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From water to weather: teaching and learning in the wash

December 20, 2022 Fall 2022

Teaching & Learning As “PRIMITIVE HYPERTEXT” was a five week class in Fall 2022, taught by lead teacher Kameelah Janan Rasheed and myself, Meghna Dholakia, as an assistant teacher. The class was a gathering space for learners and teachers—roles often occupied by the same people—to reflect on how they approached both ways of being.

A class with “Teaching & Learning” in the title was always going to be meta. I can’t talk about the experience of the class without talking about Kameelah as a teacher and the learning environment she cultivated.

I think many of us have heard the quote from Bruce Lee: “Be like water” and, friends, that was what Kameelah was! What does it mean to teach like water? In my observation, it meant fluidity with current, meanders and direction, adaptation to the moment, to the classroom, to the person…

Most of us were raised within an educational framework of standardized testing. It’s a model in which a set of decided upon facts or selected skills must be transmitted from the textbook into the mind of the student vis a vis the teacher. Success for a teacher, or an education, under that standardized model is often “the percentage of facts ‘correctly’ regurgitated.”

I can say that Teaching & Learning was completely unstandardized. Kameelah provided us with a guiding framework, a notion of “primitive hypertext” from a conversation between Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler. We talked about how learning (and teaching) are relational acts, shaped by their environment and by their participants. We read Octavia Butler’s the Parable of the Sower and looked at Lauren Olamina’s growth from a precocious child into a prophet. We speculated on what lessons we, as teachers, might take from Earthseed.

With this rocky directionality, Kameelah then allowed each cohort of participants to choose the topics and discussions that felt most fruitful for them—for us. In one cohort, water and weather became a recurring theme. The fluidity of water allowed us to play with metaphor. We discussed the way in which learning might precipitate from a long ago experience that seemed to have evaporated, referencing the term “learning evaporation” coined by participant Galen Macdonald. We talked about the impossibility of capturing every single thought we had in class or reading every single link—instead allowing “the wash” of the class to go through us.

In the other cohort, we often returned to the Lucy Ives quote “publication as fiction” to ask ourselves what fictions we brought into the classroom; what roles we invented when talking about students and teachers.

The two cohorts culminated in two very different showcases. Tuesday’s cohort decided to create a hypertext of their own from all the references they shared and were struck by as an artifact of their time together.

Friday’s cohort decided to narrate a kind of cut-and-paste oral poem in which each participant shared a one sentence snippet from the class in sequence.

Each of these endings was perfect because each one was chosen by the student-participants in conversation with their teacher. Given my own educational background, I call that a radical act.

It is a radical act to give up power, to release control, to guide without steering, to, as Kameelah said, echoing Anne Boyer, teach in a way that your students will eventually forget you exist.

If we were able to have radical discussions about education and teaching in this class, it is largely because Kameelah created a radical space for those conversations and the participants accepted her invitation to play! I’m incredibly grateful for them all.

Things on my mind after class:

  • What is a successful education?
  • How can you practice adaptation?
  • What does it mean to be humble and confident?
  • How can you guide without leading?