Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Have you Changed your Mind About?

In high school I dated a smart, mesmerizing man, 4 or 5 years my senior, who insisted that he didn't want to read all the great masters of literature, the best thinkers of history or art, but rather wanted to come up with his own ideas. I thought him nuts and stubborn at the time. (He was both, as it turned out, but not for this particular decision.)

I, on the other hand, wanted to attend St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (not the St. John's with the basketball team). It is a wonderful liberal arts education that is taught in the Socratic method - almost exclusively. Students are expected to read the Great Books during their four years, attend weekly lectures on these books, and to memorize almost nothing. Exams are oral, given in a meeting with your Tutor (they have no professors). Tutors, as they call their very learned academics, some of the best in the world, expect you to be able to have an intelligent conversation about the course, and grade you accordingly.

I didn't get to attend, but did visit the campus about 12 years ago. It was heavenly and I still dream of completing my masters there (a condensed version of the undergraduate courses). At the time, I found an open letter from the president of St. John's intriguing. She state that the objective at St. John's was not to teach students to think, because that was impossible. The goal was to give them the foundation in the classics and a method of discourse that would allow them to see and investigate the world differently.

Now my old boyfriend doesn't seem so narrow - only fervent about his need to forge his own path, to think great thoughts on his own. Perhaps with a great education, he wouldn't have felt the ideas of others would get in his way.

Yesterday I saw a title in the science section of Borders - What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Thank goodness I've found a new question to ask at parties - small talk terrifies and bores me instantly.

This reminds me of a Nobel Laureate, in Physics (sorry, forget the name) who said his mother always reminded him as he went off to school, "Ask good questions!"

I believe that good teaching does several things - it models curiosity, encourages creativity and exploration, and helps students make connections. A great teacher also builds relationships with students that models how we rely on each other and how we respect each other. Ultimately this teaches the student what respect feels like, which helps create self-respect and confidence.

Great teaching is energetic - in exploring our world and constantly learning, we must determine what is true and what is misleading. We have to be able to form ideas and then communicate those well. We have to rely on each other for help, and at times struggle alone.

Since learning and teaching take such tremendous energy, we have to learn to pace ourselves. If we pay attention to our ability to absorb information, where we are that moment on the continuum of passive, active, peaceful, joyous, grumpy and/or receptive, then we will become efficient learners. Teachers can help students pay attention to that inner landscape, to their own energy and to respect signals from others.

Great teachers pay attention to the energy of the class and in the classroom. They notice how each child or adult is doing, and offer help when it seems the struggle is too much. But great teachers never spoon feed students. If the answers come too easily, nothing is gained but information. Mistakes are to be encouraged. Great teachers make sure that the class is ready to share getting stuck and learn how to get out of "tight spots". Done well, learning becomes a collaboration, not a competition.

Integrating information is another key part of good teaching. Hooking ideas to each other like rings, or like loops in knitting, lets a pattern emerge and new ideas percolate. We are wired to make connections, in our minds, as we gather new information, in our relationships.

Finally, since students, especially children, can spot fakers, a great teacher is authentic. They are honest, open and truly enjoy teaching. Even challenges to authority are to be taken in stride. After all, this is the nature and mandate of children - to overthrow us adults. Eventually.

May we lead and bring them up well - they hold our future too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Swim Naked

Many years ago on a summer road trip there was a beautiful rest stop, in South Carolina. At the water's edge the lake beckoned, and I had to go in. I peeled off my sundress and dove into the cove, cool water splashing over my skin, sun on my back, sure strokes until it was far enough.

Finally back I swam, pulling, kicking, breathing, loving every second. Delighted in the world, in every atom of my being.

It was a completely joyful moment. It helped that no one was around (that I know of.. well, one friend) but even onlookers may not have stopped me.

I came across exactly the right summary of this moment today: v’samachta lifnei Hashem, “and you shall be joyous before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11).

Exactly. My body couldn't hold my joy that day, and I had to let it out! Imagine if we could let each joyful moment be a prayer, a tribute to the Divine? Joy bubbles up, laughter breaks clouds and tension.

Too often we cower in fear, let the mundane overtake us, the darkness prevail. If hope is to spring eternal, well, we have to get out there.

Dance, swim, sing, and if you dare, do it naked. (grin)