Ahh, Spring break. A moment to pick my head up, take time to reflect. Smell the breeze, full of life and hope and promise. And then return my gaze to my work and its place in the broader educational landscape. And this spring’s reflections have led me here (with much owed to the work of Parker Palmer and J. Krishnamurti.)
What I see is this: we are a culture of surfers. We cruise across surfaces, channel surfing, surfing the internet, crossing vast terrains without ever, or at best rarely, scratching these surfaces. Don’t know if it is cause or effect, chicken or egg, but schooling seems to either reflect this culture or else it is perhaps where we become acculturated to the game of surfing. We teachers are obsessed with surfaces, how much ground can we cover, before handing our charges off to the next leader who will continue on the quest. Fatser, faster, further, further.
I looked up the origins of the word surface and found that is closely related to the word superficial. It is defined, partly, as the extreme outer boundary or layer where an object meets the world around it.
As a teacher I am not interested in surfaces. Yes, edges and boundaries are interesting places, places where two beings (the knower and the known) may meet, but can we engage with deeper elements of each? From the depths of one being to the depths of another? Is it possible that the encounter with one’s learning can be a deeper experience? Can a deeper part of one’s self, one’s interiority reach towards a deeper aspect of the living subject? How deep can we go? What if the educational mission were not about covering subject areas, not about brushing past surfaces with the least possible affect on either knower or known, but rather exploring and exposing the hidden wholeness of ourselves with the vastness and complexity of our study, with the goal of emerging from the encounter transformed? Possible? Idealistic? Too “touchy-feely” for you? Or does this strike a chord and touch the hollowness, emptiness and sense of alienation that too many teachers (and students) feel.
I live on an island in north Puget Sound, and I am often struck by the visiting tourists that start to arrive this time of the year in our area. They are driven to cross the water and gaze over it without ever getting wet. They cross surfaces and think they have seen the ocean, think that they know it. But with our limited access to the top insignificant layers of the sea, we know nothing of its wonders, its diversity, its power, and fragility, grace and wholeness.
As we guide our students over the terrain of Algebra 1, Civics, and Language Arts, are we guiding them to know these subjects or just surf over them? I want to heretically urge you to try to cover less territory and dive deeply into the particularities and complexities of your studies. Let us embrace a single poem and explore it with passion, depth, openness and wonder. Can we, with our students become absorbed, engrossed, rapt, and fully engaged with our learning (and with one another while we’re at it)? As William Blake wrote, let us “see the world in a grain of sand.” I truly believe that it is through the study of the microcosm that the universal is revealed.
Martin Buber wrote at length about what he called the Ich-Du or I-Thou encounter: “It is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).” Real education can be conceived of as a series of such I-Thou encounters, leading to transcendence and transformation. This is what I would like to aim for in my classroom.
Krishnamurti wrote: “Let us go into it deeply together. Not I see it and you don’t see it, or you see it and I don’t see it. But we both go into it. Deeply. Together.” So simple, so beautiful. Let’s go!!
And, as long as I’m ranting, if we must explore surfaces, can we possibly give up our obsession with “covering” everything. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to cover the whole curriculum this year.” “But Sam, we already covered that; let’s move on.” “Don’t worry about that yet; we’ll cover it next year.” To cover something is to hide it from view, to prevent light from reaching it, to overwhelm or obliterate an object. One covers a corpse after all the life is gone from the body.
Let us start to use the life-giving metaphors of “uncovering” and “illuminating,” and stop using the cold language of death to describe our work. Let us explore, dive into, illuminate, elucidate, breathe into, wonder about, and dare I say, enjoy and revel in the living subjects with which we engage our students.
So, have you ever allowed your classroom to be a place to “go into it deeply. Together.” Have you ever experienced this as a learner? Have you known a teacher who could nurture the learner’s capacity for depth of understanding, and knowing and transformation? I have been privileged to witness my share of such enlightened teaching and learning moments. I would truly love to hear your story. Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.