Life in the Classroom

People often say that school is a training ground, or a practice session, a rehearsal for life, which usually means career. This whole “real-life” authentic learning stuff basically privileges the work place over the school classroom.

If the flipside to words like “real” and “authentic” is words like “fake,” “false,” or “contrived,” then maybe we’re just being sloppy with our words. Unless that’s actually what we think of school. Well, I’m probably just being too fussy because none of this is what’s meant by real-life authentic learning, is it?

Or, if it is, wouldn’t it mean that no one’s keeping score until “real life” happens, and no one’s getting paid in school since results are pretend, and no one’s responsible because, hey, it’s all just theoretical? School the Great Training Ground implies that school is not really a place that matters because it only teaches about life or career, which comes later…

And hey, wait, that’s just fine, isn’t it? School does teach stuff for later, for when things matter, for when it really counts.

But hey, wait.

Doesn’t anybody think school actually is part of life? Part of kids’ lives, and teachers’ lives? Kids and teachers are alive. School is not some neverland of make-believe. School is real. It has real, live people in it. A classroom is an authentic place. It’s a – go ahead, say it with me, now – “c l a s s r o o m.” Right! What goes on in school is plenty real and means more than “Yeah, this doesn’t really count.” Laughter and friendship matter. Anxiety and stress matter. Living affects us. Learning is meaningful. Here you go, how about this: if classrooms were inauthentic, if learning were just practice for later, if school weren’t real, then why are we grading people? Shouldn’t we save that for the regular season, when it really matters?

Students are young people who live a huge chunk of their lives every day in a classroom. For them, school is every bit as real as any other place they go.

Gratisography Pexels red-school-blur-factory-451
Image by Gratisography from Pexels

It has ups and downs, friendship and rivalry, anxiety and stress and reward and good times. Calling school “sheltered” essentially discounts being there because a kid’s life, relative to themselves and their own experience, is all there is. Kind of like any other point in our lives. Our lives are real, and we don’t just switch on like a light bulb upon leaving some unreal, inauthentic place – there is no such place.

School being this pretend place is adult condescension – oh-so well-intentioned, of course, on that infamous and overcrowded road to hell. Sure, kids have limited experience. Sure, they might be sheltered according to someone else’s perspective – fine, then that’s how big a kid’s world is. So be it. It remains that kid’s perspective. It’s not pretend.

How big a life is becomes how much that person can cope. School life, family life, sports, hobbies, friends, on and on – all of these teach us something about living. Are none of these other parts of life somehow sheltered, too, like school? Who decided that school takes that prize? How about piano lessons? Those are something like school… teachers, practice, grades. Tests, recitals, performances. How about sports, with competitors, and winning and losing. With coaches and referees who hold us accountable. Are these somehow less unreal or inauthentic, or pretend, than a teacher? Are they some kind of real life learning that school is not? We often compare sport to life, and value the life lessons it teaches, but when do we short-change sport by saying it’s less real or some kind of shelter?

In fact, there’s a subtle difference to what we say about sport: “Such great preparation for life!” Affirming, valuable, such a boon. In my experience, the attitude bestowed by adults upon the value of youth sport is nothing but positive, as compared to school…

Which parts of life is nobody grading? If school is so sheltered, aren’t we actually handcuffing teachers who attempt to teach accountability? I suppose it’s not ironic that kids live in “the real world” every minute they’re not in school.

Take the kid who sees school as sheltered preparation for the real world. The day that kid argues with their friend on Saturday, what has school really prepared them for? How to argue with friends, or how to be sheltered?

Telling kids that school shelters them from the harsh world out there is misleading.

Teacher: “You need to do better on your homework. If this were a job and I were your boss, you’d never get away with this.”

Student: Right, and since it’s not a job…

What’s the chance this kid did a less-than-stellar job on homework because they’ve learned school is sheltered? Hey, if it’s all just rehearsal, why bother? If it’s only my teacher telling me off, and not a real boss, then who cares? Duly noted: someday it will matter. But not here in school, not today. If we constantly send the message that school doesn’t really matter because the real world is still out there, what will young people grow to understand from their time in school?

But if kids were told and shown that school matters, just like the rest of life, maybe they’d understand it more respectfully, value it more meaningfully. Adults like to say that life is about learning and that we should all be lifelong learners. Seems to me that would make school a place to practise learning. And if the focus in school were simply on learning, then focusing on doing your homework, on careers and jobs, on “If the teacher was your boss…,” on whichever-whatever details… then all the details would just be mere details, as in not really all that important.

If life is about learning – lifelong learning – then what possible sense does it make to shelter anybody from anything? Shouldn’t we just live, and learn all the way through? At school, learn at school. At work, learn at work. With family, learn with family, and so in every circumstance. When life happens, you learn about it, and now you know a little more than before. If learning is what matters, how about we learn how to learn? And then learn, in every possible situation. Life’s going to happen, anyway.

Featured Image Credit: Image by sunil kargwal from Pixabay

On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

Problematizer, philosopher, contrarian. Critic, cynic, shit-disturber. I think I’ve been a problematizer all my life, just not in every part of my life.

This post is not me trying to be an Opinion columnist. And it’s not me trying to be some do-gooder or, worse, some feel-gooder. This is from me about me, something I was prompted to write from having read about somebody else. It’s a step in a process. Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.

On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

As far back as I can remember, Canada has told me that we embrace diversity. Not always using that word, but still that message.

Our various governments and politicians, our cultural day-to-day. Our jobs, our coursework. Campus life, news coverage, social media, friends around a table… continually, there it is, Canada telling me, telling all of us, how diverse and tolerant we are. For me, the word “diversity” became Canada’s overwhelming self-portrayal soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. But I remember the call as far back as Grade 1 class, an amenable time of life for anyone to be told such grand concepts.

We sat cross-legged around the front carpet as Mrs McCrae sounded out the word cosmopolitan on the chalkboard. This word, she told us, was what our Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, wanted for the country, for us: a mixture of people from all over the world, a good thing. That winter, 1977, Amanda’s Uncle Ron visited with footage of his trip through China – silent Super-8 images of crowded urban Shanghai, so drab and different from Vancouver, and the Great Wall, so mythic and unhurried. I remember we read Holling C. Holling’s marvellous book and sat wholly entranced not once but twice, a bunch of six year-olds, watching Bill Mason’s “Paddle to the Sea.” I can still hear the pops and scratches of the spliced soundtrack churning past the projector bulb, can still smell the chilly school building, which stands as ever just a few blocks away.

And I can still see Mrs McCrae tapping out the syllables with her chalk that day on the front carpet. Whether she gripped the class, I can’t say, though I knew we were listening. I was listening. I remember thinking and thinking about what she told us, thinking intensely, and when Trudeau was re-elected a year or so later, his name and face sounded it out for me, again and again: “Cos-mo-pol-i-tan.” Canada, for me, has quietly been cosmopolitan all my life because, when I was six, that’s what I was told.

Childhood experiences are momentous… their measure smaller, more intense, less diluted than an adult’s. Two years before, at our sunny backyard farewell, my pre-school teacher, Mrs Needham, gave me a goodbye card, green construction paper with a cheerful yellow lion glued to the front. Think Before You ActI sat in her arms when my turn came, and she read to me what she wrote: “Remember, Scott,” printed in big friendly letters, “to think before you act.” To say I never forgot, really, I always remembered. I remembered and did what she told me to do. I still have the card, bundled with the rest of my degrees and diplomas – the one that cost the least, time and money, perhaps worth most of all.

Primary lessons, intangibles, engrained so early. They can resurface, borne of reflection, yet years might pass before we notice them staring back from the mirror. When we’re children, we take our cues from adults, as we learn to become adults ourselves. My Dad coached my soccer team a few seasons. One evening, he said, “Hands up if you can think.” We dutifully raised our hands, and he told us, “If you can think, you can play.” Some nodded, some laughed. In fact, his point was to single out one particular boy, whose name is lost although I see his face so clearly, as a way to build his confidence. It’s something I only learned when my Dad told me years later. I’ve been coaching, myself, nearly thirty years now, and I still use this one: if you can think, you can play. I like its appeal, that basis of something commonly shared.

By the time I was an adult, whenever that happened, lessons like these were so engrained it took me years to notice them – and these just some influences I remember. How many I forget? That’s fair. Memories, influences, lessons… intangibles are borne of reflection. What took longer still was noticing their effect, or better to say having their effect pointed out to me, despite their staring back my whole life whenever I looked in the mirror. These days, I’m obliged to notice that who and what I am affects the way people treat me. I just took longer to feel obliged, and to notice that I noticed. I was blind to my self, really. But eventually… and I could list off a bunch of traits. It’s just that listing them seems a bit petty. There’s nothing petty about how I’ve been treated most of my life on account of who and what I am.

Once, long ago, I felt compelled to correct a customer who took our shared resemblance as a chance to share his bigotry. It was finally my girlfriend’s photo that told him we disagreed. Another time it was my daughter’s photo although this person assured me her comments weren’t about my daughter, specifically, just other people. Last spring, on my daughter’s field trip, the guide gave me the instructions instead of her teacher, who stood next to him. He’d just greeted her, shaken her hand. At the hospital, some of the nurses and specialists – not all of them, just some – spoke to me as though my Dad weren’t even in the room, even while answering the lucid, specific questions that he asked himself. At a restaurant, the smiling host walked right past our party planner and welcomed me with an outstretched hand, well over twenty feet away. I was holding the door open for our group to come inside.

Innocuous moments… hardly seem worth mentioning. No injuries, no threats. No danger. Yet also nothing trivial about somebody else reduced by a decision to single me out. Each time, I clarified. Told them different, set them straight. Other times, too, since then. And I only surmise what distinguished me as somehow different each time because no one ever actually said. On the other hand, I well understood what made me a punchline for howlie-jokes… party with the new in-laws, around the table, in the rec room, wherever it was. Once or twice I’d retort, but no no, they insisted, I was out of line. Just joking, they said. “All in fun, Shark Bait!” No offense, just some gentle family hazing.

Just… now there’s a versatile word. Maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed to learn how to smile. Years later, outside the Blue Mosque, made to feel especially white and tall and exceptional, I was more prepared, thanks to those (now ex-) jokester in-laws. Thanks, then, from an “out-law,” as that family liked to call us, we who married in. I’m better at it now, laughing and letting go. The stakes no longer feel so high. But I’ve had good fortune in life. Not that I mean to compare.

Where or why or how differences began encouraging us to neglect each other I don’t know. People warrant consideration. Dignity and respect for all is not a platitude. I can only speak for myself. Even in difficulty, my childhood was fortunate. I took a while to notice that who I am, what I am, affects the way I’m treated, or as I said before, I took a while to notice that I noticed. But I did. For years after, I kept to myself, thinking that nothing I had to offer could amount to what people knew better for themselves. Respect others by minding my own business.

I suppose I offered when it seemed constructive. But mine, as any life, was entirely simply mine, so I actively sought to respect everyone else’s autonomy to go it alone, just like I was doing. And surely they did go it alone, didn’t they, since that’s what I was doing… I became expert at minding my own business, and you should have, too – would have saved me years of road rage. Anyway, none of this was my decision to begin with, right? Tall, white, heterosexual, male, the petty list… offering an opinion about how to treat people, about anything, really, would not just look self-righteous, it would be self-righteous. Wouldn’t it? Respectful detachment, I thought. Respect people to be themselves. People are different, being themselves. Let them be. Respectful detachment.

Diversity. Diversity is Canada’s strength, after all. That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been telling the world. He and I are the same age; I wonder if his teachers ever told him about being cosmopolitan. I figure his Dad must have done. Our greatest strength, says Trudeau the Lesser. Strong because of our differences. And, he warned, so easy to take for granted – that bit reminded me of when people say Canada is “historically a nation of Peacekeepers.” Not that the two messages relate, but just the presumption to think that every Canadian has ever known that we have ever known this all along. As for peacekeeping, I think the BNA Act preceded the UN by some 82 years, during which time Canada earned a reputation for fighting in both World Wars and dozens of armed conflicts prior to the 20th century. Although, granted, for much of that time, “Canada” wasn’t even a country yet. Are we squeamish over such history? p.s. in 2017, a Canadian sniper fired a record setting rifle shot, keeping the peace from 3.54km away. That sentence makes the sniper sound cowardly, but that’s not my intention. Irony is my intention, and Canadians are my target. So hey, why not just rewrite my sentence?

When the times are a-changin’, does that make us more informed, egalitarian, advanced, sophisticated, woke? I guess we’re just better now than we were back then. Or maybe we put ourselves at risk by misconstruing our memories and cherry-picking our history for judgments good and ill. I mean our judgments about history, by the way, not theirs when it wasn’t yet history. Big difference. Diverse, you might say. I’d say there’s a lot more to history than any one’s record of it. Historical records are just the bits that someone decided to keep, out of what someone could remember, out of what people felt was worth remembering that way, for the reason they want to remember it.

As surely as Canada has always been this nation of peacekeepers– p.p.s. if you’ve missed the irony, I’m saying we haven’t always been peacekeepers. I’m saying that we owe much to our military for their combat as much as their peacekeeping. I’m saying our trumpeting diversity is afforded time and space thanks to a lot of others who assertively provide for Canada’s stability. I’m saying the world is far more layered and interconnected and ironic in time and space than any lone one of us can account in any one moment. Anyway, as surely as the doubt cast upon “always this nation of peacekeepers,” have we also always been that nation of immigrants? As in, are we not colonists and settlers? That change to history’s now a-comin’, too, judged and rewritten every time we utter the words.

So who’s responsible for Canada’s history? I mean all of it, not just the recorded bits. Which people, or culture, or government, exactly, should we say has slowly come their ways to initiate change… change that respects dignity and culture, change that redresses abusive power and obtuse ignorance and acknowledges history? Whose decisions were they that have caused incalculable suffering to entire nations of people over a few centuries? Where’s the change that leaves less room to agree with platitudes like diversity being Canada’s greatest strength? Weigh that against change that gets our goods moving again, and our traffic, and jobs and our economy. Both matter, or is this just long-term / short-term? Rights and recognition vs. stable day-to-day? Driving change or punting the ball? These are different motives because they have different outcomes. Our priorities drive our politics. I don’t know what he thinks before he acts. But politics is a tangled web, and I suspect he would welcome that benefit to my doubt. Well, it’s a free country, right? We all have opinions. Diversity is a strength except when it isn’t.

This is but one moment. I’ve been prompted to look back at myself. It’s the history I know best. I’m compelled to think before I act because that’s what my teacher told me to do. Luckily, it’s also a lesson that seems wisely conceived, if not always exercised, like when emotions run high. As for cosmopolitan mixture, life alongside others without need for comparison or category– With every passing day, I still benefit in ways I will not even realise, thanks to the historical currency borne by that list of traits issued from a lottery of birth. But, since then, also thanks to snipers in far-away places. Thanks to a lot of things, really, way more than I can explain or know about. Maybe it’s easiest just to say I’m not alone, in my history or my present day-to-day or, so it would seem, in my future. I am not alone, and neither are you. Here we are, with each other, all of us. And all my respectful detachment… amounted to nothing, or may as well have. That could be disappointing, a life’s effort or, in fact, just perfectly Canadian, things in this country being so unresolved.

Something needs to happen, so I’ve begun by working with who and what’s been given to me. I encourage all to do the same.

School

Assessment as Analogy

Photo by Dave Mullen on Unsplash

 

We teachers like to talk about teacher stuff, like assessment and curriculum. But shop talk can leave them yawning in the aisles, so sometimes I like to try using analogies. Analogies are great because, since they’re not exact, that can actually help shine more light on what your trying to understand.

Here’s an analogy: I walk into a theatre and sit down behind somebody. Seeing the back of his head, I now know what it looks like – his hairstyle, for instance, or the shape of his head. I have no idea what his face looks like since that I cannot see from behind. Something else I notice is his height – even sitting down, he’s obviously going to block my view of the screen and, since I’ve been waiting a long time to see this movie, I decide to change seats.

So I move ahead into his row. Now I sit almost beside this tall stranger, just a few seats away. Now, from the side, I can see the profile of his face – eyebrows, nose, chin. At one point, he turns to face me, looking out for his friend who went for popcorn, and I can fully take in his face. Now I know what he looks like from the front. Except it’s probably clearer to say, Now I’ve seen him from the front and remember what his face looks like – I make this distinction because it’s not like he turned to look for his friend, then stayed that way. He turned, briefly, then turned back toward the screen, facing forward again, and I’m left seeing his profile once more.

Sitting a few seats away, to say that I know what his profile looks like, side-on, or that I remember what his face looks like, just as I remember what the back of his head looks like – this is probably most accurate. In this theatre situation, nothing’s too hard to remember, anyway, since the whole experience only takes a minute or two and, besides, we’re sitting near enough to remind me of those other views, even though I can only see him from one of three perspectives at a time: either behind, or beside, or facing.

An analogy, remember? This one’s kind of dumb, I guess, but I think it gets the point across. The point I’m comparing is assessment, how we test for stuff we’ve learned.

As I understand the shift from traditional education (positivist knowledge-based curricula, teacher-led instruction, transactional testing) to what’s being called “the New Education” (constructivist student-centred curricula, self-directed students, transformational learning), I’d liken traditional testing to trying to remember what the back of his head looked like after I switched seats. As I say, I might get some clues from his profile while sitting beside him. But once I’m no longer actually sitting behind him, then all I can really do is remember. “What can you remember?” = assessment-of-learning (AoL)

In the New Education, I wouldn’t need to remember the back of his head because that’s probably not what I’d be asked. Where I sit, now, is beside him, so an assessment would account for where I now sit, beside him, not where I used to sit, behind. That makes the assessment task no longer about remembering but more in line with something immediate, something now as I sit beside him, seeing his profile, or during that moment when he turns and I fully see his face. A test might ask me to illustrate what I was thinking or how I was feeling right at that moment. “What are you thinking?” = assessment-for-learning (AfL)

There’s also assessment-as-learning (AaL), which could be me and my friend assessing each other’s reactions, say, as we both watch this tall stranger beside us. In the New Education, AaL is the most valued assessment of all because it places students into a pseudo-teaching role by getting them thinking about how and why assessment is helpful.

When proponents of the New Education talk about authentic learning and real-life problems, what I think they mean – by analogy – are those things staring us in the face. Making something meaningful of my current perspective doesn’t necessarily require me to remember something specific. I might well remember something, but that’s not the test. The New Education is all about now for the future.

In fact, both traditional education and the New Education favour a perspective that gives us some direction, heading into the future: traditional education is about the past perspective, what we remember from where we were then, while the New Education is about the present perspective, what we see now from where we are now. It’s a worthy side note that, traditional and contemporary alike, education is about perspective – where we are and where we focus.

By favouring the past, assessing what we remember, the result is that traditional education implies continuation of the past into the future. Sure, it might pay lip service to the future, but that’s not as potent as what comes about from stressing remembrance of the past. Meanwhile, lying in between, the present is little more than a vehicle or conveyance for getting from back then to later on. You’re only “in the moment,” as it were, as you work to reach that next place. But this is ironic because, as we perceive living and life chronologically, we’re always in the moment, looking back to the past and ahead to the future. So it must seem like the future never arrives – pretty frustrating.

The New Education looks to the future, too, asking us to speculate or imagine from someplace we might later be. But, by favouring the present, assessing what we think and feel, and what we imagine might be, the New Education trades away the frustration of awaiting the future for a more satisfying “living in the moment.” We seem to live in a cultural era right now that really values living in the moment, living for now – whether that’s cause or effect of the New Education, I don’t know. In any case, says the New Education, the future is where we’re headed, and the present is how we’re getting there, so sit back and let’s enjoy the ride.

As it regards the past, the New Education seems to pose at least two different attitudes. First, the New Education seems to embrace the past if that past meets the criterion that it was oppressive and is now in need of restoration. Maybe this is a coincidental occurrence of cultural change and curricular change that happen to suit each other. Or maybe this is what comes of living in the moment, focusing on the here-and-now: we’re able to take stock, assess for the future, and identify things, which have long been one way, that now we feel compelled to change. Second, the New Education seems dismissive of the past. Maybe this is also because of that past oppression, or maybe it’s leftover ill will for traditional education, which is kind of the same thing. What often swings a pendulum is vilification.

Whatever it is, we ought to remember that dismissing the past dismisses our plurality – we are all always only from the past, being ever-present as we are. We can’t time-travel. We are inescapably constrained by the past from the instant we’re born. What has happened is unalterable. The future arrives, and we take it each moment by moment. To dismiss the past is delusory because the past did happen – we exist as living proof.

For all its fondness and all its regret, the past is as undeniable as the future is unavoidable, for all its expectancy and all its anxiety. As we occupy the place we are, here, with the perspective it affords us, now, we need the courage to face the future along with the discipline to contextualise the past. As we live in the moment, we are bound and beholden to all three perspectives – past, present, future. Incidentally, that happens to be where my analogy broke down. In a theatre, we can only sit in one seat at a time. Let’s count our blessings that living and learning offer so much more.

What it Was is What it Is: I Don’t Know What Else to Say

At the same school, in the same department, for so long… eventually I found what seemed to be some effective teaching strategies and stuck with those, but boy it took a while. There’s been more than one teacher to have offered something like an apology, half-joking, half rueful, to all those early students, who were basically guinea pigs while we figured ourselves out in the classroom. I mentioned this in a paper for a graduate course and earned the critique of “triumphalism” – feedback from the professor, which I took as a suggestion to go ahead and “problematize my assumptions,” to use the lingo. In the moment, I bristled, the new kid in town learning how to be part of the academy, wondering what exactly had prompted my professor to claim with such certainty the question of my certainty.

Maybe I’ll just mention, since I’ve brought it up… I’ve since found the academy has an endemic logical pitfall all its own, an oddly hypocritical veneer of uncertainty: “All knowledge is provisional.” Post-modernism at its finest? Indeed, who can really say.

In all seriousness, though, and fairness, I grant the aim of the sceptical outlook. Heck, I try to possess one – healthy scepticism, to guard against arrogance and narrow thinking (… and innovation too, come to think of it, although that one maybe for another time). I value Socratic humility, which I ultimately decided not to call Socratic ignorance, and try to model it although how successfully I can’t say – especially not *joking-slash-rueful* back in those early days. So when someone with expertise in curriculum and teaching theory lay triumphalism at my feet, I thought to myself, Well, at least I ought to consider it. And I did.

And I do, and I still am. That reflective side of critique, the side you get from being on the receiving end, it can help us spot our assumptions and our shortcomings. I suspect the whole point was simply to light a fire within me. And hey, I’ve gone and written this, haven’t I? And hey, if settling into some effective teaching strategies weren’t triumphalist and undesirable, that would probably encourage complacency among teachers, or possibly even stagnation. On the other hand, after so long teaching in the same department at the same school, I suspect there’s more than one teacher who’s ended up feeling like part of the woodwork. Certainly, for me, as I’m sure for the students, there was a marked difference between me, the new guy, and me five, ten, fifteen years later. Then again–

Looking back, now, at what I called “effective”… it rounds out as, well, effective because what happened happened that way – nothing’s perfect, but all considered, my students seemed broadly to have learned what they felt were some useful things. The classroom years I spent, developing as I did to reach the point I reached, came about from the feedback I received each day, each term, as students and I came together lesson upon lesson, class after class. Details along the way, course evaluations I asked students to complete each June, reports back from post-secondary adventuring… there are always issues to address along with encouragements to appreciate, and I admit: no grand theory did I have in mind, as though I were contributing to the historical record. I just wanted to make things better for kids the following year, which eventually I think I was able to do.

Where I gave thought to improving my teaching was (a) relative to myself, (b) on behalf of my students, (c) in the context of my school. At least, that was what I thought when I was teaching. In that respect, what can I possibly say now, looking back, as to what might have been apart from what did be? I had to do something. And my life was never going to be any less full or busy or complicated than it turned out to be, so in all sincerity I did what I could. Eventually, it seemed to work out pretty well. Effectively.

Look, if somebody did celebrate triumphantly, in the classroom, facing the students, day in day out… ? What an ass! As it was, for those students who did find my teaching effective in this way or that, or worse, for those who didn’t – did I leave them with some suggestion that I basked in triumphant glow? I hope not. Like I said, I eventually found and stuck with what I thought worked, and that took years. Meanwhile, that’s the job. Isn’t it?

For me, the professor’s criticism, in whatever light it was offered, reflects more upon her embrace of uncertainty (presumably the academic embrace I described above) than it does upon my curricular relationships when I was teaching. And I heed the lesson, not for the first time in my career, that sitting in judgment of others can be a difficult perch.

“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me. Subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. I’m “able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one, and those alongside, as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce. How much do we incorporate the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile? Do we see that other person as though staring at ourselves in a mirror? And, if so, does that mean we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole? Like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body? For all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise such questions, to begin with.

Teaching’s Other Greatest Reward

“Texts are not the curriculum,” I was told during Pro-D by an administrator, the Director of Curriculum and Innovation. The session had been arranged to introduce a revised K–12 curriculum and was billed as a great unfolding at the onset of the 21st century. “Texts are a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills,” she concluded. By this, I took her to mean that notation, for example, is a resource for students to finger piano keys or pluck guitar strings, which is something music teachers might accept. I took her to mean that landscape is fodder for brushstrokes and blending, something art teachers might accept. I took her to mean that a poet’s intimate, inspired reveries, shared in careful verse, is raw material for students who are learning to analyse and write, which I grant English teachers might accept. I took her to mean that I should consider her remark a resource and that this issue was now settled, which some teachers in earshot seemed to accept. To this day, I wonder whether a musician, or a painter, or a poet might accept her remark, but in that moment, I let it go.

I suppose I should be more forthcoming: I used to joke with parents, on Meet the Teacher Night, that I could be teaching my coursework just as well using texts like Curious George and a recipe book. That I decided to use Shakespeare, or Sandra Cisneros, or Thomas King, and that I would in fact be asking students literally to stare out the window as part of a textual analysis exercise—all just as arbitrary—illustrated the point: I built my course around some particular themes that reflected me and what I believed important about life. This, in turn, was meant to illustrate to students, and now parents, how bias plays a noteworthy if subtly influential role in our lives and our learning.

My larger points were twofold: firstly, no, texts are not the curriculum per se and, secondly, our Department’s approach to English Language Arts (ELA) focused more on skill development, less on content consumption. For us, anyway, the revised curriculum was reaffirming. What I merely assumed in all this—and presumed that parents assumed it, too—was that our Department’s approach was commensurate with the school’s expectations, and the Ministry’s, as well as with our province’s educational history and the general ELA approach found in classrooms across North America, for which I had some albeit minimal evidence by which to make the claim. As a secondary ELA teacher, I chose my texts on the basis that they helped expedite my curricular responsibilities. I suppose it would be fair to say that, for me, texts were a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills.

What was it, then, that niggled me about the Director’s comment at the Pro-D session? Did it have to do with decision-making, as in who gets to decide what to teach, and how, and why? Would that make it about autonomy, some territorial drawing of lines in professional sand? Was it more my own personal confrontation, realising that musicians and painters and poets deserve better than to be considered lesson fodder? I had never approached my lessons so clinically or instrumentally before—had I? Maybe I was having my attention drawn into really considering curriculum, taking the time to puzzle out what that word means, and implies, and represents. And if I never really had puzzled it out, what kind of experience was I creating for my students? I’ve always felt that I have done right by my students, but even so… how much better, still, to be done?

Months later, I sat at a table doing prep work next to a colleague, and a third sat down to join us. Eventually, as the conversation turned from incidents to editorials, the third teacher spread her hands wide and concluded, “But ultimately education is all about relationships.” In the next split-second moment, I was confronted by the entirety of my teaching philosophy, nearly a clarion call except I had nowhere to stand and run, so I just remained in my seat, quietly agreeing and chuckling at the truth of it all. We all did. That was my final year before returning as a student to a doctoral program. These days, I search and select texts to read so I can write texts of my own about particular themes that reflect me and what I believe important about curriculum, and teaching, and education.

I should say I no longer wonder why the Director’s remark that day, about texts, didn’t set me to thinking about curriculum, not like my colleagues did, sitting and chatting around that table.

On Love

The word love has a long and layered etymological history, which I encourage you to get started tracing for yourself.

“Love” has lots of connotations in English – among them are affection, fondness, friendship, comradeship, selflessness, exhilaration, elation, narcissism, and of course, romance.

And, of course, Valentine’s Day is the go-to celebration for all things Cupid, or Eros, or whichever cherub happens to be your persuasion. After all, love just may be the most important quality we share… even if things these days seem to have two-stepped just a little closer to Hallmark than to holiday. Still though… any excuse to party, and all. Keep those bars and nightclubs full.

There might be an ironic reference to be had here about the two “al”s – alcohol and Al Capone. There are also more sobering references to be had here about the kind of culture that we seem to value. But I digress.

You can find lots of explanations for the observance of Valentine’s Day – maybe as many as the types of love – although they don’t all seem nearly as sweet as a box of chocolates or a heart-shaped cut-out. But hey, being human means being rhetorical, Big Four Bridge, Louisville, KYand The Rhetorical WHY is nothing if not sentimental, so…

Just for you, St. Valentine, a meditation on love.

 

 


On Love

The foundation of love is lasting friendship, which itself has as cornerstones trust and respect. First, take the Golden Rule as a straightforward way to understand respect, and second, we trust that the person we love will treat us respectfully, under all circumstances. Without trust and respect, relationships can’t properly recover or grow more healthy from struggles that inevitably arise. A good thing about trust and respect: they tend to reinforce each other with time and familiarity, cementing what’s good, growing impervious to what’s not. Another good thing: they can go missing, then be rediscovered later, and still be influential; it’s never too late to repair and grow relationships, as long as both people are willing. And if you had them before, you know what it looks like, for later. Clearly, there’s more to being friends, but the basis of trust and respect is essential. Without it, there will never be real or lasting love.

Love enables you to forgive without strings, without second-thoughts, unconditionally… or maybe it’s better to say that love is “how we forgive without strings.” Love makes you willing to forgive because, in the greater scope, you’d rather save and build and love the person who’s important to you than risk having things with them suffer or waste away. Not to say that people don’t get angry or have trouble forgiving; we do, nobody’s perfect, so this is the “how” thing from above: say you’re angry with the person you love, yet you find a way to forgive them because you love them, and you see that what’s long-term matters more than whatever happened just now. In life, any fight or dispute requires somebody to break the impasse and offer peace, and I think the point to take here for relationships is that love propagates that ability, that strength to step up and forgive, to let go of ill feelings. From the one side, avoid grudges and guilt-trips (and maybe even take one on the chin, whether you think you deserve it or not). From the other side, don’t suspect grudges and guilt (and don’t throw one to the chin carelessly). All of which takes you back to trust and respect, mutual trust and respect. With that said, forgiveness does not mean being weak and letting someone walk all over you – being humble is not being weak, and in that sense, forgiveness requires confidence and strength-of-self. But here, too, the person you love aids your confidence because you are comfortable being honest with them, being yourself with them, as they are with you, whether things are blissful, or stressful, or anywhere in between.

Love provides the encouragement to resolve something that’s wrong – a fight or whatever – because what’s so good ultimately just outweighs whatever’s bad. It’s what is meant when people say relationships take effort or work: you can be upset, even hugely upset, with someone you love. (Sometimes love is why they upset you the most!) Yet you find a way through; somehow, you want to. You’re willing to struggle through the issue because you know your relationship is worth fighting for, not against, the person you love and everything that you are together. It’s desirable work, not laborious work, and at later times, you might even find that you crave the collaboration, the synergy, that accompanies the facing of challenges. You grow to trust it and rely on it because it works. As a pair, you work.

Love also encourages two people to share equal voice on matters… important matters, and not-so-important, too… no sense of competition even enters. It becomes not a question of one or the other having to say, “Listen!” or “Give me a chance”; the equality is natural, and the first person just wouldn’t move forward without having heard from the second, just wouldn’t, as a matter of respect, until they’d heard from the other, trusting that both must speak in order to make valuable contributions that help everyone.

Love helps you to be patient. Maybe the person you love needs to learn or discover something in their own time. Maybe you want to say something, but it would be premature before the full context is there for complete understanding. Or maybe you just need time to keep a nice secret or plan a surprise. Patience can be a hard thing because it always involves curbing your own interests in favour of the person you love.

Love enables tolerance. The person you love might need a chance to vent, and even if it’s unpleasant to listen, they still might need the chance. Or say one person enjoys something that the other doesn’t… but whether you participate or they go it alone, you still put up with it, for their sake (as long as it’s not destructive or harmful), because you know it makes them happy, and you want them to be happy because you love them.

Love will require sacrifice. Sometimes loving somebody means behaving in the opposite way, doing the opposite to what you want or even need. This may be because the person you love asks you to sacrifice. Or the person you love may not understand why you sacrifice and resent you for it. You can see, then, where sacrifice, tolerance, and patience connect when it comes to love. Time can clear things up, but not always, or else not in enough time for things to get better between you before they got worse. But that’s not to say love is lost. But it will take the trust and respect of the original friendship to take on the work of recovery, which is what makes being friends beforehand so much more valuable. So you can see where friendship and forgiveness connect when it comes to love, too. Sacrifice involves so many aspects of love and thus is maybe the harshest test for true love to endure, but if it is true love, it will endure.


 

“… the real current of what love is [is the] opportunity for mutually pursued spiritual growth, its potential as THE transformative force available to us which I, too, have often thought is the true nature of love and partnership.”

– Kathleen Gyurkey, Parlor editor

 


Love incites a genuine willingness within you to try new things or change old ways, based on what you find yourself learning and experiencing with the person you love. This is not the same thing as, say, when resentful friends mutter “Ball-and-chain” or “Ever since she started seeing him, she’s so different.” The changes I’m talking about are more positive, more admirable – even something as simple as trying new foods or exercising more. What Gyurkey explains above in the quotation I’ve found true, too: this transformative nature of a loving partnership – specific to me, my willingness to try new things, to change old ways, and generally to have a more ready, unsummoned conscientiousness, I guess like a kind of empathy. My experience was all these things, a willingness to become somebody else, somebody new, as compared to all I’d been up until then. And the prospect of change was exhilarating! I felt most honestly, vulnerably willing to be and think and do things anew… almost even surrendered to it although not from duress, not at all. From inspiration. I was excited to see who I would become, to see where her influence and our relationship might take me and, thereby, her and us. I looked forward to the future, to time together, because of what it promised. Separate to romance and couples, I think a good dramatic example of what I mean is Ebenezer Scrooge, whom love changed for the better, long-term, in a way that everybody else could see and appreciate.

Love needs balance. The one person can’t be always giving and the other always receiving, the one always complaining and the other always consoling. If one cooks, then have the other do the dishes. At the extreme, just to carry the example, if one says, “Love, I will die for you,” and the other replies, “As for me, I’m not so sure,” then this relationship will not work. But wait, don’t fault only one side. The first person speaks passionately but only ought to make such a committed pledge being reasonably certain the second will reciprocate. The second person should reconsider (a) whether they’ve truly been appreciating their partner’s amazing love or just consuming it, and (b) whether this relationship is what they want at all if – as (a) would suggest – return-sacrifice just hasn’t been happening. Hmm, this is not the greatest example since no one would rationalize, “Well, since they are willing to die for me, I’d better return the favour”; two people who are willing to die for each other just are, they would just do it, and likely, it would simply be one of those deeply felt but unspoken things. Anyhow, I think the point is clear.

Love can induce ridiculous irrationality, whether as acute panic or burning more slowly over time. The clichés are out there, “crime of passion” and “temporary insanity” being of the acute nature, and “love is blind” being slower. These tend to be negative clichés, too, but I don’t mean to say that irrationality is only negative. Essentially, love can make people do or say things they may not otherwise have done or said. I stress “may not” because, without a situation, it’s hard to know consequences (as in, “He did this because of the consequences,” or “No, she did this in spite of the consequences”). And hey, obviously, everything has consequences, but if we act in search of certain ones, or if we act at the risk of certain ones, either way we might look irrational. Hollywood uses irrationality as a sympathetic character trait – “Ah, they did it for love!” – and it usually pays off with the Happy Ending, where everybody else smiles at each other, as if to say, “Gosh, do you feel as silly as me now for judging them?” It’s ironic that I turn to Hollywood for my positive-cliché counter-point, and hey! if only life were that simplistic every time… but I think the larger point is about the kind of judgment we level upon people – people we label “irrational” – who are acting out of love. I guess I’m saying (again, as long as it’s not destructive or harmful) that we ought to afford such “irrational” people a little empathy and patience before judging them.Riverfront, September 2006

Love develops your empathy. What’s more, you grow not just more willing but more able to see matters from the perspective of the person you love. And what’s more, your empathy will grow stronger with the passage of time, as you grow closer and more intimately connected with that person: seeing through their eyes, thinking with their thoughts, eventually becomes as natural to you as seeing and thinking with your own. You wind up sharing in a way that’s inseparably connected, where the two people together sort of take on the qualities of a shared, mutual person. It’s part of (but not all of) the whole two-become-one thing of marriage.

Sex alone is not love. Sex is a physical act, an actual connective joining of two bodies, and any pair of people can have sex – physically gratifying (perhaps not even) but either way, over when it’s over, regardless. But when two people who love each other, who share all these other, profound aspects of love between them, when they physically, sexually connect, yes, it’s still something physical, but I think what’s physical must be transcended, mentally / emotionally / spiritually. The physical act becomes something so much more than just the physical joining; gratifying in so much deeper a way, exponentially better than some orgasm-finish. In fact, sex between two not-in-love people eventually can drive a wedge between them, and while I’m not sure why, I can guess part of it is because it never gets any better and maybe even gets dull.

There’s also an emotional destruction that I’d argue results from sex between two not-in-love people, which is harder to pin down other than to say it happens. Maybe it’s because sex is so personal – even in a one-night encounter, to have sex is to join, and that reveals an intimate part of yourself to somebody else; you really leave yourself open and vulnerable. And if you’re that intimate and open with this somebody else how-many-times over, having sex without love, paying for the cost of fleeting orgasms with vulnerability, there’s bound to be a devaluing effect on you eventually. Perhaps you’ve witnessed this or, unfortunately, experienced it – I suspect I have. But we need love if we want a lasting, meaningful relationship that includes sex. Love keeps sex fresh and enticing, and love gives sex a reason, one beyond your ‘self’. That might sound strange, a ‘reason’. Love gives sex a context – that probably sounds strange too! – where the climax way surpasses physical pleasure. Love makes sex meaningful, and beautiful. Finally, if you were to substitute here for “sex” any other intimate physical encounters, clothes on or off or whatever, I think it’s fair to say all this still basically applies. Or how about this: whatever the case may be, intimate encounters between two people are only as meaningful between them as the time they’ve spent developing their friendship first and, subsequently, their love. But romance, intimacy, whatever to call it, needs time and can’t be rushed. It has to work for both. It might develop for you. It might not.

Love needs passion. Passion is its fuel, or no, better to say, passion is the hi-test / premium-grade fuel, the stuff that burns the hottest, the most efficiently, and (therefore) the quickest. For that reason, passion needs to be replenished more frequently. When it’s not, things grow stale, fun fades, a relationship becomes diluted by mundanities and same-ol’ same-ol’. Passion is also infectious, contagious. Your passion for the person you love excites them just as theirs excites you, and it’s a mutually-perpetuating cycle… but so is the lack of passion, which means it’s up to both people in a relationship to share the renewal of that burning passion where they found their love for each other in the first place. That’s where the other facets and benefits of love come in. If all the other facets contribute, a couple feels all-the-more exhilarated, thrilled, rewarded, making two people, deeply in love with each other, pretty motivated – selfishly, yes (as in, ‘If I do this for the other, it will give back for me because they will make me feel good’), but selflessly too (‘I appreciate all they do to make me feel good, and I want to give back to them, which will then return to me, which then I will appreciate’, and so on in the mutual cycle, without a necessary end).

I would often say, “I like who I am with you,” utterly sincere, feeling it as much a compliment for her as truth for me, something motivating and feel-good for her in return. Helping me to be a better person and feel better about who I was, she lifted me, made me genuinely happy. It was the most free, uninhibited, willing-and-able-to-be-myself experience I’ve had in adult life. And I tried my best to be something she could feel happy about; something visceral and transformative for me was a return for her, investing that part of myself into her and, so, into us – helping the other helps you, which helps you both. Win:win, and ever onwards, self-propelling. Passion. I suppose I can only truly say I had begun to commit everything of me to her, going the other way. I have never been more genuine or vulnerable with anybody as I was then, with her. I offered all of me, all I had, without pretension – that was how genuine I felt, and confident, and comfortable, and safe, to be utterly myself and feel accepted and appreciated for it. To feel loved: as motivating as motivated. I trusted her absolutely, and I offered her me, the most true love I had or even knew how to give.

Love is wondrous. Who wouldn’t want to feel all these good things about themselves and the other, especially knowing that it’s all felt thanks to themselves and the other? People are social creatures, and being alone is not how we’re built to flourish. Love and all its facets together are proactive, which makes love self-sustaining, but self-sustaining is thanks to the effort and existence of the two singular people, together in love, if that makes sense. It’s not dependency for either person, but maybe the love itself is dependent on the willing effort of the two people – to exist, love needs both people contributing and committed to each other. Love is dependent upon the two people to sustain it: willingly, mutually, lovingly. You want to do things for the person you love, it wouldn’t even cross your mind to think twice…

 

“I am doing this for the person I love.”

“Really, why?”

“… um, er, because I love them!”

 

There’s that irrationality, basically a logical fallacy of cyclical reasoning. But it works. For all its illogic, it’s human, and it works. And for that, love and all its facets are to be valued, enjoyed, and treasured, and accepting of idiosyncrasies, annoyances, or even character flaws that the other person might have: “I love this person!” But understand: love is not blind, and not a dependency; neither of these is love. Love is not love “in spite of” the partner’s flaws, or your own. What’s good about the person you love, and what’s good between you, together, diminishes negatives as “not worth troubling over.” You may not even notice some negatives. Or, hmm, not to say we don’t notice things – foibles, irritations, worse – but some of what we notice we grow accustomed to, perhaps even fond of! But, at the core, you love that person (a) because of who they are to you, (b) because of who they are for you – and yes, I think (a) and (b) are different – and (c) because of who they help you to become, who they make you want and strive to be. As you strive both for yourself and for them in return, you complement each other – the hand-in-glove, engaged in what is really the ultimately perfect mutual trade-off of taking for personal growth and giving for relational health. Well, maybe that last bit sounds like an advert or magazine sidebar, but I still think it’s true.

Love can leave us vulnerable… even in a blog post. I think that comes from being honest, which maybe doesn’t seem so odd to say while posting on-line – how many might read this whom I have never met? It’s a big, big world, and even the most popular could still be said to live in a world of strangers. And if we haven’t been taught along the way to be wary of strangers, to not trust just any old person who comes along, then surely we’ve learned that lesson the hard way. We ought to respect everybody, fundamentally at least, if not any more than that. But I agree and think it’s prudent not to trust everybody.

Yet if we stop to consider what our vulnerability can teach us about trust and respect, and about friendship – perhaps, in our honesty, we might yet find we’ve learned a lesson about love.

Fraser River Shore, July 19, 2005