Summer Book Club Week 2: The Chairs are Where The People Go

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chairs2Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was one of my Top 10 Books of 2012.  I described that book as “exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring…self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.” The Chairs are Where the People Go is an entirely different sort of book. It still sounds like Sheila Heti, but it isn’t, really; it’s her friend Misha Glouberman, channeled through Heti’s typing hands.  It’s neither exhilarating nor befuddling; it might be inspiring, but I’m not sure.  It’s not self-absorbed, nor is it miniature, really, and its scope is – medium-sized.

In the introduction, Heti says that she finds Glouberman so interesting that she tried to write a novel about him, and failed, because her imaginary Misha just didn’t measure up to the real one.  So instead, she decided to spend a lot of time with him, ask him a bunch of questions, and transcribe his answers.  The result is this book, a collection of mini-essays on topics ranging from charades to neighbourhood associations to monogamy to absenteeism.

Some of it is boring.  I studied improv as a teenager, and so should probably be intrigued by Glouberman’s insights into how to improvise correctly, but I’m not.  Performance, as art and as metaphor, is the subject of a number of chapters, and I feel that it wears thin. However, the good thing about brief chapters is that if you don’t care for this one, the next one could be (and in this case often is) a nice surprise.  Let’s look at a couple of observations that I like.

I had certain ideas about what kind of person my girlfriend might be.  I met Margaux and I was pretty fascinated by her.  She’s a remarkably unusual person…I was with her for a while and I kept thinking, This is so not like the person I’d imagined. And at the same time I thought, once the relationship got at all serious, Well, I’m kind of stuck, because there’s no way in the world that I’m going to be able to find someone who’s sort of like Margaux but better, because there’s no one like Margaux.

Or this:

Margaux and I [watched] some terrible monologues being performed at some club in New York.  I was so angry and outraged that they thought that it was fair to make the demand, I’m going to talk now and you all have to shut up and listen.  I told Margaux, You have to be really sure that what you are saying is worthwhile and good before you ask that of people. She thought I was wrong…If the contract is that you have to be absolutely certain that it’s going to be worth people’s while, nobody would do anything…I think she’s probably right, but I can’t help feeling this way.

These little moments where you stop and realize “I’ve thought things like this but didn’t even know I was thinking them” are masterful.  They sneak up on you, like a neighbourhood cat who’s always around, but whom you don’t notice until he’s sitting in a different driveway.  Glouberman is opinionated but self-questioning, and that’s my favourite sort of person, so hanging out with him and listening to him hold forth on random stuff is…fine.

One difficulty is that the back cover and some other reviews I’ve read describe this book as funny, but I don’t find it funny at all.  And I think I’ve figured out why not.  Glouberman is the straight man, and the world around him is the funny guy.  I think his serious, rather naive tone is what people find amusing.  For example, in a chapter on preparing a bar audience for a performance, Glouberman explains,

One of the very last things I do when I give people instructions on how to enjoy the show is that I encourage them to shush other people if they are talking.  I give them some different techniques for doing this.  I tell them if they want to be direct and aggressive, they can turn around an shush the person angrily, or if they prefer a more passive-aggressive style, they can cover their mouths with their hands so no one will know who did the shushing….Inevitably during any show in a bar, people eventually do talk, and instead of me having to reprimand them from the stage in some authoritarian way…a number of people in the audience do the shushing….As a performer on stage, this saves you the terrible indignity of having to ask the audience every five minutes to simmer down and listen to you.

Is this funny?  I suspect it’s funny.  It isn’t funny to me.  Why?  In my life, I’m the straight man.  (I happen to be married to the funniest person alive, so this works out pretty well.) What Gloubernan’s describing here is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent idea.  It sounds like something I’d do if I thought of it.  In fact, I might even start using this technique in my classes so that students will shut each other up.  This has been happening throughout my reading; I think, “Well, sure.  That’s a good idea,” or, “Yes, exactly.  Isn’t that how everyone sees it?” And then I think, “Why am I reading these incredibly ordinary thoughts?”

Glouberman is a lot more intelligent and articulate and experienced than I am.  He does a lot of brave things that I would never do, like teaching classes in charades or becoming a neighbourhood residents’ rights activist.  However, his view of the world is more or less mine, and  he is, much like me, very serious about his view of the world.  This may be entertaining to people who find him odd, but is not terribly entertaining to me, because I don’t find him odd at all.

I’m 115 pages in, and I feel like I could take or leave the last 60, but I have the sense that maybe something I don’t expect is going to happen, so I may follow through.  Have you read this book?  Would you recommend I finish it?  Have you encountered any of Heti’s or Glouberman’s other work?  If so, what did you think?

If not, what are you reading this week?

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

*

It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

Education and Growing: Reprise

Foreword:

It’s been a rough week.  Things at work are going fine, but life outside of work – especially life as a new homeowner – has been, shall we say, challenging.  Full of minor and major inconveniences.  Full of questions about whether buying a house, buying THIS house, was such a good idea.  My husband and I are trying to keep a brave face on, but we’re really stressed and tired, and have gone from being annoyed to being overwhelmed.  This is all new to us, and it’s really hard.

I keep reminding myself that difficulties help us learn, and learning helps us grow.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiner at Home.  She quotes Yeats as saying

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.

This is good to hear, as pleasure and virtue are in short supply around here.  It also sent me looking for an old post about education and growth, one I published in 2009.  As I keep telling my students: learning isn’t always fun.  It isn’t always pleasant.  It’s sometimes really crappy.  But it always makes us grow.  The trick is to grow in a direction that will allow us to keep growing.  If we can do that, then we’re golden.

*

What exactly is “growth”?  Does “education” always foster it?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.”  This suggests that growth is an ongoing process, and it is the process that is valuable, not arrival at full maturity.

However, according to Dewey, not all experience is educative:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.

Growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing.  We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future.  Such growth is not educative.

As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning.  If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.

Each of our students arrives in our CEGEP classroom with a unique set of experiences.  Some of these experiences have been conducive to growth.  A student who is not yet be cognitively ready to be an “independent” thinker (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them aren’t) may still be well prepared to become such a thinker, because he’s been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and has received some sort of satisfaction or reward for his efforts.  He may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who’ve demonstrated “how to be a learner”: models of curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive in college knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they’ve grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They’re easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.

Perhaps this is because “growth” can be frightening.  Growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind.  For some students, this may seem daunting or impossible.  In some cases, however, we as teachers are not providing new experiences that will help students redirect their growth in a more fruitful direction – out of the concrete and into the soil, as it were.

Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed.  Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.”  I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, it may become clear that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure.  Her past growth in this area has led her to an impasse.

It’s my job to teach her how to learn from failure, or rather, to provide her with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  How can I transform this experience from a blow to her self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

How can failure help us grow?

For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions.  If I understand this, I can communicate it to the student.  I can ask her, “Why do you think this paper should pass?  Why do you think it failed?  What comments have I made that you don’t understand?  Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.”  Maybe this student has never had the opportunity to ask sincere questions about failures, nor has she received sincere answers.  Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a fairly easy skill to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.

Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them.  [Editorial note: Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed is an important reference here.]

If we see effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed.  We’re not just teaching students a pile of material.  We’re teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.

Image by Kym McLeod

Arrows into Blossoms: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen to the wayside these days.  It would be wise for me to return to it.  In November 2009, I was tired of a lot of things, and some Buddhist reflections were helpful.  In particular, I spent time thinking about the writings of Pema Chodron, a tattoo of the Buddha under the bodhi tree, and how hard times and irritating people are opportunities for growth.  My thoughts on these subjects appear below.  The upshot: being pissed off is not so bad, really.

*

I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she tells a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  Chodron says,

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward this state of mind.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t calm my irritation, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I’m expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t shake it.

It’s possible to see any difficult situation as an attack from Mara.  We’re under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there’s another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says,

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  I wasn’t satisfied with the images I found; none captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could hold a pencil steady, I would’ve tried to draw or paint it myself.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.

There Has To Be a Better Way

I am totally over school.

The serious grading has begun, and the serious speed bumps are popping up in the road.  Yesterday’s speed bump was an essay from Michael, whom I wrote about last week.  Michael’s essay was so convoluted that it was impossible for me to grade it.  (It reminded me, troublingly, of essays I received a couple of years ago from Khawar, whose  saga some of you may remember, and who almost drove me to the brink.)  I wrote Michael to say PLEASE COME SEE ME.  And then I put my head down on the table and groaned for a while.

It’s not Michael’s fault.  Michael is absolutely aware that he has problems – he wrote notes all over his paper to the tune of “I did my best but I don’t think I did good,” and messaged me immediately after the essay (I was home with a cold while a sub invigilated) to say that he was “scared about his essay.”  He has every reason to be scared.  He’s been pushed through the system to this point despite the fact that he has none of the tools he needs to deal with college-level writing.

It is also not the fault of any individual teacher, course, or school.  Students with serious academic issues pass my courses all the time, not because they’ve mastered everything they need to master, but because they’ve worked hard and the numbers have added up.  I think it’s unlikely this will happen in Michael’s case, but I’ve been surprised by this before.

School is the problem.

I’m having my first thoughts of the semester about quitting my teaching job and becoming a strident, shrieking education reformer: abolishing classrooms (particularly 40+ student/teacher ratios) and grades, completely overhauling curricula (particularly “English” studies, which I’m now fully convinced is an antiquated and unhelpful domain, at least at the level of general education), chopping big colleges up into small, focused learning “communities,” and, most importantly, focusing all of formal education on helping students learn how to learn.

Students need to be learning how their brains work.  They need to be focused, not on grades and R-scores, but on becoming flexible, confident, skilled learners who can tackle challenges with brio and curiosity.  They need to be prepared for a world that we can’t even envision right now, for jobs that don’t exist yet, for problems that are not even a glimmer in humanity’s collective eye.  Our school system – the one we’ve almost all been through, the one that pays my salary, the one that will take a freaking revolution to dismantle – prepares them for none of these things.

I know I’m not the first to say this.  I’ve watched Ken Robinson’s TED talks and RSA Animations, I’ve read reams of material on interdisciplinarity, on unschooling, on various other alternatives to the rusty, crumbling structure that is our current view of education.

The question is, why is so little happening?  Why does someone like Michael, who can’t understand a simple personal narrative essay from a national newspaper, feel that going to “college” is his best/only option?  He can’t do college, not as college is right now, and the best college can do for him is to try to jam him into the college mould and maybe, if he’s lucky, shuffle him through.

I would love to hear from any of you out there who are working or studying in alternative educational environments with some success.  Whether you’re homeschooling your own children, or teaching at a “gradeless college,” or designing an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical high school, or doing an internship in a hands-on work/study program, I would love to know on an intimate, anecdotal level what other models are working for teachers and students alike.

I don’t know that I can pack my bags and leave school as we know it behind.  I certainly can’t do it tomorrow.  But I’d like to know that there are other possibilities, because this one has overstayed its welcome.

Image by Nicolas Raymond

The Limits of Compassion: Reprise

What does being “compassionate” really entail?

One of my major preoccupations, in my teaching life and my life in general, is the line between “real compassion” and “idiot compassion”.  In March 2009, I was struggling with this dichotomy; I didn’t resolve it, but I often look back on this event when I am wondering how to respond to a student’s difficulties.

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A few weeks ago, a student named Alexandra emailed me.  She was going to miss a week of classes because a friend of hers had died suddenly; she had to fly home to attend the funeral and help his family.

I sent her my condolences. I also explained that if she wanted to make up the in-class essay she would miss, she’d have to bring documentation of the reason for her absence.  The funeral home was used to these requests, I explained, and would know what to give her. I also reminded her that her lowest in-class essay mark would be dropped, so it wasn’t essential that she make this assignment up if she wasn’t up to it.

On the day she returned, at the end of class, Alexandra slammed a pile of scraps from the funeral – a copy of the obituary, some decorations with the deceased’s name on them – onto my desk and stalked away.  She was gone before I could ask what her gesture was supposed to signify.

At the beginning of the next class, I called her to my desk and asked if she’d brought those “documents” because she wanted to make up the essay she’d missed.  She said, “I brought them because you said you wanted to see something.”  I gently reminded her that I’d wanted to see something only if she wanted to retake the essay test – that documentation is always required if a student wants to redo a major assignment. I explained again that she was welcome to make up what she’d missed, but that, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances, it would be understandable if she wanted to let this one slide, as her lowest essay test grade would be dropped from her average.

She seemed to soften.  She said that she probably couldn’t do a good job on the essay, so she’d pass on this one. I got the feeling that she understood: the request for documentation had nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with a general rule that I had to apply equally to everyone.

In the weeks since then, however, Alexandra’s attitude toward me has been considerably colder than it was. I don’t know whether that’s a general change in her mood, because of the terrible loss she has just sustained, or whether she still harbours resentment over her [mis]interpretation of my request.

When I first started teaching, I gave students a lot of chances. If a student said his grandmother had died, I took him at his word and helped him make up the work. Over time, though, it became clear that students were taking advantage of this, and it was making my life more difficult and wasn’t helping them in the long run. Putting clear rules about late and missed work into place, and applying them consistently, has helped me deal with some ambiguous situations.

A case in point: another student in Alexandra’s class, Peter, emailed me more than a week after the due date of a major at-home assignment to ask if I had received his essay, which he had “put in internal mail.” I hadn’t, and reminded Peter that if he didn’t put an essay directly into my hands, he was required to email it to me immediately after submitting his hard copy, as proof that it was done. The next class we spoke about it – he still hadn’t brought it to me – and I told him that if he sent me the essay IMMEDIATELY, I would read it and consider giving him a very small portion of his grade. Four days later, I received an email with Peter’s essay attached. His aunt had died, he said, and so he had forgotten to email it to me “IMMEDIATELY”.  I replied that it was too late, and I wouldn’t consider his essay (such as it was – it was too short and made little sense.)

Peter would have failed the course even if I had graded his essay – maybe this is why I didn’t hear any arguments from him.  I suspect, though, that he didn’t protest because I had called his bluff.  I put such deadlines in place, and ask for documents to confirm legitimate reasons for missed assignments, because I don’t want to make decisions about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.  Most students understand this – not just students who make up excuses and then can’t back them up, but especially students who have real, compelling reasons for missing work or handing things in late.  Alexandra seems to be an exception.

Of course, it’s difficult to explain to someone in Alexandra’s situation that, because of students like Peter, rules have to be created, and have to be enforced, for everyone. But it’s also difficult for teachers to know when to trust our intuition, and when our intuition will get us into trouble. If I had relaxed the rules for Alexandra, and then Peter had come back to me and said, “Well, you made an exception for her, why not me?”, things would have gotten messy.

How do we create structure and accountability for our students without sacrificing compassion for their very real troubles? It’s an endless dance, and sometimes we make the wrong moves.

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 6: Meditate

This is the seventh post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

I have a confession to make.  I’m a bad meditator.

Meditation is incredibly boring.  Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months.  If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all.  When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do.  (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there.  (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)  When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around.  I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him.  I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.

This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way.  My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.

My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now.  I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now.  I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.

Then I began to meditate.

The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.”  The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair.  You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you.  You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out.  You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.

Inevitably, your mind wanders.  You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you.  When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath.  Until it wanders off again.

There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one.  It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.

I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre.  At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine.  Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.

When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house.  For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening.  Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity.  “Look what just happened!  I wonder what will happen next?”

If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate.  What if I told her to stop, and she got angry?  What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response?  Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?

As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious.  If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.”  I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived.  “Look at that!” I would think.  “Farid just said something rude.  What does one do when a student says something rude?  Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say.  Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’  And then let’s see what happens.”

Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective.  A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning.  Mine and theirs.

In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice.  I’d like to ease myself back into it.  Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person.  And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.

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Leave a comment!  In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Penny Matthews

Gimme Gimme

On Monday, I posted about M, a student in one of my courses who was blaming her previous teacher for her course failure and asking to be promoted to the next level.  As anticipated, I and the placement coordinator met with her on Thursday to get a clearer understanding of the situation.  Some of you asked to be updated on the outcome.  Here it is, in a nutshell:

  • M arrived in my office and, as we waited for the coordinator to arrive, I asked her to explain her request again, particularly the puzzling implication that her teacher this term (me) and her teacher last term (not me) were the same person.  No, no, she responded – she’d only meant to say that she’d had the previous teacher more than once.
  • She explained that she’d first registered at our college before her arrival in Canada.  She had no information about whether the teacher she’d chosen was a “good teacher” or “bad teacher.”  As it turned out, the teacher was “a bad teacher.”  After she’d failed the course the first time, M tried to sign up with a different teacher, but schedules were changed and she ended up with the same teacher again.  Therefore, her failure was not her fault.
  • When the coordinator arrived, he explained to M that a) regardless of what her teacher had done, it seemed very likely that M had failed because her communications skills are poor (we pointed to her confusing email message as an example), and b) there are formal complaints procedures that can be taken against teachers, but they need to be taken immediately, not at the beginning of the next semester, and c) bad-mouthing a teacher to his or her colleagues, especially in writing, is probably not a good idea.
  • I further added that if we promoted M to the next course, she would once again have no choice about her teacher, and that she would have to take responsibility for her own success or failure.  What was more, she would need to get significant extra help and be prepared for a possible failure in the course.
  • The coordinator and I then agreed that, if M acknowledged these conditions, we would promote her to the next course and let her take her chances.

On the surface, this seems to be the best outcome for all concerned.  M gets what she wants, and I don’t have to deal with her for the rest of the term.  She would probably not get much out of the course anyway, given the attitude she has coming in.  So, if the important question here is “How can we help M learn the course skills and become better at English?”, then this is probably the most effective answer.

And of course, that is the question.  But there’s another question that keeps nagging at me.  Is it a good idea to give people what they want because you don’t want to deal with their crap?

You see it all the time: spoiled children harassing their parents; rude customers bullying sales clerks into bending store policy; nice guys finishing last because they can’t bring themselves to be obnoxious in order to get ahead.  Teachers giving students good grades so they don’t have to argue about them.

I am relieved that this student is out of my hair, and I am confident that this is probably the most efficient way we could have dealt with the situation, but I still feel like justice has not been done.  People should not get what they want because they whine; they should get what they want when they’ve earned it.

We are responsible for helping our students learn our subject matter.  Many would say that trying to influence them in other ways is overstepping, that even late penalties or attendance policies extend our reach beyond its proper perimeter.  But to what extent are we obliged, not just as teachers but as members of a society, to teach people how to behave properly?

Parents are expected to enforce rules like “Say please” and “If you ask me in that tone, you’ll get nothing, young lady.”  But what about the rest of us?  Are there times when we should say, “No, you can’t have what you’re asking for, because you’re being a jerk”?

Image by Sanja Gjenero

I Like Teaching You

Today is the first day of the new semester.  I’m not exactly pumped.  I’ve been working all weekend to find a motivator, or an inspiration, or a visualization to turn to when I feel it’s all too much.  What’s my objective for the next fifteen weeks?  What mantra will I repeat to myself on the days when I’m wondering what it’s all for?

In mulling it over, I asked myself, “What have I done for my students lately that made me feel good?”

In December, as I was marking students’ final papers and writing feedback, I found myself, in a number of instances, appending the line “It was a pleasure having you in my class” to my comments.  A simple thing.  I wrote it only when it was true.  And each time, a little wash of warmth swept over me.

I need to remember to do this, I thought.  Whenever I’m writing final notes to students, I need to acknowledge the enjoyment those students have given me.

But why restrict it to final notes?  Could I make it a practice to ALWAYS say positive personal things to students when they occur to me?  Not just “What a great pair of boots!” or “You did a bang-up job on that paper,” but also “Your contributions really light up the classroom” and “Your friendly demeanour is going to open a lot of doors for you in your life.”

When I first began teaching, I saw each student/teacher relationship as an intimate connection.  Once I started teaching CEGEP, I burned out quickly; the emotional energy necessary for such a connection with every student was not sustainable.  Since then, I’ve been trying to find a balance, and I’ve erred on the side of being distant and chilly.  Perhaps it’s time to start working toward a middle ground, one where I can say, in myriad ways, “I like teaching you.”

Do you have a goal for the semester?  Did you have one for last semester?  How did it pan out?  I will keep you posted on how I do with this one, and on any consequences I observe.

Image by Richard Dudley

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