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“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions…live  your way into the answer.”

–Rainer Maria Rilke

~~*~~

Last year Parker Palmer shined my teacher’s heart when it when was tarnished.  His book The Courage to Teach got me through a teacher’s heart crisis and showed me how to teach (and live) with greater integrity.

Though untarnished this year at semester’s end I figured the teacher’s heart was due for routine maintenance, so I picked up a copy of The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to RenewalPhysicist Arthur Zajonc joins Palmer to bring educators back to the big questions underlying what we do.  In this work lives the question: “How do we promote educational efforts that address the whole human being (mind, heart, and spirit) in ways that contribute best to our future on this fragile planet?”

This and other questions posed in their work remind us that education is transformation. It is not merely “the conveyance of information concerning objects, but a leading…through the manifold layers of experience and reason to occasions of epiphany…to the exalted experience of genuine insight.”

They remind us that community and conversation are often the driving force behind this transformative experience. They remind us what conversation can bring about when done well, “The point is not to convert, but to cultivate the possible by collaboring with people who hope to bring it into being.”

Twice this week I’ve come across the Bantu word ubuntu once in this book and then later in Boyd Varty’s wonderful tribute to Nelson Mandela (see video below). Varty’s story gets at the essence of the word’s meaning: I am because of you.

I am; because of you. If you want a real education, try living that one.

And yet for transformation to truly take hold, we must strike a balance between community and solitude.  Our institutions and culture have a growing tendency to encourage living at a frenetic-pace. When left to our own devices (and I do mean devices) we are increasingly engaged in a world that keeps us pathologically distracted and distanced from our own minds.  Abha Dawesar makes this point by distinguishing between two nows: the present now and the one that technology provides us, which she calls the “digital now.”

Parker and Zajonc remind us that we need ample time for “quietude that allows for real reflection on what we have seen and heard, felt and thought.”  They promote a contemplative pedagogy that creates time and space for silence with practices that develop concentration and deepen understanding because:

“Education is a vital, demanding, and precious undertaking….if true to the human being education must reflect our nature in all its subtlety and complexity.  Every human faculty must be taken seriously, including the intellect, emotions, and our capacity for relational, contemplative, and bodily knowing.”

And if you managed to read this far, thank you. 🙂 Ubuntu. Please share what’s on your mind.

I’m in teaching mode. I have been all month and will be until August. Teaching mode means my perspective of the outside world is shrinking by the day as I laser hone my thinking around one topic.  Teaching mode involves books, notebooks, folders, and papers scattered and spilling over all available surfaces in the vicinity.  Butcher paper is rolled out across the floor of the greatroom and scented markers are strewn about as I map out the curriculum.  Dishes and laundry go unwashed. Sadly, Yip has to remind me to feed her with repeated attempts to trip me in the direction of her food bowl.   Blogs go unread, comments go unacknowledged, and my own posts get spacey (in a multitude of ways).

This is an example of what the preliminary stages of teaching mode looked like:

june 6 012

This is how it smelled: to do lists in cherry, case studies in blueberry,  and activities in sour apple. (A-whop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bop-bop — Tutti Fruitti!) 

Teaching mode is a little consuming. Every week I read like a maniac, convinced I know nothing about this topic I’ve been studying for over a decade.  Every week I spend hours making these elaborate plans and putting together PowerPoint presentations and lectures to dazzle my students. Every week so far I have intensely disliked my entire plan and so I have wound up throwing it all out at the last minute and winging my way through class discussions.

I despised class discussions when I was a student.  I was painfully shy and horrified by the very idea of having to talk to anyone. Just tell me what I need to know and I will sit here quietly absorbing it!

On the teaching end of things, class discussions are possibly even more terrifying. It’s hard to blend in to the crowd when you’re front and center. When I stepped into the classroom on that first day without a clear plan of action I had an instant panic attack.  I broke out into a sweat, my heart rate skyrocketed, and I had an urgent need to go to the bathroom.  Why did I toss out that plan?! What is going to happen here?  What am I going to say?  What if no one says anything back?! Fortunately there was no one else in the classroom when I had my little crisis.

When everything in me was screaming, “RUN!!” I did what the last two years of yoga training taught me to do:  I sat down, closed my eyes, and breathed. I opened myself to the possibilities. I let go of my attachment to results. I was completely disarmed with this knowledge: I am pursuing that which makes my heart beat.  Then I opened my eyes, got up, and stepped into the present with a smile.

~~~~@~~~~

I would say this is a completely unrelated note, but it’s all related and intertwined and linked to the topic of transformation.  Perhaps this is just another reflection of teaching mode.

little frog

This little guy was among the hundreds of tadpoles I fished out of the frog pond a couple weeks ago when I changed out their water. He’s at that awkward in-between stage of frog development. He’s still a little tadpole-blobby and his tail can be seen in the picture on the right, but he has all four legs.
That’s all. He just needed to be shared.

The more I teach and read about teaching, the less I seem to know about the topic. Three books I read in 2012 about teaching taught me quite a lot…and left me with many, many more questions…

In Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, Finkle invites us to recall our most significant learning experiences. Only one of the

Teaching with Your Mouth Shut

Teaching with Your Mouth Shut

three I recalled happened in a classroom, which supported his point – most of our learning happens outside the classroom. Finkle contends “good teaching is the creation of those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.” This focus takes the sage off the stage and brings learners front and center.  In his model of teaching, learning occurs by first engaging students with problems to solve and then through the process of mutual inquiry and discussion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I applied his advice about teaching in the classroom by reducing lecture time and providing students with case studies to contemplate, research, and discuss. After two semesters of experimenting with this in three different classes, I came to the conclusion that the majority of my students do not particularly appreciate this form of learning. Some do (mostly honors students), but most expect the structure and predictability of classroom lectures along with the opportunity lectures afford to tune out and covertly text under the desk.

Ultimately, I was left with more questions than answers from Finkel’s advice about teaching: How do I meet the needs of such a wide array of learners? Should we give students what they want or what we think they need? Can I strike an effective balance between the two? Is the Socratic method of teaching still relevant in this era of edutainment? Why do students write such horrible things in their course evaluations? Is it because I am a horrible teacher? How good are students at evaluating what they have learned? When should I practice “tough love” and when should I show compassion? And when is that tough love and compassion the exact same thing? What in the world are we even measuring with course evaluations — my teaching ability? Student perceptions? Teacher popularity?

…and just as I was having this existential crisis in my teacher’s heart, two more books came along to guide me through it:

Push by Sapphire

Push by Sapphire

 Push is the debute novel by Sapphire, on which the movie Precious is based. I have yet to see the movie, but I experienced the story via audiobook. The audio version was a good one —  I enjoyed listening to the music and rhythm of the dialect.  The story itself was one of the most disturbing I have come across. In the words of Precious, the main character,

“I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.”

And boy, did she. Precious’ reality was a bleak place of incest/rape, abuse, ignorance, and disability. It is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart. There was all sorts of darkness in her story that I did not want to face. There was also a small, but persistent ray of light: the power of compassion and education to propel us through the abyss. It was a much needed reminder.

The Courage to Teach

The Courage to Teach

And finally, Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach found me and forced me to break out the journal and take notes. Palmer’s writing is masterful. He illuminates a wide range of subjects – social constructivism, empiricism, epistemology, genetics, spirituality – with simple and beautiful language. He confirms that:

“Good education teaches students to become both producers of knowledge and discerning consumers of what other people claim to know.”

He writes of the importance of conflict in teaching and of holding open spaces where we can grapple with paradoxical tensions.  In this space of turmoil – in this tension of opposites there is:

“a power that wants to pull [the] heart open to something larger than itself.”

And “suffering is neither to be avoided nor merely to be survived, but must be actively embraced for the way it expands our own hearts.” He writes of pulling both teachers and students from center stage and putting “great things” at the center, then teaching and learning those great things from a place of humility.

“We experience humility not because we have fought and lost but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen – and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible.”

I cannot say enough about how good this book was.  I will definitely be reading all of his works in the coming year.

So as this year winds down and a new one begins, I resolve to embrace my teacher’s heart crisis and learn what I can from this “great thing.”

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