March 23rd, 2018—Perhaps you have heard someone say with a tone of admiration and respect that a teacher “put their heart and soul into a lesson.”  But what does putting one’s heart and soul into a lesson mean?  Is there a difference between a teacher’s heart and a teacher’s soul?  What might an instructional coach look for when guiding an educator toward greater effectiveness around connecting instructional passion (heart and soul) with educational outcomes and the learning interests of students?  I find this question about identifying ways of seeing the ineffable elements of teaching, such as a teacher’s heart and soul, compelling.  I’m constantly looking for ways to see the unseen in teaching because for me that is where the alchemy lies; where magic as craft knowledge of teaching develops. To put one’s heart and soul into a lesson doesn’t guarantee the success of the lesson or student learning but it does indicate a degree of commitment from the teacher making it more likely that students will take the lesson seriously.  The pledge of a teacher’s heart and soul, the open vulnerability of deep caring for content, can signal to students that the topic of the day is important.

I find that sometimes the best place to witness signature moments of teaching is to look outside the field of education.  This is because an unfamiliar venue may reveal elements of teaching, in this case the pedagogical unseen, that are often obscured by teaching contexts that are too familiar. I recently experienced a moment of seeing teaching anew during a concert by the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.  At intermission I was asked what I thought of the concert.  Because the music was moving and spiritually stirring I was a bit at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate what I had witnessed—experienced—because so much of it was indescribable and awe inspiring; just like great teaching.  But in my attempt to name the un-nameable I uttered: “Out of his hands came their voices”.  The ineffable and intangible nature of the human voice was brought as close as possible to the visible light of this world by the skilled conducting of M. Roger Holland, director of the Spirituals Project.

I was captivated by the transcendent link between the conductor, the written music, and the choir as individual singers and as a chorus.  Mr. Holland skillfully combined his individual passion for music with the shared passion of the choir to sing.  The alchemy occurred at the interface between his inner-calling to conduct and the inner-calling of others to sing.  In between the two (conductor and singer) was the music as text and notes, content in educational terms. It might be said that both the conductor and the choir put their heart and soul into the creative act of making music, of lifting notes off a piece of paper to float free around the concert hall. But this does not just happen accidently.  Transcendence for both conductor and choir requires trust, vulnerability, skill, and a willingness to release individual agendas to something greater than self; the universal impulse of Creation to sing.  Additionally, the alchemy of conductor and musical text increases the likelihood that the music will lift off the hands of the conductor and the voices of the choir to enter the hearts of listeners.  In education this speaks to the importance of going beyond pure technique and the importance of allowing the teacher to exercise some power over the selection of the curriculum.  This allows the knowledge of the teacher about the unique gifts/needs of their students to push toward the best fit between learner, content, and teacher.

There was a time, I believe, when educators were honored for their ability to bring learners into deeper relationship with the mystery of self, text, and things greater than self.  It could be said that “Out of their hands came the wisdom of students”.  These early educators were true to the root definition of education which is to draw-out knowing beyond simply imparting facts. To be an educator in antiquity was to be simultaneously a teacher, philosopher, and theologian.  Educators in the second through the fourth century who had the ability to elevate learning beyond day to day human experience, to encompass a higher plain of spiritual understanding or mystery, were called mystagogues. Like the conducting of Mr. Holland they had the gift of transforming learning into something that went beyond best practices.  They intentionally mystified the known in a way that moved learner, fact, and instructional technique into the realm of the unseen seen.  I wonder what greatness could be achieved for both teachers and learners if the goal of learning to teach included both technique and the dispositions of the mystagogue.  In such an education system when someone said a teacher put their heart and soul into a lesson we would know what that meant and what the implications would be for definitions of good teaching.

December 20th, 2016 – I frequently start my higher education classes with a poem, typically a poem that has little direct connection to teaching, my primary area of expertise and interest. Why and toward what end? What if anything does poetry contribute to an understanding of history, philosophy, or social context of schooling?

The poet Emily Dickinson in her poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant opens with the line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and she ends with the explanation “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”. T.S. Eliot, when asked about the value of poetry replied, “The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. I find that poetry is an effective way to introduce core ideas and concepts about teaching and schooling but in a way that is less direct, thus increasing the chance that students will incorporate or at least strongly consider the main points of the class. Poetry allows for the introduction of controversial or strong ideas but at a “slant” or like the burglar who brings a “bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. The poem opens up the learning heart of my students while temporarily distracting their academic mind. By starting class this way I find that my students are more likely to express their understanding of the text through fresh critical eyes instead of the voice of well-trained students trying to impress the professor.

How do I introduce poetry to my students? I initially tell them that poems are like a Rorschach test where the psychiatrist asks a patient to interpret an ink blot on a piece of folded paper. In my case, the poem invites their inner teacher to see or hear what they most need to understand about the poem as it connects with the text for the day. I make it clear that like a Rorschach test each student will likely hear or see something different in the poem. In a subtle but direct way this conveys the message that intellectual diversity is valued in our community of scholars. I pass out the poem and read it out loud (there is something about hearing a poem read by someone else that goes deeper into the space of meaning than reading a poem in silence). I hold a few minutes of silence for the deep meaning of the poem to sink into the deep learning spaces of my students. I break the silence with an invitation to share a word, image, or phrase that speaks to them about the link between the poem and the essence of the texts we read for the class.

For the next 10-15 minutes at least three things happen. One, I get a real time sense of how my students understood, in a truly personal and intellectual sense, the readings for the class session. Two, students get a chance, in a non-threatening way, to hear the different ways that their classmates connected to or made sense of the readings. Three, all of us (teacher and students) slow down and settle into the class period. In no way does poetry provide an escape from the rigor of engaging critical ideas but as Emily Dickinson argues: “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”.

November 25th, 2016 – This picture of a blackbird perched on a branch singing over a marsh of cattail reeds in the early morning hours of a new day is one my favorite images of teaching.  I invite you to take some time and look closely.  What are the signs of good teaching evident in this image?  What are the conditions of the environment that allow for the presence of good teaching to present itself for examination?  How would you begin to compare this male blackbird and his song to all the other males singing that day?  How might we use this image of a singing bird to talk about the ineffable or hidden qualities of good teaching?

First let me make an argument for the ineffable, that which we know exists but frequently can’t see; courage, passion and grit for instance.  One way bird lovers make distinctions between birds are their songs, each species has a signature melody.  But a song, like many aspects of good teaching can be heard but not seen, except when the right conditions bring the ineffable forward for examination.  In this image we can actually see the song of the blackbird in the exhaled breath.  Each curl, curve and break makes the unseen elements of the song present for inspection.

An important lesson in this image for anyone interested in the unseen aspects of teaching is the importance of the right conditions for the ineffable to materialize.  Externally, there must be a rising sun that back lights the scene, the temperature must be cold enough for the breath to condense into visible droplets, and the wind must be perfectly still or the notes will be distorted.  Internally, the bird must exhibit a certain confidence in his song, head back and throat full of commitment.  Additionally, without a compelling urge to sing the marsh will be quiet and the song of the blackbird will remain invisible.

What are some of the essential learnings that might help with ways of making the unseen or ineffable elements of teaching more evident and available for examination?  The first learning is that the right conditions, externally and internally, must be present. Only a teacher who is encouraged or supported by colleagues or school leaders will take the risk of singing while perched on an exposed branch.  Only a teacher with strong internal sense of calling to teach will throw her head back and in a full-throated way announce with authenticity her particular teaching style.

What might be at stake if we stop paying attention to the ineffable qualities of teaching?  The  graphic novel “Watchman” by DC Comics (2014) warns of the dangers of becoming too analytic in our studies of nature or teaching.  The narrator, whose superhero persona is an owl, muses on the danger of narrowing the investigative eye to only technical qualities when describing what makes a bird a bird:

“Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the under-feathers where the Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion.  When I was a boy, my passion was for owls. Somewhere over the years; some-place along the line my passion got lost, unwittingly refined from the original gleaming ore down to a banal and lusterless filing system.”

When it comes to describing good teaching we must look past the external qualities of “best practices” as defined by standards and accountability rubrics.  We must learn to un-see the world of teaching as solely a technical process that has the potential of de-evolving into “a banal and lusterless filing system”.  We must regain the passion and vision to see the mystery and magic of teaching that is only visible, although always present, on certain cold mornings in the face of a rising sun.


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