Existing as Living Textual Animals: A reader response by Alishia A. Valeri for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies

Existing as Living Textual Animals: A reader response by Alishia A. Valeri for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies

In “Living as Textual Animals: Curriculum, Sustainability and the Inherency of Language,” Howard begins by reminding us of the current ecological peril that we face with our current modes of hyperconsumerism.  Moreover, he states that the earth is sending us signals (and/or symbols) that often go unread.  This reading of signals (literacy) is one part of what is needed to change our ill-patterned behaviours into a more sustainable society.  To accomplish this feat, Howard calls for education to be at the “center of this shift” (p. 54), a shift that will require radical change. Explaining his stance, Howard outlines the traditional ways of teaching science and language arts and the disconnection that occurs between the subject content and a student’s experience. To remedy this issue, he calls for the use of literacy and language arts as a curricular and pedagogical way of reconnecting students to the places in which they dwell. He asks to reconnect students to place in the hopes that they develop a collective “ethics of caring” as a form of environmental sustainability. Howard solidifies his stance with a detailed explanation of his literacy- based project nestled off the coast of Newfoundland—a project that set out to push the boundaries of students’ imagination, self-exploration and connections to their community and the environment that sustains them.

Discussing the components of his project, Howard brings the reader to new depths as his explains the notion of “textuality as an embodied integration”. Text alone is not enough to alter perception and behaviour. But what is needed is text coupled with an alternative view of language, one that reflects language as a combination of experience, emotion, and physical awareness. To elaborate, my understanding of Howard’s idea of language and literacy stops to pay acute attention to various movements within ourselves, and to our surroundings and in turn how those embodied experiences will “allow for a deeper sense of how young people may make the word intelligible, but also how they may reflect the world in a particular way” (p. 91).  Doing such reflective work provides opportunities for teachers to situate the learner within a world that is both personal and public. Understanding the link between these realms can mediate their behaviour toward the environment. Crossing between the personal and public selves, is in my opinion, what Howards wants to achieve because we then, can become a whole being encapsulated within our ecological environment.

Howard demonstrates his ambition of unifying the personal and the public selves as he moves through his explanation of the literacy project. He highlights vital components that tie together his aim of restructuring education to be one of introspection. Creating space for students to connect to the text (which is their lives) together with the marine environment occurs through the use of documenting their thoughts, physical and emotional reactions in notebooks. His purpose is to craft awareness of place but in a  “protected space for writing and thinking” (p. 96).  Further the notebooks act as a physical refuge to enact a felt sense that links to close observations of interconnections and interdependence tied to language and literacy.

As Howard closes his article with an excerpt from a student’s notebook (Emily), his vision of the literacy project as well as his belief that we (humans) are “language-ing beings” is solidified (p. 110). The student through writing expressed her thoughts, feelings and concerns about her surrounding environment: she posed questions about the boy’s livelihood with an inherent curiosity. Her curiosity is coupled (at least to me) with an imaginative stance for the future (hers and the boy’s) as they wait for the next summer season to come in the hopes of something new.  Howard’s desire to foster imagination within his students led me to reflect upon the lack of imagination prompted within my grade school years—and also my absence of fostering imagination (at least purposefully or with intention) toward my students while I taught a short while at the elementary level. Could this be because imagination is a scary thing—fear of an unknown journey? I would answer…yes! Imagination brings us to new spaces, to new realms of possibility. It underscores the uncertainty of intangible ideas. On the other hand, imagination can provoke an immense sense of wonder and curiosity. When we are given the opportunity to imagine what the world could be like via teaching, subject content, direct experiences in nature and in the places in which one dwells a deep sense of identification can be formed (Judson, 2010).

In closing, Howard’s notion of humans as textual animals (beings that contain a immense repertoire of text or history) pushed me to rethink the spaces in which I could create through education, spaces that could unleash this untapped knowledge. By focusing on the inherent language within us, we are bringing to the surface new possibilities and worldviews, which can be contrasted to our historical selves. This process I hope—as does Howard— will lead to a transformative mode of inquiry and action. Furthermore, the language of the land in connection to languages espoused by humans and the more-than- human world is a text that is deeply informative and mysterious. Learning to read the land as a text takes patience, observation and experience—all components that are not necessarily at the center of a gratification oriented society and its respective curriculum. Therefore, I wonder how reasonable or realistic is it for teachers to fold in phenomenological exploration of the self to the places in which one dwells within the classroom space?

If we recall, I stated that language could lead to a transformative mode of inquiry and action. Utilizing language as a springboard in which one can make connections between the ‘self” and one’s environment is, in my opinion, a vital component within education.  Reflecting through words, symbols, and gestures requires the use of varying multiple intelligences, and thereby can connect to a larger audience of learners.  As language and literacy unite in this manner, change can occur, change in one’s worldview as we interpret and make meaning from different texts (i.e. a documentary as in the Refugees of the Blue Planet, Howard’s article, or our own thoughts documented through journaling). Through language and the reading of others, we can learn to question ‘Who am I?’ in relation to the Other. The questioning of self positions us to read the world, with an awareness of our biases, in order to then transform ourselves and our actions for the betterment of the planet.  Accomplishing this task is not easy, changing our behaviour in this case towards a more sustainable planet, requires a shifts away from some of our preprogrammed notions (programmed through cultural transmission for instance) of the land, i.e. as a resource or commodity. Thus, to deconstruct our past and present notions towards the environment, we need to learn to speak, listen, move and discover (as Howard articulates) a way that transcends past the rudimentary facts of subject matter in schooling—as all subject matter can essentially be factual (give or take some of the curricular objectives). As well, we need to be willing to look at our past (with both positive and negative experiences) as a source of information to move forward into the future.

When I state that all subject matter is factual, it need not remain as such via its transference from curricular documents into classroom practice. Instruction on the part of educators is an autonomous endeavor (for some), and it is also, in my view, contextualized for the students that reside within the walls of the classroom space, thus, enacting a prescribed pedagogical style is not my point, but recognizing that we (humans) can enact our imaginative and explorative selves, to transform (often by little steps) our future to a more sustainable one, through literacy and language—is my point.

Discussion questions

  1. What were your initial impressions of Howard’s article?
  2. What is your opinion of using a phenomenological approach to understand subject matter?
  3. What is your opinion of using literacy and language arts to teach about environmental and sustainability concepts in the classroom space?
  4. While reading Howard’s article, were there any additional thoughts, comments or queries in terms of the content of the article? And did the content of article push you to think of past and/or present experiences in relation to curriculum, teaching and learning?


Howard, P. (2011). Living as textual animals: Curriculum, sustainability and the inherency of language. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 9(1), 83-114.

Judson, G. (2010). A new approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imagination in their world. New YorK