Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

giving up disbelief ~

I usually try to keep Lent in some fashion. It’s a wonderful practice, to offer up a piece of your everyday life for good. To think of your everyday life as a kind of, well, prayer.

As a Buddhist, I don’t know that I ‘pray,’ in the Christian definition of prayer. I don’t believe in a personal deity who pays attention to my individual pleas, although I certainly make them :). (The old pagan in me, however, does believe that there are spirits who can be…propitiated :))

What I do believe is what the Quakers say: I will hold you in the light. It’s a lovely thought: that when you need my prayers, my strength, I have two strategies I can offer: tonglen – where I use my own pain to help assuage yours, and healing light. No definition of divinity, or the who/what/where of that light — just its warmth and healing. Very Quaker — like silence that wraps us and helps us hear that inner voice…

A friend does a prison ministry in Oklahoma. She’s an amazing person, about as big as a minute, unless you look at her heart, which may well be bigger than Texas… So when Charissa sent out a request for people to pray for prisoners during Lent, because I love Charissa, I asked if non-Christians could do this. If there were non-Christians who might even be glad to have a non-Christian ally. She sent me a dozen names — all women. And acted glad I’d offered.

Oklahoma has the highest per capita incarceration of women in the world. Yup — the WORLD. The US, w/ 743 PEOPLE per 100,000, (male & female, ranked tops (bottom?) internationally in 2009. Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate went up 832% between 1997 & 2007, compared to half that rate of ‘growth’ for male prisoners. There’s obviously something very wrong in Oklahoma.

I mention these stats to point out that holding that many women in the light is no small thing. And Charissa’s project is badly needed. I don’t know if prayer — or the Buddhist & Quaker equivalent — works. But for this next month, I’m giving up disbelief. I’m going to do all I can to hold these 12 women in love & light. I’m going to try to hold their children and families in the light. I am going to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my belief and my heart and fill it w/ 12 names and light.

And I’m going to pray like hell one person can make a difference.

‘why can’t we be friends?’ (a beginner’s heart take on partisan politics ~)

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I wish I could persuade politicians to adopt this song as the campaign year’s anthem… I’m not holding my breath.

Here’s the deal: I have friends with whom I argue constantly. And a cousin whose political and spiritual beliefs are pretty much 180˚ from mine. But notice the operative word: friend. We try hard to be polite, although sometimes we get pretty passionate. And we discuss everything from education to the environment, from politics to prenatal care. Birth control, gun control, women’s rights, religious fights. We have as many differences as the two major parties, believe me.

The other day one of my friends — someone who doesn’t share many of my beliefs — made my heart glad. He said that I used evidence, not simply name calling. And I was willing to give him links to my information, not just say ‘research shows…’ (N.B.: I sooo hate it when people don’t have evidentiary support!)

When we argue, these other passionate teachers, family members, and friends, I try hard to remember my beginner’s place. I’m trying to learn. Mostly to love, even when my passionate political big mouth gets in the way :). I wish it was a national movement, but believe me ~ I KNOW how difficult it is!

So here’s my goal of the day: to try to listen more mindfully. And luckily, since I’m having lunch w/ a passionately logical nephew, that should be easy!

Happy Tibetan New Year!

It’s a very lucky year — fire softened to steamy gentility by water, dragon fluid instead of flaming. And it’s a cycle, for me ~ a time to revisit goals, map possible futures. It’s also another iteration of Buddhist New Year (you can read more about Buddhist New Year here, here, and here).

This year, I wish for each of us peace. Internal — peace of mind, contentment with what is. And external — peace to all life. But especially watery dragons ~

teachers, memory, and public education ~

I love this cartoon — I’m sorry I have no better attribution, as it has to have been done by someone intimately acquainted w/ teaching and/or teachers. Because this is the secret about teaching: you can’t prepare for most of it. You can have content knowledge out the wazoo — biology, let’s say — and be left feeling stupid when you need a background in counseling to deal w/ a student’s life derailing.

Or we envy a computer tech when new national standards mandate we use technology in  American history class. And don’t get teachers started on how much they’re supposed to know about writing, even if their areas are as different as math, music and material design.

I spent Friday with 130+ great teachers. It was, supposedly, a 4-day weekend. Except for teachers, who spent the day listening to discussions of new state (and federal) standards. And there was, I confess, FAR too much ‘listening’ and not nearly enough ‘doing.’

Digression: why is that EVERYTHING we know about learning flies out the window when we deal w/ adult learners? Just curious… Anyone understand this?

Here’s the deal: despite an early morning, despite technology glitches that rendered much of the morning presentation unheard, despite a crowded cafeteria where the conversation of 130+ adults sounded like a stadium crowd, these 130 teachers were polite, witty, committed and professional. NOTHING like the current political arena paints them…

Another seeming digression (trust me ~ it all comes together): years ago, my younger son complained I had abused him (really). I had, he noted seriously, spanked him four times. And he could remember every one ~

“Once I was going into the street; once I was playing w/ fire; once I told a lie, once I…” he counted on his fingers. I interrupted.

“So: these were major infractions, correct?”

“Yes, but you’re not supposed to hit children, Mom. That’s what you say.” What a smug child we’ve raised, I thought.

“Noah, do you remember every time I’ve hugged you?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, Mom.”

“Do you remember every time I told you I love you?”

“No, Mom,” he said w/ increased exasperation. “You’re always telling me…” His blue eyes widened, understanding beginning to dawn.

So what does this have to do w/ bad teachers? The current belief in ‘bad teachers are everywhere, and at the root of all educational evil‘ actually is a collision of math & memory. How many really bad teachers did you have? Not ones you heard about, or ones someone else told you about. A teacher you yourself had — a teacher who kept you from learning, or who ruined your year, the class, the subject. And here’s the truth: I can’t remember one. A couple who were less than warm; one who thumped kids on the head when they didn’t pay attention; another who insisted I pronounce Việt Nam  to rhyme w/ we et jam.

When I asked my husband, he can’t remember one. Nor can my sisters. Nor can most of my friends. I must have  had teachers I didn’t like (although to be honest? I don’t even remember them now…:)). But I don’t remember one who would have caused me to score badly on tests forever, or who was incompetent, or didn’t TRY. Even when I was silently ADD in the back of the class (bored and writing a poem, or a story, or just doodling), or vocally disrupting class to ask Mrs. Miller yet again just WHY you had to ‘divide and multiply’ w/ fractions..?

The human mind looks, like the Large Hadron Collider, for aberrations. What is continuous is the norm — we feel we know it, and so move forward. So that if I tell my son I love him daily — even multiple times a day — that’s normal. He takes it for granted.

But a spanking? One of only four he received? Those are discontinuities – the pattern has been disrupted. So they bear analysis.

I’m afraid that’s what’s happened in education. I work with teachers — and I know hundreds. Literally. Although given to ‘poetic license’ (my vanity plate reads ‘POETIC’), I really do know hundreds of teachers. And they work harder than any single profession with which I’m familiar.  But it’s so much easier to point to teachers as the cause of education’s failures — despite the fact that no one I know can remember many bad ones (confirming the Noah hypothesis, that only the aberration is remarked), than to tackle the other, much more complicated vectors that influence educational outcomes for children.

Vector.’ Such a perfect word to describe the complexities of educational influences:

  1. A course or direction. So many things can blow educational achievement off course — a bad testing day, for instance. What if John is coming down w/ a virus that doesn’t manifest until tomorrow? What if Jennifer was awake all night last night because her new baby brother had colic and screamed for hours? Not to mention things like hunger, abuse, situational homelessness.
  2. There’s also the idea of ‘vector’ as a pathogen carrier. This one seems particularly apt. There are reform forces dead set against public education as it is today — not the parts that don’t work as well as we’d like (and certainly there are plenty of those :) ), but the whole ‘public’ (and free) identity of contemporary education. And that, to me, is an attitude that poisons the entire body of education.
  3. Finally, there’s the idea that a vector carries ‘modified genetic material.’ I think this may be my favourite, because new ideas in education — creative, research-based, genuinely learning-centred ideas — are like new DNA in the body education. I love that idea! Unfortunately, today’s version is more the kind of DNA that would change public education to private, fee-driven charter schools. And if you can’t afford them? Well…. Who knows? No real plan for that, is there?

The teachers with whom I worked Friday are far more the ‘norm’ than not. They tried new classroom strategies, listened to the research, and were as polite as could be.  Heck, they sent us home w/ flowers! But this doesn’t make news, teachers sitting in an echo chamber of a cafeteria trying hard to improve how they teach. It isn’t ‘sexy,’ as the news media says. Nor is it controversial. But it is very common.

So here’s my point: bad teachers are real, as were Noah’s spankings. But they are not responsible, personally and collectively, for derailing public education. Only we can do that, if we succumb to faulty memory, bad physics and mythology. And if we do, our children will be the ones who suffer…


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