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Garden-Variety Metaphors

I look out at the garden and inspect the plants.  I’m not looking to judge so much as observe.  The peppers are beginning to sprout – a little later than the experts predict but perfect timing for salsa.  The eggplant is growing larger and the tomato plant is producing more than I ever could have predicted.  The herbs are exploding with scent after a desert monsoon.

All too often when I’m on Twitter, I’m thinking of something clever to write.  I’m analyzing tweets.  I’m speaking my digital voice because I want to sound like I matter.  When I’m in our garden, though, I’m thinking of my students.  I need this time as a reminder that the growth is more important than achievement and that sustainability is more important than innovation.

It humbles me to think that I can barely keep a plant alive.  I need to remember as I interact with the students.  Perhaps the greatest gift I can give them would be an attitude of humility and the sense that I don’t have it all figured out.

The garden reminds me that it’s not a competition.  The plants remind me that there is nothing new under the sun and that life is ultimately unpredictable.  I can’t stay there too long before I think about life and about death.  Perhaps I’m too morbid.  But I ask myself the question, “If I die today will this matter?” and the questions like “Do I look fat?” or “Will I ever have a book published?” begin to feel a little more comical.  When I feel the cool earth slide between my fingers, I am reminded about what really matters is life.

I’m humbled at this point, remembering that I’ll grow in wisdom if I don’t pretend to be the expert.

It has me thinking about collaboration at my school. If I had it my way,  we would do our curriculum planning in a garden.  We would have to grow food together and share at least one meal before we ever made bold pronouncements about what the students need.  We would approach our subject with the same sense of mystery that I feel when the cool earth slides between my hands – the sense of urgency in the only essential questions we can ever conjure up, “Does this matter in light of death?  Does this matter in light of life?”

After washing my hands, I discipline my meandering mind by making a list of what the garden has taught me.  I don’t want to forget these things during the school year:

  • Growth is different for all students
  • If the goal is always growth, it will get out of control and unrealistic.  If the goal is achievement alone, we’ll miss the growth.  If the goal is a healthy sustainability, the education will last.
  • Context matters.  My desert garden gets less water and requires more time and attention.  It’s not equal, but it equitable
  • The garden is full of paradox and mystery.  There’s the notion of direct and indirect input.  There’s the  mystery of growth that is outside of my control.  This helps prevent me from a superhero syndrome or a sense of defeat when I can’t see change.
  • Most of what happens is under the surface.  It takes a long time to see growth.  So, if kids fail a bench mark, it doesn’t mean they are screwed for life.
  • Different crops grow at different times in different ways.  If I try and treat the entire garden as if it is a tomato plant, I’ll kill the peppers.  I’m sure this connects to differentiated instruction somehow.
  • Every lesson plan should begin with “Is this a matter of life and death?”  If it’s not, I’m wasting my students’ time.
  • The plants aren’t always pretty.  At least not like the supermarket ones.  But they are real and ultimately that’s what I’m after.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “Garden-Variety Metaphors

  1. Wow! This post took my breath away. So many things to remember as we venture into this new school year.

    Posted by Becky Goerend | July 31, 2010, 7:52 pm
  2. This is a really beautiful post, filled with wise insight, humility, teacher soul-vision. Your sense of not knowing, before the mystery of each student, is palpable here, and your kitchen garden awe that we get to be in the face of this…thank you. I will carry this one with me, with grateful appreciation.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 1, 2010, 1:00 pm
  3. This is a “keeper”, John. I had to read it several times and each time I appreciated your reflections and insight into what really matters even more. I plan to return to these words on a regular basis – I don’t want to forget these things during the school year either. Thank you for sharing your insightful vision into the gift we are given in working with young minds and lives.

    Posted by Jane Raissle | August 1, 2010, 5:18 pm
  4. You are keen on metaphors. I wonder if you have read George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By ? Great way to begin to think about the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday life.

    Posted by tellio | August 2, 2010, 7:44 am
    • I haven’t read it. I admit that my thoughts on metaphor have been shaped by Neil Postman in his collections of essays. I love the notion of an implied metaphor in every semantic environment and the language we use becomes a reflection of the metaphor. Thus, when we use corporate, construction and factory metaphors in education, we run the risk of keeping education stuck in an industrial framework.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 2, 2010, 9:13 am
  5. this is beautiful John.

    does it matter.. is it awesome.
    the new credentials my kids have picked.
    both beg to whom.
    i love it.

    if you guys don’t know… John wrote a book that you won’t be able to put down.. Teaching Unmasked.
    reading it will make you cry… it will make you laugh.
    reading it will make each day matter more… much like this post.

    Posted by monika hardy | August 6, 2010, 4:35 pm
  6. John, can you start an Edible Schoolyard project or open a Maine Farm Enterprise School site? I think your metaphors are achievable.

    What do you think about beauty or quality of life questions? I don’t mean to nitpick, at all – do you think beauty and quality fall under the umbrella of life? Does a lack of either entail a death?

    I really like your metaphors. I really like to share credit and acknowledge my debts to my colleagues and students. At what point does someone or some group need to take credit or responsibility for action?

    I’m reading Peter Miller’s The Smart Swarm. I’m thinking about Miller’s accounts of ants and bees’ decision-making processes. Both are decentralized and depend on the frequency or interaction between members of the respective swarms. Once critical mass has been reached in terms of the frequency or number of participants in an activity (e.g. foraging or scouting), individual actions taken en masse become de facto group decisions.

    I think we’re rediscovering decentralization as teachers. I think we’re increasing the frequency of our interactions around activities (e.g. abolishing grading and individualizing curriculum). However, I think we’re too autonomous as organisms to undertake spontaneous change in behavior. Leaders, like those of unions, don’t easily abandon platforms because of tweets. Teachers, including me, don’t adopt a new practice because we’ve read 15 blog posts or studies about it. We need personal meaning that ants and bees don’t. Addicts don’t overcome addictions by watching especially long non-addict dances.

    Let me ask you a question I struggle with all the time: how do we organize to overcome idiosyncrasy and complacency? What engines of discovery can we set in motion to encourage us individuals to repurpose ourselves as a profession collectively? Will the seeds sprout before the garden is paved?

    Is there anything about the industrial model of education that should be coöpted to dismantle it?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 11, 2010, 7:15 pm

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