Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

motes and logs: or, what we don’t see…

mote in eyeOn the plane coming home from a weekend writer’s conference, I sat next to a very nice woman from Austin. She was unbelievably lovely, soft-spoken with a sweet Southern drawl. We talked, as passengers in tiny seats sharing breathing space do, about one thing & another. And I didn’t even realise that I had made certain assumptions — prejudiced assumptions — until Janet-from-Austin blew ‘em up.

Digression: Dolly Parton was once asked, as she first began her library project, when she thought people would stop thinking speakers with Southern accents were stupid. Her reply doesn’t fit w/ my epiphany, but the question sure does. :) Because I had assumed that this lovely woman — too pretty, too Southern, a monied stay-at-home mother (probably a Southern debutante) — wasn’t unusually bright.

At which point Janet mentioned she has a law degree and a master’s. In education curriculum & design. And I am frantically going back over what I’ve said — hoping I wasn’t a jerk, or even ‘just’patronising. Please note: it’s not that degrees (or even education) define being ‘smart.’ But I had made the totally bogus assumption that Janet wouldn’t even care about advanced degrees. And law school and master’s degrees ARE hard. I also wouldn’t have thought she’d stick even one, much less both.

At that point, our conversation deepened, obviously. And I’m left to consider, later, prejudice & stereotyping. How insidious it is. How difficult to see in ourselves. I wonder, over the next several hours, if the people who turn on Obama for things Bush also did see any double standard. And which of Janet’s ‘markers’ shut the door to my heart, initially. southern debutante

Was it because she had a Southern accent? I have several close friends — and family! — w/ Southern accents. I know they’re smart.

Was it her soft, tiny, voice? Maybe — that’s been a problem for me (big-booming-voice me) for a long time. But it’s a lesson I thought I’d learned long ago.

How about her loveliness? Many of my friends — brilliant women — are drop-dead beautiful. Again, I know better. I don’t think it was any single one of these, really.

As for staying at home w/ her kids? I did that for years, and was grateful to have the luxury.

I can only assume it was gestalt: the Southern deb image. A stereotype? Sure. And one — ironically — that Janet really didn’t fit, once I visited w/ her. Yes, she has money. No, she doesn’t work outside the home. Instead, she’s considering returning to school for her doctorate. Because she’d like to teach. Something I relate to on every level. :)

So here’s what my beginner heart learned:

Next time you meet someone, consider this: are you — as Pema Chodron says — proceeding without intention? Listening w/out a filter? I would have said yes. But I wasn’t (obviously). And I suspect this is not the first time. Next time I meet a stranger, I will take a deep breath, and listen openly. Proceed without intention. For Janet’s sake. She deserves that consideration. Better late, right?

 

death of a blue jay ~

blue jayI don’t want to tell you how much of our retirement fund goes for bird seed. Not to mention bird feeders, suet and the containers to put it in, hummer feeders (and sugar for it — we make our own not-red ‘nectar’), etc. Thankfully my husband is a birdophile too. :)

Each spring it’s fascinating to watch as the fledglings learn to fly, and begin to frequent the feeders. Beginning last year, we have baby woodpeckers. Who knew they were sooo silly when they first start hunting food?? They will peck at ANY upright: a bird feeder hook (even a cast-iron one!), a post, the side of a hummingbird feeder… Not your brightest bulbs as they learn to shine.

This year, for the first time, we had a young blue jay. In competition w/ his parent (impossible to tell Mom from Dad, at least w/out a group; even the experts agree), he has been eating at the seed cylinder. Which has been so much fun to watch. Jays are big enough to shoulder off the darn starlings (we don’t encourage them, but we don’t do anything mean to keep them away), which is great. Somehow watching a jay eat is a lot more interesting than watching starlings war for turf.dead blue jay

Now the baby jay is gone, the victim of either an elderly, crippled cat (really — she’s 11, and limps badly), or a French bulldog with no good sense. And yes, I know a bird that can’t fly away from an old gimpy cat or a short, asthmatic dog, isn’t good evolutionary material. But still — my husband & I are grieving for a single wild bird, in the face of all the tragedy throughout our state. We returned to its passing over the course of the day ~ so sad about the baby jay… I wonder if it was Hugo or Sophie?…it’s just so SAD.

Somehow, the jay is immediate, tangible. Even though friends of mine have been impacted measurably — ranging from inconvenience to losing all they possess — I find myself mourning this nameless bird. Whom we knew for only a few weeks.

Everything passes, I know. I say it to myself frequently: a kind of Buddhist mantra. :) And when tragedy strikes friends or family, it’s my go-to self-comforting chant: this will pass this will pass. As did the blue jay, his navy & indigo and cerulean blue feathers scattered in confusion around his limp body. And I’m very very sorry.

the pressure to conform ~

research evolution

I’ve always been insatiably, even dangerously curious. As a child (a pink-cheeked blonde, whose mother too often made her wear pastels…), I took apart lamps, rewiring them (and only rarely shocked myself). I slept with a taxidermied squirrel, because it was real (lumpy, though).

I followed bugs to wherever they were going, and read anything in the house. Including the medical encyclopædia, sometimes. I watched the cook wring a chicken’s neck, and then asked her why it jumped around afterwards. I looked up EVERYTHING, long before the Google folks were gleams on the horizon.

Knowledge — and the research it required — was my ocean, and I immersed myself in it as much as I could. Reading up on every new fancy, from bees to dollhouses to China to Việtnamese history to tea. I still do.

People on the outside of academia — the university, higher research, ‘academe,’ as we academics like to call ourselves :) — think we get to do pretty much what we want. Allow me to gently disabuse you of this notion. The cartoon is far more accurate. And this is scary.academia books

Knowledge begins with curiousity. But for the past several years, both liberals and conservatives have — sometimes quietly & subtly, sometimes loudly and with great fanfare — influenced what academics research. Certainly grant funders — primarily the government and large private corporations — have agendas. And note: an agenda is not the same, necessarily, as bias. I used to tell my students: the American Cancer Society has an agenda about smoking: it causes cancer. So their research publishings are under that agenda. It does NOT mean they’re biased, as their studies are medical double-blind, primarily. The KKK, however, has both an agenda — to bleach America back to its ‘original’ purity (I always wonder when this fable began: how can anyone pretend the Indians weren’t here first??) — and bias: there is no viable research (of the double-blind type) that supports a return to white supremacy. There was never any argument for white supremacy in the first place.

So how do we break free from this cycle, and why is it important?

Question EverythingWe have to realise — like the Buddha once said — that skepticism is good: Question everything. And that means being skeptical even of the agendas of those who hold power over us. Once, many years ago, I had a professor I knew wouldn’t agree w/ my politics. So I wrote the draft of my paper to please him. It sucked (to put it mildly). Well-written (just being honest! :) ), but lackluster. No passion, no real point, other than the grade. I got a B. Would I have received an A had I stuck to my principles? Maybe not. But I would have LEARNED something. I would have made the paper work for ME.

Years later, on the other hand, I walked into another professor’s office, insisting that we find a way to make what seemed to me pretty useless class assignments (at least for a poet) into something I could use. He worked w/ me, to give him credit. And the result was a large body of scholarship I ended up using in significant ways, not to mention the cachet it gave me in my career.

These are anecdotal, I realise. But here’s my point: what we do for the furthering of our own knowledge, what calls to us in the dulcet tones of seductive curiousity? It will feed us, grow us, and even heal us. That’s good for everyone.

a relatively restrained rant about education ‘reform’ ~

letter to bill gatesMy grandson is only a week old. I can’t expect him to do much of anything yet. Eat, eliminate, emote. That’s about it.

No amount of trying on my part will enable him to do what even a one-month-old can. And people would think I was nuts if I asked him to walk. :)

But that is, as Ms. Watson makes very clear, what we’re doing every day with our ersatz ‘standards’ of education. Children aren’t cars. Heck, even cars have idiosyncracies! Even a new one is not like another kind of car. So: are all our kids… VWs? Priuses? What about a kid who might be a Ferrari? Or…a Tata (look it up).

Children of 8 cannot do a dumbed-down version of what a student of 18 can do. Can both work w/ numbers? Sure. But you can’t just say an 8-year-old can do a different version of calculus. It doesn’t work that way. Nor can an 8-year-old look at history the same way a 18-year-old can.

No one would suggest that we tell the gruesomest details of the Holocaust to an 8-year-old. Or that an 8-year-old even read Anne Frank, which is silent on what comes after. Children have different maturity levels, as well as focus capabilities. Brain-based research on how we learn discusses these different focus windows — significantly shorter for  8-year-olds than 18-year-olds. And different for boys and girls, even of the same ages. And different for kids who’ve been fed and kids who haven’t… Learning is not the cookie cutter application of information.

What Gates, Duncan, and many other ‘reformers’ seem to believe is what Paolo Freire labels the banking concept of learning. You have this empty piggy bank of a kid in front of you, and you just deposit the coins of what you know into his/her brainbank. If only it were that simple… (And even THAT model would have to contend w/ retention… banks do go BROKE.)bank closed

Learning is constructed. From what we learn previously, from input, from raw data that is NOT knowledge. From application of theories. From critical thinking. And the ability of an 8-year-old to think critically is not nearly as developed as that of a 16-year-old. Or an 18-year-old. Common Core (and its proponents) would like us to believe that all we have to do to prepare a child for college is give that child dumbed-down college prep curriculum (written not by the teacher of the student in front of him/her, but by ‘experts’).

Right. If you honestly believe that, I have a cannon that’s worth $250,000 I’d like to sell you for 1/3 its value…

And this is about beginner’s heart how?

When we ask our children to do the impossible, we doom them to failure. WE are the reason our children drop out of schools, voting with their feet against schools that require them to sit impossibly still, learn things that far too often seem unrelated to their lives. Last year, on the average, one in four (yep — 1/4 of) American high schoolers did not graduate. And given the way my state defines ‘drop-out,’ I’m skeptical the number isn’t significantly higher (certainly it’s 60% in many urban schools). We only measure those students who begin HS. If we lose a student earlier — and many drop out in 8th grade — s/he is NOT counted as student for graduation metrics.

question markWhat can we do?  As teachers, as parents, as good citizens, as people who believe in social justice (life without a diploma is a sentence, for most students…)?

I don’t know — I only have questions. And one of them is this: who really believes that treating 8-year-olds like short 18-year-olds is a good idea?

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