Being a Catalyst, IV

One of the amazing things to me about the discipline of daily blogging is that, once I committed to it, there’s always been enough to say.  Topics, readers’ comment, articles I “happen” to read, interactions that “just happen” to occur – all come together, somehow, into a daily dose of 900-1000 words.  When things are going “perfectly,” I start a post in the evening, reflect on it while I sleep, and polish it in the morning.  When things are “less than perfect,” I get up in the morning with a half-formed thought.  But  since I’ve committed to the process, the words and ideas are there when I need them.

But for years, I suffered from writers’ block – or thought I did.  It took tens of thousands of Latin words, thousands of daily interactions with students and colleagues, to unleash my English writing.  And it still takes those daily interactions to catalyze  each post.

Why was it once so hard?

As a child, I was told I “had some promise,” and maybe even “had some talent,” as a writer – and it paralyzed me for years.  I just knew, in those long-vanished days, that Writers were Very Serious People.  I saw their names every day on the beautifully bound books that lined the bookcases in my childhood home – Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Cervantes, Shakespeare.  (My parents had wide-ranging taste in books!)  Some books had photographs or portraits of the writers, too, on dust jackets or front pages.  They all looked distinguished (except Fitzgerald and Faulkner, who mainly looked drunk), and they were all important, prestigious, famous, and dead.  And their works were famous, bound, printed.  Perfect.  And also dead.

That made Young Me a bit nervous!  It was a lot easier to start and abandon than to finish and perfect, especially if perfection was unchanging.  As a young teacher, realizing I needed to write a reading-comprehension passage for a test, I wondered if I could actually do so.  But the requirements were simple – follow up on this story we’d read together, featuring this set of vocabulary and these grammatical elements.  I wrote it, read it, typed it, printed it out.  And the next time, the next week, it got easier … and easier and easier with practice.  My students’ needs were the catalyst in those days – and then we started writing stories together, they started writing their own stories, we needed characters and situations to write about.  And now there’s the Tres Columnae Project, ever growing, and these blog posts five or six days a week.  Not distinguished, not bound, not printed, not “perfect” – and not “finished” like a 20th-century book, either.

“When the student is ready,” the old saying goes, “the teacher will appear.”

K, one of my most thoughtful students, is one of those teachers for me.  He has to spend a good bit of time caring for a seriously ill family member, but when he’s at school, his lessons are profound.  On Tuesday, we were starting to read the Lectiō XVIII stories about Trux, the adolescent dog who almost gets seduced (and worse!) by Lupa the attractive she-wolf.  I mentioned that we should be on the lookout for ways that these animal characters are influenced – or not influenced – by core Roman values like the virtūtēs Rōmānae, which we’d been talking about for a few days … and I pointed out that, if anything did seem problematic, we could easily fix it and make it more authentic.  The beauty of online publishing!  Then K said even if there was something inauthentic, what he loves about the Tres Columnae system is that it’s creative, active, and alive.  Not like a textbook – and not, like those beautifully printed, “perfect” classic works that sat, usually unread, on that shelf in my childhood home and now sit, all too often unread, on a similar shelf in mine.  K was definitely a teacher – and a catalyst – for me that day!

Responding on Google+ to yesterday’s post, Debbie was a teacher and catalyst for me once again:

I want to comment on the “who knows best” element of your blog. I get so frustrated when I hear teachers blame the parents and parents blame the teachers. I get frustrated when I hear someone look down upon another as if there is a level of superiority.
It is about that Fire of Truth again – it isn’t about better, smarter or wiser…it is about different perspectives and different components of the bigger picture. When we unite these perspectives, when we respect these perspectives THEN we become wiser and THEN we are being the best we can be.
As educators and mentors we must invite, listen to, and respect the input of parents, children, powers that be, and the community.

And so was Pam, one of the wisest educators I know:

a catalyst doesn’t have to be an expert- often aren’t – they do have to see relationships, make connections, offer energy to learning spaces. An expert doesn’t have to be a catalyst- often aren’t as they work on their areas of interest and passion. Being a catalyst and/or expert is not about experience, age, or positional power but more about knowledge, either built through deep learning or the knowledge of the social system. Our kids can be catalysts for our own learning as we can be of theirs.

It was only when I stopped longing for the expert mantle, for the bound (but unread) volume and the “distinguished” picture, that I was able to embrace the role of catalyst and mentor.  Ms. X becomes Ms. X, I think, when she clings desperately to that dying, irrelevant role of expert, of smartest person in the room.  What will I do today to catalyze my students’ learning, and maybe even to help Ms. X release her grip and embrace the joyful learning community that’s waiting for her to join?

Published in: on February 28, 2013 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  

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