Reading Diary: Magic Materiality (Susan Poetz)

While reading Dario Novellino’s “sensory view of how magic works”, I could not help but think about my own experience with teaching.

I teach high school English and I have always thought it was a sort of magic.

I am a successful teacher. I am “that” teacher: the one who all the students love for all the right reasons and the one who all the other teachers are not crazy about. I am also a blight on my principal because he (being the empirically-grounded man that he is) cannot bottle my efficacy at teaching.

And that is because my teaching practice is, in Novellino’s definition of the term—magic.

Firstly, Novellino cites Tambiah’s “primary concern” of magic as being “the transferring of a desirable property to a recipient lacking that property” (756). To be very specific, I am an English teacher and most people believe that High School English usually constitutes the transfer of two main properties: reading and writing. I believe that High School English constitutes the properties of thinking and writing (reading, in my own practice, is an ancillary skill used for attaining knowledge in order to further the more important skill of thinking).

So the highest level property I want to transfer is thinking. How do you teach people to think? To employ logic? To draw conclusions? To synthesize information and produce, from this synthesis, new thought? To my colleagues and my principal’s dismay, there is no graphic organizer for this level of skill; there is no outline. If students are tasked (as they are in my classes) to develop a unique strain of thought in their writing (I do not want to read 30 of the same essays), they most know how to think and in the public school system of New York City, I have found that no one has ever asked this of them before me.

My magic begins with talismans all around my classroom: Framed photographs of intellectuals who resemble the students I serve from President Obama to Malcolm X to Toni Morrison. There are objects I have collected around the world that are explained to the students: A statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of Hinduism, is explained as the “remover of obstacles”. These things, as Novellino points out, are not mere decorations to make my classroom homey but they serve to change and to charge the environment, to “impregnate” the environment in order to “produce an effect” (760). They work, I believe on the subconscious of the students on many levels. Not just symbolic. If we want to explain this as simplistically as possible, the environment is one of physical caring—it is a thoughtful environment. In their other rooms, mass-produced Department of Education posters hang sideways off of walls full of old tape and chart paper is hung with instructions or rules scrawled by a teachers careless hand with a dried out marker. Or the rooms are barren with only balled up paper littering the floor. Part of my practice is also the maintenance of the room. Litter on the floor changes the physical environment and is scooped up, by me—the shaman—once it hits the floor.

More than the physical environment is the actual act of teaching which seems more attuned with Novellino’s ideas. Novellino attempts to dissolve the distinction between the “expressive and the technical”, between the “mystical and empirical” (762). Such is how I teach thinking and writing. Much to my principal’s dismay, the way I teach thinking and writing cannot be categorized neatly into rubric traits to be checked off on a chart or checklist. In short, I describe the magic (that unique thought I am asking for, the logic, the synthesis, the invention) I am looking for, I give examples of that magic by demonstrating my own trains of thought and arrivals at logical and unique conclusions, and then—in the same way the Batak believe that bees and rice get released from the “edge of the universe” (758), I insist to my students that their own unique and insightful theses and conclusions get released from somewhere in their minds and I challenge them to call it forth.

Even Novellino’s section on action and sound resonated. When I have my students write, I will usually sit and write with them. I have been known to call students’ attention to watch me, to watch my body and my face as I am writing because I want them to see the thinking process—to see me stopping and staring intently into space (into the edge of the universe) trying to find what I am looking for, to see my hands gesticulating as though I am pulling that thing from the air, or asking the universe a question. Soon, I see my students using this dance to also call forth ideas, answers, direction, and conclusions.

When I talk about how difficult my teaching job is, I have always described it as “trying to pull my own mind from my head and showing the students how it gets from a question to an insightful and unique answer. It is like trying to transfer the way my mind works to their own minds”. But it is more in line with Novellino’s idea of magic. I know that teaching thinking is possible because I know that that “edge of the universe” in my own mind, where my theses derive from, where they live awaiting to be called upon, is also a located in their undeveloped minds and I only have to call upon words and rituals to reach it. My methods have varying degrees of success. Very few students learn the magic for themselves. It is difficult to correct 11 years of miseducation. But many of them leave me at least aware that they have the ability to manipulate their consciousness and they are also aware that the answers lay somewhere inside of them and not simply on a page to be underlined and repeated or copied.

My methods are exactly the opposite of how most public school systems operate; they operate on the empirical alone and if you cannot disseminate your methods via a PowerPoint presentation and if you cannot record the levels of student success on a spreadsheet, you have not done anything. People usually attempt to separate my classroom, my methods of communication, my bearing, my humor, my neatness, my patience from my practice but I sand by Novellino’s ideas of the power of “impregnation” and “attunement “ through the use of words, actions, and objects to produce a desired effect.