The Teacher Takes the Test

Teachers should always take their own tests. I’m not kidding. At the very least make notes on what would become your response if your answer were fleshed out.

See if you sense there might be a difficulty understanding what is being asked for. Reword if necessary. And then ask yourself a critical question: Does the present wording prompt the learners to own their responses, or does it feel like you want a rehash of what you have previously said in class. This is the old way. It is tried and it is true, in the sense of objective. You did say that or the text said that. But it is also limited. In a landscape of possible paths, I think too limited.

Okay. Let me begin my untested response.

Physical: The body language of the learner will tell you an enormous amount about what is going on inside. You don’t have to be a doctor or a therapist, but you do have to observe and possibly interpret.

If it is unclear to you, try mirroring the physical posture and position and maybe the facial expression you see before you.

When the jaw is clenched, or the teeth grind, the words cannot come out.

When shoulders slump, it is hard to greet the world or be happy with yourself.

When a limb shakes or the fingers drum, there is energy that has not yet found a clear path to its purpose, its outlet not yet defined.

When attention is scattered, start with the breath. Fill the body. Focus on, say, a butterfly, the center of a flower, a very tall tree. The sky.

I don’t mean to get overly Eastern, but stillness comes more easily with older age and the answer goes beyond the questions.

* * * *

Some students arrive in the morning without enough sleep. Perhaps they should start later in the day. Perhaps they need to change something in their routines. Perhaps the home situation is difficult.

Some students squint at the board or screen. There are eye problems that aren’t about reading the chart. They should not be ignored.

America has an obesity problem. Some can’t stop eating. Why is this? Some fill their stomachs because they otherwise aren’t satisfied. But it may not be food they don’t get enough of. And no amount of potato chips are going to relieve their need. There are advantages though. If you’re heavy enough you may not have to deal with social/sexual interest.

The list is long and individual, but an alert teacher can make a difference which can last a life time. Careful ignorance can let these stumbling blocks stay in the way for years. Yes, in a way, it’s none of our business.

And yet I chose holistic education.

Emotional: One concern is depression. Both in High School and in college I have been alert to it. It is arguably the most difficult and pernicious. It has a tendency to become the personal norm. Even when a person has fun for a while, it can return to remind them how sad their life is. While for many at young age, it is easy to climb the ladder of joy, these folks sink, sometimes deep inside themselves. I have never lost a student. And whether that is luck I don’t truly know. What I do know is that I make an effort to say hello, and in the course structure to provide outlets like the journal and like the encouragement to proceed in a way where they can discuss their experience, and even with occasional partnerships for classwork or out of class work to at least put a potential peer friend into the mix. I do so casually, not making a big deal out of it, but it’s there.

Note the exercise in the teachers manual in this blog where the teacher tracks down each name if he cannot ID the student. One way to extend that is to personally pass out tests or papers. If you’re stuck with a few you can’t return by mid-term, it’s time to get it right.

The other emotive that may need special attention is fury. You can usually feel it. It doesn’t hide itself like depression. It’s just below the surface. Sometimes a clean, undusty pillow is enough to slam around. But in high school my favorite was a wall in town where you could see the glass all around it. My suggestion was simple. Collect half a dozen soda bottles, focus on whatever you think your anger is about, and fire them at the wall with full force. One after the other.

It is essential that there be a result. Here the shattering of the glass makes clear the extent of the anger. Then breathe.

There was much anger in that town.

Cognitive Thoughts: Cogitate Cogitate Cogitate played a tape loop by John Lilly. One could feel the front of your brain, even as you let go of intent. Actually I don’t want to refer to the mind alone, or mindfulness exactly. Or even clarity. Ok. Let me start again. . .

The Cognitive and the Cognizant — yes that’s closer. In a way there is a side of learning that is about connecting the dots. Call it the Eureka moment. You know, the apple falls on Newtons’s head and understanding gravity gets a heads up. Something like that. Here’s a tale from my teaching.

Once I was trying to make a point about how we can see the world around us as offering an annual presentation of all the phases of life. And it is before us year after year at least in the Northeast by watching deciduous bushes and trees. So the landscape clues us in in terms of what lies in front of us as we journey through our life’s stages. We too have seasons. And when we and the landscape manage to match, we feel it more deeply than ever we have before.

There was a young woman who was intrigued by my teaching style. She took course after course. And once each semester I would find a way to go back to this theme although with different words and emphasis. And she would come to class each day that week vaguely perplexed. I could see it on her face. And then one day some time after my presentation, she arrived jubilant. I asked her if she had fallen in love? She said, “No, no that isn’t it. I got it, finally I got it.” “What?” “The Seasons lecture. It’s my third time through, but this time I got it. I am in the Spring of my years. My juices are flowing. I feel the breeze on my skin. I can, (she giggled,) bear fruit.”

When the dots connect, we do not lose the insight. Something is known to us now that is never forgotten. It has become inherent, an integral part of us forever. This is learning on a different level. It’s not a multiplication table. It is an understanding of our connection to everything.

Spiritual: I think large families may be able to connect is special ways, perhaps with a dose of ritual. Or not only literal family. I do remember Thanksgiving — one of the great American holidays and frankly one of the few I felt good about. Don”t misunderstand. Christmas was fun and I liked the trees and guessed at the presents. The rest seemed to divide us. But there were other avenues. Church for example with a good Baptist choir. The easter of my senior year three guys grabbed our instruments and took off to West Virginia and Kentucky. We loved folk music and we could play. Most of the time we sought out church picnics in small towns. Traded songs when possible. Avoided fights by leaving. Sometimes if we said: know any union songs — we were trouble makers. yeah yeah.

That last year we made a giant calendar and filled in every holiday we could find. There were I think 7 unclaimed days, so we made them our own. We began each of these in front of the calendar with a song.

On a larger scale at the alternative school we had no less than 80 and no more than 150. I believe that to be about right. Small enough to know each others’ names and large enough for that special feeling of community.

Pete Seeger could do it with thousands but that was Pete. brother to the world. He taught so many, Whether he was chopping wood or talking union, cleaning up the Hudson or circling Ms. Liberty. Soul comes from many places. Many circumstances. When Martin had a dream, I was there. I would have liked to have met Gandhi. It is odd how we attack our leaders. I guess they make us feel small.

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Roberto Azank

Nice words!

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