Monday, October 26, 2015

How things generally go

Mornings feel best to me. The vagueness of consciousness mirrors the early dawn and portends lucidity. There is a wariness to morning, the small fear that we all feel when at the beginning of something. I like most the mornings that stretch out not quite timelessly before days that have not yet been planned. No one else is up; no one else would be moving; the relaxation that is possible in the morning is the unearned kind and thus most itself, most fully present.

The coffee is finished, the scraps of reading are read, and into our day clothes we step, one leg at a time, like putting on armor. On opening the door, the day makes itself known -- the first breath, autumn smells, leaves scattered and thrown across the driveway.

Day is so much interaction and movement. The people come at you with their faces and their lively eyes. Small requests uttered, and the larger tasks always left unsaid. We walk by each other, holding ourselves somewhat tightly to our chests, not letting too much of ourselves leak out, and then finally losing ourselves to chore, to tedium, to fatigue, and if we are lucky to occasional joy or romance or more. All the beginnings not yet begun become real and resist; this is day.

Afternoon comes, as always, and energies wane. HacĂ­a el sur son inteligentes y duermen la siesta. Even if we work and do not rest, we work slowly and aim primarily to finish up. The daytime has drained the life out, like clear water poured over the ground and soaked up into roots and earthworms and then to the rocks underneath. If you take a moment in the late afternoon, you will notice that after the energy is stripped all away, you can find a sort of bedrock of the soul, the limestone underneath. That can be satisfying.

Evenings, things depend. Some people get the morning feelings again, in anticipation of the night being another beginning. Others -- like me -- see the night time as a chance to throw one's self absolutely into ending. As the light drains out of the world, so do all the daytime things slowly lose their reality.

Night comes, and we lay in our beds. The mind draws loops around itself, constructing imaginary scenes until the loop skips and eventually becomes a dream and then dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teacher Autonomy

"It is ... advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action." -- John Dewey

Teacher autonomy is critical to good education. This (like everything in education) is of course most obvious to teachers, as they are the ones most intimately involved in the educational process. Students (especially adolescents) are suspicious of contrived situations and most open to connection when they sense there is an authentic person on the other end of the line. Autonomy is the path to authenticity, as only the teacher who is free to explore and experiment can find the pedagogy that allows full expression of the self in practice.

However, autonomy is poorly understood by many teachers who advocate for it and also by the administrators who are suspicious of it. The reason for this is that autonomy is really different from being left alone. 

Sure, the first step to developing autonomy is freedom from. Freedom from arbitrary constrictions. Freedom from micromanaging. Freedom from forces and interests that are obviously mis-educational. Administrators have a basic duty to protect teachers from these things so that they can explore and create.

Unfortunately, most conceptions of teaching autonomy stop there, but of course that sort of autonomy for teachers is not enough. Autonomy is more than freedom from constraint. Autonomy is positive freedom -- it is the freedom to act with purpose. Teacher autonomy (like individual autonomy) only finds its full expression within a purposeful community, and it is fuller yet when teachers are able out of their own practice (alongside students) create that purpose and feel responsible for the school community.

What then, is the role of the school administrator? As clear as I can figure it is to identify the ways in which the community is not yet autonomous or lacking purpose -- and also the teachers as individuals who have not yet found the full expression of their autonomous practice (or who have lost it somewhere along the way.) The administrator cannot ex nihilo create this purpose or autonomy, but must instead, through modeling, encouragement, listening, and communicating help teachers into autonomous community, actively and boldly clearing the path for it, and sometimes perhaps tracing the first steps.

If students are to learn to be free, active, bold, joyful, and creative, they must have in front of them on a regular basis adults who possess these qualities. Schooling is difficult work, and many adults lack the stamina or resilience to do this work and manifest these qualities. The best schools quickly identify the impediments to teachers being their full, best selves for their students, and eliminate them without pity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On Vitality, Schooling, and Training

An acquaintance told me a week ago that there is a deep connection between training for a marathon and good schooling and encouraged me to draw this connection.

The connections at first seem obvious. Perhaps school is like training. You put the work in and then get results out. Effort over the long haul leads to incremental changes in the body, mind, and spirit that allow the runner/student to do something which perhaps seemed impossible. I suppose this is the association my friend had in mind, and it works at a certain level.

Runners recognize, however, that equating training with effort and work takes an external view of the whole thing. From the inside training never feels primarily like a goal-oriented activity. In order for it to work and work well, it must mostly be immediately satisfying.

Sure, there were moments when there was a lack of satisfaction and I could invoke an external goal (running under 2:30 in the marathon was mine) to get myself out the door. But my training at its best was an almost wholly present-oriented activity. The training works when it is integrated and flows and feeds the rest of your life, through friendships, being outside in nature, and the pleasurable feelings of bodily movement. If we have to be inspired to get out the door on a frequent basis, and if it's not the doing itself that is inspiring, then the effort that marathon training requires can't be sustainable. The running must be based in a sort of  joy in movement, one that is pleasant in itself and flows out of experience with the vitality and force of Nature.

Learning is the same in this sense. As living beings, it is as natural for us to learn and grow as it is to breathe and eat. Schooling, like training, has to feed that natural impulse and work in it and through it. The purpose of schooling is to make the human animal most fully what it can become. Too often we think of the work of education as the construction of an artificial self, manufactured through external effort and work. So long as the work of education fails to engage with the natural impulse to grow and learn, it will be absent vital force. If running and training must be based in the joy of movement in order to be fully effective, so education must be based in the natural joy of growth.

One of the great dangers of marathon training (perhaps the single greatest danger for the highly competitive runner) is overtraining. Overtraining happens when instead of working in concert with vitality, training begins sapping it. The consequences to the runner are loss of joy, constant fatigue, depletion, etc. Yet, often the runner ignores these signs, attempting through sheer effort to will the body to follow the despotic trainer. The error of overtraining is a consequence of too much artificial effort and too little listening to the body.

When our schools fail today, they fail in two ways.

1) Focused too entirely on what society needs from its young people, it forgets entirely that the process of education is founded in student growth. The "training plan" -- having been crafted by political interests -- is implemented and executed with complete disregard for the individual undertaking it.

2) Schools, teachers, and parents intentionally trying to maximize student growth, very much like the marathoner in training pushing herself to her absolute limit, disregard the natural ability of the child to grow and the natural source of growth, which is joyful play. They push the child too hard, effectively overtraining them so that they lose touch with their natural capacity for growth. Here schooling becomes based in effort, work, and achievement rather than the internal qualities of curiosity, will, determination, and freedom.

Schools work only when they are founded in and working through the natural impulse to growth and association that are a byproduct of being living beings. Any other approach to education is necessarily artificial and external -- usually founded in ideas or demands that are only weakly attached to the relationships of community out of which the school draws all of its life.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Twin Cities Marathon and the Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter in St. Paul has planned a protest to block the finish this weekend at the Twin Cities marathon. Here are my thoughts and hopes for how this goes.

* * *

We all know that running is an expression of great individual freedom, which is why we value it so much.

A marathon race boils down so many of our values and creates a pure space for their expression -- hard work, execution, effort, risk. Because all distractions have been cleared away, and the course has been marked off from the chaos of life and the politics and all of that, the individual runner is freed to maximize his or her potential.

It's interesting to reflect on how artificial the conditions of a big city marathon are: how many roads have to be blocked, how many policemen enlisted in the effort, how much work and resources goes into creating this clean slate for achievement, especially when it is mapped out over a normally chaotic public space, as in the case of the big city marathon.

Reflection brings the realization that the expression of great freedom, the maximization of individual effort, depends on a prior effort that requires social coordination and agreement, and it takes very little to disrupt that organization. Marathon races show what becomes possible for individuals when like minded people work together.

It's for all of these reasons that a blocked or disruptive marathon works well as a metaphor for blocked social justice and disrupted democracy. But of course it is just a metaphor; life itself is not at stake in a marathon, only the expression of life.  A marathon is a medium through which we work out our relationship to life. It's not "real" in the way that life is. It is constructed.

The constructed and metaphorical nature of marathoning, however, is what gives it great power for life. We need artificial forms and media through which we can work out our relationship to life. This is why art -- and marathoning is art -- is so precious. When life itself gets into these artificial forms of understanding life and messes them up, we feel a loss of control and understanding.

The protest is positive in the sense that the BLM is inviting runners into reflection on these things, and helping us draw connections between ourselves and the communities that we only run through, and often times do not even run through.

However, I hope in the end they let the runners run, not because marathoning is more important than black lives, but out of a sense of empathy for and kinship with the marathoner and the community that makes marathoning possible.

Black Lives Matter has a chance to say something like the following -- "though black lives are often disrupted, and though we have the power to disrupt as well, we will choose not to disrupt the lives of individuals or the organization that gives them meaning." This choice would be highly meaningful and richly demonstrative as well. It would not only raise awareness, but do so in a way that builds the empathy and understanding that is the necessary precondition for the forms of community upon which deep social justice depends.
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