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Activity Ideas for Riverside

sara.gladwin's picture


sara.gladwin's picture

Mapping Memory in the City of Philadelphia

I am continually fascinated by the way that thoughts grow and resurface into fully-fledged ideas. I find that often, my thoughts begin not in words, but as a feeling, a small reactionary twinge in my gut. I’ve learned to listen to these reactions, to remember them even if I don’t always immediately understand them. Sometimes it will be months, or even years, before I can articulate what they mean or see the direction that an idea might grow into. In this case, the idea that I am currently contemplating first wedged itself in my brain several months ago, while we were reading the Twelve Tribes of Hattie at Riverside. The “twinge” I felt then was in reaction to our choice to read a text that took place in Philadelphia. I remember feeling that this was somehow important; that this connection formed by a shared sense of place between a historical fiction and a current day prison in Philadelphia could be useful to us in planning lessons. Not knowing quite yet how to grow this observation further, I simply stored it in the back of my mind, knowing the right time would come along. This past week, I was speaking with a close friend about her work with a professor in cataloguing the architectural history of Rittenhouse Square. As she was describing the work, I began to see the outline of a course that focused on mapping individual and collective memory in the city of Philadelphia through literature, personal writing, and history. I felt the same twinge that had been sparked by the Twelve Tribes of Hattie; I suddenly knew why I found it so important to store away that feeling. Thinking as I write now, I realize that my interest in the relationship between memory and place has existed for even longer than my recognition that this relationship could be beneficial to our Riverside group. My first or second paper for Jody this past semester ("just look for the cow mailbox") contemplates this explicitly, “…my strong value in the connective potential that place can hold draws me in to these conversations, allows me to explore the ways in which place becomes infused with memory, and memory allows the present reality to reach into the past. These questions…show me how important it is develop a sense of place that goes beyond what you physically see in the present light. It is…a means of becoming more connected...”


I found myself planning this class curriculum as though it was a 360 with three courses. The courses I had envisioned would be an English Course, an Architecture and/or Cities course, and possibly a Sociology course. Studying the city and its buildings can hopefully lead us into conversations about socioeconomic status, class, and race. The history of Philly’s architectural shifts could show us who lives where, and why. In her lecture this past semester, Dorceta Taylor pointed to many instances in city building and planning that highlight poorer communities that are taken advantage of; we could also use research like this to look at issues of poverty and race in the city that might be relevant to our students. Another thought I had was that this could also turn our focus back on prison itself; through studying prison architecture, the placement of prisons within cities, and contemplating why some schools might look like prisons.



Studying Philadelphia through these lenses could open students up to writing their own personal histories with the city and their environment. Additionally, focusing on place itself could be useful in developing the descriptive quality of student’s writing. Using visuals of buildings and studying architecture could teach observational skills that I find can make writing come alive. I envisioned doing activities such as picture writing prompts, where student are given a picture and asked to write a story or response invoked by the image. I think learning to communicate through description in this way could be particularly beneficial to students that we have worked with at Riverside.  We could read a variety of texts, both fiction and non-fiction, starting with early writings and working our way through time to present works of writing. Several years ago I took a community college course in early American literature. We read many historical accounts that detailed the founding of the United States. Initially, I assumed I would be bored by this, but ultimately found myself fascinated by what these accounts revealed; they outlined the beginnings of our collective perception of what it meant to have an American identity. I found that these influential writers were starting to shape our cultural understanding and meaning of words like “independence,” “individual,” and “self-made.” Starting with works like these could set up our group to trace cultural perceptions through time to better understand how strongly we are affected by history and memory. I found an interesting site called Philly Fiction that publishes collections of stories that all take place in present day Philadelphia. I immediately thought of using something like this for reading material as well, because not only do the stories center around Philly but they provide us with writing outside the more conventional texts we might use (in reference to our continual debate about using texts such as The Color Purple, out of concern that it is over-used).


I have much more to say about all this, but I’m losing steam so I am going to bullet point some final thoughts with the intention of returning to them:


*Thought that studying Philly bring our students at Riverside outside the Prison

*Black Girl White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates might a text we could use… I’ve never read it but I know it takes place at a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philly during 70s (supposedly it’s similar to Bryn Mawr)

*Architecture also inevitably leads us back to walls….

sara.gladwin's picture

Getting Us To Think Long-Term

I’ve been thinking since last night about the word “magical.” Anne used this word to describe the kind of writing we might do if we focus more on creative and fictional writing. I’m intrigued by this word for several reasons. The first reason is because I am surprised that I am instinctively drawn to the word at all; given my recent association with “Magic Ladders.” My second reason is that I am drawn to the shiny, ‘unreal’ quality of the word; which reminds me of possibilities; the unexamined and infinite capabilities in humans that lie dormant, but can be illuminated by thinking and writing creatively. I also believe the use of this word is complicated; to say something is “magical” can also be dismissive; implying that something appeared at random, as though within a vacuum, with no context or connection to lived experience. I want to seek a definition of magical beyond this; a definition that perceives magic as the “stuff” within, around, and spilling outward from the soul, forming the connective tissue that can create community through the walls. The quote that keeps coming to mind is written by Ursula K. Le Guin in her very brief introduction to Vaster than Empires, and More Slow. She writes, “Obviously my interest is in what goes on inside. Inner space and all that. We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.” I am looking for the magic that will never allow us to be alone in the forest, even as we are lost.


This all led me to thinking…

What if we developed a course for next semester at Riverside that played with the dynamics between ‘the real’ and ‘magical’? We could explore creative and autobiographical ways of writing, as well as selecting a group of texts that vary between fiction and memoir. Playing with the uses of both could set us up to interrogate the conventional boundary lines that separate reality and imagination, to question what we think we know, and to seek understandings of the world that delight in complexity and nuance. What is magical writing and reading, and what role could it play in our lives? We could then also use this as a gateway to initiating conversation on examining literary form itself, in the acts of both reading and writing, and considering the role that structure/genre plays in relaying meaning. Some (but not even close to all) potential relevant questions might be: In what ways do fiction and memoir differ or overlap? Why would you choose one over the other? What might the insistence on the difference between these two forms of writing reflect about how we think? What might it reflect about our conceptions of literature? How is the author representing themselves, or their characters? What literary devices contribute to this representation? In terms of writing, we could begin asking questions such as; how do we choose to represent ourselves? Can we represent ourselves/our identities through fiction and creative writing; something that isn’t ‘real’? This also leaves room for dialogue about agency; and how a person can control the representation of their life through writing even if they cannot always control what they experience.


I came up with a couple examples of books, although I believe the actual books are less important than the reasons I am considering them. With each book, I tried to include a description of why it might be a good selection, questions it might raise, other texts that might supplement our understanding, potential prompts, and literary terms that can be approached through the reading.


A Million Little Pieces- James Frey

I think this book would be interesting in light of the topic because the author had originally lied by publishing the book as a memoir, and it came out later that the entire book was a lie…. Leads to questions like, is it no longer a text worth reading? Is it still true if the circumstances in the book are someone else’s truth? I talk more about this in an older serendip post found here: some ideas about the wreck and rich's notes


We could also read selections from Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, which I reference in the post I’ve linked above… could be useful for facilitating discussion on lying and truth.


A prompt that might work with this reading is asking students to creatively write a version of the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” In the game, each person comes up with three stories, two of which are true and one of which is the lie. The rest of the group has to determine which story is the lie. The writing version would be to write three separate stories, two true, and one lie, and attempt to make the lie indistinguishable from the true stories. We could also ask them to be as descriptive as possible, using the “show-not-tell” sort of mentality that is often used when teaching story-writing. It would be an interesting follow up lesson if we could have students read these out loud and have the rest of the group work in groups to figure out which story is a lie, and what clues in the author’s writing might indicate the story is not true… again keeping in mind/returning to discussions about the fuzzy lines between reality and imagination.


A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown

This book seemed to be well liked the last time we read it, and I think it would be a good choice of a memoir, especially as a way to examine the shifts in usage of literary devices when the genre changes. Brown’s memoir reads like a novel at many points, which could be an opportunity to question the “reliability” of memoir and memory (Who remembers details that exact anyway? Also there are portions when she is totally drugged up, suggesting that memory is not reliable in those moments…). Questioning the reliability of the narrator can enrich our inquiry into truth/imagination… and also could lead us into considering whether it matters at all if the details are fudged (continuation of ideas hopefully brought up by A Million Little Pieces)… how much does the “truth” of it all matter if she has represented herself the way she sees herself? Is this what makes up an autobiography or must it be entirely factual?


Possibly paired with Animal Farm by George Orwell? I like the idea of pairing/prefacing A Taste of Power with a book that can draw attention to the communist elements in A Taste of Power… I think these elements are very visible in her memoir but didn’t seem to find their way organically into the discussions last semester… I think another book could help. The reason I like Orwell’s book is because the language (metaphor of “pigs” and animals; “comrade”) puts into context the usage of “pig” and “comrade” and other language tools utilized by the Black Panther Party…. Could lead to further discussion about language/power/representations of oppression….) And again, this could lead into conversation about differing literary forms, as Animal Farm and Taste of Power are completely different genres.


Prompts for this lesson have the potential to be more text based then we’ve ever had students write… could read more like an “essay” (although debating whether or not to specifically call this prompt an “essay”… I’m thinking now about the Speak!Out! article highlighting the complicated relationships students have to schooling and associations that could arise from school-related language)… but this prompt could be designed to resemble an essay, if we asked students to compare the two books in some way… we could have them choose a word that the two books share and then define it based on those books? Or, forget Orwell entirely, and write make a case for whether or not Elaine Brown is a reliable narrator. Use the text to make your argument, citing specific instances of her either being reliable/unreliable… also we can note that it is okay to choose the argument that she is both reliable and unreliable….


Literary Terms:

Reliable/Unreliable narrator

Allegory/Metaphor (in reference to Orwell, but there is also symbolism in the “darkness/monster” imagery that Brown continually invokes through the novel; inviting us to consider how symbolism changes in the context of non-fiction writing)



The Vagina Monologues by Eve Canter

I picked this because it is one women writing who interviewed many women and then represented their stories through her own writing… In this way the writing is both “truthful” and “creative,” as each monologue is based on real women’s stories… So this could lead to discussion revolving around questions like, how do we represent the stories of others? Is it possible to represent the stories of others? Who can speak for who? Who isn’t represented here? I also like that it is woman centric.


A text that might work to be paired with this are excerpts from Fires in the Mirror, by Anne Deveare Smith.


A writing prompt for this text could be to have everyone pair off, give them a certain amount of time to “interview” one another about their lives, and then give them in class time to write the “biography” of their classmate… (or they could do that writing for homework?)

Another prompt would be to have them write their own vagina monologue…. OR they could answer the interview questions asked by Eve (such as, “if your vagina could talk, what would it say?”)…. OR we could have them ask each other these questions in pairs…


The Red Tent- Anna Diameter

(Alternative texts: Beloved- Toni Morrison)

I like this because it is “historical” with a touch of magic. The author reimagines the story of a woman whose only appearance in the bible is the mention of her rape, which serves as a catalyst for further biblical events. This would be useful for thinking of historical representation, as well as imaging ourselves in the lives of others/writing from the point of view of a different character. This story is also powerful as a women centric novel and deals with questions of representation (though this time fictional representation, not biographical), so it could thematically flow well from the topics that might arise from the Vagina Monologues.

Also, I love this novel because it is all about retelling traditional stories, and uncovering the narratives that are marginalized by patriarchal accounts of history… could be a way into discussing gender/history/patriarchy…


Prompts that might work for this book/ another historical representation would be asking students to write from the POV of a historical character… for this we might want to give them a specific situation… or we can have them choose a character from the book to rewrite a scene from the point of view of that character.


Literary Terms:

Point of View



I know I originally protested the use of this book, and I still don’t think it’s right for the particular group we have now, but as I was imagining this course, it seemed to fit better w/ circumstances and the intentions laid out and decided to reconsider it’s use as a text… It is a memoir that provides opportunity to discuss form specifically, and reconceives the ways that we might use to tell our stories. It is also centered on a woman’s experience, and has elements that are universal, but many elements that are particular to her experience… could initiate conversation about what it means to our understanding of the book that it takes place in a radically different place than our own.


Literary Terms:


Universalism/particularism ?


A Little Bit More On the Writing Aspect:

I also envision this course as using selections throughout the course from a book like Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, which is about the process of writing itself. I really like Lamott’s book because she has this great chapter called “Shitty First Drafts.” I also realized that the homework prompts I’ve listed so far are more creative writing based then autobiographical, and I think that the writing that we do should include more autobiographical prompts. I am thinking that there will be a portion of writing during each classtime, and that maybe this is where some of that writing will take place. However, I am thinking that we could end with the idea that these pieces of writing are all part of your own autobiography, even the more academically minded work, and that each piece of writing also contains a piece of the author’s identity.

Anne Dalke's picture

I'm also very excited the possibilities this proposed curriculum opens up, Sara, not the least because its point of departure is Rhodessa Jones' dismissal of "magical thinking." Your proposal also takes on directly some of things that have begun to bother me since I began reading  Fraden's account of Jones's work (which I posted about on our "walled women" site). I did want to flag here, in particular, the very direct connection Jones makes between Medea and Sethe in Beloved. In Jones's analysis, "She took ‘em out…And it was an act of love. Something like the slave mother who bashes her children’s brains out so they wouldn’t be sold. There’s something liberating about a woman saying, ‘This I can do’....if she couldn’t be with them, maybe it was better that they were not left alone in the world amongst their enemies….’” Is THAT magical thinking?

sara.gladwin's picture

I think it depends on what

I think it depends on what you are pointing to in this as magical thinking. To me, the thought "this I can do" is not magical because it reveals the character’s belief that killing her children is her only option. Similarly with Sethe, who is literally driven into a barn with her children where she physically cannot escape, and feels that her only option is to end the lives of her children and then end her own life. However, she only gets as far as killing Beloved, as the men who have chased her into the barn are so shocked by the act of Sethe killing her child that they leave her alone. When Sethe is no longer cornered, she no longer finds it necessary to kill her children.  This is where the claim to "agency" gets really complicated for me in characters like Medea and Sethe. There is agency in the sense that a human being has been pushed into a corner and chooses an escape route that deviates from the normal... but does it still count as agency if the character themselves believes they have no other option under the circumstances?


However, to reenvision Medea as loving; to perform her with complexity, is to be magical. I think Jones understanding of Medea, and her entertwining of Medea’s story with the stories of women she works with, is an act of magic, because it reaches beyond conventional understanding and seeks to make connections in the lives of people.

jccohen's picture

interrogating the reality-imagination divide


i love this brainstorming toward a course for next year!  the (so-called) imagination-reality divide is such a rich one to plumb, and seems especially promising for our women.   i wonder too whether prison might be one of the 'real' settings we look at, and whether this might give us an opportunity to focus directly on issues related to prison, and also not get too hung up in these... although it's funny, i just read your earlier post about not always doing prison-related texts (response to rafay in part) and this is true too; it's that i want to get at some of the political questions not necessarily stay with the narratives...

look forward to talk about all this more tomorrow!

sara.gladwin's picture

more on the subject of the barometer

I want to talk more about doing a barometer. During the lesson planning class when someone (I think Danielle) stood up to be the teacher, watching her move around the classroom animatedly made me realize that movement is something we actually may not want to worry about restricting. I get the sense movement/closeness of bodies is so heavily policed already, by specifically shying away from activities involving more free movement, we are perpetuated this body policing. Furthermore, I think that doing these “policing” efforts relay an underlying fear about presumed aggressive attitudes that the women might have towards each other when given the freedom to move about a space in combination with the freedom to disagree openly with one another’s opinions. I think there are ways for us to facilitate which would resolve our nervousness with this activity. Doing a barometer has the potential to unleash a more exciting discussion, as well as encourage people to listen to one another and reconsider their statements. Maybe one way to do this would be having only one of our group facilitating and the rest of us participating… then we could model in some way, the freedom to change your decision/thinking toward a quote… also laying “ground rules” as mentioned in the SpeakOut article….

I just want to see more activities that are engaging in ways that are exciting, where the same couple people aren't always participating but that more people might feel called to speak. I think the Riverside women are ready and hungry from something challenging, so now it's a matter of the BMC women deciding we are ready to take some more risks with our pedagocial decisions.

Anne Dalke's picture

i'm liking this idea

(mostly because of your articulation of why it would be a good one)...
and think it would also be a great warm-up for the play (and attendant dramatics) we want to do next!

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