From Family Literacy to Earth System Science: Taylor’s Report Supports Teachers During ‘Super-complex Times’

By: J. Pace, Ph.D.

Facebook: Finding_Patterns Instagram: Finding_Patterns Twitter: @pacej1723

Author of Finding Patterns: Traveling Four Women’s Paths

Within the past decade, teachers and educators are being called to have a greater role within schools and communities as they interact with young adults. It has been stated that “given the world-wide life-threatening deterioration of circumstances in which children and young adults are expected to live their lives, it could be argued that the greatest advancement human beings could make in the 21st century is to ensure the survival of their children” (Taylor, 2018, p. 20). Shortly after 9/11, Louise Rosenblatt, the renowned educator in reading theory, spoke at a Great Scholars Forums that “No matter what your gender, your race, your religion every student is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that does not harm others.” At 101 years of age before passing, she continued “…and we must try to influence what is happening to students, and if we fail, as we may, we shall at least have spread some ideas, have educated some...” (as cited in Taylor, 2018, p. 19).

I was teaching on the college level for over a decade in New York City, Queens, and Long Island, and most recently, I have been teaching at Sonoma State University as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English Department for the past two years. While working on my doctoral research from 2008-2013, I was a fellow with the International Center for Everyone’s Child at Hofstra University under the direction of Dr. Denny Taylor. Combined with my studies and teaching experiences, it has solidified my interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspectives. I applied these frameworks to the teaching of composition and teaching future teachers. Since my time in California, students have experienced, observed, and been exposed to:

·        Environmental devastation from some of the most destructive fires in Northern California. This has left many displaced. (Tierney, 2018)

·        Students at one point during the Fall 2017 semester were inundated with ongoing images from the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Harvey, Nate. (Belles, 2017)

·        Students have viewed the footage of the mass shootings in Parkland and Las Vegas and are reminded of the Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, and Newtown killings-- where schools and social spaces are soft targets; and based upon repeated comprehensive reports “about 1300 children/youths are killed in gun-related incidents each year. Daily shootings are by hand-guns and African American youths are most likely victims” (Healy, 2017).

·        Students are advised nationally and locally by the US Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control of the effects of the drug misuse and opioid intoxication. (‘Opioid Overdose Crisis’, 2018)

·        Suicide is a serious public health problem with youth, and “30 percent of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury” (Peterson et al, 2016).

·        Diane Ravitch advocates daily for those in poverty, and educators and students in California and New York are well aware of the growing economic disparity. “On a national level nearly one-quarter of our nation's children live in poverty. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, our child poverty levels are far larger than most other developed nations” (Posnick-Goodwin, ‘Ravitch: Poverty clearly affects children’s readiness’)

Unfortunately, the societal concerns continue. While it may not be a natural disaster that has impacted the community directly, other social and political initiatives can harm and influence a student’s consciousness and behavior, and students’ lives are further compounded.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2018, a panel of secondary teachers, practitioners, and college students from the Sonoma and East Bay Communities participated in a discussion at Sonoma State University and addressed “Understanding ‘super-complexity’ through writing and forms of expression”.  In 2009, when I first learned of the term “super-complexity”, I was working with, Dr. Denny Taylor who had conducted significant research within schools that were heavily impacted by the trauma of war and natural devastation (ex: Hurricane Katrina). In thinking about the reality of this impact and considering pragmatic and existential philosophers like Maxine Greene and Italo Calvino, we began enacting a transdisciplinary framework that could assist teachers, parents, students, and communities who were dealing with catastrophe on a daily basis.

Within the International Center’s Framework, theoretical understandings were informed by lived experiences and fieldwork experience followed (Taylor, 2018). In having attended an ICSU (International Council for Science and International Social Science Council) Re-visioning Conference in 2010, delegates at (Planet Under Pressure) this global conversation explained that with the struggle for social and environmental sustainability, “five areas were identified that could assist the issue: a. active engagement b. the participation of diverse social groups working together c. a focus on human well-being d. the development of political will and e. ethical and principled global agreements” (p. 38). Taylor continues that

We may come to think of this as a conceptual metaphor when thinking about the combination of physical, biological and social sciences with humanities, including data from government, economic, and industrial sources and social media. It provides transdisciplinary spaces that encourage situated engagement in research on human vulnerability and resiliency. The questions, narratives, responses also reflect a pervasive concern about impact and existential risks of human-induced change on vulnerable people and communities. (p. 32)

And so, living in communities impacted by hurricanes and fires, the “supercomplexity” of these relationships calls for a re-imagination of how teachers and students are engaging with language, writing practices, and expression while also coping with daily crises and catastrophe.  The structure and ethos of classrooms shift. Change is an integral part of transdisciplinary research, and institutional frameworks should cross disciplinary paradigms. Each of the teachers and tutors on the panel have increased the social and psychological resources and educational opportunities provided to students; and engaged students in activities created to support their emotional and physical well-being as well as enhanced student academic development. There is a multidisciplinary focus on life sustaining needs and educational opportunities for students who live in areas of extreme poverty and public health emergencies (Taylor, ICEC). Each panelist had to re-establish classrooms following catastrophic events and developed safe environments which focus on using language and literacy activities, and arts —through culturally and linguistically relevant experiences—“All language is embedded in human experience. Language is used to identify the world, language represents thoughts and feelings, and it is used to construct relationships” (p. 31). We learned from the examples presented that “stressful life experiences can impair the possibilities of metaphoric thought and empathetic knowing, forming a stumbling block to communication that has far-reaching consequences for families, children and society” (p. 31).

I place tremendous value in the words of these educators because teachers are not frequently brought to the table on a consistent basis to discuss approaches in how they work with some of the most vulnerable populations and are tasked to perform while under-resourced. This is the reality, and, in these circumstances Greene (1995) advocates that “classrooms ought to be nurturing and thoughtful and just …all at once they ought to pulsate with multiple conceptions of what it is to be human and alive” (as cited in Taylor, 2018, p. 44).

The panel shared experiences and approaches in teaching students on the high school and college level during the past year. While this was an informal discussion, the panelists discussed how they addressed an issue of concern through pragmatic methods in writing or other modalities and offered observations/reflections about student responses.  The first presentation incorporated the "Pyramid of Hate"--Anti-Defamation League”. The practitioner integrated these approaches within curriculum. The second presentation highlighted how the assistant director and tutors within the SSU Writing Center incorporated themed workshops to support students’ identity through poetry. The members discussed their identities in relation to the workshop--‘Pain into Poetry’. The third presentation explained how service learning projects and eco-composition were viable ways for college students to engage with community writing projects. The last presentation offered several examples of teacher and student activism in an Oakland public school. Please visit to engage and respond to the blog post: ‘Addressing Super-complex Topics’ under Collaboration.


Belles, J. (2017, November 28). 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Recap: 17 Moments We'll Never Forget. Hurricane News.  Retrieved from

Healy, M. (2017, June 19). ‘Guns kill nearly 1,300 children in the U.S. each year and send thousands more to hospitals’. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts and social change.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peterson, C.M., Matthews, A. Copps-Smith, E., & Conrad, L.A. (2016). Suicidality, Self-Harm, and Body Dissatisfaction in Transgender Adolescents and Emerging Adults with Gender Dysphoria. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 19 AUG 2016 DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12289

            Posnick-Goodwin, S. (2011). “Ravitch: poverty clearly affects children’s readiness’.      California Teachers Association 16(3) Retrieved from

(2018, March). ‘Opioid Overdose Crisis’. National Institute on Drug Abuse.  Retrieved from

**Taylor, D. (2018). From family literacy to earth system science: Denny Taylor’s research on making the planet a child safe zone. New York: Garn Press.

Tierney, L. (2018, January 4). The grim scope of 2017’s California wildfire season is now clear. The danger’s not over. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Turkewitz, J. (2017, September 20). ‘The Pills are everywhere’: how the opioid crisis claims its youngest victims’. New York Times. Retrieved from

Youtube links from Panel Session:

Speaker 1: R. Backhaus--"Pyramid of Hate"--Anti-Defamation League

Speakers (2): A. Parkhurst, B. Grogan, P. Rivas, M. Luque--Sonoma State Writing Center staff, “Pain into Poetry”

Speaker (3): E. Seder—Lecturer Faculty, English Department, Sonoma State University (Part I) "EcoComposition"

Speaker (3): E. Seder—Lecturer Faculty, English Department, Sonoma State University (Part II) "EcoComposition"

Speaker (4): C. Ngo "Teaching and Activism"