May 3, 2021 – Why do you read? Do you read for content, pleasure, or obligation? Maybe reading isn’t your thing. I read a lot. It is part of my job. I read articles and books for general knowledge or as possible texts for the classes I teach. I read academic papers and dissertations. In many ways I read for a living. Regardless of what I’m reading I’m frequently on the lookout for words or phrases that speak to my inner-teacher. I’ve noticed over the years that more times than not, the best and most enduring wisdom comes from non-teaching sources. I’m particularly enthralled by the ways that poetry, that never mentions teaching, learning, books or assessments, offers insights that often escaped me in all the articles, books and dissertations I’ve read. There is a time and place for academic reading and writing. It is an important way of describing the world and seeing into the complexity of teaching and learning. But I increasingly find the teaching world is much bigger than all the pages on education I read.
The singer and songwriter, David Byrne, when asked about the meaning of music responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry—poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs—is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” Such wisdom, I think, for effective teaching. I sense that a similar truth lies deep within the memory of teaching and learning when released from the industrial, rational and systematized form it currently inhabits. To paraphrase Byrne, education isn’t logical, it is melody, rhythm; the melody of individual voices, uniquely engaged in the common pursuit of living more fully in the world. Education is a song, both literally and metaphorically. I love listening to the ways a class comes together over time; the song unfolds along with their learning, exploring and expanding notions of truth. Experiencing learning and teaching as music, poetry and rhyme invites for a wider range of dialects (language, thinking and seeing). This, I believe, creates more space for marginalized students and voices to emerge.
Another example of teaching wisdom from non-education sources occurred recently when I was reading, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her writing is an inviting blend of her Indigenous knowing, scientific training, natural history and story of lived experience. A melody and rhythm that often sounds like poetry to me because it is expansive and imaginative. Her book is her song of right living, always in the making. As I read, I find myself continuously invited to consider the ways I might teach anew. Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental Biology, plants are her deep interest and passion. She argues that the green world is a gift to the human world, but a gift that is rarely fully appreciated by the Western-scientific mind: “Plant blindness and its relative, species loneliness, impedes the recognition of the green world as a garden of gifts. The cycle flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity. It starts with seeing” (p. xii).
I often speak about teaching as a gift; a gift I offer my students as well as a gift I encourage my students to give away. The word gift flows out of mind and heart as water flows from a spring. But my understanding, as I reflect on Kimmerer’s words, is shallow and more instrumental than I would like to admit. In short, I sometimes teach from a place of “instructional blindness and its relative, student loneliness”. I haven’t fully grasped and internalized what it means to teach from a gift orientation instead of treating education as a commodity. Kimmerer’s description of gift as a “cycle [that] flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity” is stunning and instructive for me. She is speaking of plants, but I hear words of wisdom for my teaching. At its best, education is a cycle with particular elements that blend and flow like a multi-vocal song. The word that grabs my attention is “reciprocity”. It raises all kinds of personal and instructional questions, questions that don’t require answers but rather questions to live into. To me, in the context of the cycle of gifting, answers feel like a dam that hinders or prevents the free flow of the gift. It creates a sort of blindness and transactional quality that limits the possibility for imagination and the unexpected.
Reciprocity is contingent on relationships. Certainly, the most obvious relationship is between teacher and learner. But the question is why? Why is that relationship the first place I go when there are other relationships to consider? For instance, external relationships with colleagues, text, or the social context of the world; and internal relationships with my calling, heart and soul. I suspect that the teacher/learner relationship rises to my attention because that is the relationship must evident in the literature; and it is most evident in the literature because it is most amenable to the questions of science. The outer dimensions of teaching are more susceptible to measurement than the internal relationships of self and the inner-life. The outer and technical are important but so too is the ineffable. Those mysterious elements of teaching that are always just on the edge of knowing, but not fully knowable. Kimmerer’s quote ends with the reminder/charge that the cycle, “starts with seeing”. Starting, not for the purpose of working toward the end of the cycle but seeing as continuous starting.
Which word in the gift cycle speaks to you? Where are your blind spots that foster a sense of loneliness for self and others in your teaching? Who or what can help you see into and beyond that loneliness, to invite you into instructional relationships that are life giving? What might it mean to envision the classroom as a “garden of gifts” waiting to offer wisdom of healing for you, your students and the world? Do you really see your students? Do they really see you? Where might you find wisdom on teaching in non-education sources?