Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm Back... Almost

Well, I'm back in the world. The retreat took me a little further away and took me a little bit longer to get back from than I had anticipated it would. There were a lot of different activities, somewhat loosely connected, and some of them had more immediate and more structured opportunities for reflection and processing than others, so I when I got back, and even now, a day later, I feel a little at sixes and sevens. There are a lot of random ideas rocketing around in my head, and I've been resisting the urge to settle them down lay them out in a line as I am about to do with at least a few of them. But tomorrow I'll be back to the routine of work and classes, and this will all begin to fade, so I guess if I'm ever going to try to put this into context, it's going to have to be now.

Twenty-three of us made the trip out to the Makaha Inn by bus. The first morning activity on Friday, after the introductions, was a storytelling workshop. Our workshop leader, Tim, told us a story from his life as a student, and then asked us to use that as a trigger to write about a story from our own life. He had a line I liked that went "I've heard it said that we remember what we want to forget and we forget what we want to remember; but I'm asking you to remember something you want to remember." Then we shared our stories, first in pairs, and then those who felt the urge were encouraged to share the stories with the whole group.

Then junior school principal Mike Walker shared a story about a time early in his life when he was a camp counselor and got to work with a student who didn't talk much, but who turned out to be a very good listener. Mike's observation was that his experience with this boy was what first gave him the idea that he might want to be a teacher. Mike quoted a mentor of his own who had told him that sometimes "the best thing you can do is listen," and he sort of unpacked the idea that good listeners are what make good teachers, as well as the other way around.

Then Tim read us a story by Shirley Jackson called "Charles," which I had heard before but enjoyed hearing in this context; and we were asked to think of a story from our life in school, and to share that.

After a break, we were taken outside and asked to do an exercise called "The Air Traffic Controller Game." Three volunteers—I was one of them—were asked to stand on a platform alongside a field. Everyone else was either blindfolded or asked to keep their eyes shut, and they were lined up at the other end of the field. The goal of the game was for everyone to walk across the field to where we were without bumping into someone else. The traffic controllers had to shout out instructions to those who were walking into a problem and get them straightened out. So it was a sort of experiment in trust, and paying attention, and hollering instructions that were clear and effective.

The actual exercise took only about five minutes, and seemed to go well; it was only afterward that the traffic controllers were mortified to hear that we had "lost" two of our aircraft, who bumped into each other early on and were therefore disqualified. We went back inside and were asked to write/reflect for a while about the game as a metaphor for teaching. I found myself thinking about how much of my job consists of saying to students, in one way or another, you need to slow down, you need to speed up, you need to change direction. And about the satisfaction that arises when a student arrives home, and the anguish when one of them doesn't make it. Those failures often loom much larger in our consciousness than the successes.

That got me thinking about something that stuck with me from a number of years ago when I went to the David Mallery workshop in Philadelphia, and one of the presenters there was educational psychologist Robert Evans. I remember that he spoke to us about a condition common among teachers and clergy and medical workers he called "The Scarlet G," which stands for guilt. He pointed out that is in the nature of the teaching professions that we feel an outsized sense of responsibility when one of our charges fails. Sometimes it's our fault; sometimes it's clearly not, but that doesn't seem to matter. We beat ourselves up anyway, and the scarlet G starts flashing. His recommendation was to take two file cards. On one card he said to make a list of three or four of the things that we do well and take pride in. On the other card he said to make a list of three or four things we don't do well or obsess about. Then he said, take the first card and pin it up over your desk where you see it every day. And take the other card and put it under a pile of stuff and forget about it.

The theme for the afternoon was "Teachers and Students at the Movies." Academy principal Kevin Conway share one of his favorite clips from "It's a Wonderful Life," the point at which George Bailey, after questioning how the world would have been different if he had never been born, comes to the realizaton that he's "the richest man in town," which Kevin saw as an analogue for our status as teachers.

Then we watched a 45-minute compilation of scenes from a whole bunch of classic teacher movies: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dead Poet's Scoety, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, To Sir With Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Mr. Holland's Opus, The Music of the Heart, Stand and Deliver, and so on, followed by a brief informal discussion period. What I found myself reflecting on was how, with the exception of Stand and Deliver, which I admire, almost every other movie on the list, and almost every movie I've seen about teaching, including, most recently, Take the Lead and Freedom Writers, distorts teaching and learning by means either of satire or of romanticism. I had not seen a movie that struck me as being a truly accurate representation of the reality of teaching as I understand it.

That hole in my movie-watching background was filled up after the break when we all came back to watch the French documentary To Be and to Have, which focuses on one year in the life of Georges Lopez and his students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. We were warned in advance that it is a slow-paced movie, and it is, but it is slow-moving in a very patient, thoughtful, alert way, and is thus an almost exact stylistic match for Georges Lopez himself, who is the Very Model of the Teacher as I have come to understand the term. The movie pulled together a lot of threads from the day: about storytelling, about listening, about the richness of teaching and of the time we share with students. If you have not seen this movie, I strongly recommend it.

The rest of the afternoon was given over to exercise and talking story and food. I played tennis for the first time in ten years, fully aware that since I can no longer run (arthritis) I would be successful if only I could get through the hour of doubles without injuring myself. The score, thanks to my ineptitude, was 0-6, 1-6, but, surprisingly, with liberal applications of ice and a large dose of Celebrex I found I could still walk on Saturday morning. Mission accomplished.

Saturday morning school president Jim Scott led us in a reflection on the Teacher as a Whole Person. He had us draw a timeline for our teaching lives and divide into segments representing chapters in our teaching lives. He told us the story of his journey as a teacher and administrator, and helped us to think though our own answers to the classic questions: where we have been, where we are, where we're going. I was really impressed that Jim took the time to be there with us, and modeled so effectively the kind of reflective practice the retreat was encouraging us to engage in.

Then Tim led us through the final exercise, which was a variation on an activity he has his students do. It's called the stereotype activity. He started by passing around a whole bunch of papers, on each of which was written in large bold letters a single word or phrase: male, female, high school teacher, liberal, Jewish, Chinese, 30-40 years old, etc. We were each given several papers and told to write down a word or phrase that would describe a stereotype—positive or negative—associated with what was written on the paper, and then pass the paper to the left. Eventually we all wrote something on all the papers. The the papers were posted on the walls around the room, and we went through a three step process. The first step was to write a description of ourselves, starting with our name, using the words in bold that were accurate. So mine read: I am Bruce. I am a high school teacher, an over-sixty Caucasian male, and a liberal." We then each had to read our self-description out loud, and when we were finished, the group responded by saying out loud, en masse, "Hello, (name)." The second step in the process was to stand up, go to each of the papers that applied to us, write down a random sampling of the stereotypical attributes listed on the paper, and then put them together into a description of ourselves that would fit with the stereotypes that people might have of us. We read those out loud as well. The final part of the exercise was to write a description of ourselves as we actually see ourselves. We read those out loud as well, and this time, our audience was asked to applaud. Mine read like this"

Yeah, I know, kind of corny. But also pretty effective and pretty thought-provoking. What Tim talked about afterward a little, and what I found myself thinking about a lot subsequently, is how really none of those descriptions, even the ones we write for ourselves, is adequate. Just as what I am now writing is in no way an adequate representation of even a tiny fraction of what was going on during those two days. There are things I can't write about even if I wanted to, and others I can't even get to hold still long enough to snag them as they go by. All writing is reductive; all speech is reductive; all words are reductive.

We wrapped up, ate lunch, and got on the bus. A lot of people continued their conversations on the bus. I was so overloaded with brain activity that I just lay down in the back of the bus and put some Keola Beamer on the iPod and closed my eyes and drifted off into a quiet space where the images and words and pictures and questions from the retreat played like a kaleidoscope on the inside of my forehead. Gradually, over the next 28 hours, I've been drifting slowly back into the world I came from. I'm almost there.

This was the description I came up with in the final exercise. Seems as good a way to end as any:

I'm Bruce Schauble. I'm a teacher, a husband, a father, a not-very-good-musician, a photographer, a reader, a writer. I believe in dialogue, in conversation, in asking questions. I'm most proud of what my children have become, and of the work that my students do. I wake up every morning grateful to be alive, to be living in Hawaii, to be working in this school with these kids and these people.

1 comment:

not invited to the party said...

I heard there were exotic dancers. How come you didn't mention the exotic dancers? MH