(Re)Turning the Inside Out: Experiential Humanism

If during our study of the humanities we scrutinize how we experience the world around us and we document that experience visually, verbally, and musically, then perhaps we could imagine that experiencing nature could be a science of the humanities.  At the beginning of human time, our world was nature and our expressions of our world were rooted in the flora and fauna, the rocks and mountains, and the soil around us. Storytelling through parietal art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, poetry and prose helped our ancestors frame their lives within a world they were driven to understand, leading me to believe that since humans have had the ability, we have wondered about our relationship to the world and have expressed that wonderment in literature, philosophy, art, religion, history, and music.  These disciplines within the umbrella of humanities are those expressions about nature and its forces that were once carved or painted on cave walls and sung around fires and are now found on scribbled on paper, painted on canvas, chiseled into rock, and displayed on screens.  Within nature, we can find a tangible and ethereal connection to our world that connects us to those first humans who examined how nature communicates and how we first connected nature to our souls.


Our insatiable need for technology may limit our focus to the 1s and 0s that display roads and speak directions, show dog meme photos, and flash faceted jewel game pieces on our small screens so that we ignore the grandeur of the sky framed by tree canopy and the minutia of the insects in the soil.  Marianne Robinson in her essay “Humanism” asks us to consider the dehumanization that results from this privileging of technology and science over humanities. She grieves for those of us who are “more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being,” leading me to wonder if we stay connected to our screens and to solving problems via these electronic displays, then we are not asking of the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls (3).   While our soul “is the self” that Robinson paradoxically claims “stands apart from the self,” our soul, for me, is the part of us that connects us with beauty and the creation of beauty (9). Our appreciation and creation of beauty emerge from a soul that is connected to nature.

For me, these inchoate ideas about nature, humanities, and the soul drive my work with students in Humanities and literature courses, and until I collaborated with a scientist to teach Ecological Rhetoric, I relied on the stories I read in books and heard and viewed on the screen and stage as my connections to the world. Poetry like William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” provided me with “a wild secluded scene [to] impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”  My imagination of a “landscape with the quiet of the sky” was all I believed I needed to connect with nature. And then I observed my Eco Rhet students in their own study of nature at a suburban nature preserve:

A light wind on my face reminds that is chilly though the sun is shining through the tree canopy onto Katie’s journal. She sits side saddle on the edge of the footbridge. Gazing in front of her, she turns a page and begins a sketch, erasing lines, starting again, quickly pulling and pushing her pencil.  With his hood shading his face, Spencer sits on a log at the stream, resting his journal on his lap, watching the water pass by. The sunlight on Nina’s face highlights her features, and I can see her pencil moving. I hear a bird sing “wa – p – wa – p – wa” and watch it fly above the limbs over Nina’s head. Other limbs of dried leaves, gold and brown, hide Eric sitting on a rock, knees bent to form a makeshift desk with his journal resting on his thighs. I cannot see where he is looking but I can see his pencil drawing circles.

Are these students cold? I’m cold, standing here on the path watching them. My fingers are stiffening, holding the top of my journal and resting it on my forearm; my letters are nearly illegible because I cannot keep the pages steady. I wish I were ambidextrous so I could warm up my left hand while writing. The wind is blowing harder, yet the students are not moving. I am watching them in their work, in their observing while helicopter seed pods land on my page.

Before I spent this time watching my students as they practiced observation, note-taking, and sketching, I would have told you the joy I found in teaching came when I was learning and working with others as they learned. I believed my passion came from puzzling through complex concepts and listening to students tease out their own understanding of challenging texts.  The satisfaction inherent in the brain work of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation I once believed was the only food my soul needed. And I once thought I preferred to do this thinking and learning inside, comfortably protected from the weather.

Yet while teaching Ecological Rhetoric, an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning collaboration between Humanities and Environmental Science, I found a new joy in looking carefully at what is around me, in staying outside of my analytical brain when observing nature and my students while being uncomfortable in a cold drizzle. The exhilaration that once lit fireworks in my brain, celebrating interpretation can also spark small firefly lights when I am noticing and smelling and listening and feeling and tasting. My co-teacher and I work with juniors and seniors in this course as they present remediation plans to improve the health of a selected suburban nature preserve or create projects to encourage visitors to engage with the all that the park has to offer.  To better comprehend their role in understanding nature, the students first practice scientific observation, note-taking, and sketching during field expeditions — ultimately focusing on a specific area of inquiry and formulating a hypothesis about the cause of a problem in that area. In order to take and sketch field notes like those shared by scientists in Michael Canfield’s Field Notes on Science and Nature, students determine the concepts and skills they need and we, the teachers, find the experts to teach them scientific sketching.  Later work in the course includes experimentation and data collection at the preserve, reviews of scientific studies, literary non-fiction, and poetry that illuminate our students’ understanding of environmental concerns.  Student inquiry drives the science content: water quality, biodiversity, non-native and invasive species, and horticulture. Prior to completing their projects and presenting their plans, students discuss observations and data in podcasts submitted for a national student competition, publicizing their projects and the preserve.  This year students are working on several different projects: mitigating poor water quality in the preserve’s stream, building a monarch hatchery and waystation, constructing a pollinator garden, and creating an app for tree identification.

While I am excited about the learning in and outside of our Ecological Rhetoric classroom, I’d like to strengthen our Humanities-Environmental Science collaboration with seamless integration of literature centered on the beauty of the world in nature. I’d like students to value the words of poets and authors who write about nature just as they do the data and conclusions in research studies.  I want our students to read how authors and artists ask the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls so that they may pose their own questions. And I want to give shape to my formless ideas about the nature of science within Humanities.

Robinson, Mariane. “Humanism.” The Givenness of Things: Essays.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, pp. 3-16.

Observing Ecological Rhetoric

From November 13, 2018, Field Notes at Lost Corner Preserve.

A light wind on my face reminds me that it is chilly though the sun is shining through the tree canopy onto Katie’s journal. She sits side saddle on the edge of the footbridge, head down writing in her journal. She gazes in front of her, then turns the page and begins a sketch, erasing lines, starting again, quickly pulling and pushing her pencil, taking a second to move her hair behind her ear.

With his hood shading his face, Spencer sits on a log at the stream, resting his journal on his lap, watching the water pass by.

The sunlight on Nina’s face highlights her features and I can see her pencil moving. I hear a bird sing “wa – p – wa – p – wa” and watch it fly above the limbs over Nina’s head.

Limbs of dried leaves, gold and brown, hide Eric sitting on a rock, knees bent to form a makeshift desk with his journal resting on his thighs. I cannot see where he is looking but I can see his pencil drawing circles.

Are these students cold? I’m cold, standing here on the path watching them. My fingers are stiffening, holding the top of my journal and resting it on my forearm; my letters are nearly illegible because I cannot keep the pages steady. I wish I were ambidextrous so I could warm up my left hand while writing. The wind is blowing harder, yet the students are not moving. I am watching them in their work, in their observing while helicopter seed pods land on my page.

Katie shifts her position and dangles her feet over the edge of the footbridge. Her journal rests on her thighs.

Before I spent this time watching my students as they practiced observation, note-taking, and sketching, I would have told you the joy I found in teaching came when I was learning and working with others as they learned. I believed my passion came from puzzling through complex concepts and listening to students tease out their own understanding of challenging texts.  The satisfaction inherent in the analysis, synthesis, and interpretation (all the work that happens in my brain) I believed was the only food my soul needed. And I once thought I preferred to do this thinking and learning inside, comfortably protected from the weather.

Yet, this past November and December while teaching Ecological Rhetoric, an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning course, I found a new joy in looking carefully at what is around me, in staying outside of my analytical brain when observing nature and my students while being uncomfortable in a cold drizzle. The exhilaration that once lit fireworks in my brain, celebrating interpretation can also spark small firefly lights when I am noticing and smelling and listening and feeling and tasting.

Remembering why I started teaching

Last summer I spoke with James Campbell, STEAM Interdisciplinary Specialist at Atlanta Girls School and, more importantly, host of Inspire 2 Impact — a podcast of “real conversations with real educators.”  I am inspired by his work with design thinking and interdisciplinary work students and teachers, and I enjoyed sharing my story with him.  You can listen here.

 

 

Instructional Rounds as an Observer

When I first joined our instructional rounds cohort, I came with a modicum of hubris.  Most days, I am a very good teacher, some days an excellent one, and during a few off days, I am proficient. As a reflective practitioner, I re-examine my curriculum for ways to help students discover a social context for knowledge, to find connections between performing arts and science, history and visual arts, literature, and math, believing teaching needs crayons and computers, books and music, laughter and passion.  And until my first instructional rounds observation, I was confident that my curriculum and my teaching were above reproach.

 

Then I received the first objective, dispassionate observation narrative of a lesson I taught, and the way I thought about my teaching was upended. Previous observation reports I received and those I had written were judgments of teacher effectiveness in the classroom.  Most praised my rapport with students, my presence in the classroom, and the activities that structured my lessons. My own observations of teachers contained this same type of praise along with suggestions for engaging students in constructivist lessons. Yet the observation report I received while a member of this instructional rounds cohort was filled with narrative paragraphs of detached prose and direct quotations of my questions and my students’ answers. As a mirror, this report showed me that I had not de-centered my authority in the classroom, that I still directed lessons like a conductor directs her orchestra. Through the narratives, I saw myself in front of the classroom and drew my own conclusions from the experience of reading what others merely saw, not what they thought about the lesson.

 

Even more illuminative for me was how the observational process had me re-thinking my own observation practice. When I was head of a world language and literature department, I used observations and my reporting as evidence to reward good teachers and to point out deficits of those who were less effective. I once believed that making note of deficiencies and revealing these to those teachers in my charge were how we could improve teaching and learning.  If I (or someone else) weren’t there to observe and judge, then how would teachers know if they were effective? How could teachers improve their practice if others weren’t in the classrooms judging their plans and the execution of those plans?

 

For me, now, this observation practice seems as archaic as lecture-based instruction; for this practice underscores an inherent hierarchy that can pit a teacher against her supervisor and ignore the philosophy that frames a learner-center approach to education.  Teachers should be afforded the same voice and choice we give our students, especially when we think about evaluation. Allowing teachers opportunities to scrutinize their own practice in the similar way we allow students opportunities to reflect on their own performance can lead to deeper understanding of learning.

Instructional Rounds Reflection #1

I tell my students I became a teacher because I couldn’t make a living on the stage. And while this is the falsehood I like to tell to explain my antics, it does, like many falsehoods, have a modicum of truth. For me, teaching has become performance art, and I am energized by every performance — whether it be one where I am on stage alone, directing student discussion by conducting a Socratic symphony or sitting among a group of students listening while they seek feedback on their writing from their classmates.  In either of these learning environments and as well as the other scenes I’ve created for learning, I feed on the energy generated by the students.

 

Teaching during an instructional round observation shines a spotlight on me and my students and holds up mirrors to reflect back to me what is happening in the classroom.  The light and reflection amplify the energy buzz. My first experience with instructional rounds, observing and being observed, pulled back a curtain on my teaching practice. While reading the observation notes from the members of my IR cohort, I visualize myself as the conductor of that learning experience they watched. The narrative of that class read like Socrates conducting an orchestra, calling on the instruments poised to play, praising those with the “right” answer, and trying to pull out insights from those more reluctant.  I wouldn’t be surprised to I read that I point to cue students to talk, I push my palm up to increase the volume in the piccolo section, or I push it down to lower the flugelhorns. All I need is a baton and the symphony of ninth grade Humanities could come together like a philharmonic.

 

But

 

I don’t want to be a conductor; I don’t want to wave my arms around telling students when it is ok to come in and join the song. Instead, I’d like to play within the orchestra, play an instrument that encourages students to find their own voice, their own passion. I wonder how I can make the space for students to step into the center, onto the conductor’s block in front of their classmates so that they can wave their arms, encouraging their peers to become part of the song.

Dusty Layers of History

img_8527Our Coliseum tour guide described Rome as a lasagna created from layers of cultural artifacts laid upon more layers of even older artifacts.  As we left Palentine Hill and began our trek for dinner, we saw evidence of these layers at nearly every corner: the remains of Roman aqueducts above our heads as we walked down a city sidewalk, unidentified ruins behind glass next to a 19th-century building where city architects worked, 21st-century tourist shops built into 18th-century storefronts around a piazza anchored by a 17th-century fountain.  Coming from the land of the new and the brave, immersion in what seemed to be an archaeological dig site was, at times, magnificently intimidating.

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In southern Puliga, we heard the region described as a cake created from layers dating back to the Messappii who lived there during the time known as classical antiquity.  Exploring Lecce, an original Messapppian city that is also known by its Baroque features and nicknamed the “Florence of the South,”  we visited Museo Faggiano Lecce, a museum that celebrates the story of this phenomenon of civilization layering. Intrigued by the enlarged copy of this New York Times article “Centuries of Italian History Are Unearthed In A Quest to Fix a Toilet”  posted outside the entrance, we scrambled through the rooms, climbed up and down narrow staircases to see the layers of 2500 years of history unearthed by the Faggiano family in a real-life inquiry-based learning project that began as an attempt to convert a building into a trattoria.

Nearly overwhelmed by the enormity of what is contained within this small building, we learned that the history found within the artifacts dating back to antiquity and moving forward through time tell us the building was once a Messapian tomb, a Roman granary,  a medieval home to a Templar Knight family, and a renaissance Franciscan convent.

As we visited more walled cities in the desert region of Italy’s southern heel, the idea of civilizations building their cultures onto the remains of previous civilizations led me to think about how at times students can experience their education as layers built upon layers, with little acknowledgment of the layers that had been set down before. How many times have students been presented with concepts or skills that are “foundational” to then later sit through other classes where new concepts or skills are merely laid upon the foundation without any attempt to dig and find the connections, the place where the new knowledge and skills fit into the foundation rather than sit upon it?

As I think about the layers in the lasagna that is Rome, the cake that is southern Puliga, I think about the layers of knowledge and skills that students build up and wonder how difficult it can be to create tunnels and to use what they’ve learned in more authentic ways.  How can schools avoid the “layering” of knowledge and skills resulting in dusty artifacts buried in the ancient dirt?

The Museo Faggiano is the product of real-life, transdisciplinary inquiry-based learning.  The need to repair a sewer pipe led Mr. Faggiano to investigate what was below the floor of what he hoped to be his new trattoria.  Granted this plumbing project morphed into an archaeological dig and it concluded with a public product that is different from what Mr. Faggiano planned, yet we can see this museum as a model for inquiry-based learning.  The museum can also be seen as a model that illustrates the aftermath of teacher-centered, non-constructivist learning — dusty layers of education artifacts. The knowledge excavated from exploring this museum can show us how important it is that students begin to authentically use what they learn as early as possible in order to avoid the build-up of crumbling educational layers.

Cultivating Spark

Today’s thoughts while reading Creative Confidence —

I continue to think about how we can use Design Thinking as a platform to design and develop curriculum.  Today’s reading  “Spark: From Blank Page to Insight,” led me to pose questions that I am beginning to feel are crucial to how we think about secondary education.

In this chapter, the Kelley brothers lay out these 8 methods of cultivating spark, for growing creativity:

  1. Choose to be creative
  2. See the world with traveler’s eyes and with a beginner’s mind
  3. Relax your mind, allowing it to wander
  4. Empathize
  5. Observe through field research
  6. Ask “why”
  7. Consider looking from a different point of view to reframe the question
  8. Collaborate with a network

As I started to unpack what it means to empathize with high school students and their learning, I asked: “How might we use empathy and research to understand what our students’ educational needs are?”  With that question in mind, I wondered how teachers can cultivate their spark.  What do they need to see the world with traveler’s eyes and with a beginner’s mind?  How can teachers keep their knowledge and insights fresh in order to cultivate spark in their own students?

My ideas about what students need to learn in English and Social Studies courses are based on my own experience in school and employment outside of education, in what I learn through my own professional development reading in English and Social Studies instruction and curriculum, and (slightly) through what the Common Core Standards identify as necessary for high school students to master.  With this mind, I’ve recognized that I am designing and teaching courses with a seasoned veteran’s mind, through eyes tinged with “I know what is best because I have an M.Ed in this.”  Is this the mindset we want to promote student-centered teaching and learning?

What would it look like for a teacher to have a beginner’s mind and travelers eyes?  For a teacher to empathize with students about what they need to know?  How would a teacher conduct field research and observe what her students need to know?

How do we truly know what students need to learn if we spend our days in the classroom?  We can read books, build our own professional learning networks to hazard guesses about our students educational needs; yet, if our approach to curriculum design is not learner-centered, not centered on empathy and fed by the research we gain through objective observation then how accurate are we as we hypothesize what students will do in their post-secondary school lives? How can we prepare students for college if we don’t venture into a 101 or 201-level  class to see what skills and knowledge they need to be successful in that class?  Are we preparing students for college classes that we took 10, 20, 30 years ago?  I imagine current English 101 and 102 classes are vastly different in scope and skill building than those that I taught in the early 90s, which were not that different than those that I completed in the early 80s.

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From fear to courage (within privilege)

IMG_9330Today’s blog post about this morning’s work with Creative Confidence is an example of my own move from fear to courage.

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Was anyone else put off by the examples of failure in this chapter?

For me, the failures highlighted were those that people of privilege could afford.  The venture capitalist who passed on Google did not suffer financially from the failure. He remains wealthy, perhaps not as wealthy as he could have been, but nonetheless, he has more than enough money.

How many families could bankroll the Kelley brothers’ destruction of the family piano for the sake of creativity?

Those who are privileged to be able to “bring-your-whole-self-to-work” most likely work for employers in states where components of their sociopolitical identities are protected by employment laws.  Some of us are not as fortunate, thus the fear that we will lose our livelihood stops us from being our authentic selves at work.

Privilege is a safety net that makes the trapeze, acrobatic work of creativity less risky.

What I am arguing in this post is NOT that design thinking is problematic in terms of privilege; I am proposing that the authors of this book may be blind to the privilege they enjoy, and thus this text (especially this chapter) may not resonate with those of us who do not share this privilege.

The Return of a Socialpolitical Identity

This morning I was reminded of the significance I once (and now will again) placed on my sociopolitical identity; my feminist-, lesbian-self was once the cornerstone of my pedagogy. My MA work at Clemson University centered on a feminist rhetoric of argumentative writing where I asked if students investigated how they came to have their beliefs about a selected controversial issue rather than simply arguing a position  then would they move past dualism into a stage where they would think critically.  In grad school at GWU, I investigated the connections between constructivist and feminist pedagogies and concluded that feminism opened the way for social constructivist and learner-centered pedagogies.  I argued that the ideas of de-centering authority in learner-centered classrooms, fostering collaborative opportunities, and prioritizing experiential learning are ideas stemming from feminist pedagogy.

And now I am thinking about how current ideas of teaching and learning can also find their roots in feminist pedagogy.  The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s “A Guide to Feminist Pedagogy” reminds us that curriculum design and instruction that is rooted in feminist theory is also learner-centered and constructivist.  For feminist pedagogy presumes that:

  • “students and teachers ideally learn with and from one another, co-constructing knowledge–both communal and contingent–together.”
    • Do we not use this same reasoning when promoting learner-centered classrooms?  In the work that advocates for such learning, researchers/theorists/promoters seem to ignore this connection.  I wonder if they are hesitant to wade into the politics inherent in feminism.
  • “Personal experience . . . is recognized as a valid and valued form of knowing. It doesn’t stand on its own as complete knowledge, but it’s also not seen as irrelevant or inferior. Instead, it works in conjunction with other forms of knowing.”
    • Is this not the same assumption we hold when we suggest that Inquiry-Based Learning and its sibling, Project-Based Learning, is authentic, effectual pedagogical practices?  Again, the connection (if not kinship) to feminism is seemingly ignored. Politics? or sexism?

So we come back to the ideas that gender and sex are fundamental to ideas of education.  And for me, our ideas about teaching and learning are structurally political.

Now, how will I use this to build my resiliency and to help others build theirs?  How will I avoid the chip-on-my-shoulder attitude when I acknowledge my own self-awareness of my sociopolitical identity.  For it is this self-awareness (and thus this blog post) that will allow me to

  • recognize and understand why I am triggered
  • use my strengths to avoid reacting to triggers
  • identify how my identity can be leveraged for building relationships.

This self-awareness is empowering as a source of strength, an anchor, and connection with others.  By understanding my sociopolitical identity I can boost my resilience (and help others boost theirs) by:

  • strengthening my trust with others
  • uncovering and understanding my unconscious bias
  • forming deeper and more nourishing connections with students, colleagues, and supervisors.

I need to come from a place of collaboration and not pedantism.

 

 

Beginning with Personal Values and Personality Types

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 10.49.44 AMToday I started reading Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Teachers, and I started avoiding the inevitable introspective work absolutely foundational to building resilience.  In fact, I started writing this blog entry two hours ago, and I am now just finishing the third sentence.  In between the sentences, I’ve washed dishes, made the bed, and put away clothes.  And now I feel ready to write about what I’ve learned about myself.

While none of the knowledge I’ve gained this morning is new, coming to understand how I need to use it is unfamiliar.  And I am committing myself to working through Elena’s Aguilar’s program so that I can the resilience I need to be confident in my teaching.

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In Aguilar’ first chapter focuses on learning about our selves so that we can play to our strengths and wisely direct our energies.  Clear self-knowledge gives us confidence in our actions and decisions.   For Aguilar, self-knowledge is true power, and the key to gaining self-knowledge is a deep understanding of how these five elements make up our selves:

  • Values
  • Psyche
  • Strengths and Aptitudes
  • Socio-political identity
  • Personality

Gaining my own self-knowledge this morning I worked through exercises for values and personality.  While it was easy for me to identify 10 values, I had more difficulty narrowing these down to three essential ones.   IMG_1703

Upon reflection of my three fundamental values, I can see how the remaining seven values stem from these three.  For without kindness and gratitude, could we hope for equity and peace?  Doesn’t it seem that embedded in ideas of equity and peace are the values of kindness and gratitude?  If we cannot be thankful for the diversity of people and thought that surrounds us, then we cannot expect equity. Being fair and impartial comes from a sense of kindness, of affection, for all in order to see all impartially.  Without hope, how could anyone forgive?  For me, it is a faith in the underlying goodness of most that creates the hope I center my life around.  Without this hope could we expect there to be peace anyone’s life?  in the world?

Then I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test on 16personalities and not surprisingly found that I am in an introverted phase.  At the end of this school year, I found myself more exhausted by the people-intensive experience that is school.  Luckily, I have time this summer to spend in my head — resting, processing, and planning.

Today, (according to this test) I am perceiving information through sensing — an unexpected result.  While I do notice details, I like to make sense of the details to connect them to bigger ideas.  I feel more comfortable backward-planning as those who perceive the world through intuition.

I process information through feeling, and I make decisions first looking at people and circumstances and seek a harmonious resolution to any conflict.  My heart and body hurt when I cannot make everything right for everyone.

And finally, it is through perceiving that I live my outer life, understanding and adapting to those around me, preferring to take in information and trying to keep myself from being overwhelmed by new ideas.  I feel I can best be flexible within a structure, especially in my own teaching.

What I like best about the 16 Personalities test (and perhaps the result) is the noun given to describe all these attributes.  I am an ADVENTURER.  For these past few hours, I’ve been walking around my house, inside my head, thinking about the idea of being an adventurer.  And I wonder how much of this aspect of my personality is programmed by my DNA and how much is from my experience as a military brat.  Is there a gene for adventure, for using aesthetics and design to push social conventions and enjoying upsetting traditional expectations?  Or do I find satisfaction in the uncomfortable, in the need for change because each time my family moved, I found myself looking for a place within the conventional and ultimately knowing that I belonged outside of it?