Bird Droppings January 16, 2022
Passion: Can it be rekindled?
Stirring up Foxfire: Rekindling Personal Passion for Teaching through Storytelling is the title for my paper. It has been an interesting weekend pondering my dissertation and the impacts I am finding, granted I am perhaps stretching the idea a bit. Friday, I found a passage by chance over two hundred years old from an African Bushmen.
“Thou knowest that I sit waiting for the moon to turn black, that I may listen to all the people’s stories… For I am here in a great city. I do not obtain stories; I do simply listen, watching for a story which I want to hear, that it may float into my ear. I will go to my house that I may listen, turn my ears backwards to the heels of my feet on which I wait so that I can feel that a story is in the wind.”
These are the words of a convicted Bushmen serving time nearly two hundred years ago at the Cape of Good Hope, a penal colony for South Africa. The passage is from Laurens van der Post’s, A Story Like The Wind. Laurens von der Post wrote about Bushmen from a unique perspective. His nanny on the edge of the Kalahari desert was a Bushmen woman. He explains as he notes that the imprisoned Bushmen’s words are some of the most profound he has encountered in the world’s literature. “The living spirit needs the story for its survival and renewal.” As I read further in his book, he compares colonization of the Bushmen and Africans to stripping away the stories and imagination and imposing a rigid fixed belief structure that is foreign. There are similarities to today’s stripping away of creativity and imagination from small children entering school.
Many days I wonder who I write for in the mornings. Perhaps no one, maybe a teacher who needs just a thought, a stir or spark, but occasionally I write for me. I needed an uplift, that adrenaline shot, so to say. I recalled three years ago; I started at a new school with a different demographic than I had been used to. Apathy has gone rampant over the years I have been teaching and is now in epidemic proportion among high school kids in learning. So I am writing for anyone who wants to read today.
“To speak, so listeners long to hear more and to listen, so others’ meaning is grasped are the ideals of the impeccably great.” Tirukkural 65:646
When I first read the passage from the Tirukkural, I thought of the Einstein quote I have used for nearly twenty years. I first used this quote to present my Capstone in my Master’s degree program at Piedmont College about twenty years ago. For me, real teaching is making such an impact. I have used passages over the years from Tirukkural, always considering it to be simply Hindu literature; by chance, I looked it up further, and over 2000 years old, its original religious significance is questioned by scholars, yet both the writer and the writer and words are considered holy. For several years, I had ended my emails with this thought by Albert Einstein from his commencement address at Swarthmore College 1938. Just the other day, I mentioned to a future teacher friend Einstein was equally a philosopher and scientist, and most never will take the time to see that side of him.
“The real difficulty, the difficulty which has baffled the sages of all times, is rather this: how can we make our teaching so potent in the motional life of man that its influence should withstand the pressure of the elemental psychic forces in the individual?” Albert Einstein
Going back to Tirrukkural, while in translation, the flow and pattern that the text was written in are changed slightly from a precise number of words per line, and per couplet, to what words can work in English without losing too much meaning it is still a significant piece of literature. I was thinking back to my classes and could they sit while I read 1330 couplets of seven words, four on the first and three on the second lines. Probably not; paper balls would be winging it at my head. But then how do we make our teaching as potent as Einstein says that maybe just maybe that class would sit through all 1330 couplets. Many teachers would say Candy always works, but M&M’s, extrinsic bribery aside, what we do as teachers to bring relevance to our words is what matters.
“All preschool children are passionate, curious learners. Somewhere along the way in school, many, many kids become alienated from the joy of learning.” Robert L. Fried
Perhaps not all; how about many lose their drive and passion for learning. I had a “student” whose discipline records went back to preschool, and his referrals were numerous until he was transferred to a psycho-educational program in kindergarten. (Think about that psycho-ed at four or five) I am still trying to figure out how you get in that much trouble in pre-K, maybe crumbling a cookie the wrong way. Children are insatiably curious; we train that out of them as teachers along the way. We work towards nice straight lines and always quiet and yes mame or no sir, and no sir and straight lines and red flowers when drawing only. I often recall that Harry Chapin song as I work with children of any age and see creativity lost at times on uniformity. (Flowers are Red)
Not that long ago, we made cookie dough from scratch; even in my youth, which was a lifetime ago, you could buy cookie dough in plastic tubes and take it out and make giant cookies if you didn’t cut in quarters like the directions tell you to. Nowadays, you can buy the cookie dough already made into cookies, and we like uniformity.
“That so few children seem to take pleasure from what they’re doing on a given weekday morning, that the default emotional state in classrooms seems to alternate between anxiety and boredom, doesn’t even alarm us. Worse: Happiness in schools is something for which educators may feel obliged to apologize when it does make an appearance. After all, they wouldn’t want to be accused of offering a “feel-good” education.” Alfie Kohn
When I started graduate school with my Master’s degree at Piedmont College, all the students wanted to be in class as I did. If a student does not want to be in school, we go back to motivating through bribery and extrinsic methods. When I asked what would make him want to be in school, I had a student say, “pay me to come; you get paid to be here,” and it made me think. Recently an Atlanta school started a pilot program of paying students to attend after-school tutoring. Amazingly some people were against it without seeing if the program had merit. In response to my students wanting to be paid, I pulled out my pay stub, looked at the numbers, and showed my student my paycheck with a smile. Amazing the shock when he saw I get paid nothing for being here. I did not tell him I have an electronic deposit, and my paycheck has zero listed on the amount line. But I got mileage out of that. I said I enjoyed being here. I explained, and I I do, he knew that, but the zero paycheck hit hard. I thought about the intrinsic reasons I teach. How do you convey that to students?
“Students tend to be regarded not as subjects but as objects, not as learners but as workers. By repeating words like “accountability” and “results” often enough, the people who devise and impose this approach to schooling evidently succeed in rationalizing what amounts to a policy of feel-bad education.” Alfie Kohn
I have been borrowing these notes from Alfie Kohn; I saved an article a few years back on Feel-Bad Education in Education Week available online at Alfie Kohn’s website in its entirety for those who would like to read more. Over the years, in numerous articles on teaching Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed students, the sterile classroom has been the norm, with no distractions. In a trial and error sort of way, I found the opposite; a room filled with distractions provides endless teachable moments and places where a student who needs a different attitude and looks from the teacher can find a space. So what for some is clutter can be comfortable for another. But the student needs to want to be there. When this curiosity occurs, learning can quickly happen.
Of course, you will still have that child who started in pre-K; I remember the day a few years back when I asked him why do you not want to learn to read. This tenth-grade student is a behavior problem; he spent eight of ten years in Psycho-ed centers. I was complimenting him on his reading, he has been in a reading tutorial for three semesters, and we were working on writing letters for a school project, and he was able to read back all he wrote on the computer. He commented, “no one ever took the time to show me cause I was so bad” a side note spell check works great if you can read; when you can’t, it does not always help. He still was obnoxious, but slowly the idea some teachers do care about him and want to help him is sinking in.
As I think back to Robert Fried’s title for the book, The Passionate Teacher, that is what it is all about. We teachers and parents need to look at our intrinsic versus extrinsic and see why we teach. Is it purely for M&M’s, are we being bribed, or is an intrinsic rationale underneath the passion? Please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your heart Namaste.
My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,
(We are all related)