Curriculum as Community Building

The Poetics of Difference, Emergence, and Relationality

by Liesa Griffin Smith (Author)
©2021 Textbook X, 218 Pages
Series: Complicated Conversation, Volume 57


Our contemporary historical moment is often characterized by social, political, economic, technological, and educational complexities, as well as lived experiences of estrangement, isolation, insecurity, loss, threat, and trauma. Within this difficult context, conventional understandings of community which often rely upon assimilation or exclusion are devoid of hope, and new imaginations of community and community building are needed to cultivate generative, nurturing, sustaining experiences of life together. Through a multi-threaded exploration of the curriculum as embodied and emerging in a living ecosystem, new conceptualizations of community building may emerge. Drawing upon poststructural feminism, poetics, autobiography, and metaphors of the maternal body, this book explores the complicated intersections of difference, embodiment, emergence, and relationality within the curriculum, to reimagine the possibilities of building the other community, one inclusive of difference. Facing the challenges of our time with hope, grace, and creativity, this book is uniquely positioned in a middle space between the theoretical concerns of the academic community and the needs for accessibility by the practitioner within an instructional context.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Complicated Stories
  • 2. Stories of Community
  • 3. The Poetics of Difference
  • 4. The Gifts and Works of the Body
  • 5. Emergence
  • 6. Relationality and the Desire to Encounter the Other
  • 7. Reimagining Curriculum as Community Building
  • Index

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I remember myself at 19, unsure, without much direction, and struggling to arrive on time to the Composition II class I was taking at Tulsa Junior College. A miracle happened in that class, and through the compassion and clarity of sight and voice, my teacher, Mrs. Paula Sullivan, helped me come to see I could write, and more than that, she helped me begin to see myself. Because of her, I was no longer completely invisible to myself. There is a precise piece of thread tying this book to her voice in my life some 30 year ago, and for that I am immeasurably grateful.

Our living journeys are not solitary, but always-already interconnected, and in this way, I have been blessed by the voices and lives of many women—symbolic and actual mothers, sisters, daughters and fellow-pilgrims who have journeyed with me and encouraged my becoming and my work. For these women of strength, I am also exceedingly grateful: Dr. Carolyn Griffin, Genyce Griffin Goodchild, Catherine Rutledge, Elizabeth Griffin, Suzanna Smith, Bella Smith, EmmaJoy Smith, Deborah Erpelding, Julie Wright, Dr. Naomi Najita Poindexter, Dr. Cathy Bankston, Dr. Ellen McCoy, Dr. Allyson Watson, and Dr. Hongyu Wang. And similarly, I am exceedingly grateful for the faithful care, support, encouragement of my son, Levi Smith, ←xi | x→and the steady friendship of Eric Doss, Jesse Stallings, Daniel Sharples, and Dan Hahn, all men of compassion, resourcefulness, creativity, and kindness.

This book is also indebted to the scholarship of a number of important thinkers who raised questions, provoked disquiet, challenged the surface of things, and hinted at the road ahead that is very much worth pursuing. For the writings of Jacques Derrida, Maxine Greene, Madeleine Grumet, David Jardine, Julia Kristeva, Janet Miller, and William Pinar I am deeply thankful. My teacher, mentor, and friend, Hongyu Wang, introduced me to many of their works, as well as her own, and opened a space for me to explore and consider where my voice might join the complicated conversation. Without her encouragement and patience, I would not have been brave enough to start or complete this work. I am especially indebted to her insightfulness, her scholarship, and the grace and care she has extended to me as I have labored to find my voice.

Most of all I am grateful to James Andrew Smith, for his friendship and love. I am indebted to him for innumerable kindnesses, big and small, especially his resolve to see this book finished. He has made my life beautiful.

←x | 1→

· 1 ·


“Reality presents itself to the human mind … in the form of stories.”

(Selden, 1989, in Quinn, 2001, p. 7)

“What you know first stays with you.” (MacLachlan, 1995, p. 20)

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community
want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely;
acted upon, it destroys our democracy.‎” (Dewey,
1916, p. 3)

Complicated Stories: Autobiography and Curriculum

Once upon a time, when I was three years old, my parents, younger sister and I left the United States and sailed for six weeks across the Atlantic Ocean on a small ocean liner to reach Israel, a foreign country that would be our new home. Like me, Israel itself was young, a country still in its childhood in the late 1960s. Fifty or so years later, my memories of the time in Israel are fragments, moments in time, snapshots, much like the ones my parents captured on film. From our years in Israel, my parents have several small boxes of photos, slides, and some 8 mm film reels that may stand as the most accurate ←1 | 2→record of the trip across the ocean and the two years we lived in Israel. One small black and white photograph captures me and my younger sister on the sea voyage. My little sister and I are wearing the matching dresses my mother sewed for us, dark fabric with white round collars, and we are seated at a table in the ship’s dining hall, a candid photograph capturing one small moment of our journey. Two young American children seated behind a table. White collars, white table cloths, our white plates empty, waiting for dinner to be served. This image of the two of us seated at the table waiting, pausing before the meal, seems to me a moment or space of anticipation, the not yet (Greene, 1988) of our journey to a new home, the not yet of our lives that will follow. It seems to me also to be a space of invitation, a question waiting for an answer, a silent prayer before a meal, a prayer for what will unfold from that moment forwards. This photograph, like all memories, invites me to turn inwards to listen to the stories of the past, to wonder at the simplicity of a journey almost 50 years ago, and to discover the surprising echoes that reverberate from the past into my present, where today as a mother, an educator, a school leader, and a scholar, I discover that my story is linked to others’ journeys, the searching for one’s home, one’s people, and for experiences of community.

Madeline Grumet (1988) suggests that through autobiography “we work to remember, imagine, and realize ways of knowing and being that can span the chasm presently separating our public and private worlds” (p. xv). In this way, personal narratives, memory, and language make visible the complexities within our singular lives and our collective lives. If we understand curriculum not as series of educative tasks, but instead as living or lived educational experience, autobiographical work is often interwoven with curriculum work because it unearths individual stories and situates them as texts for critical examination, as possible sites where our being and becoming may be explored, and preserves these individual narratives for others to explore and interrogate. Through autobiography, tensions are revealed, questions are asked, and the ways in which we come to be and come to know are able to be examined (Pinar, 2004; Grumet, 1988; Derrida, 1967; Kristeva, 2002). By participating in the tradition of autobiographical research situated in curriculum theory (Pinar & Grumet, 1976), my autobiographical narratives provide an entry point to my exploration, and contextualizes my critical analysis of cultural, social, political, and curricular intersectionality. In this way, my own narratives of the self may come to reveal some of the “the fault lines at the borders of self and system” (Fowler, 2006, p. 17), and in exposing, exploring, ←2 | 3→and traversing these fault lines between personal lived experiences and the mechanisms of the world, new understandings may be formed, contributing to understandings, critiques and reimaginations of curriculum.

Autobiographical work is a continual stirring of the waters, thus through what seems to be the ongoing disruption of the smooth surface and the appearance of objects and events in our memories, we may gradually reveal the poetry and mystery of our lives. Janet Miller (2005) suggests that “the autobiographical subject is in dialogue with her own process and archives of memory. The past is not a static repository of experience, but always engaged from the present moment, itself ever changing” (p. 15). Aligning myself with her perspective, my autobiography, examined from my contemporary historical, political, and social moment, points me to deep questions regarding the experiences of community, and being a stranger, the desire for belonging, and the complexities and incongruities of attempting to build community among others who may be different from me. As a teacher and school administrator, I understand that the questions that arise from my autobiography intersect the work of public education, and our collective efforts toward a curriculum that is both a complicated conversation and lived experience (Pinar & Grumet, 1976; Pinar, 2012), one that serves the common good and our shared futures. In exploring curriculum as community building, I draw upon my own lived experiences as well as my contextualized roles as a student, teacher, mother, and public-school administrator, recognizing that these various narratives, each situated in discrete times and places, give shape and form to my exploration and my pursuit of an active praxis of our human experiences of being together.

Fragmented Stories: The Poetic and the Possible

My story begins in the Spring of 1968. With our few belongings packed in a six-foot square crate, my parents embarked on a kind of immigration, and relocated our family to a Kibbutz, a small agrarian community called Urim, located in the Negev Desert about 10 miles from the town of Beersheba. For the Israelis, for other Jews scattered across the globe through the diaspora, and for others like my parents who deeply valued their Judeo-Christian religious heritage, the birth of the nation of Israel was an exciting time, a time ←3 | 4→of promise, building, growth, and dreams of returning to a home that had not previously existed in this form. While some kibbutzim had been founded decades before statehood, others like the one we lived in, had sprung up across the country of Israel as experiments in collective living, small farming and manufacturing communities focused on building a nation.

The Hebrew word kibbutz draws its meaning from the words for gathering or clustering, and even though the individual character of each kibbutz reflected diverse orientations, some Zionist, some socialist, some militaristic, some orthodox, and others secular, they all shared characteristics of intentional community life: shared housing, collective labor, common meals, communal care and education of the children, and a resignation of some self-contained individualism for the sake of the common life of the community.

Because I was a child, my own memories of the kibbutz are fragmented and disconnected from long narratives, leaving me instead with impressions, images and sensations of the experiences, the echoes of feelings and emotions and events, rather than a complete story. This fragmentation and incompleteness of memory speaks to the ways in which autobiography cannot be taken at face value, but as a fragmented text open for exploration. According to Miller (2005) “in all remembering there is forgetting” (p. 27), and in this forgetful remembering new spaces may be created which open our stories beyond what we may believe they tell us. Such new spaces challenges and critique the “unproblematized recounting of what is taken to be the transparent, linear, and authoritative reality” (p. 51) of our own autobiographies. As I unpack my memories, my story of the kibbutz, I find this fragmentation rich with revelation and also surprising by what is concealed in the momentary images, sharp with detail, or impressionistic sensations that do not resolve themselves into full pictures or stories. I recognize also the historical, social, political and religious tensions that encompass narratives of Israel, and thus the complexities in which my own memories of the kibbutz are situated.

Intersecting this recognition of the problematic narratives of the self, Julia Kristeva (2002), who operates from the framework of psychoanalysis, proposes that both memory and the language we use to describe our past experiences provide access to “the border states of the mind … the ‘not yet’ and the ‘already no longer’ (p. 7). While the lure of stable stories, clear eyed truths, and unchangeable memories is enticing, both poststructural feminism and psychoanalysis interrogate such a quest for certainty, suggesting an understanding of the self as an unfolding mystery filled with gaps, open spaces, unexplored lands, and contested territories. As such, a number of poststructural ←4 | 5→feminists play with poetically evocative words to reference these generative spaces of instability and creative possibility. Judith Butler (2005) speaks to her “unselfknowingness” (p. 50) as the tension that exists when we seek to know ourselves through narrative, yet discover within ourselves unstoried spaces or spaces where our stories become a kind of fiction, challenging the veracity of the stories we tell about ourselves. The language of fragmentation and incompleteness can also be found in the theorizing of autobiography offered by Janet Miller (2005) in her notions of fluidity and openness, which resist the idea of a self-permanence and make room for ideas of the self that are changeable and pliable. Other variations of this poetic language are evident in Kristeva’s (2002) psychoanalytic perspective that foregrounds memory and the re-telling of the self and in glimpsing revelations embedded in the language of the telling which allows us to recognize ourselves as strangers. These different perspectives are not meant to neatly align, but through them we may come to recognize our internal alterity as intimately connected to our sense of becoming, and linked theoretically to the inseparable relationship between freedom and responsibility (Ziarek, 2001), as we seek our own becoming and the becoming of others.

In challenging “traditional accounts of the unified, autonomous, and transparent self” (Peters & Burbules, 2004, pp. 4–5), the disruptive language of a fragmented, porous, or incomplete self, rather than diminishing the self, speaks instead to the creative potential of our inner life and our life together (Miller, 2005). Poststructural feminism offers what seems to me to be a poetic humility and a generosity of possibility through self-un-knowing, through laying down of certainty, through an openness to the unknown stranger that resides within me and resides in those among whom I live. It is the embrace of mystery, serendipity (Wang, 2014), and the grace to discover what Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (2009) identifies in the writing of Elie Wiesel (2004) as something like a song, one that sings from the heart of story, a song that links us to the often painful and traumatic past, and a song that may similarly tie us to the strength and redemptive hope of curriculum. In exploring the possibilities of curriculum as community building, the poetic reorientation offered through poststructural feminist discourse may provide new paths, hidden doors, and expectant discoveries, thereby enlarging understandings of where and how community may be forged, and the ways in which those who have found themselves strangers in the midst of community might discover new and generative places of belonging.

←5 |

Remembered Stories: Dreaming of Community

In this light, what might my “self as witness” (Pinar, 2004, p.49), my memories, my autobiographical narrative of traveling to Israel reveal? I remember meals together and the long benches of the common tables in the dining hall. I remember standing in lines, gathering in groups, sitting in circles. I remember riding tractors in the green and golden fields, the slant of afternoon light, and the sweet mellow fragrance of ripe apricots, the fresh clean earthy taste of cucumbers eaten with a spoon, scooping out juicy spoonfuls from its own rind like an ice cream cone. I remember the sound of bees and the quick jerky scamper of the bright green lizards that seemed to scurry everywhere, inside and out. I remember my name sewn with blood-red thread into my clothing in short blocky stitches, Hebrew letters I had yet to learn, the letters that helped me collect my clothes from the communal laundry. I remember the children’s house with large open windows where we spent most of our days, playing, singing, sleeping, eating, and bathing with the other children from the kibbutz, though I cannot remember the actual form of the events that filled my days. I remember falling asleep on the cots in the children’s house, reaching across the narrow rows and touching the cool metal of the cot frame nearest mine, and feeling at home in a place that extended beyond the walls of our small house that stood beneath sparse trees some distance away in the dusty sand of the kibbutz grounds. I remember story, and song, and dance, and ritual, and ancient festivals all new to me, the cadence and rhythm of a foreign language easily slipping into my child’s heart and mouth. My new world taking shape as my teacher read or sang, and drifting to sleep in a home that was not really my home, but feeling nonetheless enclosed, belonging, and in the arms of extended care.

It is inescapable to me now that my childhood memories play upon utopian imagery of community: the pastoral location, the romantic experiences of togetherness and belonging, the sense of extended family, and the feeling of unified purpose and collective labor. Such utopian dreams run deep in our Western mythology. Our sense of community is drawn from our earliest human experiences captured in oral traditions and imagery, the rich storehouses of ancient Greek democratic thought, Judeo-Christian religious traditions, and the complicated and contested American idealism epitomized in the Puritan John Winthrop’s (1633) imagery of “a city on a hill,” or of a city of refuge, forged through collective effort and the call to serve the common ←6 | 7→good. These diverse and rich symbolic traditions each permeate the ethos of community and in various ways give form to what we think community means and how we believe we should experience community. These symbolic traditions suggest a strong orientation towards Edenic community: a well ordered, peaceful, experience of harmonious order, complete acceptance, and brotherly human connection (Jung, 1959; Foucault, 1975; Derrida, 2000). In this Edenic context, the word community in its simplest form suggests “romantic notions of togetherness against the ravages of the world outside” (Chinnery, 2006, p. 330).

Thus, our earliest understanding of community as togetherness is oriented to place, and to the family groups that were connected to these locatable places. The physicality of a land that designated a place as well as the biological connections and laws of ownership that connected a group of people to their land, generated conceptions of community as rooted in soil, the familial land, as well as in the blood lines that connected individuals to others who shared claims to the physical land (Lyon, 2002). This early understanding of community as soil/place/familial land is tightly bound to the second understanding of community as blood/family/kinship. It is not surprising then that these two interconnected and defining themes, soil and blood, emerge as the foundational metaphors that run through both common understandings and theoretical examinations of community.

The word community, laden as it is with connotations of warmth, belonging, identification, and home, is nevertheless complex, suggesting contradictory and often notably “differing conceptualizations of community” (Moore, 2014, p. 11). Theorists from multiple disciplines alternately understand community to be a locatable place, a social grouping, an experience, and a human condition, often linking conceptions of community to political, psychological, spiritual, and ontological explorations. Far from simplistic, the working out of community is a complicated human endeavor, one that wrestles with concepts of the self and agency, the potential of collective identities, profound1 human diversity, and the possibility of building connections across human difference (Wang, 2014).

Stories of Loss

It is problematic and disorienting that the hope-filled romanticism of our collective Edenic notions of community stand in sharp contrast with the world we seem to find all around us. Our contemporary historical moment is ←7 | 8→characterized by threat, rupture, trauma, and uncertainty. Our personal, public, and professional lives are submerged in a historical moment characterized by globalization and the retaliatory pushback of nationalism and xenophobia; market-orientations and consumerism; experiences of immigration and refugee-ism; terrorism and commonplace violence; technologically manipulated identities; and other postmodern dysphoric experiences. It is understandable, therefore, that surrounded by this profound human difference, disconnection, and disorientation, that the language of grief and longing for a “lost community” (Lyon, 2002, p. 374) has emerged. As we find ourselves further and further removed from our imagined once upon a time communities that were defined by geographic lines and bloodlines, we may identify a deep primordial longing for a community we believe we have lost. Such an awareness of loss may be poetically expressed through the Welsh word hiraeth, which communicates a deep homesickness or ardent yearning for a home to which one cannot return, a home which maybe never was, and the grief for the lost places of the past (Petro, 2012). Whatever emotions may be tied to this experience of homesickness, it is essential to remember that this language of a lost community in and of itself speaks to a kind of Neverland, a place that exists only in our cultural imagination, where we romanticize a harmonious, equitable, past expression of genuine community, a utopian home that never truly existed, but an expression of home that we mourn nevertheless. These dreams of a lost community somewhere in the past masks from view the pervasive history of sexism, racism, classism, genocide, as well as other social deformities, and may also create a “mask of innocence to hide or refuse to acknowledge one’s involvement, one’s complicity, with processes of domination” (Miller, 2010, p. 14). Thus, the homesickness that emerges, either from a romanticized home that we dream has been lost, or from the clear-eyed recognition that community has always been a fractured human project, drives us in various directions for comfort, some longing to recreate what we believe has been lost or forsaken, while others stand in the space of loss and exile and strive to imagine new homes and new roads to homecoming.


X, 218
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 218 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Liesa Griffin Smith (Author)

Liesa Griffin Smith earned her PhD in curriculum studies from Oklahoma State University. With more than 20 years lived experience as a teacher and school leader, Liesa currently serves as Lead High School Principal at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences.


Title: Curriculum as Community Building
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230 pages