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.

If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Like many twenty-somethings fresh out of undergrad, I landed in a position that felt more like a career than not, but certainly didn’t fulfill an all-encompassing life purpose. I was simply happy to be working in a position I enjoyed, not thinking too much about the next steps in my career path. I was fortunate to develop experience as a sales manager with a large and reputable company, which would later prove to be invaluable in my career change. But, as I eventually realized that particular job was not going to lead to a place of lasting interest to me, I had to decide how I was going to use the skills I had gained to work my way toward something more fulfilling.

A part time position at a public library lead me to discover something about myself. Whether it would be in libraries or another type of organization, I knew that I needed to pursue something that felt purposeful to me.

I decided it was important to obtain a Library Information Science degree, which would provide me with a basis of knowledge for a library position. I didn’t have a great deal of experience working in libraries, and felt that this would help prepare me for the type of work I was excited to begin doing.

I applied to a handful of LIS programs, and at the top of my list was the University of Denver and Morgridge College of Education’s LIS program. I wanted to be in Colorado if possible, and I wanted a program that would offer an in-person academic experience. Networking and learning from professionals face to face was one of my priorities, and DU delivered.

I was able to learn from many different professionals working in the field locally. The in-person program provided me with a variety of hands-on, practical experiences that boosted my knowledge and local support system. I graduated with my MLIS and a job in public libraries at the end of 2 years. And, during that time, I discovered a particular interest within libraries and non-profits I wouldn’t have known existed without going through the LIS program within Morgridge.

With the many opportunities the program led to, I discovered evaluation, analysis, and assessment in libraries and non-profits. The work is an excellent match to my passion that was there before I even knew what to do with it. While completing the LIS program, I became familiar with the Research Methods and Statistics program in MCE, and it proved to be the perfect avenue to continue my studies and deepen my focus in my chosen field. I’m completing my first year in the RMS doctorate program now, while continuing to work in public libraries, which will inform my work in research to come.

The faculty in MCE have been continuously supportive and steadfast in assisting me in reaching my goals. I’m continually challenged to think about my path, the steps I’m taking to get there, and how this is fulfilling my goal and professional purpose. My time working on my graduate studies at MCE has certainly shaped me as a professional, as an individual, as well as a seeker of education. Community and education is the thread of passion that links all MCE graduate students together. I’ve discovered that, as varied as our careers and interests are, our common goal is to do meaningful work in our fields.

 


Copyright © 2018 University of Denver. | All rights reserved. | The University of Denver is an equal opportunity affirmative action institution
X
MENU