Archives for the month of: January, 2015

One of the best things about being a teacher is that we get do-overs. Each new set of kids is a fresh start. Yesterday I met my new batch of tenth graders for the first time and I spent the class chatting with them about expectations (mostly mine) and attention. I want to explore attention directly. How far can it be taught? Can we teachers develop routines and exercises that help kids pay better attention? Can we help them manage the stressful or joyful thoughts that distract them? Can we inculcate in them a sense that boredom is a function of one’s own mind and not an essential quality of the thing they find boring?

Mainly what I wanted them to take away is a sense of my philosophy: the sense that curiosity and discovery, adventure and exploration are paramount. I also told them I didn’t want them to converge onto a spectrum to be measured against one another or against a “standard.” I want them to ray out and be ever truly more themselves in all their unique vibrancy. (It would be fun to take a photo of them when I’m talking like that. Their faces are so intently human, so full of peaceful dignity.)

And I told them that if I had my druthers, I would begin our time together silently, leading them down the stairs and out the door to a waiting bus, where we would depart for adventure number 1. The logistics and expense of that are insoluble, so instead we will venture out imaginatively, beginning with Emily Dickinson:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.

 

All aboard!

All aboard!

We are at the time of year, heading into first semester exams, that teachers are asking themselves what on earth, of all the multitudes of gems we’ve showered upon our students, they will take away.

 

WARNING: do not ask them this question.

 

They may well not know. They might shrug their shoulders and cast their minds back to try to find something to make you feel better. Or they might lash out and catalogue your iniquities (all of them committed in innocence). Neither they nor their teachers can yet know what has been taught, what has been learned. Whatever we test at this point may or may not stick. Many things we’ve tried to tell them may still be seeping down into their sinews and veins.

It’s a little like asking a garden, what did I plant?

 

Oh, it's planted.

Oh, it’s planted.

Nothing shows yet. Even if something has begun to grow, it doesn’t look like much.

Watch this space!

Watch this space!

 

I couldn’t have told you what my best and most influential teachers had taught me as their courses ended. I couldn’t have known.

There is a line of mature oaks outside my classroom window. I continue to be grateful for those who planted them. They’re taller than the second story roof. They began as green loops in the soil. What did the passersby think of them when they were a quarter of an inch tall? Not much.

All we can do is throw out handfuls of good seeds and prepare the ground as well as we’re able. It’s up to the kids to do the rest.  After all, it’s human nature to learn (and also human nature to be impatient and fussy and feel it’s not getting what it wants).

You have to wait.

You have to wait.

Do older learners really take more time and have more trouble or do they just think they do? As we get older, do our brains really become less flexible– or are we more sensitive to their balkiness and believe it’s because they’ve aged?

I’m questioning my assumption that I’m slower to pick up what I need to know on the guitar than I was. My son called me on this and I brushed it aside as a no-brainer, but then I got to thinking. My mother told me of a friend of hers who is past ninety, a former college professor, whose eyesight has declined so that he needs huge sized print. I suggested an e-reader and she said Oh he would never be up for learning how to use one. So he’d rather not read?! They aren’t hard to use, after all. She agreed, having one herself. We concluded that there’s an emotional laziness that sets in, a willingness to be daunted that increases with age.

Some of it has to do with how much we already know how to do. Little children know so little—they can’t afford to get lazy about the things they don’t know. Like language acquisition. They just plunge in and never seem thrown by all the words around them they can’t possibly understand. But once you get older, you understand most of what you need to get along and you get out of the habit of productive confusion, which is disorienting and feels like a loss of control and competence. Scary.

Perhaps there is a cognitive decline, but I’m persuaded it’s insignificant compared to the gumption decline. There’s a lack of faith in it, whether cause (“I don’t believe I can learn this so I’m disinclined to try”) or effect (“I find this so hard and confusing that I conclude I can’t learn as well as I used to”) I don’t know.

What does seem clear is that faith and courage are the two intertwined essentials for learning and anything a teacher can do to inspire them will help the learner to face the difficulties ahead, whatever the age of the learner. At my last lesson, my guitar teacher told me to learn a new song one measure at a time. He said that way you can solve the problems, each one as it arises—and there are lots of problems.

There will always be lots of problems in learning something new, whether the learner is young or old. Perhaps older learners just mind that more. Perhaps younger ones mind it, too, but many of them quit or evade our teaching so adeptly that we never get a chance to work with their resistance.

Perhaps working with resistance is the whole ball of wax.

Another thing I learned again yesterday is that linear learning is a myth. Chris told me that many of his students have asked for a way to learn the theory of music step by step—a linear unfolding of the concepts that underlie music. But there can never be a step by step route to this understanding, for it’s an interlocking system. We don’t learn step by step: we learn by crystallization or puzzling. Something falls into place and makes sense to us, and then that fact or concept will attract other related ideas, like when we were kids and made rock candy and the sugar crystals formed on the string.

You have to be patient.

You have to be patient.

Or it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you get the edges roughed in and something in the middle starts to grow. How foolish to try to do the puzzle by starting at the bottom row and work left to right, one piece at a time!

Haphazard is the only way.

Haphazard is the only way.

 

Another bit from Alan Watts (from The Book:  On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are):

 

Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves, is thoroughly wiggly. Its features are wiggly in both shape and conduct. Clouds, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines—all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether in space or in tie. Some French classicist of the eighteenth century complained that the Creator had seriously fallen down on the job by failing to arrange the stars with any elegant symmetry, for they seem to be sprayed through space like the droplets from a breaking wave. Is all this one thing wiggling in many different ways, or many things wiggling on their own? Are there “things” that wiggle or are the wigglings the same as the things? It depends upon how you figure it.

Millenia ago, some genius discovered that such wiggles as fish and rabbits could be caught in nets. Much later, some other genius thought of catching the world in a net. By itself, the world goes something like this:

 

!

!

 

But now look at this wiggle through a net:

 

The wiggle is in jail.

The wiggle is in jail.

The net has “cut” the big wiggle into little wiggles, all contained in squares of the same size. Order has been imposed on chaos. We can now say that the wiggle goes so many squares to the left, so many to the right, so many up, or so many down, and at last we have its number. Centuries later, the same image of the net was imposed upon the world as the lines of both celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, as graph paper for potting mathematical wiggles, as pigeonholes for filing, and as the ground plan for cities. The net has thus become one of the presiding images of human thought. But it is always an image, and just as no one can use the equator to tie up a package, the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.

 

This reminds me of “Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, said to be composed for Anne Boleyn:

 

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, hélas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

 

A deer, a woman, the wind, true understanding: hard to capture with any net, particularly imaginary ones.

Yet this is precisely what standardized tests aim to do and to enforce. They are imaginary nets, grids and graphs for the wide world.

Anyway, I’m going to go on jigsaw puzzling and growing rock candy comprehension. We beginners always wish it wouldn’t take so long, but that’s the way it works.

 

Yesterday I had the privilege of being the student of a gifted teacher: fascinating on so many levels.

This was my son’s first guitar teacher and he was in town for a short time on his way to a WWOOF placement in Maryland (my kind of guy. He’s also an “avid walker.” I wonder how he feels about otters). He met me to give me a single lesson and I had emailed to say that I’d like to try to untangle my confusion about chords and intervals and to try to improve the sound of the songs I can play.

He was highly encouraging: I came away replete with courage. I liked hearing him tell me I’d done a good job and use my name. It turns out that even we older learners are hungry for faith that we can accomplish and achieve. He exuded confidence, both in his ability/mastery and in his interest in helping people to learn. From an email in answer to a question:

I am indeed, very patient.  I feel like it is the most important skill to learn as a guitar teacher, as well as a good memory back to the days when my struggles on the instrument were the same as my student’s.  I think most guitarists encounter frustration in the same areas of physically and mentally adjusting to the instrument from beginner to advanced.

He had a lot for me to work on. I’d told him what I wanted to learn and he had firm ideas of how to work on learning it. He asked me to figure stuff out and when I couldn’t, he was there with both the answer and some supportive remarks about my thinking process. He gave me a scale to practice that will teach me a number of things, as well as serving to strengthen my fingers. My initial awkwardness at the scale didn’t trouble him. I didn’t feel judged: just part of the process.

The experience was challenging and rewarding. I wish I could take more lessons from him: it felt like being part of something bigger, as if I were a dues-paid-up member of a musical community. He told me two small things that were especially helpful:

  1. when you hear buzzing, that means you need a hair more pressure on a string. Use that buzzing not to be annoyed but to teach you the precise amount of pressure you need to apply. This transforms my relationship to buzzing. Now it’s my teacher.
  2. I’m past the roughest part of my barre chords. The hardest part is making them sound on each string. Transitioning smoothly to them takes time, sometimes lots of it, but I’m already past the part where they don’t sound like anything. So yay for that. There are stages and I’m past one of them.

In addition to learning some good stuff about guitar, I hatched a couple of questions.

I wonder whether yelling at people (using the term loosely, as the kids do) is ever useful? What I got from Chris was kindness, information, encouragement, ways to approach my practice—but no dissatisfaction, no message that I’d fallen short. I don’t need to be told that anyway: I’m acutely aware of how I fall short and I’m highly motivated to do better. Maybe the stern and cranky approach is necessary for those who are dogging it? I know I reproach my students at intervals, when I feel they are blowing off what I am telling them.

Another great teacher of my experience, Madame Menendez who taught me French in high school, once had a sit-down with us about our using the absolutely-never pile-up “de le.” In French, that just doesn’t happen. It switches to “du.” Somehow even as seniors we were sometimes saying de le, which would be like saying “I are.” It just doesn’t happen. For that moment she stopped being encouraging and enthusiastic and registered her frustration. Why, WHY can’t we remember that? And we said, well, it doesn’t come naturally. And she replied, okay fine, but then correct yourselves after the fact at the very least. I took that message and I honored her frustrations. It was a legitimate question.

But it was really nice to be with Chris yesterday and not fear getting yelled at, not even once. Is yelling generally productive? Or is it risky?  Is browbeating someone into learning a way to go?  Or does it just antagonize the learner?  Are you asking this question, “No Excuses” charter schools?

And it also raises this question: wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be a student in my own class? Boy would I learn a lot about how to teach and (I suspect) how not to be annoying.  I wish Chris could be his own student for a lesson. He would feel very proud.

A sincere thank you to Chris for all the teaching about guitar and about teaching. I hope fate has arranged for us to reconvene for more learning and sharing in the future.

 

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website.  Take by Rodrigo Rocha.

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website. Taken by Rodrigo Rocha.

 

A colleague sent me a link to this fascinating article by Brian Gallagher:

Brain Damage Saved His Music

Guitarist Pat Martino lost a huge chunk of his brain, excised by surgeons to remedy debilitating seizures and other symptoms, and suffered massive memory loss, including everything he had known about playing guitar.  In time, with help and encouragement, his skill slowly returned, bringing with it many memories and associations that had been lost– as if the music itself was interwoven with the essence of the man.

Pat Martino then and now.

Pat Martino then and now.

This is the part that most intrigued me:

In a scene in Martino Unstrung, Martino looked at his MRI brain images. As he stared into a black void of his brain, where his left temporal lobe used to be, he commented, “I would say that what is missing is disappointment, criticism, judgment of others—what is missing are all of the dilemmas that made life so difficult,” he said. “That’s what’s missing. And to be honest with you, it’s beneficial.”

Asked to expand, to reflect on the difference between his guitar playing before and after his surgery, Martino said, “My original intentions prior to neurosurgery had a great deal to do with craft and climbing the ladder of recognition by others. It had to do with the desire to achieve five stars as opposed to two stars for the judgment of an album. And then after the neurosurgery, that no longer had any meaning to me. I am more concerned with the reality of the moment, the enjoyment of that moment. I’m more concerned about the players that are with me, about their feelings, about the emanation of compassion and other virtues that we share together in the process. These are the things that I find much more rewarding than my achievement as a famous musician. Now it’s just enjoyment and friendship and compassion and concern. It’s an enjoyment of all things as opposed to the enjoyment of specific things.”

Martino may always have holes in his memory. In fact, said memory expert Nadel, Martino’s testaments to living in the moment are echoed by other patients who have suffered amnesia due to brain damage, and have lost the ability to recall the past or envision the future. But clinical diagnoses mean little to the guitarist these days.

“The greatest, truest essence of creative productivity is joy,” Martino said. “It’s a joy witnessed by those who surround it. They are no longer witnessing a craftsman, they’re witnessing a human being who’s happy about living, who projects that aura.” When he performed now, Martino said, he barely felt the guitar in his hands. Improvising a passage in a song was a spiritual journey. “The brain is a funny thing,” he said. “It’s part of the vehicle, but it’s not part of where the vehicle is going. The vehicle will take you there, but it isn’t you.”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about process vs. product.  It seems that product is like coral– what’s left after the living organism dies.  It may be very beautiful and useful, but it isn’t the living creature.  The joy and love, the engagement with work, the being of music or art or literature or science or math, are what matter.

 

So exactly what is it that teachers do? Or ought they to do? Or might they do?

I’m an analogist and I’ve come up with a number of them, but the best one so far is that we are sherpas.

Follow me, class.

Follow me, class.

 

Yes, sherpas. Kids come to us to learn to climb any mountain they choose or any obstacle that presents itself in their path. Our job is to show them the climbing skills to reach the summit or surmount the impediment. But wait! There’s more! Not only do we show them how to climb, we show they why they might want to.

What’s so great that’s at the top? It’s an awful lot of work, after all. Is the view really that commanding that I’d want to invest the time and energy and resources to slog all the way up there? Some kids climb Because It’s There—others prefer to loll around base camp eating the granola bars. So we inspire them and cajole them and encourage them (that word again). We also instruct them on the minutiae of how to: here’s what you need in your pack, here’s how to wield your pitons (I’m out of my element now), and so on.

Off we go. Everybody got your pack? Your spare socks and other gear? Okay, day 1.

Inevitably somebody whines or lags behind—we’re used to that. Inevitably someone chafes at the slow ascent, but some things unfold better at a stately pace. Inevitably someone wants to quit or gets lost or throws up. We’ve seen it all and mostly know how to address each issue, all infinity of them.

We climb the mountains we know best. In my case, most recently, that’s Pride and Prejudice and The Catcher in the Rye , but I could climb a mountain I’ve never climbed before—it’s the same skills, just different terrain. And the most beautiful thing is that no matter how many times I go up, it’s always different. Maybe this time somebody notices a lichen I’ve never seen before (in my tenth grade class, someone pointed out that HOLDen wants to catch and hold the kids falling off the cliff—well done, T.), or rare birds fly overhead, or the cloud formations are spectacular or whatever.

In any case, the point never is to get to the top, although that’s a motivation and we like it when we do. The point always is to experience the climb, to engage more deeply with the experience of climbing. What we learn from this climb will apply to all the other climbs we make in our lives.

If you can read this, thank a Sherpa.

 

I have been on an Alan Watts binge, spurred by reading on brainpickings.org, which I highly recommend. Right now I’m coming down the home stretch on The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Here’s a passage that struck me as particularly helpful:

 If we want justice for minorities and cooled wars with our natural enemies, whether human or nonhuman, we must first com to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the “external” world—especially when you realize that the world outside your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

You may, indeed, argue that this is asking too much. You may resort to the old alibi that the task of “changing human nature” is too arduous and too slow, and that what we need is immediate and massive action. Obviously, it takes discipline to make any radical change in one’s own behavior patterns, and psychotherapy can drag on for years and years. But this is not my suggestion. Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in the eye of a just judge, who knows that is also the felon in the dock. How could he be sitting there in stately judgment, being addressed as “your Honor” or “Mi Lud,” without those poor bastards being dragged before him day after day? It does not undermine his work and his function to recognize this. He plays the role of judge all the better for realizing that on the next turn of the Wheel of Fortune he may be the accused, and that if all the truth were known, he would be standing there now.

 

All of which I take to mean that when I try to teach, I’m teaching myself as much as I teach my students, and their ignorance or balkiness or closed-mindedness is a necessary and helpful component of my classroom, for without all that, how could I call forth my own limits and lapses in order to heal and transcend them?   Teaching then becomes a mutual act, a transaction, where roles of teacher and student blend and cross over, the leader and led taking turns—like a dance duet.

 

My newest mentor.

My newest mentor.

 

A couple of teachers of my acquaintance have recently confided their qualms of conscience. It seems that when you teach, the bottom could fall out and you’ll be facing some pretty grim questions, such as:

  • I’ve been teaching as hard as I can, but what if I don’t know what they need to know?
  • What if what I know isn’t enough?
  • What if I don’t know anything after all?
  • What if everything I know didn’t get communicated and they went away more confused than ever?
  • Is anybody even listening to me?
  • Maybe I’m just failing altogether??

 

One thing is for sure: you can’t give what you don’t have. All we can do is offer up our whole everything and hope that’s enough.

 

But it does call into question how much we should ask of ourselves. Like being a parent, teaching feels like a limitless challenge—but we are people with limits.

 

I am entirely grateful that I witnessed such a crisis of confidence in the most influential teacher of my life. Mrs. Luckie, my high school AP English teacher, had passed back a test and then the bell rang for lunch. For whatever reason I was the last one to leave and I observed her looking downcast. I asked her what was the matter. She said she heard several of the kids say they’d gotten A’s and hadn’t even read the book. I tried to say something helpful, but it wasn’t much use. She felt ineffective. The jewels she had tried to share with us were cast among swine.

 

Mrs. Luckie taught me great massive oceans of things, stuff I use every day in my own classroom, and none of that was more pertinent and useful than this: that no matter how good a teacher you are, some days the kids don’t seem to learn much and all your hard work is mocked. That’s just the way it works, even for the very best of us (Mrs. Luckie was the very best).

 

This is a sad lesson, a hard lesson, one we are called upon to learn over and over and over. Whether we feel effective or not, nothing excuses us from continuing to try, with courage if possible, and without it if necessary. I like to share this with colleagues, knowing full well that I’ll need it back again before long.

I’ve changed my tag line to something that I hope makes a little more sense. “Free teacher ramblings” implies, I hope, that my views here are unaffiliated with any group, organization, or individual other than me. I want to make clear that I speak merely as an individual who has thought a lot about teaching over the years.

I find it weird and sad that when you read about schools and teaching in the press, you will rarely hear a teacher quoted. Here’s an interesting graph posted in Media Matters:

Sheesh.

Sheesh.

 

Arne Duncan (bless his heart) is not a teacher. Bill Gates is not a teacher. Our legislators who delight these days in passing nonsensical laws that drive us to distraction are not teachers. I think we ought to speak to the people who are doing the work we want done—and I’m one of them. So, since nobody asked, I’m singing out loud and strong.

But, precisely because I’m still doing this work fulltime, I must make very clear that these are my views and reflect to no degree on those I work for, with, or alongside.

I had a conversation with some neighbors yesterday about what happens in their companies (multinational corporations) when someone posts something unwise or controversial. I heard a story of a man who posted something political and incendiary on his Facebook page. He could have been fired but was not. He said he had a disclaimer on the page that there was no affiliation with his employer, but it was clear he put that up after he’d already posted the objectionable material.

I don’t plan to post anything objectionable. I plan to post nothing unflattering about my students or employers. There is plenty to talk about even if I restrict myself to remarks about teachers, our preparation, our hopes, our failures, our triumphs—what would make our performance more effective and what impedes us from doing our best work.

Nevertheless, just in case someone reads what I have written and takes offense (it’s funny to think of anyone reading what I’ve written at all), please note: it’s just me and nobody else. I’m out here on my own and proud to be here.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.