Stepping Back to Reflect

There’s an odd, unintended wisdom to the calendar in my face-to-face teaching world, where the Winter Break comes just before end-of-semester exams, just as the Memorial Day holiday provides a brief rest at the end of the school year.  Right before the end, right before “the madness begins,” there are a few brief days to rest and reflect.  “Brain research” is a clarion call … in certain meetings.  And “brain research” would support the idea of such a break.  But the folks who promote “brain research” and those who write the calendar work in different departments, different buildings, and … if you’ve worked in a large organization, you understand.

Anyway, If you’re reading this post “live,” that period of restful reflection has ended.  Today is the first of seven brief, intense days before exams begins.  As I drafted this post on New Year’s afternoon – a gray, drizzly day to begin the new year, to end Winter Break – I kept thinking about the  beginnings and endings I’d explored in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts.  At a beginning and ending time, how can we decide what to keep, to discard, to renovate, to abandon?

In responses on Google+, Debbie pointed out the importance of looking beyond the thing itself to the intention behind it.  On Monday, she focused on intentions behind resolutions:

Your statement “I’ll lose that weight … so I look good on vacation, not so I can live a healthier life. I’ll do that homework … not because of any learning, but because Mom and Dad will stop yelling about grades and colleges,” struck a chord and got me all excited about the possibilities.

Find the core intention, acknowledge the priorities, fit the intentions into the priorities ….. and off we go into the wild blue yonder of joyful communities!

On Tuesday, she brought up the all-too-human tendency to accept or reject things wholesale:

One of the things that I see, as we struggle to let go of old habits and find new ones, is a view of the world through .. hmmm .. what is the opposite of rose-coloured glasses? What I see is a tendency to paint society with a single paintbrush of distrust, dislike, and “ditching”.

But not all the old ways should be tossed aside; not all traditions should be let go just because they are traditions. Time to reflect, to reassess, and to realign ourselves onto the right path gives us an opportunity to peel back the layers of what “is” to find the underlying intentions. It is these that we will want to either carry forward, adjust, or let go, not the traditions and routines themselves.

I’m reminded of a favorite sermon illustration I’ve heard several times:  a church where the ladies (all ladies in those days) of the Altar Guild had always put out a dish of milk on the back steps.  “Why?” asked the new priest on his first Sunday.  “Because of the cat,” the ladies explained.  But the cat – the one whose hungry mewing had disrupted services  – had been dead for years.

It’s hard to set new habits, harder to break old ones.  Even harder, though, to go through life on autopilot.

I’ve finished my first read of the book I mentioned MondayCounterfeit Kids: Why They Can’t Think and How to Save Them, by Rod Baird.  (Go look at the corresponding website and read the sample chapters there!)

In some ways, Mr. Baird’s teaching experience is totally different from mine.  His privileged, helicopter-parented senior English students in Westchester are, on the surface, utterly unlike my middle-class and working-class Latin students in southeastern North Carolina.  But at the level of habits and intentions, I see profound similarities.  While they don’t display  the same sense of entitlement as their counterparts, many of my students have developed a fixed-mindset view of learning: you’re either good or bad at it, they believe, and nothing can change that.  “I’m a good student!” so many whimper, “so I should get good grades.  And I should do well on tests.”  Or “I’m notgood student, so I won’t do well.”

I found similarities, too, in the methods he and I use, within the system, to help our students out of those deadly attitudes,  into something like  joyful community.  Parts of his argument about causes – about the roots of helicopter parenting in late Industrial Age thought and culture – resonated deeply with things I’ve thought and written.

And yet I’m not sure we completely agree on the diagnosis or the cure … not sure, but curious to learn.  Eager to have a respectful conversation that both requires and builds joyful community – the kind of conversation that, too often, our students to sustain.  “I hate this book because it’s dumb and stupid,” they tell him  … and often that means “I don’t understand it, and that makes me feel dumb and stupid.”  Factory-model teaching and testing, the speed- and compliance-based structures that sustain 20th-century style schools  – they all encourage students, teachers, and administrators to hurry up, to just do the worksheet, to get things done, to get ready for the test.  To ignore and reject things that take “too much” time or space.

As the frantic pace of getting things done intensifies around my students this week and next, I’m glad we’ve reached a point of slowing down, celebrating our accomplishments, and sustaining our joyful community.  Sustaining … and then rebuilding, when classes change with the new semester.  Welcoming new and returning members in, saying goodbye to those who leave, setting new intentions, new directions for the new work that faces us.  This year of no repeated digits is a great time for new forms and new structures … but not newness for its own sake.  It’s a great time to strip things down to their essentials, to recover intentions, to “go from there” and build meaning together.

What are your plans for this shiny, beautiful new year?  What do you intend to build?

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Published in: on January 2, 2013 at 11:11 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] a Google+ response to Wednesday’s post, Debbie asked a profound set of questions.  If you read yesterday’s post, you’ve seen […]


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