Remember what it’s like to be a learner

It is the end of semester and I am thinking about comments from students made to me in the past couple of weeks, comments frequently made at the end of a semester.

“I didn’t know how all of this was going to come together, but now it all fits and every piece was necessary.”
“I understand why __________ was important now.”
“I was a very grumpy student when you said we were doing ________, but now I am so grateful and it taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”

The comments reveal an important aspect of learning – that there is often a period of darkness or fogginess or incoherence followed by a seeing or illumination that comes only at the end, after an opportunity to look back.

The comments remind me that it is difficult for learners to understand what exactly will help them learn. They can certainly provide a great deal of information about what has worked for them in the past when learning, or what their preferences are for learning (and their input along these lines should be invited and valued), but when faced with a completely new conceptual framework and practice, their knowledge of the learning path is limited. They need a trusted teacher, a teacher with a method to her ‘madness’, a teacher who has gone before them and can now lead and guide others along the way. That’s why they’re here.

It is difficult to be a learner, difficult to not see the path ahead, to know there is a mountain to be climbed, but to not be sure of the path or how long it will take or even if they will have the strength to climb. It is a humility. It requires patience and perseverance.

I think I sometimes forget how difficult it is for my students. I get so caught up in how exciting I think the journey is and what they are going to see over the next hill or around the next corner that I forget to be present with them where they are, in their blindness and at my mercy. Learners need to know I’m there, to know their peers are there, and that we’re all in this together. Learners also need a lot of feedback or at least a lot of encouragement and support to keep going when they are stumbling and the ground is moving beneath them…a hand to hold.

As I think ahead to a new semester and new classes, I am reminding myself…

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Remember to ‘foreshadow’, to say this is why we are doing _____, this is how it’s going to fit, this is important because ______. Foreshadowing raises ‘assignments’ out of the mindlessness of hoop-jumping, and into a meaningful learning journey.

Remember to take opportunities to ‘connect back’ so that coherence is found and meaning is illuminated. Every student needs a ‘road to Emmaus’ companion, who helps them see what couldn’t be seen in the midst of the learning.

Remember to build trust through ongoing formative feedback that honours and provides time for the steep learning curve and risk taking all learners must take. This trust will make dialogue possible so that timing can be adjusted, re-teaching can happen, and incorrect assumptions are avoided or corrected.

Remember to let them try and fail and then have the opportunity to try again – to revise, redo and retake…and then to innovate!

Remember to care, to intentionally connect with them, to listen well, to pay attention and then respond. You have all the power to develop and maintain relational trust with your students.

Remember to let your students teach you how to teach them. What works for one, doesn’t always work for the other. They need to know you see their uniqueness.

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Listening to others like you listen to music

I recently read an account of a man on his way to his execution. When given the opportunity to express his last words, he simply said, “I am more than my life.”

This is a profound truth. We are all more than what is visible, more than our actions, more than what has happened to us. Our identities are never captured in a single event, a single descriptor, or a single characteristic. We know this because we automatically rebel a little inside when someone tries to put us in a box, even if the box is a good box. We want to say, “Yes, that’s true, but I’m also _____!” or “Sometimes I am ____________, sometimes I’m not.” or “I did do __________, but this is why and I meant to ________.” Teachers are notorious for putting students in boxes.

We are so quick to judge, to see others in narrow, confined ways, to categorize and then move on. Our hearing of the stories of others is broken. Our own brokenness arises from the way others listen to us because even though we know we are more, we start thinking of ourselves in these categories as well. We are more than the boxes, we are becoming more, we want to be more and we are called to be more.

Anthony Bloom, in his book, Encounter, gives us another way to listen, a way to “consent to the contents of what the other person says becoming part of us without picking and choosing: to listen to a person without discarding what is not congenial to oneself, or what is offensive or difficult to accept…to accept into oneself everything that that person will pour out, and to live through a shared experience in a kind of communion.” (p. 13) He says we know how to do this already.

We can listen to others the way we listen to music.

Think about that for a moment, think about how differently your mind and heart function when you listen to music. Music is never just one note. Unless we are music critics, we don’t approach it technically or objectively, instead we allow it to flood our minds and our heart. We relax and open, we give ourselves over to music, and even when the music is familiar we hear it a little differently each time with fresh ears and appreciation.

How would we listen differently to others if we listened to them like music?

We would not be in a hurry.
We would hear their beauty and experience the complexity of their whole being.
We would listen for the delight in each person and discover in their depths even more delight.
We would be listening in anticipation for the next part of their song rather than critiquing what we already heard.
We would be listening with enjoyment and appreciation and gratitude for their unique unrepeatable song.
We would create conditions to encourage them to keep singing.
We would hear how their song in intertwined with ours.  We could tune our songs to them and offer them opportunities to harmonize with us and others.
We would develop policies and practices that are hopeful, life-giving, growth oriented and extravagantly spacious.
We would rebuke others when they forget to hear the music.  We would say, “Maybe that is true, but they are more than that!”

Listening this way would heal us as teachers and make us the kind of teachers we want to be.   Listening this way would teach our students to listen this way.

We are all more.  We are all singing.

Bloom, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1999).  Encounter.  Oxford, UK: St. Stephen’s Press.

Holding together as a way of knowing

For many us us, education has been a process of pulling apart concepts and reality…breaking things down into steps, pieces or manageable chunks, differentiating, analyzing, categorizing. We have come to believe at a deep level, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, that this is the best way to come to know and show you know – to own the facts, a piece of reality all figured out to the smallest particle, reality as real estate that can be traded for position and advantage or packaged in a tidy theoretical framework that can be used to explain other aspects of reality. To know is to know parts and structure and formulae. And of course this is part of knowing, an important part.

However, this way of knowing doesn’t always serve us well when it becomes the main focus of education. It tends to divorce us from the way we really experience reality – held together, whole, greater than the sum of its parts, and deludes us into thinking we actually can control and own reality rather than participate in it with wonder and the humility of absolute interdependence. Our focus on parts and steps and structures blinds us to the whole and even to other parts of the whole. We lose touch with mystery, respect, gratitude, care – responses only the whole or holding together parts with the whole can elicit.

What if, instead, our main job as learners was to learn to hold things together? What if our main job as teachers was to help learners learn to hold things together?  For example, can we hold together an analysis of a rock into its type with the way it feels in our hand and its intricate markings and the diversity of living things that surrounds where it was found and its story of coming to be on this beach and what it can speak to us about stability and fragility and change?

I wonder what would happen in education if teachers and school systems were all more intentional about holding together, about seeing learning as an encounter with the real rather than just a dissection of it.  After all, isn’t this what our best teachers do? They are the ones who know the holding together secrets – relationship, story, sensory experience, poetry, ritual, symbol (which means to throw together), metaphor and all of the arts.  And then there is stillness which also seems to naturally lead to a deep communion, every moment a chalice of holding together.

Maybe learners who have been taught to hold together would start to participate in the world in a more integral way. Maybe they would also learn how to hold together with inner strength, because much of growing spiritually is learning to hold together what seems impossible to hold together – sadness and joy, suffering and consolation, contrition and forgiveness, strength and weakness, life and death, hope and loss, fear and faith and love, the one with with many.  What we find in the inner life is that holding together is the only life giving way to come to know, in fact we cannot really know what is true any other way. To find the unity and to stay steadfast in the midst of that unity is our greatest haven against the distraction of our spiritual enemies who seek to pull apart and force us to turn away to the parts. Light is in the unity, reality is in the unity, peace is in the unity, the kingdom of God is within.

In holding together, we learn we are held.

A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

Putting a ‘breath in the box’

I sometimes watch a cooking competition that provides participants with a box of four surprise ingredients and then asks them to create something tasty, beautiful and creative in 30 minutes. I am always amazed at what they are able to do in such a short time with such random ingredients. Recently, however, there was one competitor who was quite frantic throughout the thirty minutes, changing his mind, unsure about sequence, unable to sort through his many ideas and obviously quite anxious. When it came time for the judging, the judge commented on his state of mind while working and said, “We should have put a breath in the box.” He then went on to comment about how his state of mind, or inability to breathe, interfered with his ability to create something that was focused and coherent.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase quite a bit and how it applies so well to educational contexts. We don’t breathe very well in education, we don’t intentionally ‘put a breath in the box’. The tyranny of the urgent, the complexity of the many decisions we are making as teachers, the comprehensiveness of curriculum, and the pressure we put on students to quickly perform and produce with the ingredients we give them can all work against breathing. And what was clear in the competition results is also clear in educational settings. When students aren’t breathing, they aren’t learning, and they aren’t able to accurately represent what they know.

So I am starting to ask myself these questions…Is there a breath in the box for me and my students? Am I aware of my breathing and my students’ breathing? What kinds of breathing are present? Are we breathing deeply in appreciation for all that is possible and present or is our breath more indicative of exhaustion, anxiety and fear? Are there ways we can breathe better throughout the day or semester and not just when the bell goes at the end of the day, or when spring break arrives?

I am convinced that teachers have a lot of control over the breathing in their classrooms. Students usually breathe the way we do. They need us to practice better breathing, model better breathing, create space for better breathing. Mindfulness practices from all wisdom traditions teach us the importance of breath to help us self-regulate or achieve stillness in the midst of chaos, to bring us back to ourselves (because when we are not breathing well we are usually disembodied), to stabilize or anchor our minds, and to become aware of our thoughts while not being caught by our thoughts. This kind of focus is absolutely necessary for deep, focused, meaningful and responsive learning. We may not be able to control many of the conditions that surround us, but we can, with practice and awareness, control our breathing and help our students breathe.

This is the kind of breathing I would hope for my students…

Breaths of stillness and presence, to bring us back to ourselves and our learning.
Breaths of fresh air and anticipation when learning is foreshadowed.
Breaths of exhalation when a need has been met or a challenge is realized.
Breaths that are shared when we realize that some of us are having a harder time breathing.
Breaths of relaxation and quiet after times of intensity.
Breaths of inspiration arising from stillness.
Breaths of excitement and celebration when learning is accomplished.

Breathing is good. Be inspirited.

Contemplation and human rights?

We have a wonderful new museum in Canada – The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is remarkable in content and resources, but also remarkable in architecture. I had the opportunity of learning more about this museum today and was struck by the intentionality of the created space in particular. Every single aspect of the building, along with every single display, artifact and interactive media center, carries layers of meaning and shapes the experience, and therefore the learning, of each person entering. The design illustrates so profoundly the interaction between learning and space or form and inspired all of us present with regard to considering how stronger elements of design could be present in our teacher education programs and our learning spaces.

There was one aspect of the architecture that particularly intrigued me. At the heart of the museum you will find a Garden of Contemplation, a beautiful and peaceful and seemingly empty space. What intrigued me was that all of the other images of spaces in the museum were filled with people busy doing and interacting. In fact the museum is highly interactive, incorporating innovative and cutting edge technology. Our presenter spoke at length about how the museum visitors are encouraged to personally engage, explore, discover, transform and then respond with action and commitment. But the contemplative space was empty and only briefly mentioned.

This emptiness didn’t surprise me – I wouldn’t naturally put together contemplative practices with human rights activism. I think that I would also be more drawn to the stories and images and interactive opportunities in the rest of the museum. But as I pondered this emptiness, I began to think about how it was representative of our lives beyond this museum and human rights. We all seem to know that contemplative space, either physical places or internal practices, is necessary, and many of us even long for it. However, when given the option to interact, to do, to be active, or to make what looks like a heroic difference, that space is so often left empty. We are not quite sure why it is even necessary – it seems somewhat wasteful and useless. This uselessness was further illustrated in our conversations around some of the difficult stories told in a museum for human rights and their impact on visiting children and adults. The response to the possible trauma and despair was ensuring they could respond with concrete action. No one suggested a visit to the contemplative garden…

St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to know about this human tendency when he said that we should ‘love stillness more than feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor’, therefore more than activism for any kind of human right, more than changing the world for what we think might be better even though we never really know and are often wrong. He didn’t say not to love these things – we should love to offer ourselves in life-giving ways to others in whatever places of offering we find ourselves. We should just love stillness more.

I am a stillness beginner, but I am starting to understand why it is so important and to value it in my life. I have found that stillness leads us on a different journey, a slower and more patient journey. Stillness orients us to our absolute contingency and corrects our ego’s self-serving and self-protective tendencies. Stillness reminds us we are not God and helps us come to know God and all that is Other than us. Stillness can even convict us that we are complicit in the situation requiring change leading us to a more compassionate rather than judging regard for a situation. Stillness helps us attend/pay attention to reality and others in a way that precludes the possibility of entering into action that is inherently violent in its imposition and carelessness. So often our helping hurts. Stillness brings us quite easily into a place of gratitude and awareness of greater goodness, truth and beauty. Stillness moves us into creative and meaningful responses that are often far more democratic, helpful, meaningful and lasting than the responses that emerge from living our lives as if we are ‘thrown stones’ frantic to rearrange the world. (Lees, 2012)

I am grateful our human rights museum has this place of contemplation and that it is found in the center or heart of the space. May this visible, beautiful and invitational space grow in its presence and impact. I believe it can because I know that stillness creates more longing for stillness. May this contemplative space also grow in the lives of all of us who care about human rights and want to teach others to care.

Lees, H. E. (2012). Silence in schools. London, UK: Institute of Education Press.

http://www.humanrights.ca Canadian Museum for Human Rights Website

Turning the page

Recently, a reader asked me to post on something we had talked about – that, as teachers, we have to get really good at ‘turning the page’. The reader was hoping the post would coincide with the beginning of the new semester, recognizing this as a time when we do get that chance to ‘turn the page’. In fact, in the cyclical pattern of education, we get that chance, again and again – each year, each semester, each new curriculum focus, each Monday, each day, a new page to write on. This is a great mercy because we all know how infrequently we live up to our ideals as teachers, how most of the time our vocation is so much bigger than our abilities, how often we wish for a redo. So God gives us new beginnings, ones mainly beyond our control, so that we have to turn that page. These new beginnings teach us to remember that time is not ours, that it is always a gift to be received with gratitude and humility. They also teach us to have compassion on our students, who also need fresh beginnings and the willingness of teachers to refuse to categorize them and, therefore, give up on them. Instead, they need teachers who invite their students into a new day, a new beginning, forgetting what is past and pressing on to what lies ahead. We are all beloved children of God. He doesn’t give up on us, He just keeps calling us forward in our purpose to become more like Him. We don’t yet know who any of us will become. 1 John 3:2

So this is my posting for that reader and for all high school teachers beginning their second semester. It is one day late. But I am ‘turning the page’ on that lateness, admitting my weakness, yet still offering, with hope, the words that re-member me, bring life to me.  As usual they are not my words, but words that are a pattern of truth from those much further along the path than me.

We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!” Imagine. Is it possible that our imagination can lead us to the truth of our lives? Yes, it can! The problem is that we allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: “You know it all: you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive it as best you can.” There are many cunning foxes jumping on our shoulders and whispering in our ears the great lie: “there is nothing new under the sun…don’t let yourself be fooled…”

So what are we to do? First, we must send the foxes back to where they belong: in their foxholes. And then we must open our minds and our hearts to the voice that resounds through the valleys and hills of our life saying: “Let me show you where I live among my people. My name is ‘God-with-you’. I will wipe away all the tears from your eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past is gone.” We must choose to listen to that voice, and every choice will open us a little more to discover the new life hidden in the moment, waiting eagerly to be born. (Nouwen, 1999, p. 84)

God bless your new beginnings and send the cunning foxes away, and may His spirit be upon you, revealing the new life in each moment.

Nouwen, H.J.M. (1999) in Greer, W.G. (ed.) (2014) The only necessary thing: Living a prayerful life. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

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