she reminded us that skipping over a student’s contribution could imply that the facilitator either doesn’t care about the student or thinks they don’t matter. Faced with a classroom full of introverted librarians, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. After the activity, Professor Sommer asked us to reflect on what we had learned. Highlighting the pitfalls of asking students what they had learned (the answer is usually “nothing”), she framed the question by asking us what we had done.

In the second activity, we were asked to think of an answer to one of those questions and write it down on a piece of paper. These answers were then “published” on a clothes line at the back of the room, drawing on cordel literature traditions. Answers ranged from the monosyllabic to the literary, drawing on the text to continue the story while also allowing our imagination and creativity to stretch the author’s original boundaries. After reading each other’s contributions we were again asked what we had done in that activity; I definitely marveled at my colleagues’ ingenuity!

The next activity was performance: each group was asked to pick a literary metaphor from the text and act it out to the wider group. With younger children, Professor Sommer remarked that she asked children to act out a scene, but for older students, drama can help scaffold complicated allusions, thereby helping them “crack the code” that can cloud understanding. Various metaphors from the text were acted out with varying degrees of success, including the phrases “smoking pitch,” “giving testimony on the Holy Scriptures,” and “the chest gave off a glacial exhalation.” Some mimes were harder to guess than others, but Professor Sommer reminded us that the aim of the exercise was to engage more carefully with the text rather than getting to the right answer.

The last activity involved drawing. Sitting back to back with a partner we took turns describing and drawing a character before hanging our finished masterpieces in the “gallery.” A “curator” then facilitated a discussion of the characters we had drawn, focusing on our inspiration and imagination as we drew from and built on the text.

At the end of the workshop, participants gathered around one final time to discuss the overall workshop experience, and in particular how we could draw on this experience in our own contexts in the future. Several public librarians reflected on how they might use the techniques in literacy programs or with reluctant readers summer workshops. Key takeaways for academic librarians focused around classroom management and how to draw on these core concepts of critical pedagogy in instruction sessions. Participants also remarked about how the workshop gave them a newfound understanding of the importance of collecting cartonera literature.

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