The new Occasional Paper Series #45—“Welcoming Narratives in Education: A Tribute to the Life Work of Jonathan Silin”—launched today to celebrate Jonathan Silin, GSE ’70, who served as editor-in-chief of the series for 17 years. This issue is a testament to his tremendous work as an educator and, more specifically, to his love of storytelling, which laid the groundwork on which this series was built and has shaped the influence it has today on educators worldwide.
In the Q&A below, Jonathan shares more about how it feels to be honored by the latest issue of the Occasional Paper Series and about the idea of “welcoming,” a theme that is threaded through each of the essays and inspires and challenges us to envision education as hospitality, in all of its complexities.
Q: This issue honors your contributions to the field of education and your work as a longtime treasured editor of the Occasional Paper Series. How does it feel to be recognized so deeply through this issue?
A: I am filled with gratitude and a healthy measure of disbelief that I had the good fortune to become the accidental editor of the Occasional Paper Series 20 years ago. Beginning at the Fleishman’s yeast factory-turned-school at 69 Bank Street, I have lived a lifetime in and through an institution whose history I have tried to honor even as I challenged some of its most cherished assumptions about children and childhood. A half-century later, I am thrilled that my own work has sparked conversations between an inspiring group of younger scholars and my more well-recognized peers in the academy.
Q: The introduction by Editor-in-Chief Gail Boldt and Guest Editor Lisa Farley references your “passionate belief in the power of narrative” that has guided your life’s work. How do you think storytelling can create new ways to imagine and re-envision our world?
A: Thirty years ago, when I began to use personal narrative in my scholarly writing, it was not a choice. Living and working in the midst of the AIDS pandemic for over a decade, I understood myself to be part of an urgent battle to save lives and to protect the rights of those directly impacted by the disease. Traditional personal and professional boundaries did not seem to apply. Coming up for air in the early 1990s, joining the Bank Street faculty, I knew that those boundaries once crossed could not be reinscribed. Authenticity in the classroom demanded nothing less than being fully present with all of the discomfort that might entail.
If, as Lucy Sprague Mitchell famously quipped, the work of children is learning and it is in play that they work at their job, then words and texts are the building blocks through which I have gone about my work as an adult. In the end, I don’t know if narrative research helps us to re-imagine the world. I do know that it helps me to be more honest and clearly positioned as I write about the things that really matter.
Creating a context grounded in lived experience allows us to say difficult things and for others to draw closer as they listen to them. As I hope the graduate students who studied with me understand, storytelling in education is not an end in itself. Our personal narratives can easily engage others but they must also do more, they must prompt reflection and lead to action in the world.
Q: The theme of this issue explores the idea of “welcoming,” which is approached in a number of insightful contexts. Can you further reflect on this concept and on “education as hospitality”?
A: In the fall of 1968, when I entered the early childhood classroom as a young teacher, I was very much a stranger to its ways and the ways of young children. I was welcomed by a seasoned teacher and children whose questions spoke to my own existential searches for home and certainty, a life of ongoing learning, as well as trusting relationships with others. The classroom was a busy, noisy place always filled with the unexpected turn of events but, as often as not, the children’s questions turned my look inward. They seemed to be teaching me more about myself than I was teaching them about the world.
Hospitality is a deceptively simple yet complicated idea. We make an ethical commitment to the unconditional welcome of the stranger at the same time as our daily practices inevitably undercut that welcome. Even as we are committed to welcome and respect, our best intentions may offend.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us that communication is based on difference, not sameness, and living in community means living with unbridgeable difference, with not knowing and uncertainty. That said, we must continually try to span the distances among us with forgiveness and promise.
In welcoming the stranger, we open the door to learning about how the strange and unknown lives within us. In his recent essay on drag pedagogy, Harper Keenan, a Bank Street alum and contributor to this issue of the Occasional Paper Series, beautifully illustrates how hospitality can lead to learning as he reflects on the way that queer people can challenge us to find new and previously unthought ways of being in the world.
Q: What impact has the Occasional Paper Series had on your life and work? How has the series brought attention and meaning to issues in education?
A: The Occasional Paper Series (OPS) began as a small publication with a distribution of 300 in-house copies and has grown into an online journal with over 100,000 downloads in 186 countries. None of this would have been possible without the sustaining support of the College, its administrators, faculty, our editorial boards, and, in 2018, the forward-thinking leadership of editor Gail Boldt. Along with its historical commitment to the tenets of progressive education and social justice, the success of OPS may also be attributed to the value it places on narrative-knowing, accessible writing, and respect for the classroom teachers and teacher educators who make up our primary readership.
On a more personal note, editing OPS offered me the opportunity to mentor many previously unpublished writers as well as to engage in conversations with well-established authors. Over time, it also allowed me to support guest editors who were learning both to nurture new writers and to develop skills in realizing entire issues. OPS was a wonderful venue through which I could stay in touch with fresh ideas about education while sharing what I knew about reading and writing as a scholar.