Saturday, January 24, 2015

Learning and the Community of Divine Delight

My 5-year-old daughter sits in the middle of our living room floor opening birthday  presents. The handful of adults seated on the couch and chairs around her are the colleagues at our international Christian school who have become the kind of close our kids call aunt and uncle, grandma and grandpa. 

As she rips the wrapping paper off a present, a squeal of delight bursts from Caitlin. Her head swivels to the giver. “Thank you, Grandma Joan!” Jumping to her feet, she dashes to where the home ec teacher sits and throws her arms around her. Then she dashes back to the gift, plops down on the floor beside it, and becomes fully absorbed. But every so often she glances back up at Grandma Joan, eyes shining.

Those glances say more eloquently than words, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is the most wonderful gift ever! Look what it does! You are the most wonderful giver ever!”

The delight reverberating around the room—delight between giver and receiver, delight causing, signifying, and caused by the gift—is almost tangible: Grandma Joan’s delight in Caitlin, that led her to know this would be just the gift for her; Caitlin’s delight in the gift that she knows signifies the love of beloved Grandma Joan, which intensifies her delight in the giver. And this delight of the receiver in the giver in turn intensifies the delight of the giver. Unlike normal reverberations, these grow with each echo rather than diminish.

This image has remained in my mind for the intervening 17 years as a picture of the ideal connection between humanity, God, and the world God has given us. As a Christian school teacher, I see my task as sharing with students in a way that it becomes their own, my delight in God and in discovering, exploring, using, and developing the gift of His creation: two delights that are not just parallel and untouching, or to be integrated at opportune moments, but each informing and intensifying the other. 

Stop and imagine for a moment a few alternate birthday party scenarios:
  1. Caitlin opens the gift, neglects to acknowledge the giver, and then ignores, misuses, or abuses it. Of course this behavior damages the relationship that prompted the gift. 
  2. Caitlin opens the gift, squeals and hugs her thanks, and then proceeds to ignore, misuse, or abuse the gift. This would probably cause some ambivalence in the relationship.
  3. Caitlin opens the gift and immediately becomes absorbed in it, clearly delighting in the gift and forgetting the giver. Whether or not there was an initial squeal and hug, Grandma Joan is happy that her gift hit the mark, and her purpose wasn’t to obligate gratitude, but there’s a hint of wistfulness as she watches Caitlin play because without the dimension of relationship, the gift has become a shadow of what it was meant to be.
  4. Caitlin opens the gift, squeals her thanks, throws her arms around Grandma Joan, and then remains sitting next to her, gazing adoringly into her face, forgetting the gift on the floor. Grandma Joan is warmed by the little girl’s love, but she begins to be puzzled. Was the care she put into the selection of the gift that misdirected? She did buy it to signify her love, but she also bought it with anticipation of the joy Caitlin would find in playing with it, and the joy that would give back to her. 

So as I delight in God’s gift of language and literature—discovering, exploring, using, and developing the myriad possibilities and potentials—and teach students the knowledge, skills, and understandings so they can, too, I have a mental picture of myself as that little girl opening a birthday present on the living room floor long ago. I glance up frequently from the words on the page before me to the face of the Giver, who is watching, delighting in the gift and in the receiver and in the way the receiver is delighting in the gift. 

As my eyes meet His, the gleam in them says just what the gleam in that little girl’s eyes said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is the most wonderful gift ever! Look at the beauty of this phrase! The originality of this image! The compelling expression of this thought! The way this poem evokes memory! You are the most wonderful Giver ever!”

And the gleam in His eyes says, “You’re welcome. I’m so glad you like it.”

And we both know that as important as the gift is, even better is the love and delight that is reverberating through the room.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Active Reflection

Who is better prepared for life: Person A or Person B? 
  • Person A is an excellent reader and writer who crosses each job accomplished off her list with a sigh of relief (a little smile for the ones that felt particularly good, and trying to forget as quickly as possible the embarrassing lapses or confusing mixed results).
  • Person B is an excellent reader and writer who pauses after each project to reflect on what went well, why, and what she could learn for the next time.
Now consider Person C and Person D:
  • Person C is a struggling reader and writer who sighs with relief when she finishes a job, mostly just tries to forget it and hope that next time will somehow be better. 
  • Person D is a struggling reader and writer who pauses after each project to reflect on what was difficult or confusing, how she could resolve those problems next time, and what had at least gone better than the last time.
Which one will be a better reader and writer next year this time? Which one will be better equipped to deal with any challenge life throws them, even if it’s not related to reading or writing? 

Of course I want students in my English class to be good readers and writers. And whatever their level of reading and writing ability when they enter my class, the ones with a habit of reflection will build their English skills and their life skills. 

How do we teach a habit of reflection? In part, by requiring it—not just suggesting it. “Ask and you will receive” applies to more than just prayer life. 

So to the 10th grade first semester culminating project and presentation just before Christmas, this year I added a final reflection, including the following component for process: What went well? What was difficult? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time? (50-100 words)

It was exciting to see the thoughtfulness with which most students responded:
  • Next project, I’ll hopefully get started on the works cited from the very beginning to make it easier later on. 
  • I liked the way the animation came out on the slides, the difficult part was thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. During this project I got to think more about morality, how humans act, what makes good, and what makes bad. Next time I would like to go more deep into the subject and make my presentation shorter.
  • I found it difficult to find reliable sources because I came across websites that wrote of false information. After I realized such websites existed, I had to double-check all my sources to see if they were reliable before continuing on with my research.
  • It was difficult trying to organize everything and getting it done on time. If I had a next time, I would probably to have a more tight schedule, making sure a part was done each day (one page a day perhaps). 
  • I would practice more before the presentation! 
  • The hardest thing in the process was the lack of time, due to our individual schedules and other semester assignments. But we learned to use our time sufficiently, such as talking on Skype. 
  • Since I get nervous in front of the audience and my head goes blank so that I forget what I want to say, I had to practice many times to almost memorize it.…I learned that slides or images are a really good tool to help the audience to understand what I’m trying to say. Next time, I would do differently by speaking less monotonously…and having more eye contact. 
And every teacher’s favorite:
  • I learned that if you try hard and take your time that you can do better than you normally would.
Of course not every student who wrote that next time he wants to manage his time better will do it. But what if the next time they started a project, students reviewed this reflection before beginning to plan? That’s my assignment—designing a pattern of organization to facilitate the cycle of reflection and launching the next project from that reflection.

Shoot—what if every adult got into the habit of reflecting briefly on each project—successful or otherwise? There might be fewer of us making and breaking the same New Year’s resolutions each year.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Do What You Teach

What good is poetry? For one thing, it’s helped me process the transition I’ve been going through. A couple of months ago I was talking to my daughter about how the preparations for moving were going, and at the end of the conversation, she said, “Have you written a poem about that?” I hadn’t, and wasn’t sure I could at that point, but she proved to be the necessary prod to get me going. Here’s what I came up with:

Forgive me, friend,
if you are dying--
I am only moving.
But it feels like dying to the only adult life I have known
28 years of it
the only school I have ever taught at
the streets I waddled through pregnant
the parks my children played in
the place they met their mates.
Moving was something that I mentally assented to--
someday it would happen to me--
but really it only happened to other people.
Now it is happening to me.
In September, January seemed so far off
it might as well have been Pluto,
or Narnia.
At the end of November, as my house empties and boxes fill,
it takes on weight and texture,
this great change bearing down on me.
I trust there are good things waiting
in that new life,
but I can’t really imagine them.
This one has been good in many ways,
besides being the only one I’ve known.
But as the process of dying to this place 
Goes on, and on--
every day dominated by the logistics, 
the lasts, the boxes, the payment stops, the address changes--
I begin to long for the life without goodbyes,
the life of building, not shedding
the life of putting down roots, not pulling them up.
What I really long for is on the other side of true death,
and maybe each little death between now and then
is just a preparation:
anticipation of resurrection.
I am only moving.
Forgive me, friend,
if you are dying.
I am only taking lessons
in resurrection.

What did I learn? Nothing brand new, but reaffirmation:
  • Writing is significant because to articulate a thought is to increase its heft—in the ways it sticks in my mind, making me able to recall and reconsider it, and in the ways it then becomes part of a community discourse.
  • Writers need community. I would write less without those who encourage me to write, read my writing, and respond to it. (And it’s pretty amazing when your own children become part of that community.)
  • Teachers must be practitioners. When reading and writing are things I love and do, it’s so much easier to teach them. I’ve shared my own reading—what I enjoy, what I learn, and what I struggle with. I share my writing, in a way, every time I post a blog. But that’s only one genre of writing. I teach poetry. I write poetry. It’s important to me in several ways. So it’s time to share that slice of my practice as well.

Join my community. 

How are you a practitioner of what you teach? Who is in your community that encourages you, prods you, and responds to you as you practice?