Thursday, January 23, 2014

Educate with Trust in Mind

In the dead of winter, revisiting the Summer Institute.

July, 2013
I have just walked the promenade on the east side of the Johnson Center on the George Mason campus.  Where is the crepe myrtle, I wonder?  

Ah, there, behind the maples which now shade the entire walkway. 

Fourteen years ago these maples were mere afterthought, and the crepe myrtle stunned the brick walls and bare sidewalk with their variety and fecundity.  Now I can barely find them.  I remember watching them flame into color and then ebb as I dashed each morning from my parking spot, surprised to find a bit of the beach and the various shades of myrtle in the land of concrete.

The maple trees remind me that fourteen years is a long time, long enough for saplings to crowd out the salmon, pink, and white bushes and darken the sidewalk with thick shade on a cloudy morning.

In my July—in 1998—the Northern Virginia Writing Project Summer Institute quickened my teaching into a life of inquiry, a place where classrooms could be home to my learning as well as my students’.  And returning to this campus has always rekindled my energy and my focus on teaching as a puzzle in human enterprise.  I like the puzzle.  It’s interesting.

And yet, it seems that I must continually learn my lessons over and over again.  Here in this space, where we have the luxury of time, we build a fire of conviction fed by the sparks created when minds rub up against one another.  The fire will burn through the next school year and, hopefully, I won’t forget what it is that students need, as opposed to what we hand them.  There are plenty of buckets of water waiting to douse the flame. 

What do they need?  They need to be invited to take hold of their own education just as I was invited to take hold of mine.  Things seem better, richer when teachers are merely setting the sail and not steering the craft.  For a teacher, that means providing choice, time, tools, the thing-you-need-to-know-when-you-need-to-know-it, and the chance to continue on a journey in the company of someone who is willing to celebrate along the way.

But all that is old news. What have I learned this time, in this new and different, and yet oddly the same Summer Institute? 

I’m a slow learner, and I like to keep things simple.  So this year I will take just one small thing into the storm.

This year, I choose trust. 

The basis for most learning lies in trust, but we supply it in miserable quantity. 

Trust first that we can be engaged in our own growth.  Trust that our students and our peers already bring experiences we can learn from.  Trust that there can be gain from taking what the others offer. Trust that none of us learn until we have had the chance to go inside an idea and walk around a bit. Trust that the outcome of that experience is unpredictable, startling, unique, and entirely human.  Trust that the blank page will be filled.  Trust that waiting will bring an answer.

I would like to think that after fourteen years I am fourteen-years wiser, but that would be a lie. 

Teaching is complex and intellectual and frustrating and exciting and best done in the company of those who are in on the fun.  Surround yourself with those who grapple, wrestle, dance, sing, write, draw, run with ideas and you will never feel “wise”—just childlike in the face of that endless pursuit of the next best thing.

If you do it right, those people could be your students.

Trust in that.

*Written in the Summer of 2013 as a final Position paper to my final George Mason Summer Institute.

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