Monday, August 05, 2019

Teaching and Contemplation

It seems like the theme for this summer is reflecting on what has changed in my life in the thirteen years that this blog has existed. So, it makes sense to think about how my teaching has evolved since 200. The exterior circumstances hasn't changed very much. I am still a Latin and Classical Studies teacher and have been in the same school for coming up to fourteen years now. It has been a good fourteen years, really. I like my students and the subjects I teach. Despite the added stress, I enjoy the extracurricular activities I do- an annual Classics Conference and a tri-annual international field trip. I added the international field trips in 2011, but most of the rest haven't changed much.

What I want to consider today, however, is not what I've done or accomplished, but rather what I've learned. I'm sure this would sound odd to my students because they assume, on a good day, that their teachers know  and they, as students, have to learn what that is. Yet, a teacher, to be effective, has to be ready to learn and, if they don't, they stagnate and become less effective. That learning needs to be practical, so what I want to consider today are three practices which I think have been helpful for me. What these three things have in common is that they are intended to dig just a bit deeper than the superficial skating across the curriculum that often characterizes modern education. In a world to busy to think, they invite, I believe, contemplation and some pause and deliberation about what is good in our classrooms and schools.

So, the first practice I've learned is simple- listen. Or, as my beloved St. Benedict says it in the first sentence of his Rule, "Listen with the ear of your heart". What that means is that taking time to listen- to my students or colleagues or parents- is essential and will, usually, tell me something I need to know, if I listen intently and patiently enough. In edu-speak, we would call this 'Student Voice', but, central to the practice, is the assumption that I am not a lone ranger, expounding my wisdom to a passive, but receptive audience. It assumes that all those involved in the classroom have something important to contribute, so listening is a necessity. Sometimes, the listening is just taking a minute or two to listen to a story or a question or comment, which may or may not have much to do with the class, but lets me know about that person in front of me. Sometimes, it is looking at a class and admitting that I think the assignment that I had just written up for them wasn't working, and asking for suggestions about how we can fix it. This is a listening that isn't looking for a vulnerability to exploit or an argument to counter or information to download. It is a listening to hear another person into being. What I've learned is both how incredibly powerful that listening is and how incredibly difficult it is to do with any consistency. I try and I fail. I try and I fail. I try and I fail, everyday. But it is so worth doing.

A second practice is hospitality. That sounds confusing, especially if one assumes the superficial sense of hospitality which sees it as giving food and board. However,  what I'm talking about is something I learned first from Henri Nouwen- welcoming my students into a space which allows them to grow into the person they really are. It starts for me, as it does for St. Benedict, as welcoming a visitor as Christ himself, as a stranger who we welcome hospitably.  In a classroom, that sounds easy, especially on the first day, but keeping that welcome going becomes difficult when the less attractive qualities of our students begin to arise, when that 'Christ' is a bit difficult to keep welcoming, when I'd like to give up looking for the good in the face of, perhaps, not great behavior. Yet, I know that creating a safe and welcoming space is essential for anything I'm going to accomplish in the classroom or with any of my extra-curricular groups. It is that creation of community which gives a home to someone who needs it, if only for seventy minutes, that allows learning, both intellectually and in a social-emotional sense. Teenagers are incredibly vulnerable people and what they really need is a safe space, so they can learn to experiment and, hopefully, to flourish in this world they have inherited. Hospitality establishes that place.

The last practice today picks up a paradox that I've borrowed from St. Bernard of Clairveux (via Kathleen Norris)- 'serious play'. While St. Bernard used that term for liturgy, I've come to believe that 'serious play' is also applicable to learning as well. I say that because play, good creative play, is how small children learn to understand themselves and the world around them. This could just be playing with friends, which helps children to learn how to interact with people. It could be playing with Lego (as my kids do) to learn how structures work. Or it could be something like the time when my son processed the aftermath of a police chase he and his mom saw on the way to daycare one day by playing a verbal game involving some bad bears who crashed a truck. What I mean by 'serious play' is practice in which we learn as creative play- finding joy in the strangeness of Latin grammar, creating strange stick animals to remember parts of speech, taking chances like making a two thousand year old Roman recipe as part of an assignment. The seriousness comes when we begin to learn something about ourselves or the world around us or when we learn something or how to do something which is somehow useful in our broader lives. Obviously, we don't go to school just to play. We are there to learn things which we can apply to our lives. Yet, that attitude of 'play', I suggest, shouldn't be too far away. That is, if we want to encourage our students to be, to use another edu-speak term, 'life-long learners'

Of course, all of these practices are, in very great measure, aspirational. I have boring, frustrating classes at around the same proportion as my colleagues. I fail to listen or welcome some days. I forget to play in the drive to get the curriculum done in the 110 some odd hours I have to teach my courses. Yet, what all of these practices have in common is the desire, at least, to slow down, listen and contemplate both the students in front of me and the subjects that are teaching us about the world around us. In a world which is racing towards career or achievement, they call for slowing down and digging just a little bit deeper. Anything that I can do to further that call, I think, is worth the time it takes.

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