Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 17 May 1995
Well, spring's lightness zipped through town in a blur like an express train causing me to move on the street like a slow, lumbering freight train. At 5:00 this morning the effort to slog through the overbearing heat and humidity that hung heavy in the air made it difficult to appreciate either the playful melodies being chirped by choirs of singing birds or the back-beat of expectant deep throated mating barks that made the two inch chameleons sound like huge, excited bird dogs. Thinking about something I read yesterday in a student's journal yesterday didn't help. It made it difficult if not impossible to think about and share at this moment how excited I've been the last few weeks about the talent, ability, creativity, imagination and learning that the students in my classes had displayed in their skits and plays. I still am excited about how students can learn so much easier, better and more if they are afforded the opportunity to braille learning. But, this morning I found myself thinking about caves, spider webs, and the homeless.
Have you noticed lately how our school yards and campuses are overrun with the homeless. Oh, you won't see outward telltale eyesores: makeshift shanties plaguing the lawns; sleeping unwashed bodies spread out in the doorways or on benches; unkept hair or tattered clothing; shopping carts loaded with society's junk being pushed around or sacks thrown over shoulders; someone shuffling about with their hand extended. But, a homelessness of the spirit pervades our educational institutions. Look up from the blackboard or lectern and you will see the inner telltale eyesores: hollow stares, smileless lips, blank faces, limp bodies, heaving sighs of boredom, fidgeting of meaninglessness. So many students feel so all alone, so disconnected, while among many. We may be teaching them how to read, write, calculate, spell, diagnose, but I'm not sure they are learning how to be in community with their learning.
By being in community with learning, I don't mean having access to or possessing information; I don't mean going to academic classes or engaged in assignments or studying for an exam or roaming the stacks of the library; I don't mean being surrounded by the latest technological gadgets or by purveyors of information or by peers. We can browse in a store, walk up and down aisles, touch things prettily packaged on the shelves to catch our eye and lure us to buy. But if we do not connect with any of those things in a meaningful and purposeful way because we don't know what to do with them, why we should buy them, why we should take them home, and how we should make them part of our lives.
Instead students feel threatened, belittled, pushed, pulled, dragged, overwhelmed, starved, ladened, smothered--trapped. Read this eloquent, but bemoaning, passage from this student's journal: "in your class I feel so free and safe to soar like a bird leaping off a cliff wherever and however high I wish and am able. But, you're such an exception. Throughout school in all my classes even though I graduated with honors I have felt like a fly snared on a spider's web. I frantically struggle to free myself from a predator's trap to flutter how and where I wish to fly only to get more imprisoned in the tightening strands that restrict my movement. I while I fight to live my life, the spider weaves her enclosing silky cell of a cocoon around me to be a meal that it will later devour. It's not much different on this campus."
Eloquent, but tragic. Tragic because metaphors for learning should be an offering of life not of death; of liberation, not imprisonment; of opening of visions, not blinding sight.
By community I mean a sense of being comfortable around learning, of feeling supported, fed, nurtured, and informed by it; that offers a feeling of being charged, electrified; a feeling of soaring freedom; a feeling of being changed, enlarged, expanded, stretched, or happy; a feeling drawn to it and other ideas, feeling at home and warmed by the dancing flames of fulfillment, mesmerized by the crackling sparks of growth and development, comforted by the glowing embers of just human thought in general.
In order for our students, to take advantage of the opportunity to be knowledgeable and thoughtful, to want to take advantage of that offering, they have to feel comfortably in commune with, attached to, affiliated with, allied with both our teaching and their learning. Ideas, concepts, principles, issues, and plain ole information have to be brought into their lives in a manner with which they feel at ease, confident, and eager at the prospect of acquiring, learning and utilizing that new information. Their exposure should be a prolonged engaged sip of soothing, cool, delicious water from a meandering brook, not a quick, sharp slurp from a torrential waterfall that painfully rips at your lips. The exposure and display should not create stress and entrapment, but meaningfully stresses release, individual growth, change, development, discovery, and excitement.
All this means that teaching is not easy or peaceful. Forget that the students are different from each other, from class to class, from term to term. In any given class and term, the students are changing all the time. We're changing all the time. Every time we both go into class, every time we discuss and debate and exchanges we have changed; we have learned something new about ourselves and each other, and thus have become new persons. Teaching is an investment in that change. Teachers must believe in change otherwise we wouldn't be teaching. Every time we enter the classroom, talk with a student, touch another person on e-mail, we teach something to someone, we learn something from someone. Something is ingested; something is digested; something happens to it; something grows, and a new person emerges. I really don't know why people aren't just dying to teach. It's a fabulous adventure, maybe the greatest. I'm different for having written this to you, for having read what you write to me. Teaching is a matter of becoming, not having been or being. And when you are changing, that means you have to constantly adjust to changing, constantly face new obstacles, constantly have to plot new paths. That's the joy and excitement of teaching. It's the real trip!! Like my flowers, every day is new. I don't think teaching is a drag. I may be the drag. You may be the drag. But, not teaching!! You know, that's why I can't really be bothered with retirement. I'm too damned busy having fun teaching, growing because of my teaching, living because of my teaching. You live when you start, dare, to trust yourself, risk yourself and experiment with your teaching.
In the last analysis, however, I cannot teach anyone anything. I can't sell or impose; I can only share. I can cook up a delicious meal whose aroma would tickle their nasal passages, make their mouths water, and caress their palates. I can make the presentation of each dish eye-catching. I can attractively decorate the table and offer impeccable service. But, I cannot not make anyone eat. All I can be is an excited, wondrous, magical seducer. I can invite them to sit with me at the table and taste what I east. I can take a morsel of that food for thought and soul, alluringly swirl my tongue around, and enticingly wet and cup and curl my lips, move my mouth in motions of ecstacy, sway my body in waves of delight, close my eyes in sensuous arousal, and whisper soft sounds of inner glow and satisfaction. I can make it attractive and exciting and joyful, and lure a student into taking just a taste.
I think there is a table full of wonders out there and inside each of us. Education is a way of leading people to both sites. I think the best way to teach is to model. Without telling anybody anything, without teaching anybody anything, I AM what I want others to experience. I can make people wonder that if I am so crazy about learning, maybe learning is worth learning about. I can have a ball at the ball and entice some to join me on the floor in the dance and encourage them with every step.
Someone said that birds never sing in caves. I think it was Thoreau. Nor do students feeling trapped as prey on webs. We make our classrooms into joyless and silencing caves and deadly webs. So, for me to teach, for students to learn, we both have to walk out from the cave and destroy the webs so that we can be free to experiment, to try, to fail. That's exhilarating, joyful, happy, wonderful--and scary. You can say that you're satisfied with your position, but when you decide to change, you're shaking my complacency; you're afflicting your comfort at teaching while comforting your affliction to teach.
But we've taken the natural joy and excitement out of both teaching and learning. It seems from my experience whenever anyone want to introduce fun into the school experience, they take the students out from the class room. And yet learning in the classroom should be fun and joyful, wondrous and exciting. The class room should resound with the noises of delight, the cacophony of exploration, the din of discovery. For every time you learn something new you become something new and discover something new about yourself. That's damn exciting. I think we are far too sane on our campuses. I think we are far too rational on the campus and in meetings and in the classroom; I think we are far too ordered, CONTROLLING, organized and predictable. We're too deep into the cave, too restricted by the web. We are too often practicing the *I* and MY of teaching rather than the YOU and YOUR of learning. Order and predictability and control are not the signs of the faithful, and they only produce bored and pained copiers or memorizers rather than excited explorers and learners. We need to find a place in the class room for spontaneity and serendipity-- both for us and the students, a place that is full of surprise and wonder, where ideas and feelings can be freely expressed, a place of joy and fun. All these things are tools for bringing community with learning into the classroom. I think when I feel free and happy I am more open to teaching and people, more capable of seeing students, more able to handle daily tensions. I don't think fun is the opposite of serious. I don't think joy is the enemy of significance. I think control and repetition are opiates of the spirit while laughter and smiles are natural stimulants.
The best teachers, the best human beings, are the ones who pay attention to the need for each student to be in community with learning. Their class is a gathering of sacred ones, each of whom has something within that needs to be released that is different that distinguishes him or her from everyone else, that cause him or her to feel differently, hear differently, see differently, who has something different to develop. They nurture their students as people, attend to them, seek them out, see them, listen to them, know that they are people, and treat them as people. It makes no educational sense to have students feeling cocooned, cut off, left out, or homeless. It makes much better educational sense to endow them with a sense of freedom, to bring them in from the cold, and to give them a home in the community of learning. No, the best teachers put everything aside to make the student feel comfortable and at ease first, allow there to be laughter before there is serious practice, community before productivity, insist that the student be human first. That is the hardest of all teaching and learning, to have your students stay human in both their and your eyes.
Make it a good day. --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" -\____