For the past few nights, I kept waking up between 3:00 and 4:00 – staring at the clock, wide awake, as the moments slid by. Why? Sunday night, stress and worry about Monday’s staff-development session; Monday, just feeling unprepared; Tuesday, concern about the school-wide Socratic Seminar on Wednesday.
One of the oldest “extra hats” I wear is that of coordinator of the seminar program. When I came to the school in 2001, it was loosely affiliated with the National Paideia Center, and most of the faculty were familiar with (and trained to use) seminars, the Coached Project, and other Paideia techniques. In those days, my role was to plan the school-wide seminars each month, send texts out to the faculty and students, and repeat the cycle. But times change, people change, priorities change. Within a few years, we’d developed the Student Seminar Assistant program … because it was “too hard” for a new generation of faculty to lead seminars. “Besides,” That One Ms. X moaned, “my students are so bad and lazy and disrespectful and horrible, and they don’t know how to talk to each other or listen to each other. Maybe they’ll listen to each other.”
So the program grew from unlikely roots … stronger or weaker from year to year. In the beginning it was exciting and new;the first generation of Student Assistants felt real autonomy and mastery and purpose. After a few years, of course, it had “always” been there … and some years, it felt more like a chore. “It’s time for seminar,” A Particular Ms. X once yelled at her class, “and you’d better participate, or I’ll write you up and send you to the office.”
In a “typical” year, monthly seminars start in September and continue until April, possibly May. But this year, there were lots of new, important things to try … and lots of mandated activities from Powers That Be. So Wednesday’s seminar was the first of the school year, the first for a new crop of Student Assistants. We’d decided to talk about Vision and Mission, using the district’s new Vision Statement and the faculty’s recently-developed Mission Statement as our texts … and then, as post-seminar follow-up, each group would draft a student-focused mission statement, focusing on the key ideas we’d discussed (like empowerment and equipping for the future, collaboration and competition). I woke up concerned about how the new teachers – who’ve never seen a seminar in action, who’ve received no training, who’ve been asked to “do this thing because we do it” – would react to student-led dialogues. I stayed awake thinking about the new Student Assistants and the minimal training we’d been able to schedule.
Apparently I should have gone back to sleep! The new teachers were excited; the new Student Assistants were delighted; and we had more positive feedback from students – and teachers – than we’d had in years.
Perhaps our unplanned “vacation” from seminars last fall was what we needed. Had we fallen into the trap of “doing seminars because it’s that Wednesday of the month,” rather than because they’re an important part of who we are as a school? With my all-too-comfortable, all-too-familiar coordinator hat in place, had I grown both complacent and controlling? Even my “untrained” Student Assistants had participated in many student-led seminars in previous years; they had an intuitive sense of what to do and what not to do that 20th-century style “training” would have interfered with. Having experienced the process, they now know what additional training they need … and having “delivered” a text on which they had little input, many are now eager to be more deeply involved in text development.
So I slept a lot better last night. And Wednesday afternoon, my colleague C, who regularly leads seminars with his classes, was happy, too – though he lamented how few current faculty members have had “real” seminar training. “It makes a difference,” he said … and I agree. When you regularly focus on key ideas and core values, search for meaningful texts, connect them with the “other stuff” of a curriculum, see factual and procedural knowledge as means to a greater end rather than ends in themselves, it makes all the difference in the world. The factory-model school paradigm – “do it because I say so, there will be a test, don’t make me look bad” – can’t survive that approach. Maybe that’s why That One Ms. X “hated” seminars and That Other Ms. X “couldn’t” move “her” desks into a seminar circle.
Awareness … and mindfulness. Of big things and small. Factory-style teachers yell “Pay attention!” but would fear aware, mindful, attentive students. As Debbie noted on Google+,
As I read your blog I kept envisioning the unspoken and/or unrecognized priorities. We, as human beings, often have priorities that we are unaware of -those “something’s” that leave us agitated, unsettled, and discontented. Sometimes it is that we are tired or hungry and other times it is something deeper, something about underlying goals or past wounds.
Until we have identified the issue, our minds and bodies will continue to give out warning signs as it tries to get our attention so that we can take action and resolve the issue. Unfortunately in our society, we are so busy keeping to schedules, reaching for the brass ring, trying to ft in, and following plans that we don’t stop to take the time to do some contemplating, to listen to the cues that something is amiss.
Perhaps if this was on our agenda, as educators, we could help the next generation be more in tune with their bodies, their minds, their lives, and their communities. Perhaps if we took the time to stop and acknowledge issues we would be able to being them back on task quicker and make learning opportunities more productive.
What will I – we – do today to build that mindfulness, to help others build it? Is mindfulness a vital key to joyful community?