January 21, 2021—A colleague recently told the story of a hiking trip that offered a compelling insight into the power of story to reveal truths about teaching. He and his son were following a trail as it wound its way along a tree-lined creek. The path was well traveled and the soil around the trees was worn away and many of the roots were polished by passing feet. The son stopped and said, “Dad, what do you see?” My colleague was unprepared for the question and found himself somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of their surroundings. In the silence, his son replied, “Dad, look at the trail right in front of us and embrace the metaphor. Roots become steps.” After hearing this story, I too was invited into silence and left with some good questions to ponder about the craft of teaching. The most obvious for me is, what are my roots? What is the source of my calling to teach and serve others? How can I better envision my roots as steps to something more? Can I name the ways they hold me stable against to the storms of professional responsibilities that drain me and tax my soul? Roots as both steps toward places that are difficult to attain and an anchoring in times of trouble.

There is another aspect to this story that I find both troubling and insightful. Roots, it seems, assist forward progress only after they have been exposed and polished by the scuffing of boots. A long history of transformation from hidden and embraced by the forest duff to uncovered and longing for an old companion. Exposed roots have the appearance of loneliness and reaching for the past. This is a harsh image and it rings true. I’m invited to consider both the ways my roots have been exposed and polished over the years by the passing of students, and the how they are a reflection on what I’m still longing to accomplish. Exposure through use seems the operative message when it comes to roots. They anchor me to the essence of my work as an educator and become more useful with experience. Marge Piercy captures the tragedy of instructional roots not used, gifts that are set aside and preserved. In her poem “To Be of Use” she writes: “Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums / but you know they were made to be used. / The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” As my colleague’s son noted, “roots become steps”. How might your roots, your core commitments to serving others, invite you to step into new terrain? What does it mean to know that effective teaching means the wearing away of protective coverings and the polishing of one’s roots?

As I was reflecting on “roots become steps”, I was reminded of a second story about steps. My son and I were climbing a peak in Colorado this summer. He is in his early 20s and I’m in my early 60s. So naturally, he walks faster than me. As I lagged several minutes behind on a steep slope, I noticed that every place I wanted to step I saw that he had already stepped there. As I worked my way up to where he waited, the pattern continued. Without intention, I was stepping where he stepped. When I finally caught up with him, I said, “I noticed something really interesting. Every place I wanted to step; you had already stepped there. I find that fascinating”. With little hesitation, he replied, “well of course dad. I have been following you around the mountains for almost 20 years. You taught me how to walk and climb. Where to step. What to avoid. No wonder you step where I stepped.”

As we continued to climb, I thought of the obviousness of his observation and the implications for teaching and learning. Who are my mentors, the ones who taught me where to step when designing and implementing effective teaching? Who is following me up the long slope of learning to teach? What am I teaching them by my actions, choices of where to step or not step?

I remember finishing graduate school and accepting my first academic position. What stands out, in part, was answering questions from students related to research design and methodology. The words fell out of my mouth, even though I wasn’t sure where they came from. They sounded right and were well reasoned. But in many ways, they weren’t my words. They were the words of the faculty who taught me where to step as a researcher. Even today, many years later, I occasionally speak with their words, old steps, trusted steps. At times I hear my students expressing ideas or sharing insights that came from me. Steps I had modeled for them. Step here, not there, watch out for that stumbling block. Their imitation is both affirming of my ability to teach and it reminds me of the importance of acting with fidelity to my mentoring role.

An interesting thing about the metaphor of roots and steps is the way I can learn to walk into new places, experience new ways of teaching. As the first story in this essay argues, “roots become steps”. To be true to my roots, I’m compelled to clarify their true essence. To clear away the detritus and false notions of who I am, and with vulnerability reveal the steps for myself and my students as we find our way into the future. The second story reminds me to pay attention to the ways I model teaching and navigating collegial interactions. Where I step is likely to be where my students learn to step. And as I tire and lose steam, I will follow in my student’s footsteps. This is already happening as I co-teach and co-write with current and past graduate students. My students teach me new ways to navigate the challenges of education. I will learn to step in new ways, read new texts, and consider the world of teaching and learning through new perspectives. I invite you to consider that your “roots become steps” and guard your mentoring well as you may one day follow in the steps of those following behind you.

As we join together to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King we are given an opportunity to reflect on our own commitment to community connection, advancing the ideals of social and racial justice, and centering anti-racism and equity in all of our pursuits. We remember the tenets that Dr. King stood for and his unwavering pledge to advance the values of equality, nonviolence, and respect for human dignity. We categorically condemn all forms of racial violence and believe strongly in Dr. King’s statement that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This year, with our recent political, social and economic landscape, it may feel particularly important to commemorate Dr. King and the principles he stood for. With this in mind, we encourage you to utilize the upcoming university holiday to seek activities that are meaningful to you and offer healing and rejuvenation. In the spirit of the MLK Day of Service “A day on, not a day off” we hope you will embrace this sentiment and seek to serve and connect with communities, foster a spirit of engagement, and renew a pledge for unity and purpose. There are a variety of local events and activities highlighting the MLK holiday, a sampling of opportunities and resources are listed below.

January 10, 2021—This past summer I was visiting a place well known for its natural beauty. An area frequently visited by tourists enjoying the sights and wonders. The town’s economy is closely tied to the flow of outsiders, like me, and our purchases at restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and outfitters. I was there to enjoy the scenery, watch wildlife, and witness the profusion of wildflowers. Experiences widely distributed in promotional materials. Over the few days I was in town, I did enjoy the scenery, spent hours watching wildlife, and took lots of pictures of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. The trip was fantastic in that sense.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the stark contrast between the publicized and actual experience of hospitality. I was not ready for the profusion of “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. There was simply no way to experience the fullness of the area outside of the “authorized” tourist zones. There are plenty of good and defensible reasons to “post” one’s property. For instance, if there is some dangerous activity or landform that it is better for the inexperienced to avoid. My contrasting experience with the publicized message of welcome and the practical message of private spaces of exclusion started me thinking about education through a similar messaging. For many students, especially brown, Black, and Indigenous learners, schools try to welcome all, but in practice the “no trespassing” signs are everywhere. They tell students how to talk, how to walk, how to think, how to be fully human. Unlike the signs that where visibly tacked to fence posts, trees, and metal poles, the “private property” signs in education constitute the hidden curriculum; the unstated norms of behavior, thinking, and being.

As I reflected on these real signs of exclusion and segregation, I remembered another set of signs that dot the landscape; “open space”. These signs announce that all are welcome and invited into the presence of a communal resource, to share and appreciate. Even in open space there are rules and limitations, dos and don’ts, but they are typically designed to limit the kind of damage that is destructive to community. Imagine what schools or classrooms would look like or the experiences of students if the message was framed in “open-space” signage. The private signs of schools communicate a deficit model of humanness, an assumption that students need control and structure. They can’t be trusted with choice and exploration. In contrast, open space is asset based. It presumes good intentions and the capacity of students to make worthwhile decisions for themselves. It doesn’t assume that students will always act with right intentions; making mistakes is part of what being human means and it is a source of learning.

One experience with the “no trespassing” signs was particularly revealing and inviting for me, an educator dedicated to the creation of transformative learning spaces. Since the purpose of my vacation was nature study, I was constantly on the lookout for places where I could park my truck, sit, and watch. One day as I approached a bridge over a river, I noticed a baby tree swallow sticking its head out of a hole in a dead cottonwood tree. It just so happened that the tree was located in an ever so small gap between the fenced-off property and the riverbank. A minute piece of open space, free from prohibitions. I could sit and watch without violating the “no trespassing” signs.

Through my binoculars I saw that three or four swallows occupied the nest. And in no time the parents returned, flight after flight, with food for their growing brood. As I sat, watched, and listened, other signs of life’s profusion were brought to my attention. Higher up in the old cottonwood, four baby king birds were busy vying for the attention of their parents, who were flying back and forth between their hunting grounds and the gaping mouths of their children. Just a short distance away the cry of young kestrel was letting its parents know where it was, and that food was required. And finally, across the river, a pair of American dippers were belly deep in the shallows searching for aquatic insects. When necessary, they plunged into the current to capture prey. At the end of every dive they shook off the water and flew to a nest hidden in the overhanging bank. Over the next few days I made regular trips to this oasis of life. It was magical. It was unexpected. It was delightful.

I tell this story because I’m left with such an indelible memory of nature’s passion for life beyond human imposed constraints. But I also tell this story because it offers me much to think about when it comes to education and the ways I structure learning. I’m invited to consider how often I limit learning by fencing off the content, emotions, and hard conversations; posting private property signs keeping my students away. Even when my intentions are right and justified, the “no trespassing” signs in my syllabus, content, or pedagogy convey a message of limitation to my students. I’m encouraged to consider the value of posting “open-space” signs that redefined the student/teacher relationship as collaborative, not restrictive.

The vibrancy of life I witnessed near that bridge was short-lived. In a few days the baby birds fledged and were gone. I’m reminded that learning is not something that can be controlled. When the conditions are right, it happens at a frantic pace and is short-lived. I need to be vigilant and ready for those times in the classroom when I’m called upon to desperately search for and offer my students the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment they long for. I need to dive deep into the content, shake off what is unnecessary, and bring to all of us the best of myself, the content, and the mystery of learning.

My best moments of teaching and learning are not bound by the structure and pacing of my syllabus or lesson plans. They exist in the gaps. The spaces between the spaces defined by my “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. I’m wondering now, how often do I leave the narrowest gap for students to fully explore their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual world? I invite you too to consider where “no trespassing” signs exist in your teaching and to ask if they are required and important for keeping students safe? And when should you remove those sings and replace them with the invitation to “open space”? Look for the gaps in your teaching. The unexpected places where students shine and thrive. That is the place to begin the work of sitting, watching, listening, and being present to the very real learning going on around you.

Why when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places? – Rumi

Dec, 28 2020 — I’ve been thinking about mystery recently. It has caught me by surprise and I’m not 100% sure why. Not that mystery is unimportant. Rather it is essential to many aspects of my life. So, it startles me to be thinking so much about mystery lately. I look to nature as my first teacher about mystery. As a child I remember watching birds flying on delicate feathers, tadpoles maturing into frogs, and dragonfly nymphs splitting open to allow fully formed adults to emerge. My heart, more than my head, asked, how could this be happening? What mystery was going on that I couldn’t see, yet was so evident and powerful in the formation of life? More recently, the close visual-proximity of Saturn and Jupiter has invited me to contemplate the mysterious movement of the planets, stars, and constellations. The science of astronomy has tools, theories, and mathematical formulas to describe the push and pull of cosmic forces. It knows how the immense spaces and elemental energies of the universe act in relationship to each other. Yet for all its power and knowledge, it is not science that draws me to the birds and the stars, it is wonder and awe. What is it that seems to bind the feather and the rings of Saturn into the same frame of knowing and being? Why do the vast physical differences and distances between the two contribute to their closeness? What is the knowing in mystery that rests at the edge of my mind and reason?

I have not been as close to nature as I was in past years. Other demands and commitments have warranted my attention. They act like gravitational forces diverting my intentions into new orbital patterns. The birds in my feeder and the cosmic dance of Saturn and Jupiter has reminded me to slow down and pay attention. To ponder Rumi’s question, why is it that I have fallen asleep in the prison of necessity even though the world is so big and so much more diverse and mysterious? Nature is my first teacher, but it is not my only teacher. As an educator, I’m reminded that the classroom is also central to my experience of mystery. And like my relationship to nature, I feel that recently I have not paid enough attention to it in my teaching. I know what this about. The transition from face to face to online instruction was too quick, a matter of days. My attention was focused on getting comfortable with the functional elements of Zoom and mastering a Learning Management System (LMS), while minimally advancing my goals of reflection, transformation, and transcendence.

The mystery of the classroom invites me to break free of the prison I fell asleep in, the cell made from the iron bars of instructional necessity. Mystery creates space for me to think about the possibilities, not the limitations of online education. In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorthee Soelle’s goal is, “to erase the distinction between a mystical interior and a political exterior” (p. 3). As a theologian, she naturally views the “history of mysticism as a history of the love for God” (p. 2). Throughout her text she shows how a relationship with the divine—that which is greater than self and self-knowing—leads to political action that is liberating for self and others. By love she means mystery and never fully knowing the other, being open constantly to surprise, and unfulfilled longing. Love as mystery fuels curiosity, excitement, and vulnerability in teaching; all the more so in online instruction. I’m particularly intrigued by the ways my inner commitments to transformation can energize my instruction in ways visible to students. As Soelle would say, the synthesis of my interior and exterior in service of the mystery of online teaching and learning.

The social justice educator, Jay Gillen (2014), like Soelle, argues that love is key to forming student/teacher relationships that hold the possibility of liberation and freedom. In Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty he notes that transformative relationships grounded in love require work and patience. It is often the case that in their early stage, relationships can feel like they are going nowhere. He invites educators to think about student resistance to deep relationships of learning as a form of love he calls “courtship”. Gillen sees mystery in the courtship ritual of hesitancy and pushback as students try out the strength of the teacher/student relationship. He argues that relationships premised on change—learning—are formed through the “symbolic creation of an obstacle [which] acknowledges the mystery of communication between different kinds” (p. 148). In the mystical way that love operates in the classroom, rebuff and hesitancy are the first moves. Gillen invites me to see my struggles in online instruction as a normal part of true learning relationships with content, learning platforms, students, and myself.

As I approach my next series of online courses. I realize that Rumi’s question, with slight modification, speaks powerfully to me; “why when the [classroom] is so big / did [I] fall asleep in a prison / of all places?” Why have I fallen asleep to the potential of online classrooms to transform me as well as my students? Why do I so dearly and intentionally strive for mystery in face to face teaching but somehow barred it from entry into my online instruction? The key to my liberation, as Soelle and Gillen point out, is embracing the mystery of instructional love. I am now asking, how might the metaphor of courtship, the pushing away and pulling toward “communication of different kinds” inform my online teaching? In what ways do students court relationships with content and with me that I’m not seeing? How am I blind to mystery in the classroom and therefore missing the signals that indicate student love for the content we are all in relationship with?


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