Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 21 Jun 1995
Good morning. It's 4:34. The sun has yet to appear over the horizon. It's nice in here in front of the computer, sipping a cup of aromatic freshly made coffee, munching on some freshly picked succulent blue berries, and engaging in conversation. Outside the air is so heavy with humidity that as I walked I had to be careful not to inhale too much of it for fear of drowning. Flying armadas of annoying gnats and attacking mosquitos danced along my route as they patrolled, lying in wait to pounce upon some poor unsuspecting soul crazy enough to negotiate the dark streets at this early hour. But, I was ready for them. You can't walk in this southern American rainforest without being awash in bug repellant unless you want to come back looking like you broke out with a case of combined instant measles and chicken pox.
As I whiffed and waved through the billowing clouds of the pesky insects, I word kept "bugging" me. It's a word that is as tiny as a gnat, but for many it can be no less as annoying and threatening as a verbal mosquito. That word is "WHY." Add a question mark to it and its simple three letters become a sentence that packs a whollop which belies its diminutive size and which usually is given only to larger and abstruse words, more complicated phrases, and more convoluted sentences. Add a question mark, to paraphrase Isaiah, and it becomes a provocative word of birth or of death; a word of invigorating breezes or a devastating whirlwind; a word of growth or of decay. It can be an ally or opponent, a friend or foe; it's a comforting word or an irritant; it's an exciting word or a foreboding one; it's an invited guest or it's an unwanted party crasher. The one thing you can say about this "bugger" is that it penetrates all masks, pares away all layers, breaks through all walls, and reveals the innermost being!
What got me started thinking about this word was that when I returned from a ten day trip, I was greeted with, overwhelmed by, 839 e-mail messages in my mailbox! After I had vigorously exercised my deleting index finger, what remained was a large cache of messages which centered around two questions which were being discussed separately but coincidentally on several lists. The first was: "why are students resistant to collaborative teaching?" The second was: "why are professors hesitant about using group learning techniques?" Two interesting and important questions that talk of issues dear to my heart and soul. But, as I read each message, that word, why, kept jumping out at me as so many people deliberately danced around it with a series of evasive and defensive "because" and "why nots."
I think, however, that when we discuss anything about education we have to acknowledge that technical quality and creative spirit, function and art, technique and soul, doing and impact can be joined in a lasting, meaningful and purposeful marriage only with taking of vows that consciously and honestly answer the question "why do you take this...."
If we have the courage to take such vows, it helps us get to the underlying inner causes of our actions, ideas, perceptions, evaluations, and values that drive, push, pull, tug, hinder, encourage us. I say it takes courage because that penetrating, paring and revealing little "bugger" lays us bare. It turns our attention away from what we are doing to who we are; it directs us away from outward technique and towards our inner elves and asks that we take a perilous inward journey; it demands that we recognize that what we do is an extension of who we are, and that we are operating from a deeply held set of beliefs which may not be appropriate to what we are supposed to do or be consonant with our other beliefs; or, we may discover that something we take for granted as a part of the natural order of educational things, and is therefore unchangeable, may in fact be a social construct we unthinkingly accept for the sake of safety and convenience, and therefore may have to be changed.
I have discovered--and it's not a pioneering achievement--that any technique which I might employ or think of using--stick drawing, brain storming, mind mapping, games, skits, role playing, and scavenger hunts for the triad of students to braille themselves, each other and the material--is in and of itself neither automatically conducive to nor a barrier to learning. It is the mood--that human and mysterious and magical air--of the classroom that is critical for any technique that I might use to have a meaningful and lasting impact on both me and the students in and beyond the classroom. For me that mood means sincerity and commitment. It means that for me, for the classroom, for the students any technique I use must fill the atmosphere for both me and ALL the students--as partners--with a crisp and refreshing and sweet smell of individuality, freedom, creativity, imagination; every inhale must take in a lungful of life-sustaining, GENUINELY generating, nurturing, trusting and caring air. It means that I must constantly remind myself that teaching is above all a marvelously creative people thing, and teaching should help me to reflect upon the wonder and mystery of life, my life and that of others with whom I come into contact as well as about those whom we talk. It means it's something I love. It's part of my soul. It's the creating, the taking the risk, the working at it, the growing that keeps me going. I feel empty and perhaps aggravated without the classroom. It means it is something I do not want to miss; it is something the students should not want to miss. We all should feel we cannot reject the invitation to the dance. It means that whenever I and/or students leave a class, that time with each other should have created satisfying and awesome and dynamic and challenging--as well as fulfilling and joyful--images of an autumn leaf, a frozen brook, a quiet meadow, a melodious forest, a crimson sunset, a purple sunrise, a yellow spring flower, a spider spinning its web, a warbling bird fashioning a nest, a birthing lamb, a dawning day, a romantic dance with a lover, maybe even an erupting volcano. And finally, it means that teaching must very centered and reflective, almost a meditative thing; that the retention of any technique can't be defended with a passing "because" or with a mere "it has always been done that way" or an "it's easier for me." At the same time, no technique should be adopted with equal whim because it's "the in thing" or "sounds good" or "looks interesting." No technique or belief should be kept or discarded or adopted without a penetrating, paring, and revealing "why;" without a deep and articulated reflection, without constant re-examination, on the meaning, purpose and goal of and education and how it fits in to what it is we should be doing in education.
Since whatever goes on in the classroom ultimately reflects the spirit in which it occurs, creating and maintaining this spirit or allowing it to flourish is an even greater challenge than adopting or adapting a technique. With all those students and with us, there will always be some stale or pungent aroma; there will always some issue or personal problem that must be addressed which impacts on effort and performance. I accept this, along with working out the kinks of a new approach or adapting an old one to new students, as an essential part of my craft that fuels my change, development and growth. And if a class fills with the whiffs of some acrid fumes, it's not a time for defensive finger-pointing or recrimination or a time to lunge out the door. It's a time for some honest fumigation with self-reflection, self-examination, and self-correction and adjustment. That, too, is a tough assignment. To struggle to purify the air day after day after day is demanding. I don't think it is as impossible as a lot of people would have me believe. I am always suspicious of anyone who says he or she does not experience any problems or wants to do something without facing the risk of experiencing problems. Something always goes wrong, something always doesn't work, something always isn't necessarily instantly applauded by the students, sometimes something is never accepted by some students. And, since I have yet to have a front row reserved seat on the mount of Sinai, I will make mistakes. Moreover, the situations are always different from class to class and term to term. No two classes, no two terms are identical thereby by ensuring that they must be treated at best only as cousins, not identical twins; that I am engaged in constant invention and reinvention--and, at times, apology. Something always has to be corrected, changed, adjusted, adapted, adopted. It's like a cake recipe that you keep improving on.
Reading hundreds of journal, grading hundreds of weekly quizzes, observing and commenting upon hundreds of projects, reading and commenting on hundreds of self-evaluations, working and talking and urging and supporting and encouraging hundreds of students each year is in itself a physical and emotional challenge. But it pales next to the greater challenge of helping each student, helping myself, to strive to be alive and to grow, and to be worthy of his or her--and my-- own existence. But, I think that is one of the greatest gifts that working with complicated human beings affords. Solving problems is the only way I truly become a problem solver. Dealing with people is the only way I truly become a people person. Accepting change is the only truly way I follow my creative side, stay sharp and alert, keep dancing on my toes, move on, and develop and grow.
Have a good one. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____