As much my students’ as mine

I had the joy of reading one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales over the Christmas holiday,  At the back of the north wind.   The main character of the tale, Diamond, is an extraordinarily pure of heart child whose loving simplicity brings healing, light and love to everyone he encounters.  He has a baby brother who he loves to bounce on his knee and while doing so he makes up silly songs to entertain him.  One of his friends, an author, asks him to sing one of the songs he created.  But Diamond says it is not possible.

“No sir.  I couldn’t.  I forget them as soon as I’ve done with them.  Besides I couldn’t make a line without baby on my knee.  We make them together, you know.  They’re as much the baby’s as mine.  It’s he that pulls them out of me.”   

This little interaction made me think about the relationship between teachers, students and curriculum planning, and I have to say that this is one of the best descriptions of curriculum planning I’ve come across in a long time.  I have never been a teacher who has been able to teach the same thing twice in the same way.  Even when I have planned the same class for two different sections back to back, the conversation is different, the interaction is different, the learning is different.  My students pull out of me and I’m sure I pull out of them in ways that can’t be duplicated.   And then there are the many ways students pull out of each other.

I love this dynamic of the classroom, it’s why I love being a teacher.  It’s also why teaching is so complex and challenging, yet filled with sacred, joyful and delightful moments.

I can’t say that what is pulled out of me and us is always beautifully in tune, my heart isn’t as pure as Diamond’s and sometimes I am distracted or weighed down.  Sometimes, I am trying too hard to sing another person’s song, or not really paying close enough attention to my students to see what would delight them and invite them into learning.

But there is always the next class, always a new song to sing, as long as I stay convinced that the words and music are as much my students’ as mine.

 

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The teacher’s gaze

I am teaching an Assessment for Learning class again this semester.  One of the first things I often ask my students to do in this class  is to read an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.  The passage opens with the following words – “Serezha’s eyes, that had been shining with affection and joy, grew dull and dropped under his father’s gaze.”  It then goes on to describe an educational interaction between Serezha and his father that is punctuated by different kinds of assessment in an effort to support learning, but it is the assessment of his father’s ‘gaze‘ that has already derailed the learning from the start, leading to progressive frustration and anger on the part of the father (teacher) and the anxiety and ultimate punishment of the child for not learning.

We forget, as teachers, that our gazes matter, that our gazes communicate, that our gazes can be extreme barriers to learning or gates that open the possibility of a transformational relationship.  So even though I’ve written before about “Beholding the beloved into being” (see February 14, 2012), I think it is worth coming back to this topic – maybe again and again.

God seems to care about countenances.  He wants us to be ‘face to face’ with Him and ‘face to face‘ with each other.  He is the one who lifts up our heads.  He is the one who raised the woman bent over for many years.  He is the one who shares his countenance with us – “stamping the light of His face upon us, putting gladness in our hearts and causing us to dwell in hope.” (Ps. 4:7)

But being ‘face to face‘ is not easy.  Just ask Peter who denied Christ three times and didn’t realize it until Christ turned and looked at him. (Luke 22:60)  Not one word from Christ was necessary.  We are judged by gazes and that judgment can often cause us to escape or want to escape – our eyes grow dull and drop.  To be ‘face to face‘ is to be revealed in all of our brokenness, to be fully known and to recognize that knowing in the eyes of another.  Gazes can’t pretend. They recognize and then communicate that recognition, inviting or rejecting the other.   Christ didn’t pretend that Peter hadn’t denied Him, but His gaze must have hinted at His forgiveness and love, making it possible for Peter to overcome his shame and return to Him.  Job also talks about seeing God ‘face to face’ and the truth that is revealed in this encounter.  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You…Therefore I regard myself as dust and ashes. (Job 42:5)  But Job also finds the courage to go beyond this truth, asking God to teach him.  God’s countenance judged and yet invited Him into relationship.

The teacher’s gaze often has to judge or ‘truth-tell’, but it must also invite. Like God’s face, our faces must shine in any darkness of our students’ lives so that truth is revealed yet mercy endures.  The encounters with us, and any person in authority, become the way our students understand the face of God.  Is God angry and wrathful, seeking the punishment of sinners, or is God not willing for any to perish and unchanging in His gaze of mercy and love towards us?  We are responsible for our gazes, to seek the face of God until our faces are stamped with His true image.  Our students need to look at us and see that there is someone who knows them, who is a refuge for them, who cares for their souls. (Psalm 142:4)

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