NYS teacher eval. debate footage @11thhour: “…vote on bad policy, or wait for worse policy?” http://ow.ly/bMEJG #SOSchat #edreform
The News Poet: #journalist of the future. #NPR understands #truth. http://ow.ly/azzHH #poetry #nwp
II. Self: “I am a novelist.”
4 July 04, First floor, window seat
Sopa Choling Retreat House, Gampo Abbey
Red River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
“Are you trying to write a novel?”
A fellow monastic asks this last night as I’ve curled up against the bay windows overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the sunset breaking over whitecaps. Who’s to say I haven’t been writing a novel over the past few days? At every significant break between sessions of meditation I’ve rushed off to document my experience. And then at the sound of the gong I return to the cushion, only to rehash my life in episodic fragments instead of focusing on my breath. I sit on the cushion and flip mentally through my “novel,” my life-long project of composing the self. Apparently, I am the central character in a novel.
Each day, consciously or not, I attempt to compose a reality every bit as tangible and indelible as that in any hardcover or paperback, something someone could hold after my body can’t hold it any longer. Something that could endure, sit intact, protected and safe on the shelf of some friend’s memory, with me hoping that they would pick it up and flip through it as I’m doing now this morning.
“BRONG,” tones the gong, and I snap back into the present. The room comes back into focus. Polished pine wood floors, bright red meditation cushions, grand wide windows through which the Labrador Sea extends, on either side of the larger-than-life bronzed Buddha. I am sitting on a thin cushion in a retreat house at the end of a road on the northernmost tip of Cape Breton Island, a temporarily ordained monastic whose only task is to watch the movement of mind while remaining aware of where I am. Apparently, I can’t even do that right.
III. Text and Self: Both impermanent
Four years later, I return to this journal entry and read it over. There is something familiar about it: the scene, the setting, the character, even the voice and style of the narrative is familiar. I remember vividly the sensations, and even emotional compositions, which combine to create the landscape of each situation: the windowbench was firm but with a seat soft enough, and with a view vast enough, to make long quiet reflections in writing a pleasure. Whenever the words wouldn’t come, I simply looked up and drifted off to rest some place near the meeting of sky and sea. Sitting meditation for lengths of time was often unendurable: I remember grinding pain in knee joints and worrying about the tearing of hip flexors in the waning minutes of each session.
Despite these vivid memories, the written evidence that I had these experiences, and a strong belief that some part of “me” endures over the years, in reading old journal entries I’m hard pressed to put my finger on what that “me” is. My body is different now. My circumstances too. Those particular instances of pain and comfort are now absent, evanesced along with the security of the monastic environment and the fear of looking dead at my neurotic and obsessive mind. My relationship with that entire experience is somehow tenuous, grounded only by a short text that itself is suspect – if only because I could not hope to record the whole of that experience that day. My connection with any aspect of it (self, experience, text, and meaning) is sometimes so tenuous as to be insubstantial. Sometimes I have to ask myself straight out – who wrote that?
Obviously, I did. The question of who, though, is not purely theoretical. It’s a practical concern that needs to be attended to each time I approach the page now. Understanding that I myself am not permanent has never been difficult for me – at age ten on a nightly basis I reminded my self as I was falling asleep of the reality of death. I try to recollect this to underscore the preciousness of each day, even though I spend most of them going through the motions mindlessly. But regardless to what degree I remain conscious of it, I am not permanent: I have not always had this conception of self, and at some point, this conception of self will fade. In this moment, I am ten again, repeating to myself the obvious but somehow shocking reality: “I will die.”
Despite my intentions and whatever grandiose visions I have for my text, it too will die. Possibly later today if I become irritated, abandoning it never to look at it again. A handwritten journal tears, is lost, burns in a fire, is given away. Books fade in the sun, crumble and decompose, are forgotten in some darkened vault. A computer hard drive crashes, the words displayed on the screen and underlying code collapsing into a vacuum of meaning. From your vantage point in the present, even as you read these words, meaning recedes simultaneously in all directions: into the past, into the space around us, into your mind. The text disappears moment by moment, and while affirming life as we read, the text whispers as you read each word, whispering: “I too will die.”
And if by chance we pick the text up again years later to revisit it, we find that friend forever changed. It is not quite as we remember it, because we ourselves have changed.
Similarly, the sense of self I had ten years ago is not the same sense of self that I have now, and as an extension neither was the self of five or even one year ago. For Pete’s sake, this time last year I was neither married nor living in this city. My circumstances have changed, and with them my views, my priorities, and actions. I am not the same self I was six months ago, or last week, or even yesterday. I had a sunburn yesterday and a headache and felt different flavors of love and harbored different resentments toward my wife than I do today. Ten minutes ago I was decaffinated, and thirty seconds ago I hadn’t even realized that caffine had introduced a change in my experience. Not only am I not permanent writ large across space and time, I can’t even say that this instant of me is the same as the last one. And if that is true, really, who did write that journal entry? And what does that say about the text?
In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating the space into which the writing subject constantly disappears. – Michel Foucault, What is an Author? (102)
The first thing to note is that while it seems completely obvious that there is such a thing as the self, when we try to pin down what that self is, the whole thing becomes completely elusive. – Andy Karr, Contemplating Reality (32)
Part I: The self. “I am my experience.”
In 2000, I was 22 years old: a year out of undergraduate studies, jaded by my brief entrance into the workforce, and in search of escape. As a result, I applied to study toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, C.O. Seduced by the name of the department (“The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”) and the affiliated writers (poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman) it seemed like a refuge in which I could cultivate some form of voice through which I could articulate my identity against a world that was disorienting to me in its apparent newness, speed, and materialism.
When asked what I discovered in that program, I usually respond that I went in to become a writer and came out a meditator. I emerged with what I viewed as a few hundred pages of trash writing; trash because I had discovered the inadequacy of writing to express my experience. Set in relief by meditation, documentation and fabrication of narrative seemed frivolous at worst and inaccurate at best. What was truly more substantive, text or experience? I didn’t learn how to write; I learned through writing that, for me at that point in time, language was an insufficient expression of being – it was for me, at the time, a vehicle of approximation.
This and other experiences led me to take temporary ordination as a monastic in the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, in the summer of 2004. Over the course of my practice at Gampo Abbey, the relationship of text to experience resolved somewhat in the space of silent practice. Each morning and evening as I wrote, subtle aspects of my experience began to distill into language – observations I felt language incapable of accommodating only two years before.
Text began to feel weighty and vital again, a terrain over which I could map and make meaning of my daily experience – returning later to observe how thoughts and perceptions changed day by day.
Yet as real as the text had become, experience itself began to fall apart. Detached from many of the things I had thought to be integral to my identity – my home, job, daily habits, clothing, and relationships – in the monastic environment I found it more difficult to pin down exactly who “I” was.
A primary teaching in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition states that while each of us acts as if we were singular individuals in possession of a permanent identity that persists over time regardless of interactions, if one examines this imputed definition of a “self” we may find it to be inaccurate. If one looks long enough at what one considers to be oneself, one may actually find this thing called “I” is not as solid as one thinks. It is this solid self-conception that we attempt to bolster and protect over the course of our lives – and it is actually what disrupts our ability to engage in a wholehearted, direct relationship with the world and the individuals in it.
From this base assumption, I begin to think writing once again. How is the self created continually through the practice of writing? What is the nature of a “finished” text if everything, writers and readers first and foremost, is impermanent, constantly changing? And how is it then that the identity of writer, text, and reader, comes to seem so solid? This piece includes journal entries from my stay at Gampo Abbey during the summer of 2004, and is punctuated by my reflection on them today, four years distant. In it, I explore how my preconceptions about text and self obstructed my ability to let go and connect directly with my world and experience – and understand exactly how my conceptions about each solidity began to fall apart.
Over the course of the next week, I’ll be posting in serial fashion a longer piece that I wrote in 2008 during the Capital District Writing Project‘s Summer Institute (SI). The Summer Institute is a month-long gathering of teachers, designed to immerse them in their own writing and a study of writing instruction. A part of the experience is time dedicated for teacher themselves to write on a subject of their choice. Some teachers write fiction, others poetry; some write memoir and some write journal articles.
During the 2008 SI I chose to dust off journal entries I composed during the summer I spent as an ordained Buddhist monastic at Gampo Abbey. I had the idea that these entries could inspire some sort of a longer piece. What came of the rereading was a written reflection about the relationship between meditation, writing, and the discovery of the self. The piece itself incorporates journal entries from 2005 and reflection from 2008. I write this introduction tonight, in 2012.
Over the course of the next few days I’ll post it, bit by bit, but not because I believe it highlights anything necessarily profound. However, I do believe it is a document that reveals how one can evolve as a function of the practice of writing and reflection. And I do believe that this realization — that the process of writing can be personally revelatory — is particularly relevant for teachers at this moment in the history of American education.
With the prominence of the Common Core Standards in schools nationwide, teachers are currently being impelled to focus on the use of writing to create an evidence-based argument. I do not believe that this is a bad thing. But to blatantly disregard the role of personal narrative in one’s growth as a writer, and the construction of a meaningful text, is to ignore what I argue is a universal impulse to write. We write to make meaning for ourselves; we write to share that meaning with others. And this impulse is deeply rooted in our experience of our lives as stories.
Thank you for reading. These excerpts are shared in the spirit of reflection, with the belief that the voicing of every individual’s story is essential when one is in pursuit of constructing a shared narrative.
“I make Math into a story, it’s as simple as that.” – A colleague, teacher of forty years, on why he, and his subject, are beloved by his students.
“What we share becomes the context of the shared narrative. Becomes the context in which we live. The stories what we tell, what we push out, becomes who we are.” – Renny Gleeson
Community is something I hold to be essential – and learning communities have proven vital for teacher growth and student learning. In fact, the culture of a learning environment is one of the most important determinants of the success of the individuals and the institution. I hope this blog will be a nexus for the kind of community I want my students to grow within, that I want to evolve through as an educator, that I desire to participate in with parents and colleagues, and that I want my son to join as he grows.
As human beings, we create meaning of our lives through story and dialogue. But not according to the Common Core Standards apologists, who, for literacy standards, have come up with the ratio 80%/20%: students should read and compose non-fiction 80% of the time, and other genres (including fiction, poetry, and drama) should be relegated to whatever time remains. In fact, CCS “Architect” David Coleman has gone further, baldly stating that when students go into the work world, “no one gives a shit about how you feel.” (Watch the video from about 8:45-10:00 for the full context of the quote.)
One of the field’s foremost educational psychologists for the past several decades, Jerome Bruner, still wonders about cultural resistance to admitting the power of narrative in education — despite its crucial role in our historical human drive to create meaning. In this passage from a 2007 interview, it seems as if he is speaking directly to the indulgently dismissive Coleman:
“Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating useability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.” (Full interview)
In the last sentence, Bruner makes a gesture toward something he’s researched and argued for decades: human beings as individuals, and human beings together in cultures, create meaning primarily through narrative – not through argument.
Narratives take all shapes and forms, and not all are created equal. But from the narratives we consume, we make meaning of our lives. Flip on the TV, and you’ll see it everywhere, no matter what your stripe. Situation dramas, situation comedies, sports games and sports news, and even reality television and soap operas allow us to witness a life from the outside, giving us the opportunity to witness others making meaning. And, apparently, we crave these stories. Perhaps they help us to understand our lives as they are – or perhaps they allow us a new reference point from which to re-envision our present and our future.
But I do not believe that even the most frivolous reality TV drama is devoid of a use. Bruner once wrote:
“Our sense of the normative is nourished in narrative, but so is our sense of breach and of exception.” (Acts of Meaning, 97)
In essence, we learn from stories not only how to be, but what not to be; and, more importantly, from them we begin to consider how to become.
In high school classrooms across disciplines, students and teachers alike create and share stories as a mode of building understanding. A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a math teacher colleague; he is a veteran of forty years, retiring at the close of this one. He is revered by students and faculty alike because he is a superlative teacher. Frustrated by recent changes to our school curriculum, I asked him what he thought about the historic shifts of curricula and education policy. Not one to linger long on critique of that which he doesn’t have control, he shared two things with me: one that allowed him to survive for forty years, and one that allows his kids to survive – no, thrive—through trig, pre-calc, and calculus. “The kids stay the same. I shut the classroom door and teach the way I want to, and the kids learn. That has never changed.”
But that isn’t the whole story. As you can tell from his words, these 40 years of teaching aren’t about breaching the normative for the joy of rebellion. He always has student learning as his highest priority, and for this they love him and all that comes with him: thick-paned glasses, half-dozen pens in his shirt pocket, his unabashed passion for math, and his essential hope for their long-term success.
How does he do it?
“I make Math into a story, it’s as simple as that.”
There’s a sequence of events – this leads to that leads to that and so on. And students are engaged in a process across an expanse of time, discovering how something works alongside someone who cares; who they connect with; who can share a narrative in numbers. They are learning, deeply, and more than just math — even if they aren’t engaged in constructing arguments that their culture, current policy wonks tell us, demands of them in order to be successful.
My colleague and his students shut the door; they tell stories; and, together, they create a culture of learning.
This is what community looks like.
This is the world of learning that I want my students, and my son, to inhabit. This is what I want to learn.
There are two interdependent ways that you can enter the education discourse today, and infinite iterations of how these two ways can play out in your daily life.
The first is by dipping your toes into the global education reform movement discourse flowing online – follow educators on Twitter, friend teachers and surf Facebook posts, and check out the chatter. There’s a river of it, but don’t worry. Let it wash over you and just begin to notice what you notice. For a step-by-step technical how-to, this seems like a good place to start. But there’s more to engaging than just knowing how to connect.
As educators and people who are invested in what education could be, what you read will often mirror, or perhaps contradict, what you think about in your daily life. Who will teach my child or loved one? What will his or her education be like? How will this contribute to his or her long-term well-being?
When we mindfully tap in to social media, we notice experiences shared through posts, tweets, and comments that communicate an intense amount – but the first thing we may realize is that we are not alone.
You are most certainly not alone.
While social media can easily be a distraction, or perhaps even encourage what some call “faux-activism,” it will remain a vital mode of communication and vehicle for engagement in social movements. In his 2009 TED talk, Renny Gleeson proposed that the technologies we use will become the basis for a new shared experience which will, in turn, become the foundation for our new world:
“What we share becomes the context of the shared narrative. Becomes the context in which we live. The stories what we tell, what we push out, becomes who we are. People aren’t simply projecting identity, they creating it.”
Gleeson’s brief talk (it’s actually really funny — think “anti-social phone tricks”) ends with a heartfelt plea we could apply to educator use – and adaptation – of social media in the service of creating the kinds of communities we want to be a part of.
And so by reading and mindfully sharing our experiences and reference points through Facebook posts and ensuing comment dialogue, we can enter the discourse, beginning an evolution from educators and stakeholders into educator-advocates and -activists. The end? Not quite.
I did mention two interdependent modes of engagement. The second is a bit more analog than the first:
Communicating online is simple and convenient, but asynchronous online discourse is inherently limited. We must connect f2f.
Mindful online dialogue can enrich substance-based interpersonal connections, creating a basis for more incisive, insightful discourse when we actually meet f2f. Having confidence in common reference points, we can more quickly address nuance, in a medium better suited to engaging the degree of complexity we experience when discussing education reform.
In these conversations, we can toss back and forth different perspectives on not only what it means to be an educator in the time of the great GERM, but what it means to become more fully human through our service, side-by-side.
As we’re entering the Chinese Year of the Male Water Dragon, a time of dramatic ups and downs, I invite you to enter the discourse with me. We can enter having confidence in our basic wisdom as educators, knowing that our experience itself represents a wealth a larger audience is waiting to recognize.
We enter. We share by listening to others. We reflect. We enter again. We articulate the truths we have come to understand through our classroom practice and the generosity of those educators with whom we have come into dialogue. None of the other voices in the discourse have the combination of reference points you uniquely possess; no other voice has your particular experience; it is one of your unique gifts as an educator – or simply as a human being who cares about learning and our collective future.
That experience, that sense of care, are gifts you can share with the world.
We’re waiting for you.
@ChrisMazura / #occupyedreform