Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

privilege, education, and the emperor’s new clothes ~

So this is what learning looks like in America. If you’re middle class or wealthier, your children do pretty well. More than 80% of them will graduate w/ a 4-year degree(see below). If, however, you’re in the bottom quartile (the bottom 25% of American wage-earners), your children have about 1/10 that chance. 8.3% compared to 82.4%. In other words, if you have resources, so do your children. And their children, as it turns out. But if you’re poor? Forget it. THAT is the American reality, folks. And it’s the real naked emperor in the classroom…

I teach, and I work with teachers. But that means I also work with students. For years, I taught ‘developmental English’ at a private, select admissions university. Developmental English for native speakers means you teach first-generation academics: the first college-bound young men and women of their families. They had very low ACT scores — one had an ACT of 8. Rumour is that you can get a 12 just by filling in all the circles under ‘c.’

My students would share stories of their lives — stories about single mothers who worked two jobs, sometimes three. About being left ‘in charge’ of younger siblings at 9, or 10 years old. When I was 12, we lived w/ my grandmother & great-aunt for a year, while my father worked overseas. At 1 in the morning, my mother would wake me up to watch my three younger sisters as she drove downtown to pick my grandmother & great-aunt up from their night of cleaning bank offices.

Demons would crowd the windows — just beyond the drawn shades, I was sure. I could no more have handled an emergency w/ my sleeping sister than I could have raised the blind to confront those imaginary demons. Aside from the terror of sitting alone in the house for the hour it took  my mother to drive downtown, pick up the old ladies, and return, I rarely had an unbroken night’s sleep. It wasn’t my highest performing year of school, needless to say.

My students told stories like these, and others. Stories of bad neighbourhoods where gunshots were the night’s dark refrain. Where drive-bys weren’t rare, but books and help with homework was. Not for lack of interest — please don’t misunderstand. But because both parents were working. Late. Just to make ends meet…

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grading ~

I hate grading. I hate ranking things. I actively dislike hierarchies of most kinds. And yes, I know I shouldn’t use the word hate. I hate that too. :)

I’m not against assessment. It’s very different from grading, at least to me. To assess something — a situation, a condition, even the weather outside — implies you’re just checking it out. Seeing where it’s at. There’s not necessarily ranking & judgement that goes along w/ the assessment.

Grading, on the other hand, means I have judged or been judged. And possibly — almost certainly — someone (me? my students?) was found wanting in some area. But I don’t think my students — or most of us, for that matter — should be defined by lack, by inadequacy.

Once I had a class where I had complete control of the assessment process. So I did away w/ grades on papers and other assignments. I offered to meet at any time, w/ each student, and give him or her a detailed analysis of where they were in the class, what they might want to focus more on, and how to improve their overall outcome.

There was mutiny. Seriously. Students were ready to go to the dean because they weren’t being graded! I repeated the offer to meet. Asked them to think about the one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. PROMISED that I would disclose all they needed to know to ‘get good grades.’ It was a no-sell. And I eventually caved. Even the dean was on my side, but he had to cave too.

Human beings want input, but I don’t think grades — judgment — is the best way to go about it. I’d like to know how I’m doing on so many levels. I wish someone would tell me what my writing is like. I wish my sons would help me understand the outcomes of parenting them. In lieu of that kind of assessment — that kind of check-in — I fall back on reflection. It’s the poor girl’s self-grading rubric :).

But reflection won’t help turn the light back on in my students’ faces when I hand back drafts they’ve slaved over, that don’t achieve the numbers desired… And nothing I can tell them seems to convince them that learning is always hard. That the ‘learning curve’ is, by definition, not  instantaneous.

I’m stuck w/ grades. So are my thoughtful, talented, creative and NOT inadequate students. Unfortunately, ‘grades’ reflect very little of what they’re capable of….

bird epiphanies ~

Anyone who’s read this blog knows our deck (and yard) are like habitat central. We have multiple feeders: nectar for hummers, in the spring; suet & seed blocks for woodpeckers and wrens (and the ubiquitous grackles); small seed for sparrows, etc., and sunflower seed for the three kinds of finches we see regularly.

This means a LOT of bird feeder fetching & toting. And sometimes, when you just want to go downstairs in your comfy jammies, and have a cuppa, feeding the birds is sooo not what you want to do.

Today I had this epiphany (my older son and I call them baby enlightenments :)): life isn’t about efficiency. It’s certainly not for efficiency.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about living ‘in the moment.’ Easier said than done. But today, schlepping the bird feeders from the deck to the garage and back, while staging the laundry, and wondering if I should stop in the laundry room to start it, and REALLY just wanting to go sit w/ my tea, I woke up. This is it, I thought. This is life. I know. Pretty hokey.

But seriously? I was trying to do at least three things at once (more if you count opening two doors). And thinking about two more down the line. And enjoying nothing.

I stopped. Took a breath. Put the bird feeders on the floor. Closed the door behind me. Opened the door in front. And thought about the birds. Really thought about the birds. I walked outside, into the soft grey March day, and did one thing at a time.

No big thing. Except that it was. I spend so much time not HERE. Thinking about what’s coming. Reflecting/ second-guessing what’s passed. And missing all the now.

You’d think I would have learned this by now, right? But here’s the deal: I’ve had to learn it over and over and over. And I’ll probably have to learn it yet again. In the meantime? I’m going to feed the birds. Just that. Just that one thing. And that’s enough.

the last time, or, separation anxiety ~

I’m taking early retirement this year. And it’s changed the way I view almost everything. For one thing, apparently it’s not retirement if you’re not old enough. It’s ‘separation.’ So perhaps what I’m having is separation anxiety…

Our culture defines us by what we do — our work, our roles. Now, I’m wondering what to tell people when they ask what I do… I could say, w/ all truth, that I write. But as the poet Mark Doty once told me, telling folks you write (poetry, especially)  scares them more than telling them your partner has AIDS. Having watched passengers on the plane, sitting next to me, sidle to the edge of their seats away from me as I read (or write) poetry, I have to agree.

Right now, I’m teaching. Teaching is a huge part of who I am: I do it for a job; I do it for a hobby; I do it for free. I do it for love :). And I won’t stop teaching. But as I wind down this chapter of my teaching career, I seem to hear a kind of refrain: last time last time last time.

There’s a rhythm to a class schedule. While I change things every semester, I always include what I think of as my ‘core values.’ Community building at the beginning, blank puzzles for new writing groups. Journals, always. A colouring day or 2 or even 3. The mid-semester talk where I remind my students that ‘it’s just school.’ As each of these has occurred this semester, I’ve found myself thinking: last time.

It means even grading (which I HATE) is imbued with the patina of separation. It also means that at least now, for this semester, I understand living as if each moment was your last.

My knowledge that my time doing these tasks  is ending gives them each a newness. It’s the actualisation of ‘live in the moment,’ I guess. So that I see each task as if it were, paradoxically, a first. That sense of excitement, the anticipation of the action. It’s both first and last time, if that makes sense. Each time.

So for the moment, I actually understand what Ram Dass meant when he said be here now. This afternoon, as I sat in circle with my students, I couldn’t help but think enjoy this moment ~ nothing lasts. And it made a perfect Tuesday class even more so…

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