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If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create.

John Lennon

~~~~@~~~~

Earlier this month, I received a special gift from a fellow yogi: a full 60-minute playlist of Beatles love songs to use in our Valentine’s Day class. This gift inspired a contest – whoever guessed the number of times the word “love” occurred in the lyrics during the class won a prize. It was SO much fun!

In appreciation for the playlist, I compiled a list of Beatles lyrics and quotes in the spirit of yoga wisdom. Each quote went down on a little decorated card and was placed inside a repurposed Altoids Tin.

The self-imposed quest to create something new and share it on a daily basis continues.  Yesterday was one of my “making a difference” days (i.e., one of the days I spend sharing time with the new people of the world). Each of these little friends came in with their own agendas, which they announced upon walking in the door. Their agendas involved creating stuff. It must be in the air. The common theme that seemed to be running through each friend’s mind was landscapes.  The season had changed and each one had noticed and wanted to mark the occasion in their own way.  I joyfully tossed out my preconceived ideas about how things needed to go and we broke out the fun stuff: colorful paper, foam sheet cut-out shapes, pom poms, pencils, glue, and of course, loads of glitter. One wanted to express the colors of fall leaves.  Another was thinking ahead to snow and sparkling lights. They spontaneously created from their own imaginations and the materials at hand. Magic was made and it was good.

After that fun was over, I felt the need to make something of my own.  In my haste to make something phenomenal, I wound up stepping on an upside down pin-cushion.  I was barefoot at the time. The sharp sting of skin being perforated and nerves being bojangled by multiple pins convinced me to call it a day for creative work. Some days making a difference is enough.

“…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.

December is half over and I have had too little farmy fun to show for it.

My work life this semester was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  For starters there were over 800 preschoolers involved.  I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I stopped counting at the beginning of November when we were at 786. Add to that my little afternoon friends who I visit, the usual weekly yoga classes, and a new teaching gig: a university course called “Piyo.” When I was asked to apply for the job I had no idea what “Piyo” was or how univeristy physical education courses worked as I had never taken any as a student. Piyo turned out to be a blend of Pilates and yoga, and I invented the curriculum as I went. After chaotic mornings with preschoolers, Piyo was my saving grace. The course turned out to be the most fun and authentic teaching experience I’ve ever had.  I got to completely nerd-out on anatomy and delve deeply into somatic learning. And while I have taught several college courses, I have never before taught one barefoot.  After teaching the course barefoot all semester, I’ve come to the conclusion that shoes change everything about the teaching experience.  Shoes make your feet all claustrophobic and rob you of sensation and connection to the environment. They make you teach like “I’m somebody wearing shoes”…which is to say all formal and like you have somewhere else to go or like you’re going to step on something disgusting or dangerous.  Who knew?  Anyway, it was just awesome to not have desks, to kick off shoes, to cut the lights and learn cool stuff. The students, freshmen and juniors, were the youngest college students I’ve ever taught and they were unexpectedly fabulous.  They were an interesting, smart, fun, diverse, and engaged group that gave me much hope for the future.  It was such great experience.

Today I finished grading, posted grades, and completed an article review. Tomorrow I meet the last of the preschoolers for 2013, write recommendation letters, and then I’m free from university obligations for this year and I intend to get back to farmy fun and hopefully experience some goaty goodness.

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.”

Picture1

If I had the energy I would go take a picture of something beautiful outside to share with you.

But this is all I’ve got after:

35 undergradute students in an online course

544 e-mails in the course inbox

429 e-mails in the course outbox

44 pages of instruction composed by yours truly

1933 student messages read on the discussion board

238 messages composed on the discussion board

695 pages graded

500 (and something) preschoolers met

29 graduate students supervised

2 times being bedridden with the “preschool crud”

1 honors thesis advised to completion

1 dissertation prospectus advised to successful defense

“Be present”…heard it before.  What does that even mean?  Here I am! How much more present can I possibly be?

Yep, physically I was there. But on and on the mind went chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter….

I really didn’t get this “be present” stuff while I was at the ashram.

And then one day I did. I just had to make time and space for it.

I first noticed the change in the classroom last fall.  Something had clicked.  My students were no longer covertly texting under the desks. They were asking questions, we were talking to each other, I had their attention and they were engaged.

What had changed? Me. It wasn’t sudden, but by degree – small shifts in perspective day-by-day. Even though I was teaching a course that was new to me, I no longer felt the need to obsessively plan and prepare lectures down to the last detail. I had stopped deciding exactly what to say and how to say it before I ever entered the room. I was no longer mapping out the class schedule in minute detail. In short, I had stopped worrying about MY performance.

No wonder my students had not been engaged.  I had not been engaged fully. I had been too worried about being competent, being prepared, being organized, getting the facts right, creating flashy slides, designing assignments. Not that these things don’t matter.  But what’s the point if you’re not fully present at the moment of delivery?

How do you cultivate joy?  Realize this: The past is fantasy. The future is fantasy.  Drop the baggage of fear, avoidance, and pretense.  Arrive in the present and embrace this moment as it is:  Perfect.

The world of academia is as weird as it is wonderful.  I’ve certainly had my share of interesting jobs over the years, but I’ve never been through a process remotely akin to what I’m currently experiencing.  This semester I’m up for mid-tenure review.  This basically means a group of colleagues will evaluate the work I’ve done in the past two and a half years. At this stage in the game, I must articulate my teaching philosophy, detail my professional development, and summarize my scholarly accomplishments in narrative form.   Then I fill a giant notebook with evidence supporting all the things I had to say about myself and I’ll set goals laying out all I wish to accomplish in the next two and a half years when I have to go through this whole process again.  At that point the folks I work with will decide if I they want me to stick around for the rest of my life or if I’m fired. 

Does all that sound weird to you?  It does to me.  But that’s pretty much how it all works.

As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time lately sitting around contemplating the complicated task of teaching and the messiness of learning.  Quite honestly, I have had no great revelations.  Teaching still seems like the great three-ringed circus it was when I first started.  In this ring, we have a clown juggling individual students’ needs with the needs of the class and the needs of their clients who they will be serving in the future. Step right up to see the enchantress magically transforming information into knowledge. Witness the aerialist performing anxiety-provoking feats as she walks a tightrope stretched between turbulence and order.  Here come the acrobats alternating between collaboration and autonomy as they balance on horseback in an act combining strength, flexibility, and perseverance.

 Did I have a hand in creating this or am I simply just a part of the show?

Maybe a bit of both, who knows.  At least it will be interesting to see what happens next.

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