Thursday, December 2, 2021

Soulful Education

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.    

-      Leonard Cohen: Anthem


                                         … Wrens make their nest of fancy threads and string ends, animals

                                        abandon all their money each year. 

                                       What is it that men and women leave?

                                       Harder than wren’s doing, they have to 

                                     abandon their longing for the perfect…


-      Robert Bly: Listening to the Kohn Concert


Everything I value about my work as an educator came from this simple fact:


I was a kid who hated school and became a teacher. 


Meaning I was determined to find a better way to do this. Recognizing that children gathering each day for 12 to 15 years is an extraordinary opportunity,  I took seriously the thought that there’s not a minute to waste. Any moment in a class that is not playful, not deadly serious, not an opportunity to discover something worthy about the world, about ourselves and about each other, is squandering the beautiful possibilities life and learning offer us. 


I walked with a wise and seasoned teacher colleague the other day and she was lamenting that the teachers she was mentoring in a program had to spend so much time filling out forms— and so did she. Those lists made up by people in offices who haven’t sat on the floor with actual children in circle time for a long time— and some perhaps never— that are the adult fantasy of the perfect lesson, with all the checkpoints of clearly stated objectives, social-emotional bullet points, differentiated education strategies, culturally responsive curriculums, as if teaching were a shopping list and mentoring a judgement of whether the teacher fulfilled the perfect lesson. The whole glory of awakening young souls to beauty and wonder and possibility, the whole messy and artful craft of inviting delicate whispers and exuberant shouts into the venture, the deep necessity of a mentor watching the teacher and their posture and gesture and voice and attention and connection and exuberance and passion and love, the need for the teacher to watch for the same in the student, is now reduced to ticking off pre-packaged standards that can be discussed in a bland voice. Like people walking through an exquisite and elaborate forest with their heads buried in their phones, teachers are missing what’s important and administrators are now hell-bent on requiring them to do so. 


I would like to give a lecture someday (to adults only) on education as lovemaking, but in today’s climate, would probably get arrested. Of course, it’s an inappropriate metaphor taken literally and especially when talking about children (though Eros himself, the god of the erotic, was depicted as a chubby little child). But the principles of good lovemaking apply equally to cooking, jazz improvisation and teaching. Think how discouraging, debilitating, discouraging and deflating (perhaps literally!) it would be to have a standard of perfect lovemaking with a list to check off, each objective clearly stated before proceeding, everything timed according to a precise schedule and then graded at the end. With the grades publicly posted. 


Instead, good lovemaking (and cooking and jazz) is a dance, a conversation, an improvisation, a sensitively attuned call and response, a playful exploration and experimentation. No two are alike. And it is at its best when love enters the picture. The ancient Greek’s first concept of Eros was as a fundamental agent in the formation of the world, using the uniting power of love, to bring order and harmony among the conflicting elements of Chaos. That’s not a bad Mission Statement for education. 


Instead we have the fantasy of The Perfect Lesson and the wasting of teacher’s and student’s precious time trying to enforce its implementation. It’s leaking in everywhere, even into the so-called “enlightened circles” of progressive education. Stay tuned for Part II— how to recognize it and why it’s harmful. Then Part III— some concrete examples of the power of the imperfect lesson, the one that’s vulnerable enough to let the light through the crack, the one that gathers strings and threads and forms a beautiful nest through some mysterious intuitive instinct to house the eggs of the life to come.


1 comment:

  1. Wow! This comment section has never worked before! But yes to all you say. When I began at the school in 1975, tuition was under $1000 a year and we attracted gardeners, artists living in lofts, teachers, plumbers, etc., mostly middle class folks willing to spend that affordable tuition on their kids. Like all such private schools in the city, administration grew from 2 people to 25 people and the tuition slowly skyrocketed. And hence, the parent clientele. Miraculously, there still is some vestige of the old hippy spirit alive and a generous scholarship program in the Middle School, but you're right that good education is a birthright of every citizen. The best I can say is that we've used privilege responsibly by using our independence to create a model of what education can be and the best of what we are has nothing to do with money or fancy equipment— simply passionate teachers allowed to teach to the edge of their craft unencumbered, something every school should consider and every child benefit from. Thanks for your thoughts.


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