Sunday, July 16, 2006

leading vs listening in a wired world

True Story: I was out walking our dogs early this morning, and decided on a whim to follow the urging of our older dog--an elderly, mostly deaf german shepherd--and head downhill rather then uphill for my customary dog-walk around the golf course.

Part way round, this same elderly, sweet tempered dog urged me off to the right, on a road providing access to the golf course for a group of residential dwellings just south of the course. Quite uncharacteristically, I followed her lead.

Now you have to realize that my wife Ellen and I live in an age-restricted, golf-course centered condo-community of about 350 acres located about 20 miles south of downtown San Jose. We've lived here about eight years at this point, occupying a pleasant but small condo quite close to the entrance of this "gated'' community. We like the quietness of our surroundings, the well maintained and quite spacious grounds, the predictability of the place.

So it came as quite a surprise to me this morning when I followed my older dog's lead, heading southwards from our usual round-the-golf-course route. I'm a person of fairly fixed habits in such matters, and truth to tell I was mostly thinking about this blog entry--what to use as its title and what to include as examples. I was in that semi-distracted early morning state of mind that I am often in at this hour, that is, while performing this particular dog-walking task.

And it therefore came as something of a shock when I looked up, as it were, from my distracted state of mind and realized I was walking on a path I'd never walked on before. A stream was flowing to my left, the grass was sloping gently towards me on my right, the morning birds were chirping in the trees above me, and the sun was just beginning to brighten the landscape. It was exactly as if I'd borrowed Philip Pullman's "subtle knife" and cut my way through into a parallel universe (see book review).

Now of course what made this discovery especially dramatic, in addition to illustrating just how thoroughly distracted I can become, was that this lovely path along the stream had been there all along, just minutes from where I'd been living for the past eight years. It was not a parallel universe, but rather a very distinct and tangible part of the very universe I inhabited. I just had not paid enough attention to notice this 'part' of my reality before taking my walk this morning with my dogs. It had taken my elderly german shepherd to gently steer me in the direction of a reality I simply had not known existed: a reality right in front of me, wholly coeval with the predictable, 'ordinary' landscape I thought I knew.

Might this same 'alternative path' be there, in a similar way, in the school settings most of us will be returning to this fall? We'll be expecting to take our regular and predictable "morning walks," of course, politely paying our respects to the loquacious social studies teacher, nodding perfunctorily at the permanently pinched mouth of the next-door math teacher, avoiding the principal's office for fear of being asked to take on yet another we-can't-function-without-it responsibility. But what if, rather than gritting our teeth and setting our minds to simply 'surviving' another year, we take a leaf from Pam Cheng's book (see comment by 'spam') and remind ourselves that "it's often our [fellow teachers] that give us the confidence to believe in [our own] worth. This is the 'sun' [we can] take back to our classrooms and schools to share with our students and colleagues. Perhaps if we can reflect the best in those around us, they will be inspired to find it in themselves."

And might blogsites such as this one become wonderful vehicles for enhancing such acts of appreciation among our 'ever-so-predictable' fellow teachers? What if we all committed ourselves to making one act of public recognition per day, via a blogsite for all to see, of the contribution that another teacher had made to our understanding of ourselves, our students, or our teaching. What if we simply set that as our collective task, our collective responsibility, our collective commitment as a whole school faculty? Might we begin to see that that lovely stream-side path, with overhanging boughs, twittering birds and brightly lit sloping lawn, had been there all along, just waiting for us to open our eyes and realize that it was part of our seemingly 'predictable,' seemingly 'ordinary' workaday world?


Nicola said...

A deer?

jonathan said...

Good guess, Nicola. That's close to the mark. I have to take Ellen to the airport right now so won't be able to continue this blog until later today. But here's a hint: Think Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife.

Nicola said...

I should have known there would be a twist given the title.

I like the analogy to teaching and the positive impact of others.

John said...

Here goes what might always morph from an ordinary humdrum comment, to a walk along an unknown path to--no!--a post of cosmic proportions. Just kidding. I've repented of such crossovers. ;-}

Actually, I'm a big believer that there is in fact a universe, much of it all around us, beyond reach of our normal perceptions and habits. I'm not sure how I could stay halfway fresh (given nearly 20 years teaching sophomores pretty much full bore) if I hadn't found ways to stay at least a little in touch with that feeling of awestruck surprise Jonathan describes on his morning walk. I manage to meditate most mornings, a practice I think helps me apprehend, mostly unconsciously, a larger frame of reference.

Once, at an especially challenging period in our school history, in connection with an abysmally bad principal (Jonathan knows who I mean), several of us met for 10-15 minutes before school several days a week, and sat attempting to become connected to something beyond our normal limitations. We'll never know how such things work themselves out, but within months of these efforts a new leader appeared, and she proved to be the best thing that ever happened to the school.

My impression is that most of the developments in my life that head me down paths to somewhere inspiring begin in a quiet place. I don't mean to go on too long about my private practices. But I think this relates to Jonathan's suggestion. Sometimes as I meditate I think of colleagues I know are struggling in some way. Whether or not it actually helps things change for the better, it does help prepare me to be sympathetic next time I see the person, and maybe listen more carefully than I would otherwise. And that in turn can sometimes enlighten me.

For some who feel so inclined, maybe the kind of public recognition Jonathan suggests could begin in a quiet place of one kind or another.

Back to the portfolio. Either I'm going to be up most of the night, or my portfolio's going to be the most humble one of the lot. (I won't have time to work tomorrow night.)

BobLiftig said...

I am turning 60 and I have several things wrong with me, including tonight,Restless Leg Syndrome, a bedtime curse if there ever was one, and accompanying insomnia. So I gave up on sleeping, fired up the computer, and read Jonathan's blog.

I am a retired high school teacher (32 years) who is now a Writing Fellow at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and also an adjunct at Fairfield University where, in just a few hours, I will be teaching my Freshman Writing class.

I used to think that the main problem with my life was teaching ... all the headaches and agonies of few resouorces and little pay, too many meetings, no visible outpouring of respect, gutless administrators, and teacher room gossips.

Now those headaches are gone...replaced by Restless Leg Sydrome and the question of surviving the 7th decade life.

Jonathan talks about finding yourself in an unexpected place that is physically or not in some weird dimensional relationship with an old familiar place. This describes my situation recently, and especially tonight.

Like Jack Finney's central character in The Third Level (where the ad man finds himself on a third level in Grand Central Station --- there are only two for you Californiansm ---and where he boards a steam engine that will take him back to Galesburg,Illinois in 1894)--- Like Jack Finney's character, I am in a new place in an familiar old one.

Is it because I feel the icy fingers of a mysterious chronic illness wrapping around my 60 year old ankles? (chicks used to dig my young ankles)

No. Because ... contrary to all my previous expectations, I now like (love) teaching more than ever before. Teaching Without The Politics. Understanding that by doing what I am doing, I am answering the call of a higher profession --- a mission, I think --- not the mulings and pukings of some principal of the month muckraker touting phoney "innovations" and trying to shove them down my throat.

I rediscover my freedom in the classroom ... because I am allowing myself to rediscover ... and redefine it. I work with young minds and shaping them from experience, and from authority. And I know what I'm doing works.

What a gift! What an opportunity!

I would start teaching right this minute ... sleep deprived and Restless Legs that I am ... because it is what I do ... and what I do best,and now --- as opposed to 30 years ago, I know it.

I thank my administrators ONLY for providing me with a captive audience every semester --- one upon whom I can play the tunes of teaching, and lead them in the rhythms of learning as I have for the last 40 years.

No long vacation is necessary anymore to "regroup." No reenergizing program in the middle of the summer is required ... because the answer to teacher angst is INTERNAL.

Jonathan has found his "happy place," and so have I ... and so, I hope will the blogees who read this. As the President of Yale was rumored to have said one day when a student, responding to the President's "How are you?" greeting said: "I don't feel well." -- "My boy, the business of the world is carried on by people who don't feel well."

Hopefully, now, restless legs and all, I will sleep.

Don Rothman said...

I welcome Jonathan's invitation to make public our appreciation of each other. His blog about this is surely an occasion to acknowlege gratefully his blurring of the boundaries between familiar and unfamiliar, ordinary and extraordinary, private and public.

At some point Maxine Greene writes about making friends with another person's mind. She describes, as Robert Coles does in The Call of Stories, how literature (and art in general) offer us the opportunity to nurture imagination that enables empathy. I suspect that in the presence of beauty, as Jonathan must have been on his walk, we de-center, think of others with gratitude, often speaking to them as we walk our dogs. When I encounter a deer on campus, and a stranger walks up to me transfixed by the animal's beauty, I welcome the company. In fact, that capacious feeling has directed my attention to justice, as Elaine Scarry proposes in On Beauty and Being Just. The impulse to share beauty, perhaps, is also an impulse to distribute it fairly.

I am reminded of how a close friend and colleague and I travelled all the way to a conference in Goteborg, Sweden to talk about how friendship shaped our teaching for over two decades. At first the audience was surprised by our subject, and then opened up and explored with us what friendship means in our teaching lives. Jonathan urges us to be generous, as friends are with each other.

When I teach undergraduates in the same classroom in which our ISI meets, the room is haunted by teachers' voices. It is a parallel soundtrack to the one we create as we develop enough interest in each other to be useful as we consider the possibilities of writing a different world.

Responding to Jonathan's invitation here in this blog is about friendship made public.

Todd said...

The Pullman reference resonates with me. I felt that way when I drove up Hicks Road and discovered Sierra Azul only a few years ago, after having lived close by for the preceding 4 years. This network of trails opened up to me and, of course, it had been waiting patiently the whole time. I just hadn't noticed it.

"What if we all committed ourselves to making one act of public recognition per day, via a blogsite for all to see, of the contribution that another teacher had made to our understanding of ourselves, our students, or our teaching" (source).

What if we acknowledged the contributions our students make to our various understandings? How might that change the way we see our classrooms?

It's dreadfully important to catalog the inspiration we receive from peers. That's a very worthy goal, one I try to make a point of working toward in my own blog. I've had the thought before and I've proclaimed, loud and to the heavens, that many of the ideas I have are because of things I get from other teachers. I would not be even the smallest fraction of the teacher I am today if I had done this all in isolation. Honestly.

But I can see the inspiration our students bring to our lives as a more immediate influence over how effective we can be in the classroom.

I was talking with a friend and retired teacher (she taught French for long enough) just this morning and she brought up the idea that teaching the same literature for 15 years must be boring. I told her it most certainly is not. The observations students bring to the discussion every year, whether it's a new insight or just an intriguing line of logic leading to a tired interpretation, make teaching Hamlet a joy for me every year.

I don't see that joy fading away too much over the next few decades. Sure, some friends and co-workers will make it interesting for me by telling me something new or giving me an idea, but that's just a very likely possibility. Students bringing new life to a text and to a teacher is a sure thing every year, even if some years it feels like only a single student actually cares or thinks.

Anonymous said...

The Golden Compass

As teachers we need to cultivate the confidence to follow a student's lead, particularly in classroom discussions. If we only have our eyes on the prize -that one "right" answer to a question we have posed (or the dog walk's beaten path) - we may miss a truly astounding turning the conversation is ready to take.

We need Pullman's golden compass, not only the one pointing due north.


andrea a lunsfor said...

This is a lovel analogy, Jonathan, and one I will remember in my own teaching. For me, fall is the most exciting season since it hails the opening of school and the new class of students arriving. When I look at my students on that first day (and thereafter) I always remember Maxine Greene's important observation that we should always always remember that in every one of our classes there is at least one student who is infinitely our superior in both heart and mind. We don't see them sometimes because we're not allowing ourselves into that parallel universe you describe.

andrea a lunsfor said...

This is a lovely analogy, Jonathan, and one I will remember when I meet my next class. For me, fall is the best season since it hails the opening of school and all the new students. When I meet them for the first time I always remember Maxine Greene's observation that, in any class, there will always be at least one student who is infinitely my superior in both heart and mind. I sometimes don't see them because I'm not recognizing that parallel universe you describe. Andrea

Nelson said...

It strikes me that this was, in some ways, an especially apppropriate blog posting for invited responses. In a way, it's all about listening.

I'll admit that when I received an email telling me that you had started a blog, I thought, "Cool. I'll peek in at it some day," and promptly put it out of my mind. The email was there in my inbox, but I had little inclination to follow the link because there are so many sources of news and reflection on the Web, I find it all a bit overwhelming.

Like Carol, I think of this story in terms of listening to my students, following their leads. And I guess I see in the story the kind of unmotivated openness necessary for that kind of listening to open up new readings of words and worlds.


Laura said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Laura said...

"We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a percious moment, but it is transient. It is a little parenthesis in eternity. If we share with caring, lightheartedness, and love, we will create abundance and joy for each other. And then this moment will have been worthwhile." Deepak Chopra

After teaching 20 years I am appreciative, and in awe, when I meet a "True Teacher". These are those among us who have honed in and embraced their unique talents and found unique ways of expressing them to serve humanity. These are the teachers who deliver information while touching lives. They have exchanged "What's in it for me", for "How can I help all those I come in contact with". They give the gifts of a smile, a compliment, a flower, or attention to all they encounter. They let the class lead to a new path and discovery becomes a lesson in itself.

To all you true teachers I stand amazed say "thank you" for sharing yourselves with all of us and making our moments with you worthwhile.

grant said...

You took the path less travelled, and it has made all the difference.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but read Jonathan's article through the lens of the sad news these days about escalating violence in the Middle East and growing concerns about the potential looming environmental disasters that global warming may bring. I connect these and other issues to the experience Jonathan discusses--of suddenly seeing new an old and familiar landscape. I believe that our attitude toward students and colleagues reflects the way we see the world as a whole. If we are present to the possibilities those people possess, we will see much beauty, we will hear those birds chirping! The willingness to see the world new every day may be our evolutionary imperative as a species. How's that for Big Picture? What if everyone approached his/her occupation every day with the question in mind--what would be best for assuring our future today?--our lives could make small differences that could add up to some important differences in the world. That's my sermon today.

Marty Krovetz said...

RE: Leading vs Listening
As I read Jonathan's entry, I thought about the movie "Sliding Doors." The movie was not great, but I continue to think about how much of my life has been me just making it through the sliding doors. In my early 20's I was a math teacher in a mill town in North Carolina. This allowed me to avoid Viet Nam and remain in graduate school in Chapel Hill. When I completed my PhD and secured a new position in CA, I went to say good by to the superintendent. He and I had become colleagues. He asked me to stay and accept a position as math coordinator for the district. In my sarcastic way, I told him I would stay only for his position. Instead of wisecracking back, he offered me the principalship of an elementary school. I said no, knowing that I could not continue to live in NC when I had the chance to move to CA. A year later I knew that my heart was in high school education/reform, not in college teaching at that point in my life. I earned my administrative credential, sought a position and became a school administrator for 17 years. In 1991 I returned to the university scene at SJSU. If Dr. Deason had not responded as he had I know that I would not have chosen the path I did. The day after seeing the movie, I went to yahoo people search, found his son, secured the phone number, and called Dr. Deason to thank him - 27 years later.

A key lesson is that what we say to people makes a difference. Every hello to a student entering your classroom, every sincere "How are you today?", every sincere "What do you think?", every "I have high expectations for you and will support you" may change a person's life.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

It's great to read about the power of positive feedback for teachers. I've heard somewhere that negative comments, which teachers receive constantly from the media and often from the community have twice the impact of positive comments, so a focus on providing positive honest feedback to each other is a welcome corrective. Great blog! Lots of good communication going on.

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Terry said...

My favorite moment at the academy awards--ever--was said by Robert Begnini when he accepted his award: "And I want to thank my parents for the gift of poverty."

I was like him in that I experienced a long, long period of a poverty of sorts-- and then it was over.

That gift makes many days appear like Jonathan's moment of wonder at the sight of a beautiful place in his own neighborhood.

The surprise that life is beautiful still persists, even on a day, like today, where I taught in a true blackboard jungle: Gunderson high, summer school.

Another teacher friend of mine said it well, too. He's a Vietnam vet. He says daily, "every day not buried underground is a great day." I think he means it. I think I get what he means. What a gift.


Charlie said...

So it is finally time for me to enter the world of blogs. Thank you Jonathon, for the invite. On reading your piece, I was struck by the surprise as well as the delight of your unplanned diversion. I often find myself haunted by such places, perhaps even burdened by them. Pathways, streams, hillsides abound around me which I have yet to visit, and yet I find my self back on those trails that are by me well worn, and which I walk with great satisfaction, and on my best days, being surprised and delighted. Yes, on other days I walk them only out of habit, with my mind on other things and so I forget to see where I am.
We are selecting books for our reading group, our 22nd season, and the list of books still to read is long and wonderful, but I read Grossman’s wonderful new tranlation of Quixote and I think that we should read it again...there was so much that we did not stop and look at, so much we missed. So should we still rush to diminish the pile of the unread? I am ready to return to some familiar pages.
In our classrooms, with our colleagues, these are the familiar paths, the ones we think we know all too well, so they seldom surprise and delight. We anticipate what they will say and our answer is equally predictable. So I go back to the good days on my walks, when my eyes are open and I see small details I had not noticed, when I stop and listen, the days when I connect profoundly with where I am (and this is not an overstated use of the word profound). The surprise and delight is always there, but we are often doing other things which seem more important.