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Walking Roads in Cambodia

This was written about events in 2003 (not sure of the exact date of publication anymore) for my old blog that no longer exists. I am going back to it again in the context of some work I am doing thinking about globalization, networks, and learning.


At the office I listened, with everyone else, to royalist radio – one of two semi-independent radio stations in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh broadcasting during the election. Amid the fast-paced Khmer-language chatter and the high-pitched chants of the royalist political party’s name, “Funcinpec! Funcinpec! Funcinpec!” and the classic Cambodian tunes of pre-war musicians, I heard the word “Kakada” over and over. Meanwhile Kakada, the co-director of the organization with which I volunteered three days a week, worked away on his laptop, seeming not to notice his name on the air. I sat in his small, closed office; the shades had been drawn and the air conditioner turned to maximum to fight the heat and humidity. Not sure if I had heard it correctly, I went back to editing the English text that I had been asked to work on.

It was the summer of 2003 and I was living with my partner Rich in Cambodia for three months. I had taken a leave of absence from my job at the National Writing Project and I found myself in a strange city, feeling equal parts enthusiasm, curiosity and dread. He had been hired to work there for an American non-governmental organization (NGO) supporting the election. I was there to learn and do … something.


It had been six years since Pol Pot died. The last Khmer Rouge soldiers had turned over their weapons, and Cambodia was awash with foreign aid workers, international aid, and corruption that soaked up most of the money before it could make a dent in the rising infant mortality rate.1 Most side streets in the city of two million remained unpaved, either obscured by rising plumes of red dust or covered with water-filled potholes after the daily summer rains. Children living on the streets begged and scavenged to support their families. Elderly people and war amputees begged too, through betel-nut-stained grins, in the tourist-rich parts of town.

But as a foreigner I could live quite comfortably. We rented an apartment twice the size of even a middle-class Cambodian house and much bigger than my home in Philadelphia. My savings allowed me not to have to work to pay rent or for meals, so I was free to spend my time as I chose. International restaurants allowed me a choice of food to eat and menus in English, while supermarkets were also available in town if I found myself craving something very non-Cambodian, like pasta and red sauce, or cheese.

I had expected it to be difficult, and it was. Poverty, the effects of globalization, war and colonialism and more war, were all right at the surface. And of course cultural and language barriers were a constant challenge. My job at home had kept me busy and engaged, but suddenly I was in Phnom Penh, without a job to keep me grounded. Just walking out of the house I found myself overwhelmed by the traffic, the sounds and smells, the heat, and the poverty. I had arrived with the intention to volunteer with a local organization, but once I got there I realized just how big a challenge it was going to be.

It took me about two weeks to begin to get my bearings. I needed something to force me out of house daily, and I needed to feel useful. My first move was to sign up for Khmer language lessons, and I bought a bicycle to get me to and from class each day. After class, I visited the local markets and walked around, just trying to differentiate between the vast array of food – butchered meat hanging from hooks on tiled stands, fish laid out on lotus leaves, freshly pressed tofu stacked in little towers next to plucked chickens, bins of unfamiliar herbs, vegetables, and all sorts of dried shrimp.

I learned to buy fruit from vendors when I first entered the market and to distribute that, rather than money, to the young children who begged for handouts. I began to read the English-language daily every morning to follow the news and keep up on the national elections. And I identified the best places in town to get a good iced coffee and a cheap vegetarian lunch. I was starting to acclimate.

Finally I decided it was time to volunteer. My skills are broad but not terribly specific – I have worked for a teacher network called the National Writing Project (NWP) for many years as the coordinator of technology programs. I primarily support teams of teachers using technology to support writing and literacy in their classrooms. I love my work in many ways, and the writing project has also become an intellectual and spiritual home where I find a great deal of joy working with activist teachers, techies, artists and writers. I have been committed to that work for years now, work that is fairly specific to the thirty-year old network that I support. So it was not immediately obvious what exactly I could offer to Cambodians in three months time. I began my search by just talking to people and visiting local organizations to see what I could find.


The international NGOs I visited didn’t have advertised opportunities for short-term volunteers, and I realized why. It takes a lot of energy for an organization to take on help, even free, at times. But one of them, the American Friends Service Committee, had a paragraph on its web site describing a community network project called Khmer Ahimsa. I knew the AFSC’s work and respected their approach towards community organizing, so I called them anyway, ad or no ad. When I called and inquired about Khmer Ahimsa, they immediately transferred me to office upstairs in the same building.

Khmer Ahimsa, meaning “Khmer Non-violence,” started as an organization called Local Communities Network (LCN), a project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) office in Phnom Penh. After completing a research project on community vulnerabilities and strategies for coping within several Cambodia communities in 2000,2 LCN/AFSC formed a pilot project to further engage with their findings. By 2002, eight staff members established themselves as an independent Cambodian-run NGO called Khmer Ahimsa. Their mission is to “work to empower individuals and communities to promote peace, reconciliation, democracy, human rights, equality and justice … [through] encouraging the development of nonviolent skill and conflict resolution capacities. …” Additionally, they write “Our approach is to work in harmony with the cultures, traditions and beliefs of the people without discrimination and to be responsive to the real needs and issues facing Cambodian society at this time in history.”

Khmer Ahimsa encourages community-level initiatives, such as building local institutions, developing community capacity for peaceful conflict resolution and collaborative non-violent action, and building coalitions and networks inside and outside of the communities. It does most of its work in a district called Sre Ambel, in Koh Kong province, two hours southwest of the capital city. Ahimsa has offices in Phnom Penh and in the town of Sre Ambel, with four staff members in each.


It was Thong Kakada who answered my telephone call. When I showed up the next morning at eight o’clock, the full staff of eight was already convened around the conference table. After a very collaborative interview process, facilitated by Kakada in both English and Khmer, the group decided by consensus to accept my offer to volunteer and then worked together to decide the priorities for my time with them. It was four men and four women, with two co-directors facilitating through group-decision making processes. I instantly recognized their processes and felt good about the place and the people and happily accepted a position in the Phnom Penh office three days a week in the afternoons.

Ahimsa asked me to edit their English documents and support their Internet use, and also to assist them with their network. After they learned that I worked for a “national network of teachers” they decided I might help them think through questions and challenges they faced as they tried to establish a viable network among other peace-building organizations, and peace-builders in Phnom Penh.

The most pressing question they had was “What exactly is a network?” We all struggled to define the term, which is often used interchangeably with words like “organization,” “alliance” and “working group,” and is used in the dictionary in relation to things like railroads, computers and spider webs. Mr. Bun Vanna, a member of the Khmer Ahimsa staff, asked me to describe what I knew of networks. I began to draw pictures to describe what I could not quite articulate. He would also draw in response as both of us used simple English and images to attempt to create a shared meaning of this elusive term. I was not quite satisfied with my answers, however, and sought to explore this question further.

My first attempt to figure out what “network” really meant outside the context of the NWP was to first learn as much as I could about Khmer Ahimsa and their experience. My very first meeting with Ahimsa, in fact, was to attend a People’s Voices for Peace meeting with Kakada and Vanna. Down a small but crowded dirt road at the office of a local youth organizing group, we took off our shoes and walked into a conference room with a large center table surrounded by people from different peace building groups from around the city.


Traditional greetings of “Chum Reap Suer” (“Peace be with you”) said with clasped hands went around the room until everyone settled in and a few organizing members began to co-facilitate the meeting. After I nervously introduced myself in Khmer, I sat down and paid attention as best I could as Vanna worked to translate in-between his turns facilitating. The idea of this network was to share “lessons learned” about the peace work the participants led as well as to begin a process that would build a more united voice among the various groups doing peace-work. The energy in the room was palpable and interest in the forming a network was high. Though it was only an initial meeting, the facilitators left pleased by the participation and reflected on how exactly to move forward.

I also read through a “peace networking study” done previously by a visiting AFSC member with several of the local organizations doing peace work in the area. It included many case studies and interviews that broadened my understanding of work in this area. It was a fairly comprehensive study of what worked and didn’t work in previous attempts to network organizations doing similar work, yet it didn’t provide answers to the deeper questions about networking for Khmer Ahimsa.

Most importantly, it turns out, I learned quite a bit about the work at Ahimsa by reading and helping to edit and translate their documentation about their work. Kakada wrote reports both in English and Khmer, and asked for my assistance with the English versions. I learned much about how they were already “networking” many of the people they worked with in various ways.

I hoped to learn more about how this worked during my short time left in Cambodia by visiting the site where they worked in Sre Ambel.


Koh Kong province is bordered by Thailand to the west and the Cardamom Mountains to the north. It is also an area that was once rich with resources, particularly timber, and it is on the trade route to Thailand. Until as late as 1996, it was a stronghold for some of the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas.

The road to Sre Ambel was built by the U.S. and used to transport supplies during the American war in Vietnam. After a slow start in the city that involved stops to prepare the truck, to see family at home and at the hospital, and to gather various things to bring to the monks in Sre Ambel, we headed west from the capital toward the southwestern beaches and port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. Several hours down the road, we arrived at an intersection where roadside stalls sold goods to weary travelers. I was aware too that this was the site where one evening in 1994, Khmer Rouge guerrillas captured four foreigners who were on the road too late. They were among the last recorded foreign victims of the guerrillas. We ate at a stand where I tried several local delicacies, including prahok (fermented fish paste) and sautéed forest ant with garlic, and then turned onto the deep-red dirt road leading toward Thailand.

The war and long-term presence of the Khmer Rouge in this area had left most communities very divided, Kakada told me. Individuals trusted only their families. Local institutions, such as the Buddhist pagodas, community meeting houses called “salabons,” and traditional schools had been destroyed during the war. Populations were left isolated. As stated in Ahimsa’s brochure, “Individual and community ability to cope with conflict and injustice was severely weakened … and communities had great difficulty working together to improve their situation.”

It was well after dark when I arrived with Vanna, Kakada and another colleague named Ms. Kham Kolap in Sre Ambel. They set me up in a guesthouse across the red, muddy and potholed street from the town’s only restaurant. In the morning I woke up and met my friends there for a delicious breakfast of seafood and noodles with fried bread.


So that I might better understand the communities that Khmer Ahimsa works with, several members of staff including my friend Kolap, generously offered to take me for a boat trip up the river to a small village named Cheuteal Plos. About 20 minutes upriver we docked. Nearby, some men were pulling nails out of the old boards from a wooden boat, I assumed with the intention of reusing them. We walked into the village towards the hillside where there was a small waterfall, passing a simple new school built by the community. A little further on was a house for the monks. Saffron robes were drying in the sun along clotheslines strung between two young trees. Beyond that, up the hill a bit more, was the new pagoda built by the community. A simple square wooden structure, it was decorated with traditional hangings of torn cloth of various patterns and centered by a shrine with various sculptures of the lord Buddha surrounded by offerings left by the locals.

There we ate the lunch that we had brought from town and spoke about the land and the work that people did here. The hillside was mostly covered by small trees and scrub, testimony to the massive logging in this area. Few animals run wild in the woods anymore, I was told, and fishing is now the main means of sustenance for the people here. As we sat and talked and did not talk, a butterfly landed over and over again on Kolap, causing her friends to laugh since her name actually means “rose” in Khmer. We sat at the pagoda taking in the day, and conversing about personal experiences with war, Kolap’s experience as a woman from a small village gaining an education and job in the city, and the work that other staff members engaged in through Ahimsa. I felt worlds away from Philadelphia, but strangely comfortable and at home.


Khmer Ahimsa began its work as an organization by gathering historical documentation of the role of important community centers in Cambodia villages, including the Buddhist monastery and the community salabons. Noting that under the 1991 Paris peace accords Buddhism is the state religion, the staff at Ahimsa wondered, “How much do the people understand the ways of Buddha?” For centuries, pagodas had been the center of community life in Cambodian villages. The community salabon had been a place, outside the pagodas, for the community to meet, learn and celebrate together. Monks and nuns themselves played roles as mediators, teachers, and peace builders. Ahimsa began to ask how the leaders of the reviving Buddhist community could understand and recapture their historical role.

They took these questions to the pagodas in the Sre Ambel area. In a report on their work, Kakada writes, “We talked with some monks about the idea of revitalizing the role of the Buddhist monk to support the community. The monks suggested that Khmer Ahimsa support their idea by creating an opportunity, once a month, for the monks and lay people to meet and to discuss their problems.”

Ahimsa organized transportation, provided snacks, and supported the conversations that had been identified as a need among the network. Meetings rotated between 15 pagodas in the area and issues were raised by the participants. While these meetings were initially facilitated by Ahimsa, a culture of sharing and networking grew quickly among the participants, and leaders emerged to take on the roles of facilitating, note-taking, planning and follow-up.3

At one of their meetings, Kakada told me, the monks were discussing their struggles with violence, both domestic and political, in their communities. Together they decided to support more peaceful means of resolving issues. The monks organized a peace march through their town, for all the pagodas. This peace march is now an annual event. For the 2003 national election, this same committee of monks organized all the pagodas in the area to assist in a peace-banner campaign to advocate and educate for non-violence and encourage people to not be afraid to vote.

Ahimsa also assisted this new network of monks to fulfill one of the historic roles of the Buddhist monastery, that of providing a place for Buddhist education in the community. Young monks throughout Cambodia were again learning the basic chanting and rituals, Kakada told me, but the tradition of learning to use Dhamma and Vinaya (founding tenets of Buddhist study) as “basics for peace building” had been essentially lost. The new network of monks and nuns from the pagodas formed a leadership structure, raised funds, set meeting times and identified priorities, and the result was a new center for teaching, the Mlop Prumvihear Thor Center (or Center for Morality Education) at Wat Angkor in Sre Ambel.

Ahimsa also worked with several of the villages to re-establish salabons to be run and maintained by a committee of local community members. Ahimsa provided the technical assistance to support the salabon’s creation and election of a local committee. The committee’s priorities and how the salabon itself was to be used were determined by the local people. Many salabon communities established rice banks, created funerary sub-committees, and created “pots and pans” committees to make sure there were enough needed materials for large community gatherings like weddings and funerals.

As with the monks, the most important form of assistance Ahimsa provides to these salabons is networking their committee members together, providing opportunities for members to meet and share experiences and challenges. And the challenges weren’t small. Property ownership records are scanty, and the authorities don’t necessarily respect squatters’ rights or ownership based on community memory. The salabons, as well as the homes and farms of local villagers, are at risk of losing their land at any moment to the whims of local officials. As the salabon committee members gained increasing amounts of community respect and support through their work, they also ran into issues of authority with local officials. Balancing these underlying pressures while also moving forward takes perseverance and a commitment to the work, which the network meetings supported.


During my visit to Koh Kong I was invited to a meeting of salabon committee members at the Mlop Prumvihear Thor Center. Inside, three committee members from each local salabon shared their work and local experiences with the larger group. Sitting in this room over the two days of the meeting, I was brought back to meetings I have at the writing project, although this time writing was replaced by meditation, oranges for snacks were replaced by pomegranates and lychee fruit, and the language was Khmer.

The issues too were different. In the face of violent outbreaks around difficult issues – many that involved life and death struggles – and in the context of a very weak rule of law in the country, non-violent methods of conflict resolution were taught and practiced, as well as personal meditative processes, such as one called “Peaceful Heart.” These shared tools allowed groups to find new ways to work with one another and reflect individually on their own role within struggles for peace and justice.

For instance, in one case, commercial fishing boats were fishing too close to the shoreline, destroying the nets of local fishermen. The fishermen were using non-violent techniques to negotiate with the commercial boat operators and establish shared by-laws. Other communities engaged in collaborative processes of writing local constitutions to establish basic rules to keep order within each village or larger town. While these were certainly not quite the same experiences that American teachers might engage each other about at a writing project meeting focused on writing and technology, the way that the Khmer Ahimsa and the salabon leaders shared case studies, asked each other questions, and communicated about challenges with their colleagues who share a similar practice, was the same.


Spending time with Khmer Ahimsa and seeing their work, I begin to articulate what I had previously struggled with about the organization that I worked for at home — that the most powerful aspect of the writing project’s network that I had come to learn over the years is that we bring together individuals within a shared practice (the teaching of writing) in local communities to share their tools, resources, questions and lessons learned. And therefore my reflection back to Ahimsa was simple: They were already doing sophisticated networking among their constituencies, and therefore should look towards these same practices to help them think about making a network for themselves as practitioners within their field of practice of community organizers and peace-workers.

Kakada understood that. During a break in the meeting, after the various groups from the different salabons had shared their work and their challenges, he said to me “This is what you were talking about, right?” It was.

I left Sre Ambel on a Sunday, leaving the staff of Ahimsa to another full day of networking with the salabon committee members. I was due to leave Cambodia within the week. After a lovely ceremony where the staff said goodbye and thank you, and many tears were shed on my part, I set off to grab a shared taxi back to the city. Back out to the main intersection where we had turned off to Sre Ambel just days ago, I waited out of the rain with Vanna at a small wooden stand where an elderly man sold cigarettes, gum and fresh coconuts to drink from. The shared van came flying along with the attendant holding his head out the window to indicate that there was space for more customers. I hopped on and we drove off. I was both sad to go and also a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the seatbelted space I had been fortunate to obtain.


Over three months I learned more about Buddhism, continued to reflect further on non-violence as a means of life, learned to shop comfortably in the local markets, and get myself around Phnom Penh on my bike. And I also learned quite a bit of Khmer – it turned out that all that time the radio repeated “Kakada” they were talking about July, the month that the 3rd national parliamentary election was being held.

I departed Cambodia with sadness about leaving but with many of my own lessons learned. Lessons about about healing and networking, about the potential of community-led vision, about the need for local voices within struggles for local and well as international justice. Lessons that I think about each day, listening to the news from Iraq, and watching local politics close up in my own city.

It was exciting to me to end up on the other side of the world, and to watch people engage in similar work in different contexts. The importance of examples that slow, deliberate, practitioner-centered and community based cannot be underestimated. The power of that focus and that pace takes me back to a poet’s line quoted by Paulo Freire “…that we make the road by walking.” And the road that the writing project has made over its thirty years shows that walking itself can create indeed create paths of knowledge and change within a community.

I wish Khmer Ahimsa the best of luck – “som jup samnang la-or” – in the forging of their own path and encourage them to keep walking in the direction they know best.


1. UNDP Report, 2003
2. American Friends Service Committee (2000) The Socio-Cultural Vulnerability and Coping Strategies (SCVCS) Research Project, Phnom Penh, April.
3. From a report to funders written by THONG Kakada.

Additional Resources

Election Bait for Koh Kong Fisheries, Phnom Penh Post, July 2003.

AFSC resources, Cambodia

Khmer Ahimsa

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(Previous last update 01-20-06 at

I want to share something

In August of 2012, after 20 years of working in the field of education, I decided to take the GRE. It was a decision I made despite the fact that the GRE is against everything that I believe about education and learning. Because of this it pained me to pay ETS and to buy into the system in this way, literally. For a variety of reasons though I thought it could be useful to take and, in truth, I was curious. With standardized testing such the rage in education right now, I was wondering how I would do on one of these tests after 20 years as a professional in the field, as a moderately successful student before that, and a person who stays fairly current, is reasonably well-read and writes online frequently.

Well, I failed. Badly.

“Did I study?” my friends asked. Yes, I did study. I knew that my math skills, which were reasonably good in high school, were very very rusty having done little beyond the basics now for a couple decades. And it turned out it was kind of fun too – remembering how to solve problems, figure out the length of sides and degree of angles, solving for %s. In some cases helpful too. I also worked on vocabulary – downloaded apps that I would play with in those in-between moments, take practice tests, etc.

“Maybe it’s because you have such a bad attitude about the GRE” they would then conjecture. Sure, I’m positive that was a factor. Having everything I viscerally believed about standardized testing confirmed by Nicholas Lehmann back in the 90s, I have never looked back. I’m sure that somewhere in the back of my mind there are elements of resistance kicking that got in the way. Even so, on top of practicing for months, I even took a full week of my vacation to focus. Though I am a critic, I wasn’t trying to fail. In fact, I was trying to succeed!


So … maybe you know this if you’ve taken this test anytime in recent history. But first you get to the study center and they ask you to leave everything behind in lockers – nothing can come with you. No watches, calculators, etc. let alone smart phones, etc. Then because you arrived early, you wait. Anxiously. I saw people – most much younger than me – in the waiting room literally still studying, cramming, before they go in. Some were actually sweating and most tap their feet or fingers or some parts of themselves with nervousness.

This was not a happy environment. And the walls were painted that mental hospital green, I suppose to keep us feeling calm. But, at least for me, it just cast a sickly gloom on top of everything else around me. No one smiled. This was not a place to be smiley.

Finally it was my turn. I enter the test center main doorway after signing some sort of agreement (I don’t remember what I signed … a promise to not disclose, I believe), was wanded by security, and pointed to my cube. I got one pencil, one scrap of paper and an old computer (monochrome screen, flat keyboard). Oh, and optional headphones that I suppose could have used to block out any additional noise since there was clearly no music around to tap into.

I truly felt like I had entered a dystopic novel.

Finally I start to take the test. All that fun I had solving math problems was very helpful and calmed me down right away … I know how to do this one, and this one … and I started to go through them at a steady consistent pace. I didn’t linger too long if I was stuck, planning to come back to those I found harder, I double-checked my answers in quick ways I learned, I got the easier ones out of the way.

I was barely half-way done when the timer timed out.

Next up verbal and quantitative reasoning. This part was generally fine and I even had time to go back and review. Wheew. But then, the Analytical Writing section was next. This section is meant to measure “your ability to articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively; support ideas with relevant reasons and examples; examine claims and accompanying evidence; sustain a well-focused, coherent discussion; control the elements of standard written English.” This is the part graded by both one “one trained reader, using a six-point holistic scale” and “reviewed by e-rater, a computerized program developed by ETS, which is used to monitor the human reader.

I was asked to write to an “issue task” prompt first with an essay in response to the prompt. I had 20 minutes. The prompt was, in my mind, a complicated philosophical question and the tool I was using was a crude word processing program.

I barely got my thoughts together by the time the 20 minutes had ended.

By this time I was shaken – I’d timed out on 2 of the 3 sections. The next ones went almost the same way, with me not able to complete the math on time, finishing the reasoning part but unable to complete a decent essay in 20 minutes. I probably got a little further on the math second time around and I did at least complete an essay this time – the “argument task” prompt was, to me, more straight forward – but my answer was truthfully fairly idiotic, IMHO. I was really just trying to get something finished and didn’t really care what I had to say to do so.

So no need for me to share my actual score – you can probably guess how this turned out in the end. I walked away a bit upset but ultimately had to have a sense of humor about the whole thing mostly because it wasn’t a high stakes situation for me (I did not send my score anywhere!). But, as a person in that room among all the others, I knew my low-stakes situation was privileged. For most of them, this was a really big deal. Although, as ETS will let you know, you can choose to cancel your scores after taking the test and “canceled scores are not added to your permanent record.” However, “If you wish to take the test again, you must reregister and submit another test payment.” (Which, I believe at the time I took it, cost $120.)

Oy. Besides all of this, I really did try to notice what this test did test in me, besides the ability to take the test in the allotted time with the allotted tools in the allotted conditions that they provided. And as generally self-reflective person, I have failed to come up with anything more than that. What I know now is that I am a poor “Computer-based GRE® revised General Test” taker. I’m not sure that there is anything else to know.

All this to say that I remain very disturbed by what standardized testing experience means on the greater scale. I am very disturbed when I watch Frontline’s replay of the Michelle Rhee story in DC that standardized test-scores were, and remain, a prevailing factor in assessing success for youth as well as for teachers and administrators. In Philadelphia where you read about the same kind of testing scandal taking place that you saw in DC, you don’t have to dig far to see that there are actually thousands of examples of this across the country. And I am disturbed by sanctions Seattle teachers face for boycotting tests that they believe, as professionals in their field, are inherently flawed and don’t show student learning**.

As Yong Zhou wrote after scandals were reported in Atlanta, “[This] should serve as a wake-up call to proponents of test-driven reform policies: it’s time to abandon high stakes testing in our schools. Decades of high-stakes testing has not brought improvement but has corrupted our schools. The cost is too high.”

On the post-secondary level too, what we know is that the GRE is an artifact of a school of thought that chose to make higher education a meritocracy yet so many of them continue to require it even today*.

With roots in intelligence testing that go back generations, the mental measurement establishment continues to define merit largely in terms of potential ability rather than actual performance. The case against standardized mental testing is as intellectually and ethically rigorous as any argument about social policy in the past twenty years. And yet such testing continues to dominate the education system, carving further inroads into the employment arena as well, having been bolstered in recent years by a conservative backlash advocating advancement by “merit.”

Like a drug addict who knows he should quit, America is hooked. We are a nation of standardized-testing junkies.

Meritocracy’s Crooked Yardstick,, August 21, 2007

I do not believe in meritocracy in education – for youth or adults. I believe learning should be a democracy and in fact, institutions of learning should be our most democratic space for both practice and for social renewal.

(*Note: I chose to come to Arcadia University for my masters’ degree in Education because, at least in this school, they do not require the GRE for admission. I applaud them for making this decision. See’s list of 4-year colleges and universities with test optional admission policies.)

(**Second note added a bit later because so important: Scrap the MAP! Solidarity with Seattle teachers boycotting the MAP test)

"two sides of the same sheet of paper"

Idea leuconoe (Rice-paper Butterfly) - Captive

Ignorance and learning and like two sides of the same sheet of paper (Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 57)

Influenced by reading Elizabeth Ellsworth’s Teaching Positions and William Pinar’s What is Curriculum Theory?, as well as my continued exploration of the Youth Voices forum, I am choosing to wrap this blog post around my personal experience and autobiography as a learner. Of course, no one blog post can contain my entire story so approaching this post in this way assures that I’ll need to return to this idea in subsequent writings, which I believe Ellsworth, Pinar and the Youth Voices team would argue, is productive.

Elizabeth Ellsworth, as a person with a background in film studies who becomes a teacher of media theory, applies a notion of “modes of address” to the situation of her own teaching in her book Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy and the Power of Address published in 1997. She turns to others who have similarly looked to fields outside of education, including psychoanalysis, literature, film theory, and performance, to better understand the paradoxes of teaching.

My own experience as a learner, a colleague of educators at the NWP, a person interested in the visual arts and performance, and probably most importantly for this post, my experience as a patient in a psychoanalytic tradition (modern psychoanalysis, to be specific) for much of my adult life, draws me to her writing and her core questions about teaching and learning. 

I was in my early twenties, about to graduate from college, when I first sought out a mental health care for myself. Many years before that, as a teenager in the throes of a volatile family divorce, my sisters and I were brought to a mental health practitioner in this same modern psychoanalytic tradition. This “intervention” lasted only briefly, however, because of a lack of agreement on whether or not it was actually useful. Many years later though, as I worked my way through college I realized that I was seriously struggling – struggling with the big essential questions of right and wrong as many do at that age … but also a constant inner dark struggle that I found difficult to name yet impossible to escape.

“Curricula and pedagogies, like films, are for someone” Ellsworth writes. (58)  As a teacher considering her own “modes of address” within her curricula and pedagogy, she looks at “.. the impossibility of perfect fits between what a teacher or curriculum intends and what a student gets; what an educational institution desires and what a student body delivers; what a teacher “knows” and what she teaches; what dialogue invites and what arrives unbidden.” (52)

It is this part of what is invited as well as what “arrives unbidden” that is the most fascinating to me. I believe this is partially due to the fact that I have always, as a learner, been keenly aware of what I am focused on intellectually and what, at the same time, I am feeling emotionally and the kinds of ideas, questions, sensations that intersect with my reading and writing along the way, whether in an formal educational environment or otherwise. This has always made it hard for me to follow paths (ie. curriculum) inscribed by others; while at the same time allowing me to connect ideas together that might otherwise not be connected. It was through psychoanalysis, in fact, where I learned to apply a therapeutic and creative lens to this way of mental/emotional processing, and that supported me in realizing how both relatively normal this way of thinking is and also how it could be a useful way of “reading/writing my world” (Freire) if honed and used correctly.

“Teaching is not psychoanalysis” however, writes Ellsworth. Instead she focuses on the ways that psychoanalysis can inform teaching. This is because, she writes, “consciously or unconsciously, teachers deal nevertheless in repression, denial, ignore-ance, resistance, fear, and desire whenever we teach.” (70)

In exploring what teachers can learn from psychoanalysis, Ellsworth shares more about the practice itself, beginning with the fact that analysts are themselves engaged as both doctors and patients, ie. “part of the training of psychoanalysts is that they themselves be psychoanalyzed”

this is because, like literary critics, psychoanalysts cannot be taught how or what to interpret. They can only cultivate a familiarity and awareness of the undecidability of readings – and how texts manage to defer any final reading. (70-71)

What follows then in this first section of Teaching Positions are her imagining what this could look like in a teacher education program – how those learning to teach, instead of simply learning the meaning of a particular author’s text could instead be encouraged to pay attention to their own thinking and emotional processes, when engaging with the text. This would be a means of beginning to understand better the different ways that dialogue is both invited as well as “arrives unbidden” in any dialogic situation.

She quotes Bollas (1995) and writes that analysts “must cultivate a ‘third ear’ that ‘listens to the latent contents concealed in the manifest text’ that the client speaks” (71), and then similarly, in imagining teacher education programs where pre-service students might, for example, interrogate a text, suggests that a similar approach to reading – ie. through paying attention to their own thinking and emotional processes – could support teachers in “reading as educators.” (italics hers, 73)

In Pinar’s What is Curriculum Theory? (2004) he also focuses in on a quote by Ellsworth in this same section:

What happens to my own processes of thinking, my own symbolic constellation when I read this author’s words? Where, as I read this author, do I get stuck, do I forget, do I resist? Where, when I listen to a classmate’s response to this reading, does my own project … get shifted, troubled, unsettled – why there? (73)

Pinar writes that the “focus here is on teaching as a structure of address; it is implicitly, on curriculum as a verb.” (199) This idea of curriculum as a verb supports Pinar’s notion of “currere” as “strategy for students of curriculum to study the relations between academic knowledge and life history in the interests of self-understanding and social reconstruction.” (35) In this framework, curriculum is shifted from a set of objectives to be followed and instead makes it a “complicated conversation with oneself … in which one becomes mobilized for engaged … action… as a private-and-public intellectual … with others in the social reconstruction of the public sphere.” (37)

Curriculum theory asks you, as a perspective or practicing teacher, to consider your position as engaged with yourself and your students and your colleagues in the construction of a public sphere … so conceived, the classroom simultaneously becomes a civic square and a room of one’s own. (37-38)

In the context of curriculum theory too, Ellsworth writes that attending to impossibility of teaching, the gaps in meaning-making and the modes of address help us to “exceed the hidden curriculum.” She writes that it is no longer “ … about the unacknowledged ideology of the curriculum which can be brought to light and decided through analysis.”  (52) But that it is instead the multiple stories and the gaps between the stories, where questions emerge and new meaning can be made – meaning that is not determinable from the outset. Social justice and change is therefore “performative” and situated as is the teaching and learning surrounding it.

It is now, as an adult working with educators, that I see this kind of performative and situated work in Youth Voices, the online social networking platform for youth developed by a group of writing project colleagues. It’s not really a surprise, I am coming to realize, that I am drawn to this work, which seems to me to be attempting to find ways to integrate the personal and the worldy, the intellectual and the emotional, the learner and the teacher, “the world and the word.“ (I will explore these connections in subsequent posts.)

My reading path, through Ellsworth, Pinar, and also as I start to read the work of many within Youth Voices, is peppered with my own feelings, reflections, reactions, rejections, assumptions, along the way. This blog post is only a thin layer of that, which even as I work to conclude, I’m slightly uncomfortable not to go back and “clean up” (ie. remove the more personal content and connections about me). It is important to keep these in here though, I decided … while also important that I continue to go more deeply with these connections that I have surfaced.  In this way I am attempting, I believe, to embrace Ellsworth’s call to “read as an educator,” exploring currere a la Pinar, and “detoxing” a la Youth Voices in the spirit of my own self-directed learning. 

It is this resistance to the banalities of normalization that makes agency possible. (Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 44)

Any feedback? Personal statement for graduate school app.

Describe yourself, including perceptions of your strengths and weaknesses.

Over the past two decades, and full-time for the last twelve years, I have worked with the National Writing Project, a peer-based professional network of teachers across grade levels (K-16) and across disciplines with a focus on writing and literacy learning. My particular focus has been an interest in the way that digital media and networked learning environments are changing the way we think about literacy learning and teaching. I now direct our Digital Is project funded by the MacArthur Foundations Digital Media and Learning Initiative. 

I think the path I have taken shows a bit about myself and highlights what I think are some of the strengths of my learning style and approach.

My introduction to the writing project began in the early 90s after I had completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and was living and working in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. I was taking graduate classes in painting at the time and looking for a position that would support my interests in the arts, education and community-based change. The Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP), based at UPenn, was the place where I found a job and ultimately a home. PhilWP teachers take an inquiry approach to their practice, supporting themselves and their colleagues in being creative and innovative thinkers and leaders, even within what are often traditional banking structures of education. It is a networked professional community of practice and it was here that I found a place that fit my beliefs as well as inspired me to dig more deeply into my own questions about teaching and learning.

Around this same time, the Internet was becoming more widely available, and inspired by PhilWP and the larger national network, I was able to take a collaborative inquiry approach to what could be learn from and with this new forum. These questions and collaborations immediately opened interesting paths, and eventually a career, that now combines my interests and passions in arts, pedagogy and networked communities.

This path has brought me to now be fully embedded within a dialogue about what is being called connected learning a set of learning and design principals described by the MacArthur Foundation through their Digital Media and Learning work and research. These principles, and the core values behind them, have deep ties to work and learning from constructivist and progressive education. Connecting these worlds is a large part of what I help to do in my writing project work today, including program direction, design, and the creation of online environments for sharing dialogue and inquiry such as the NWP Digital Is website. 

As a member of a peer-based network, I dont teach as much as I organize and facilitate and I am always a learner. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found such a dynamic space and community that has supported my own growth and development while allowing me to contribute to the learning of the larger field. It is also this space from which I have formed a vision of what is possible in education and across learning environments in general.

Another component of my vision of learning has been developed through my interest in the arts and social justice and a connection to a small Philadelphia-based non-profit called Spiral Q Puppet Theater. Spiral Q supports peer-based cross-generational, creative and interest driven social justice work within communities (whether they be schools, neighborhoods, support groups, activist groups, etc.). In many ways, Spiral Q is a unique and exciting example of what is possible when considering the principles of connected learning. My work and experience there has also been a path created through inquiry and interest one that began when I was a community volunteer who helped establish the annual Peoplehood parade and pageant. Over time, I supported resource development around educational initiatives at the Q, co-facilitated some of that work, and eventually became a member of the board of directors. I was co-chair and chair for five years and completed my eight-year tenure this past May. Having now stepped down from my board role, I look to integrate this work and thinking into a larger investigation of teaching and learning connected to community-based practice.

[edits based on feedback, added 07/22] I believe the path I have taken also demonstrates why, only now, I have returned to formal education. And my meandering path, while fruitful, has meant that I have no formal degrees in education. In terms of weaknesses and items to further work on, I also know that focus can sometimes be a struggle – and the more that the webs of life (and the Internet!) weave their beautiful patterns the more that I can find myself wandering.

Explain your reasons for wanting to pursue your particular program. Include your career goals.

I am deeply curious about the ways that we all learn and change as individuals and within communities. Within in the rainbow of possibilities those curiosities offer, I find pedagogical pathways to be most interesting. Curriculum studies, in particular, feels to me to be an opportunity to bring together the different stands of my work and interests and I appreciate the focus on inquiry into learning and teaching that curriculum study embraces.

My career goals are similar to what I am working on today while opening up additional teaching and research possibilities. I seek to enhance my ability to communicate my ideas, focus my inquiries, and increase the tools available for me to do this work.

I am therefore applying to your Masters in Education program with a focus on curriculum studies as an opportunity to work creatively within a more formal structure of graduate education. I seek to formally matriculate as a part-time graduate student in the fall 2012 with the goal of completely a formal course of study by December 2013.

Thank you for considering my application.

Some 20x20 thinking about the metaphor of the “rhizome” in learning …

Originally composed as a Pecha Kucha presentation, Spring 2012 for Curriculum Theory, Policy and Change at Arcadia University. Inspired by all mentioned … plus Dr. Peter Appelbaum, Christopher Loeffler and Maxfield Arnosky. Thanks all ya’ll!

Some 20x20 thinking about the metaphor of the “rhizome” in learning

Some thinking about the metaphor of the “rhizome” in learning

“Rhizomic learning theory” caught my attention this past fall when Dave Cormier started a robust dialogue about these ideas during a MOOC I somewhat follow called #change11. I decided to “dig” into it (pun intended) as part of a course on Curriculum Theory, Policy and Change that I am taking this semester.

Dave Cormier is a blogger and educator in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and published an article in Innovate—Journal of Online Education called “Rhizomic Education: Community as Curriculum” (2008).

Rhizomic learning theory is based on the metaphor of rhizomes found in the writing of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus:

"… A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic in other respects altogether: the question is whether plant life in its specificity is not entirely rhizomatic. …"

A core idea of Deleuze’s rhizomic philosophy suggests that there is no fixed knowledge only new knowledge that emerges from acts of creation.

Therefore in regards to curriculum, Dave writes,

"In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process."

Other educators have been thinking about this metaphor as a way to think about learning. Mary Ann Reilly, a blogger and educator working in New Jersey, considers rhizomic theory in the context of teacher professional learning.

"I suggest that implementation of [professional development] programs as a substitution for professional learning undermines teachers’ agency; obscures our capacity to recognize anomalous situations, and diminishes thinking and learning. As a counter model to development, I describe professional learning as rhizomatic, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s (1987) metaphor for horizontal thinking that is nonhierarchical, and advocate for locally determined professional learning."

In a blog post about her work at the InnovationLab in Colorado where rhizomic learning is a key theory of action in the design and implementation of curriculum, titled “Wanted (And Needed): ‘Radical’ Collaborations” Monika Hardy writes,

“One of our immediate goals is to affect the research/researchers/stakeholders enough to break down the walls of tradition and remove major roadblocks to these spaces of learning/permissions, particularly in the mind, such as standardized testing and set curriculum. And to do it in a way that is useful.”

I believe that I see and experience different aspects of rhizomic learning by participating with teachers and learners – particularly those taking an inquiry stance towards their work and learning – both online and within networks (see also a previous short study I did on teachers leading in online public spaces). Dave Cormier has suggested that the rhizomic metaphor is a useful way to think about the ways we can learn learning and connecting in online networked environments given his experience with #change11 and also EdTechtalk.

Here are a few forums online that strike me as fairly dynamic centers of activity with potential for highly rhizomic connections:

Would love to learn more about your rhizomic connections too!

See also …

 … it just makes my brain feel right. Want to join me?