July 15, 2019—The field of education is rife with paradoxes, two things that are distinct yet cohere into one unified frame of reference.  In a paradoxical relationship power is contingent on the equal strength of each side of the pair. If one side is more powerful than the other than the paradoxical relationship is weakened and the full potential of the pairing is not realized.  For instance, in the teacher/student paradox if the student holds all the power than the wisdom, voice, and understanding of the teacher is only weakly present to inform the learning trajectory of the student. And when the teacher voice is too loud, students are limited in their choice of content, product, or learning style.  The goal in paradoxical relationships is integration, not balance or resolution of the tension. John Dewey in Experience and Education cautions against either/or thinking and instead he advocates for both/and conceptualizations of teaching and learning.  The emphasis between the poles should shift back and force, dialectically, in dynamic tension, always in response to the particularities of the educational context.  Sometimes the student should have more power and other times of the power shifts to the teacher. The when and how is dependent of learning outcomes that allow for the greatest potential for growth and transcendence of the student and teacher.  Common paradoxes in education include: freedom/structure, formative/summative, content/experience, individual/community, and external/internal.  

One paradox that has grabbed my attention lately is knowledge/knowing.  It has materialized in my studies of theology, education, and critical theory.  If knowledge/knowing is truly a paradox then it offers some explanatory power to describe a core weakness of contemporary forms of education.  Although both terms are evident in education the power differential is skewed, mostly in favor of knowledge. This is evident, it seems, in the emphasis on content knowledge, standardized assessments, and performance indicators in the curriculum.  What is lost or weakened is the unexpected, transcendent, and unanticipated.   

Let me broaden out my definition of the knowledge/knowing paradox before I go much further.  Dwayne Huebner (1985) in his essay Spirituality and Knowing provides the following contrast between knowledge and knowing.

“Knowledge is form separated from life… It stands by itself, removed from the vitality and dynamics of life, from the spirit” (p. 351).   

“Every mode of knowing witnesses to the transcending possibilities of which human life is a part.  All knowing requires openness and vulnerability” (p. 350).  

I find this distinction helpful as I approach the process of preparing, delivering, and evaluating my teaching.  When I’m leaning too heavily toward knowledge in the paradox I engage in the following behaviors: I focus on product; I engage learning as if it were a commodity to be exchanged or transacted; and I form a relationship with knowledge is if it were a “thing”.  When acting more fully in my knowledge-teaching mode I’m teaching from a Western tradition which conceptualizes knowledge as a thing, capital, a noun; something not-me. As Huebner notes: “knowledge is form separated from life”.  To be clear, there are times when teaching from a knowledge orientation is important; standards and expectations can help to keep everyone pointed in the direction of flourishing and fulfillment. When I move my teaching too far in the direction of knowing my instructional behaviors include: I’m concerned with process; learning occurs as interaction between the self and the other; and my relationship with knowing is as if we are both elements of life engaged in a mutual dance of exploration.  My knowing-teaching leans heavily toward Eastern-Tribal ways of knowing which means treating knowing as a being, life, and a verb; something that is-me. As Huebner argues, knowing drives toward the “transcending possibilities of which human life is a part”.

The discipline of Theology offers a different, and helpful, way of understanding the knowledge/knowing paradox.  And by Theology I’m thinking of the diverse ways that humans connect with and are in relationship with something greater than self which is often but not exclusively defined by religious traditions and practices.  In various faith traditions a form of irrationality is understood as separation from the Divine source of knowing; to be outside of one’s wholeness and out of synch with the completeness of the living world. A sort of unrootedness and disconnection that is the result of too much reliance on the markers of success in this world. On the other side of the spiritual equation it can be equally problematic to invest too much on the ineffable and transcendent elements of the Divine in the world.  Under these circumstances a person is cut loose from the lived world and a sort of disconnection from the practical problems and concerns of life materializes. Although a person may appear saintly in their behavior and someone to aspire to they may also act removed and aloof, unconcerned with the wants and needs of this world.  

Both examples from Huebner and Theology are applicable to my teaching.  I can be so grounded in the practicalities of curriculum that I measure my educational success by the metric of student evaluations, the number of times students talk in class, or comparisons between the learning of my students and the students of other faculty.  Concrete forms of knowledge that can be characterized and charted dominate my understanding of teaching. In contrast, I can sometimes be so “up in my head” with my theories and conceptual models that I’m just talking to myself. I’m busy spinning complex ways of understanding that may make me feel smart but may leave my students wondering what I’m talking about.  Huebner’s observation that “all knowing requires openness and vulnerability” is for me a good marker of when I’m more or less successful at integrating and elevating the knowledge/knowing paradox. When I’m truly open to knowing instead of knowledge I avoid the trap of the theory/practice distinction. I embrace wisdom and knowing from both perspectives. When I approach teaching with vulnerability I resist the temptation of anchoring knowing exclusively in my sense of selfhood; instead I welcome the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the dynamic.  In short I try to live with the curriculum in the ways that it lives in and through me.

June 11, 2019—Two questions I’ve been sitting with lately: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching?  How does commitment become evident to others? By “sitting” I mean, in relationship with. The inner life invites me to be attentive and present to my emotions, my feelings, and my inclinations.  A good sign of attentiveness is entering into dialogue. To engage in a conversation geared toward hearing the wisdom of the other. To be attentive is an invitation to wonder and be open to the unexpected.  I don’t mean to suggest that going inward is some sort of ego-inflation technique. Going in is never for the purpose of self-congratulatory affirmation of what I already know to be true about myself. This certainly can happen and it is a social-emotional mud hole that I can easily slide into.  The discipline of mindfulness and the objective lens of community help keep my inward eye from becoming too ego-centric. For me, the purpose of going in and rummaging around the inner spaces of my teacher heart is to go out and be an activist for justice, peace, and love in the world. Through the inner journey, conducted with disciplined fidelity, I can act with commitment to truths that allow for greater amounts of human flourishing for all.  This is as much a spiritual journey of knowing as it is a political or intellectual commitment. As such the examination of the inner life is rich with various formulations of spiritual paradoxes: you have to go in to go out; you have to lose self to find self; and you have to be alone to be together in community.  

 

One strategy I use to invite conversation between my intellectual head-talk and my teacher heart of action is to invite the questions to interpret me even as I’m working to discern their meaning.  In her book Figuring, Maria Popova notes that Sylvia Plath made this observation about poetry: “Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”  In other words, once a poem is read, interpretation begins, and interpretation is highly contingent on the life journey and experiences of the reader.  Thus the poem tends to ultimately say more about the reader/interpreter than about the intent of the poet. In curriculum theory Bruce Uhrmacher and Christy Moroye teach us that the arc of curriculum consists of three elements: intended, delivered, and received.  Educators, like poets, have the greatest influence on their intentions and the least impact on what students and readers receive or hear. For poets and for teachers this can be a good thing in that learning and understanding, what is received, is best regarded as an interactive process of meaning making.  Ownership, deep learning, is more a product of what is received as knowing in the heart of the learner than it is an external indicator of performance. 

 

This form of ownership and commitment to heart-wisdom as received knowing fits my personal and professional experience with poetry and professional development.  Once a month I host a conversation for faculty and staff on my campus. A week before meeting I send out a poem to anchor the conversation. Our ritual is for one voice to read the poem out loud and then invite sharing around a word, image, or phrase that grabbed someone’s attention.  In the conversation we have a rule against fixing, saving, or advising members of the group. This is a norm I borrowed from the Courage to Teach community and their Circle of Trust retreats centered on teacher renewal and courage. When applied with integrity the norm dampens the impulse to heal a colleague and instead the energy shifts to whole-hearted story sharing and story receiving.  What are participants hearing in the poet’s words and metaphors that speak to some aspect of their inner-life? In the back and forth between telling and listening participants begin hearing their own deeper inner wisdom and commitment to values, passions, and professional callings. One participant recently described our communal time together as a form of “sanctuary” where they could recommit to their true passions and resist institutional norms toward compliance.  Questions, it seems to me, can become a curriculum of self-awareness. They are like poetry inviting self-interpretation, but only more personal and more particular than a poem. As I write or state a question I both make my musing public, even if it is just to myself, and I begin the process of interpretation. I started this essay with two questions: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching? How does commitment become evident to others?  

 

Let me answer both questions with a reference to a recent experience in the natural world, which is my go to place for wisdom beyond the rational and beyond the intellect.  I was recently visiting Pawnee Buttes in northern Colorado, a remarkable remnant of short grass prairie. The ancestral lands of indigenous communities for over ten thousand years.  Like a good question the spirit runs deep in these ancient lands which are mostly undisturbed by the forces of commodification and profit making. The wind, typical of these open lands, was howling at a constant rate.  I found it disturbing and affirming at the same time. The treeless prairie, with only the periodic ravine to dip into, provided no place to escape from the wind. Again, like a good question there is no hiding from a commitment to explore.  The only relief, which is temporary, is to go below the surface, into the deeper spaces of knowing. To fully commit to the inner-life of teaching means a willingness to stand exposed to the winds of the social world which often blow toward conformity.  Instead of yielding to normality, holding true to yourself, taking sanctuary in your inner knowing.  

 

When it comes to demonstrating commitment, a standing firm in unapologetic alliance with the source of knowing that is spiritual and non-rational, the grasses have wisdom to share.  The wind pushed the grasses this way and that way. At times a gust could be seen working its way, in waves of chaotic uniformity, across the shimmering green blades. Additionally, the swishing grasses sang a song distinct to short grass prairies.  In an interesting paradox, only the wind can invite and perhaps at times compel the grasses into song. Only a good question in the face of the winds of tradition can invite me into singing the song of my inner-wisdom. And at times I’m compelled into action by particularly egregious forms of social and educational inequity.  Like the twirling grass blades it is only when others also commit to the inner-life and embrace the wind that we can collectively sing. It is the adversity of the wind that makes the short grass prairies of our teaching come to life as waves of reform dancing across the landscape. So my invitation to you is to commit to your inner-life and by boldly singing that unique song that defines your inner-wisdom.  Once you begin dancing and singing I’m sure you will encounter other blades of grass singing along in collective songs of change.  

DU to partner with a local school district

 

DENVER – The Morgridge College of Education (MCE) at the University of Denver is pleased to announce three faculty members have received prestigious U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grants to fund their research in education and to develop solutions that improve school readiness and academic achievement.

 

MCE’s Marsico Institute of Early Learning co-directors Julie Sarama, Ph.D., and Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D., Principal and Co-Principal Investigator, have been funded to evaluate the comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum Connect4Learning (C4L), previously developed by Sarama and Clements through National Science Foundation (NSF) funding with colleagues Drs. Nell Duke, Kim Brenneman, and Mary Louise Hemmeter. The $3,295,431 IES grant, “Evaluating an Interdisciplinary Preschool Curriculum” will be conducted over four years in collaboration with a yet to be decided local school district.

 

Although the importance of all young children gaining competence in four core curricular domains—social-emotional, language and literacy, mathematics, and science—is well established, research results on the efficacy of comprehensive curricula are dismal, with no measurable effects in comparative studies and near zero effect sizes for the most commonly-used preschool curricula. C4L builds upon and integrates empirically-tested practices, connecting the four domains to achieve more than the sum of its parts. C4L seamlessly weaves together child-centered, play-based and teacher-directed intentional education, placing math and science at the core to build sequences of topics that are grounded in empirically-proven learning trajectories. Literacy and social-emotional skills develop in the context of these sequences, as well as through focused lessons. With this new IES grant, Sarama and Clements will be able to evaluate and possibly improve C4L.

 

Additionally, Garrett Roberts, Ph.D., has been awarded a $499,311 four-year IES Early Career Development and Mentoring Grant. Roberts will serve as the Principal Investigator and Phil Strain, Ph.D., of MCE’s Positive Early Learning Experiences (PELE) Center, will serve as the primary mentor. The goal of the grant is to develop a reading program with behavioral supports to improve reading outcomes for students with reading disabilities and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in upper elementary grades.

 

“Based on the importance of both reading and student engagement in lifelong positive outcomes, this is a really exciting opportunity to directly improve outcomes for students in need of extra support,” said Roberts.

 

Both grants bring new possibilities in research opportunities to students at MCE and have been funded, in whole, by the Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

 

About DU’s Morgridge College of Education (MCE): MCE is a graduate college of education dedicated to creating positive change by unleashing the power of learning. The college infuses social justice, diversity and inclusion across its 23 advanced degrees in higher education, teacher preparation, public policy, special education, counseling psychology, research methods, and information science.

About the The Institute of Education Sciences (IES): IES is the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Independent and non-partisan, its mission is to provide scientific evidence on which to ground education practice and policy and to share this information in formats that are useful and accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the public. IES conducts six broad types of work that addresses school readiness and education from infancy through adulthood and includes special populations such as English Learners and students with disabilities.

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May 20, 2019—In Part One of this two part blog-post I painted in broad brush strokes the features of teaching as a mystical experience.  A connection to a calling to teach.  As in the first post I will draw from the work of Dorothee Soelle and her book, The Silent Cry.  She is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe the source of all knowing and all being.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean relationship to the source of knowing that is greater than self, which can be internal or external.  For example, curriculum, students, deep self-awareness, or subject matter. In Part Two I will focus in on the three core elements of the mystical experience (purification, illumination, and union) with a particular goal of showing how they might materialize in the life of the classroom.

Although perhaps not equivalent to the life-long journey of a mystic there is a strong similarity in the ways that teachers become more fully aware of their inner-calling and its pull toward instructional wholeness.  By calling I mean the deep inner drive of educators to teach.  An identity that once felt by the teacher is nearly impossible to not hear or abandon for other professional pursuits.  In the language of mysticism a calling is the Divine spark to teach within the heart of the educator.  Sometimes a calling is experienced while still a child and for others it emerges much later in life.  Regardless of when the initial call appears, the first step toward fully accessing that spark and allowing it to flame fully into pedagogical life is purification.  Soelle describes purification as “being emptied of cares, ideas, and purposes”.  Through this process teachers can rediscover a childlike sense of “wonderment” and “amazement” associated with the power of teaching.  For educators this entails letting go of preconceived ideas about teaching, learning to set aside fears, and developing techniques to calm inner turmoil and doubt.  One of the biggest challenges, according to Dan Lortie, to learning to teach is the “apprenticeship of observation” that accrues over time as the future-teacher moves from Kindergarten through high school graduation.  Each educator encountered along the K-12 journey infuses, for better or worse, images and inclinations of what a teacher is and does.  Unfortunately this overburden of layered identity can often smother the true-self of the teacher to be, the birth-right gift to heal through teaching.  The uncovering of identity requires the tools of amazement and wonderment to facilitate a state of “self-forgetfulness” of the old false-self of layered impressions and the embracing of “being here, being today, being now”.  Purification for educators wipes the slate clean of preconceived notions of teacher imposed from outside as well as the unrealistic inner expectations and assumptions of what a good teacher does.

Once some level of inner calmness and clarity of purpose is achieved and sustained the next step is illumination.  Key to illumination is “transformation” where “the light of the new reality may stream in and completely enlighten and change the soul”.  In my personal experience of learning to teach and through years of coaching teachers I equate the mystical illumination with the acceptance of one’s gifts as an educator.  This is far from an easy process.  It takes time, practice, and discipline so that the “light of the new reality may stream in” and change the teacher’s heart and craft. Teachers are, it seems by nature, hesitant to accept their skills as a gift. I for one, would rather not draw attention to my accomplishments.  I’m quick to dismiss educational successes as something common place with the phrase, “I’m not that special. That is just what teachers do”.   For the teachers who do experience some element of illumination at the heart of their craft, they begin to view their teaching skills as something coming from beyond themselves; a gift moving from deep inside which becomes visible in the form of their pedagogical choices.  In the language of mysticism the “Divine spark” or calling begins to glow and shine.  An illuminated educator becomes transformed as their pedagogy moves from ego-centric and external technical expertise to inner-wisdom that flows in a natural state of being.  They experience an “un-forming” or a sense of “letting go of our false desires”.  The taken for granted world view of educator as all powerful and all-knowing is turned on its head and instead openness, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness become the source of authority in the classroom.  As Parker Palmer notes: “technique is what a teacher uses until the real teacher arrives”.  An illuminated teacher is real and fully present to their gifts and the learning interests of their students.

The third step in the mystical journey according to Soelle is “union of the soul with God”.  The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, according to Soelle, defines union as the stage of “oneness of being itself”.  Educators approach this state of “oneness” when they are one with their gift, their calling to teach.  This is not a way of teaching that can be taught or mastered through technical expertise.  And it is not typically a constant state of being, it fluctuates in accordance with a range of contextual variables.  But at its best it feels like a union of one’s teaching with the spark of the calling to be an educator.  Some call this a state of “flow” where time seems to slow down, the space between teaching and learning collapses, and a feeling of unity between inner energy and outer practice becomes the norm.  In union there is no student, no teacher, no curriculum, just a unifying sense of integration and completeness which is often described as oneness with the subject matter.  This state of instructional bliss is experienced as a “healing” or “wholeness” where the small intellectual and ego deaths of traditional forms of teaching are transcended into life giving human flourishing.  The gifts of the teacher flow freely from their Divine calling into the classroom and are available to the hearts and minds of students.  Love for self, others, and text infuse the learning experience; the stifling elements of structure, accountability, and rigor vanish or are subsumed under something bigger for brief moments in time.

In my professional role as educator and sometimes mystic I see potential in using the stages of mysticism in the preparation and professional development of teachers.  My commitment to pursuing this framing is premised on two assumptions and one challenge, all three grounded in my personal and professional experience.  The first assumption is that all true teachers have within a Divine spark labeled “educator”.  I recognize that not everyone would agree with this point and that some educators would resist or hesitate at my use of theological language to describe this aspect of teaching. Two, given the right circumstances, rituals, and disciplined practice the Divine gift of teaching can be liberated and breathed fully into instructional brilliance.  The biggest challenge to the initiation and development of purification, illumination, and union are the norms of education which lean heavily away from the spiritual and toward structure, regimentation, and standardization.  My goal is to awaken, in a non-religious sense, teachers to the potential fullness of their calling to teach.  Mysticism for myself and others seems like a good walking companion in this task.

May 5, 2019—Educators love to create categories and frameworks for learning, as if learning is solely contingent on structure and form.  The modern field of education is so focused on standards that it is almost as if human learning never occurred before the formalization of curriculum. The wider history of education, however, shows that the traditionalist approach to teaching and learning is a recent focus of education.  Karen Armstrong argues in her book The Case for God that as early as 50,000 years ago people used cave paintings and sophisticated ritual to usher young people into adulthood and full participation in the life of the tribe.  In antiquity, Greek, Roman, and Jewish communities organized learning around preparation for entry into religious communities, participation in civic life, or general intellectual enrichment.   And throughout the history of curriculum in America there were educators who argued for and actively sought to elevate holistic notions of knowing and organization of curriculum.  More recently, Parker Palmer in his well-known text Courage to Teach brings attention to the fact that: “We teach who we are”. By this he means that the inner life of the teacher has to be taken into account for any serious conversation about teaching to occur.  To not address, for instance, feelings of fear or abundance, as aspects of the inner life of educators is to risk pedagogical disaster.  Students know when a teacher is inauthentic and not showing the fullness of their humanity and if the teacher is holding back why should the learner fully invest in the learning process?

The challenge for holistic educators is less about knowing the inner-life exists but rather more about developing a language to describe this orientation to teaching.  Unlike the traditionalist model which attends to concrete phenomena like lesson plans, instructional strategies, and performance indicators anchored in observable behaviors, the inner-life of educators is less tangible and difficult to observe directly.  But as Abraham Heschel argues just because something is ineffable doesn’t mean it can’t be understood: “The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for the absence of mean­ing”.  A case in point is Dorothee Soelle’s text, The Silent Cry (2001) in which she provides a detailed analysis of mystical experiences where the inner-life of the person finds unity with Divine Love. In quoting Jan Van Ruysbroeck, Soelle makes a good case for the connection between the inner life of teachers and their outer performance: “Self-knowledge teaches us whence we come, where we are and whither we go”.  In other words, as Palmer states: “We teach who we are” and the stronger the sense of self-knowledge the more effective and authentic teaching becomes.

Beyond this broad argument connecting the outer performance of teachers to the condition of their inner-life, Soelle provides specific language and markers that are useful for anyone interested in deepening their spiritual formation as an educator.  She begins by first arguing that all people are capable of mystical experiences, connections to and with something greater than self.  As she notes, her goal is to “democratize the mystical experience” so that all people, not just the pious few, can access the wisdom of Divine Love.  Soelle is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe God.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean something greater than self.  I’m thinking here particularly of subject matter, the great historical narrative of an academic discipline, or a deep dedication to a student, anything that goes beyond the expected which results in personal or academic transcendence.  Furthermore, she claims that “the trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest antimystical force among us”.  For educators “trivialization” comes in the form of teacher-proof curriculum that overly structures and constrains the instructional life of educators.  For Soelle, a good way to resist the “trivialization of life” is to embrace the mystical experience which all people are capable of achieving.  For me this raises the question, what might viewing education through mysticism add to our understanding of effective forms of teaching?

According to Soelle there are two types of mystics, individuals who advocate the virtues of pure mystical experience and mystics who are more interested in teaching about the process of preparing for the mystical encounter with Divine Love.  This later group she calls the “mystagogues” who by their nature teach about the mysteries of the mystical experience.  The work of the mystagogue is tricky because mysticism by definition involves developing a relationship with something, Love, that can’t be defined, described, or delineated.  Yet the Divine can be experienced and the mystagogues have developed rituals and practices that prepare a person for the mystical experience.  The same categorization of knowing seems true for educators who experience the inner-life of teaching.  There are teacher educators who argue that the inner-life of educators can only be experienced, not taught. And there are educators who believe that it is possible to formalize the process of connecting teachers to Divine educational energies.

I belong to the latter group.  I can’t and would never want to craft a mystical experience for educators, but I can facilitate the conditions for the likelihood of a mystical experience to occur.  By mystical I mean the ability of educators to move beyond purely technical approaches to teaching; to embrace those aspects of teaching that are ineffable, transcendent, and bound to something greater than self.  I long ago claimed, or better yet have been claimed by, the identity of educator.  Teaching is the unique spark of the Divine that glows most fervently in my heart.  It is my gift, my calling, and my passion.  I have also come to realize that my deepest experiences with Love while teaching fall into the category of mysticism.  Given my mystical tendencies and mystagogical orientation to curriculum I’m frequently looking for and inclined toward models or descriptions of teaching that are organized around the acquisition of knowledge that anchor the teaching process in some notion of mystery.  Dorothee Soelle describes several key elements of the mystical experience that I think can be repurposed to the mystagogical task of structuring a learning curriculum for teachers that attends to the mystical aspects of their teaching; their inner-life.  The three stages of mysticism, “purification, illumination, and union”, presented by Soelle provide guideposts for speaking about the mystical preparation of teachers.

In my next blog-post I will define these three stages and provide personal and professional examples of what they might look like in the daily practice of educators.  In the meantime I invite you think about the ways that you experience teaching as a form of mystery, perhaps most clearly in those moments of awe and wonder in the classroom.


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