Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.

Unthinking Beauty

After decades of “rethinking” beauty, the Team of Real-world Utilitarian Educators (TRUE) has made a unanimous decision to unthink it altogether, to demand that all schools implement the unthinking without delay, and to hold a national conference on the subject.

“Beauty is all economically based,” said TRUE president Lelijk Jones. “I’ve seen fifteen-year-olds who can paint better than Jackson Pollock. But Jackson Pollock’s the one who gets into the museums. It has nothing to do with quality; it’s all about money. I know some would disagree with me and say Jackson Pollock is a great artist. That just proves my point. There’s no agreement here.”

“Also, beauty doesn’t get us to where we want to go,” said Amy Strela, a hedge-fund manager, multimillionaire philanthropist, and founder of TRUE. “Looking good is one thing. Striving for beauty is another—it takes too much time. We need our children to set specific, attainable, measurable goals for themselves. Beauty’s a big hindrance. It isn’t always specific. It’s only sometimes attainable, and it sure isn’t measurable.”

“I agree,” said Elise Verloren, a high school sophomore who had quit the piano in order to devote more time to résumé-building. “I used to spend a few hours a day practicing and listening to music. Then they told me at school that I wasn’t doing enough for my leadership skills or for my community. I started working on those things, but then it was painful to go back to the piano. So I decided to focus on the real-world stuff.”

“Ms. Verloren brings up an authentic problem,” said social psychologist Doug Polezny. “There is a socially based tension between social and aesthetic life demands. It’s important to choose one or the other, because it’s… well, because it is. Since we live in a high-needs world, everyone should serve the social demands, at least for now. Schools should emphasize them in all the subjects.  School districts should advertise the new emphasis. Research has shown that targeted communication relieves people of mental conflicts and results in an increase of the desired behavior.”

Some TRUE dissidents (members who quit after the resolution passed) object that utility and beauty are not mutually exclusive. “I grow vegetables and flowers in my garden,” said one, “and I have no plans to get rid of either. My garden shears are good for both.”

“In an ideal world with gardens, you might be able to have it both ways,” conceded President Jones. “But we’ve only got twenty-four hours in a day, and beauty has a way of stealing an awful lot of those hours, if you let it.”

The “Unthinking Beauty” conference will contain no mention of beauty whatsoever. Instead, presenters will demonstrate strictly useful curricula, lessons, and workplace setups. “We must stress that just because something isn’t beautiful, doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasing to the eye,” said conference planner Tad Neznam. “We like things that you like. The point is not to stop liking things; it’s to stop loving them. You can still be comfortable in your environment. We even encourage it, for productivity’s sake. In fact, we’re all about improving the colors in workplaces and hitting the research-proven noise level.”

In a world without the B-word, according to the TRUE resolution, there’s much more time to get things done. “Just imagine how many hours are gained when you give up Mahler’s symphonies, not to mention Moby-Dick,” said Strela, who plans to donate ten million dollars for the construction of the first national beauty-free library. “Even a Shakespeare sonnet takes up time that could be spent on something else. We’re not talking page numbers. We’re talking time.”

“These people need to read Dostoevsky,” said Jeremiah Porfiry, an outspoken tenth-grader.

“No time for that, especially if there’s any you-know-what in his novels,” replied Strela.

Pre-registration for Unthinking Beauty is now open; the cost is $2,500 per registrant, regardless of age. Registrants receive access to the VIP Room, admission to twelve speed networking events and three seminars, and a reserved seat in the state-of-the-art auditorium.

The Key to Creativity?

One must walk through much of life alone, but one also draws on the wisdom, experience, and practical assistance of others. Books (including literary, religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts) address many of our persistent questions. Their guidance has a place;  we would be stranded and parched without it. We seek out books not only for insight, but for help.

But if there’s a futile quest for assistance, it’s the quest for a “key” to creativity–some some way of life, some practice that others package up and that (supposedly) will release our creative powers. When I read articles about how to become more creative, I ask: why don’t people allow creativity its idiosyncrasy, and why do they covet creativity in the first place?

The answer to the second question seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to make something original, something that involves both imagination and skill? Who wouldn’t want to write a truly good poem, song, or play, or invent a needed (or utterly useless but amusing) device, or give a memorable speech? Who wouldn’t want to do this day after day? It sounds like the happiest possible life–making a contribution to art, literature, technology, and other fields.

But it is not entirely happy. If you think differently from others, if you see untried possibilities in the material before you, then you may find yourself questioning what other people take for granted. You may never feel that you “fit in.” Now, fitting in is not the most important thing in the world, but outsiderness takes courage and some sacrifice. You grow used to seeing things differently and verging, moment by moment, on offending others, hurting their feelings, and losing your place among them. (This sense of outsiderness is especially acute in a culture of group thinking and group “likes.”)

Moreover, a creative life takes time and work. You don’t just go around bubbling with ideas; you have to sit down and pull them off. This means setting aside blocks of time–time that could be spent with others, or at work, or in relaxation. If you have a job on top of that, and a family, you may end up with no time for pastimes and insufficient time for anything else. You may be continually torn between necessary things.

In addition, such a life has disappointments. One has ideas that don’t pan out or that, when brought to completion, are not as brilliant as they seemed. One comes to see flaws in one’s own work; very little of it ultimately seems good, even if others praise it. (In addition, good work often goes unrecognized.)

Now, many people involved in creative work (including myself) have accepted the demands and letdowns of such a life. They would not give it up permanently for anything (almost). I say “almost” because generalizations of this kind tend to prove false at some point.

That leads to the first question: why don’t people want to allow creativity its idiosyncrasy? In each person it takes a different form, and each person practices it in a different way. There are certainly good habits (such as regular practice), and conditions that can make those habits fruitful. But where one person may work best in a dim light, with no sound, another may prefer brightness and music in the room. One may work regularly, in the mornings; another may snatch time whenever it comes. Moreover, there are probably as many kinds of creativity as there are personalities; the creation of a sonnet is profoundly different from the creation of an advertisement, even though both work within constraints of time and space.

Thus I was puzzled last month to see a New York Times article suggesting that the buzz of a cafe can boost creativity. It cites a study in which subjects brainstormed product ideas with varying levels of background noise. Now, why would anyone equate “brainstorming” (especially of ideas for products) with creativity overall? Certain kinds of ideas may come more easily when there is a background hum–but that does not apply to all ideas, nor is idea generation the whole of creativity. Some writers spend part of their writing time in a cafe, among others, and part of it alone. Some prefer to spend all of their writing time alone (but take in conversations and sounds when out on a walk).

Granted, one can learn interesting things from such studies, if one puts them in proper perspective. Annie Murphy Paul cites and discusses a study (originally published in Creativity Research Journal) suggesting that those who show creativity are marked (in the interpretation of cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman) by “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression.” Paul speculates that these qualities may account for the “flaky artist” stereotype. An artist (or other seriously creative person) may be inherently “flaky” in that he or she works flexibly with a range of possibilities and projects.

Yes, I can see how that could be so. But an artist also needs a counterbalance to the flakiness in order to do anything well. The proportion of spontaneity and discipline will vary from person to person and from field to field. Some focus intensely on one project or idea at a time (but may toy with thousands of possibilities within it). Others may test out divergent projects until one takes hold. Some may stick to one medium throughout their lives; others may experiment wildly. Some may work assiduously on a project (and not touch any others) until it is complete; others may prefer to move back and forth between projects.

Where do creative ideas come from? Recently I wrote an essay about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works and ideas in interesting ways. I emphasized, though, that such a curriculum does not “produce” creativity (such as the student’s piece cited in the article), nor does creative work “result” directly from it. Creativity does not lend itself to mass production.

It’s difficult not to be intrigued by creativity. (I wouldn’t be reading articles about creativity if I were uninterested in the subject.) Many of us many have a speck of Dr. Faustus in us; we may want a secular devil, unaffiliated with hell, to sell us creative brilliance. or at least a sliver of it, in appealing wrapping. It would be a tantalizing offer. (This may explain why people don’t allow creativity its idiosyncrasy: they may hope to acquire it somehow.) There may even be something in such an offer–a helpful suggestion or insight, for instance. Artists (and other “creative” people) have a great deal in common–temperament, habits, interests, even pain–and can offer each other advice and understanding. Beyond these shared attributes, though, their distinctive trait is their ability, even when learning from others, to find their own way.

Note: I revised this piece (for flow and clarity) after posting it.

District Gives Students Teacher-Rating Gadgets

Benchmark, OH—In order to facilitate the accumulation of teacher data and to entice students into 21st-century technology use, Benchmark Unified School District has given out 35,000 teacher evaluation gadgets, equipped with skin conductance bracelets, to students in grades K-12. The leveled, adaptive software provides a user-friendly interface for real-time evaluation of teachers while the lesson is in progress.

“Nothing could be a greater boon for us right now,” said Superintendent Bret Elony, who recently signed a multi-million-dollar contract with Quicker Data, Inc., the creator of the software. “We need to know what kids think, but a great deal of the time, they’ve forgotten the lesson as soon as it’s over. So what could be better than to have a way for them to rate it on the spot?”

The software provides students with a series of animated “prompts” followed by multiple-choice (usually yes-or-no) answers. For instance, at the start of the lesson, a young character of adjustable race pops up and asks, “Is the aim on the board?” After the student responds with “yes” or “no,” a tiger or other animal (adapted to the student’s preferences) appears and asks: “Do you understand exactly what you are expected to learn today?” and then: “How close is this to what you want to be learning?”

The next questions pertain to the teacher’s appearance and organization: “Does the teacher have her papers in order? Does she have efficient routines for collection and distribution of student work?” The next questions have to do with the minilesson: “Are you happy with the length of the minilesson? Were you bored or confused at any point? Did the teacher provide you with enough information for your group work task?” (If there is no group work task, the student must select “n/a,” which will automatically trigger an administrator visit.

Over the course of the lesson, the skin conductance bracelet sends signals to the software, which translates them into “engagement” levels. “We didn’t want students to have to rate their own engagement while they were being engaged, or not,” said Elony. “That could get confusing.” If the overall engagement goes below a certain level, a red light goes on at the front of the room; if the engagement level is high, a green light goes on. An administrator passing by can easily spot these lights.

During the group work portion of the lesson, the animated characters (now butterflies and birds) ask questions such as, “Is the teacher moving around the room to help the various groups? Do you have the materials you need to complete your task? If you want to change your grouping, do you feel comfortable taking the initiative?

“I find this incredibly distracting,” complained Hecate Loomis, an eighth grader. “How am I supposed to get anything out of the lesson if I have to rate it every few seconds?” She was swiftly booed by a few others, who said they liked the software precisely for that reason.

“Class is a lot less boring now,” said her classmate Bob Tull. “Plus, for every three evaluations we complete, we get a free video game. I have better video games at home, but this is cool because I can play it during lunch.”

“And we’re generating data,” piped in Abby Lombardo. “We’ve been told that the more data we generate, the more we’ll be able to customize our own world.”

“That’s exactly the spirit,” affirmed a representative of Quicker Data, Inc. “While the main goal is to rate teachers swiftly, we’re all about customization. We’re helping to build a world where kids like everything they’re doing, all the time, where adults like their jobs, and where work gets done efficiently and pleasantly, with the help of pleasant cartoons.” Of course, he added, some teachers, students, and workers do not fit in with such a world; the software helps identify and remove them.

A few teachers have tried in vain to outwit the gadgets. One teacher rewired the lights at the front of the room so that the green light would always shine. A hidden camera filmed her in the act. Another teacher told her students to turn off the devices; she was fined (over ten thousand dollars, according to rumor) by both the school district and Quicker Data, Inc. Still others wrote letters of protest to the district; the superintendent’s reply reminded them that they needed to be open to change.

“This really is all about change, basically speaking” said Elony proudly. “We’re moving into a world where there isn’t time to think, where studies of the humanities and liberal arts are merely holding us back. We can’t keep holding onto the slow stuff. We need to get with it. Speaking of which, I know you have a lot of questions, but I’ve resolved ahead of time not to answer them. I have too much to do. Another contract is waiting to be signed.” He strode out of the room. Our questions (impostor ghosts) stayed behind; even after we left, they hung in waiting for a more inquisitive era.

Beware of Teachers Who Mesmerize

hypnosisFlatflower, NY—In a closed meeting on Saturday morning, District Superintendent Clautha Binhorn warned principals about teachers who  mesmerized not only their own students, but their evaluators. “There are more of them than you think,” she said, “and for that reason I urge you to keep your classroom observations short and to the point. Don’t get caught up in pre-observation conferences and that sort of thing, because that’s where the trickery festers.”

According to recent studies, teachers who met with principals before the observation received significantly higher ratings than those who did not. “This shows that the teachers put you under a spell,” said Binhorn. “They show you their lesson plan and start to explain it in sweet tones. They sound like they know what they’re talking about. Before you know it, you’ve been hoodwinked. You think you’re about to see a good lesson. Then, when you enter the classroom, you’re still possessed.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Reginald Stark, principal of Flatflower’s distinguished High School for Learning. “I’ve seen some lesson plans that raised questions in my mind. I’ve even seen a few that struck me as quite bad.”

“And then what did you do?” probed Binhorn. “I bet you gave the teacher a chance to improve, right? That’s all part of the trick. She comes to you with a better lesson plan, and you say, ‘wow, that’s much better.’ That’s where the trance begins.”

Binhorn then played a video of a mesmerized principal who watches a chaotic lesson (with chairs flying) and then walks dreamily to her office to type up a glowing evaluation and a rating of “highly effective.” “You see!” declared Binhorn proudly. “She isn’t in her right mind.” The next part of the video showed a flashback of the pre-observation conference, with the teacher saying, over and over, “this is a high-level geometry lesson, this is a high-level geometry lesson.”

“Who’s the principal in that video?” asked one of the participants.

“Oh, we hired someone for the film. We decided not to put a real principal on the spot. It might not go over too well with her staff. But you see the point, don’t you? We must not tolerate such conniving.”

Asked what could be done about these trance-inducing teachers, Binhorn started up her “action plan” slideshow. “The ideal solution,” she began, “would be simply to get rid of all teachers. Wouldn’t that be a dream! Then student achievement would finally rise to its natural heights. But that isn’t going to happen overnight. What we can do, though, is sharpen our own end of the proverbial pencil. Let them know we’re on to them. Short, snappy observations. Quick ratings. No explanations. No compromise. Ineffective, ineffective, ineffective!” Binhorn seemed on the brink of ecstatic abandon.

“And then what?”

“Well, we get rid of them one by one, until only the super-teachers remain. There’ll be a few of those. They won’t last long, though. They’ll find an easier job somewhere. Look at me! I’m not a teacher, and let me tell you, I wouldn’t be one today.”

“This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…” began Ellen Kedem, a principal known for her gentleness and wisdom (a word hardly spoken in Flatflower).

“It doesn’t have to make sense. Just look at the action plan and repeat after me. The first step is to remove your blinders! Get out your binders!”

“Remove your blinders! Get out your binders!” some of the principals chanted. Others stayed silent.

“The next step is to see things for what they are! Stop wishing upon a star!”

The same few principals chanted in response.

“The next step is to give reality a rating! Without waiting, without waiting!”

“Give reality a rating!” they shrieked.

“And now, all together, what is that rating? What rating has reality earned?”

“Ineffective! Ineffective! Ineffective!” Here the chorus grew, with some facetious tones mixed in.

Binhorn displayed her last slide. “There you have it,” she said, nodding approvingly at her disciples. “This is what we call the science of management. It doesn’t go for rhetoric. It sticks with the data. It assigns a number to that data, and translates that number into a word, which, as you said, is ‘ineffective,’ more often than not.”

“And here I was thinking I had seen some good lessons this year,” sighed a principal.

“The important thing,” replied Binhorn, “is that you have now rejected that illusion. You will leave this room immune to spells, trances, and other tricks. But before you leave, I have one more chant for us to say together.”

Gathering up their things, the principals waited for her next word.

“We’re here for success, not deceitfulness! Woot woot woot!”

A few principals mumbled the words grudgingly.

“No, for this activity, we’re going to use the Everybody Does It rule. Everybody now. This is your exit slip.”

The room chanted in unison. Upon leaving, each principal received a teddy bear and a copy of the rubric. The superintendent rated the session “highly effective”; after all, it had resulted in a universal chant.

A Different Way of Being with Others

Lately I have seen slews of articles about the need to teach “social-emotional” and so-called “non-cognitive” skills in school. According to many educators and theorists, schools should emphasize teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, communication, and all sorts of other social things. These arguments (or the ones I have seen) evade an essential point: that schools should give students a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

Many schools respond by making more room for social interaction. But such social interaction has the same pitfalls as regular teen interaction, unless it is elevated in some way—that is, founded on something compelling, such as a work of literature or a piece of music. In that case, the students come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions.

I dimly remember my eighth-grade English class, at a school I entered that year. Aside from a year in the Netherlands (when I was in sixth grade), it was the first time I was happy in school. We read The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie, and much more. Through the discussions, I came to know my classmates, and they me, in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial. There was still peer pressure and ostracism. Still, regular social life took second or third place to this other way of associating, which allowed strong friendships to form.

Some insist that group work in the classroom achieves the same end: it gives students a structure for their socializing. But group work often degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on. Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone). I have said this many times before, but it still needs to be said. Group work in itself has no inherent good. I know the sinking feeling of being asked to “turn and talk,” or to pick up my things and go join a group to fill out some chart. Why not stay put and think for a few minutes? Why not discuss a question in full forum?

Proponents of group work often assume that the students are better off without the teacher. If  a teacher leads a discussion, that’s fine, they say, but it’s even better if the students take charge. I am not at all opposed to student-led discussion; rather, I find that it requires long-term preparation. A teacher, having perspective on a subject, can draw out ideas that students might not recognize as worthy. She can help raise the level of the dialogue. Once they have seen this happen (many times), they understand what it is. It has little or nothing to do with “Accountable Talk” or other formulaic kinds of discussion. It has a great deal to do with listening closely (to the comments and the subject matter) and giving the ideas honor, direction, and perspective.

What about the idea of the school as a “team”? Well, teamwork has its place, but again, it is not transcendent or even good in itself. Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. The solitary and communal aspects of learning are closely related; they find their shape through the endeavor itself. Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

There is no denying the social aspect of schools. If coming together in a building and a room were not important, then there would be little need for schools in the first place. One could rely on computerized instruction, tutoring, and other services. Still, schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Teaching, Reserve, and Listening

When you go into teaching, you confront yourself. You see your own weaknesses and subject yourself to others’ judgment. You have to adjust your actions, moment to moment, and yet stay strong. To do any of this well, you need a sturdy place in your life where you do not need to prove or explain yourself. You must keep a good portion of your life in reserve.

Of course, this need varies from person to person. There are teachers who live for their work, year in, year out. They seem content, even though they do little outside of school. Others plunge into their work for a few years and then move on to something else. Still others try from the start to protect their lives, with varying degrees of success. A few stay detached all along; they have no difficulty putting their work aside at the end of the day, or even before.

No matter what a teacher’s relation to her work, she will be asked to do more and more. Teachers are expected not only to plan and deliver lessons, but also to document every aspect of their work, take part in community and professional activities, attend numerous meetings, gather and analyze “data,” perform other assigned duties, shift duties unexpectedly, and be available after hours. These numerous tasks crowd out the basic responsibility of a teacher: namely, to teach well and then go home.

What does it mean to teach well? It takes many different forms, but it consists of bringing student and subject matter closer together. This carries three basic risks: the risk of failure (where the student doesn’t understand or doesn’t take interest in the subject), the risk of success (where the student doesn’t need you any more—temporarily or permanently), and the risk of ambiguity (where it isn’t entirely clear whether you have succeeded or failed). All three can be painful; it takes strength to contend with them.

Where does this strength come from? Not out of exhaustion or out of a hectic day. Not out of “turn-and-talk” activities or the Common Core Standards. To face the daily failures, successes, and ambiguities of teaching, one needs intellect and humanity—that is, a full life. Some may find this in literature, some in religion. Some may have it  in their families. Some may find it when carving wood. This is where “going home” comes in; a teacher must have a separate existence, not just a rushed break now and then.

You don’t show your full humanity in the classroom, but it is there nonetheless. Within a single lesson you may have clumsiness and grace, patience and impatience, accuracy and error, alertness and abstraction, and more and more; these combinations and permutations affect how things go. Of course, they don’t fully control the course of events; the subject matter has its own ways, and students bring a great deal of their own. Nonetheless, there’s motion along a precipice. There’s a sense of fate and flexibility at once; you bring your knowledge and character to the table (and can’t change them once you’re there) but still adjust to the company and room.

This sounds exhausting, someone might say. Why would someone put herself on the line, day after day? Well, it’s a joyous undertaking, if it doesn’t break you. That takes us back to the beginning: a teacher must have a stronghold. Yet a stronghold isn’t enough. A teacher must also have the students’ basic attention.

Today it is more or less assumed that a teacher must fight for attention—that she must employ all sorts of “strategies” to get the students to listen, even at the outset of the lesson. But what if it could be assumed? What if our society understood it not only as a courtesy, but also as a foundation for learning and creativity?

A student who listens (and who doesn’t disrupt class) is building intellectual patience and flexibility. The teacher, for her own part, has room to introduce complex topics without rushing to quick conclusions. In addition, she has room to listen to the students and draw out their ideas.

Such listening also allows teachers and students their flaws and strengths. A lesson should not be sloppy—but an imperfection need not tip the room into chaos. To listen to another is to allow for foibles, both in the speaker and in oneself.

In listening there is an underlying dignity. I listen to you because you don’t have to prove yourself worthy, nor do I. Listening, like all attention, is imperfect; we rarely take in fully what we hear. We often don’t have time or energy to listen to others—so those places of listening, such as the classroom, need honor and protection.

My most exhausting days of teaching (since I began in the public schools in 2005) were not the longest days, or the days with the most work, but rather the days when I couldn’t finish a sentence because of the interruptions. The breaking of the sentences left me, well, not quite broken, but more like a creaky house, where every step causes a plank to groan.

It takes years to build listening. It starts in the cradle, when we first listen to stories and start noticing their patterns and rhythms. Later we learn to listen to things that (unfortunately) don’t have much of a lilt. Listening isn’t always beneficial; sometimes one has to stop listening, for one’s own good and that of others. There are rants and bad songs that I really don’t need in my mind—but there are also things that surprise me (in both directions).

Students will challenge authority, no matter what, but there’s more for them to challenge if they know what the lesson holds. The most serious challenges come from students who have been listening; these challenges enrich the lesson and the course.

How great it would be if teachers and students could assume a certain level of listening, instead of having to earn it.  What calm and liveliness this would bring to the work. The teacher’s separate life would have inherent protection, since the classroom, being intact, would have its beginning and end.

Note: I temporarily deleted this post and then restored it (with two minor edits). I apologize for any confusion.

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