Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Toast To My Parents’ 50th

Years ago, long before my own marriage and the advent of my family, I posed a question to my father. I was twenty-something, full with the prospects of those potent years, and looking ahead – though not without some concern for, as I put it, “the direction the world was going.” At the time, I was imagining all of the usual stuff: a wife, kids – creating a family for myself in my own family’s image. But the world had just bested 6 billion humans and I queued with a kind of youthful idealism on overpopulation as my chief anxiety.

As it seemed to me, and as I explained to my father one night after dinner, there wasn’t enough space for all of the people who were already here. How could I, in good conscience, consider starting a family and adding a few more hungry bodies to the planet? They would just eat up more of our food, breathe up more of our air, produce more waste. Why would I add to the burden, the overcrowding, the misery of the world?

My father regarded me for a moment – perhaps he was considering where to begin or how to explain what he wished had been more obvious to me. After a moment he said, “You know, raising a family is everything. It is what humans do. If you don’t have kids you are not even in the game.” It was one of the best – and most straightforward – pieces of advice my father has ever given me.

My own marriage is 15 years old now and continues to be the most pleasing endeavor of my life. I have three beloved children and a daily sense that I am fully – often too fully – in the game. And I feel that I owe more than I know or can name to the example set by my parents. Like the concentric rings on the surface of a pond that begin with an event, a fish rising or a stone thrown, and expand and grow more subtle by the moment, until eventually they encompass, invisibly, the entire body of water, I am nurtured and moved by the long and continuing collaboration of two people who made the decision to marry 50 years ago. It is an enduring legacy, evidenced by me and my brothers and our families. We are all ripples in the pond.

With this I honor my parent’s 50 years of love and marriage, perseverance and compassion, challenge and growth. Thanks for the example and for encouraging me to get in the game.

Worldly Acolyte

All my life I have been collecting things. Some of my earliest memories of what it felt like to be me are of gathering and pondering families of similar stuff.  I felt, somehow, and still do, truth be told, that in collections of similar things, even in the act of collecting them, there was something true to be found.  And it wasn’t materialism, far from it; mine was not nearly so sterile a practice, and I didn’t covet, although I have certainly fallen ill to that green affliction from time to time.

The commonplace things I gathered were not for wealth or status, not for show, and I had a hard time explaining to people, when they noticed, why I had a pocketful of stones.  Or an arsenal of carefully carved wooden staves that had been covertly harvested from neighbors’ yards.  Or a varied display of locks I had picked up here and there when they had come within reach. I once found a large ring of tarnished and corroded keys mislaid in the woods around my childhood home.  There were dozens of them.  I felt I had struck it rich.

My father, an architect, once brought home an impressive collection of outdated Formica samples.  Hundreds of them.  Magical tiles, already arranged by color or texture on a silver beaded chain.  “No one – no one in the world has this!” I thought.

It was like praying.  The youthful devotion of a secular acolyte to worldly phenomena.  I hunted the value latent in everyday things.

I see the same affinity in my own children, though the expression of it is quite naturally individualized in each of them.  My son, in particular, likes to collect special things in his pockets.  Rocks, significant Lego pieces, at one time Pokemon characters, but he has grown beyond those now.  I sense he is not so fickle as I, a quality that will serve him well in life.  Whereas I remember gathering a new category almost daily, he likes to hold on to things over time.  He is slow to change and quick to appreciate and understand the essential worth of a worthless thing.

His bedroom is perpetually a mess, as you might imagine, but it is nearly impossible to dispose of  any clutter.  Because it is not clutter.  Everything is special, magical, of incalculable worth – and sometimes of hidden, perhaps ineffable value, which I find frustrating beyond end.  I confess I fantasize of one day stripping the place when he isn’t looking, though I know it will never happen.  I could never do it.  It would be like pulling a hermit crab from its shell.

He knows as well as I, there is truth to be found in collections of everyday things and in keeping what you find.

Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?

 

These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.

Cognitive Flash Flood

Sometimes there is so much to say, so much to write.  I get caught in moments like that, like a flash flood in the desert, when the days of desiccation give way in an uncontrollable flow of ideas, connections, and indelible truths.  Everything seems relevant, germane, and interconnected.  In those moments, my mind swells and I think there isn’t time enough to say it all, to write it all, to live it all.  (I carry a notepad around with me, one of various accoutrements that seem crucial to have within reach at any given moment because who knows when the flood will inundate me, and memory is an imperfect tool.)

If I don’t scribble a frantic note down in the moment of thinking it, I fear (and trust) it will be lost forever.  And how often I have been right!  How disconcerting it is to remember the feeling of inspiration but not the spark of it later, the effect but not the cause.  It is a study in brain function, really: emotions are lodged more durably (or more simply, or more easily accessed, who can say?) than facts.  Details are simply cues for emotional reaction, which spur the brain to motivate the body to act.  So, it is right and proper from a biological perspective that the feeling of an event be remembered (or recalled, really) more easily than the details, because it is feeling upon which we act.

And in that way we understand sensations like déjà vu, which are not visitations from some other realm.  They are the brain and its natural functioning, remembering a feeling more than the details which sparked it.  Like so much in the brain, déjà vu is an incomplete memory, a sensation seemingly without causal precedent – which is not to limit the wonder of the brain or to relegate its profound mystery to mere science.  In fact, understanding a portion of the intricacies of the brain, and that such wondrous phenomena as dreams, memory, learning, and the holy grail of neuroscience, consciousness are human capacities and not supernatural makes human beings and the human brain all the more astonishing.  These fantastical abilities are us!  We are what astonishes us.  There is nothing more amazing in the universe than the human brain – and that is what I find a few turns of the screw more astonishing than déjà vu or even the fact that nightmares are a common human experience.  What I find truly mind-bending is the fact that astonishment is experienced in the brain: our own brains astonish themselves!  Illeism at its best.

In the short-lived moments of cognitive flood, writing becomes a process of elimination, an uncovering, an act not of adding words, but of taking them away.  It is a simplification, an untangling to lay bare an idea that exists plainly and simply, regardless of words or thoughts or even human brains. Like the sculptor of marble who sees the image, fully formed, in its own terms, inside the stone and simply labors to remove the unnecessary material.  Writing, too, is about removing the unnecessary material.

The Song of the Coyote

Almost every night I hear coyotes.  Their voices rise in cacophony and mayhem from the hill across the valley, the one my kids call “the horse hill.”  It is the song of a pair I hear most often, but the rollick and ruckus they make gives the impression of many more animals.  Sometimes, as it happened tonight, a lone voice comes faintly, drifting on the air from much further afield, from far points unknown in the open space that surrounds our home.  Somewhere, out there, on some indistinct, grassy vantage a sole coyote pauses to recognize the stars with his birthright sound that carries across space like the voice of the night itself.

On rare occasions, a yip and bark from one direction will stir a response from another.  At times, I have heard coyotes calling in three directions.  My head cranes from one tilt to another as I  strain to direct my listening to filter the voice of an individual animal, but it is no good.  I am surrounded.  In those moments the opaque hills matted against the blue-black sky become coyote rich, and I know who has dominion.  In those moments, there is no doubt.  I am naked, blind in the dark, nearly deaf with my human hearing, and nose-mute.  This is coyote country and I am a clumsy guest.

In my community a rumor flourishes.  It is believed and passed on in street side conversations as truth that the rousing concerts of yips and barks we hear in the night are the death knells of neighborhood house cats.  One of my neighbors said to me, our cocktail repartee interrupted by the rumpus of coyotes, “Yep.  Got another one.”  The mythology of monsters is fertile, not easily debunked.  I don’t know if the story of the violent end to house cats is true, but I suspect not.  There just aren’t enough cats.

I do suspect mythology though.  The barks and howls as they erupt in the night do sound triumphant, as though a pack had perpetrated an act and gotten away with it.  The fact is coyotes almost never travel in packs.  They are solitary or mated or sometimes triune.  I have never seen four at once.  The apocrypha of the pack is a function of what we think we hear when the song of the coyote whips up in the dark, maybe from a couple of directions, and we begin to feel vulnerable, surrounded, an easy mark in the night.  “There must be dozens of them!”  No.  Just a pair.  Maybe a third lone comrade miles away.

But it is a human feature to interpret what we experience, to look for patterns, to attempt to understand.  A human feature, perhaps an evolutionary advantage, but it is a foible to understand what we experience only in human terms.  The song of the coyote is triumphant, I suspect, only to us.  But is that enough?  Is the perception of triumph enough for us to create the myth of the cat’s bane?  Not quite.  An enduring myth requires a shred of truth, a germinative seed of fact from which to grow.  I think it likely, nigh unto certain, that in the course of natural events it has come to pass that an errant cat has run afoul of a coyote in the night and has failed to return home by morning.  I am sure it has happened, and yet I know that more cats meet their fates under car tires or at the claws and teeth of neighborhood dogs than of coyotes.  Even so, the myth is created from a shred of truth and a human perception.  Every time the coyotes howl, a cat has met an untimely end.  Murder most foul, we cry.

Despite my desire and effort to understand nature not just in human terms, I don’t have compassion for coyotes, and I believe that coyotes and humans should not occupy the same spaces at that same time.  That is to say, humans and coyotes must share habitat, but not concurrently.  Compassion is a human emotion, a human construct.  A coyote, if it needed to and if it had the opportunity, would do me in without thought of compassion, understanding, or sharing habitat.  It would act in accordance with ancient directives that were issued by an indifferent universe.  Maybe we all do.  After all, I do carry a sturdy stick when I walk in the hills with my family.

I don’t set myself against the coyotes that run in the open space around our home, but I don’t call them cute, either.  They are not beautiful, not majestic, not wily, and not smart.  These are all words we tend to use in reference to nature but they are human words, and in the end they misinterpret.  In the end, to understand and to interpret in solely human terms is to underestimate what is more than merely human.  When you realize that a coyote is responding to ancient directives issued by an indifferent universe, it becomes simply inappropriate, a misapprehension to label a coyote “crafty.”  They are not crafty.  They are what they are, but craft as we humans coined the term has nothing to do with it.

What language should we use then?  Now we are getting somewhere.  That is a good question and I don’t know.  A language older than words, perhaps.

The feeling I have for coyotes is awe – but it is the kind of awe one has for a jealous and unpredictable god.  It is not admiration I have for coyotes; it is uncertainty.

I was standing in the grass around midday a few weeks ago.  I happened to be checking my hives, so I was suited up in white and my scent was heavily masked with smoke and smears of honey.  First, I heard the rustle of leaves in the oak woods below me and then I saw the coyote emerge, head down, from the stand of oaks.  He came right up the hill toward me, oblivious of me, in the tall grass so that he disappeared sometimes in the grass and then reappeared in a different place further on.  I stood still, then glanced around for a weapon.  I found none, thought I probably wouldn’t need it, anyway.  I was caught in the tension of opposite pulls.  I wanted to see this coyote up close and so I stood still, hoping not to be noticed.  But I also had the urge to shout and to maintain the distance between us, which at this point was no more than thirty feet.  When humans and wildlife meet, it is always bad for the wildlife eventually.

The coyote came up the hill perhaps ten feet closer before it lifted its head and saw me.  It became aware of me without fear and without startle.  It didn’t jump.  It simply and gracefully, seamlessly, changed its course.  I saw it register me and the field of its vision moved right on past me as it swept its head downhill and took a bound over some tall grasses, disappearing into a stand of bays almost immediately.  I had not had time to move.

Standing there, hive tool and smoker in hand, I watched for it, but I saw almost nothing, only some grasses that moved out of synch with the wind.  Then, moments later, far across the face of the hill and moving up the valley I saw the coyote emerge onto a prominent hillock and regard me where I still stood.  I felt again that fleeting thrill of contact, man and wildlife, that tempting delusion that animal and human might share a connection in this moment of mutual recognition.  Alas, I was again humbled and abashed and aware of the human foible of wanting to understand the world in only human terms when the animal took not  a moment’s pause in looking my direction.  It moved on out of view as quickly as it had turned, giving me no notice, only the briefest of glances.  I knew I was nothing to it, less than nothing at this distance – only a vague reference in an ancient directive issued by an indifferent universe.  It wasn’t curious or compassionate or interested in connecting.  It was hunting for food.

Here is an article from The New York Times on July 2, 2010.  It describes a couple of recent incidents involving coyotes and humans and what the NYPD is trying to do about them.  Give it some thought.  In my community we have not yet had an attack, but can it be far off?