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Akademia Cartonera: Academic Articles, Cartonera Publications Catalog and Bibliography /Artículos académicos, Catálogo de publicaciones cartoneras y Bibliografía available in original text on CD (2009)

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Classroom Cartonera: Recycle Paper, Prose, Poetry

I learned to say that literature is recycled material from listening to the upstart publishing house of Sarita Cartonera of Lima Peru, to be precise from Milagros Saldarriaga, one of the founding members. “Sarita Cardboard Picker” is named after Sarita Colonia, the heroically chaste and childish Patron Saint of the poor residents in Lima, mostly Andean immigrants. Milagros had come to Harvard University to speak and lead workshops, along with visual artist Javier Barilaro, a founder of the original Eloísa Cartonera of Buenos Aires. That initiative was the model for Sarita to launch its parallel project of making books from used cardboard and unpublished literature. The week-long cartonera activities, sponsored by Harvard’s Cultural Agents in March 2007 included talks and workshops that convened participants from Harvard and from a range of schools throughout Cambridge and Boston. We learned how to make beautiful books from discarded materials and, with Milagros, how to use them in the classroom.

This was a moment of truth for me and for other language and literature teachers crouched on the floor to cut cardboard and hunched happily over tables made invisible by the mess of cuttings, tempera paints, scissors, string, and all kinds of clean junk to add decorative value to the books we were making. Until then, Cultural Agents had focused outward. We had convened, and continue to convene scholarly seminars on major thinkers who inspire Cultural Agents (Antonio Gramsci and Hannah Arendt, among others) and we promote a broad range of artists who understand their work to be interventions in public life. Even before the major event of Augusto Boal’s workshops and presentations of Theater of the Oppressed in December 2003, Cultural Agents seminars featured photographers who teach desperately poor children to take new perspectives and reframe their lives. (Nancy McGirr’s Fotokids in Guatemala is exemplary, as was Martín Cohen’s Ph 15 in Ciudad Oculta on the fringes of Buenos Aires). The series culminated in two conferences on “Visible Rights” that gathered practitioners and theorists from Bogota to Bangladesh to reflect on the dynamics of teaching photography from the perspectives of children’s rights, art, and economics. Another special event, in 2005 showcased “The Jewish Latin Mix: Making Salsa” with a conference, master-classes and concert that featured the mostly unsung collaborations among Latino and Jewish musicians and filmmakers, a testimony to the socially binding effects of mutual admiration among artists who depend on one another to make music. Larry Harlow, Martin Cohen, Marty Sheller, and Leon Gast starred on that occasion. We hosted related seminars on the power of student dance troupes (such as Bajucol in East Boston) to consolidate communities of youth and to keep them from dropping out of school. Muralists who direct crews of teenagers to occupy public space and to promote a sense of ownership that amounts to safeguarding that space also figured among our guest speakers. These events and explorations have had some notably lasting effects (see for example the case of Boal’s workshops).

Nevertheless, from my perspective as a teacher of language and literature, the admirable cases we pursued represented other people’s work, fascinating as examples to be theorized and even as techniques to appropriate for effective teaching. I am the beneficiary, along with students and colleagues, of many creative contributions by cultural agents outside the language and literature classroom. These include two brilliant Harvard College students, Amar Bakshi and Proud Dzambukira, who were determined to stem the drop-out rate of young girls in Mussoorie, India, the home town of Amar’s mother. They established Aina Arts to implement an after-school arts program that required girls to stay in school if they wanted to stay in the arts sessions. The self-sustaining success there meant that by the next year Aina Arts was also working in Proud’s native Zimbabwe.[1] I hoped to replicate a version of this inspiration in the Boston-Cambridge area, university-rich, but public-school poor, where drop-out rates are alarming and youth violence a growing concern. My version is a course for area teachers called “Youth Arts for Social Change” offered through Harvard’s Extension School. Now in its fifth year, the course engages a range of local artists (in dance, music, painting, theater, photography, etc) to direct a series of workshops that train teachers to incorporate creative techniques their classrooms.[2]  I had imagined that this would be my culminating effort as a cultural agent, incorporating lessons I had learned from our seminars, conferences, and workshops to bring art back into schools, not isolated in elective classes, but as the motor and medium for any engaged learning.

But the Cartonera at Cultural Agents was a personal turning point for me. Literature came back to the center of my teaching and writing, newly energized as adventures in recycling, and open to unexpected re-combinations in my own work and in that of my students. The “Youth Arts” course, for example, became a forum for developing the Cartonera (called the Paper Picker Press in English) as the hub of many arts. A single literary text throughout the semester becomes the pretext for a range of artistic interpretations through visual arts, dance, music, theater. As readings of the selected text broaden and deepen, participants also develop an array of readings by going “off on a tangent” each week, searching for a text that they can relate to the shared reading. The combination of focus on the inexhaustibility of interpretation and on the wealth of literature to be perused and selected from the participant’s own criteria creates a dynamic culture of reading even among the initially reluctant or indifferent. And the “Foundational Fictions” course I regularly teach with graduate students now offers an alternative final project to the standard “publishable essay”: an outline and one full chapter of one’s own “nineteenth century novel” along with an essay to reflect on the construction. The resulting chapters and reflections show a superior depth of historical imagination and sensibility.

To acknowledge, in good faith, that teachers of the humanities are cultural agents—perhaps the fundamental agents for Gramsci’s organic cultural revolution – is to assume the risks that characterize any creative activity. Among the significant burdens of humanist teachers, after all, is to train taste, hardly a minor responsibility. Taste is another term for the judgment that civic life depends on. Although judgment is an innate human faculty, to follow Kant, it needs to be exercised through training by examples, which is why Aristotle insisted that the virtue of practical wisdom was not governed by rules but by the development of judgment through habituation.[3] Judgment is different from reason, not its irrational opposite. In fact, reason depends on judgment, which is of a different order, Kant will say in the Third Critique. It is rather like a grammar than like logic, in Stanley Cavell’s appropriation of Wittgenstein, so that usage in communication, not argument, develops a sense of right or wrong judgment.[4] Intellectuals exercise judgment even when they mistake the activity for reasonable argument. And they can change their minds, learn a new grammar, Gramsci assured us, but the process is painfully slow for those intellectuals who identify as risk-averse professionals rather than creative agents. Real teachers take risks; Paolo Freire encouraged us with a quote from Hegel at the beginning of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained. . . the individual who has not staked his life may, no doubt be recognized as a Person; but he has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”[5]  


Literature as recycled material, it had never before occurred to me. The cartonera book covers made of recycled cardboard were fitting invitations to consider the material inside as recycled too. This was my simple summary of Milagros Saldarriaga’s rich presentation, and she graciously appropriated the analogy. It cuts through much of what we have learned and taught as sophisticated literary criticism with its daunting words such as intertextuality, traces, iteration, point of view, and focalization. The technical terms become user-friendly by losing their elite edge and gaining a broad accessibility when readers can abstract the particular functions to arrive at a general principle about literature being made up of cuts and pastes and pastiches. The hands-on workshop that Milagros facilitated during the Harvard Cartonera week developed a few demonstrations of the recycling process. For example, we used the description of characters in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man in the Crowd” to draw portraits, but indirectly. The drawings were intentionally mediated by a partner’s description of the character. The results, after we taped the portraits on the “gallery” wall, made visible the range of interpretations and re-interpretations of the same literary characters, showing that it is impossible to read or draw without adding original details. We could not clearly distinguish between reading and writing, reception and production. I had never experienced so effective and painless a lesson in deconstruction and in reader-response theory. It was positively fun, and I have repeated the activity many times with similarly profound and pleasurable results. When the participants are graduate students or colleagues, an extra measure of satisfaction comes from reflecting on the theoretical principles involved and appreciating their significance for interpretation (One of my brightest graduate students commented after Milagros’ initial workshop: “I don’t hate narratology any more!”  By now, the cartonera is part of Harvard’s training program for new teachers of foreign languages, Linguistics 200.)  And when we work with primary school children, the technical terms do not figure in the reflection. But in all cases, the lessons are as clear as they are welcome: Each participant is an author and an authority of the work produced; interpretation exercises critical and creative faculties; and the range of plausible interpretations is worthy of admiration for oneself and for fellow interpreters. Admiration is the glue of voluntary societies such as democracies, Antanas Mockus taught me, not toleration, which suggests one citizen’s largesse in the face of other, implicitly inferior subjects.

It is obvious, ¿isn’t it?  that books and plays and poems are made up of words, motifs, plots, characters, grammatical structures, elements that already exist in other contexts and that authors borrow and recombine to produce arresting new works. Novelty is in the poaching and the recombination, not in the material, which, logically, must already have been used if the new creation hopes to communicate with a public of readers or listeners. Wittgenstein wisely dismissed the possibility of private languages. For example, everyone knows that Cervantes played on chivalric and picaresque sources to write Don Quijote, although he claims shamelessly to have pillaged even more directly, lifting an entire manuscript written by an Arab author. And Shakespeare is notoriously not the author of his plots in great plays, but the genius re-writer of appropriated stories. To introduce students into writing through an appreciation of the liberties that great writers take, with recycled words that can be endlessly recombined, is to demystify the classics as products of human interventions and to free young people to try their own hands at altering texts with every new reading. Through play, participants know that the classics of high culture and higher education are within their audacious reach.

The recycled character of literature is apparent and almost laughably simple to understand. Yet the observation is surprisingly profound. The combination of surprise and profundity elicits the chuckle or wink from students and teachers of literature that signals a good joke. Thanks to the good humor of Sarita Cartonera, we can be more effective and inclusive promoters of higher order thinking and the pleasures of the text.


As far as I know, of the dozen cartoneras that have followed the lead of Eloísa, only Sarita Cartonera promotes a pedagogy that uses the beautiful little books it produces as “material” for making readers. It would be foolish, Milagros commented, to try to sustain a publishing venture in a city like Lima, where people do not read much, without developing a public of readers as potential customers for books. That development project is called LUMPA (Libros, un modelo para armar) to play on a popular title by Julio Cortázar. The Buenos Aires of Eloísa Cartonera was different. During the worst moments right after the markets crashed in December 2001, haunting pictures show residents as they look longingly into bookstore windows or while away the time with some reading material in hand. Just over a year after the crash, Eloísa was responding to the hunger for new books among readers starved by the dearth of imports and by the lack of local production. Poet Washington Cucurto and painter Javier Barilaro invented an alternative to the failed market, by using and re-using available materials, pre-owned cardboard and first rate new literature. At their storefront publishing house, the two artists began to buy cardboard from practically destitute paper pickers at a price almost five times the rate of recycling centers and then they proceeded to incorporate the cartoneros into the production of individually decorated cardboard books. The artisanal covers call attention to the original content, new literature donated by Argentina’s best living writers. Ricardo Piglia and César Aira were among the first, soon joined by Mexican Margo Glantz, Chilean Diamela Eltit, and many others. By now, Harvard’s Widener Library has more than 90 titles from cartonera editions. Several of the recycler book-makers continued their careers in editorial positions at standard publishers; others returned to finish high school; and all managed to survive the economic crisis with a sense of dignity.

The replication that Eloísa Cartonera inspired in Lima was the first in a series that continues to multiply.[6] But Lima continues to be a special case. There, economic crisis was a familiar condition rather than the shock it had been in Buenos Aires. The lack of money together with a richness of writers and a surfeit of poor paper pickers gave Lima something of a kinship with distressed Buenos Aires and seemed to guarantee the parallel success of Sarita Cartonera. Yet the new publishing project encountered an obstacle more stubborn than poverty: In Lima the low-literacy rate made it difficult to establish and to sustain the enterprising publisher. Clearly, it was not enough to make cheap and beautiful books; Sarita had to create a public who would buy and read them.

The brilliant response of the young directors—Milagros Saldarriaga, Tania Silva, and Jaime Vargas Luna—was to link publishing to pedagogy, to teach teachers how to use the books to turn teenagers into lovers of literature. LUMPA treats texts as incentives for endless creativity in a program that offers workshops for high-school language and literature classrooms and supplies a teachers’ manual organized along the standard classroom concepts used in Peru and much of Latin America to teach literature in the most conventional way. Sections of the manual are dedicated to author, plot, and characters, in order to cover standard material and thereby to allay teachers’ anxieties about adopting an unconventional approach. But instead of merely summarizing a plot, students are challenged to distinguish it from the story, to recognize that a narrator may be lying (what a clever way to underline the nature of fiction) and to choose an alternative narrator from among the characters of a story. They are encouraged to re-write demanding classics or new stories from an alternative point of view, from different times and places, and in various genres. Literally becoming authors of variations that compete with the found text, students master the technical and conceptual materials they play with. Creativity is the incentive to mastery, because choosing to change a text requires readers to focus on the existing details and mechanisms in order to contest them with alternatives.

During the summer that followed the Cartonera workshops at Harvard, from June through August 2007, Cultural Agents explored Sarita’s pedagogical lead and developed a multi-arts approach that incorporates our experience with the “Youth Arts” course to recognize all arts as potential media for interpreting literature. The arts, after all, do more than “express” ideas or emotions; they interpret the world and other works of art. Northrop Frye famously quipped that it was by no means clear if mimesis means imitation of nature; but he was quite sure that it means imitation of other arts.[7] In our variation on Lima’s lessons, readings of a literary text explode through a broad sampling of different art forms, so that participants are absorbed in the passionate activity of art-making and hardly suspect that they are learning difficult texts and sophisticated interpretive concepts.

That first summer, we benefitted from an “Idea Translation” grant received by one of our associates, Nathalie Galindo, from Harvard’s Professor David Edward’s class on creative entrepreneurship, “Idea Translation,” Engineering Sciences 147. With this seed money, Nathalie and Emily Ullman, who had volunteered their talents as teacher and actor, launched three pilot programs in the Boston area (with the Brazilian American Association in Framingham, the Boys and Girls Club in Chelsea, and Zumix out-of school music center in East Boston). The lessons we taught and learned have by now developed into a replicable program in higher order literacy that adjusts with the site-specific sensitivity we learned from Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. Local arts and artists along with texts chosen by the instructors (as long as they are moderately difficult to slow down perception and break out of habitual uses, to remember Schklovsky‘s formalist characteristics of art) provide the elements of the particular program. We bring an approach, as Boal did, and an invitation to play.

At a time when reading and writing skills, along with critical judgment, are in profound crisis throughout underserved areas of public education, it is crucial to recover an interest in reading, in literature, in arts in general and thereby in creative living. The Paper Picker Press is one initiative that facilitates intellectual curiosity and self-authorizing interventions among today’s children and youth so that they can make judicious choices for themselves and for fellow citizens. The workshops for teachers and artists are meant to be examples that can be modified and adapted with participants’ particular talents and goals in mind. Because instructors participate in the activities that they ask students to explore, practicing creativity and taking the corollary risks, they can expect –and learn to recognize– original work of students.


Children and youth learn best through guided play with materials, including literary material. I am convinced that this is true for adults as well, since life-long playfulness distinguishes human beings from other living species. Learning through creativity is not new to education. Over a century ago in Italy Maria Montessori formulated an arts-based pedagogy that managed to prepare poor retarded children to score above average grades in national standardized tests. Like later reformers, including Brazilian Paolo Freire, French Jacques Ranciére, and North American rogue teachers like Albert Cullum who found little institutional support,[8]  Montessori’s guiding principle was respect for the self-educating capacity of students. Teachers show, they don’t explain: “The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference.”[9] Sequels or parallel projects, such as the Waldorf Schools[10]  and the Reggio Emilia project in early childhood education[11] confirm Montessori’s evidence of superior results through art even for challenged children. It is clear that engaging children in creativity demonstrably enhances their disposition to learn a range of intellectual and social skills by cultivating concentration and discipline through pleasurable, even passionate, practices. Yet Montessori and Waldorf schools are now more common among privileged classes than in public schools. Skeptics about the declared mission of public schools to educate active citizens, as opposed to preparing obedient workers, will not be surprised by this uneven arrangement of resources and philosophies.[12]  Poor districts, overcrowded classrooms, and deflated expectations all conspire against children’s creative explorations. To compound the problem, beleaguered public school teachers under pressure to produce passing grades on standardized tests suppose that engaging artistic play is a distraction from academic work. Ironically for the teachers and tragically for the children, this sacrifice of play for standardized instruction fails on both counts of performing on tests and producing the pleasure that sustains learning.

The Paper Picker Press recovers some lessons in creative learning and invents others for a targeted literacy program. The fundamental principle is to encourage students to use literary masterpieces as grist for their own creative mills. Desacralized classics become tool kits that offer up useful vocabulary, clever grammatical turns, and a knack for literary figures. Students exercise their critical faculties both as they poach elements for their own writing, intervene in the classics, and also as they learn to admire the found text as well as the variations of their peers. Facilitators show what to do; they do not tell students what lessons to derive from the creative practices. The students themselves are encouraged to derive meanings from a workshop, for example in painting portraits of a character whose visual image changes with each iteration, or from a performance of human sculptures that represent literary figures of a shared text. To explain activities to students who have already experienced them is to pre-empt their interpretive capacities. I learned from my Montessori trained daughter that pre-emptive explanation, “stealing one’s learning,” is the dreaded error in this child-centered pedagogy; it is well known but seldom experienced because of its magnitude.

Teachers or maestros are not explainers, but those who show or indicate, as Spanish makes clear in the verbs enseñar and mostrar. To teach is to show. [Jacques Ranciére develops this, Montessori and Freire-like, non-authoritarian, and empowering, principle of education in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, a book-length biography of Jean Joseph Jacotot. The French Revolutionary professor of philosophy who urgently needed to leave France after the Restoration accepted a teaching position in Holland, though he knew no Dutch. There, Jacotot found that his Dutch students could teach themselves French by pouring over a bilingual edition of a popular text that he supplied.][13] Our week-long training in the Paper Picker Press models the same respect for participant youth-leaders and artists. First, we facilitate an activity and then invite reflections on the effects and on the pedagogical principles at work. The first few answers, however brilliant, will not exhaust the question. We wait for more reflection as an exercise in stretching the critical imagination and in patience with one’s peers.

Some skeptics question the urgency of literacy training today, when communication depends increasingly on audiovisual stimuli. They contend that insisting on a literary grounding for culture will continue to plague society with asymmetrical performance and expectations, because socio-economically disadvantaged populations lack the background and the access to training in literature. On the other hand, they allege, audiovisual culture levels the field between the rich and the poor. Our response is to aim above the current base-line and to strive for a higher common denominator. Language skills remain the foundation for critical thinking, social resourcefulness, and for individual psychological development. And levels of literacy continue to be reliable indices for poverty, violence, and disease. Without mastery of at least one spoken and written language, youth have little hope either of self-realization or of active citizenship.

To favor training that downplays literature in the name of democracy is, ironically, to reinforce unequal social structures by denying higher-order literacy to economically disadvantaged youth. Therefore, rather than compromise the personal and inter-personal contributions of literary education by turning a skeptical ear to the centrality of reading and writing, the Paper Picker Press develops the educational contributions of good literature for everyone, no matter what cultural background or tastes he or she may bring to the workshop. Even children who cannot read are engaged in the activities because they begin with making books while the text is read aloud. The range of interpretive arts and styles will depend on the youth and on their local instructors. But the incitation to make art is a constant in the Paper Picker Press, and it turns texts that might appear elite or irrelevant into the raw material of student creations.


The Paper Picker Press has worked in after-school programs, summer programs, and out of school with young people at all levels, from kindergarteners to graduate students. Among the benefits of the program, the most significant is surely its effective development of literacy among youth towards both lower and higher-order thinking. But the corollary effects for their development in general and for broad civic development are also worth appreciating. Instructors who embrace creativity as a valued human faculty promote the self-reliance and resourcefulness that can help young people become active citizens. And sites that engage artists to help educate their youth identify the arts as social resources, thereby acknowledging that creativity is a foundation for free societies. Without creativity, the meaning of citizenship loses a sense of active participation, because participation depends on the freedom to adjust laws and practices in light of ever new practical and ethical challenges. Without art, citizenship would shrink to a notion of compliance that treats society as if it were a closed text that we read for facts about “what is,” rather than reading society as a work in progress that invites us to make adjustments and to explore the “what if.”  Towards that constructive exploration, the following particular objectives direct our program:

1. To encourage ownership and authorship of the texts, participants learn to interpret creatively. Ownership of language and authorship of narrative empower young people to become active agents of their own lives and to participate in public life.

2. To enable young people to connect stories with their own lived experience. All texts thereby become “relevant” so that instructors need not choose texts that they consider to be appropriate, which may limit the range of reading for youth. Instead, the range becomes limitless when participants re-write good literature through their own imaginary frames. This way, the broad range of cultural production remains open to youth.

3. To reveal that no text is immune to creative intervention, since reading necessarily intervenes in a text and produces as many variations as there are readers. Literature is seen as a dynamic negotiation rather than an imposition.

4. To demonstrate that reading and writing are two moments of the same process, so that reading cannot be passive but instead affords opportunities for creative co-authorship.

5. To experience language itself as an artistic medium, a trigger for the range of other artistic activities, since the same literary text can serve as inspiration for painting, dance, theater, music, printing, etc.

Conventional teaching has favored convergent and predictable answers to specific questions as the first and sometimes the only way to engage young people in learning. This cautious approach privileges data retrieval or “lower order thinking.”  Critical and creative “higher order thinking,” on the other hand, has seemed like an extra and sometimes infinitely delayed luxury for struggling students. But this first-things-first procedure that gets stuck in the given facts without exploring possible interpretations has been stifling for students because it rarely reaches the transition to a second level that would develop their mental agility. Paradoxically, as we have learned, a lower order focus on factual information seldom leads to critical thinking, while attention to detail can follow from higher order creative manipulations that highlight particular data in the found material.

Consider what happens when we engage youth to treat texts as pre-texts for improvising alternative plots, for re-framing characters, or changing the register of language. The challenge to change a text leads young readers to engage their critical faculties to explore the structure and details of the original text so that they can intervene or create alternatives. Critical readers in training learn to mine the original piece for lexical, grammatical, and structural, elements in order to replace and to redesign existing arrangements. Original elements become dramatically visible for young iconoclasts who read with a creative purpose, demystifying literature into usable stuff that can be appropriated in ways that make practically any text “relevant.”  There is no need to select customized reading materials and thereby to limit the exposure of particular readers to appropriate texts, because youth can authorize themselves to customize their own irreverent versions of the original. Young creators develop mastery of a text so that they can refuse its ultimate authority.

Our approach assumes the risks and the rigor inherent in any creative process. As in María Montessori’s Italy and Paolo Freire’s Brazil, The United States, and other states worldwide need to address underprivileged schools that resentfully submit to standardize testing, where teachers have been understandably risk-averse. They stick to basic skills through a first-things-first approach: first the factual details of a text and then interpretation, if there is any time left. Teaching for testing this way produces unhappy pressures for everyone. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents all generally surrender to a perceived requirement to focus on facts alone. But the irony has been that this cautious approach to literacy keeps the test scores down, because young people who don’t explore creative interpretation score badly on questions of interpretation and therefore on ratings of higher order, critical thinking.

The Paper Picker Press offers an antidote by inverting the pyramid of lower to higher order activities, initiating youth into the apex of creative interpretation as an incentive to plumb the details that will enable compelling variations on found material or pre-texts.


The Paper Picker Press is not a detailed recipe for implementation; it is a toolkit to construct a customized program. Years ago, Freire warned us against pedagogical packages that urge innovation and then deliver exhaustive instructions to follow. Instead, we train instructors to liberate their own creativity through variations on activities that we have developed, and through their own new experiments. Youth-leaders and collaborating artist-instructors need to “own” their particular version of the program in order to model the independence and good humor about mistakes that we encourage among youth. In that spirit we continue to take liberties with existing practices and to generate new activities with each new site and every artist who has donated his or her talents to contributing a new art of interpretation.

Ideally, creative collaborations throughout the ten-week session of the Paper Picker Press will include classroom teachers, each assigned to one group of students, and artists who rotate through the classrooms to bring both technical expertise and variety to each group. Alternatively, if resources are too limited to engage artists in addition to the classroom teachers, the teachers themselves can create a collaboration that pools their particular talents to vary the arts employed in class. Three to five teachers who adopt the Paper Picker Press can plan to rotate among the classrooms in order to direct the particular activities in which they excel. This arrangement satisfies the principle of artistic variety and exposes the students to several adult mentors without incurring the costs and administrative complexity of hiring another team of artists. In either case—the ideal collaborations among teachers and local artists or the effective compromise of teacher collaborations —we train the instructors together during a week-long workshop in order to learn from one another and to model the opportunities for admiration that we will share with students.


Figure 1. Training tool for Paper Picker Press workshops.

The compelling reason to work with a distribution of arts is to make good on the principle of “multiple intelligences,” coined by Howard Gardner who emphasized visual arts rather than the range of creative practices, and to develop each youth with attention to his or her particular talents.[14] Once a young person is acknowledged as someone who can paint, or rap, dance, or act, etc., he/she gains the recognition and self-esteem that encourage the risk in other arts. Healthy risk-taking is the necessary bridge to bring the youth to reading and writing. Perhaps he or she can thrive as an adult without mastering one or another of the arts in our workshop. But the skills of literacy, critical thinking, persuasion, and deliberation are necessary for the development of each youth; and they are basic for any commitment to social justice.


Warm-ups. These are lucid exercises designed to relax inhibitions and create a core spirit of trust and cooperation among participants. Many of the exercises are described in Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors, New York: Routledge, 1992 as well as in the Habla website:

Book-making. Even before any literature appears in the program, participants begin to make book covers by choosing recycled materials prepared for them, or brought in by participants. They design ways to intervene in printed/used cardboard as a preamble for intervening in printed texts. The handiwork engages students in design challenges and also enhances their attention once an oral reading begins.

Reading aloud. A facilitator reads the chosen text in a clear and moving voice while participants continue to make their individual books. The act of reading aloud while others listen intently as they engage in manual labor has a long and distinguished tradition throughout the Caribbean in the practice of cigar manufacture. Skilled workers could insist with factory owners that readers were free to read even revolutionary tracts during work hours, simply because the labor of good tobacco rollers was irreplaceable. Recent studies have corroborated the relationship between heightened levels of attention to speech and manual activities, overturning conventional assumptions that students are inattentive when they play with handiwork.[15]  

Question the text. After hearing the text read, the facilitator may ask participants to develop a question to ask of the text, signaling that the literature is the object of investigation, not the youth. Asking a question of the text also reveals that it is a product of decisions to include some details, and only suggest others; the piece becomes vulnerable to manipulation as soon as participants notice that the story could have been told in different ways. Perhaps an important detail is missing from the text, or maybe an inconsistency arises. Instead of putting students on the defensive, by asking if they have understood or noticed relevant information, this activity puts the text on trial and invites participants to require more information.

Intertext. After participants formulate a question of the text, and share the questions orally, the facilitator invites the young writers to respond to their own questions, or to adopt another question, producing an interpolated text that develops what had been a fuzzy or enticing opportunity in the original text.

Literature on the clothesline. Borrowing from a nineteenth century tradition especially popular in Brazil where poor poets had no other way to sell their work but to hang copies in the Public Square to be bought by passers by, participants hang their intertexts on a clothesline with clothespins for instant “publication.”  The effects of displaying one’s own work and also reading the work of peers include pride in a good piece of writing, greater development of interpretive possibilities, and also admiration for others.

Portraits, back to back, an activity learned from LUMPA. Participants sit back to back while one describes a character from the text that all had heard in the oral reading and the other draws the description. After 10 minutes, they change roles. When each participant has drawn a portrait, we create a gallery and invite participants to the opening talk. Each participant is asked if his or her description was well executed by the partner. The results are always a combination of convergence and divergence, because each participant is actively interpreting as he or she describes, and also as he or she draws. This observation stimulates reflection on the relationship between reading and interpretation, shared experiences and personal differences, and in general social justice in a democracy that negotiates equal rights with cultural and personal differences.

Rap, Rhythm and Poetry. The contestatory energy and non-conformist wit of hip hop culture is a natural for youthful appropriations of classic texts. Spoken word artists are unfailingly the guides to explorations of literary figures and indirect communication that produces estrangement, a favorite signature of art in formalist criticism. One rapper commented on his use of metaphor that it did not give up the meaning too easily and therefore slowed down communication with the pleasurable tension of a riddle.

Movie music score. One way to develop interpretation along with music appreciation in the Paper Picker Press is to invite participants to develop a music score for the film they are preparing from the story used in the program. The facilitator may play about six one-minute fragments of either varied or related musical genres and ask participants to identify particular words or literary figures that should be accompanied by the musical fragment. Students will strain to listen to details and may find unsuspected resonances between elements that elicit the same musical assignation among the listeners. The very effort to enlist the music for one’s own score encourages active listening, so basic to work in social justice. With interest and curiosity aroused about the musical fragments, the facilitator may offer some information and background for the pieces heard.

Point of view. Photography is an available technique in any area where participants may be able to use even a cellular phone in teams of two or three. Invite them to take pictures from a particular character’s point of view, or to compose references to a theme. Then send the photos electronically to an email address, or download digital photos, to project them onto a screen for viewing and commentary. The activity makes lessons in perspective and composition immediately available for visual analysis and translates easily into otherwise difficult concepts in literary and social criticism. Without a notion of multiple points of view that one can occupy, social debates do not progress beyond signaling one’s differences from another person.

Literary Figures Alive. Image theater is a practice developed by Augusto Boal to create human sculptures that capture a difficult dynamic and freeze it long enough to reflect on the conflict. The technique builds dramatic plots in forum theater for conflict resolution. But in the Paper Picker Press it can also be an invitation to embody literary figures in groups of three to five participants. Have them form groups and instruct the participants to locate an interesting literary figure in the text [the terms metaphor, metonymy, synecdoque, simile, etc can be offered later to refine readings]. This activity is training for persuasive and effective communication. The Classics defined rhetoric as the political “art of persuasion.”  Often a participant or two in the group will not know what a literary figure is, but after working in the design of the sculpture that companions identify, they all learn to continue identifying more figures. After each sculpture is staged, participants from the other groups attempt to “read” the figure by locating it in the text. This “perform and response” activity turns a possibly abstract lesson in social rhetoric into entertainment that can be sustained long enough for everyone to masters the power of rhetorical devices.

Forum Theater. Although this technique is less text-specific than our other activities, we often smuggle Boal’s Forum Theater into the program as an opportunity to teach a creative and very effective exercise in conflict resolution. Apparently, intractable problems are located in the text, and yet the very act of locating them indicates that readers recognize the problem and may well sense a local and intimate connection. Then skits are prepared to represent each of the two or three problems chosen by groups of students. After each skit is performed, the facilitator invites the spect-actors in the audience to intervene, one after another, in ways that can derail the tragedy. The cumulative effect of multiple interventions demonstrates, pace Aristotle whose intention was to diffuse rebelliousness, that the socially active definition of tragedy is a lack of imagination. Active citizens create variations on stage that avoid crisis and disaster.

Grandmother Tells the Story. The Paper Picker Press can seamlessly develop into a bilingual arts program by adding activities that depend on a language other than the one used in the target classroom text. Since the program multiplies approaches to interpretation, it will not seem foreign to ask participants to re-tell the story from the point of view and the language of a non-English [or Spanish, etc.] speaker. Students will display their virtuosity by performing well in another target language; they will validate the contributions of family members and/or neighbors who do not speak the hegemonic language and who may be illiterate. Language specific genres of speech can enrich the range of interventions. For example, a story can morph into the popular poetry of décimas, or rancheras, etc.

Off on a Tangent instructs participants to browse widely in libraries, bookstores, homes, cultural centers, etc to find a literary sample that can in some way be related to the core text of the workshop. If the connection is far-fetched, participants will engage in the amusing mental agility of justifying the link. The only specific instruction is that the found text have at least one word that the youth imagines his or her classmates do not know. This activity is the only activity repeated in each of the five modules to encourage participants to read widely among challenging works. By the end of the ten week program, we will have trained curious readers who enjoy a challenge.

Intervention is the theme of each activity, everything from changing the look of used cardboard to interpolating an intertext and adjusting the course of a play. It is also the principle of activities in social justice, enabled by the combination of risk taking and rigor that undergirds all aspects of the Paper Picker Press.


Chalco is one of the poorest neighborhoods of Mexico City, far enough away from the center along the traffic-clogged highway to Puebla to feel isolated as well as arid. There, migrants from several indigenous and mestizo communities settle alongside one another in precarious constructions and arrangements. Though the government of the Federal District has begun to construct an administrative infrastructure in Chalco, the unpaved streets are still lined with makeshift dwellings put together from any available materials, including cardboard. The arts of recycling are no news here. But before the cartonera came to town, no one had yet made books from found material.

In July 2008, Doris Sommer and José Luis Falconi–directors of Cultural Agents—were hosted by Worldfund to train a team of educators in Chalco’s admirably dedicated but rather rigid Catholic school “Mano Amiga.”  Mostly local artists worked with us here, as elsewhere, to insure sustainability of the collaborations they establish with the regular teaching staff of a school or an after-school setting, but we also invited Pedro Reyes to create a new activity for the cartonera. Preparation of the block-type poster he developed with students of Mano Amiga is now featured on the cover of the Cultural Agents brochure. Pedro had worked with Cultural Agents before – including the exhibit “ad usum” inspired by the creative Mayor Mockus of Bogota and shown at the Carpenter Center at Harvard University during the Fall of 2007 before it showed at the Americas Society in New York. Pedro continues the inspiration now by inventing brilliant works of art-solutions to apparently intractable problems. See for example his “Palas por pistolas” (Swords into plowshares) in the same brochure.[16]

Cultural Agents had brought the Cartonera to other sites in Mexico, including the Museo Amparo in Puebla and the University of Guadalajara. We had also collaborated with the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico, where Maestro Antonio Martorell was part of the Cultural Agents team of facilitators for the week-long workshop, with Caribbean University in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, invited by resident artist Anaida Hernández. We trained teachers and artists in Bogota’s main library, the Luis Angel Arango where workshops will resume in August 2009; and even before we ventured out, Cultural Agents implemented the Paper Picker Press in six struggling grade schools in the Boston-Alston area, invited through Harvard’s Achievement Success Initiative in collaboration with Boston’s City Government. Most recently, a city-wide project in “Culture for Change” engaged Cultural Agents to develop the Paper Picker Press for youth at risk in several sites throughout Boston.

In Puebla, the Fundación Amparo hosted the week’s training especially to support its Proyecto Roberto in developing communities. At Puebla’s beautiful Museo Amparo, we benefitted from the participation of two distinguished artists, Paloma Torres (who happens to be a student of Martorell) and Betsabé Romero who invented new activities to take advantage of the admirable pre-Colombian collection at the Museo; and we enjoyed the collaboration of Puebla’s office of public education. The enthusiastic responses to the ten-week implementation at the Museo Amparo that followed the training and lasted through Fall semester of 2008 include a city initiative to expand into new sites of the school system and also to establish Cartoneras in market places to benefit residents at large. Similarly, at the University of Guadalajara, the privileged precinct of the Arts Academy was an ideal site for training already sophisticated arts educators. At the following International Book Fair in Guadalajara, November-December 2008, we directed a workshop for over 120 (literacy coaches) with generous help from Cultural Agents abroad, including Mayor Antanas Mockus, Angela Pérez, Cultural Coordinator for Colombia’s Banco de la República, and Doris Moromisato, Peruvian poet and Director of the International Book Fair in Lima. Sequels planned for the City of Guadalajara include an expanded workshop, or Institute, to scale up the program for area schools. But nowhere has the success of the Cartonera been more stunning than in Chalco.

Maybe it is the intensity of dedication by the Director of the Mano Amiga School, Lilia Garelli, and of her devoted faculty that determined the exceptional achievement of the Cartonera in Chalco. Maybe it is also the refreshing contrast of a creative—even iconoclastic—approach to teaching in an otherwise traditional Catholic school where convergent responses had been the standard value, and where divergent responses tended to be unsolicited and undervalued. For example, when on the first day of the week-long workshop we asked the ten teachers and ten artists to say what came to mind after listening to “Los dos reyes y los dos laberintos” by Jorge Luis Borges, all but one gave the moral of the story, convinced that coherence was a sign of understanding. The only outlier, a young Oaxacan painter who took time to warm up to the group, asked refreshingly, “What color is the sand?”  But by the end of the week, everyone was taking brilliant risks and multiplying the possibilities of the one-page story. Later, throughout the ten-week implementation and up to the present they have been inspiring innovation in their students. [See the weekly photographic reports from Chalco on the website.]  Maybe too the success there owes to the everyday practices of recycling in a poor but resourceful neighborhood making the cartonera a natural and giving this scarcity-induced resourcefulness a new legitimacy as art and interpretation.

In her delicate, almost girlish, but unflinching voice, Director Garelli would typically address a challenge that required more resources than those available. The good results would follow from deciding to do whatever was needed a lo Chalco. Room darkening window shades were an out of the question luxury, but dark crepe paper worked just as well and looked elegant against the clean brick of the new school building. Salaries for five artists, in addition to the five teachers to be paid in these extra-hour collaborations, stretched the school’s purse to the tearing point, so two mothers of children at school were invited to donate their skills in photography and in music to complete the design of multiple arts that rotate through the classrooms from third to seventh grades. However one describes the combination of personal, economic, and pedagogical factors, they came magically, or providentially, together in “Amiga Cartonera” at Mano Amiga. It is to date our most inspiring success and also our inspired instructor for new developments of the cartonera.

Doris Sommer is director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University, and professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, and  African and African American Studies. Among her books are Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991); Proceed with Caution When Engaging Minority Literature (1999); and Abrazos y rechazos: Cómo leer en clave menor (2006).




[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), xxiv. Charles Larmore, “Moral Judgment” in Judgment, Imagination, and Politics: Themes from Kant and Arendt, edited by Ronald Beiner and Jennifer Nedelsky (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 48.

[4] Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy” in Judgment, Imagination, and Politics: Themes from Kant and Arendt, edited by Ronald Beiner and Jennifer Nedelsky (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 42.

[5] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 20. Quote from Georg Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind (New York, 1967), 233.

[6] See essay by Johana Kunin The one in Cuernavaca, for example, is called simply La Cartonera and dedicates itself to publishing local authors who would otherwise not have public outlets.

[7] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 158.

[8] See A Touch of Greatness,


[10] Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf Education is based on a profound understanding of human development that addresses the needs of the growing child. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head.”

[11] Louise B. Cadwell, Bringing Learning to Life: A Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002); C. Weisman Topal, and L. Gandini, Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials (Worcester: Davis Publications, Inc., 1999).

[12] Basil Bernstein et al.

[13] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, translated by Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991; originally 1987).

[14] Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[15] Reference from Klare Shaw.


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